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Unspeakable

Two years after the last time we spoke, an old friend of mine was convicted of having committed a terrible crime.

I’m thrilled to say that I have a long short story, or perhaps a short novella, in the latest issue of Numéro Cinq. It’s called Unspeakable. Resistance is the word that first springs to mind when I think back over it. It’s a story that in some ways resists being read at all, beginning in a dizzying rush before it shifts gears to a more bearable momentum, and by the end it resists being brought into existence by the events it depicts. A lot of those events are true. Most have been distorted. Some have been exaggerated, others reined in and restrained. Names have been changed throughout. I’ll leave my explanatory remarks at that. To say more would be to cross the lines the story draws around itself.

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Helping Out

I love Numéro Cinq. That’s why I’ve decided to pitch in and help out where I can. I’ll be doing some production editing for the magazine and, in the longer term, I hope to publish some work over there. If you’re not familiar with Numéro Cinq, now is a good time to take a look — and be sure to check out its Holy Book of Literary Craft, probably the single most intelligent and most valuable resource for writers available on the web.

Claire Keegan’s Foster

In expressing his admiration for [Claire Keegan’s] Foster, Richard Ford praised it as “a highwire act of uncommon narrative virtuosity.” It is exactly that. Poised delicately between the dual perils of wordlessness and verbose excess, the novella treads lightly along a tightrope towards disclosure of its central secret, as an understanding — an almost instinctual sympathy — develops between this man who declines to speak at length and the girl who narrates their story with an abundance of words. The result is a delicately articulated account of the aftermath of an unspeakable trauma in a dialect confined by inexperience and incomprehension. The balancing act, as Keegan performs it, is deft and assured without being audacious, a quiet attempt to give voice to painfully hidden memories without disturbing the silence that has settled upon them, and most impressive of all is that it culminates in the utterance of a single word — the last, perfect word of the book — which distils, into only two syllables, more meaning than could be conveyed as powerfully in a page-long soliloquy.

My review of Claire Keegan’s Foster is online at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited

Less appreciated [than Cormac McCarthy’s work as a novelist] is [his] work as a dramatist. Having initially written both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men as screenplays, and having published an earlier screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, as well as a stage play, The Stonemason, McCarthy is no stranger to the dramatic form. Nevertheless, his dramas continue to lurk in the shadows cast by his novels.

To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy’s particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006 — verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, A Novel in Dramatic Form, with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.

My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is online at The Quarterly Conversation.

Tom McCarthy’s C

[Tom] McCarthy’s new novel, C, is actually his third; but because he published his second novel, Men in Space, just before Zadie Smith drew attention to [his début] Remainder, C is the first to appear in the shadow of Remainder’s success. It must be said up front, though, that it is by comparison a disappointment. Whereas Remainder made a virtue of its obsessive austerity — “it works by accumulation and repetition,” wrote Smith, “closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event” — C plays fast and loose: it is elaborate and extravagant and continually expanding in scope from the first word to the very last. That said, however, this too must be clear: if C disappoints when compared to Remainder, it is, like Remainder, a triumph when compared to the pedestrian novels that continue to dominate our literary landscape.

My review of Tom McCarthy’s C is online at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Genius?

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has [recently] raved about.

I have a few quick thoughts on this year’s MacArthur Fellowships over at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun

The prose is not remarkable in any conventional sense. It is clear, muted, and even pedestrian — a world away from the exuberance of Roberto Bolaño, the zing of Don DeLillo, and the lyricism of Ian McEwan — and, for that reason, Zeitoun has attracted a number of offhand dismissals from broadsheet critics. Indeed, even those who have praised the book’s narrative have expressed reservations about the prose, as if its lack of conventional beauty were a side-effect of Dave Eggers’ overstretched workload or, worse, a symptom of his inherently underwhelming literary capabilities. But since Eggers has repeatedly proven himself one of the most adventurous stylists at work today, it seems more likely that his prose in Zeitoun is unconventionally remarkable given the deliberation with which he attempts to make it appear unremarkable.

The clarity of his prose entails a stylistic about-face so radical that, far from making the prose inconspicuous, Eggers perhaps inadvertently calls attention to the prose itself and thus calls into question the purpose of its clarity.

My review of Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is online at The Critical Flame.