Thursday, May 28, 2009

Enemies of Promise

There are many things worth reading in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation (I have a review in it, so this is kind of a self-plug), but I was particularly taken with an essay by Jeremy Hatch on Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise. I was planning to read the book at some point, so (maybe) expect further coverage, but for now, there are two things about Hatch's essay that I want to pull out.

First, Hatch isolates the following quote, which I found very interesting.
In spite of the slow conversion of progressive ideas into the fact of history, the Dark Ages have a way of coming back. Civilization—the world of affection and reason and freedom and justice—is a luxury which must be fought for, as dangerous to possess as an oil-field or an unlucky diamond.
This is an extraordinary statement: Connolly is here both anticipating the post-colonial argument that being rich in resources was actually the greatest historical tragedy for African, Asian, and Latin American lands because wherever there were resources to be exploited, the Europeans—and later the Americans—came to take them (the basic thesis of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America), and he's also reversing that argument, turning civilization itself into a natural resource which attracts forces of degeneration and atavism like ill luck to a cursed jewel. The whole process of empire-building, conquest and exploitation becomes a strategy for preventing that natural resource from either falling into the wrong hands or being otherwise ill-used by unappreciative, uncivilized peoples. Wow. The parallels to neoconservative "democracy" should be apparent, so I won't develop that here.

But Hatch found a lot of good in Connolly, and I am intrigued by him, and by this book. The idea of organizing one's thoughts on the factors and influences which are deforming or impeding on turning one's "promise" (or "talent" or "potential" or "aptitude" as we might now call it) into concrete success is a project that sounds like it would be worthwhile for anyone to pursue (although I have my doubts that after doing so I would still find it as worthwhile—I probably would have written only, "blog less, read more," which as you can see by the recent dearth of posts, I've been trying to do). And Hatch himself updates Connolly's analysis for the blog era, focusing on the conditions that have changed since 1938 and how those changes might function either as an enemy or as a friend of promise, and how they've altered what it means to have "promise" in the first place.

Hatch's questions mostly focus on very high-level, one might almost say abstract, developments in the structure of literary production and recognition—how people get to the point where they're trying to turn their promise into practice, and how what comes out of that practice becomes known as something that has confirmed the presence of promise. (That alliteration is godawful, I know, and I swear not intentional.)

I kind of hope that Connolly's book isn't abstract after this fashion (it doesn't sound like it is); I am much more attracted to works, like Keats's letters or Henry Adams's Education, which can be said to analyze this question of promise on the level of individual choices and even temperament. I think this is the better way of going about answering these questions: the idea of "promise" calls for the individual, and not the general, case.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

I guess you can say I doubled down on the HBO series True Blood by picking up the first book of the Sookie Stackhouse series, Dead Until Dark. I suppose by saying that, I'm trying to use the generally acknowledged awesomeness of the TV series to cover for the fact that I just read a trashy romance novel about supernatural beings (and supernatural sex). Next up on my reading queue is Twilight.

No, I'm just kidding. Twilight is absolutely insufferable, in any version, and I will never read it. But Charlaine Harris is actually pretty great—the genius of the television series is not all on Alan Ball's side.

One thing that True Blood does not dig into (that I remember) that the book treats in quite interesting ways is Sookie's attempt to understand her telepathy as a "disability." Her ability to read minds—or to be more precise, her inability to keep the thoughts of others out of her mind—does make her seem "slow," and her fellow denizens of Bon Temps, Louisiana treat her as if she is "simple" or "crazy." There's a dissertation to be written, maybe, comparing her to Benjy Compson. ("Bill smelled like trees…"?)

Additionally, there is an explanation of vampirism that the book provides—and then discards—that I don't remember factoring into True Blood: vampires have supposedly been infected with a virus that causes them to appear to be dead for a couple of days, and then afflicts them with severe allergies to sunlight, silver, and garlic ever after. (And, of course, there's the necessity of consuming blood and the immortality—some side effects!) The fact that Harris toys with using vampires as an allegory for gays ("coming out of the coffin") makes this virus theory more than a little unseemly—it raises the specter of the idea that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus might be in some sense as fundamental to gay identity. I don't think that Harris actually intends this comparison (in fact, her vampires are susceptible to a specific strain of AIDS which can be carried by humans), but it does kind of sit out there more than a little awkwardly.

And I guess that awkwardness—and the awkwardness of having Sookie and others treat her telepathy like a "disability"—is strangely enriching. This awkwardness and these issues defamiliarize the vampire legends in the sense that they refresh the essential strangeness of the idea of a vampire. The routinized imagination of what a vampire is, accreted over many iterations of film and pulp novels, becomes more difficult to access—the Bela Lugosi or Anne Rice images and tropes effectively stop working for you as you read Harris's books.

Oh, and the book's loads of fun.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Walter Kirn: Between Two Elitisms

Walter Kirn's reviews tend to rub me the wrong way anyway (I haven't read any of his novels, which seem like Sam Lipsyte straining and slumming for laughs), but from the two NYT reviews (1, 2) and the excerpt he's published in The Atlantic, his new memoir seems like a perfect storm of all I detest about that "wised-up" attitude toward success and intellect, the graceless mien of those who have sucked from and sucked up to privilege and now want to complain about the taste.

However, I found Laura Miller's review (the second NYT link above) even more irritating: she seems to want to go Kirn one better and posture as one who knew from the start that there was nothing in this whole elitism clap-trap: "Like many memoirs, 'Lost in the Meritocracy' combines penetrating shrewdness with remarkable blind spots. Take the book’s central question: How did anyone as smart as Kirn get into such a fix?" If that's the book's central question, how is it a blind spot?

