Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

I group these two novels together because neither really needs much of an introduction nor much of a recommendation from me. They are both truly masterful novels—extremely compelling storytelling, vividly memorable characters, exceedingly deft at creating themes out of plot.

Yet a more important reason for me to group them is that in both books I found myself reading something very significant into the book that was, I acknowledge, not very well supported by the text, but from which I drew a great deal more enjoyment than a "straight" reading would, I think, have afforded me. These revisionary readings drew me much deeper into the book and made these novels significantly more meaningful to me as reading experiences. Still, there is a trace of doubt that the revisionary manner in which I read them doesn't in some way prevent me from reading them as the texts they "are," that heavily revising them according to my caprices makes available to me not the text, but my own interests.

My question here and my qualms are less about the intellectual validity of reading things into the text that aren't manifestly there than it is about the communicative value of doing so. Am I, in other words, talking to you about the texts, or about myself?

Let me be more concrete. Death Comes for the Archbishop, to me, was an achingly beautiful love story about two men, Bishop LaTour and his vicar Father Vaillant. Yes, I know I'm not the first person to read it this way, and yes, I could cite many passages that don't really require much strain to read them as evidence of this love, and yes, I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself. I think it's completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn't make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven't given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.

The Color Purple doesn't have that kind of ambiguity about sexuality; the attraction of Celie to Shug is something you'd have to read around, rather than read into. The revision that I made in reading it, however, was more about a persistent intertextual link that I can't really argue is definitely, obviously there, but that I thought made the novel much more interesting.

Doing a little searching for "Samuel Richardson Pamela The Color Purple," there are a handful of other people who have seen this link too, but I read it as being much stronger than I think they allow. I thought about writing a blog post about how The Color Purple is, effectively, a revision of Pamela (Walker's novel could also be subtitled "Or Virtue Rewarded;" like Squire Mr. B, Mr. _____'s surname is emended out of the text; there is at times a comical and unlikely immediateness to the epistolary format of the book, as the need to give the events dramatic weight runs up against the relative cool of the letter form; &c.), but in a sense the post would just be a "hmm… interesting," an intellectual ship passing in the Internet night. What I really want to share was what it was like to read The Color Purple in this manner, and I guess I have some doubts that the specificity of that experience doesn't preempt or preclude such an attempt from being completed satisfactorily. That is, I'm not sure how I can share my experience without it turning into an attempt to convince you that the idea behind the experience is possible or valid.

A novel is a system of signs which can be read in specific (and non-exclusive) ways, but it is also an experience, and while I think that some experiences have better ideas behind them than others, I also think that we often mistake arguing about our ideas for sharing our experiences. And while I'm leery of treating experiences of novels as a realm that doesn't require justification or argument—just sharing!—I also think that we are sorely under-equipped in terms of talking about novels in ways that do not reduce to arguments about the ideas which make our experiences possible.

Basically, it feels kind of weird and a little facile just to say, "reading Death Comes for the Archbishop as a gay love story enriched my experience of the book" or "The Color Purple came alive for me once I started reading it as a revision of Pamela," but that's because I'm so used to going immediately into page-and-paragraph citations of why these readings might be intellectually permissible. Sharing in this manner feels a little shallow, and I wish it didn't.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thanks for all the fish!

Thanks to all the commenters here and at The Valve for the suggestions and information about SF novels; I certainly have a reading list now. (And please keep the suggestions coming if you still have them!)

I think I'm going to get started with Solaris—I already have some familiarity with it through Tarkovsky's adaptation (but not, thankfully, Soderbergh's), and Rich's comments about it on The Valve make it seem like an important starting place: he says, "It’s just that if you’re going to try hard SF, I think you’re better off with Solaris first; if you don’t like it, you’re not going to like anything in the subgenre," and, "I was particularly struck by Solaris because I have a science background, and it’s one of the few SF books I’ve read that struck me as really having anything to do with actual science." That sounds very interesting to me. Octavia Butler's coming after that. And Adam Roberts's Land of the Headless is likely in flight somewhere from Amazon to me. Others will follow, no doubt.

I'll (of course) keep you all updated on my progress. Thanks again!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jonathan Franzen on the Social Novel

An interview with Jonathan Franzen appears in the latest issue of boundary 2 alongside a number of very interesting articles on the American novel. I'll be getting to those in a later post, but I just wanted to pull out a few quotes from the Franzen since I think boundary 2 requires either a subscription or a university affiliation.

Here's Franzen on the social novel:
the thing I abandoned, the two hundred pages of The Corrections that I abandoned, was essentially an illustrative work. And I couldn’t smoke enough cigarettes in a day to interest myself in using a novel to illustrate points I already understood very well. I think, although he is extremely kind and erudite and a lovely person, Richard Powers’s books are good examples of what happens when you try to illustrate a social reality that’s already known to you. Powers can still sometimes make it exciting because he’s so bright. He’s brighter than almost anyone who’ll read him, so you can always learn something from him. But I’m not sure he’s learning much himself, and that’s the big danger of trying to use a novel to mirror the social reality. Sure, when there were no other media to do the job, it was useful for Zola and Sinclair to broadcast important social info and dramatize it and make it accessible to a bourgeois readership. But TV can do all that now, and so the purely social novel has pretty much shriveled up and died.
I like the term "illustrative novel"—I think the way "the social novel" is talked about is far too abstract (strangely enough) and diffuse. Here he is on whether a Washington novel—a novel about politics at the national level—can still be written:
A better way to go about it—and I still have some wish to do this, in the new book—is to track political passions within a family. My own father’s family is an interesting study in shades of conservatism, from my John Bircher uncle Erv to my unexpectedly tolerant dad and his brother-in-law Walt, an Air Force colonel and a lifelong Democrat. They would have these huge fights at family dinners, just blazing political fights. And then the subtle interactions between political convictions and the texture of our daily lives. When I drive down the street and I’m making stereotyped observations about the person driving the humongous SUV with three yellow ribbons on the bumper, that’s just my politics at work. Maybe some minor cultural things, too, but it’s mostly a political rage. “This person probably voted for George Bush twice.” That’s what I’m thinking. And how these passions are formed and handed down, and why they’re so important to us, these are still very interesting questions. But it’s not a Washington novel.
He also says some interesting things about the Midwest.
Interviewer (Christopher Connery): It’s hard to say that regionalism has much purchase on the general literary imagination these days. But what does regionalism mean for you in the work?

