Monday, December 29, 2008

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Although the film version of this novel looks to be at best competent, I felt compelled to read Revolutionary Road because of its imminence, and am therefore very grateful to Mendes, Winslet, DiCaprio et al. Yates's novel really is an extraordinary feat of writing, a chunk of life in novel form. But I think I have a problem with what it is I keep hearing I should like about him.

Two facets of Yates's work are fastened onto by nearly every critic who now writes about him or about this book: his lack of success and his "bleakness." Stewart O'Nan, discussing the latter point in 1999, ends up sounding a great deal like James Wood ("What Wilson doesn’t understand is that the reason it is impossible to dismiss Yates’s characters–the reason they bother and touch us so much–is his refusal to present them as typically sympathetic and strong. Like us, they’re unheroic, rightfully ashamed of their worst selves and hoping to do better. Their failures are tragic because they’re not unexpected. Like Chekhov, Yates has even more affection for his characters because of their faults, and like Chekhov, he’s willing to admit that life rarely works out the way we planned.")—more so than Wood himself did when covering Yates this year.

These emphases, as O'Nan makes clear, are primarily of great interest to writers or folks who want to think of themselves as writers. "It may be that writers prize Yates because readers haven’t. In a business that often champions shoddy and false work over true and beautiful accomplishments, his fate confirms our worst fears and prods us to demand justice." Yates, it seems, has become a sort of watchword of the pure injustice of the American reading public, a public that refuses to reward the things that writers love—the blend of talent, devotion, and passion that is usually called "craft" and an unflinching commitment to solid truth. Yates's writerly asceticism as a man almost entirely given over to his art—it seems the man only wrote and drank, soaking up the bare minimum of experience to put flesh on his novels—sanctifies his craft and his commitment, making his unpopularity seem that much more a rejection of the writerly style, that much more a fitful and ignorant repudiation of the things writers cherish. 

You know, I understand that a lot of the "serious" reading public now seems to be people who want to write themselves—creative writing program students or applicants or graduates or instructors, or people who just think they've got a novel in them. Sometimes when I'm feeling swell I almost think about joining this fellowship myself. But I feel that a very disproportionate amount of criticism gets written for these folks, uniformly praising a set of qualities which sound a lot like things you're supposed to notice when workshopping your classmate's short-story-in-progress. Sometimes it feels to me (when I'm reading Richard Ford's introduction to the 2000 Vintage edition of the book, for instance) like the critical community has become a workshop. 

I'm not saying that Richard Yates doesn't deserve the plaudits he's gotten from other writers over the years, or that he didn't deserve mainstream success. I'm just saying that his position as a sort of saint or paragon of unacknowledged writers devoted to their craft is a really limiting starting point for approaching his work. To start off, what's ironic about that limitation is that it sometimes overpowers the way we read his depictions of his character's more subtle failures—we look for the big collapses, the life-failures, and miss the small stumbles, the day-failures, which are what really matter in Revolutionary Road.

One of the tremendously profound things I found in Yates's novel was his ability to capture that specific hitch in experience wherein we recognize that a single action can have both practical and more figurative implications and we are unsure which is the more conscious or intentional. "With his free hand he opened his collar, both to cool his neck and to find reassurance in the grown-up, sophisticated feel of the silk tie and Oxford shirt." Yates, at least how I read him, is using a tremendously subtle variety of free indirect discourse where we cannot completely locate the consciousness of the character in the sentence—how much of this reasoning behind the gesture is conscious to the character, how much is produced by the author digging into the character's subconscious? The indeterminateness of this question draws the reader in to resolve it—which would be our conscious motivation?—but, of course, already knowing both sides, we answer both. 

Yates is also a master of leaving things in his characters' minds which they will work out later: "It was because April had left a small pocket of guilt in his mind last night by saying that he'd 'worked like a dog year after year.' He had meant to point out that whatever it was he'd been doing here year after year, it could hardly be called working like a dog—but she hadn't given him a chance. And now, by trying to clear all the papers off his desk in one day, he guessed he was trying to make up for having misled her." 

There are a thousand minute touches like these, but what I find they all have in common is a single insight into the interior life which Yates returns to again and again—that the dissonance of a thought or feeling re-thought or re-felt at a later time can return to us a feeling of duplicitousness or duplicity, a feeling of not being quite the same person as we were the first time. And that the force of will which we must exert to return ourselves to that first state is even more a cause for the feeling of duplicity: "After a while [Frank] found he had to keep reminding himself to be pleased." "He couldn't even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive." 

The line from Keats which is the epigraph of the novel ("Alas! when passion is both meek and wild!") when applied to the characters of the novel also seems to speak to the same feeling of duplicity, although on a more fundamental level. In its original context, Keats's line is preceded by "Fever’d his high conceit of such a bride, / Yet brought him to the meekness of a child," and the contrast of marriage and childhood is indeed a major theme of the novel. Frank and April's attempts to return their marriage to a state resembling childhood drive the novel forward and bring the characters to their fates. The novel uses the bland simile "like a child" or "like children" numerous times—"as honest and helpless as a child," "weak and happy as a child," "And they fell asleep like children" (which ends Part One), "happy as children." What these similes do is express the longing for the simple, undifferentiated and undifferentiating, dependent blissful state we ascribe to children, knowing even as we ascribe it that it is a thorough alteration of the actual record. Revolutionary Road is not so much a tragedy of suburban alienation as it is a very early example of the arrested development narrative so common in contemporary films and novels. It's a slacker-striver romance without the redemptive conclusion. 

Of course, as we see from the reference to Keats, there is a debt to the Romantics as well, especially to Wordsworth in his Immortality Ode: is there any line in our language that captures the plight of the Wheelers better than "fade into the light of common day?" Another Wordsworth reference might be Book VI of The Prelude, where Wordsworth is stunned to find that he passed the highest point of the Alps without knowing it. That moment I have always found to be the most resonant with the modern condition, though not so much as a metaphor for the Bruce-Springsteen-"Glory-Days" condition as for the simple experience of being unable to mark the significant events of one's life in a way that remains meaningful to us years later. We want to dive back into the past, but we did such a poor job of noticing it, of experiencing it, of feeling it the first time around that it is always not the past we want to remember, never the way we want it to have been.

All this is coupled with the great, mostly male fear of being at the wrong end of a telescoping path of possibilities—a thinning out of options with age as terrifying as the thinning out of one's hair. We can get this sense from Wordsworth sometimes, particularly in the Immortality Ode—the belief that simply aging narrows and constricts your ability for self-expression or self-fulfillment, and that any choices you make exacerbate the narrowing. How strange this would seem to Clym Yeobright, for one, younger than Wordsworth, but never as concerned with the falling-away quality that Wordsworth believes adheres to the process of becoming a man. Yeobright is excited for the most part at the prospect of committing himself to choices which preclude other choices—he is eager to shuck off the relative freedom of Paris for the constrictions of Egdon Heath. Of course, things don't really work out better for him than for Frank Wheeler, but whatever.

The following paragraph seems as if it could end up in a movie released tomorrow, featuring Life-Today-as-a-Twentysomething-Guy, spoken as a voice-over or in one of those expository heart-outpourings, though these are actually Frank Wheeler's words:
He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field. But as college wore on he began to be haunted by numberless small depressions, and these tended to increase in the weeks after college was over...
I think we tend to view Revolutionary Road from the rear-view mirror of bitter nostalgia (one reason why people have been comparing it to Mad Men), but it seems to me to be so fresh, so recent, so concerned with the fears we have today. I don't know if or how the film version will bring that out, but then again, we'll always have the book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Breast, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth The BreastMaybe it's just me, but like a lot of Philip Roth's work, The Breast had me constantly revising my opinion of how smart Roth was trying to be and how much he was succeeding.

