Pay Attention!

You can’t devour it in a single sitting. You can try, but sooner or later your eyes will sting, your stomach will grumble, your body will crave sleep, your bladder will threaten to burst. You can try, but sooner or later you’ll need to get up and go places — to work, to the shops — or you’ll need to take a breather and listen to music or watch television, or you’ll need to make, change, or keep your plans to meet up with others, friends, colleagues, in the world beyond the novel’s pages. Infinite Jest, as a physical object, is so constituted as to compete for your attention with the demands of the body you inhabit and the stimuli of the world you occupy. Moreover, it competes with those things so strongly, and over such a length of time, that what it ends up calling to your attention is just how completely your attention is at the mercy of phenomena beyond your conscious control. At the core of Infinite Jest, then, is an issue that David Foster Wallace took, here and elsewhere, as the preeminent problem of human experience: what he calls in his recently-published posthumous novel, The Pale King, “the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.”

The Ian Potter Museum of Art website has just published a transcript of a public lecture I gave at the museum last week. The lecture attempts to connect Adam Kalkin’s latest art installation, Tennis Academy, to its source of inspiration: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Treasures in the Digital Aether

I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected — frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?

That’s from a fantastic interview with Emmett Stinson at Verity La, an online Australian literary journal that has evolved from interesting to absolutely indispensable in the space of about six months. Even better than the interview as a whole is that it is only the latest installment in a long series of equally fantastic interviews. Continue reading

A New Year’s Eve Addendum

I’m a longtime fan of the fiction podcast presented monthly by The New Yorker. In each podcast, Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, asks writers who have recently published fiction in the magazine to select a short story from the magazine’s archives and to read it aloud and consider their reasons for admiring it. Not every podcast is a gem, of course, but more often than not the stories are great, the readings are exceptional, and the discussions are quietly appreciative in a way that I think is all too rare in contemporary literary discourse. Among my favourites: Louise Erdrich reading Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides reading Harold Brodkey, Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn, T.C. Boyle reading Tobias Wolff, Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud, and Richard Ford reading John Cheever.

This month, though, the podcast has completely outdone itself with Cynthia Ozick offering a beautiful reading and impassioned discussion of Steven Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV.’ The story must be one of the best ever to appear in The New Yorker, and Ozick’s vocalisation of it perfectly conveys the otherworldliness of its metafictional monomania. But what really sets this podcast apart from the others is the discussion between Ozick and Deborah Triesman before and after the reading. Triesman usually remains aloof or politely inquisitive, offering very little of her own thoughts on a given story while prompting the writer in the studio to disclose theirs in detail. This time, however, she lays out her own views on the story alongside Ozick’s views, revealing, to my surprise, a palpable appreciation of the story that matches Ozick’s appreciation of it even as she challenges Ozick on points of literary interpretation. Their discussion won’t revolutionise current thinking on Millhauser’s work, of course, but it’s still great to be able to hear such careful and intelligent readers give serious consideration to a fiction that — despite the faux whimsy of its premise — wants and deserves to be taken seriously.

Putting a Finger on the Problem

At Spike: The Meanjin Blog, Jessica Au has some harsh words for the recent film adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began. Nostalgia for Marsden’s original series of books was what prompted her to see the film, she says, “despite my qualms about the trailer, which seemed stuck somewhere between Summer Bay and a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza.” After noting some of the key differences between the books and the film, she goes on to take issue with the differing degrees of violence displayed by the obscure forces that invade Australia on the page and the pan-Asian army that invades Australia on the screen: Continue reading

On That Note…

Picking up from where I left off with my praise for Dan Chiasson, here are four more of the best and most memorable book reviews I have read in the last year:

I don’t mean to suggest that they’re all excellent reviews in and of themselves; but, for reviews specifically targeted at a mainstream readership, each one does a fine job of contextualising the work under consideration, of proposing a way of reading it profitably without prizing verisimilitude above all other literary qualities, and of evaluating the book on its own terms with solid logical reasoning and in-text evidence to justify any evaluative conclusions.

No Evaluation Without Justification

Two weeks ago, while I was at Sydney airport awaiting a flight back down to Melbourne, I opened Dan Chiasson’s review of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories on my iPhone. I read it on the spot, then I read it twice over; and for two weeks now I have left it open on the iPhone so that I can pull it out at a moment’s notice — or in a moment of boredom — and read it over again. It’s arguably the best book review I have read in about a year, maybe more. It hits all the right targets. It contextualises Davis’ work, it quotes liberally from the Collected Stories, it identifies her overall aesthetic purpose, it illustrates the ways in which particular stories advance that purpose, and it evaluates the extent to which Davis makes an engagement with that purpose worth her readers’ time — that is, the extent to which she makes her book worth reading. Continue reading

Against Crime Fiction

Can crime fiction be considered literature? Absolutely not, says Jon Fosse:

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, … is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn’t for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved. … Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one’s lie. It’s pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

It’s a subtle, intriguing argument, but open to easy objections: Jonathan Buckley’s So He Takes the Dog, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country all spring to mind as obvious exceptions to Fosse’s rule. Following his full remarks at the ReadySteadyBook blog, commenters have already listed some other exceptions.