An Alloy

Today is one of the days I live for as a writer. At the Edge of the Solid World has made its second appearance in the pages of the Australian Book Review, this time in an extended appraisal by Naama Grey-Smith. It’s a beautiful piece that genuinely appreciates the ambitions of the novel — and doesn’t shy away from, or diminish, the demands the book imposes on its readers:

There are, in a sense, many books in this single work, and their merging is gainful, like an alloy whose molten components are improved through complexity. … At the Edge of the Solid World is an unapologetically demanding work. It challenges readers in terms of both form and content: facing its graphic catalogue of violence, keeping account of its many moving parts, reckoning with its philosophical deadlocks, and, at the end of a reading session, escaping its obsessive hold. Most extraordinary is Davis Wood’s ability to blur the boundaries between narratives until, from their yielding, edgeless form, emerges a new shape.

I must say that I feel truly honoured and humbled that At the Edge of the Solid World found its way to a critic with such an eye for detail and sensitivity to craft. And I do mean truly; I wrote the book in fear that it would only ever end up in the hands of readers who didn’t know what to make of it, if indeed it ended up in the hands of any readers at all. To see it now in the hands of readers as receptive as I’d ever dare hope for — well, that’s just breathtaking.

First Things First

Daniel Green has written what you might call a takedown of Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination, especially Row’s reading of the pedagogy of Gordon Lish. “[I]n Row’s analysis,” he writes,

Lish… embodies assumptions about style and form that have enabled white writers to avoid reckoning with the cultural legacies of whiteness in American fiction, further allowing them to presume an “innocence” in regard to these legacies that perpetuates an evasion of the responsibility to interrogate whiteness as the default perspective in American literature. 

Reading this, I wonder whether Row has ever read, say, Cane, or The Bluest Eye, or any number of other novels by African-American writers whose aesthetics share a greater affinity with Lish than with social realism. And I wonder what still-living writers of this type of literature would make of Row’s argument, with John Edgar Wideman foremost among the likely objectors.

In any case, what resonated with me in Green’s review was the rhetorical question that. opens his final paragraph:

Is a concern for the aesthetic qualities of literature — the belief that literary art is first of all art — inherently an insular, protected outlook that allows indifference to “the world” and its injustices — and therefore available only to white writers?

I won’t venture an answer to that, but I will suggest that the words “first of all” hold the key to the difference between readers like Jess Row and readers like Daniel Green. Green believes — as do I — that if literary art is first of all art, then any response to this art, and any subsequent reckoning with it, must first of all address its artistic qualities. Only thereafter is any consideration of its other qualities reasonably possible. Row, however, believes that literature is first of all functional, an instrument of reparation with which to amend an unjust culture. In consequence, the artistic qualities of a work of literature are of secondary or even tertiary importance to its impact on the status quo beyond its pages.

I figure that we’re on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide here, though in fairness I do think that there’s an onus on anyone who holds Row’s position to demonstrate that literature today — and literary fiction, no less — can and does have the capacity to measurably change the status quo. It seems to me like it’s been a long time since a book did anything to reshape the culture that received it — it’s been a century since The Jungle, ninety years since Lady Chatterley’s Lover, eighty years since Native Son, fifty years since Portnoy’s Complaint — so that, although there are plenty of well-received and much-cherished novels out there, we do fundamentally live in a post-literary culture that has drained fiction of all its power but for the affective and the aesthetic. Better to lean in to either of those, I think, than to pretend that a novel today is any more emancipatory than a pebble dropped with barely a plop in the middle of the sea.

A Listing!

I never expected At the Edge of the Solid World to land a spot on an end-of-year list, but with thanks again to Kerryn Goldsworthy it’s one of the Australian Book Review‘s books of 2020:

This beautifully written novel places individual and personal human grief in the context of various massive-scale real-life tragedies, tacitly making the argument that the former is not diminished by the latter, and explores the implications of a claim made by the narrator in its final pages: ‘the body is holy and there’s no accounting for all that is lost when the body is gone’.

Probing the Extremes

Whoa. The first review of At the Edge of the Solid World is out there, in today’s Saturday Paper, and it’s a little gem by Jeff Sparrow:

At the Edge of the Solid World begins with the death of a child and then gets much, much darker. As such, it’s not a book for everyone. But it’s a significant literary achievement, nonetheless. … If you’re looking for a summer beach read, At the Edge of the Solid World is not that book. Rather, it’s a powerful and deeply intelligent novel that probes the extremes of human experience, a text about which you’ll be thinking for a long time to come.