Is the novella, I asked myself at least 12 times, an effort to out-imagine Kafka and Gogol, or is it an effort to or under-imagine them? And which one is the more cunning project? And is Roth successful at out/under-imagining his prestigious forebears? Or is he as confused as I am as to the nature, purpose, and success of the book?

Roth's overheated little exercise (I think 'overheated' should be Roth's Homeric epithet, btw) amply illustrates the morass that is literality. Repeatedly David Kepesh (our hero, who transforms overnight into a human breast) is disabused of any tincture of metaphor or surreality or unliterality. He is not dreaming; he is not mad; he is not even delusional. He is a breast.

At first, Kepesh acquiesces to this reality. As the days wear on, however, he finds the reality unbearable and tries to convince himself that he is delusional or dreaming. He is foiled, however, partly because his psychoanalyst and his father tell him that, yes, he is actually a breast and no, he is not mad, but also because he is more or less stumped how he could have chosen something so elementally obvious to delude himself into:
What whirling chaos of desire and fear had erupted in this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites or ancient confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a mammoth delusion of such splendid, such classical simplicity? How explain the "mammary envy" that might be thought to have inspired so extravagant an invention? Was I just another American boy raised on a diet too rich with centerfolds? Or was it rather a longing in me, deep down in my molten center, a churning longing to be utterly and blessedly helpless, to be a big brainless bag of tissue, desirable, dumb, passive, immobile, acted upon instead of acting, hanging, there, as a breast hangs and is there.
He grabs madly onto the idea that perhaps there is at least a shred of dignity left in the Kafka-esqueness or Gogolishness (Go-ghoulishness?) of his malady, believing that his love of literature and his job teaching it set the conditions for this transmogrification. "It might be my way of being a Kafka, being a Gogol, being a Swift. They could envision those marvelous transformations—they were artists. They had the language and those obsessive fictional brains. I didn't. So I had to live the thing... I loved the extreme in literature, idolized those who made it, was fascinated by its imagery and power and suggestiveness... So I took the leap. Beyond sublimation. I made the word flesh. I have out-Kafkaed Kafka. He could only imagine a man turning into a cockroach. But look what I have done."

Lots of questions are begged here, and it's difficult not to imagine Roth sitting back laughing as we pose them. Still, I ask, is Roth having a joke at the expense of professors, that they are sort of castrated or emasculated artists? Is there a statement about the role of the artist as a societal sublimating agent, taking our id-fantasies and transforming them into more acceptable forms of unreality?

But the bigger question I have is the one that might cause Roth to laugh most: referencing Kafka deploys the ponderous significance of political tragedy, of dictatorships, repression, inhuman bureaucracy. What if Roth had written a novel that was a literalization of "In The Penal Colony" or The Castle? Would someone stand at the end of the novel and say, "I have out-Kafkaed Kafka. He could only imagine this torture machine. But look what I have done." Aren't we tempted to think of the worst dictators in this fashion, as the literalization of an artist's conception of evil? Dr. Klinger says to Kepesh, "You are a better student of human nature than that. You've read too much Dostoevsky for that," as if the two sentences meant the same thing. Isn't this what we sometimes allow ourselves to think, that our knowledge of art insulates us from the worst in humanity by having already experienced it aesthetically?

The Breast has a certain spiritual similarity to Catch-22; both novels contrast the majority of the characters, who wish to act sane despite being overwhelmed by irrational circumstances, with the narrator, who wishes to act insane out of self-preservation from those same circumstances. And each questions the reliability of a distinction between imagined insanity and real insanity.

Clearly, these themes also relate to the questions I just raised about Alison Bechdel's Fun Home—what are the dangers of artifice, and what is the proper relation of life and art? The Breast does not have the scope of either work, and is probably not intended to. I liked it better, for what it's worth, than the works Roth has mounted lately whose whole purpose seems to be scope—American Pastoral would be the most egregious perpetrator of this bloat. But The Breast—it's 87 pages, it's intriguing—it's worth your time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

One of the many remarkable things that pulled me into Bechdel's storytelling was the slight but earnest abashment she expressed over the metaphorical coincidences that striate her story. For instance, she remarks of an uncanny array of significant events, "This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during these strange, hot months." Bechdel often seems sheepish when her family's story takes on the shape of larger narratives—some from history or the news, like Watergate or Stonewall, but more from literature—Fitzgerald, Joyce, James, Proust, Wilde.

For a memoir so concerned with the characters' inability to separate life from fiction, this acknowledgement of the narrative's similarity to fictive artifice is, in one sense, necessary, a genuflection before the ideal of ungilded factuality.

Yet one wonders how necessary this gesture is, both from the side of life—isn't life complex and various enough that strong metaphorical coincidences and convergences necessarily arise by brute probability?—and from the side of fiction—don't the very works Bechdel refers to make a considerable case for a certain unabashed commingling of life and artifice? Joyce does not shrink from wielding the tremendous metaphorical power of Homer's epic; why should Bechdel deploy these grander narratives only with reluctance?

These questions are about authorship, but they burrow deeper into the story and end up being about the characters. It is not an uncommon trope, but in capable hands it is not a cliché—the notion of each person as the author of their lives, and the corollary notion that those who most self-consciously "author" their lives are readers. Bechdel's father, mother, and her young self use the shapes of fictional narratives like sewing patterns to construct their lives, though to differing degrees. Bechdel's father immerses himself in artifice, and it is clear that Bechdel fears that he was ultimately unable to draw back from also surrendering to it—her father dies a few days shy of his consummate hero Fitzgerald's lifespan, and under strange circumstances. Her mother, on the other hand, prefers acting in plays over the reading of books (a neat inversion of the values Jane Austen seems to endorse in Mansfield Park), a relegation of artifice to a limited sphere.

What Bechdel seems to desire is the establishment of a difference between allusion and typology—the difference between using foreign narratives to give the life-narrative greater depth or breadth or resonance and constructing one's life as a systematic, constant citation of another narrative. In the Biblical terms for which "typology" is most appropriate, Bechdel wants to avoid reading one's life as a sort of Old Testament in which can be found the lesser forms which are fulfilled in the New Testament of art. These terms also apply to the Odyssey/Ulysses relationship, which her father might read typologically, though she does not. Recalling a literature class on James Joyce, Bechdel remarks, "Once you grasped that Ulysses was based on The Odyssey, was it really necessary to enumerate every last point of correspondence?"

The difference between allusion and typology is also the difference between the opportunities she has to express her sexuality and the opportunities afforded her father. Her father's sexuality had to be fully encompassed or accounted for by its relationship to another narrative, each repressed longing fulfilled in another form of artifice. Bechdel, on the other hand, has the freedom to add artifice to her sexuality, to cite other possible narratives. Where her father, a closeted gay or bisexual man, had to maintain a typological relationship to heterosexuality, Bechdel's open homosexuality can include occasional allusions to other forms of sexuality—straight masculinity, most commonly.

The novel in its most triumphal form can aspire to typology, can dream of completely accounting for and fulfilling the Old Testament of life. The limitations of the printed page of words assist in this illusion, calling on the reader to rely on imagination to vivify the letters we read. We are encouraged to convince ourselves that this reliance on our imagination surmounts the radical reduction of the complexity of experience to the single stream of words across and down the page, that the images we imagine have a claim to a completeness and depth which is greater than experience.

The graphic novel's inclusion of images precludes this ambition—though we employ our imagination reading them, we are not encouraged to imagine vastly deeper worlds inside the panels. The artifice of the form is inescapable; we understand that each figure is an allusion to life. Bechdel's choice of the form is, therefore, natural, given her preferences and her concerns.

