An Exemplary Intensity

You might be surprised to hear Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb described as an intense little book. Surprised because it’s a book of meta-criticism, of literary criticism about literary criticism, which isn’t usually the sort of thing that lends itself to intensity, and because most of its contents has been plucked directly from Green’s litblog, The Reading Experience, which has been running since 2004. But its intensity comes precisely from its brevity, its scant hundred pages plus change, and from how this brevity has emerged from a body of work of awesome magnitude. Green has resisted the temptation to simply throw together a “best of” anthology from the vast amount of book reviews, occasional musings, and discursive interventions that have appeared on his blog and elsewhere online. Instead, he has selected seventeen previously published essays, each of which directly addresses the subject of literary criticism, and supplemented them with some new writing that allows this book – in his own phrase – “to distil” the various things he has said about his own particular critical preoccupations. To distil, yes, as one would distil whiskey or brandy or some other powerful spirit. To filter out any impurities in order to produce something singular, concentrated, and uniquely potent. A quick Google search will turn up an impressive number of the essays in which Green has offered his assessments of various works of literature, usually the sort of complex and challenging works labelled as “experimental.” As he writes in his introduction to Beyond the Blurb, however, he has looked back at more than a decade’s worth of writing on The Reading Experience and recognised that what has most pleased him has been the freedom

to critically examine not just works of literature past and present but also the critics and critical methods whose influence helps to determine how ‘literature’ is perceived and how literary works are made meaningful for diverse and at times disparate readers. All of the essays [in Beyond the Blurb] are animated by this impulse to explicate the assumptions behind a practice referred to by a common name – ‘criticism’ – but carried out in numerous and often quite conflicting ways.

Among Green’s greatest strengths as a critic is the care with which he navigates the various conflicts of the critical enterprise. In particular, I admire the unflagging generosity with which he hears out the arguments and analyses of other critics, especially those with whom he has significant disagreements. He is never dismissive of critics who hold views that depart from his own, or who operate on a different set of critical principles, and he is never derisive or flippant or cursory in pointing out the flaws of their work. He is never anything less than fully attentive to the nuances of their analysis and respectful, if not accepting, of their intellectual positions. In Beyond the Blurb, a long chapter on two books by James Wood provides ample evidence of Green’s generosity, as does a rigorous deconstruction of the work of Morris Dickstein which is all the more impressive for having been written “regretfully.” Green confesses that “Dickstein’s 1979 book, Gates of Eden, was probably more responsible for setting me on a path of study of contemporary fiction than any other critical book I read or any course I took,” and he adds that “much of Dickstein’s analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I discovered when I recently re-read the book.” On the whole, he finds it “undeniable” that Dickstein deserves credit as “an acute analyst of [American literature] within the framework of a consistently applied historical criticism.” All that, however, that doesn’t stop him from picking apart Dickstein’s 2009 book Dancing in the Dark, although his dismantling of it is as respectful as it is methodical, taking care to honour the appeal that the book might hold for some readers while also questioning the validity of the grounds on which one might find it valuable.

Whether Green sets out to address the work of Dickstein or Wood, or Christopher Hitchens or Hershel Parker, he never performs the easy trick of allowing his targets enough rope to hang themselves; he never jumps out at the end of a long quotation to yank open the trap in the floor of the scaffold as soon as someone has taken things a step too far. He routinely gives a variety of critical views a full and faithful airing, but then he backtracks in order to attend more closely to the principles that underpin them and to demonstrate how those principles – those first things, those fundamentals – have skewed or distorted or misinformed a critic’s investigations from the outset. Or, more specifically, he demonstrates how certain principles often have the effect of unnecessarily and arbitrarily limiting the scope and the depths of a critic’s investigations. It’s probably better to say that Green’s great object isn’t literary criticism so much as literature itself, the world of words, and that he therefore doesn’t take issue with other critics simply for reasons of engaging in critical discourses. He seems, instead, to see these critics as having imposed interpretive restrictions on a field of artistic endeavour – a force – whose aesthetic potential he feels is almost unbounded, and whose extraordinary liberties might be more widely recognised if only more critics would broaden rather than seeking to narrow their readers’ understanding of what literature is and what it can be.

Well, okay, so what is literature and what exactly can it be? The introduction to Beyond the Blurb and the first of its three sections, in which Green elucidates his own critical principles, are as clear and stark an explication of the nature and potential of literature as I have ever read. Some of these sections date back many years, perhaps a decade or thereabouts, and I recognised, with pleasure, parts of them that first came to me when I was still taking baby steps towards proficiency in literary criticism. I remember my initial encounter with them; I remember, vividly, the way they struck me not as bloodless rehearsals of pedantic arguments with which a fledgling scholar ought to familiarise himself, but as startling articulations of my inchoate instincts as a reader and a lover of literature. I remember having the sense that another person was reciting to me, in miraculously comprehensible language, my own gut feelings about how literature might be best approached. It’s no exaggeration to say that these parts of Green’s writings became, for me, essential findings in my formation as a serious and attentive reader, much more so than almost all the academic articles and monographs I devoured, and I read them again in Beyond the Blurb more assured than ever of their veracity and vitality. Especially true, and precisely worded, are Green’s reminders for readers of prose fiction to always devote intense concentration to the particularities of its language, over and above all other elements of any given work. It’s certainly the case that most novels contain conventional things like a narrative, characters, a setting, grand themes, and so on. But in spite of all that, Green insists, “fiction as a genre of literature is at its core the creation of illusions of such things… through skilful manipulation of language,” and, as a result,

a critic needs ultimately to be able to focus on the writer’s invocation of language, on the text as an artificial arrangement of words. Attempting to explicate a work of fiction by leaping first of all to plot or character or any other imposed device rather than considering the way such devices are conditioned by and embedded in language ignores the very medium through which literature exists, as if a work of fiction was really just like a movie aside from those pesky words. … Ultimately language is everything in a work of literature, and a critic needs to account for the way a writer marshals the resources of language to create all of the effects in that work.