Miller is generally daft in her attempt to appear amused by Kirn and simultaneously hold him at arms-length. Consider this paragraph:
At Princeton, however, he discovered the limits of his facility. He could beguile a professor into thinking he understood such concepts as “liminal” and “valuational,” but his peers unerringly recognized his scholarship-boy status. The heiress girlfriend of one of his freshman roommates offered him some Champagne her father had sent her, then tried to charge him for his portion of the bottle. His roommates replaced their suite’s shabby furniture, then banned Kirn from the common room when he refused to pony up $600 as his share. In no time, the suite became “a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me: a private association of the powerful which I’d been invited to visit on a day pass that, I sensed, might be revoked at any time as arbitrarily as it had been issued.”
I don't understand the transition of the second sentence—Miller acts as if it's surprising that he can't pull money out of thin air with the same ease as he can bullshit. Aren't these two very different things? Miller wants to see a parity between the supposed fraudulence of capital-T Theory and actual class elitism which seems to me like a complete non-sequitur. Of course, she is digging this right out of Kirn:
The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.
I came to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were actors. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedimentary study habits were ill adapted, I concluded, to the new world of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was a con, and I—a born con man who hadn't read any great literature and was looking for any excuse not to—was eager to agree with them. This lucky convergence of intellectual fashion and my illiteracy restored my pride and emboldened me socially. Maybe I belonged at Princeton after all. [emphasis mine]
I suppose this is a fairly common trope, and I think Miller (and maybe Kirn) is just writing to expectations. But I am frankly confused by the ease with which basic class resentment (or self-resentment—I'm not exactly buying the sob stories of second-generation Princetonian Kirn) is transmuted into glib assertions of Theory's vacuousness ("Since hardly anybody understood the deconstructionists to begin with, it was that much easier for Kirn to bluff his way through, powered by bravado alone"). I get that Miller and Kirn believe that elite higher ed is generally hypocritical about equality, but I don't get what they think the specific mechanism is that converts class-based elitism and intellectual snobbery into one another in this environment (or in any other). But I'm not just irritated because I like Theory and wish people would stop picking on it; more importantly, I think that assuming that all elitisms are united under some general order of hypocrisy and pretension is, strangely enough, the best way to let everyone involved off the hook.

I concede that I was/am "lost in the meritocracy" at a very different historical moment from Kirn's, and that the way that Theory infuses the social life of college students may be considerably different now. Yet this basic assumption of a symmetry between class affectations and intellectual posturing seems to me very unconvincing, constituting an entirely notional homology, a connection devoutly wished but rarely consummated.

It's not that I can't see the roots of this imagined alliance: the feeling that Kirn expresses of being at best suffered to play in the rich kids' house is not dissimilar from the feelings that I felt as an undergraduate trying to play with concepts that I knew deep down were much too big for me to handle dextrously. In many ways, the undergraduate student is trespassing on the domain of Theory with inevitably mixed emotions: there is a sense in which the famous Emerson quote "What Plato has thought, he may think…" when updated to Derrida becomes a more perilous boast, and for that peril, more exhilarating, but also "hollow and vaguely hunted." And perhaps the fear that one can get the Theoretical code-words wrong is similar to the fear of being suddenly asked to leave an opulent party for not being properly dressed.

Yet affect is not reality—though the emotions may be similar, the upshot is not: there seems to me to be very little overlap between the academic effects of one's bluff being called on Theory and the social effects of having one's class inferiority reinforced, and not even that much overlap between the social uses of Theory and the social uses of class. I haven't been involved in too many social interactions where getting Theory wrong or not getting it at all has truly detrimental consequences, most often only causing passing anxiety or frustration, whereas the effects of class distinctions are less likely to be merely ephemeral, or to derive from such immediate origins.

The indiscriminate grouping of elitisms has, I think, profound consequences in talking about higher education, among other things. The ready association of intellectual pretension with class privilege makes it far too inviting to take the former as a valid substitute when it comes to the resentment and, more seriously, when it comes to critique. Reverse snobbery toward theory, in other words, becomes a sort of fillip of objection to other, more pervasive and more detrimental structures of inequality. Kirn's self-recriminations about not having the backbone to learn and do his homework are excruciatingly indirect ways of criticizing the more fundamental socioeconomic inequalities of a system that protects its own fiercely and unstintingly: once you're in, you almost can't screw up, a truth driven home by the rogues' gallery of oddballs and incompetents he depicts.

But such a system actually has little to do with the academic uses (much less the academic validity) of capital-T Theory, although some might argue that it works in precisely the same way. I tend to think that those scoffers tend to be quite unfamiliar with any specific work of Theory, but hey, that's another discussion. At any rate, Kirn's depictions of this system aren't only ineffective as critique, they seem to justify its logic; by convincing himself (and attempting to convince himself) that the only path to redemption is rejection of this cancer of elitisms (going back to Minnesota, reading the classics, "reconnecting certain wires," stop being phony or whatever), one can simply start by rejecting any of the above—it's a package deal.

According to Kirn, the system's intense nepotism means that getting outside of it is the only way to triumph over it, and that's just flat wrong—both because Kirn's memoir seems to be rather the opposite of a triumph over anything other than his publisher and because one can actually do Theory and do it for real; one can use privilege and use it for good; one can find ways of being something better than phony even while lost in the meritocracy.

***
One final note: this sentence from Kirn's narrative really piqued me: "Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as 'semiotically unstable.'" Who the hell remembers what they called anything they read in college, or if they do, who admits to such bogus narcissism?

