Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Doubles by Scott Esposito

My next book has been announced at Civil Coping Mechanisms (scroll down for their 2017 list). It’s currently titled The Doubles and it’s on film (although, really also about a dozen other things, all seen through film). Will be out in the fall of next year.

A Generally Mixed Response to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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I am no stranger to the work of Maggie Nelson. I’ve been following her writing for years now, and when I heard that she was to release a fragmentary, book-length essay on the subject of gender and identity, I was greatly enthusiastic. It seemed like a project that would very much play to her strengths, and this was a subject on which I was greatly interested in hearing her voice.

I did have a little trepidation, though, as I’ve never read a book of Nelson’s that I was unambiguous about. I felt that her prior book-length fragmentary essay, Bluets—the book of Nelson’s that was her greatest market success prior to The Argonauts and probably which I like the best—though showing very much brilliance, was generally too loose, a little too flimsy and too easy to work as a whole. But I recommend it to you—give it a shot.

Likewise, I found that Nelson’s later book The Art of Cruelty had very much to recommend it. This is a book-length study of “cruel” art (what a great subject), and indeed, Nelson’s vivid writing did introduce me to a number of hugely interesting writers and artists that I had never known, and I found her often insightful on their work and the quandary of “cruel” art in general. Unfortunately, I found a lot of her conclusions to be half-baked and poorly reasoned, and it was clear to me that about halfway through the book she had run out of things to say and just began repeating earlier sentiments. Nonetheless, I also recommend this book to you!

Nevertheless, knowing how much good I had found in these books, I definitely wanted to read The Argonauts, a book which has gotten blazingly positive reviews in just about every place one might look for reviews of books.

So here’s my take. (And if you’d like to read a more positive take, I recommend this one here as the best I have read.)

I think the book gets off to a good start with its very beautiful and poetic evocations of Nelson’s relationship with Harry, an artist who is undergoing a masculinization of his body. Indeed, I think this is where The Argonauts is the strongest: when Nelson is teasing out the dilemmas of her life, be they with Harry, or when she is portraying her own feelings about being a mother (and a step-mother to Harry’s child), or on other topics, even being a writer. Here, the book is very honest, sincere, and deep. Nelson’s writing is clear and often interesting.

But The Argonauts is not simply a book about Nelson and Harry: it is also a book that seeks to engage with gender and feminist theory, to delve in to the popular literature surrounding motherhood, and to make its own original statements about these topics.

I think I found Nelson’s discussion of her own complex feelings around her attempts to get pregnant, and then her life as a pregnant woman, a woman who had just given birth, and a mother the most interesting parts of The Argonauts. I appreciated her ability to examine the myths surrounding motherhood and the image of the mother in our culture. In these sections she is engaging everything from her own parents and childhood memories (difficult territory for her) to popular perceptions of motherhood and even such traditionally dicey areas as lactation. She does it all with aplomb, depth, and a careful irony that gives a certain casualness to her ideas while not shortchanging them at all.

I also like the way Nelson has chosen to integrate citations from the likes of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Anne Carson, William James, Susan Sontag, Eileen Miles, and many, many more of an eclectic cast of thinkers. (And, this being a Maggie Nelson book, I have come to expect to discover a new constellation of artists and writers that I had never before known—I appreciate the introduction to many such thinkers that I will surely find out more about.) She works their words into her sentences, only letting you know that they aren’t her words by italicizing them and including the name of the thinker in the margins of the page. This makes the citation feel effortless, and oftentimes and interjection is a nice moment of frisson in the context of the work—a little piece of thought that both seems to fit in natively but also makes you pause and reflect. And in most cases she has isolated particularly interesting utterances and reflected how they inform her own life with care and depth.

So, a lot of good for The Argonauts, but I do think this book has some very serious problems that ultimately make it a failure. The biggest issue is that while Nelson provides a very able introduction to many of the issues surrounding gender and identity—I can see this book as “it book” making trans issues legible to people who have probably never knowingly met a trans person in their lives—I didn’t find Nelson’s thinking on the subject original or provocative at all. At this point in my life I’ve read quite a few books on this subject; more than that, I’ve profited greatly from them and discovered an identity in no small part through them. This would include very conservative instances of the genre, like Jan Morris’s Conundrum, up through much more radical statements, like Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”, Sandy Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology, and Juliet Jacques’s Trans (which, full disclosure, I read in manuscript and made suggestions on), among many more.