To be hasty in giving Green’s position some coordinates on the existing landscape of literary criticism, remarks like these basically make him a formalist. One among far too few, I think. Green’s dogged attachment to the sensuality of specifically literary aesthetics – to the effects on the reader of the aesthetic capabilities and resources that are exclusive to literature and are not shared by alternative forms of art – is, for me, another of his greatest strengths, and maybe even his single greatest. For that reason, the introduction to Beyond the Blurb is a goldmine of formalist precepts, clearly and aptly put. “A literary work, whether in verse of prose, is worth taking seriously for its own sake,” Green begins. “The meaning of a literary work,” he adds, “consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.’” He pleads for an “approach to criticism” that “takes literature seriously by granting it a fundamental integrity as a form of art, doesn’t attempt to overshadow the literary work by subsuming it into another agenda… [and] assume[s] that criticism acquires authority through being rigorously attentive and articulating persuasive standards of analysis.” He spells out the half-dozen most important pieces of his critical credo and elaborates on the assumptions and implications of each one, and this credo, in its totality, amounts to a necessary and impassioned advocacy for a view of literature as, first and foremost, an artistic stimulus to human experience rather than a static container for representations of the world.

Having articulated a view of this sort, it’s no surprise that Green goes on to find much to say about the New Critics and their legacy in the form of “close reading,” and he even devotes the third and final section of Beyond the Blurb to praising fellow aesthetes like Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, and William H. Gass. He singles out Poirier’s A World Elsewhere for particular appreciation, even reverence – it is, says Green, “one of the most important academic studies in American literature,” “offer[ing] a radical analysis of American literature and literary history” – and so his essay on Poirier emerges as the most sympathetic and insightful of all those republished in Beyond the Blurb. That said, I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see that none of Green’s extensive and equally immersive remarks on John Dewey’s Art as Experience have made the cut for republication. Their inclusion may have drowned out his responses to the “critical failures” of Dickstein, Wood, and others, bloating the book’s third section and throwing the whole structure of the volume off-balance, but in their sentiment they would have been in the company of kinfolk.

What direction, then, might Green take from here on out? If there’s a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, or a gap in need of filling, it is arguably the choice of subject in a work of literature. Subject, content, the “message,” the thing that a work is “about” – this is, of course, Green’s bête noire, anathema to the essays in Beyond the Blurb, a distraction from the real stuff of literary art. But while I wouldn’t disagree that critical analyses and discussions of literature are too often dominated or overshadowed by the subject of a work as a site of interest in itself, a writer’s choice of subject is surely just as much a focal point for an aesthete as long as the emphasis falls on the word choice. More specifically, I think, critics like Green have an aesthetic obligation to consider the extent to which and the ways in which a choice of subject coheres, resonates, with the whole complex of other aesthetic choices that characterise a work of literature.

What becomes clear in reading Green’s essays is that an aesthetic appreciation of a work of literature involves, at bottom, two rare and complex things related to authorial choice. The first is an awareness of the effects a work achieves by virtue of the way it is stylised and structured, which is to say by virtue of the stylistic and structural choices a writer has made in the process of creating it. The second is the heightening of a reader’s awareness of those effects, and therefore the intensification of his or her appreciation of the work as a whole, through the development of a broad understanding of the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature – which is to say an understanding of all the possible choices the writer of the work could have made, but didn’t, as well as all the potential alternative effects the work might have achieved, but doesn’t.

In other words, for Green as for myself, the sum total of all the choices a writer has made in a work of literature, when viewed alongside all the other choices the writer has determined not to make, is the key to a thoroughgoing appreciation of the aesthetics of the work. But a writer can choose a subject that serves the work’s stylistic and structural program, that speaks to its terms and becomes an integral part of the overall aesthetic schema, or else the writer can choose a subject that is more or less appended to that program, if not entirely arbitrarily then at least as a discrete piece of the whole. Whichever way it may go in any particular work of literature, then, this choice is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, with consequences that can strengthen or weaken the aesthetic foundations of the entire result.

An example? If Herman Melville, for instance, had written Moby-Dick using the same vast array of aesthetic resources he actually deploys in that novel but applied them instead to the hunt for something other than a whale, the result wouldn’t be anything like Moby-Dick. His novel, as it stands, is stylistically and structurally oriented around concepts of magnitude and the individual effort to exert control over that which possesses magnitude. These concepts feed into the arcane and technical diction of his narrator, as well as his sophisticated and deliberately convoluted syntax. They also feed into his structuring of parts of the novel as itemisations of the innumerable qualities of whales, and the human uses associated with each one, as well as itemisations of variations on those qualities and further itemisations of the uses associated with each variation. Concepts of magnitude are written into the architecture of the aesthetics of Moby-Dick, playing out at all levels of the novel upwards from each individual word, and very possibly the only subject capable of embodying those same concepts – and thereby reinforcing the aesthetic architecture – is “the whale” as both a species of animal and a specific incarnation of that species. Anything less, anything smaller, anything of comparably unimpressive magnitude, wouldn’t work nearly as well as the whale because it would be a subject lacking exactly what Melville’s aesthetics embody.

I don’t think Green would disagree with this. In his analysis of David Winters’ Infinite Fictions, he approvingly quotes Winters’ observation that the stories in Gary Lutz’s Divorcer deal with the subject of divorce while also adopting aesthetic strategies that correspond with the subject. “[I]t’s as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these ‘stories,’” Winters writes, “buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end” so that “words are put to work on pulling something apart.” In his response to Richard Poirier, too, Green writes that as a graduate student he wrote his dissertation on “the self-reflexivity of metafiction,” the ways in which metafiction “direct[s] the reader’s attention to the artifice of language” and “ask[s] the reader not to regard language as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created ‘world’ at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest.” Since an appreciation of literary self-reflexivity involves an awareness of the extent to which a work is about itself and its own devices, a detailed examination of metafiction must involve looking at what a work is “about” as much as looking at “how it is about it.” This is, then, a variation on the critical consideration of the choice of subject in literature, and I wish there was more of it to be found in Beyond the Blurb. It’s not missing from the book, but it deserves closer inspection – particularly since it affords Green an opportunity to chip away at the binary opposition between “subject” and “form,” and to tease out the threads by which “subject” is not so much bound to “form” itself as it is bound to the other constituent elements of “form” that receive the critic’s scrutiny.

Yet if this downplaying of choice of subject is, as I said, a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, then for that reason it’s also a proof of the intensity that is the book’s signature virtue. What is a blind spot, after all, but the space that opens on the margins of vision when one devotes attention to some other object of concentration? Beyond the Blurb is an intense little book. It’s unique for its kind in the sense that it uses a series of discrete examples of literary criticism in order to articulate a singular vision of the value of the practice. It’s a focal point for critical energies expended over many years, fusing intermittent sparks of writing into a brief but powerful surge. I’ll concede that it was never going to persuade me of its worth because I didn’t need persuasion. I’ve long been onboard with most of Green’s positions on the issues that matter to him. Nevertheless, I anticipated something much more diffuse than what appears in Beyond the Blurb – I anticipated a harvest of blog posts bound between two covers – so it’s a thrill to see that the result is a sharp, serious, and sustained appraisal of the appreciation and evaluation of literature in today’s world.