Update (6/4): For a much better organized and much better articulated examination of Kirn's book, read this by Christian Lorentzen in this month's n+1 Book Review (or n+1BR). I particularly liked Lorentzen's comment that
High test scores are not the same thing as intelligence; getting good grades is not the same as learning; and the American system of higher education is far from egalitarian, despite its reigning pretense of diversity. I don't know of an educated person who would disagree with these statements. But nor at this point in time is academic achievement entirely divorced from intellectual merit. From what I have observed, academic opportunism, the ability to con the system and the openness of the system to cons, has never outgunned a passion for, say, literature, history, mathematics, science, or complexity itself.
I completely agree.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Infinite Summer

I imagine most of you will know of this by now, but there is a group reading of Infinite Jest that will be held this summer between June 21st and September 22nd.

Details here.

Infinite Jest seems like it will be the perfect book for this kind of undertaking; a lot of interesting people are already signed up, and DFW has always seemed to evoke from his readers a wondrous sense of community and connectedness, especially so, unfortunately, since his death.

I am not sure exactly how discussions will be held or what kinds of platforms will be used—the twitter hashtag #infsum is already being used, and I imagine a lot of communication will be collected there and on the Infinite Summer website.

I will be posting periodic updates on this blog about my progress and thoughts as I work my way through it; please join in with comments here, in addition to the other sites.

Diligent Indolence

I was asked by the webzine Escape into Life to write a short essay about amateur criticism. The essay is posted here, but I will also post it below for your perusal. Please do head over and check out Escape into Life, however.

***

I can never entirely make up my mind whether it’s the internet having a series of identity crises or just me. The blogosphere—that merry menagerie of stampeding independent minds—seems bent on making highly incompatible claims about its present capacities and future possibilities. It lives in constant oscillation between self-analysis and self-promotion, between an idea of itself as a smart-ass replacement for obsolete “old media” and an idea of itself as an emergent form of communication and expression, concerned less with the obsolescence of anything than with the improvement of itself.

I read one ode to bloggy self-definition, and I think, awesome, this might just work. People are ready to hold themselves accountable (or to allow their commenters to hold them accountable) in a way never before possible, to try to make something out of the opportunities of blogging that is really new, not just more “interactive” and more “democratic” than journalism. These bloggers believe that the instantaneity of blogging means that we can reconceptualize errant trains of thought at warp speed; someone points out the flaw in our logic or the fatal exception to our rule, and we can revise, reformulate, rearticulate, or even just annotate our way to a better, more complete idea of what we’re talking about. We can even find out the dimensions of our ignorance, and allow ourselves to be steered toward whole shelves of writers and cabinets of ideas we never knew existed.

Then I read a prideful rejection of “mainstream,” “old media” or (confusingly now that most things are eventually digitized) “print” journalism—favorite targets: The New York Times Book Review, anything an academic writes, and one dour critic named J. Wood—and I think, jeez, how many babies are flying out the window on our way to a better, bloggier, bathwater-free world. It’s not recognition we’re hooting for; it’s fewer professional critics. A lot of professional criticism is dreck, we note not too circumspectly, and a lot of it is about the same books, we further note quite correctly, so this elaborate system that produces all this repetitive dreck really isn’t doing its job, which we assume to be the production of vigorous analyses of life-altering books. The abject failure of print-based journalism tout court is an unmistakable sign that the times have changed, and these fancy-pants aren’t meeting their readers’ needs any longer. Economic hardship is a manifest judgment of obsolescence and inadequacy; shuttered doors means outdated values.

Cultural Darwinism aside, it is, I think, a teensy bit presumptuous to think that the economic collapse of print journalism (particularly in the book review sections) is causally connected to an absolute failure or insufficiency of its ideas and ideals—hierarchical editing structures and professional employees with specialized educational backgrounds—to adapt to changing demands and new possibilities for criticism. The economic side of newspaper and magazine publishing is the sum of so many more factors than blogging ever faces that it is really pretty thick to come to any kind of conclusion about the relative appeal of old media criticism versus blogging/amateur criticism based on the economic fates of newspapers or print-based journalism. Nothing about blogging is vindicated by the closing of a single newspaper.

It is easy, of course, to think so, and the rapid expansion of the blogosphere makes it quite tempting to believe that blogging, or amateur criticism, is successful because it is well adapted to the interests and ideas of whatever people are out there who read passionately. We assume that an upward trend on our Sitemeters or Google Analytics means that we’re doing something right; more comments that we’ve struck a chord. Yet with this watery faith in “success” comes a raft of harmful ideas and presumptions that are found all too often in tales of blog triumphalism.

Particularly distressing is a certain note of bedrock faith that the blogosphere is great because its absolute openness allows the cream to float to the top, or at least enough of the cream that a quick skim will draw off a fair bit that is of excellent quality. The idea is that because so much of the activity involved in blogging—reading, linking, writing, commenting, and, most importantly to the blogger, subscribing or returning—is voluntary (we’re all effectively volunteer critics), then what we have is a sort of pristine marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas will also be the best-sellers. I don’t see how this can be the case, however; the lit-blog’s bread-and-butter is not the idea, but the annotated link. It’s not a question of who has the best ideas, but who has aggregated the best sources that (often) determines a blog’s success. Exceptions, of course, exist, and there are some tremendously popular blogs which do not spend much effort collecting troves of interesting literary miscellanea, and which are almost entirely devoted to long or longish, idea-rich essays. I don’t wish to argue, however, that link-heavy blogs are not intellectual or don’t contain ideas, but merely that the factors which influence their success turn the idea of a marketplace of ideas into something more resembling a retail store.