I can never find a satisfactory answer to this question. I might lead with my theory about the Midwest and why so many interesting writers come out of it, from Twain and Fitzgerald and Cather to Saunders and Vonnegut and Wallace. I think it has to do with a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world. Historically, there’s been no immediate point of contact with foreignness, and also no immediate contact with the true centers of power: New York and Washington, increasingly Hollywood as well. When I was young, styles that took over on the coasts would get to the Midwest about two years later. It was a shock for Midwesterners to find, when they got to college, that clothes they thought were cool everyone else has stopped wearing. Something about having been a victim of a time lag—something about not having had a clue when other people the same age were already getting a clue—produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism. You become more worldly in response to not having been worldly enough for a little too long.

That’s my personal myth, at any rate. If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost… And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois—it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out of isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a “Midwestern” character…

[On what counts as the Midwest:] Indiana is a special case. Evansville is the South. Fort Wayne is still Rust Belt, Valparaiso is definitely Midwest. That’s actually an interesting way to approach it—to define where my boundaries of the Midwest run. I think it begins around Columbus, Ohio—Thurberville—and stretches west. Anything below I-70 is basically southern. And that’s true right across Missouri. My Midwest is bounded on the south by I-70. It stretches all the way to about an hour east of Denver and includes pretty much all of the Great Plains states north of I-70… You can take all of Kansas, some of Oklahoma, too. But not, for example, downstate Illinois. You start hearing the South in people’s voices. They don’t sound like Tom Brokaw anymore.
I tend to think Franzen's conception of the Midwest is framed rather extremely by his experiences as a regional expatriate (and being one myself, I think I can tell), and I would argue—or this is at least how I argue with myself—that his emphasis on the distance between the Midwest and the centers of power is not as definitive or as determinative as what specific forms of communication and transportation existed to bridge those distances. Indianapolis ain't Brigadoon, Mr. Franzen. It's the ways that ideas and trends get filtered out by the narrowness of the channels of communication and transportation that is determinative, and not so much the time lag that he talks about. But it's much more romantic to think of the Midwest as a land time forgot, I suppose.
Also, as someone who grew up right on I-70, I think his cartography's kind of bullshit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

I read Babel-17 because a) I've been meaning to read a Delany novel; b) this one was at my local library; and c) it won a Nebula and was on the Hugo shortlist way back in, wow, 1966-7.

It was okay.

And its okayness was kind of disappointing, again for a number of reasons. One was, I have to confess, the beard. Samuel Delany's beard is too awesome for me not to like his books a lot.

But the more important reason was that I feel like I don't have a great handle on science fiction, and I was hoping Delany would be awesome enough to launch me into a much broader exploration of its back-issues, as it were. I was hoping that I'd gather enough enthusiasm from reading this that I'd be encouraged to read a lot more SF, that by dipping my toe in here, I'd catch a big undercurrent and get sucked under. I tried the same thing earlier this year with LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and, while I liked it well enough that I'll certainly read more LeGuin down the road, again just didn't feel that undertow.

Despite being Nebula'd and Hugo'd, maybe this wasn't even the right Delany. Again, this was the one in my library, and I've been finding it difficult to locate Delany in used bookstores, so this was the only one I could get hold of. But the problem is, I don't really know any better, and I was kind of using the Nebula and Hugo awards as a guide.

Which is why Adam Roberts's post on the 2009 Hugo award shortlist was a real revelation to me (and not because he uses a quote from this blog to make part of his argument). I mean, I know that prizes rarely get things "right"—some are better than others, but tepidity is generally the name of the game. But Adam expressed this general truth in a way that had real bite and force with specific regard to the SF community (which may be why he's getting flamed all over the internets):
Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.

This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?
I guess I'd consider myself one of those "people who don't know any better," and I feel like my experience with Babel-17 is a full-strength justification of Adam's argument, even if the terms have to be adjusted a bit for the fact that Babel-17 is more than 40 years old and maybe was truly new, wondrous, mindblowing and strange in 1966. But you know, Babel-17 shared the 1966 Nebula Award with Flowers for Algernon, so I would guess that this problem of elevating mediocre and really rather juvenile books is not a new one.

I don't really mind reading a mediocre novel every once in awhile. I think it's important to read widely enough that you know why truly excellent novels do stand out, why mediocre novels are only mediocre. At the same time, I'd much rather be reading SF novels that do have the undertow effect and, while Adam suggests some books in his post that I'm eager to follow up on (especially China Miéville), I am hoping that I can solicit some advice from the readers of this blog as to which authors might possess that intended effect, and which books of theirs in particular. I'm not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that's rather the opposite of what I'm interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren't just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Infinite Summer: David Foster Wallace as Militant Grammarian

I have put up an Infinite Summer post on Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading blog: here is an excerpt:
If you’re going to write a book featuring a Militant Grammarian as a character, it probably behooves you to cross every ‘t’ and forget no tittles, to split no infinitives and dangle no participles. David Foster Wallace’s long, grandly periodic sentences, which often resemble nothing so much as a prolonged clay court baseline rally, are not helpful in this regard; the multiple subordinations, extended parentheticals, and drifting subject matter are enough to give a prescriptive grammarian palpitations.