The Seeds of Mills’ Field

Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations.

If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating.

The novel follows the petty squabbles of a handful of settlers who arrive piecemeal on a remote field in an unnamed country, in an unidentifiable era, in order to seed the land with a scattering of tents and camps. “The Great Field,” the narrator informs us, “lay in the bend of a broad, meandering river. Irregular in shape, it was bounded in the east, south and west by water, and in the north it dwindled gradually into wilderness.” He describes the field as “grassland, pure and simple,” with “nothing to distinguish it from the countless neighbouring fields.” Nevertheless, the narrator is keen to emphasise that in the eyes of “a select few,” himself included, “it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.”

When the narrator arrives on the field, it is occupied only by an irritable man named Hen, the original settler. Following in Hen’s footsteps, the narrator erects a tent, more a large decorative pavilion than a swag, and, soon thereafter, additional settlers arrive in waves and set about erecting tents of their own. All of them are lone men, and they manage to live together in a laidback, ramshackle harmony. “We were a handful of tents scattered far and wide across the immensity of the field,” the narrator says. “All around us was spaciousness, peace and tranquility.” But then a couple of new arrivals destabilise the situation, breaking the homogeneity of the settlers and upsetting the balance of power between them. First to appear is the settlement’s only woman, the brash and provocative Isabella, who stays on in spite of repeatedly voicing her disappointment with her new surroundings. The settlement doesn’t live up to the rumours of its existence that have spread across the land and that encouraged her to seek it out: “I envisaged a vast sea of tents billowing in the breeze,” she says, “flags flying, pennants fluttering and so forth.” Then there are the standoffish newcomers who arrive as a troupe and institute an “orderly regime” with “functional tents,” apparently determined to formalise and systematise the settlers’ previously slapdash and carefree way of life.

Who are all these settlers? Where have they come from? Why do they pitch tents on this field? What “momentous events” do they hope will unfold? How do they survive so far from civilisation? How do they subsist without exploiting the land? What might lie beyond the field they have chosen? These and similar questions arise, almost inevitably, as a result of the increasingly illogical events of Mills’ novel, but The Field of the Cloth of Gold never answers them and, in a sense, it doesn’t even really pose them. They’re conjured up by the absurdity of the situation Mills presents, but nothing in the book seems designed to tempt readers into considering them. On the contrary, The Field of the Cloth of Gold aspires to be a closed system. The characters have no lives, no history, no backstory, no identity outside of what can be gleaned from their involvement in the narrative action. There is nothing beyond the field because the perspective never shifts beyond the occupants of the field. The novel never admits the existence of anyone, or the occurrence of anything, outside of the scenes it depicts. The field and the people who populate it, shorn of distinguishing particularities, become motes in a bubble of abstraction severed from anything we might recognise as a plausible world. The Field of the Cloth of Gold is, in short, concerned almost exclusively with the project of populating the Great Field, which is to say that it is concerned with its own narrative premise — that there is such a field, nothing more and nothing less — and it toys with this concern not as other novels do, not by taking it as the starting point for a narrative whose development involves introducing further elements, but by elaborating only on the elements already embedded in the premise.

It is in this respect that Field is very much of a piece with Mills’ broader body of work. Taken as a whole, that body of work is marked by a couple of signature concerns and a distinctive stylistic manoeuvre which appears in book after book after book.

Mills’ foremost concerns are the process of perfecting extensive and intricate systems intended to achieve specific objectives, and the obsessive mindset of the type of person who often assumes responsibility for that process. Early in The Restraint of Beasts, the narrator, a labourer employed in the business of erecting high-tensile fencing in northern England, bristles in the presence of his boss, Donald, who is fixated upon ways of increasing the productivity, quality, and efficiency of his company. “Donald’s pursuit of perfection seemed to be taking things too far,” the narrator remarks, and his words could easily stand as a mantra for the lamentations of almost all of Mills’ protagonists. Typically, these protagonists are victims of petty egomaniacs, of tinpot tyrants consumed by a passion for either fine-tuning a serpentine bureaucratic system or else bringing into reality, with the utmost precision, a system that at first exists only theoretically. These egomaniacs invariably denigrate the complexities of human interactions, demanding an end to the mundane daily affairs of real people and failing to account for the foibles of their hapless minions. In effect, they jettison all consideration of anything that is not directly related to their efforts to ensure that the system entrusted to them exists in its most pristine possible form.

Magnus Mills, "The Scheme for Full Employment"Mills’ back catalogue is replete with accounts of men — only men — who stoically endure the pangs of such systems while labouring under the egomaniacs in charge of them. In The Scheme for Full Employment, the system is intended to occupy unemployed nobodies by assigning them an endless series of spurious tasks that merely ape the appearance of productive labour and therefore make a mockery of those who earnestly administer the system. In Explorers of the New Century, two competing systems attempt to land two expeditions of rugged men in the heart of the wasteland known as the Agreed Furthest Point from Civilisation, despite the fact that the leaders of each system are pursuing the same meretricious objective. Pick up any novel by Mills and you’ll find that there’s always a system in place, always an egomaniac to oversee its implementation, and almost always a protagonist from middle management who has to reconcile the impossible demands of his superior with the complaints, refusals, and misdemeanours of the underlings he’s responsible for. Crucially, though, the egomaniac’s attention is always directed towards a part of the system that is singularly inconsequential or inane, or else towards a part whose significance is kept beyond the ken of the reader. This is what makes the egomaniac’s fervent devotion to the system so unintelligible, so ludicrous, and it’s what makes the protagonist’s devotion to honouring the egomaniac’s instructions so absurd.

Beyond all this, Mills’ broader concern is the ways in which such systems dehumanise and destroy the people who run them because they are designed to be, above all else, self-reinforcing. In other words, for Mills, the rationale behind the existence of such a system is simply to maintain its own existence. Fuck its effects on the human beings who make it run. Fuck its nominal objectives and the way they will supposedly improve real lives. Systems exist for themselves, and their existence is safeguarded by people employed to preserve their existence at the expense of delivering the outcomes that their beneficiaries have been promised. The obtuse administrators of the phenomenally complex bus scheduling system in The Maintenance of Headway incarnate this phenomenon better than anyone else in the Mills oeuvre. Why do buses exist? To shuttle passengers from one point to another point along a predetermined route. How are they made to perform this task? In accordance with a timetable indicating the frequency with which they’ll arrive at and depart from each of those points. What happens when traffic interferes with the flow of the system, diminishing “headway” so that there is a loss of adequate distance between any two buses servicing the same route? An administrator pulls one bus off the route and diverts it to another route or takes it out of commission altogether. What about the passengers on that bus? What about the passengers who need to catch that bus? What about fidelity to the sacred timetable? What about the passengers who will now have to anxiously wait for a bus that doesn’t arrive until much, much later than the timetable indicates it should show up? Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em. Fuck them one and all. The system is God.

