Lyricism as the Claw

Edinburgh-based Hannah Lees publishes an interesting Substack newsletter, restricting herself to just one topic of reflection and a handful of literary reviews per month. Last month, she had this to say about lyricism as the go-to mode for quote-unquote “literary” writing, including her own:

I know that when I reach for lyricism it is born of a search for precision, a seemingly generous or vulnerable decision to share the thoughts-in-progress rather than only the stark or elegant final product, but, more often than not, this lyricism is a foil for the absence of any standalone elegance. Such writing is not necessarily dishonest or lazy. Lacking precision, reaching for a truth or an interpretation with clumsily beautiful, hungrily iterative phrases does faithfully perform the foggy, trance-like experience of searching. For me, though, I am frustrated with myself when this style is my go-to. Lyricism reveals the way that my mind is operating more like the claw in the claw crane arcade game, descending, grasping, rising with something only barely in my grip, clapping as the cheap shiny toy that I never even wanted is delivered down the chute.

The drive to individualise via personal narratives and pseudo-vulnerable lyricism (less rough ‘n’ ready and more please see the labour apparent in my prose) is not an individual pathology but a wider phenomenon. Of course we find ways to insist on the existence and worth of our labour, of course we have a sales orientation when outside the core socio-economic unit of the family (which not many people can and no one should have to solely rely upon) is raw competition with very little support. We bend and contort in all sorts of asset-encouraging ways — not only on the level of writing as product but on the level of writer as producer; lyricism can sometimes act as an implied declaration of writerliness. Lyricism can be beautiful, but I want to know if it’s still how we want to write when market compulsions are removed. Maybe we do — I know I probably still would, at least some of the time. What can I say, the old tumbling awe might just persist.

Well, that hits home. I feel much the same. I feel, in fact, that Lees has just summed up the governing aesthetic, at the sentence level, of both Blood and Bone and At the Edge of the Solid World: these two paragraphs could stand as their shared epitaph.

Can I disagree with her at all? Hardly. I can really only qualify her comments. For one thing, I’m not sure how much any kind of market factors into my creative decisions; I write on the assumption that my work will never be published, which assumption is a force for liberation. More significantly, though, I might take her central problem as more of a fact of life. My mind operates like the claw in the claw crane arcade game, too, and I’m sure the same is true for everyone else. To the extent that “lyricism” is mimetic of its motions, the style is no-bullshit. That’s not something usually said of a style so syntactically ornate, so much a byword for pretentiousness, but there it is. My general feeling is that if a writer isn’t finding some stylistic expression for the grasping after ephemera that is life as I know it, then they’re selling snake oil and I’m not interested. This expression doesn’t have to be “lyrical” as such, in the middlebrow sense — I need it to be more overworked, more agglomerative, than the transparently lyrical prose of, say, Ian McEwan — but it does need to be perceptible for the work to be more than a commodity for me.

An Ornate Emotional Vivisection

How did I miss this? (Simple enough: I didn’t see it in print because don’t live in Australia, and the text doesn’t appear on the website of The Australian.) Anyway, Beejay Silcox published a great review of At the Edge of the Solid World in the year’s first edition of The Weekend Australian. You can sort of get it via PressReader, albeit behind a paywall, but I also have a screenshot that will do the job (click to enlarge):

Silcox’s review is, as you’ll see, more mixed than the others the book has received, though no less insightful or attentive to the details. For her, the branches of the timelines are “marvels of narrative engineering, but to be admired as one might admire the workings of a wind-up clock, all cogs and ceaseless ticking,” and she judges the Port Arthur chapters to be “a terrible miscalculation.” For my part, I wouldn’t call either of those impressions unjust. In fact, I’ll own up to having aimed at creating them, quite deliberately and for specific purposes. My suspicion is that if Silcox were to have pushed harder on these criticisms, and been given the space to elaborate on them, the result would have been a strengthening of her views, born from an understanding of the rightful origins and purposes of literature which is very different from my own.

Can Realism Become Its Opposite?

