What Is Reading?

With exactly a month to go before the official publication of At the Edge of the Solid World, I had the honour of writing for Meanjin about what I’ve been reading lately. As well as meditating on three impressive books, I took the opportunity also to think about the uncanny experience of finding the concerns of my own novel intimated in the work of other writers:

Narrative as a form of causal explanation is always too clean to encompass the mess of life as lived, not least because the language of narrative is finally expedient, therefore reductive, therefore unable to honour the unfathomable complexity of the world it purports to describe. That narrative is a double-edged sword — that to narrativise may be to liberate oneself from an experience while imprisoning oneself in an illusory construct — is something that I, too, have come to believe increasingly over the last few years. I cast a wary eye over anything that proposes a because: ‘this thing happened to me only because…’ or ‘I did that to them mostly because…’

At Last

Not that I’ve had a lot of free time during the Covid-19 lockdown, or the peace of mind to read a great deal of literature, but somehow — very slowly — I did manage to re-read Lucy Ellmann’s thousand-page novel Ducks, Newburyport. And I also managed to write about it, albeit a year later than intended:

This review is a year behind schedule. When I first read Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport in June 2019, a few weeks before it was published, I believed I’d find much to say and I fully intended to write about it. Just look at its literary bona fides: it takes the form of an internal monologue that runs over a thousand pages, more or less in a single sentence. If nothing else, I thought, its stylistic audacity and its maximalist scale warranted careful consideration. But then, when I came to the end of the book, I set it aside and said nothing. I couldn’t find my way to a beginning. I don’t mean to say that I found the novel wanting or not worth the trouble, nor that I found it a masterpiece for which I lacked the superlatives. I mean only that I couldn’t see the terms on which best to evaluate it. I found it adventurous and accomplished, and frustrating and tedious, but also something else, something more unusual for a novel: I felt somehow held at arm’s length by it, deliberately so, owing to an inscrutable design that drew me back to it after I’d put it down. So I’ve had it sitting here with me these last twelve months, its pages thumbed through for a few minutes most days, and now, after a year’s reflection, I feel better placed to address it. I still don’t think I can review it, per se, but I’m of a mind to give an account of having dwelt with it all this time. In fact, I think, the reason it has stuck with me so long is precisely that it doesn’t seem to call for anything from its readers. By way of its insistent ongoingness, its relentlessness, and its overwhelmingness, it seems to care not a whit for whatever anyone might say about it.

Incantations

Adam Scovell’s début novel Mothlight was one of my highlights of 2019. So it was a pleasure to be able to write for The Guardian on his follow-up, How Pale the Winter Has Made Us:

Scovell doesn’t aspire to realism: instead he invests his talents in hallucinatory imagery, haunting atmospherics and prose that again blends the stately melancholia of WG Sebald with the logorrhoea of Thomas Bernhard. Abstruse and florid as Scovell’s style can be, its rhythms over time become incantatory, and its mournful musicality and serpentine recursions are as hypnotic here as in Mothlight. And while its simple transference to another narrator may suggest a limit to his creative powers, diminishing Isabelle’s distinctive persona, Scovell scales up something his debut confined to domestic settings: a disorienting effect described by Isabelle as the “quiver[ing]” of “temporal instability”.

Politics Eats People

New today at Splice, I’m reviewing Fernanda Melchor’s blistering novel Hurricane Season:

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a novel about the threshing machine of politics in the lives of people who struggle to recognise it as such, much less to name and discuss it, though they absolutely register its effects on their experiences. While the novel is Melchor’s third, it’s her first to be made available in English, in a fierce and forceful translation by Sophie Hughes, and every word bristles with indignation at the politics in which its characters are immured. Not the bickering of spin doctors, not the argy-bargy of international delegates, not the supplications of diplomats or the pontifications of op-ed blowhards. Hurricane Season maintains a tight focus on just one tiny village in Mexico, a superstitious place blighted by “poverty, destitution and ignorance”, and page by page it forensically examines the daily deprivations of the townsfolk. The picture is unremittingly bleak. La Matosa is the kind of place where a grown man can remain haunted by memories of finding “a work of witchcraft” outside his boyhood home, “one of those extra-large mayonnaise jars with an immense toad floating inside, a dead, decomposed toad swimming in a murky liquid”. It’s also a place where the family of an asthmatic child try to help him survive the winter by blanketing his bed with clothes, and bathing him in the feeble warmth of a lightbulb, only to wake up one morning and find that he has died in his sleep. What hope for future generations when material resources are insufficient and the black arts are taken to be a greater cause for concern?

Modern Times: What Went Wrong?

I’ve got a new review up at Splice today, but I won’t lie: it pained me to write the damn thing. My subject is Modern Times, the début collection of short stories by Cathy Sweeney. I was very much looking forward to this book. I love Sweeney’s stories, and have done for a while:

To put a finger on what makes her stories so distinctly hers, I’m inclined to say that [Sweeney’s] method involves circling around characters bent out of shape by depravities of this sort — some exceptional squalor, some abhorrent inclination — and then probing the gap between their affliction and their ho-hum daily concerns. Although Sweeney’s grotesques invariably have some startling quality that seizes the reader’s attention, this quality is not the same as whatever quality makes them remarkable for Sweeney’s narrators. By playing up the difference between these two positions — these irreconcilable views on what makes someone’s story worth telling and what makes it worth reading about — Sweeney throws the gravity of her fictional world off-balance. The reader’s eyes are drawn towards something that is for the narrator only a peripheral concern, functionally inconsequential, so that the interests of the two parties never align and the work is pulled apart by antipodal priorities.

But Modern Times is finally a disappointment. I hope my review articulates some of the reasons why, without imputing that Sweeney’s body of work is without merit.