For the administrators of the hypothetical systems that Mills constructs in his novels, the cohesion of the system in a theoretical sense is pretty much all that matters. These men are devoted to the system as an ideal concept, as a system that functions flawlessly insofar as it is uncorrupted by people who might need to make use of it. But of course a system without users is a system that has no reason to exist at all, which means that its administrators have no real reason to exist either. Typically, then, Mills focuses not only on people who are devoted to the perfection of a system at extraordinary cost to the humanity of themselves and others, but on people whose obsessive perfectionism, and whose compliance with the dictates of perfectionists, undermines the logic that gives the system its very being. The same double-bind shows up again in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. The purpose of systematising the settlement of the Great Field is so that the settlement of the field can be systematised. Why the field should be settled at all, let alone settled in a systematised way, remains an open question throughout the entire novel.

Stylistically, though, none of the absurd circumstances orchestrated by Mills are varnished in prose that stresses their comic elements, and Mills’ straight-faced approach to his elaborate ridiculousness only makes them more fatuous. “When I entered the field kitchen,” says the narrator of The Field of the Cloth of Gold after he requisitions some implements that are vital to the expansion of the settlement, “I discovered further evidence of decline: the great cast-iron cooking pots were still ranged along the counter, but now they all stood cold and unused. Yadegarian was working nearby, cutting a loaf of bread into very thin slices. … Apparently the cooks had received instructions that all bread was to be toasted so it would last longer. Yadegarian loaded the grill and asked me to keep an eye on it while he sought out my dish and spoon.” Are you impressed by the beauty of the prose? Have you been swept away by the urgency of the drama? I doubt it. But the novel goes on like this, on and on, circumventing the question of why on earth anyone would want to spend their lives systematically settling the Great Field, and focusing instead on the tedium of bread rationing, in prose so simple and direct and matter-of-fact that, tonally, sentences unfold on the implicit assumption that readers couldn’t possibly be interested in anything more than exactly what each sentence has to say.

Magnus Mills, "Three to See the King"This sort of prose is not unique to Mills’ most recent novel, nor is the tonal gloss it affords his characters and the narratives in which he involves them. Mills’ characters are routinely thrown into extreme situations — situations every bit as impersonal, immobilising, and inescapable as those of Josef K — and yet Mills’ prose elides any sort of adequate and correspondingly extreme emotional response. His sentences are plain, workmanlike, often monosyllabic and repetitive. They are whatever you might call the opposite of eloquent, the opposite of lyrical, the opposite of the overused descriptor “finely wrought.” The effect of these sentences, across all of Mills’ novels, is an emotional detachment from the palpable conditions that embroil the characters at the coalface of impossible systems, and thus a further transfer of emotional energy into the system as a purely theoretical construct. In Three to See the King, for instance, the narrator is obsessed with his plan to live alone in a remote desert in a house made entirely of tin. Fair enough, and suitably ludicrous. But his schoolboyish pride in living in a tin house takes the form of an asinine repetition of the brute fact that he lives in such a house, and the cumulative effect of this repetition is to establish the statement of the fact itself as the thing he values most. It conveys no sense whatsoever of the tactile experience of having his body occupy that space for years on end. It anaesthetises the reader’s negative capability, transforming the narrative from something potentially immersive into a bizarrely dissociative spectacle to be observed from afar. It also pantomimes verisimilitude, simultaneously nominating elements of an environment that ought to establish a picture of the narrator’s reality and nullifying their capacity for vividness, their capacity to create an impression of realism, so that what is ultimately created is an empty mimicry of the moves that other novels conventionally make in order to create that impression.

Much the same can be said of the effects of Mills’ description of the trek away from civilisation in Explorers of the New Century, or of his report on the dispute between the “early swervers” and the “flat eighters” in The Scheme for Full Employment. It can be said, too, of his transcriptions of banter between the timetable administrators and the bus drivers in The Maintenance of Headway, and of his depictions of the myriad consequences of spilled paint in All Quiet on the Orient Express. It can especially be said of the narrator’s account of digging an irrigation trench across the Great Field in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Gruelling work, at least in theory. Brambles have to be cleared. Boots are quickly caked in mud. Exhaustion is endured, or is at least said to have been endured. But where’s the sweat soaking into heavy clothes and the burn of the midday sun on someone’s brow? Where’s the feeling of grass and rock underfoot or the jolt through the handle of the spade when the iron strikes into the soil? None of these elements are conjured up because you’re not supposed to believe in the existence of that trench. You’re only supposed to become aware that you’re being asked to believe in it, and you’re being asked politely, as it were, by someone who can’t implore you to believe in it because he himself lacks conviction — and because he overruns its environs with characters who’d rather draw up blueprints for castles in the clouds than keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

But why write like this? What might be Mills’ long game? What could possibly be his objective? I can’t pretend to have any clear answers, but there’s one thing I’m sure it’s not. There’s a temptation to think of Mills as a modern-day fabulist, a purveyor of parables or allegories, and you need only glance at the blurbs on his books to see that a good number of readers and critics have given into it. Maybe that’s defensible. You could easily lump him in with Steven Milhauser or Wayne Macauley, both of whom fashion fictions that are equally disengaged from the real world and therefore equally susceptible to being read as texts that respond to real world phenomena by oblique, indirect means. But this strikes me as a way of simply bypassing precisely what it is that makes Mills’ work distinctive. Sure, fine, I agree that he enjoys satirising neoliberal economics. We’ve known that much since he débuted with a tale of emotionally and psychologically stunted men who set out to erect fences for “the restraint of beasts” and end up restraining themselves in a cramped system of exchange between capital and labour. You could go ahead and put together a monograph on the subject, peppered with plentiful insights from the pages of Das Kapital. But if Mills writes his novels largely for the purpose of satirising or otherwise critiquing the neoliberal mindset, what is the point of his decision to write novels at all? If what really matters is the commentary that might be taken away from the experience of having read Mills’ books, why bother going through the experience of reading them in the first place when you could just as easily turn to a précis of the commentary?

