Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Harry, Revised, by Mark Sarvas

It is nearly impossible, I think, to read a novel written by a critic (or someone who thinks of himself as a critic) without a pervasive whisper of schadenfreude brushing each page as you turn it. If that is your kind of thing, read this book. However, be forewarned that the only antidote to schadenfreude—pure annoyance—is also in abundance; excluding a few moments of eye-rolling disdain, your experience will mostly be one of indifferent irritation. It is difficult to maintain the posture required to watch someone fall on his face when you're also trying to elude his cloying grasp.

Mark Sarvas, the author, is the blogger behind The Elegant Variation, a sort of pep band for white male authors who are fairly well taken care of by their publishing houses' publicity departments, but who could use an extra oomph to breakthrough to better sales. If you'd like a roster of the writers Sarvas has trumpeted, check the back cover of Harry, Revised. While "blurb" has always been a synonym for "incest," the novelists who provided jacket copy (Banville, Ferris, Lipsyte, Leavitt, Greer) write about Harry, Revised so blandly, I'm not even sure they read it before filling in the blanks of the "Nice Things to Say about Your Friend's First Novel" template.

One thing you know about a novel by looking at the blurbs—if they read like boilerplate (full of the usual suspects—"compelling," "readable," some variation of "funny yet tender ," "heartfelt," "rare," "moving," "erudite," "Waugh" if there is snark in it, "Roth" if there is sex in it or a man who thinks a lot about it), then the novel itself isn't going to be very original.

And it's not. Although it is unoriginal in the most aggravating way possible—rather than shamefacedly cribbing from other, better books, or being ignorant of other writers who have tread the same path well into the ground, Sarvas seems to think that he's doing the exact same things as the writers he admires, only he's doing them better. It's like he heard about Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence thesis but missed the part about willful misreading. It's just willful reading for Sarvas, although not in a charming way.

Also irritating is the way Sarvas seems to think he has to hide his intelligence as an author by causing his character, Harry, to forget literary references. E.g. Harry is obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo, but pauses when in the midst of a rapture to try to recall the name of Dantes's love, Mercedes. He says, "He will be the Count of Monte Cristo to Molly's... and now he falters. What was her name in the book? Some kind of car."

Note to Mr. Sarvas: do you think this is coy? If Harry remembers it's the name of a type of car, what besides Mercedes could it be? Acura? Nissan? Ford? Volkswagen? Toyota 4-Runner? I simply fail to comprehend how Sarvas thinks that serial references to The Count of Monte Cristo equals a display of erudition fearsome enough to the reader that he has to pad them with diversionary memory lapses on the part of his character. And he fares no better when he tries to show how academically hip he is, titling his hot young thing (Molly)'s masters thesis in postcolonial studies "Patriarchal Modes in Contemporary Fiction: Just Who the Fuck Is the White Man to Decide What Passes for 'Literary'?" He might as well have called it "Embarrassingly Stilted Attempts at Parody and Their Use in Pseudo-Intellectual Discourse." (Also, didn't he get the memo that coloned titles are on their way out? Oops--I say too much. Maybe that one hasn't made it out west yet.)

Sarvas seems to believe in his own intellectualism. Fine. Over-intellectualization is the complement, not the antithesis of ignorance. We cannot seriously expect that all debut novelists who try to be intellectual in their writing will succeed in stimulating their readers intellectually, but there are other gifts a writer may possess which make up for them, like an adept and tuneful ear for language. Unfortunately, Mr. Sarvas's ear is made of tin or even some bastardized and ill-blended alloy. Trying to mix registers, he produces only dissonance; trying to write fleetly, he produces a flat breeze bearing nothing. Even the metaphors he creates sound pedestrian, lacking the challenge and the charge of poetic language. Sarvas is a writer without an idiom—he employs a grab-bag of descriptive shortcuts, stock dialogue fillers, and verbal contrivances, half-stabs at elevated diction and quasi-gestures at a nebulous demotic.

But Sarvas's mediocre and uneven prose (which should be a paradox) only rarely rises to the point at which it grates on the aesthetic nerves; more exasperating is the way Sarvas starts characterizing things by simply labeling them from the get-go; within the first few pages we have Harry doing something "in true Harry-style" and drifting off into "Harry-land." These aren't realities to us yet—we don't know Harry. It's as if the author has become a narcissist on his character's behalf.

Unfortunately for us, this narcissism has as its object an incomparably dull man; Harry's fantasies, among other things, somehow manage to sink below the most banal midlife-crisis dreck you can imagine. Think of American Beauty written by Ayn Rand—that's about the size of it.

