Category Archives: john hawkes

On The Greatness of John Hawkes

I've long suspected that John Hawkes was a superb author, and now I've confirmed it by reading his novel Second Skin. I'm hoping to eventually do a post going into what I think makes this book so good, but I don't have the time right now.

Fortunately, Jim Shepard's appreciation of Hawkes from the book Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives has just been exerpted at The Rumpus. (And be sure to check the comments thread for an odd, somewhat spazzy comment by Rick Moody.)

These observations of Hawkes as a workshop leader seem very much in keeping with my experience of reading his Second Skin:

As our teacher, Jack modeled for us so many things. He reminded us of the ways in which fiction so often was willing to confront ugliness in the service of its opposite. He taught us to value obsessive focus. He insisted that when writing we not forget our allegiance to the body. He demanded we stay willing to be educated about our emotions.

But most of all, he taught us to leap at the astonishingly idiosyncratic wherever it appeared in our work. To value the expressive potential of the unexpectedly strange.

Celebrating such stories as they came across his desk, Jack exulted in the excess, the unruliness, the energy that resulted in our having turned ourselves over to our intuition. What he was teaching me, when he taught me always to look for the strangeness and to value the weird, was to understand that those moments that I hadn’t fully planned were reliably the ones in which I electrified my inert little narrative, and most likely, most fully revealed myself. Or at least: revealed what was potentially my most interesting self.

I’m Not Sure Why John Hawkes Is Postmodern

Second Skin John Hawkes

But he’s certainly an incredible talent. I first encountered Hawkes’ writing via the criticism of William H. Gass (in A Temple of Texts), who is a big fan. Now I’m about halfway through my first Hawkes book, Second Skin, and I can’t imagine it will be my last.

There are two things that are principally of interest right now. The first is Hawkes’ storytelling method. It’s a very fragmented narrative, although it doesn’t go so far as something like the French New Novel. I suppose a good reference would be the so-called novel-in-stories, except if you could imagine a novel-in-stories where it was difficult to determine the import of any particular story vis a vis the work as a whole (or even vis a vis that particular story itself). All of the action is framed by a first chapter that takes place in the ostensible present, so I suppose you could chalk up the book’s ostensible disorganization to the working of memory, although that seems too easy for a book as complex and fundamentally interesting as this one.

The second thing is the narrative tone, which is quite unlike anything Ive ever read before. It’s a very detached tone–whimsical, I would say–although there’s an inherent desperation and sadness to the things being narrated that’s completely at odds with the way the voice wants to sound. Perhaps it is the tone of a man desperately trying to deceive himself; or perhaps the narrator is just depressed. Regardless, the prose is simply beautiful; Hawkes was clearly a remarkably inventive user of words.

I still don’t know why all of this makes Hawkes postmodern, although virtually everything I read about him references him as a “postmodern” author. There’s none of the stuff typically associated with postmodernism (e.g. metafiction; cutesiness; cardboard characters). If anyone out there can provide a compelling explanation, I’ll be obliged.

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