Which is not to say that her book is not alive—though I don't mean that word in any sense resembling Wood's "lifeness." What I mean is that it grows in scope, in depth, in resonance, in emotion as you read, that it is stunningly organic in its progress as a narrative. Fun Home is a truly remarkable experience.

Friday, December 19, 2008

From Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Bright visions came to haunt him of a world that could and should have been his, a world of intellect and sensibility that now lay forever mixed in his mind with "the East." In the East, he then believed, a man went to college not for vocational training but in disciplined search for wisdom and beauty, and nobody over the age of twelve believed that those words were for sissies. In the East, wearing rumpled tweeds and flannels, he could have strolled for hours among ancient elms and clock towers, talking with his friends, and his friends would have been the cream of their generation. The girls of the East were marvelously slim and graceful; they moved with the authority of places like Bennington and Holyoke; they spoke intelligently in low, subtle voices, and they never giggled. On sharp winter evenings you could meet them for cocktails at the Biltmore and take them to the theater, and afterwards, warmed with brandy, they would come with you for a drive to a snow-covered New England inn, where they'd slip happily into bed with you under an eiderdown quilt. In the East, when college was over, you could put off going seriously to work until you'd spent a few years in a book-lined bachelor flat, with intervals of European travel, and when you found your true vocation at last it was through a process of informed and unhuried selection; just as when you married at last it was to solemnize the last and best of your many long, sophisticated affairs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Dubya Era Novel

Newsweek has proclaimed Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections to be the most characteristic novel of the Dubya era, the work that most captured what it felt like to live through these past eight years. I'm not buying it.

The argument they make is disjointed and self-contradictory, balancing uneasily on the question of chronology. By publication and composition it's really a pre-9/11 novel, and even a pre-Bush novel. Indeed, it's very consciously about the specific moment of 1999/2000. The title comes from the notion of a stock correction, as the epilogue makes abundantly clear if you hadn't been paying attention—"The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor."

The Newsweek writer tries to get out of the unfortunate chronology of the book's publication by making the case that it was miraculously oracular, concerned with the hottest-button issues of the Oughties—"Franzen lays out many of the themes that would come to dominate the millennium's first decade: global warming, economic recession, HMOs, psychopharmaceuticals, viral marketing, Eastern European instability, even the organic-food movement."

I would question whether any of those things are exclusively the property of the 2000s—I mean, come on, does this writer think that nobody talked about global warming in the 90s? I think my first grade class talked about global warming—in 1991! And, umm, the Whole Foods chain was started back in 1978, so I don't think Franzen's really that prophetic calling its eventual Brooklyn takeover. Oh, and then get this, the article acts like anti-intellectualism first jumped out into the mainstream over the past eight years, so the whole Oprah-Franzen contretemps just prophesied what would become a Really Big Deal For the First Time—presidential candidates acting like they're common folks. (No, really, Obama drinks Bud all the time!)

The article then switches gears and calls the novel "cultural temperature-taking," which sounds to me less like divination than description, but is there any point trying to parse words by this point? What this little exercise showed me is that we—or Newsweek at least—are completely incapable of thinking about the past eight years as an experience. The Corrections comes to stand for the era because it ends in the last year we can bear to think about. We would much rather pretend The Corrections still speaks to and for the life we lived. Or, I should probably say, not we, but a lot of people older than... let's say 29 or 30—anybody who was out of college by 2001.

When I read The Corrections in summer 2007, it felt like ancient history. Partly this was because I read it so long after it was published, but it was also partly because it was describing things I was only dimly aware of in high school. Reading it after the great life-changing event that was graduation, the dot-com bust felt about as recent as the Kosovo conflict, which kind of merged in my memory with the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts, which didn't feel terribly different temporally speaking from the Gulf War, which felt about contemporaneous with the Berlin Wall falling, which is about as far back as I can reach. I've tried to go back and separate these anachronistically clustered memories by reading about these events and learning their history, and to me, The Corrections is one of my routes back into that past, trying to recover what it was like to be an adult in the (late) Clinton years. I can't imagine a kid graduating from college in six or seven years and feeling that it could also give an insight into the Bush era.

But this is more than just a question of chronology. If it were, we could use inadequate excuses like "it's too soon for a novel to capture the past eight years." Or "the best novels about the past eight years don't deal with them directly but use historical parallels to express the rifts in our society or the issues we face (e.g. Pynchon and a bunch of others using 1890s anarchism as a metaphor for 2000s terrorism or Susan Choi and Hari Kunzru and Dana Spiotta and some others using 60s/70s radicalism/Vietnam etc. as a metaphor for red-blue tensions/Iraq)."

These excuses miss two things. First, as I said, most people really don't want to read a novel about the Bush years. We pretend that what we're really missing is a "real" 9/11 novel—or a "real," good one. We like to pretend that not being able to incorporate that day effectively into our fiction is the real problem. We like to pretend that this is what we're waiting for. But who's waiting for the novel that really makes sense of 2003? Of 2005? I'm not even talking about making sense of Iraq or Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib or even Katrina—all of which must be considered and which will naturally work their way into any good fiction that really comes to terms with this decade. But I'm talking about who's really waiting for a novel that just says what it felt like to wake up on May 17, 2006 in, umm, Peoria or Phoenix or Savannah or someplace. Who wants to read a novel that describes how the past eight years have been lived? I don't think anybody does, or no one wants to write one.

The second thing missed is, what do we really mean when we ask for the "one [novel] that... exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush?" Don't we really mean what one novel says what it was like to be white and well-educated in the era of George W. Bush? Because in that sense, the selection of The Corrections is about as good as we probably have from the period 2001-2008, the poor chronology notwithstanding. You've got The Emperor's Children, and Netherland, and I don't know, but really, this is what we mean by this question, right? We want the whitegeist successor to various Johns—Cheever and Updike and Steinbeck. And what kind of answer are we going to get with such a limited question? In a decade where we have, arguably for the first time, a non-white person being able to create and to some extent control the national narrative, I think it's really crucial to be cognizant of what assumptions goes into such a question.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Year In Reading

[unsubtly borrowed from The Millions]

I try to post on most of the books I read, even if it is just an excerpt of a particularly vivid passage or a particularly evocative poem. So I'm not sure how useful a "look at what I read—ain't I great!" post would be, especially since I haven't done a very good job of reading obscure or out of the way books this year (a fault I hope to correct in the next). If you need someone new to tell you to read Aleksandar Hemon or Roberto Bolaño or Netherland, you probably haven't been paying much attention to books in the past twelve months.

However, there were some books which I read but didn't post about, and I'd like to take a moment to catch up to them here, en masse.

The best book I read this year which I posted nothing on was undoubtedly Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. Mark Athitakis (whose excellent blog I recommend) is another big fan, and sort of like Sam Lipsyte's Homeland, its reputation as one of the better little-read books of this decade seems secure, for better or worse. I plan to read Kalfus's short story collection some time in the next year, and maybe then I'll put up a real post about his work.

Nam Le's The Boat has gotten great notices across the board, and I felt it pretty much lived up to the praise it garnered. I am hoping to write a little more about it at a later date, so I'll leave it at that.

I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in preparation for reading her new book Home, absolutely fell in love with it, but somehow didn't end up reading the "sequel." Can such perfection be matched? Well I think that in Robinson's case at least it can, as Gilead matched Housekeeping's perfection (though it played in a different key). I also very much want to read Robinson's essays, as I was very intrigued by the quotes William Deresiewicz pulled in his review in The Nation.

Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was incredibly absorbing, visually stunning, the works. Perhaps it was just the fact that they partially shared geographical locations and nearly shared temporal settings, but I thought about it a lot while reading The Lazarus Project. Now that would be one hell of a collaboration.

I was not all that impressed with Frank Bidart's new volume, Watching the Spring Festival. I understand he was trying something different, but he's written great short poems before (even if they can't be called lyrics—e.g. "Hammer" from Music Like Dirt), so I don't think compression was the issue. He's still one of the greatest poets of the past half-century, so...

Similarly, I was let down by Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Some of the early stories were awesome, but as O'Brien's presence and questions of truth came to dominate the middle and later stories, a great deal was lost, I think. The last story is just awful, a complete despoiling of all that came before. I understand that problematizing truth and the position of the narrator and the coherence of a story is, like, the point of the book, but in the first few stories, those questions seemed to be part of how a communal experience was constructed and shared and most of all lived—in other words, a part of the war—but by the end, they were emerging almost exclusively from the solitary experience of The Writer, and the Issues He Deals With (in both the therapeutic and aesthetic/epistemological senses). I like the first part better—I like men better than writers, maybe.

Did I write about George Oppen? Oops. For the record, George Oppen's awesome.

I read DeLillo's Mao II, which was very impressive, though I can't remember anything specific. I need to read more of him, at any rate.

And I see I haven't mentioned D.A. Powell on this blog. I was fortunate enough to meet Powell this summer, but even if I hadn't, I would still say that of any poet I've read, I'm most looking forward to reading what he does next. He's truly one of the most profoundly inventive poets we have; I urge you to take a look at his work, particularly Lunch. His poems are great standing alone (and there are a number of them floating around the internet), but you really need to read them as a sequence for the full power.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

From "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s"

[T]he novel... is a loose form, and although there is an inherent logic in those books we are accustomed to call great, the deducible "laws" which governed the execution of Emma are not going to be of much use in defining The Idiot. The best that a serious analyst can hope to do is comment intelligently from his vantage point in time on the way a work appears to him in a contemporary, a comparative, or a historic light; in which case, his opinion is no more valuable than his own subtlety and knowledge. He must be, as T.S. Eliot put it so demurely, "very intelligent." The point, finally, is that he is not an empiricist dealing with measurable quantities and calculable powers. Rather, he is a man dealing with the private vision of another, with a substance as elusive and amorphous as life itself. To pretend that there are absolutes is necessary in making relative judgments (Faulkner writes better than Taylor Caldwell), but to believe that there are absolutes and to order one's judgments accordingly is folly and disastrous... The "new critics," as they have been termed (they at least dislike being labeled and few will now answer when called), are fundamentally mechanics. They go about dismantling the text with the same rapture that their simpler brothers experience while taking apart combustion engines: inveterate tinkers both, solemnly playing with what has been invented by others for use, not analysis.


Gore Vidal's pragmatic approach to criticism—particularly the line distinguishing pretending absolutes versus believing absolutes—is immediately, but shallowly, attractive. It suggests a deference that has a tendency to slip into laziness, an unfocused intelligence that has a tendency to stoop to mere wit—this is enough for Vidal, and for many other critics who adopt his "pragmatism."

Does it really matter that a novel is "invented by others for use, not analysis," if that is even true in all cases? And where does that distinction between use and analysis lie? When do we tread too roughly on the text and turn from using it to analyzing it? And this business about "measurable quantities and calculable powers"—isn't this just rhetoric? No, actuarial tables have little place in literary work (I hesitate to say they have none since I'm never sure what Franco Moretti might come up with), but Vidal allows for comparative criticism, and I fail to see how that isn't a form of measuring a novel's qualities and calculating the scale of its powers in relation to another.

A novelist's resistance to having his work disassembled by very smart, sometimes agenda-driven critics is understandable, but it ultimately cannot be the basis of a philosophy of criticism. We must be more than "very intelligent."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Movie Connections

Ousmane Sembène, "La Noire de..." ("Black Girl"), 1966:

ousmane sembene black girl

Charles Burnett, "Killer of Sheep," 1977:

charles burnett killer of sheep

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Losing the Paths, Riding out the Currents

I mentioned in my post on Remainder that I had some more to say about Zadie Smith's NYRB essay titled "Two Paths for the Novel." My post on McCarthy's novel used Smith's analysis to question what kind of "avant-garde" McCarthy wants the novel to be, if he even cares about "avant-gardism" per se. Smith's concern with Remainder's avant-gardeness is bound up with her deeper concerns about the problematics of authenticity. Smith also reads Netherland with this issue in mind, and while I will not deny a place for the subject in either novel, it would appear to me that Smith's own interest in authenticity overwhelms whatever the authors' interest in it may be, a sort of sublimation that allows Smith to have her way with either novel.

's "worries... revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity" and yet the novel is sure enough that "in Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic." As for Remainder, Smith allows that McCarthy believes that "one does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things" yet she seems to prefer his narrator, who holds (with no apparent reconciliation to the writer's views) "one of the greatest authenticity dreams of the avant-garde" and is indeed "a true avant-garde spirit; he wants to become... the only truly authentic indivisible remainder." Both writers want "to destroy the myth of cultural authenticity" because they can't shake "the frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late." Smith goes so far out of her way to place authenticity at the center of both novels that she even fudges a reference, making it seem as if the description of cricket in Remainder which she excerpts is part of the "expressionist moment" found "in its finale." The cricket passage occurs on page 185-6; the book has 308 pages. This absence of contextualization is important because she interprets cricket (in Remainder, not Netherland) in absolute terms. It is "pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark." Death, as we saw some lines up, makes possible "the only truly authentic indivisible remainder, the only way of truly placing yourself outside meaning." She italicizes "indivisible," but that's only because the essay is so focused on "authenticity" that it doesn't need graphical emphasis.

The reason why I find this objectionable is not because I'm bothered by what I think is a bad reading. What I'm more irritated by is the use Smith makes of her bad reading. The question of authenticity is largely about policing the positions other people are permitted to take and speak from—restricting who they can say they are when they speak as themselves or whom they can speak for if they speak in any other person than the first singular.

Clearly, there are very necessary instances where this discourse is absolutely required—medicine, say, and the law. But when this becomes the overriding criterion for the coherence or even value of a fictional work, I think the discourse become very detrimental. And when we begin to use our judgments of a work's authenticity to peg its position—on a certain "path" or in a certain "current" or "camp" or any other spatial metaphor you care to hazard—I think the detriment is doubled.

What I don't mean by this complaint is that works shouldn't be categorized or classed—many categories have very solid uses. What I object to is using authenticity as a stick to beat novels into the positions we want them to take, and then to praise or find them wanting for slipping out of or reaching beyond those positions. When Smith can say "If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Tom McCarthy's Remainder is fully conscious of its own," you know something has been lost completely—namely, the sense of balance that is aware that no novel is fully conscious of the ideas that underpin it. To say otherwise is simply to affirm that a novel spoke only from the positions you were comfortable with—a strange feature for Remainder, the "avant-garde" novel.

That loss of balance is constant through this essay, and its absence necessitates the opposition of one novel to the other to re-order things. (Substituting opposition for balance is about the oldest trick in the book by now, but hey.) Smith opposes "Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow" (the Establishment) to "Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard" (the avant-garde), and though she allows the existence of a "crossroads [where] we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov." What are we going to do, pick teams?

