Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.” Continue reading
To me, the central problem with the novel as it still stands is that it’s a bit like London, it’s still a Victorian construct, and that problem is to do with knowledge. It’s to do with the prior knowledge that the novel has: that you enter this world in which things are known by somebody, and yet it’s supposed to look real, so where is this knowledge coming from? And that is almost, it seems to me, again, a Victorian, quasi-religious idea: that there is some omniscience somewhere, that there is an omniscient narrator-God, that somebody knows what’s going on, and that there’s some meaningful narrative to all of this. So, I thought, I’ve got to write a novel where there’s no prior knowledge at all. And, having decided that, the form evolved itself, because once you write with that discipline — once you start writing, thinking [that] nothing can be known in this text by the narrator — everything has to be read from the surface. It is incredible how many sentences you can’t write.
in interview with Caille Millner
“Brussels is old,” Julius says as he arrives in the city and observes what he calls “a peculiar European oldness, which is manifested in stone.” During the Second World War, he recalls, Brussels was declared an open city, essentially surrendering to German invasion in order to preserve its infrastructure and architecture, and, as a result, it avoided becoming “another Dresden” so as to remain “a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II.” Unlike the metropolitan layering of Manhattan, absent the palimpsest of newness erasing and writing over the old, Brussels’ comparative antiquity bespeaks a preservationist relationship to the past which captivates Julius and seems initially to satisfy his urge to find his place, to locate himself, within the totality of the network of relations he sees extending far throughout time. Continue reading
What sense can one expect readers to make of the opening words of Open City? What speaker can hope to convey any meaning with words that flow out from a coordinating conjunction? “And so,” the speaker begins, “when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Since nothing precedes that “And so,” the coordinating conjunction elides the cause of the speaker’s evening walks. But flip back a few pages to his aphoristic epigraph and consider how it issues a statement to which his walks may be a response. “Death,” it declares, “is a perfection of the eye.” Insofar as those words form the first full sentence of Open City, the subsequent “And so” coordinates the notion contained therein with the evening walks that the speaker discusses. “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and so, perhaps in some perverse courtship of death or otherwise in pursuit of perfection, the speaker sets out into the city each night and then, when his walks come to an end, he notices that they have afforded him an alteration of his perspective on his world. Having “fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” he says,
I wonder now if [that habit and the evening walks] are connected. … I used to look out of the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.
The speaker’s name is Julius. He is a young Nigerian of German-Nigerian parentage who now works as an intern at a hospital in Manhattan. Given his first-person detailing of events, his perception of his surroundings is far more circumscribed than that of the knower of The Known World or the seer of Blood Meridian, and so, as he crosses and recrosses the city, he comes to hunger for a mode of perception that will make him more like them. He wants to develop a perfection of the eye that will, in a sense, allow him to obtain an omniscient view of the life he leads. Continue reading
If the novel can be said to have a centre, a still point upon which the seer intensifies its focus until it loses interest in other people and other places, that centre would be the grotesque monstrosity known only as Judge Holden. A man very literally larger than life, Holden is a seven-foot-tall albino, “outsized and childlike” and “bald as a stone,” with a command of apparently every language ever spoken and with knowledge of every subject ever considered by the human mind. It is said of the Judge that he is “a hand at anything,” able to “turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it.” He can “outdance the devil himself” and he can play the fiddle more gracefully than anyone else who picks it up. “He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer,” and, according to hearsay, “[h]e’s been all over the world.” He is, in addition, a paedophile, a murderer, a man who kills puppies for fun, and he demonstrates a store of supernatural abilities. He seems able to teleport from place to place and to manipulate reality to suit his needs. He can stand in raging flames without doing harm to himself and he can wield a Howitzer cannon as if it is only a pistol. He hurls a downed meteorite an impossible distance through the air, he concocts a fistful of gunpowder from the elements of the desert sand, and, by the end of the novel, he appears to have not aged a day despite the passage of some thirty years. In his presence other men speak “with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.” The seer bestows lavish attention upon him, far more than upon anyone else, and thus enables the Judge alone to articulate a unique worldview that echoes the way in which the seer itself seems to see the world. Continue reading
Imperative statements instruct, demanding immediate action, and thereby make gestures towards an instructor who stands as the source of the words on the page. When Blood Meridian bursts into being by latching onto a nameless boy, “pale and thin” and “wear[ing] a thin and ragged linen shirt,” the description that enables the reader to begin to perceive the boy is rendered subordinate to the instruction for the reader to simply perceive. “See the child” is the brusque demand with which the novel opens. “See the child,” it begins. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” From where, from what, from whom, does that demand originate? What disembodied consciousness owns that imperative voice? What is this perceiving wraith, this unseen seer of other things, which must itself have seen the child in order to now instruct others to see? Continue reading
The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that
nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.
The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others. Continue reading