Magnus Mills, "A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In"What makes Magnus Mills worth reading is the mounting effect of the choices he arrives at incrementally, word by word and line by line, throughout his body of work. Importantly, more often than not, these choices serve to extend the disjuncture between the outlandishness of his scenarios and the plainspokenness of his prose. This is to say that they function so as to avoid reconciling those two things — either by avoiding a style that carries the emotional charge of the scenario, or by avoiding a scenario as humble and domesticated as the prose — and this is to say, in turn, that Mills’ novels unfold in ways that continuously, painstakingly avoid resolution, postponing it indefinitely with every page. To neatly resolve its mystery by throwing it straight into the box of fabulism is, I think, to violate it, to deny its most distinctive quality. Of course you might have to say that if this is true, if Mills’ novels flat-out don’t engage with the real world in any meaningful terms, then Mills’ entire body of work amounts to simply a prolonged exercise in gratuity, a slow-motion act of creation contingent upon nothing more profound than the author’s whims and wishes. Personally, I’d venture that this is exactly the case, and I’d say it’s especially true in light of Mills’ recent movement towards wholesale abstraction in The Field of the Cloth of Gold and its beguiling but cheerful predecessor, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. It can be hard to accept that books which literary conventions would have us read as fables aren’t actually fables at all, but I genuinely can’t see that Mills’ novels are up to anything more than exactly what they appear to be up to — except insofar as they knowingly manufacture the appearance of being up to much more. Given that I struggle to think of another author capable of pulling off this feat so consistently and at such length over so many books, the dogged but stylistically easygoing irresolution of Mills’ novels is for me their deepest source of pleasure.

I realise now that I’ve said less about The Field of the Cloth of Gold than about Mills’ work as a whole, even if everything I’ve said is germane to the new novel in its guise as a gathering point for Mills’ creative preoccupations to date. I have to add, however, that The Field of the Cloth of Gold is not Mills’ greatest accomplishment. That honour belongs to either Explorers of the New Century or A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest, both of which are more sophisticated in their literary artistry and their exploitation of literature’s unique capabilities. Explorers extracts incredible power from the unsettling definition, redefinition, and re-redefinition of a particular word — a noun — which represents a thing in the world that readers must apprehend as a concept without a definite physical form if its meaning is to be amorphous. A Cruel Bird relies on painstaking descriptions of physical objects and processes which would be mundane when visualised but are, paradoxically, impossibly dynamic when itemised, meaning that the book relies on passages of sinuous imagery that do not lend themselves to detailed imagination. Both Explorers and A Cruel Bird are therefore novels that subject worldly referents to techniques that sidestep direct depiction, especially cinematic depiction, and for that reason they embrace the exclusive possibilities of their artform with greater results than does The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

That said, Field has a simplicity and a purity of purpose that together make it a uniquely appealing novel. If Explorers and A Cruel Bird are banquets, serving up lovingly crafted platefuls of a select dishes that showcase Mills’ most potent flavours, The Field of the Cloth of Gold is more like a tasting platter or smörgåsbord of his flairs and virtues. It offers an opportunity to sample, liberally but in less concentrated form, the results of every talent he has honed throughout his career. It can be a book of mixed blessings, or a book whose blessings become increasingly mixed in proportion to a reader’s existing familiarity with Mills, since any showcase of talents runs runs the risk of reminding onlookers that those talents have occasionally been exercised more skilfully elsewhere. At the same time, though, the novel validates the admiration of readers who have long been drawn to Mills, confirming that none of his previous accomplishments was a fluke, and it reveals a glimmer of the treasures that await newcomers for whom the book marks the first step along a trail leading away from the grassland at the bend in the river to sites of other, older riches.

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.

Consider, for instance, this passage from The Natural Order of Things, which describes an encounter between a high school football coach named Kaliher, recently separated from his wife, and his loathsome landlady Mrs. O’Neill. As the owner and manager of a seedy apartment block populated by “the downtrodden, ruined, addicted, and insane,” O’Neill “actively seeks out male renters” so that she can demand sexual intercourse in the event of a shortfall in rent, and Kaliher, as usual, has not been able to pay up. O’Neill, we are told, leans against the entrance to his apartment with “a long pillar of cigarette ash wobbling between her lizard lips” and “shambles” inside, “heavy and compact as a bison,” to claim what she believes she is owed. Other writers might shy away from pursuing the implications of the grotesque terms applied to Mrs. O’Neill, the investiture of both reptilian and hulkingly mammalian properties that seem at first to be contradictory, but Keating doubles down with an outpouring that extends and embellishes them. “No matter how many times [Kaliher] submits to this monthly ritual,” Keating writes,

he is shocked by the vulgarity of Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom talk and the rough manner in which she shoves his face into the swampy valley between her sloping breasts, down to the impressive rolls of fat that have congealed around her navel, across the rugged terrain of her thorny snatch, ever lower, lower, all the while rasping her sinister commands with pitiless glee. … Taking direction like a trained seal [when she orders him to lick her feet], he sweeps his tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, heel to toe, heel to toe [and then, u]sing the advantage of her weight, she pins him to the mattress, parts her legs and slowly envelopes him in her clammy flesh.

Thirty minutes later, the tentacled creature squirts her ink over his abdomen, and the unspeakable ordeal comes to an end.

O’Neill, then, is reptilian and mammalian as well as amphibian (“swampy”) and somehow vegetative (“thorny”) and even oceanic (“clammy” and “tentacled”) and yet Keating still doesn’t stop there. After Mrs. O’Neill belittles Kaliher for prostituting himself once again,

she stands up, pulls the bathrobe around her thick torso, and plunges into a pool of black shadow, Grendel’s mother, glutted on warrior blood, diving into the heaving depths of her sinister fen somewhere in the misty moorlands. Kaliher, marvelling at the terrible strength of this tusked and taloned tarn-hag, wonders if she ever had children of her own, stillborn things sent straight to Limbo.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. Taking its cue from the likes of Winesburg, Ohio, Keating’s début offers less a conventionally linear narrative than an anthology of interwoven stories that drift amongst the depraved denizens of a decaying Midwestern town dominated by the tall Gothic tower of a morally bankrupt Jesuit school. Flocks of grackles and roaming packs of dogs recur throughout the stories, as do particular Jesuit priests, several filthy prostitutes, and a sinister cab driver whose teeth have rotted away into “unsightly gray stumps.” Events recur as well, and in fact are repeated, as successive stories establish chronologies that parallel or intersect with those of earlier stories by depicting action that has already been depicted elsewhere. Throughout it all, Keating fixes his narratorial gaze on the most corrupt, most deviant, most perverted behaviours of the Jesuit school’s staff and students, but he does so in a way that intensifies the immorality to such a cartoonish extent that, by design, it loses its shocking edge.