Ultimately, though, the question is not about writers at all—Smith begins with a submerged critique of the reading public, not of the scribbling set.
All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
The constructions of the first few sentences are crucially inconsistent: "novels cut" leads to "convince us," and "us" seems to refer to readers, but then there is "we cut" which should refer to the same "us" (readers) though in just the previous sentence it is the novels (or metonymically the writers) doing the cutting. Do readers cut neural routes by reading a variety of novels, or do writers cut neural routes for us by writing in divergent modes? Well, clearly Smith faults the reader for not being receptive to a variety of fictions, although she allows that we have been trained into this rut. But I think this essay remains a critique of a readership whom she believes is adverse to reading a novel as anti-lyrical realism as she believes Remainder to be.

It seems to me that the real "two paths" she is describing are those available to the reader: either continue reading lyrical realism and keep trying to ignore the inauthenticity of its artifices (and the racial/class/gender matrix that underwrites those artifices); or read Remainder and other books that eschew lyricized clouds and other toys of realism, and salvage just a bit of authenticity. I'm just not convinced those are our only options, or that authenticity should even be a concern of the reader.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon

This odd promotional video for the book is almost certainly an homage to Chris Marker's "La Jetée," right?

No voice-over, but there are similarities, no?

Of course, the most obvious predecessor of Aleksandar Hemon's new book—which features stark black-and-white photographs, some archival, some assumably taken by the friend he references in his acknowledgements and on the book's cover (beneath the dust-jacket), each photo acting as a chapter-seperator—is W.G. Sebald, whose novels made use of the same photo-and-text procession.

The relation of Sebald to "La Jetée" and Chris Marker more generally has been remarked upon by no less a critic than David Thomson, but also by this blog specializing in Sebaldiana. So I think we may be on solid ground here.

This formal relation in itself is not particularly enlightening. I think there are also some very significant theme-related similarities between The Lazarus Project and "La Jetée," but I also think those similarities are fairly obvious once you start thinking about them, so I'll leave you to your own devices on that score.

What I think is more fascinating (it may not be enlightening) is how this form of narrating—picture, then text, with the two not always linking up, but implicitly commenting on one another—is becoming not only more and more common, but more and more standard when it comes to narratives which explicitly problematize memory (and, more generally, time).

To go all new media on you for a second, the blog This Recording, which is one of the best blogs I have ever run into, structures many of its posts in just this manner (particularly this brilliant post on Jayne Mansfield). Some, like many on the front page right now, are lists, which is not what I'm talking about, but many older posts are essays which intersperse photos (some of which have very ambiguous relations to the text) with a meditation often dealing with a forgotten subject (like this one, about some amazingly obscure rock sub-genres or this one, which eventually gets around to a history of the phrase "wall of sound").

Tumblrs, which are often constructed according to this process, are a sort of amphetaminic version of the problematics of memory. Obviously related to commonplace books, the uncategorized aggregation of a Tumblr nevertheless is not so much a cure for as an embrace of ephemerality—unlike a commonplace book, the point is not so much aggregation as collection as it is aggregation as consumption. Collection implies a rescuing from the loss of forgetting, but consumption intends to forget.

The Lazarus Project is a stunning book; Hemon is, in my opinion, more adroit than anyone now active at making ideas work through his characters and plot. His use of language is rightly praised universally for its inventiveness and freshness; it is also wondrously moving. Right now I can only add, please read this book.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

On James Wood, Part II

In a previous post, I attempted to create an account of the reasons some critics take strong positions against James Wood, and of the path many take to come to these positions. In this post, I'd like to think through some of the reasons why people like James Wood, why they find his criticism valuable and even exciting, and what I think they take away from it.

I will speak sometimes from personal experience (and generalize some from personal experience), and so my ideas are likely to be most relevant to why a young person (an undergraduate or a recent college graduate) might find James Wood appealing. I will extrapolate some from this experience (the only one I know) to the experience of older folks, and their reasons for liking/enjoying James Wood.

The first set of reasons is concerned with formal properties of Wood's work, and on this question, to refer back to The Nation review I cited in the last post, Deresiewicz provides a wonderful analysis. Wood's writing is challenging on a variety of levels—in terms of syntax, figurative language and even diction, Wood is gifted in ways that are immediately apparent, even if many are likely to question the prodigality with which Wood pours his gifts into his prose. But I want to focus particularly on metaphor and what Deresiewicz acutely calls the "angled modifier":
"royal fatalism," "fat charity," "white comment," "trapped loyalties." A book is described as "curlingly set in the present." Again, these sound good--they are essentially a kind of compressed metaphor--but what do they mean? Sometimes Wood unpacks them; sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes I can guess; sometimes I can't. At times it seems like he just throws an adjective at a noun and hopes it will stick. At others, the technique involves the displacement of a modifier from its expected syntactic position, a trick he probably picked up from Shakespeare.
It is here that I think Wood really connects with a certain type of reader. Wood's metaphors are competitive creatures—they challenge each other for control of the essay, jostling with each other under the reader's eye for attention and memorability. They also troop together and attack the writer under review, vying for supremacy with that writer's own powers of imagery and imagination. Wood's essay on Woolf from The Broken Estate describes this process, but his review of Melville in the same volume puts it into overdrive. Everything comes out metaphored.

Why is this attractive? Or rather, to whom is this attractive? I think it is principally attractive to those who wish to write—critically or imaginatively, and particularly to those who have not written a lot, because the other side of these metaphors' competitiveness is their experimental quality—they are, as Deresiewicz notes, thrown together with a brash alchemical flourish. The hoping-it-will-work gusto of these concoctions almost insists that we try some out ourselves, and who's most likely to take up that offer? Why, people like me, I guess.

Wood has a similar effect (on me, and I think for others) as Flaubert had on many budding novelists—where Flaubert initiated a scavenger hunt for le mot juste to describe every single thing, Wood's essays challenge the reader to a sort of permanent one-upmanship when it comes to crafting daringly metaphysical comparisons. (On a separate but related note, one quantum of evidence I have that this sort of thing is attractive to someone, at least, is the Meta-Free-Phor-All Stephen Colbert did with Sean Penn—video 1, video 2.) Wood provides writers with a sort of game which has no end, as the world never runs out of things which can be smashed into a metaphor, and even if it did, we could always try to improve on old metaphors.

But metaphor has another charm which catches the eye of an aspiring writer. The Woodian (I'm not going to say Wooden) metaphor acts as a short-circuit, generating excessive current by moving along a counter-path, jumping quickly over the distance the normal path would take. There is an undergraduate fondness for short circuits, generated partly (I think) by the unnatural demands of rapid-fire intellectual contraction and dilation which learning a subject well enough to write or speak convincingly on it in the same term or semester naturally entails. You bulk up enough on the terminology, the dynamics, the cadences of a subject—Foucault, say, or Habermas—basically you learn how to mimic the syntax (if you're smart) of the discourse around this subject, and then (if you're smarter, or more bored) you play with it by introducing some short-circuits—some bold intrusions of other subjects, or a pun on an important concept or facet of the subject—to demonstrate mastery. James Wood's metaphors and angled modifiers operate in the same way in his essays—his phrasal alloys, leaning on the subject of his essays like smart-ass sophomores over their blue-books, are a way of introducing short circuits that demonstrate mastery of his subject and of language in general. It's nerdily badass.

Wood's short-circuits, however, are not just about slanted diction; they're not even ways of jolting the syntax of a discourse. They're also conceptual, or rather, they work conceptually as well and link up to further conceptual short-circuits. These can be as simple as Wood's adeptness with making names into leitmotivs (Lionel Trilling is another paragon of this practice); Wood's allusions are connotationally consistent: Flaubert means the same thing whenever he is mentioned, Chekhov means the same thing whenever he is invoked, etc. (Deresiewicz is right in asserting some "wobbling" on Wood's part when it comes to concepts—particularly the central ones—"fiction," "true" and "truth," "real" and "reality," "life"—but when it comes to named persons, Wood is nearly undeviating.)