But more generally, there is an idea that if we’re succeeding, then anything we’re not doing isn’t strictly necessary; if our audience is growing, then they only want those things we’re doing and no others, or at least they don’t want those other things very much. Speaking more directly, they can’t be expecting specialization—they’re not after the kind of authority that comes from that dead letter, the professional critic. Yet an audience that responds to our passion for books, that ignites with our scattered insights, is not necessarily one that disdains the ideals of professional criticism, and very well may be one that is still quite interested in criticism that is very dependent on specialized knowledge and even on hierarchical editing and publishing.

Once we remove the cultural Darwinism belief that newspaper book sections are failing because people don’t think professional criticism is important anymore or that they are rejecting the “filters” of established media, then we have to address whether we ought to be defining ourselves—and defining amateur criticism—in a way that isn’t just the scrappy underdog to the New York Establishment or James Wood or “old media.” Amateurism henceforth must be a good deal more than catch-as-catch-can, cream-rising-to-the-top, quick-on-the-draw enthusiasm, set off against the stagnant, cumbersome, top-down, heavily institutional specter of print journalism. We require a new paradigm for this brave new world; opposition isn’t enough.

I would like to offer a phrase drawn from one of John Keats’s letters as a guiding light in this redefinition:
I had an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner - Let him on a certain day read a certain page of full Poesy or distilled Prose, and let him wander upon it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it: until it becomes stale - But when will it do so? Never - When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all 'the two-and-thirty Palaces.' How happy is such a voyage of concentration, what delicious diligent Indolence!

The whole letter (to John Hamilton Reynolds, Feb. 19, 1818) is wonderful—among Keats’s best, I think. Keats goes on to admit that he hasn’t actually been reading anything, and that this luminous passage (and some dazzling philosophical imagery later in the poem) is basically a plumped-up excuse for his laziness—a fact which makes this letter perhaps even more appropriate a model of blogging.

But those two words which end this excerpt—“diligent Indolence!”—are what I wish to underline. It is important to get the sense of what Keats means by this term in the context of the rest of the letter, but here I will truncate it a bit and suggest that its application to blogging lies in the brilliant opportunities that amateurism opens to a writer and a lover of literature. We of course want to read a lot of literature, and we should—Keats speaks to a “sparing touch of noble Books,” but quantity is not so much the issue. Nor is speed—although “indolence” suggests a certain amount of maundering and loafing, Keats is also quite famous for the quickness of his reactions to literature—“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” has a sense of immediacy, as if Keats, incomparably moved, got up from the reading table only to sit right down again to write.

What is vital about Keats’s phrase is of course its paradoxical quality; to be diligently indolent means to be both hard at work and doing nothing. Yet its sense is also immediately obvious, and I think it captures the possibilities inherent in amateur criticism at its best: the earnest frivolousness of writing and thinking hard for the sheer fun of seeing your words spark into the keyboard, yet demanding that those words be ones that you would absolutely want to read if they were someone else’s. Not really under any obligation, all obligations are self-imposed, and this in itself is the greatest challenge: the word-by-word wrestling match with sound and sense is just a proxy for the slippery struggle to find the right holds on oneself, to build up the fragile intertwining structures of self-discipline and self-interest.

The fires of the amateur’s enthusiasm are worth stoking; and the heat that they give is not false. Yet they also ought to be more than flashes, and they must absolutely be more than the inverse reflections of the newspaper’s dying embers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

From The Unnameable, by Samuel Beckett

Yes, the big words must out too, all be taken as it comes. The problem of liberty too, as sure as fate, will come up for my consideration at the pre-established moment. But perhaps I have been too hasty in opposing these two fomenters of fiasco. Is it not the fault of one that I cannot be the other? Accomplices therefore. That's the way to reason, warmly. Or is one to postulate a tertius gaudens, meaning myself, responsible for the double failure? Shall I come upon my true countenance at last, bathing in a smile? I have the feeling I shall be spared this spectacle.

***

When Mahood I once knew a doctor who held that scientifically speaking the latest breath could only issue from the fundament and this therefore, rather than the mouth, the orifice to which the family should present the mirror, before opening the will. However this may be, and without dwelling further on these macabre details, it is certain I was grievously mistaken in supposing that death in itself could be regarded as evidence, or even a strong presumption, in support of a preliminary life. And I for my part have no longer the least desire to leave this world, in which they keep trying to foist me, without some kind of assurance that I was really there, such as a kick in the arse, for example, or a kiss, the nature of the attention is of little importance, provided I cannot be suspected of being its author. But let two third parties remark me, there, before my eyes, and I'll take care of the rest. How all becomes clear and simple when one opens an eye on the within, having of course previously exposed it to the without, in order to benefit by the contrast. I should be sorry, though exhausted personally, to abandon prematurely this rich vein. For I shall not come back to it in a hurry, ah no. But enough of this cursed first person, it is really too red a herring, I'll get out of my depth if I'm not careful.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul

I have the greatest trouble finding something to say about the books I really like. I did just buy as much Naipaul as Powells would sell me, so maybe I'll get another few cracks at him soon, but we'll see what I can scratch out here.