Yet Wallace is perhaps more careful than he needs to be with his reader, more solicitous of the possibility that the string of the sentence has crossed itself one too many times, and its referents and antecedents have become blurred and disordered.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

salman rushdie midnight's children
I guess I lost my taste for narcissism when I fell out of love with Woody Allen.
[N]ow, seated hunched over paper in a pool of Anglepoised light, I no longer want to answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world. (457-458)
By saying this, Saleem Sinai mistakes himself for a tautology, and a flatly banal one at that.

Saleem's mistake, of course, is the novel: it is the account of Saleem's increasingly extravagant tale of rampant solipsism—a pluralist solipsism, to be sure— Every man is his own multitude! Every man the sum of his experiences… and more! but then again, perhaps no other form of solipsism is possible after Whitman, Proust, and Joyce.

Saleem's repeated assertion that "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world" carries within it the novel's central problem: it assumes that you, the reader want to understand this one life, Saleem's life, but it also assumes that you will recognize that the price of admission to this life and this understanding is your credulity: you've gotta swallow everything—the world and all its bullshit. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill "my way is to conjure you,""can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?," metafictional "this is a fiction" self-referentiality, but a more substantial demand that the reader not just suspend their disbelief, but understand that doing so constitutes a joke on Saleem. Acceding to Saleem's solipsism merely completes it, and by going along for the ride, we're allowing Saleem to string himself along.

Consider the following passage:
Sensing Padma’s unscientific bewilderment, I revert to the inexactitudes of common speech: By the combination of “active” and “literal” I mean, of course, all actions of mine which directly—literally—affected, or altered the course of, seminal historical events, for instance the manner in which I provided the language marchers with their battle-cry. The union of “passive” and “metaphorical” encompasses all socio-political trends and events which, merely by existing, affected me metaphorically—for example, by reading between the lines of the episode entitled “The Fisherman’s Pointing Finger”, you will perceive the unavoidable connection between the infant state’s attempts at rushing towards full-sized adulthood and my own early, explosive efforts at growth… Next, “passive” and “literal”, when hyphenated, cover all moments at which national events had a direct bearing upon the lives of myself and my family—under this heading you should file the freezing of my father’s assets, and also the explosion at Walkeshwar Reservoir, which unleashed the great cat invasion. And finally there is the “mode” of the “active-metaphorical”, which groups together those occasions on which things done by or to me were mirrored in the macrocosm of public affairs, and my private existence was shown to be symbolically at one with history. The mutilation of my middle finger was a case in point, because when I was detached from my fingertip and blood (neither Alpha nor Omega) rushed out in fountains, a similar thing happened to history, and all sorts of everywhichthing began pouring out all over us; but because history operates on a grander scale than any individual, it took a good deal longer to stitch it back together and mop up the mess.
Rushdie wants us to be in on the joke: Saleem's distinctions are in a real sense merely verbal, fanciful, imaginary (because they are equally and only part of the encompassing fiction of the novel)—as distinctions for us, the readers, they don't matter. Every event in the narrative is equally fictitious to us, even (especially) those which touch upon actual historical events. But Rushdie also wants us to recognize and to affirm that these distinctions matter a whole lot to Saleem, that the way Saleem has been written requires that we pretend to want to "understand one life," and especially the divisions that structure it. Otherwise, there is literally nothing to read for.

The problem is that far too frequently these two desires cross each other up—the moments when Rushdie is poking the reader hardest in the ribs—"did you forget you have to pretend to be suspending your disbelief? Don't forget the joke's on Saleem!"—are the moments when the reader most wants to reassess why Saleem persists in his solipsism, when Saleem's difficulty in understanding what's real and what's imagined become most obtrusive and most challenging to the reader. Whenever Saleem loses his (more imagined than actual) ability to keep his careful divisions separate and passive and active and metaphorical and literal shade into and over each other, the reader is thrust back onto an actual desire to understand the life that has become very confused, but the metafictional joke ("remember, you're swallowing the world!") stands in the way. By insisting that Saleem's divisions of reality are equally fictitious, Rushdie chains himself to a monochromaticism of his own—he can never fully separate his fictions either, cannot give them distinct textures or weights. And in a book that is ostensibly about the difference between the fictions an individual makes to explain his actions and the fictions a nation makes to explain its actions, this is a grave problem. Rushdie has knocked out any supports for his own efforts to play the microcosm off the macrocosm, or vice versa.