The conceptual consistency of these names-as-leitmotivs allows Wood to construct broad narratives of lineage or development quickly, narratives which appear to have both depth and strength. And because these narratives are often chronologically ordered, they take on the form of mini-histories of the developments of fictional elements through time—the unreliable narrator, the process of selecting meaningful details, free indirect discourse. But though they are, I think, meant to be condensed histories of these techniques, they do not trace lines of descent so much as they cross the wires of literary history—all you see are the sparks. Free indirect discourse, then, becomes this extraordinary encounter of the Shakespearean soliloquy with the Austen heroine, an encounter powerful enough to obviate a full account of the development of methods of conveying an interior consciousness between 1600 and 1800.

Now, the above may sound like a critique, but I want to stress how exciting this short-circuiting business is to someone who is trying to glue disparate and frequently unclear references together, and how valuable. Particularly in an academic culture which (rightly) no longer explicitly chooses authors because of canonicity or Leavisian Great Tradition-like evaluations, Wood is able to make readers feel like there is something vital connecting two authors as great as Shakespeare and Austen, and that they needn't really bother (yet) with how that connection is intermediated, or what other influences might have led to the development of free indirect discourse. (Additionally, Wood himself neither introduces nor justifies his subjects on the basis of canonicity or traditionalism—something which is also very appealing, for the concept of the Canon has almost entirely lost its panache and interest for everyone who is not affiliated with The New Criterion or has a commercial interest in the idea of canonicity.)

A canon is never really about connections, but they used to speak to the idea of a connected body of literature. Many—especially students—still crave the idea of connection between and among books and writers, though they reject the idea that these connections are bounded in a tight and definable group. For them, connectivity implies a) that further connections can be made (i.e. that literature is not dead, and that they can either contribute to its further flourishing or at least observe that flourishing for the rest of their lives) and b) that one can learn about literature more efficiently by learning the connections (learn about the "history" of unreliable narration and you can bag all sorts of fun authors at once!).

A side-note: Wood's assurance of the connectivity of books and authors partly accounts for why he dislikes postmodern and antirealist fiction, and why some who read him for this assurance, like him emphatically for his bashings of "hysterical realism," magical realism and the like. Postmodern fiction itself played a game of brinksmanship—a constant consciousness of the edge of fiction and its related ideas—the author, the reader, the text. It confessed itself as being, in John Barth's words, a literature of exhaustion. Two narratives, therefore, develop. One is Wood's, which rejects postmodern and antirealist fiction because they don't fit in with the program of assuring readers that books link up to other books and authors to authors and it's all an ongoing process. The other is a triumphalist narrative, which stresses the nodal nature of postmodernism and believes that the node can be pushed further out perhaps, but it's still a node. But because both narratives develop from the same idea—that postmodern fiction wishes for a certain terminality or idealizes a certain nodal quality—a reader can reject the premise, look for the ways that postmodern fiction is quite ongoing as a project and not as severed from other forms of fiction as its hierophants claim, and sort of ignore the whole thing entirely, while maintaining a respect for Wood's project and an appreciation of DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.

Wood is particularly interesting when he is threading a "minor" book or author into these connections. Doing so also keeps the attention of readers who have already read enough essays about the major authors, but the effect, I think, is the same. It at once reassures that there are vital, vigorous connections between and among authors and books (while avoiding canonizing them) and also re-teaches the history of those connections. Wood's review of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, for example, places that novel deftly in the narrative of unreliable narration he's established through other reviews/essays.

Now, what Wood does is actually an inversion of the "short-circuiting" someone like Zizek employs:
A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network—faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the network's smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion), and read it in a short-circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text, or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood in Deleuze's sense: not "of lesser quality," but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower," less dignified topic)? If the minor reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculations through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculations; this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the lens of the unconscious libidinal economy). What such a reading achieves is not a simple "desublimation," a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought," its disavowed presuppositions and consequences.
- from the Series Foreword in The Parallax View, introducing the Short Circuits series.
Wood reads minor authors through the lens of major authors (or authors he has established as major, like Svevo) in order to apply our "common perceptions" about that major author to the minor, in effect "sublimating" them. Even if the current is reversed, though, the liberatory effects of "short-circuiting" are the same—Zizek and Wood rely on the same kind of thrill of crossed wires—revelatory sparks, not tedious circulation.

A great deal can be said for and against the viability and validity of short-circuiting as a method of intellectual inquiry, but one thing must be made clear. In either direction, it is not really about making texts more accessible or simpler. Zizek is opaque enough (at least in works like Parallax View) that simplifying philosophy is not the main charge leveled against him, and Wood is intellectually challenging enough that few accuse him of debasing literature by dumbing it down. Zizek may have Hegel wrong on some things and Wood may not understand what DeLillo's doing all the time, but their responses are complex in each case. Short-circuiting is about—and it is successful in—rapidly reducing the time needed to feel like you've gotten an insight out of a work. That's why it sometimes even relies on complexity—a condensation of possible meanings so tight you're sure to read something profound out of it on short order.

I think this process is the main origin of Wood's popularity, and why he can appeal particularly to students or young people who simply haven't had the time to read everything (or older people who don't have the lifestyle to continue reading deeply back into the history of the novel).

I also think there is a great deal to the sort of argument that Edmond Caldwell makes—that there is an ideological consonance between Wood's valuations of character and interiority and the general humanistic consensus of the readers of outlets like The New Yorker and The New Republic, though that is a separate discussion, I think. And there are a few miscellaneous things that make Wood popular: for one thing, he recommends some really fantastic books—I mean, unless the only books you like are by Barth, Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis and Powers (and there are some very smart people like that), you're probably going to like a lot of what he recommends. Even if you hate lyrical realism, you're still going to like Hemon or Hamsun or Rush probably or Bolaño or Gogol or Babel or Sebald and maybe Joseph Roth or Bellow or Svevo or Henry Green. Now, it's absolutely true that he praises each in mostly the same way as he praises lyrical realists, but that doesn't mean everyone he praises is a lyrical realist, and I think his readers understand that. People don't read him because they think they're going to read about the same kind of book every time—I can't see how that, if it were true, would make him popular.

Similarly, I don't think negative reviews—or his doctrines on "how fiction works"—are any large part of his popularity. His pans are rarely truly amusing in the gladiatorial take-down sort of way, and I've never met or read anyone who thinks about the connection of fiction and "life" in the same way Wood does.

But back for a second to the whole short-circuiting business: is this what we want out of our "preëminent literary critic?" Is it detrimental to literary culture? Well, now I'll speak just for myself. I have found Wood very useful in shortening certain distances which I plan on re-extending by reading more deeply and more critically into, but which right now I feel content with letting them be a little shorter than they really are. The history of narrative interiority, for instance, is something I'd like to read more deeply into (with, say, Nancy Armstrong's How Novels Think), but at this moment, I'm okay with Wood's narrative more or less grounding my working concept. Wood is more helpful than any other contemporary critic at getting me started to think through many authors and many possible connections among authors, and he's been invaluable at helping me discover some books that have been complete revelations to me. I don't really think of anything he's written as being the "last word" on the subject, but his essays—both in praise and in censure—have been extremely useful "first words." I think it's dangerous to want more out of a literary critic—I want no more out of Edmund Wilson, for example, or Samuel Johnson even.

The question is, does James Wood's criticism—does his mode of criticism, do his judgments—cap our development as readers? In a manner of speaking, American literary culture is always very young, and someone like Wood with his short-circuitry is useful and helpful, shortening some distances for his readers to enable us to catch up some to better-read cultures or our better-read elders. We certainly need other critics to enlarge our scope and deepen our understanding (and challenge our first views on a subject), but having our most visible and perhaps most widely read literary critic be an exceedingly good practitioner of the type of short-circuiting I have described—I think that's an asset.