In one chapter, a man receives a blowjob from his lover while gazing out the window at a block of apartments in which a neighbour’s mischievous dog, Gonzago, sits at his own window and watches the man in the throes of his pleasure. The woman on her knees “slurps, gags, makes funny quacking sounds,” Keating writes, “but just as [the man’s] eyelids start to flutter, he happens to glance out the window and sees the dog imitating him, prancing around on its hind legs like some bizarre animal act at a roadside carnival. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to make mischief, Gonzago begins to howl with maniacal laughter, a single extended note that starts as a banshee’s moan and ends as a deafening siren that oscillates with horrific madhouse harmonics” — and that howl causes the blowjob to climax in a very particular sort of pain. Another dog in another chapter is hit by a car and presumed dead by the driver, a man named Claude, until the owner picks up his injured pet and confronts the runaway assailant. “The thing is still alive,” Claude realises, “its head crushed like a rotten apple, its snout crusted over with blood, its reeking organs and entrails bubbling and foaming from the angry wound on its enormous, heaving belly. Claude stares, can’t help but stare, and when the thing lifts an accusatory paw toward him, he stumbles backward and begins to cough on the fumes spewing from the tailpipe.” There’s also a paedophilic teacher who sleeps with the school’s star quarterback, and a psychopathic student who tortures a priest on his deathbed, and of course there’s the wretched, decrepit Father Loomis himself — a monster “[c]oncealed under a thin sheet like a circus freak behind the curtain of an arched proscenium,” a “gibbering, drooling, cadaverous creature” whose “desiccated flesh [is] pale blue, vaguely aquatic, almost translucent” and who “squirms in a hospital bed and claws at the air with nails so jagged and yellow that they seem capable of infecting anyone foolish enough to get too close.”

In The Captive Condition, Keating takes as his narrator a prominent character from The Natural Order of Things but displaces him and distances him from the location of the earlier novel. Edmund Campion moves away from the Jesuit school to start afresh on the campus of Wakefield College in the small town of Normandy Falls. The institution noticeably shares a name with the protagonist of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and, at Wakefield, Campion finds himself in a Midwestern dump concealing the sort of ancestral horrors and beset by the sort of dark arts practitioners to be found in Hawthorne’s more gothic stories and in those of his successors. Featuring ghosts, mutants, monsters, rumours of werewolves, live burials, children conceived for ritual purposes, creepy twins, and plenty more surreptitious sexual deviance, debauchery, and depravity, The Captive Condition hybridises Blue Velvet and the Cthulhu mythos and sets it all on the stage of a college campus. That this is a novel about monsters is no mistake and no metaphorical way of speaking of its treatment of more worldly things. In one scene, for instance, Campion stumbles upon a concealed, shadowy cavern in which “a row of storage shelves” rises “from floor to ceiling” and holds “hundreds of glass jars, some the size of growlers, their contents sealed tight with zinc canning lids” like “a squirming horde of mutant djinns desperate to explode from their magic lamps.” These “mutant djinns” are “small, fetal, fish-eyed things,” Keating writes,

bloated masses of flesh incubating outside their mother’s womb, insensate creatures neither terrestrial nor aquatic caught in the collective grip of a curious dream, their eyes twitching, their forked and tufted tails swaying in a cloudy fluid that glowed goblin green. … I understood now that Normandy Falls contained a secret, a colossal creeping sentient madness hibernating beneath the fulgurite-pitted earth. For the better part of a century, the hereditary horrors of the Wakefield clan had been anticipating the arrival of a weary traveller who would set them free so they might lurk among the roadless reaches of swamp and forest and swim once again in the river. Because given enough time something always manages to escape from the laboratory and foul the water.

That’s not the first time readers encounter such creatures. We have already been introduced, memorably, to a woman who creates metallic representations of similarly fishlike beings, “cruelly shaped things that may have washed up in the fecal mire and interstitial wastes along the river, web-footed, membranous monsters of inconceivable ugliness… [that] floated freely and without consequence in the smoky air [and] gonged weirdly and gave off a gangrenous and chlorotic glare.” Nor is it the last time that such precise and vivid language is marshalled in order to evoke a scene of such unremitting horror. Later, for instance, a crowded restaurant consumed by fire becomes “an immense sacrificial pyre, a brazier of people bursting into flames, their faces peeling like curled sheets of bark from beechwood trees after a powerful windstorm,” and as everyone’s hair catches alight, all of them start insensibly running into each other except for one old woman who, we are told, “tore a blazing white wig from her head and hurled it to the floor, where it burned like a hairball coughed up by a hacking dragon.” And the grotesquerie of Keating’s characters extends beyond mere physical description in a way that taints their actions in the descriptive language applied to them. Writing of Xavier D’Avignon, a small-town chef with pretensions of becoming a master of fine dining, Keating notes that “[w]hen it came to the preparation and presentation of haute cuisine… [he] felt an intellectual, spiritual, and even sexual empowerment that far surpassed anything he’d ever experienced, and he often boasted that his perfectly executed recipes were not only manna from heaven but also potent aphrodisiacs raining down from the sky like Cupid’s arrows.” Later, when this same man is looked upon by another who suspects that the chef is cuckolding him, the second man sees him as a “proud and swaggering ‘stunt cock’ who night after night climbed on top of his wife and” — in a turn of phrase equal parts apt and absurd — “emptied himself into her like rancid bouillabaisse from an overturned creamer.”

It’s easy to oversell a writer with a claim that his or her work is “not for the faint of heart.” It’s easy to all but openly dare a reader to pick up the work if for no other reason than to prove that he or she is not ruled by overly delicate sensibilities. In Keating’s case, though, the phrase is apt because a number of readers are likely to find the work off-putting for any number of reasons. One reason is simply that Mrs. O’Neill’s melodramatic grotesquerie is typical of Keating’s world, far from an exception to the rule. More significantly, though, his narratives are unresolved and inconsequential even when they’re not outright recursive and cyclical, and his style is marked by a tendency towards excess in almost every sentence, particularly in his intensifiers and the caricatured quality of the imagery with which he forges similes and metaphors. If his work is not for the faint of heart, then, that is only partly because his world is distinctly unappealing, utterly without any humanist concerns for the people living in it, and more so because readers who are interested only in the ways of his world are unlikely to see an appeal in the words he deploys to construct it. His absurd diction and loopy syntax not only obstruct our sympathy for those who suffer in his world and refuse to redeem those who perpetuate suffering, but they in fact gloss the world in a such way as to take sympathy and redemption entirely out of the question — to place them utterly beside the point. To achieve an effect such as that is both the challenge and the privilege of world-building in prose, and it is a testament to his prose, above all, that Keating is able to pull it off.