For instance, late in the book Saleem finds himself participating in the Pakistani military effort to prevent Bangladesh's secession from the state. The suppression of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was brutal, and a few of the book's passages describe horrific events.
Shaheed and I saw many things which were not true, which were not possible, because our boys would not could not have behaved so badly; we saw men in spectacles with heads like eggs being shot in side-streets, we saw the intelligentsia of the city being massacred by the hundred, but it was not true because it could not have been true, the Tiger was a decent chap, after all, and our jawans were worth ten babus, we moved through the impossible hallucination of the night, hiding in doorways while fires blossomed like flowers, reminding me of the way the Brass Monkey used to set fire to shoes to attract a little attention, there were slit throats being buried in unmarked graves, and Shaheed began his, “No, buddha—what a thing, Allah, you can’t believe your eyes—no, not true, how can it—buddha, tell, what’s got into my eyes?” And at last the Buddha spoke, knowing Shaheed could not hear: “O, Shaheeda,” he said, revealing the depths of his fastidiousness, “a person must sometimes choose what he will see and what he will not; look away from there now.” But Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot. Above them and behind them, the cool white minaret of a mosque stared blindly down upon the scene. (449)
The gap between what Shaheed and Saleem (who's being called buddha here) see and what they can process or accept is here merely asserted; there is no actual gap between the way the rapes are described and the way the Brass Monkey's tiny arsons are described: both are written about, it seems, "to attract a little attention." We are supposed to provide the gap that Rushdie's prose cannot; we're supposed to assume that Saleem's narration is under a strain that does not actually show itself. Saleem calls this scene imaginary or hallucinatory, but in doing so betrays that naming it so is a purely verbal construct—how is this entirely fictional scene more "hallucinated" than any other, equally fictional scene that has come before it? In fact the "choice" between seeing and not seeing is not so much illusory as irrelevant to the reader, as the only possible perspective on all these equally fictitious, equally imagined events is that of the minaret staring blindly down upon the scene, both seeing and not seeing.

This is the experience of reading Midnight's Children: reading the single-textured fictionality of it all is both seeing and not-seeing, and we can only blindly stare at the parades of events as they pass by.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Infinite Summer Status Check

I'm keeping pace with the official schedule, though I'm not sure if I should be pleased or somewhat humbled that I'm not getting through IJ faster. Over the past 40 or so pages, I've found the book becomes increasingly enjoyable, however, so I hope that I'll be accelerating.

Also, I have been splitting my time between Jest and Midnight's Children (about which I'll have a post soon), as well as a couple of other books which I may not post about in full. The executive summary of that reading would go something like
  • Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada: what is so dull about the Underground Railroad, much less the Civil War, that you have to add airplanes to it? There is a sort of smallness to the literality of Reed's historical disruptions that robs them of being anything more than cleverly irreverent.
  • Peter Handke's The Left-Handed Woman: Brilliant. Still ruminating. Eager to read more Handke.
  • Athol Fugard's play Master Harold and the Boys: also read Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman a month or so back and together they present, one might say, Aristotle's pity and terror. And while terror is perhaps the more interesting spectacle, I would almost rather see this performed—where Soyinka's play presents all kinds of interesting choices and challenges for the director, I feel Fugard's play may be more dependent on the living performance of its words—the challenge to the actors must be immense, and to see it successfully acted would be a mind-and-soul-rearranging experience.
  • Victor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: it takes you 4/5 of the book to figure out how scant the plot is, and then the last fifth is a discourse on vaguely Daoist/early Chan Buddhist philosophy and mystical practice. I honestly don't know how most people got through the last fifth; I very enjoyably took a number of courses in college on East Asian religions (particularly Daoism), and I found Pelevin's handling of it really plodding and dull. What someone who isn't familiar with these concepts is able to dig out of it by way of profit or pleasure, I can't fathom. That said, everything about the novel up to that point works way better than it deserves to, and it's a really fun ride while it lasts.
Back to Infinite Jest for a few short observations: I'm liking basically every section Orin Incandenza appears in, and everything that Hal appears in that doesn't have to do with drugs. The phone conversation Orin and Hal have about the suicide of their father is just really remarkable dialogue, a moment when I feel Wallace's genius not as a function of his knowledge, but of his ability to think.

I haven't really enjoyed the Don Gately sections (although, admittedly, the toothbrush in the butt section was funny, albeit rather macabre in its ending), but I suddenly got a real feel for him as a character in the long exchange between him and Day in endnote 90. Again, just ludicrously good dialogue, really giving a sense of someone trying to have a conversation with someone bent on delivering a monologue. And, I guess the section about the different "Units" was really enjoyable as well.

All of which is to say that, nearing page 300, I feel like I've settled into what Wallace is doing with at least two of the main characters. There hasn't been a section involving Steeply and Marathe recently, and I really didn't find their previous sections interesting at all.

If you have advice about how to approach upcoming material (or the book as a whole), or want to add your own status report, please share!

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Prolepticism

This list of "61 Essential Postmodern Reads" is as good an occasion as any to air another of my literary pet-peeves: the insistence by numerous people (critics, academics, fans) that there is something meaningful about a phrase like "Chaucer was a postmodernist avant la lettre" or "Tristram Shandy anticipated postmodernism" or, worse but surprisingly common in work by scholars who should know better, "The conditions we see today were proleptically analyzed thirty years ago by X." No, actually worst of all, something like "Did David Foster Wallace anticipate Twitter?" or "Thomas Pynchon predicted the dynamics of internet culture."

Partly, my pique comes from the imperialism of such a gesture, as if all literary meaning derives from comparison to the immediate present. But mostly it arises from the sheer laziness of this rhetoric—rather than making the effort to craft an extended comparison respecting the contexts of each side (between say, Chaucer's 14th century milieu and the largely academic working environment for mid-to-late-20th postmodernists) to see if there are significant similarities which have bearing on the conditions of literary production, these words and phrases act simply to provide an evanescent frisson of, well, re-branding. Robert Burton—the seventeenth-century heir to DFW!

There is a sort of tabloid shock to these phrases, a touch of the subterranean conspiracy, as if postmodernism (or modernism) isn't so much a way of describing and theorizing a set of temporally localizable conditions as it is a sort of masonic rite which, existing from earliest times, has initiated certain figures into its mysteries across the centuries and which has now reached a great degree of power and influence. The allure of this kind of thing is self-evident, but it is just as meaningless as the latest piece on alien abductions and Elvis. What is really served by telling me that Tristram Shandy is full of metacommentary and is therefore a properly postmodern novel? Just this—you can get the same people who drool over Gass and Gaddis to read an 18th century text. Forgive me for not cheering. Tristram Shandy doesn't need that kind of intermediation.