Why did I read this book, you may be asking? It's not because I like reading bad books, or because I relish schadenfreude that much or even because I like writing mean reviews. As one of the most prominent lit-bloggers around, Sarvas's foray into fiction represents a first look into the application of that peculiar ethos of resentful/prideful, militantly-digital-yet-begging-for-print-approval quasi-outsiderness that characterizes the top lit-blogs. To a certain extent, the bloggers' boast that there is great talent outside the publishing/critical "system" which can now be uncovered by independent-yet-connected bloggers who will bring back the passion, freshness and originality to American fiction—all this is what Sarvas's novel should have proven.

But he failed. I think he fails as a blogger-critic—he's not really finding talent outside the 'system,' so what's the point?*—and he's failed as a novelist—his book doesn't offer a hint of any new pockets of freshness or vitality in American letters.

*What's my point in blogging, then, you ask? I need practice writing; the half-published status of a little-read blog provides a modicum of discipline to keep things somewhat structured, somewhat proofed, and somewhat aware of an audience. If you're reading, that's your loss.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Admission, by Franz Wright, from God's Silence

Like much-loved music things
(when I am at my gladdest)
physical objects themselves
appear to represent
something I can't see
(not yet)—
I cannot recall or imagine
yet whose presence I clearly perceive
the way perhaps the born blind do
the sun.
Like words
most masterfully uttered
these concrete things stand for
invisible things, while
remaining themselves,
their dear selves, without which
I just can't imagine my life;
I believe in a higher unseeable
life, inconceivable
of which light is mere shadow, and yet
already, at times, and with desolation
with bereftness no words can express, miss this light
of the earth, this bright life
I yesterday only began to love, to understand.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nicolas Poussin

Went to the Met yesterday to see the Poussin exhibit, mostly at the urging of Arthur Danto's review in The Nation (sorry, subscribers only). I am not a huge fan of landscapes; in fact, I remembered distinctly negative reactions to Poussin in my Art History survey course freshman year. I think I grouped him with Fragonard and Watteau as French Artists I Needn't Bother With.

My exposure to him was limited to a few works, briefly displayed, and it seemed to me that his work was static and undramatic, albeit somewhat morose. Now, I like morose—my tastes shade to the dark and stormy—Bacon, Goya, El Greco, Grunewald, J.M.W. Turner, Piranesi, Caravaggio—but the works used in our class skipped Poussin's own (excellent) darker works and settled on things like St. John on Patmos.

To me, this is somewhere between Jacques-Louis David and John Constable, which is like saying somewhere between flat and dull. There is little drama to be found here apart from the awkwardness of John's posture and the fact that an eagle (standing beside John) can't actually walk around like a crow, as it seems to be doing. Despite these unnatural elements, the nice trees and groping toward grandeur makes me quite bored.

If only the professor had put this up on the projector instead!Winter: The Deluge by PoussinOr this:St. Francis of Rome Announcing the End of the Plague, by PoussinOr even this:Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, by PoussinBut the exhibit, which is well-curated but, I find in researching this post, is missing most of the Louvre's excellent Poussins, forced me to look well beyond the overall tone of the painting, for Poussin is a master of subverting tone with detail. For instance:
The tone of the painting, established not by the dimly lit foreground but by the well-lit and highly balanced middle ground and background, is neoclassical, ordered, harmonious. Yet in the foreground we have, as the title tells us, the ashes of Phocion being buried; but more disturbing are the postures of the man standing behind Phocion's wife and the figure hiding in the copse of trees to the right. The awkward contortions of the upright figure's posture and the unintelligible menace of the hiding figure begin to overwhelm the order of the rest of the composition; appearing to (perhaps) be staring at each other, the drama of their gaze(s) dominates the painting once you have noticed it.

Poussin's work does much more than establish sharp juxtapositions between foreground and background, does more than just deploy contrasting tones within the painting. Often his choices of subject and detail seem to be esoteric, riddles almost, and frequently at odds with themselves. Danto's review describes in detail the many troubling puzzles present in Summer: Ruth and Boaz.Summer: Ruth and Boaz, by PoussinI don't know how well the details will come out on your screen, but the proportions of the bodies of Ruth and Boaz seem to be wrong, while the leaves of the trees are perfect. The horses used in plowing are stallions more suited for chariot-drawing than for the plow. There is a man who appears to be blowing on something like a bagpipe. What is the rationale for any of this? Who knows—it is part of the wonderful strangeness of Poussin.

Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Roberto Bolaño

One thing that strikes me immediately while reading any of Bolaño's work is how simple and ordinary the work of writing seems to be to him and to his characters. Inspiration seems almost beside the point; writing is pure execution, and I do intend the pun. But this does not mean it is mechanical, rote, or flat.

Bolaño's great theme seems to be the intricate relation of violence and literature. Not madness and literature, or at least not garret-variety madness. Violence—political violence, aesthetic violence, romantic violence. Violence, like literature, is simple—not inspired, but executed. It is not the result of a flash of higher (or lower) consciousness, but is a component of existence.

What Bolaño insists upon so unsettlingly is a collapse of the distinction, so important to our concepts of art and violence, between the sacred and the profane. Unfortunately, what is meant by this distinction has been somewhat lost as the words have taken on different—although still opposing—meanings. "Sacred" has come to mean beatific, holy in an exclusively good, beneficent sense. It has also become associated with spotlessness, purity, even ethereality. "Profane," due to its commonest inflection, "profanity," has become associated with earthiness, grossness, crassness, and vulgarity. This opposition—the ethereal and the earthy—is not the one I mean, but one that is closer to the notion of the division of church and state, to the difference between the religious and the secular. One dictionary suggests another distinction—consecrated and unconsecrated, although etymologically that hardly advances our understanding.

Consider the line from Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning": "'Twere profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love." We might tend to read this as a simple expression of the desire not to debase the purity of the love Donne and his beloved share by speaking of it commonly and exposing it to the crassness of worldly conceptions of love. Yet the word 'laity' insists upon a reading of 'profanation' as an antonym to 'consecration' or even 'sacralization.' This reading removes the necessity of purity or chastity being the defining characteristic of their love—this is Donne after all, and I do not think it too much a stretch to read the compass metaphor of that same poem as relating also to a spreading of the legs.

The antonym of 'laity' is 'clergy,' those men or women who have consecrated themselves to the service of Christ (or some other divine being). Donne is suggesting that the devotion he and his beloved share is so strong and so complete, that it is as if they have formed their own priestly class, and that to spread the gospel of that love to anyone outside of that priesthood would de-consecrate it.

Our concepts of art and violence depend for their stability on the idea that they are ministered by their own priesthoods—that there are specially consecrated individuals who are not part of everyday (profane or secular) society. Soldiers, terrorists, assassins, artists, and revolutionaries are separated from the rest of us by a special devotion to their work; there are bright lines of division between us and them.

Bolaño writes in defiance of these dividing lines; he writes as if he knows better than to believe they exist. He writes almost in ignorance of these lines, although ignorance suggests naïvete, while his ignorance is experienced and not innocent. Having lived in the absence of these lines, he refrains from acknowledging even where these lines should be. He writes without any consciousness that they should exist. There is no clergy of violence—nor is there a clergy of art.

The proximity of art to violence is the theme most critics of Bolaño have picked up on, but this is not his most radical insight. The proximity of art/violence to everyday life is produced by Bolaño in terrifying clarity, although it has been misunderstood. In reviews of The Savage Detectives in particular, critics have written of the pervasiveness of literariness, of poetic aspirations as a property of Bolaño's own feverishly poetic mind—all the characters, with their strange, heterodox views on art and literature, are emanations of a great artist's obsession with his art. Or these critics enviously write of the excitement of being part of an intensely literary circle, as if Bolaño lived in a hermetic environment of poet-revolutionaries which also circumscribes his novelistic creations. But Bolaño is celebrating neither a hermeticism of poetry within the prosaic world nor a menagerie of his own obsessions; he is writing of the commonness of art and violence in a world that sees only certain, highly specialized, narrowly defined forms of art and violence.

Obsession does play a large part in his work—no one can say that his characters are not obsessives. But critics take the ubiquity of obsession in his work to be a defining characteristic of Bolaño or of his coterie, and not as a statement by Bolaño of the nature of humankind. In this (and in many other things) he is like Dostoevsky; we read the Underground Man, or Raskolnikov or, above all, the characters from The Possessed as exaggerations of real-life, as if Dostoevsky did not intend them to be read as potentially real people. The constant excess of Dostoevsky's art is therefore read as a style particular to Dostoevsky, never as representational to the world, or even to part of it. We read Dostoevsky—and I think we are beginning to read Bolaño—as a writer of mad sacrality, consecrated to the depiction of a world set an angle to ours, perhaps even wholly detached from it.

This, I feel, is a mistake, and one we must struggle against.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Two poems involving beer by Gary Snyder

I Went into the Maverick Bar

I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I'd left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay
by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
where are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
"We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie"
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness—
America—your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—
under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
"What is to be done."