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?

You might take the realist’s approach to that question and have your protagonist make an issue of the horror, the repulsion, and not least the indignity of being served a plateful of hair. You might take the fabulist’s approach, having your protagonist consume it delicately and delightedly and without further comment from anyone else in a world in which it is widely known that a plateful of hair makes an exquisite meal. Or you might take the approach of Amelia Gray, which basically involves splitting the difference between those two possibilities. “Do try something,” the inwardly horrified but outwardly courteous protagonist says to her partner in ‘Dinner,’ the opening story in Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird. Implicitly inviting the gentleman to try the hair before she tries it herself, she manages simultaneously to register her disgust at the unusual meal she has been served and to show the social graces so crucial to the success of the date. Unfortunately, though, the gentleman, Dave, declines the woman’s seemingly generous offer:

Dave shook his head. He was still smiling, but his gaze had dropped to her lips, meaning either that he wanted to kiss her — she had read about this technique in magazines — or that he wanted her to take a healthy chunk of hair with her fork and choke it down with a swallow of red wine, forcing the clogged mass down her throat like an obstruction through the pipes of a bathtub.

What exactly does Dave want her to do? How exactly is she supposed to behave in the scenario she faces? The answer to such a question doesn’t really matter. The sheer mystery undergirding the question itself, a mystery unresolved and in fact spun out into an extended period of irresolution, is what makes ‘Dinner’ a typical Amelia Gray short story. It’s a question that similarly plagues the incredulous narrator of ‘Babies’ when she wakes one morning “to discover I had given birth overnight,” as well as dogging the perturbed and exhausted townsfolk of ‘Vultures,’ who struggle to make accommodations for the violent and predatory carrion birds that have taken up residence in their streets. And it’s there, too, in ‘Fish,’ which focuses on the awkward social standing of two men, Dale and Howard, who have decided to marry inanimate objects and who expect the people around them to view their marriages as not only legitimate but also unremarkable. “When anyone asked Dale if he had dated actual women before making the decision to marry a paring knife,” Gray writes, “he would look at that person with such incredulity that the stranger would feel as if they had been rude to inquire,” while Howard, who is a little more accommodating, admits that even though “a bag of frozen tilapia was different in many ways from a woman… in many ways it was the same.” Time and again in Gray’s short stories, characters either encounter or give rise to some monumental absurdity, some rupture in the logical ways of the world, and yet, while they do not follow the fabulist’s route and treat the absurd as anything but, they also don’t quite follow the realists in making an issue of it. They are realists in most respects but for their reticence to permit themselves an authentic reaction to absurdity, their insistence on facing the absurd with composure and decorum.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Gray’s body of work, one might assume that she churns out the sort of hip, disaffected, droll, vaguely snarky and often precious stories that tend to populate venues like McSweeney’s and Vice, both of which have published her. In fact, though, she doesn’t do this at all. Throughout Museum of the Weird as well as her first story collection, AM/PM, and her ingenious novel Threats, Gray has carved out a space all her own — concocting a tone all her own and steadily perfecting her recipe — and the trajectory she has followed in the course of doing this has reached a sort of apotheosis in her latest collection, Gutshot. More so than ever before, there’s something unsettling and beguiling to the cumulative effect of watching one character after another acknowledge absurdity in a way that is both laconic and stoic, and yet it’s less off-putting than hypnotically engaging. The result of the whole is an experience of uncanniness without the sense of spooky disquiet: a little like what you might get from watching a simulacrum of human interactions created by extraterrestrials, or from watching primates at play in a zoo and recognising some ancestral kinship in their more human mannerisms.

The opening story of Gutshot, for example, focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman perfectly suited to one another until, halfway through a sentence, they begin to lose their memories of their life together. Rather than asking what might be happening to their memories, despite their awareness of a profound loss, they simply ask questions of the world around them, questions intended to help them find their way back to themselves, so that the simple act of asking becomes the new common denominator of their life together. ‘The Lark’ is a similarly bizarre yet heartfelt story focusing on a man who cannot speak more than a few words without vomiting into a bucket, but it is less about his suffering than about the chance encounter that brings him true love in spite of his condition. ‘The Labyrinth’ offers a sketch of a father who succeeds in replacing the children’s maze at his daughter’s birthday party with the mythical structure patrolled by the Minotaur, but it is less about the motives that lead him to do that, or the means by which he does it, than about the pride he feels for having done it and his yearning to share his pride with other parents. And in ‘Date Night,’ whose setup has echoes of ‘Dinner,’ a couple are out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the man excuses himself from the table and the woman, left alone, accidentally begins to disassemble her body. She “scratches her forearm a little too hard and a slice of skin peels up with her fingernail,” and with this she sparks a craze of deliberate, artful bodily decomposition that spreads to her fellow diners:

A woman screams until someone slips a dessert spoon under a muscle in her neck and flings her larynx to the floor, at which point the woman grasps both breasts, rips them from her body, and applies them to her throat. … Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.

Those words, together with the title of the collection, suggest a preoccupation with viscera that extends throughout Gutshot and gives it a vividness and a force that make it altogether more powerful than AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. So too does the general compression of the stories, with only the true rarities running to more than three pages in length, and so does a modification of tempo that generates a creeping insidiousness, a slow burn rather than a sudden shock, which the short and punchy title otherwise conceals. Entry for entry, story for story, Gutshot is more focused than Gray’s previous collections, more confident and reportorial in its style, more dedicated to perfecting the qualities of the typical Gray short story, and more powerful in its protracted explorations of bemusing responses to outlandish events. It is also, on the whole, the work of an author more secure in her aims and more assured of her own abilities, particularly as she manages to achieve her preferred effects through a number of structurally experimental stories. ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover’ is exactly what it sounds like, a woman’s list of strategies for carving up, cooking, and consuming her partner, one body part at a time while he is still alive, implicitly to achieve a more thorough, more sensual appreciation of his corporeality. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ begins as an earnest essay on the titular subject before it takes an abrupt self-reflexive turn and points out the absurdity of swans, the absurdity of love, the absurdity of looking for compatibility between the two, and the absurdity of continuing any discussion of it. In the title story, a dying man who repeatedly laments that he has been “gutshot” is visited by Jesus, who attempts to comfort him in his final moments by calling to his attention to assorted elements of his surroundings that become imbued with a poetic elegance simply by virtue of context, and, in ‘Viscera,’ Gray pieces together a visceral description of the material history of the page on which the story is printed, rendering the page itself an object of both disgust and wonder.