I suppose I may be simply too anal about these kind of things, but I do think there is something significantly wrong about pretending that literary time can be folded at will for the sake of a momentary spark of historical wire-crossing. The damage is not, I think, to an orderly sense of literary history, but rather to any legitimate attempt to make cross-period comparisons. The sensationalism of presentist re-branding undercuts, I feel, more serious attempts to analyze how writers make use of the past and comment on their present; it is part of a more general shirking of the hard work of thinking about books as part and product of their own culture, both rooted and respondent. By insisting that all writers from all eras are at all times looking forward (so-and-so "anticipates" or is "proleptically" this or that or "predicts" this or that, &c.), I think we do serious damage to our abilities to compare how writers look at their own times, or times prior to them. What Chaucer thought about the people around him may illuminate in some small way what Donald Barthelme thought about the other academics around him (though I doubt it), but I don't seriously believe that what Chaucer "predicted" about the postmodern novel illuminates anything at all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

In her essay on George Eliot in The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as "mature" and "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

 I thought of this description when I read the first few pages of Leslie Fiedler's classic Love and Death in the American Novel and find him complaining that
There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody. (24)
Published in 1960, the year after Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus won the National Book Award, in the heyday of Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow1, Fiedler's diagnosis seems both descriptive and predictive of the careers of these writers and a number of their contemporaries. Such a broad statement, however, led me to begin thinking about how much or how little American literature may have changed since 1960 in the terms he sets out.

But first, I want to compare Fiedler and Woolf's comments for a moment and note that what Fiedler takes to be a distinctively American deficiency—the lack of great novels written truly for "grown-up people"—is noted as a peculiarity of English literature as well. Woolf's line is more of a throw-away, while Fiedler's complaint is the seed of a 600-page book, so we're dealing with significantly different types of comments, not to mention the fact that I think Fiedler and Woolf have quite divergent ideas about what a book for "grown-up people" would be, but I do find the similarity of sentiment interesting, at the very least in the sense that both imagine a Continental literature which must be (almost by default) immensely more mature or adult. (Well, I suppose such a notion is not all that far-fetched; you can't really get a children's version of Balzac, much less Collette, can you?)

At any rate, a few pages later, Fiedler refines his comments to
Moreover—and the final paradox is necessary to the full complexity of the case2—our classic literature is a literature of horror for boys. Truly shocking, frankly obscene authors we do not possess; Edgar Allan Poe is our closest approximation, a child playing at what Baudelaire was to live. A Baudelaire, a Marquis de Sade, a "Monk" Lewis, even a John Cleland was inconceivable in the United States. Our flowers of evil are culled for the small girl's bouquet, our novels of terror (Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, the tales of Poe) are placed on the approved book lists of Parents' Committees who nervously fuss over the latest comic books. If such censors do not flinch at necrophilia or shudder over the book whose secret motto is "I baptise you not in the name of the Father… but of the Devil," or fear the juvenile whose hero at his greatest moment cries out, "All right, I'll go to Hell," it is only another irony of life in a land where the writers believe in hell and the official guardians of morality do not. (29-30)
In an amusing footnote following his assertion that Sade, Baudelaire, et al. are "inconceivable" in the U.S., Fiedler adds,
In recent years, the situation appears to have altered radically—perhaps, in part, because the taste of boys has changed, as 'the latency period,' which Freud thought immutable, tends to be abolished. At any rate, the line between 'pornography' and respectable literature has blurred; and certain traditional themes of American literature—the love of white and colored males, for instance, and the vilification of women—are rendered with explicit sexual detail. Indeed, such detail becomes required reading rather than forbidden as American puritanism learns to stand on its head. It is a long way from James Fenimore Cooper to James Baldwin, or from Herman Melville to Norman Mailer; but even if our dreams have become more frankly erotic, the American eros has not really changed. We continue to dream the female dead, and ourselves in the arms of our dusky male lovers.
Alright, that's a lot of Fiedler for us to chew over, and it seems to me to take us quite far afield from the titular subject of this post, but really I have very little to say about Cisneros's novel. Nevertheless, the novel helps as an example of some of the changes in American literature since 1960, and, I think, exemplifies what may not have changed.

For one thing, there is obviously going to be a rather extreme shift in what we think the "American eros" is when critics like Fiedler begin to recognize that our "classic literature" includes women (Edith Wharton, notably, is absent from the book's index, and I dare not even look to see if Zora Neale Hurston is as well). Fiedler's thesis was notoriously selective even when nobody bothered to consider whether "theories of American literature" held true for both genders, but now it looks quite patchy.

Secondly, I think we can honestly say that the days when Parents' Committees blithely approve of classic American literature being taught to their children are at a definite end. I don't know the exact history of when books started getting regularly challenged by parents, but I would imagine it was when books by non-whites and women started getting regularly assigned, and then it moved back up the chain to where Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye started getting pulled as well. Maybe I'm wrong about that—here's the list of the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-2000, and it's a regular grab bag in terms of authors, although there are definite themes (stories about blacks, gays, and independent-minded women show up an awful lot).