I suppose what appeals to me about Naipaul, and about this book, is simply its unerring sense of order, and its belief that order is not the antithesis of complexity. It takes the most bewildering forms of cultural and political disorganization—diasporas, failed states, state-sponsored violence, "free" markets—and organizes them without any attempt to contain or simplify them, and without transmogrifying them into symbols or metaphors. There is symbolism (some characters, as you'll shortly see, are even quite fond of it), but it isn't the plane of action or even of thought within the novel. A Bend in the River opens with the quote which Patrick French would turn into the title of Naipaul's biography: "The world is what it is." And that is, inconceivably, what you get in this book.

That is not to say that I believe Naipaul can substitute for sociological, historical, or political analyses, or that his artistic truths are identical to the truths such analyses might generate, and that substitutions can be made. And I do not mean to suggest that Naipaul is the grittiest of realists; he is vigilant about details, but he seems blessedly superior to any anxiety about le mot juste, and verisimilitude seems to be less an aesthetic endeavor than a conceptual one.

The point is, everything works: there is a wholeness and consistency to Naipaul's vision that is absolutely formidable, as if the novel wasn't even written on anything so discrete and serial as the page (and I don't mean that it was written Kerouac-style on a scroll).

As I said, I have difficulty finding adequate terms for praising books I really like, and I think I'd like to wait on any kind of exegesis of the book until I've read more of Naipaul's work. So I'll just leave you with this passage. Naipaul describes a sort of etiology for jetlag, which has been done numerous times (I think I can recall a passage about it as recently as Netherland), but it quickly turns :
Indar said, "I didn't want to go back. Not the first time. I didn't think my heart could stand it. But the airplane is a wonderful thing. You are still in one place when you arrive at the other. The airplane is faster than the heart. You arrive quickly and you leave quickly. You don't grieve too much. And there is something else about the airplane. You can go back many times to the same place. And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn't exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now. The past is here." He touched his heart. "It isn't there." And he pointed at the dusty road.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

James Wood's McEwan Problem

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, James Wood examines "the manipulations of Ian McEwan." (This needs to be said: the fact that Wood's name is so totemic that it must be in the title of the essay—which is "James Wood writes about the manipulations of Ian McEwan"—rather than in a byline is absolutely ridiculous. Does anyone else get this treatment? Not Frank Kermode, whose curmudgeonly piece on Austen follows Wood in the print edition.)

Wood begins by trying out two terms on McEwan's oeuvre: trauma and defamiliarization. Both have a certain amount of theoretical baggage in the sense that both are used or have been used in fairly specific, even specialized circumstances in academic discourses: defamiliarization, as Wood reminds us, is a formalist term (for Wood it's almost a term of endearment), and trauma has become a magnet word around which a number of sub- and micro-discourses have arranged themselves, many connected to mourning (and its favored expression, the elegy)—another hot topic.

Wood doesn't exactly handle either term convincingly; McEwan certainly is a writer who is drawn to trauma like a hawk to a hare, but Wood seems to want more from this rather obvious fact than the word itself is willing to give him. Wood acts almost as if reciting the instances of trauma in McEwan's work will expose a hieratic order or some sort of esoteric primal truth glowing dimly in the heart of his novels. Wood makes a very strange extended digression to Rousseau which is distinctly uncompelling; Wood's use of Rousseau isn't so specific as to necessitate the comparison, although necessity doesn't seem to be Wood's criterion for allusion—"This is not very far from Rousseau’s theory of how we developed language, with the difference that what seemed a fall for Rousseau seems like salvation for the secretive American" is simply not a very tight argument. The locution "it is not very far from" is itself "not very far from" something like "McEwan and J. R. Ackerley both write about dogs." The point is, novels about "trauma" and "the end of innocence" are 2 cents a bushel in the past century, but Wood bites down hard on these terms as if he's found out the secret formula to McEwan's success.

Then there is an embarrassing attempt to turn the term "defamiliarization" into "narrative coyness," and then applying it to McEwan's pulpier moments: "[McEwan] writes very distinguished prose, but is fond of a kind of thrillerish defamiliarisation, in which he lulls the reader into thinking one thing while preparing something else." Then we get another catalog of supposedly illustrative passages and yet another free-assocation game:
In this regard Tolstoy and Stephen Crane may have influenced McEwan. Tolstoy, after all, was praised by the Russian formalists for his talent at defamiliarisation. Nikolai Rostov stands on a wooden bridge, in the heat of battle, and there is a sound ‘as if someone has spilled nuts’. A man has fallen down beside him. But Tolstoy’s estrangements are often on the order of moral correction or readjustment; they open up a new vein of sympathy, as when Pierre Bezukhov visits Dolokhov at home, and discovers that the rowdy man-about-town with whom he has just fought a duel is a ‘most affectionate’ son to his old mother and hunchbacked sister. McEwan’s estrangements are, more often than not, visual surprises, designed to keep the reader in his expert grip, and to keep meaning under control. They are secrets, not mysteries. Graham Greene and George Orwell may have been closer models for McEwan (I am thinking of the scene in Down and Out in Paris and London, when Orwell, in the doss-house, is woken up ‘by a dim impression of some large brown thing coming towards me. I opened my eyes and saw that it was one of the sailor’s feet, sticking out of bed close to my face. It was dark brown, quite dark brown like an Indian’s, with dirt’). And behind Orwell and McEwan may stand a Victorian manipulator like Wilkie Collins.
In a previous post about Wood's critical virtues, I praised his ability to construct micro-narratives which can be highly useful in orienting a young or lightly-read reader who wants to figure out where all the names fit, at least enough to begin talking about them and to begin working her way through some canons. This type of passage is the same thing, only really bad.