Dustin Illingworth has started a Substack newsletter focusing on “obstructive fictions” — “fiction that frustrates interpretation.” In his first post, he quotes Gerald Murnane on the opposition between “film-script fiction” and “meditative fiction,” which is a dichotomy dear to my heart. In his second post, he calls for “a less filmable fiction” and considers the utility of discussing fiction in terms of “realism” and “anti-realism.” I subscribe to the newsletter and I’m enjoying it so far. If you have any interest at all in literature that challenges the conventions of the artform, sign up.

Here, though, I want to dwell a little longer on “realism” and “anti-realism.” Illingworth concedes that it probably isn’t useful to think about fiction in these terms, and I agree. But. But what? Well, I write fiction as well as writing about fiction, and I’m conscious of the likelihood that many readers of At the Edge of the Solid World would describe it as a work of “realism,” even though I see the novel as realism’s opposite. I mean, it’s a novel of domestic drama and physicality, texture, sensory input: you could plausibly read it as derivative of, say, Richard Yates, at least up to a point. But I see it as a novel more in the lineage of some of Illingworth’s lodestars — the hermetic-solipsistic Kate in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and Thomas Bernhard with his obsessive-recursive approach to minor distinctions of language — despite its veneer of verisimilitude, its false fidelity to a recognisable reality.

In my earlier reflections on writing the novel, I said that I “tried to adopt that mode of writing [ie. realism] as a Trojan horse.” More recently, though, I came across a better metaphor. I read somewhere about the various species of parasite wasps. The female wasp attacks another creature, such as a caterpillar, and lays her eggs inside its body. When the larvae hatch, they devour the organs of the host — killing it in the process — before boring a tiny hole in its skin and escaping, leaving behind the empty husk of a being that otherwise looks alive. That’s how I wanted my readers to look back on realism when they reached the end of my novel.

Yeah, I know. Brass neck, right? Ego. But it’s the truth. And what’s interesting to me about Illingworth’s celebration of “anti-realists” is the way that his unhelpful distinction between realism and anti-realism functions as a sort of critical blind spot, so there’s no space in which the norms of realism might be abused and turned against it. “More and more,” he says,

I find the realist novel’s conscription of detail to describe and systematize the external world frictionless, even embarrassing. In ‘The Reality Effect’ (1968), Roland Barthes suggested that the accumulation of realist detail in fiction serves an ideological function, the seeming innocence of these “useless details” allowing them to escape scrutiny in their contribution to an ambient notion of “the real.” While reading realist fiction, I often have the uncanny experience of a divided mind. I submit to the marvelous artifice set before me, even as some deeper part of my consciousness rejects these “useless details” entirely.

And following this line of thought, a little later, Illingworth characterises realist fictions as those that “purport to be projections of some sedate, agreed-upon reality.”

What beautiful phrasing! So loaded with aesthetic possibilities, though Illingworth himself doesn’t acknowledge the potential. Here’s what I’d say, reflecting anew on At the Edge of the Solid World: it looks like a realist novel in many respects not because it is a realist novel, but because its narrator wants desperately to live in a realist’s world. He has been thrown so far outwith the bounds of a knowable, familiar, agreed-upon reality that the only way he can make his new reality manageable is to first make it conformable to the norms that realism favours, or at least interpretable in the terms of a realist. Every apparent gesture towards realism — in terms of narrative and in terms of style — really signifies “anti-realism” as Illingworth defines it: an unwilled “mapping” of “the chaos of interiority, the spasms of consciousness, the superimpositions of memory.” Details accumulate upon details, yes, but rather as part of a perverse coping strategy — though I hope the accumulation itself becomes so overwhelming that it has an estranging effect on the narrator’s particular reality, rather than an effect that clarifies or confirms a familiar one. Put more simply, the novel doesn’t “purport to be [a projection] of some sedate, agreed-upon reality,” though the conditions of its reality are indeed “projections” of the narrator’s need to determine its terms in a way that all but begs for agreement, affirmation, from those who read his words. An anti-realist novel can invoke and employ the tried and true aesthetic conventions of realism while also repurposing them — even if lay readers who default to realism open the covers and find exactly what they expect from any work of fiction worth their time. Hopefully, though, more experienced readers will see more: more than realism at work in my novel, and more potential uses for elements of realism than those that have grown stale through centuries of overuse.