However, I think it's worth noting that, while many things definitely have changed since Fiedler's diagnosis, and have changed even on a macro- level, there are still a lot of new "classics" that could conform with some adjustments to the American literature Fiedler described, and that this holds true even within some of the broadest changes, such as who is writing and being widely read. The House on Mango Street sure isn't a horror story for boys, but it does have some gothic touches and it certainly finds a home in the pre-teen section, even if it's also as often at home on a college syllabus. If there was any validity to Fiedler's complaint, I think it is born out rather than challenged by a book like The House on Mango Street, or even by something like The Woman Warrior, despite the fact that they obviously do not share in the very white, very male worldview that makes Fiedler's study possible in the first place.3

1Speaking of Bellow, Fiedler has a hilarious way of describing Henderson the Rain King as "a homoerotic Tarzan of the Apes," which strikes me as deliciously redundant.
2What an overwhelmingly Freudian phrase! [AS]
3It should be noted, however, that in many ways Fiedler was quite bold in trying to expand the canon beyond white men; I don't mean to slight such efforts on his part, but I think that Love and Death in the American Novel nonetheless is grounded in a canon and a worldview that is nowhere near as complete or inclusive as Fiedler often advocated elsewhere.

Edit 7/21: I realized when I read Adam Roberts's brilliantly impassioned post on the 2009 Hugos that I had made a typo in the first quote above; the last few words should read "silence or self-parody" not "silence of self-parody," which is an amusing concept, but not what Fiedler wrote. I have corrected it above.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Critical Flame

A quick note to recommend the second issue of The Critical Flame. There are a couple of books under review which I have also covered (D. A. Powell's luminous Chronic covered here and Mark McGurl's The Program Era covered here and here), and I feel the reviews there do them great justice. Also, Scott Esposito takes a look at the "breakout" novel of last year's Nobelist, J. M. G. LeClézio. I've been meaning to get around to him…

Some other odds and ends:
  • Despite feeling like he suffers from the all-new-films-are-bad-films mode of criticism, Andrew Tracy's reviews at ReverseShot are consistently engaging both on a verbal and conceptual level. His review of Public Enemies, which I saw and liked quite a bit better than he, is his latest.
  • This interview (in German) with Junot Díaz and Aleksandar Hemon sounds incredibly interesting, and with my one college term's worth of the language, I might try to get some of it translated, but I doubt the results will be any good, so have fun with the link if your German's better than mine. Otherwise, have fun with Google Translate.
  • Continuing a not-in-English theme, this post on Moleskine Literario has me wondering if there is a new collection of stories from Daniel Alarcón on the way: it appears that one is coming out in Peru, titled The King Is Always Above the People, "gathering all the stories not published in his first book [War by Candlelight], although many of them were published in Anglophone magazines (the one which gives its name to the collection appeared in Granta)…" I was under the impression that Alarcón writes in English and that the contents of War by Candlelight and its Spanish version were identical, so I assume all the stories which are coming out under this title in Peru could quite easily be bundled and printed in English as well. Hopefully we'll soon see that on shelves up here.
  • Mark Athitakis points to a pretty interesting new feature on the National Book Awards site: they've got a line-up of all the past winners and are featuring a winner a day. It will be interesting to see how much information they can still pull on a forgotten novel like Wright Morris's The Field of Vision. Isn't Plains Song the only Morris anybody reads anymore? Mark also has an interesting brief history of the awards in his post.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Culture and Materialism, by Raymond Williams

A couple of days ago I was at another person's apartment and found myself looking at his bookcase. Scanning down the spines, I noticed that the bottom shelf had a number of titles by Marxist thinkers. "That's great," I said, "My bookcase is like that too! Marxists at the base, everything else is superstructure!"

The best essay in this collection is by far "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory" [available here if you have access to the New Left Review], which is a remarkably clear critique of what's often called "vulgar Marxism." Very simply, Williams is able to turn the base/superstructure schema, which often seems to produce only Ptolemaic epicycles when confronted with any nugget of cultural complexity, into a concept that seems not only practical and useful, but indispensable and remarkable. Much of the book, in fact, is like that—the essay "Problems of Materialism" especially [New Left Review version here].

But this is an oddly handled salvage project; although he spends a bit of time examining how the concept of superstructure has calcified and self-corrupted through a misunderstanding of its relationship to the base, Williams is not terribly concerned with "returning to Marx." If he does return to the site of the concept's original formulation, it is not in the manner of consulting Scripture; instead, it seems clear that Williams has thought the problem through as to how it must be solved, and only looks back to Marx to, in essence, check his work.

"Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory" introduces the terms residual and emergent cultures, which many theorists have found useful, and another distinction which I find really useful—that between alternative and oppositional cultures.
There is a simple theoretical distinction between alternative and oppositional, that is to say between someone who simply finds a different way to live and wishes to be left alone with it, and someone who finds a different way to live and wants to change the society in its light. This is usually the difference between individual and small-group solutions to social crisis and those solutions which properly belong to political and ultimately revolutionary practice. But it is often a very narrow line, in reality, between alternative and oppositional. A meaning or a practice may be tolerated as a deviation, and yet still be seen only as another particular way to live. But as the necessary area of effective dominance extends, the same meanings and practices can be seen by the dominant culture, not merely as disregarding or despising it, but as challenging it. (41-42)
I think the implications of this distinction are fairly obvious even to the point where such a distinction just becomes a better name for something already generally operative within our conception of cultural forms, but it is nevertheless a much better way of talking about the historical conditions which make a cultural expression either alternative or oppositional. By making use of this distinction, we can better talk about the opportunities afforded to resistance by the dominant culture: what possibilities of true opposition are created by the creative writing program, for instance, and how are impulses to opposition often pushed back across that "narrow line" toward mere alternativity?