Before I move on, I want to clear up this thing about defamiliarization. James Wood thinks it's something like an authorial stutter-step, designed to shift the reader's balance just enough to create that instant of separation when the writer zooms past for the easy score. But unexpected twists weren't exactly what the Russian formalists had in mind when they defined the term. Think of it this way: what Wood is saying is that defamiliarization gets you to think of the wrong image, and when you recognize your error and see the right image, you're surprised and possibly pleased (or possibly pissed off). Defamiliarization isn't about tricking the reader into misperceptions; instead, it's about demonstrating the inadequacy of our correct perceptions when they have become habituated or "automatic." Wood's reference to Tolstoy's battle scene is actually this sort of thing: our perception of battle (from movies, now) has made the recognition of gunfire's sounds easy or automatic—familiar. Making use of a completely unrelated idiom of sounds—nuts dropping on the ground—to redescribe the familiar forces the reader to hear things as if for the first time. (Here's part of the essay by Shklovsky which is the locus classicus of defamiliarization.)

Returning to the essay, Wood's efforts are directed toward describing McEwan's novels as "manipulations," but that word is given an egregiously short leash. In Wood's vernacular, "manipulation" is merely 'setting the reader up for a surprise.' Wood tells us that he doesn't particularly like manipulation, and that he doesn't like how the teleology of narrative manipulation forces all contingencies into becoming inevitabilities, how if the purpose of a narrative is surprise—the revelation of a secret which you have been prepared for but prevented from accessing—then chance itself ossifies into a foregone conclusion. Wood fears this: "But if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – must always become, in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives. Contingency is accident, but there is nothing accidental about these highly-strung narratives, which in fact attempt to contain and hold accident."

In the paragraph break between that last sentence and the next, there is a tacit acknowledgment that instead of being unusual, this truth about McEwan's fiction may instead be a truth about narrative, that the relation of events (potentially) connected by causality is always subject to this teleological manipulation: "If secrets constitute us as individuals (as Briony Tallis hopes is the case), and secrets are crucial to storytelling, then it must be storytelling itself that expels us from Eden. Storytelling is corrupt and corrupting." But Wood rallies to again make this general case an exceptional one: "This has been one of the themes McEwan has pondered in recent years, and it is hard not to conclude that in so doing he is somewhat anxiously arraigning his own propensity for narrative manipulation." Wood is here arguing that McEwan's better judgment has converted him to a Wooden suspicion of secret-driven teleology, and he proceeds to lay out his case with another cycle through the McEwan corpus.

Wood shows a number of McEwan's creations expressing some anxiety about fiction's "tidiness"—its ability to make sense of itself if it wants to. And that's when Wood appears to think he's got McEwan by the throat: "McEwan seems to want to have it both ways, at once decrying too much pattern and making use of too much pattern. It is all very well for the narrator of Black Dogs, or for Henry Perowne, to object to the fakery of ‘turning points’ in fiction, but they are themselves embedded in books devoted to such mechanisms." Oh dear god, save us from the writer who wants it both ways!

Wood does go on to confess that he thinks that at his best, McEwan gets to have it both ways, but I have a problem with Wood's evident satisfaction in believing that "wanting it both ways" explains McEwan's objectives comprehensively. Wood argues for this explanation by arguing that it mirrors the reader's desires: she too wants it both ways, although Wood notes that, like McEwan, sometimes she finds that having it both ways feels a little cheap.

The problem is, Wood is still caught in the idea of manipulation as a head-fake: feint one way, go the other. And this excessively simplistic definition of manipulation holds him up from conceiving of other possible interactions and transactions between the writer and the reader, and the writer and the text. Wood appears to assume that McEwan's "wanting it both ways" means that there are only two ways to have it—that one can only write thrillerish fiction dedicated to surprise and overdetermined "turning points" or one can write a fiction that is more open to representing "life's limitless messiness." By being smart enough about the first kind, maybe one can attain the deeper truths of the second, but these are the writer's options.

But I suppose I have more of a problem with Wood's obligatory admonition about "life's limitless messiness" than I do about the bleakness of his views on authorial "manipulation." Why is it that we perennially have to genuflect and remind ourselves that life always outstrips fiction when it comes to contingency and complexity? This little ritual is itself a fiction—not because of its truth status, but because we tell it to ourselves repeatedly, and this repetition and the ready accessibility of its assurances are themselves fictional, even if they are not always fictitious. That is, whether or not it is true, this formulation "life is far more complex, more untidy than fiction can be or wants to be" becomes part of the fiction that we create by imagining what our life is in relation to the lives of others. I think McEwan understands that very well, which is a large part of what he's doing with the characters who chafe at fiction's tidiness.

A character like Henry Perowne is taught that occasionally life is as brutally marked by turning points, secrets, and other "thrillerish" elements. The background of the novel is, after all, the launch of the Iraq war, and while that war certainly isn't "tidy" like fiction is, the overdetermination of lives by the existence of secrets and turning points is certainly a dominant feature of the war, as it is of any war. James Wood's insistence on "life's limitless messiness" and its profusion of "loose endings" isn't so much a reminder of life's difference from fiction as it is a preference for events small enough to create only loose endings, secrets small enough not to create turning points. Those things too exist, but they aren't what distinguish fiction from life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Giovanni's Room, by James Baldwin

One of the truly remarkable things about James Baldwin's writing is his ability to represent repression convincingly. Baldwin's characters each have their own idioms of repression, their inner galaxies of things that cannot be articulated with complete explicitness. Somehow, Baldwin is able to find ways of representing these hesitations and circumlocutions in a manner and with a style that does not itself add to their evasiveness. Yet he does not seek to show up these evasions, to disparage his characters' reasons for aversion, to diminish the impossibilities of telling the whole truth to oneself. His characters are neither mitigated nor belittled for their repressions, which is, I think, one reason why his contemporary critics often talked about the dignity with which he invests his characters, particularly those who are queer or black or both.