Friday, December 5, 2008

From The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon

"A human face consists of other faces—the faces you inherited or picked up along the way, or the ones you simply made up—laid on top of each other in a messy superimposition. When I taught ESL, I had students who would come to class with a different face every day; it took me awhile to remember their names. Eventually, from a certain angle, I could see what was buried under their fleeting grimaces, I discerned the deep faces beyond their acting out the person they imagined themselves to be. Sometimes they would flash their new, American face: the raised eyebrows and the curved mouth of perpetual worry and wonder. Mary could see no deep face of mine, because she did not know what my life in Bosnia had been like, what made me, what I had come from; she could see only my American face, acquired through failing to be the person I wanted to be. I did not know what shadows Rora saw, comparing my face and the one on the tombstone, but I did not think him crazy. Mykola Brik may have been someone who had settled here—here in the narrow passage between my brain and my gaze—before I was even born. Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On James Wood

It often seems absurd that a literary critic, even one who writes for The New Yorker, can engender fierce partisanship. There are now at least two major efforts to mount sustained and comprehensive critiques of James Wood (a blog, Contra James Wood, and a 57-page manifesto-of-sorts which can be downloaded as a pdf here). But he also has resolute defenders, although most of them don't so much defend him (and certainly not in detail) as assert his greatness. A typical example of Wood's fans might be Mark Sarvas, who's more of a booster than a debater.

I'd like to address two very simple questions about Wood: why is he liked? (which I'll save for a separate post) and why is he more or less despised? I don't pretend to objectivity—I like him, I find his criticism valuable, I admire his writing. But first let's consider some of the reasons to dislike him.

The question of age circles around James Wood like a shark: nearly every critic tries to use some temporal box to engulf Wood and sink him. The n+1 piece from their first issue famously remarked that Wood wanted "to be his own grandfather," a charge that has been repeated multiple times elsewhere, often coupled with a guess as to which literary age he really belongs in (sometimes the Victorian era, sometimes the Edwardian, others would put him as a sort of dour Samuel Johnson). Other critics read him as supremely symptomatic of our age, a distillation of the faults and failures of our fallen literary culture.

William Deresiewicz's review of How Fiction Works takes this latter line. It's a brilliant review; its keen attention to detail and rigorous argumentation make his broad critiques quite cogent as you're reading them. But it also rests too lazily on the question of age, inflating Wood into a symbol of today which can be simplistically opposed to Deresiewicz's preferred yesterday. Deresiewicz opens by wearily bemoaning, "An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative... We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing--weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it--the logic of celebrity culture--and move on."

I'm not entirely sure how this process works in practice. It seems to me, reading down the page, that what anoints this "single representative" is acclaim from representatives of an aging and fading dernier-garde—in Wood's case, Bloom, Sontag, Bellow, Ozick have called him something like "Best. Literary. Critic. Of his generation." Deresiewicz properly notes the emphasis of "of his generation" in these "consecrations," and goes on to describe the fatalism these anointings have generated: "these consecrations have bespoken a kind of Oedipal conflict, betraying the double urge first to possess one's offspring by defining them, then to destroy them altogether. For Wood has come to be seen as something more than the best of his generation: not just the best, full stop, regardless of generation, but the one, the only, even the last. Beside him, none; after him, none other. The line ends here." Indeed, when you have Harold Bloom saying, "James Wood is an authentic literary critic, very rare in this bad time," fatalism is easy enough (if you care what Bloom likes).

But what are the actual effects of this anointing? Certainly, there are career incentives to being the anointed one—you get to write for The New Yorker and teach at Harvard without a doctorate and you probably get more latitude in choosing the books you review. But then there's the question of visibility, which is what Deresiewicz's complaint is really about. James Wood is undeniably the most visible literary critic in America, and supposedly he is so much more visible than any other critic that for most intents and purposes, he looks like the only visible literary critic.

But visibility demands some specification of audience, and here's what I don't get: among people who read book review sections, is James Wood really the only name they'd recognize, and even if he is, does that mean that they wouldn't read a review by anyone else but Wood? In other words, how much is James Wood's celebrity really choking off the voices of other critics from reaching the (small) subset of Americans who not only read novels but also read criticism? I think the answer is "not much," though I'd be glad to be proven wrong.

Yet I get the feeling, particularly when reading a reviewer like Deresiewicz or Sam Anderson or even (with some notable differences in emphasis and reasoning) Dan Green or Edmond Caldwell or Tony Christini, that the feeling is that Wood's visibility is a threat to a vigorous, many-sided, highly dialogic conversation about literature and incompatible with a community that will foster and produce the same. Or, if he is not a threat, then we're back to proclaiming him a perfect symptom of the decline of our intellectual culture: in Deresiewicz's words, "Wood may be the best we have, but to set him next to Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe is to see exactly how far we have fallen."

As either symptom or threat, Wood is taken to be representative of our age, and is therefore often, as we see with Deresiewicz, contrasted with the New York Intellectuals, the last (and according to Deresiewicz, only) time America hosted an environment of broad intellectual ferment. What is obviously attractive to these critics is the dispersion of critical authority among a surprisingly large number of intellectuals—rather than one preëminently visible critic, many had a significant amount of visibility.

The contrast with the New York Intellectuals is common and was probably inevitable. It's the time during which most people now writing wish they had been writing. In his review, though, Deresiewicz adds to this contrast a significant, though not entirely new, critique of Wood.
Here we begin to glimpse the enormous gulf that lies between James Wood, the best we have to offer, and the New York critics, Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe--and, let us add... Elizabeth Hardwick. What made these thinkers so distinguished, what made their criticism so significant not only for American literature but also for this country's intellectual culture as a whole, was not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form, though they exhibited all of these, but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context... The New York critics were interested in literature because they were interested in politics, culture, the moral life and the life of society, and all as they bore on one another. They placed literature at the center of their inquiry because they recognized its ability not only to represent life but, as Matthew Arnold said, to criticize it--to ask questions about where we are and how where we are stands in relation to where we should be. They were not aesthetes; they were, in the broadest sense, intellectuals.
That last line jars a bit, as it sounds a great deal like the NYT Walter Kirn review and the Paper Cuts post it inspired, which tried to revive the paleface vs. redskin distinction from Philip Rahv. There is often, in critiques of Wood, a muted defense of American virility and a little more open denigration of effete British bloodlessness (or bookishness). The question of what role nationality plays in Wood's criticism is obviously a fascinating one, as many critics allege that Wood's Britishness holds him back from "getting" American literature (e.g.).

The combination of these two claims—that Wood's preëminence constricts vigorous and multilateral dialogue and that Wood somehow is disconnected from the active American spirit—is powerful, especially as it is deployed when arguing that there are whole kinds of literature which he is unable to appreciate, whole genres or orientations which miss him entirely ("experimentalists, postmodernists, magical realists... anti-realism"). From Deresiewicz: "Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn't really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation--the bank shot, the knight's move, the indirect approach. Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology--too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true..."

The assumption seems to be that Wood's strangle-hold on critical visibility and his dogmatic faith in realism (and consequent excommunications of anti-realists from the Garden of Literature) are constitutively linked. Wood has attained his position because of his limited ability to comprehend or appreciate literature in its multiform expressions. Edmond Caldwell takes this argument further: Wood has succeeded because the limitations—ideological and imaginative—which the ruling classes wish to impose on the public are identical to Wood's: "James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face." Deresiewicz's condemnation of Wood as a critic terminally separated from the life from which fiction flows implicitly follows a similar logic: the book-bound Wood has succeeded because his public can no longer hold art and justice in a single thought, let alone reality and justice.