Rain in Alleghany

standing in the thunder-pouring
heavy drops of water
—dusty summer—
drinking beer just after driving
all the way around the
watershed of rivers

rocky slopes and bumpy cars
its a skinny awkward land
like a workt-out miner's hand
& how we love it
have some beer and rain,
stopping on our way,
in Alleghany

"Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971," by Natasha Trethewey, from Native Guard

Why the rough edge of beauty? Why
the tired face of a woman, suffering,
made luminous by the camera's eye?

Or the storm that drives us inside
for days, power lines down, food rotting
in the refrigerator, while outside

the landscape glistens beneath a glaze
of ice? Why remember anything
but the wonder of those few days,

the iced trees, each leaf in its glassy case?
The picture we took that first morning,
the front yard a beautiful, strange place—

why on the back has someone made a list
of our names, the date, the event: nothing
of what's inside—mother, stepfather's fist?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

I never find that knowing the ending of a novel or film limits my enjoyment of it, but many people do, so fair warning: as you many have heard, Atonement ends with a certain revelation which you may wish to be surprised by, and I intend to talk about it, so look away.

Well then.

It has now become somewhat common among certain circles to dismiss McEwan's recent work (and particularly Atonement) as airport-fare—what I believe the French call "romans de gare." I find that to be far too peremptory, neglecting the fact that McEwan's work relies on a knowledge of English literature which most McEwan-condescenders evidently lack.

For instance, many read Briony's auto-exculpation at Atonement's close as roughly coterminous with McEwan's own thoughts on the power or redemptive nature of fiction:

How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with the absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

Hoorah for novelists! But this is silly; check out Atonement's epigraph: from Northanger Abbey, Briony is Catherine Morland, updated, her obsession with fictional worlds similarly self-destructive.

However, I would not say that McEwan's citation adds real depth to the novel; indeed, I would argue that it merely defers the question of how much McEwan believes in fiction: in pairing his novel with Austen's, does he mean to also pair Briony's obsession with Woolf-like modernism with Catherine's passion for the Gothic? If so, this is quite interesting. Here is Briony speaking of her passion for the new novel, and one can't miss the tone of McEwan's disapproval:

What excited her about her achievement was its design, the pure geometry and the defining uncertainty which reflected, she thought, a modern sensibility. The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. If only she could reproduce the clear light of a summer's morning, the sensations of a child standing at a window, the curve and dip of a swallow's flight over a pool of water. The novel of the future would be unlike anything in the past. She had read Virginia Woolf's The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change. To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph.

McEwan's novels, clearly, have a lot to do with character, although I would say that he rather finds the characters in modernism (cf. Saturday as a revision of Mrs. Dalloway) than that he seeks to recuperate the traditional novelist's chores and craft which were cavalierly discarded by modernism. But I find this coupling of modernism and the gothic provocative: is this what McEwan is doing? Briony only finds her (internal) atonement by giving up on modernism and turning to essentially what we have in our hands as we read McEwan's novel—something which can easily be read as an old-fashioned love-story, finding a pleasant and suitable home on the airport paperback rack, and on the best-seller list.

The issue now becomes whether Briony's concession to unreality—her "kindness" to Cecilia and Robbie by ending her novel with them together—is McEwan's concession to popularity or to populist address—the conscious decision to write for a non-defined public.

If McEwan is pairing Briony's beloved modernism and Catherine's glut of gothic romances, then we now have another curious resemblance between the two novels: both struggle to remove the author's complicity in the character's transgressions (which is obviously what Atonement is about). Briony's turn from modernism's characterlessness actually admits the inability of modernism to extricate itself from character, proving modernism no different from gothic novels, which seek to subsume character under pure tone but similarly fail—or rather only truly succeed when they actually have strong characters, as is the case with modernism. [Sorry, this is messy, but this is a blog.]

This commonality—the admission of the novelist's ineluctable complicity with the characters and (consequent) inability to remove character from the novel— produces another: both novels seem to be arguing that the author's complicity in his/her character's transgressions is redeemed by the morally exemplary value of the novel when read by a wide and diffuse public. The author/character's (usually venial) sins are absolved by their transmission to a non-complicit, undefined audience as a moral lesson about those sins. This is the reasoning behind the allusion to Clarissa early on in the novel: it is precisely the Richardsonian defense of the novel.1

However, McEwan follows up that reference (notably made approvingly by Robbie) with Cecilia's reply that she prefers Fielding, who vigorously opposed the very idea of this redemption business. So just which side is McEwan on? This is the deferral I spoke of earlier—we've merely jumped from "Does McEwan agree with Briony?" to "Does McEwan agree with Richardson?" Which is fine, but gets us nowhere, as the question remains centered on the author, and not on the issue—whether the author's complicity is redeemable within the confines of art. McEwan does pose this question, but only in a secondary position. Which, I suppose is right: if the question is about the complicity of the author, how can the issue precede the actual author?