There's a strange politics behind the application of the word "dignity," particularly with regard to black men, but also with regard to the (urban) poor, and to gays. Rather like Joe Biden's comments about Barack Obama way back during the primaries, it's a word that suggests a hint of surprise, and a not always veiled implication that it is an exception when it occurs. Dignity is a contrasting quality to flamboyance, animatedness, braggartry, swagger, frivolity, and therefore its application to categories stereotyped by these demerits is of necessity both remarkable and unexpected. Calling Baldwin's characters "dignified" or praising them or Baldwin for their "dignity" ("Baldwin writes of these matters with unusual candor and yet with such dignity and intensity" - NYT) is a fairly straightforward (no pun intended) way of saying, don't worry, you're not going to be reading about those kind of queers; it's perfectly safe to read. Of course, Baldwin's writing was also marketed as transgressive and shocking, so there's that too, but it also had to be a very different kind of shock from, say, William S. Burroughs or Jean Genet.

What I wanted to say, however, was that Baldwin's writing seems remarkably unpressured by any of these considerations; rather like Bellow, one gets the sense that readers just followed, and that if there were efforts made to assimilate Baldwin as a writer perfectly safe to read on a commuter train, he was undeterred from what he would have been doing anyhow. Baldwin's ability to represent his character's idioms of repression, therefore, wasn't some societal reflux or a safety valve thrown in to keep the audience from feeling alienated, dialing down the bohemian steam; it reads instead as a wholly organic connection to the characters he created, and an intimate knowledge of the many forms of self-denial and self-betrayal one can experience.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Paul West on Alejo Carpentier

More from Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another:
Not quite deadpan, he stares from the jacket with forebearing suavity. His cleft chin droops like a wattle and his left hand, advanced along his thigh to span its girth between thumb and forefinger, looks draped, vegetal, and, because so near the camera, oversized. Thus Jean-Pierre Couderc's photograph of Alejo Carpentier, as of a haughtier or exasperated Herbert Marshall: but what comes through most subtly of all in this extraordinary portrait is the fastidious, high-level canniness of a mind as much attuned to ephemera as to cyclical time, as much aware of time that is seasonal as of time that is mere chronicity. This is Cuba's UNESCO man in Paris (the very concept gives one pause), but also, and perhaps more than any novelist since Proust, Our Man in Continuum, whose chosen emblems—Haitian history; a voyage up the Orinoco; the Machado dictatorship; conquered Guadaloupe; time reversed seen as an exercise in optional thinking—have always more than a topical resonance and pluck at the mind's underside with irresistible energy, scotchig roles and eras and taxonomies in the interests of a profuse contingency, a flux we never quite see whole or get accustomed to but temporarily endure while trying to relish it as the only thing that consciousness is offered. In a word, Carpentier implies an All. Imply means to infold, and that he does non-stop, with tough finesse.

What a spacious, noble view of fiction he has, proposing not chemisms, the darkling plain, the long arm of coincidence, the involutnary memory, the absurd, an E. M. Forsterian small platoon, or an "analogical consciousness" out of "Morelli" by Cortázar, but a vision of the horn of plenty forever exploding, forever settling in bits that belong together more than they don't because there is nothing else for them to do. In Carpentier the All and the One remain unknown, and suspect even, but the aggregator of the Many, gorgeous and higgledy-piggledy, does duty for them, never construable but always lapped up.

This is unusual, a far cri de coeur from the doting, philatelical chosisme of Robbe-Grillet, say, or the infuriated listing (in both senses) of Goytisolo's Count Julian, or the voluptuous tactilities of Yukio Mishima. It's akin to the optical illusions Claude Simon practices in Conducting Bodies, but altogether more voluminous, zestful, and more fun. A wild and whirling head has developed a flair for appetizing specificities, and Carpentier is a master of both detail and mass, of both fixity and flux. With none of Beckett's reductive extremism, little of Joyce's word-smelting multiplicity, he sometimes seems the only senior novelist today possessed of the view from a long way off: as if, during a sojourn on some noetic planet circling Barnard's star, he had seen mankind plain, and all our thinking, our births and deaths, our myths and structures and dreams, all our bittersweet velleities, rammed up against the anonymous doings of nature. Unlike Robert Graves, who once claimed that by holding a Roman coin in his hand he could transport himself back to Roman times, Carpentier uses astute vicariousness to guess what the coin would be like. He is one of the few writers of whom you can say: If we didn't exist, he would be able to imagine us (assuming he was the only human). In other words, he can not only describe; he can describe what no-one has seen; and, best, he seems to have the hypothetical gift of suggesting, as he describes that his description—a text woven from words—is experience newly reified, made more available, more dependable, and more reassuring, than daily bread or daily trash.
Unfortunately, the photograph above is not the one referred to in the text; I can't find that one or one that matches its description, but I hope the above gives you some idea.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

In his introduction, T.S. Eliot has an excellent consideration of Nightwood's relation to poetry—what we might be inclined to ask while reading the novel—is this a prose poem?
In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would "appeal primarily to readers of poetry." This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term "novel" has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes's style is "poetic prose." But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really "written." They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes's prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity.
I am intrigued by this last line about the "first intensity." It seems to me rather strange to be talking about a book of some 170 pages as if it all existed on a singular plane of "first intensity." Of course, it also would seem odd to me to suggest that a poem of the length of, say "In Memoriam A.H.H." might entirely exist at this sustained level. Even Hart Crane's "The Bridge" has some slack patches. Maybe "The Wasteland" doesn't, but it is not all that long, and it is rather anomalous in that very few short poems can really compare to it in intensity.