The essay is chock-a-block with illuminating passages which equip the reader with some very solid tools for a host of similar questions, but it is also full of indirect critiques of the forms of intellectual cheating and sloppiness which often slip in ahead of any proper analysis. One singularly good example is the following passage:
Now if we go back to the cultural question in its most usual form—what are the relations between art and society, or literature and society?—in the light of the preceding discussion, we have to say first that there are no relations between literature and society in that abstracted way. The literature is there from the beginning as a practice in the society. Indeed until it and all other practices are present, the society cannot be seen as fully formed. A society is not fully available for analysis until each of its practices is included. But if we make that emphasis we must make a corresponding emphasis: that we cannot separate literature and art from other kinds of social practice, in such a way as to make them subject to quite special and distinct laws. They may have quite specific features as practices, but they cannot be separated from the general social process. Indeed one way of emphasizing this is to say, to insist, that literature is not restricted to operating in any one of the sectors I have been seeking to describe in this model. It would be easy to say, it is a familiar rhetoric, that literature operates in the emergent cultural sector, that it represents the new feelings, the new meanings, the new values. We might persuade ourselves of this theoretically, by abstract argument, but when we read much literature, over the whole range, without the sleight-of-hand of calling Literature only that which we have already selected as embodying certain meanings and values at a certain scale of intensity, we are bound to recognize that the act of writing, the practices of discourse in writing and speech, the making of novels and poems and plays and theories, all this activity takes place in all areas of the culture. (44)
The key phrase in that is, I think, "at a certain scale of intensity." Frequently critics bail themselves out of the messiness of literary fiction/genre fiction dogfights by making some variation of this argument: that literary fiction is better (or better for you) not because it has ideas and stuff and genre fiction doesn't, but because it has them in greater intensity or greater density. The ideas that literary fiction gets over on the reader are somehow sharper or bolder, both more basic and more noble. That, at any rate, often seems to be the argument to me, and the one that Williams very neatly closes down. And it is this type of argument that is often employed precisely in those kind of situations when critics want to make the claim that Literature proper belongs exclusively in emergent culture, that Literature is (or must be) always avant-garde, always breaking apart an old genre or forming a new one. The idea that Literature, in order to be Literature, is language at its most intense (or some other modernist maxim) is shown to be, I think, just part of that larger project of mystification that canon-eers like Harold Bloom attend to.

I'm sure it's already redly apparent, but I feel a tremendous amount of harmony between my own views on literature and Williams's. I had only read some citations of his work in other theorist's articles and books (well, and part of Marxism and Literature and part of The Country and the City), and am very glad to have pulled this book from my shelves finally. I suppose it is dangerous ever to find any thinker whose writings feel more like more articulate and better conceived confirmations of your own muddled ideas, and so I will try to read more of Williams with this danger in mind—I don't want to misinterpret him because I assume I think like him. On the other hand, it is also a tremendous inspiration to find someone so close to what I perceive my critical temperament and inclinations to be.

Monday, July 6, 2009

July's People, by Nadine Gordimer

july's people nadine gordimer[Wikipedia summary of plot: "The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. The story follows the Smales, a liberal White South African family who were forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July."]

What do we call July's People now?

In 1981, when the novel was published, it might have been called prophetic or predictive—as it was intended. Yet the specificity of the novel's vision—that of a thoroughly armed insurrection of South African blacks against the white government, aided and equipped by Soviets and Cubans—prevented it from assuming, at the moment of its publication, the quality of an allegory, of a dystopia in the sense we are used to. Instead, in one of the two reviews in The New York Times, by Anne Tyler, the novel was praised for its description of the actually existing tensions already present in the populace—the novel was, first and foremost, seen as a report on the current state of race relations, and only secondarily as a near-future nightmare. In fact, Tyler neatly brackets off the predictive aspects of the story—whites forced to flee from their homes, battles surging through the streets of suburbs and cities alike—as "a wonderful adventure story."

In the other NYT review, by Anatole Broyard, the predictive element is again subordinated to its descriptive function: "''July's People' is Nadine Gordimer's projection of what it will be like if or when the time comes for the whites to leave Johannesburg. And since she writes more knowingly about South Africa than anyone else, this may be history in the making that we are reading." What is important about the novel, it seems, is that it transmits Gordimer's knowledge of what South Africa is like; the imaginative work of thinking what might happen next is simply a product of that knowledge, no different from a "projection" of likely scenarios at the end of a policy brief or an article in The Economist.

By 1991, when Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the situation in South Africa and neighboring countries had changed to the extent that this particular future was no longer capable of seeming like a "projection" or extrapolation of the current state of affairs. It had become a work of imagination and had begun to assume an allegorical meaning. The Nobel Prize citation actually uses the term dystopia to name the "vision" Gordimer presents in the novel's last scene: "To Maureen and what she stands for, the future appears to hold out the opposite of utopia, a dystopia. This is not Nadine Gordimer's only vision, but it is one which she has found it necessary to give expression to."

"And what she stands for"—this is allegorical language, and, in fact, the Nobel citation is full of it, full of the image of Gordimer not as reporter, but as artist, the maker of consciousnesses: "Above all, it is people, individual men and women, that have captured her and been captured by her. It is their lives, their heaven and hell, that absorb her. The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized."

In both the 1981 reviews and in the 1991 Nobel citation, Gordimer is recognized for her powers as both artist and reporter, but within those ten years the ordering of those two roles reversed, and I think we can see in this reversal a macrocosm of the kind of balancing act that occurs within the Nobel citation itself.