More bothersomely, the answers to any of the pertinent questions of the novel are about as equally valid; we are as likely to accept a 'yes' as a 'no'—"No, McEwan agrees with Fielding," or "Yes, he agrees with Briony." The ambiguity of the novel is self-reinforcing, and self-justifying. McEwan has rigged the game so that the presence of ambiguity justifies either option. The converse of this is not, however, moral (or aesthetic) absolutism, but ambiguity which undermines either option, which undermines the author, which is attritive rather than additive. McEwan's novel is vacant in that department; every frame of the novel—Briony as character, Briony as author, McEwan as author—adds to the novel's ambiguity, reinforcing (in reality, duplicating) the ambiguous values of the last frame.

Back to the question of depth: because McEwan's "deeper" questions—Richardson and/or Fielding, gothic and/or modernist, populist fantasy and/or private redemption—are really no different from the stultifyingly obvious questions "Does McEwan agree with Briony?" or, even more superficially, "Is Briony right?" I would not say Atonement does have real depth. Its depth is limited by McEwan's confidence in parallel structures—the frames of the novel which are in the end a hall of mirrors. Depth is built not on parallelism, but on perpendicularity, angular objections to the novel, to the author and, above all, to the audience—objections which I believe McEwan (and Richardson and Northanger Abbey) lack.

1Thus the novelist is a sort of anti-Christ—rather than taking on the sins of mankind upon himself, the novelist seeks to absolve his sins by diffusing them over mankind. This is, as you may recognize, Satan's tack, justifying Blake's assessment of Milton: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it." Is McEwan of the Devil's party without knowing it? Perhaps he knows it. But is he a "true poet?"

From "A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power," by Geoffrey Hill, in A Treatise of Civil Power

I cannot work much closer to the slub1
or perhaps it's
diffused like rumour, meaning diffused power.
How awkward this must sound. I'm reading Cornford2
from a split paperback almost my age.
John Cornford dead
in Spain at twenty-one. Ninety this year.
Plaudits for Lenin and for Bela Kun3.
Time turns sincerity to false witness
abetted by
our clear-headed stupidities; on occasion
a kind of brutishness conferred as love.
Heart of the heartless world he took from Marx
for a poem
part-way to timeless. Fine by either book.
The power-and-beauty mob has my bequest.

Not to skip detail, such as finches brisking
and stripped haw-bush;
the watered gold that February drains
out of the overcast; nomadic aconites
that in their trek recover beautifully
our sense of place,
the snowdrop fettled on its hinge, waxwings
becoming sportif in the grimy air.

I accept, now, we make history; it's not some
abysmal power,
though making it kills us as we die to loss.
What lives is the arcane; by our decision
a lifetime's misdirection and a trophy
of some renown
or else nothing; the menagerie
of tinnitus crowding a deaf man's skull
has more to say. Woman's if you so rule.
It's gibberish
we bend to or are balked by on the spot,
treatise untreatised and the staring eyes.
The windflower has more stamina to fail,
the Lent lily,
the autumn crocus with its saffron fuse,
all that we fancy and make music of,
like Shakespeare's metaphors for governance,
nature itself
brought in to conserve polity; hives of gold
proclaim a gift few of us can afford.

Say everything works well but that it works
just like mischance.
Something of value is derived regardless
of our botched loves, uncalled-for, unconnived-at.
Civil power now smuggles more retractions
than hitherto;
public apology ad libs its charter,
well-misjudged villainy gets compensated.
I still can't tell you what that power is.
The statute books
suffer us here and there to lift a voice,
judge calls prosecutor to brief account,
juries may be stubborn to work good
like a brave child
standing its ground knowing it's in the right.
Letters to the editor can show wisdom.

1. A soft thick nub in yarn that is either an imperfection or purposely set for a desired effect.
2. A slightly twisted roll of fiber, as of silk or cotton.

2John Cornford:
(1915-1936) English poet and communist, traditionalist in his poetry, radical in his politics. He died fighting for the International Brigade of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

3Béla Kun:
(1886-1938) Hungarian communist; established Hungary as a soviet republic in 1919; toppled after a brief and decisive war with Romania, which was being supported by the Allies.