Eliot's emphasis on intensity seems to me to be rather specific to lyric poetry, and this leads me to wonder whether Eliot really means that "only sensibilities trained on lyric poetry can wholly appreciate it." I don't really believe that he is suggesting that long immersion in The Aeneid or The Village or The Prelude is the best preparation for reading Nightwood. (Browning's dramatic monologues split the difference {and actually would make an excellent comparison to this book}, but I doubt that Eliot intends this as his reference.)

But I wonder whether longer poems aren't better preparation for the reading and appreciation of this novel; as with most long poems, one reads (or at any rate I read, perhaps poorly) first for passages of exceptional intricacy, beauty, or power, marking those for more detailed attention, but rushing a little through the not-very-striking bulk of the work. If I encounter a problem of understanding, I read more carefully through what I have rushed and work my way back toward one of the striking passages I have flagged. I suppose I trust myself enough that I assume that the poem's most concentrated and most significant passages are going to be the ones which first stood out to me, and that if this is not entirely true, and there is significance in what does not stand out, it will still be tugged a little toward the passages of greatest beauty, and I can find my way through any rough patches by using those most striking moments as guideposts, orienting myself by them.

This process was how I read Nightwood, and I'd like to think that it worked—I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and while I don't exactly feel as if I exhausted the book's meaning, I don't know if that is really the best way to read it anyway: not all modernist works are hierophanies.

But in particular, this book is given to a degree of sententiousness which makes this type of reading almost impossible to avoid: these apothegms, like those below, are such dense little nuggets of meaning that one almost can't avoid pausing on them. The fluidity of most of the imagery and the action of the novel forces these readily quotable aphorisms to obtrude:
An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Death is intimacy walking backward.

Time is a great conference planning our end.

Youth is only the past putting a leg forward.

Bend down the tree of knowledge and you'll unroost a strange bird.
These gnomic proverbs actually make a little bit of sense in context, but you'll have to take my word for that, or read the book and see if they catch your attention too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Book of Murder, Guillermo Martínez

Martínez, you may have noticed, had a story in a recent New Yorker; I read it, liked it, and was in the library a couple of days later scanning the New Book shelves when I ran across this. It's great and even occasionally fantastic, especially if you're not tired of Bolaño yet. That's a backhanded compliment, I guess, and therefore a little unintentionally dissuasive (I do want to recommend the book, after all), but on the other hand, it does give a pretty good idea of what you'll be getting yourself into. Martínez is richly and eclectically allusive, describes violence with a kind of forensic intensity that can make the simple act of holding the book feel suddenly uncomfortable, and the characters are all defined by their relationship to authorship. The themes—fate/chance, evil, literature—are your standard Bolaño obsessions.

But unlike Bolaño, Martínez is marketed—in translation at least—as a crime writer (though maybe that will change if his publishers take this New Yorker spot and run with it), as a kind of Hispanic Matthew Pearl. So it's not surprising but nonetheless kind of disappointing that a blurb like the following will show up on the back cover: "This is a clever, chilling novel that takes crime writing to a new level." You'd never see something like that on Distant Star or 2666, now would you?

I think it's interesting to poke a little bit at this splinter of genial/genteel condescension, as a comparison of these two writers may bring to the surface a few of my frustrations with the ways by which "genre fiction" gets defended as "intellectually serious." For the record, I don't disagree with that contention, but I find its articulation to be often wanting.

For one thing, there's often a kind of agreement between the defenders and the condescenders to focus on the intellectual aspirations of a book rather than its execution. What, in the eyes of its condescenders, lifts this one example of genre fiction above the rest, is basically the same thing that, in the eyes of its defenders, demonstrates the arbitrariness of genre distinctions—the fact that genre authors are often transparently trying to be smart, that they are exceptionally eager to show you how committed they are to ideas. Taking on big, philosophically rich and thorny themes—chance and evil in this book—is considered an achievement in itself, as if authorship consisted entirely in ambitions. (This is certainly the case in the reviewing of first novels as well, a genre in itself for sure.)

Similarly, the quality of name-drops is almost always noted—as if that proved something about the book, other than that its author is, again, committed to ideas and is trying to be smart. There's a sort of credit given for the transparency of the book's intellectual ostentation. One of the most hyperbolic instances I've run across occurred this year in the Tournament of Books, when a commentator stated proudly about a YA novel whose place in the tournament was questioned: "any book that name-checks Foucault and has a running metaphor on the Panopticon isn’t spending all its time in the shallow end." He's not alone: check out the novel's Goodreads page, where people say very similar things: "let's face it, how many other YA novels are going to cite P.G. Wodehouse and Michel Foucault?"

The focus on ambition is handy for both the condescenders and the defenders: by shifting the terms from the limitations and achievements of the book at hand to the possibilities and capabilities of the author, you have a readymade argument either for the exceptional intelligence of this one figure (as opposed to his or her fellow genre hacks) or for the idea that any truly creative writer can work with any material and produce something of value, that genre no more constrains authorial energy and genius than her physical mode of writing (typewriter, word processor, pen/paper). (FWIW, I give a lot of credence to this latter argument—the proof is just too abundant.)

I suppose I just don't like this ambiguity—the grounds for evaluating fiction classified as genre should not so easily produce conflicting arguments.