This is a crushing argument because most of its audience believes without question that American intellectual culture is crushingly limited. (Only when a Swedish blowhard points out our limitations do we protest and show off our meager number of cosmopolitan writers.) But then the argument reverses direction: if James Wood's limitations are our limitations, then liberating our culture of James Wood would be (a step to) liberating ourselves.
"Stop reading James Wood!" becomes another way of saying, "Turn off the TV!" "No more internet!" "The Culture Industry is rotting your brain!!" This reversal is a short-cut for a broader, more ambitious project: rather than rejecting "the establishment," supplement its lacks.

James Wood draws anger and resentment for many reasons; some just truly don't like his tastes and wish he'd not be rewarded for expressing them, eloquently or not. But many of his critics, I think, dislike or distrust Wood because knocking him from his pedestal seems like a simple, easy and effective way of challenging and overcoming some of the limitations of our current literary culture, an overcoming which would have the added benefit of distributing visibility and its benefits more broadly to more literary critics than James Wood.

I have tried to sketch out the path necessary to come to this conclusion, and I've tried to show how it relies on some questionable jumps and assumptions. I plan to address how someone who likes Wood comes to that position in a second post, and if I have time, I'll add some thoughts about what I think Wood should do to address both his defenders and detractors and their respective blindnesses.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

[Sorry for the recent abandonment of this blog; I was trying to prepare myself for the GREs, which I took yesterday. I read Remainder in the midst of this tedious preparation, which in retrospect seems oddly apposite.]

Last year, Remainder came in second in The Morning News Tournament of Books, losing to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The praise for Remainder made me curious but was vague enough that it seemed an enigma I could pass over if I wished ("It is such a weird novel, I don’t know who I’d recommend it to."). There were a lot of other books from 2007 that I needed to catch up to anyway.

Zadie Smith's "Two Paths for the Novel" made me think differently, or rather the ambition of the title made me think differently. When I saw that Smith was opposing Remainder to one of my favorite novels from this year, Netherland, I decided to try out Remainder, read Smith's essay after finishing the book, and then see how my own thoughts on the state and future of the novel compared with hers. I think I'll wait on expressing those thoughts for another post; right now I just want to say a few things about Remainder itself.

For a book so widely praised for its strangeness, its daring, and its challenge to readers, I found Remainder to be at best placidly avant-garde, largely devoid of the sorts of buzzy shocks and electric frustrations that you'd get when, say, watching a Buñuel film or reading Pound or Stein or even DFW. Remainder crashes no gates which haven't been trampled a hundred times over, though it must be said that it never treats a well-used ideological turnstile as an uncrossed boundary. It never acts like it thinks it's breaking new ground; it is extremely content running behind its blockers—Robbe-Grillet, Bataille, Blanchot, Kafka, even (I think I detect) Deleuze and Beckett, in their emphases on repetition. But the reviews I have seen are filled with the shock of the new, as if McCarthy has burst the seams of the Realist strait-jacket in a wholly new way. Many reviewers—particularly Smith—speak of it in emancipatory terms:
In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.
I suppose I open myself to charges of philistinism or stodginess or what-have-you, but I didn't experience Remainder as a liberating or even rattling challenge to realism or literature or complacency. Which isn't to say I didn't like it, or that it had no effect on me. I felt myself pulled toward the recursive patterns of thinking the narrator creates; I began to dissociate from simple tasks, considering the performance of them from multiple perspectives. In other words, Remainder got to me. But "getting to me" isn't, I've found, an experience limited to avant-garde or experimental or even edgy literature; Netherland stretched or crammed me into the mindspace of Hans just as effectively.

I think Remainder is a very good and sometimes brilliant novel, but I don't think its claims to brilliance are primarily about its relation to Realism (or its metaphysical shadow, philosophical Idealism). What is brilliant about McCarthy's book is its relation to avant-gardism itself. I believe it proposes a notion of avant-gardism as a repetition compulsion, a conception of the avant-garde not as something fundamentally new, original, heroic and rebellious, but as something self-duplicative, retreaded and, if viewed from the right distance, tedious. In terser terms, rather than being transgressive, it is regressive.

These terms, at least in the discourse of art, have contradictory valences: transgressive art is good or at least ambitious art, regressive art would be something which doesn't even seek the status or purpose of art. But what I mean by regressive is that McCarthy seems to find a purpose for his book in its attention to matter, to the way that matter critiques or frustrates our attempts to elude death and sheer materiality. In aesthetic terms this could be called regressive, and I feel its status as avant-garde is open to question, though I don't see it as a question that McCarthy is particularly wrapped up in. He has bigger ambitions than being an avant-garde novelist.

As Smith points out, Remainder needs to be read in the context of McCarthy's work in the International Necronautical Society. One of the key documents, the "Joint Statement on Inauthenticity (reported on here) proclaims: "The Statement declared the death of tragedy in which the lonely hero, in death, is rewarded with authentic being. Instead they called for the comic, the divided and the repetitive: instead of Oedipus, Wile E. Coyote who, like a true necronaut, 'dies almost without noticing', again and again, repeatedly."

This emphasis on comedy answers a question I had when reading Smith's summation of the Necronautical dicta and their relation to McCarthy's book. If matter is, by the fact of its existence, a permanent critique to our idealist philosophies and arts (i.e. Realism), then why do we need art to make this clear? We are always being corrected by matter, and particularly being made aware of its dissimilarity to Realism and idealism. We do not need a novel, or even the International Necronautical Society, to apprise us of this fact, do we?

I believe that McCarthy's answer is that we need art to tell us that we should be happy that matter is a permanent critique. Matter does not need to tell us that it is a critique (though sometimes, it seems, necronauts like McCarthy think we don't observe its criticisms with sufficient awareness). But matter, I think McCarthy and the necronauts are saying, needs art (and philosophy) to proselytize, telling us that matter's critique should make us happy. Hence the emphasis on the comedy of Wile E. Coyote's repetitive deaths, on the denial of tragedy, and the dark ironies of Remainder. "'What distinguishes the poet or philosopher from others,' the Statement said, 'is that he can laugh at himself. That is, he can simultaneously be the one who trips and the one who watches the trip: he can split himself in two — what Baudelaire calls dédoublement.'" Tripping, if you have read Remainder, is the catalyst for matter's critique, but even more so, it catalyzes and fulfills the narrator's blissful acknowledgement that he is always subject to matter's critique.

Remainder's notion of happiness is tremendously disorienting and somewhat hard to catch a hold of, which makes it both a little repulsive and very compelling. It disorients the terms of happiness, shifting them completely and decisively away from what has become the typical axis—either a full achievement of a self-determining self or an annihilation of self—an achievement of personal authenticity or an utter excision of inauthenticity. I don't think Smith sees this fully, and I'll address that in the post about her essay, but I'll circle back to pick up the question of Remainder's avant-gardeness. If the work rests on a notion of happiness that escapes or ignores the (all-too-common) dialectic of authenticity/inauthenticity, then its status as avant-garde is kind of beside the point, as authenticity seems to be all we're ever really talking about when we talk about avant-garde art.

The refusal to play the authenticity game—in fact, the philosophical opposition to it—despite maintaining a deep connection to the names we associate with that game's highest performance (avant-gardism) is, now that I think about it, what is most strange about this book. It reminds me of a quote by D.H. Lawrence: "The world doesn't fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can't pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge." I'm glad I stopped dodging this book, although I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim it on the whole a "real new experience" in fiction. It generates some new experiences, and that's very, very good.