Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible. Continue reading

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it? Continue reading

Starvation and Starscapes

I found my way to Binary Star, the début novel by Sarah Gerard, through the author’s recent critical work on Hilda Hilst. Publishing an essay on Hilst in the Los Angeles Review of Books and taking the lead on a roundtable discussion in Music and Literature, Gerard caught my eye as someone prepared to venture out to provocative, challenging places in the pages of her own fiction. The subject matter of Binary Star only confirmed this impression. Based closely on the author’s experiences with a severe eating disorder, the novel introduces a young bulimic woman and charts the dissolution of her disastrous romance with an abusive boyfriend. It begins with a road trip devoid of any sense of direction and destination, then it swerves into drug and alcohol addiction, sadomasochism, and the ethics of doing violence to creatures of flesh and blood. Given that its narrator wrestles painfully with bulimia, there’s a temptation to say that Gerard simply refracts these other forms of bodily harm through the mindset of the bulimic. But since the narrator devotes so much of her attention to the anarchist politics of her boyfriend and the cultural maladies that ignite his indignation, it’s more accurate to say that Gerard’s true interest is the mindset of the obsessive, broadly conceived, and that the narrator and her boyfriend are possessed of variations on this mindset. Continue reading

Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds

Bewilderment is more than just confusion or perplexion. It is, in its most literal sense, the paralysing disorientation of waking to find oneself lost in the wild and overwhelmed, overawed, by the encompassing wilderness. Perhaps one follows a path through the world that is suddenly swallowed up by a forest or perhaps the path dwindles away, losing all distinction, as barren expanses surround it and stretch out towards the horizon. When brought to a halt by some obstruction of one’s intended course, bewilderment is the fog that descends and occludes all avenues for onward movement. Continue reading

Papa as a Young Man

In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon. Continue reading

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand

[George Armstrong] Custer’s ‘Last Stand’ is now one of the most thoroughly analysed events in American history. How, then, can anyone hope to say anything new about it?

[Nathaniel] Philbrick does not endeavour to extend the boundaries of such well-trodden territory. He knowingly offers no significant new findings that might revolutionise our understanding of Custer’s fate but attempts, instead, to reconsider the causes and consequences of Custer’s Last Stand. “Custer’s smile,” he writes in his preface, “is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.” Ostensibly, then, Philbrick intends to examine what Custer’s Last Stand has come to mean to America (or at least non-indigenous America) and why it enjoys such ongoing cultural resonance, although, early in his examination, he adjusts course to reconsider the Last Stand in a way that deconstructs Custer’s character and thus destroys his cultural legacy.

My review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn appears in the latest issue of Limina.

E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World

Despite the stylistic verve of Doctorow’s famously snappy, streetwise prose, the stories are half-baked and half-hearted, rarely developing any complexity from the dramatic tension of their opening pages. If All the Time in the World is at all worth reading, then, it’s worth reading less for the virtues of the stories it contains than for its capacity to underscore exactly what makes Doctorow’s novels so spectacular. The short story form, defined by brevity and compression, is inimical to Doctorow’s sprawling imagination and freewheeling sensibilities. In his novels, he takes a high-concept premise and teases out its implications in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, relishing the slow burn and the piecemeal disclosure of something insidious. In his stories, though, his high-concept premises are shoehorned into a literary form that doesn’t allow the same indulgence in digression and detail. The reach of their narrative premises exceeds the grasp of their literary form, and so they burn out in an instant, a flash in the pan, left unremarkable because they are implausible, and implausible because they are underdeveloped.

My review of E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World is online at The Critical Flame.