The equilibrium of these roles—reporter/activist and artist/visionary—is neatly kept throughout the Nobel citation; it assures us that "she makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation. She feels political responsibility, and does not shy away from its consequences, but will not allow it to affect her as a writer: her texts are not agitatorial, not progandistic. Still, her works and the deep insights she offers contribute to shaping reality." This is tremendously balanced: she is political and thus her writing affects reality, but she "will not allow it to affect her as a writer"—she won't allow what political consequences her writings have dictate what she writes.

Yet implicit in the citation is an acknowledgment that at least in terms of what she chooses to write about, Gordimer's politics are extremely consequential. She writes of a firmly historicized situation, and in order to achieve what the committee calls "wide human relevance," Gordimer must first be turned into a writer of character, not of history (again, "The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized"). Then, because that doesn't fully resolve the deep historicity of those characters, she must be turned into a creator of a dystopian vision. And this despite the fact that the kind of violence which Gordimer described was perhaps closer to reality in 1985-1989 than it was the year the book was published—i.e., the reality of violence in South Africa was fresher in 1991 than the book itself. And let's not even mention that, in 1991, Mandela had been released but universal suffrage was still not achieved.

And where does that leave us in 2009? Reading July's People now, the book I kept thinking of was actually Saramago's Blindness. Gordimer's construction of dialogue often leaves it completely unattributed, and this is frequently confusing, creating an effect somewhat similar to passages in Blindness where (because of the state of the characters), speakers cannot be matched up with their words. Also, the character of Maureen bears more than a passing resemblance to the ophthalmologist's wife in Blindness: I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find that Saramago was influenced by Gordimer's book.

Yet July's People crucially lacks—and never aspires to—the symbolic and referential ambiguity necessary to create and sustain a "dystopic vision." Unlike Blindness, unlike even 1984, one can't read the events, characters, or dynamics of July's People onto other historical or ideological situations; the imaginative energies which turn something like 1984 into a permanent prediction and permanent critique (of totalitarianism or absolutism in any form) are directed to other purposes in July's People. In simpler terms, the adjective 'Gordimeresque' (in the sense of 'Orwellian' or 'Kafkaesque') is impossible.

Yet because of Gordimer's Nobel, we expect her to be a writer of "wide human relevance" and so it is difficult not to read July's People in the terms we have come to associate with the widest human relevance: character/consciousness and dystopia. The increasing historical distance to apartheid, to the 1980s, to Communism, and even to Gordimer's award itself seems to require that we increase the weight of its allegorical/dystopic valence, even when this is obviously invalid.

I think reading July's People now becomes a sort of challenge to check this balancing, to re-evaluate why we even feel the need to balance the roles of artist and reporter in the first place, to understand that balancing as itself an upholding of the pre-eminent value we place on what is, in the last analysis, a narrow understanding of "wide human relevance." Because it is so difficult to add the kinds of weights and values (of character/consciousness, of allegory/dystopia) we so customarily add to any novel to balance its historicity or localized context, this balancing act requires a certain amount of conscious effort to accomplish, is laid bare, and can be resisted.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen

tell me a riddle tillie olsen i stand here ironingThere are four stories in this very brief book: "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" "O Yes," and "Tell Me a Riddle." It is entirely my fault and not Olsen's, but all through the first three stories, I kept wishing I were reading Grace Paley once again; I missed her wit and warmth. Olsen is not terribly funny, and her warmth is less glow and more burn; there is an intensity to her stories which wrenches, building without cresting; Paley is all dynamics—building, cresting, falling, spinning, redirecting, doubling back, and most of all accelerating.

I should double back myself, however, to speak to the similarities of these two writers. Both have a completely unalienated relationship to what is simply called handiwork: sewing, ironing, cooking, even dressing. Their writing, as well as the scattered depictions of reading in their work, is not part of a different existential order or rank; it is mixed in, sometimes as an escape from, but never as a triumph over the quotidian. Activities of the mind live with and in activities of the hands.

Still, as I said, I can't read the first three stories without considerably missing Paley's charm; they are so much a part of Paley's world and its population that I can't help feeling any absence of the Paley humor to be a profound lack. The fourth story, while it does not move out of or beyond this world, nevertheless achieves everything on its own terms. Its greater length may go some way to accounting for this, or its position as the last story: perhaps I was by then relaxed into Olsen's slower rhythms of narration and dialogue. And this is clearly Olsen's intention: while I'm sure all writers of a short story collection pay attention the published order of their stories, there is a greater deliberateness to the patterning of certain ideas and even people that exceeds even the scope of the linked or related story collection. The comparison between parts of a literary work and the movements of a musical work is overdone, but there is something to be said for how Olsen creates ripples of thought which hang in the air until they are answered in the last story by a new, stronger ripple.

I am constantly amazed at how well John Leonard could praise a book, and the introduction he wrote to the 1994 re-printing of this book is a classic case of this ability. It's obscene for me not to quote Olsen's really fantastic prose and to quote instead Leonard's introduction, but I simply loved this passage, and find in it a sort of beatific rationale for reading:
we enter books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored, or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ball of Fire (1941), directed by Howard Hawks

Watched this film last night, and while it may only be the second best film about Barbara Stanwyck conning a professor and then falling in love with him (The Lady Eve is better—no one can compare with Preston Sturges, at least from 1940-1948), it's an absolute delight. Gary Cooper may be a little awkward in his role as a brain, but Dana Andrews is (obviously) a natural as the evil gangster, the supporting cast of avuncular scholars (above, as the Seven Dwarfs) is charming and hilarious, and Barbara Stanwyck is, well, Barbara Stanwyck. The film features a ferociously, deviously brilliant script from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett complete with all the racy cleverness that makes me sometimes think we might not be better off (script-wise, at least) going back to the Hays Code. Would Judd Apatow even be funny if innuendo were still considered an art?