It would be easy for a writer working with this sort of subject matter to submit to temptation and allow her work to slip into one of the tones favoured by other writers mining similar territory. It would be easy for a writer of Gray’s calibre to mimic the self-deprecating irony of Dave Eggers, the overweening whimsy of Karen Russell, or the increasingly contrived yuk-yuks of George Saunders. That Gray doesn’t submit to temptation is impressive enough, but more impressive is that she has charted a fresh, distinct, and sharply defined alternative path across such well-trodden terrain. Her tone — if that’s even the right word for the quality of her stories that makes them identifiably hers — comes from the sense that she is simultaneously looking askance at her awkward characters and yet looking at them in a resolutely non-judgmental way. While this tone suffuses all of the stories in Gutshot, each one advances an ever-so-slight variation on it and allows Gray to replace the irony and whimsy and yuk-yuks she has rejected with something altogether rarer, less prefabricated, and more potent.

Halfway Between That and the Other Thing

Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?

Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges.

I wish I could have shared the appreciations of both prize-giving bodies, The Guardian and Goldsmiths, but I was disappointed to find the novel with so firm a footing in each camp that it struggled to do justice to the virtues of either one. It establishes a set of broad narrative and aesthetic premises that would allow for detailed, nuanced, and complex explorations of grief as a subject in its own right and of the structural and symbolic possibilities for articulating an experience of grief, yet it doesn’t do much more than skim the surface of these premises. Often, in fact, it reads like an outline for a better novel than the one it is, a series of notes assembling a reservoir of narrative and aesthetic potential which, if exploited, would have filled many hundreds of pages — but it doesn’t dive into the depths of its potential, and it doesn’t even really consider the notion that there are any depths to what is depicted in its pages and the ways in which the depiction has been constructed. The experimentalism of the novel somehow obstructs its own access to a detailed meditation on the nature of grief, and yet, without some way of protracting the experiences of its grieving characters, the narrative doesn’t have sufficient length or scope to allow its aesthetic idiosyncrasies to develop into more than what they seem to be on first appearance. In the end, although there’s a lot to like about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the parts of the novel are more intriguing than the whole, since the whole doesn’t allow its parts to interact and to produce effects more manifold and stimulating than those they generate as parts. It’s a sadly wasted opportunity to do something very special — it’s a novel that could have integrated two typically antithetical ways of approaching fiction, but that settles instead for simply and fleetingly introducing them to one another.

On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

Starvation and Starscapes

I found my way to Binary Star, the debut novel of 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.

Binary Star is in many ways admirable,” Dan Green concludes in his review of the novel, “although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.” I agree with that judgment and share the sense of disappointment it entails. The shame of it is that Gerard equips Binary Star with qualities of artistic distinction and the building blocks of something brilliant, but her stance towards her own material is finally too conservative to allow her to unleash its potential. Comprised of sharp declarative statements that cumulatively advance a rhythm of unrelenting, oppressive insistence, the novel stylistically asserts the confidence and certitude of a narrator whose disclosures repeatedly give voice to self-doubt, insecurity, and increasing desperation. And yet despite the focused concision of its every sentence, and despite the intriguing tension between the substance of those sentences and their stylistic gloss, the novel runs to an excessive length. Clocking in at 166 pages, it offers little that couldn’t have been offered in half as many.

I mean that in quite a literal sense, since Binary Star is structured in a way that leaves a good portion of the prose superfluous. Perhaps the novel’s most innovative feature is the narrator’s extensive recourse to an astronomical lexicon in an effort to articulate human interactions and experiences. As a graduate student and lecturer in the field of astronomy, the narrator repeatedly turns her gaze skyward to disclose her knowledge of celestial phenomena in a way that refers and corresponds to the turmoils of her life. She and her boyfriend correspond to a binary star system in which two stars in orbital proximity gravitate towards each other and collide with catastrophic results. She purges herself of nutrition to accentuate her beauty, corresponding herself to a nova burning brighter the closer it comes to exhausting its fuel supply — although she neglects to notice that, for human beings, starvation entails an agonising death and not a dazzling glory. In one way or another, the vocabulary of the starscape is inscribed throughout the narrator’s writing as the basis of her ability to know and express herself.

The stars in these pages therefore function as much more than simple, occasional metaphors for the narrator to elaborate on her state of mind or the state of her relationship at any given moment. She uses them to conceptualise her place in the world around her, her position in relation to others, and the general direction of the life she is leading. Ruminations on the beauty and behaviour of the stars appear on almost every page, and sometimes they even extend across several pages in succession. Indeed, altogether, they comprise perhaps one third of the novel’s total length as the narrator alternates between depicting her experiences and describing their starbound parallels. Here, however, the pattern of alternation, pursued to great lengths and adhered to inflexibly, ossifies Binary Star. Of course it is initially necessary to enable readers to become accustomed to the structure of the novel and to be guided towards understanding that, for example, the narrator’s dissection of the mechanics and movements of a binary star system is really her way of discussing the subtleties and intimacies of her relationship with her boyfriend. But because the pattern persists well beyond the point at which the narrator has established the double significance of celestial bodies, the bravery she demonstrates in her difficult choice of subject and her idiosyncratic style is not strong enough for her to fully commit to the logic of her structure.

The result is a novel that disappointingly retreats from exploiting all of its structural possibilities. Gerard invests Binary Star with the potential to become something risky and radical — a novel that focuses on a narrator whose mind, body, and lover punish her on a daily basis, but also a novel that details the narrator’s trauma solely through her discussions of phenomena occurring at a vast distance from her own life — and yet this potential remains only that, exactly that, right through to the final page. Encased within Binary Star is a novel very different to the novel it becomes, a much less conventional novel that is structured into existence by an author who does not then withdraw from convention so that this other novel may exist more fully and completely. Because Gerard holds the hands of her readers for the duration of Binary Star, because she does not set them free to inhabit its structure at length, she effectively neuters its early capacity for innovation. Binary Star is a feral novel forced into domestic behaviour, a novel rendered far less adventurous than it wants itself to be.