By comparison, I felt that Nelson’s assessment of gender, sexuality, and identity in The Argonauts was very boilerplate, and I didn’t feel that it offered me very much personally, in contrast to many other writers on similar subjects. For instance, early in the book Nelson spends some time fretting that increasing acceptance of homosexual behavior will rob queerness of its political edge: “There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure and incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its institutions.” Nelson continues: “This is not a devaluation of queerness. It is a reminder: if we want to do more than claw our way out of repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.”

I think this is a fairly rich topic, one that I have spent more than a little time contemplating. But Nelson’s cursory and generally easy-to-agree with statements do nothing more than introduce an issue that, at this point, has generally been pretty well introduced. And Nelson’s somewhat cartoonish statement of the issue—though pleasingly ironic—is too heated and preening to offer very much substance. Reading it made me wonder: hasn’t queerness (at least the homosexual variant) just about lodged its critique of Western civilization at this point? What more does it have to get across to straight culture, and, with the general triumph of homosexual marriage across most of the developed world, hasn’t it more or less made its political mark? And why should we even be equating “sexual deviancy” with radicality—aren’t there other more interesting ways to be radical? I’m not sure I know the answer to these questions, they would have been interesting things for Nelson to delve into, but she quickly forgets about this strident line on queer culture and moves on to other targets. And this suggests a general failure of The Argonauts: again and again Nelson reaps the rhetorical benefits of the easy statement on the hot-button issue, but she never follows up with the much riskier and more difficult matters of digging into the premises of said statement and saying things that not everyone would agree with.

(And, again, she probably does the best on this front when engaging the ideas of motherhood, particularly the mothering advice of paediatrician DW Winnicott, probably not every intellectual’s go-to theorist on motherhood.)

Nelson’s playing to the crowd includes the sacrificial flaying of some great white male thinkers, and, again, here I encountered some problems. First let me say that I am in no way opposed to reappraisals of the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, or even Slavoj Zizek (who is far less canonical than Baudrillard and Lacan and who has been attacked very, very much). These sorts of thinkers are clearly dominant forces in their disciplines, and I would like nothing better to read an insightful reappraisal or critique of their work—indeed, wasn’t it by doing just that to their predecessors that these thinkers got to be where they are now? If anything, the world of cultural criticism is too full of easy veneration and fawning recitation of the teachings of the masters. So hack away.

However, what you cannot do is what Nelson does when she attempts to critique Zizek. Nelson’s attack on Zizek is either intellectually duplicitous or lazy to the point of messiness—I’m not sure which one, but either way she gets the basic facts wrong.

In the context of talking about her difficult efforts to be artificially inseminated (which, by the way, Nelson describes quite beautifully and sensitively) she finds a very long and complex essay of Zizek’s where he talks about the question of reproduction detached from the sexual act. (It’s right here to read if you want to see it.) She quotes the following from Zizek, declaring it what he thinks is “the type of sexuality that would fit in an ‘evil’ world”:

In December 2006, the New York City authorities declared that the right to chose one’s gender (and so, if necessary, to have the sex-change operation performed) is one of the inalienable human rights—the ultimate Difference, the “transcendental” difference that grounds the very human identity, thus turns into something open to manipulation . . . “Masturbathon” is the ideal form of the sex activity of this trans-gendered subject.

The problem is that this is complete untrue. If you read the essay, it is quite clear that Zizek isn’t condemning non-reproductive sex as “evil,” and he most certainly isn’t saying anything negative (or really anything at all) about transgender people. The essay isn’t even about transgender at all, and Zizek’s use of the term—once in the entire essay—is accidental.

Continuing her critique, Nelson tells us that Zizek is claiming that “the transgendered subject is barely human, condemned forever to ‘idiotic masturbatory enjoyment.'” Unfortunately, the only true part of that sentence is that Zizek does write the words “idiotic masturbatory enjoyment” in his essay—the rest is a complete fabrication. In this essay, these words don’t apply to trans people at all (they appear far, far before Zizek has even brought up transgender), and Zizek certainly doesn’t say anything remotely like calling trans people “barely human.” It very much seems that Nelson just cherry-picked a few quotes from Zizek without actually reading the work.

I wish I could say that this was the only instance in which I got the feeling that Nelson was loading her arguments to score some cheap rhetorical points, but that is not the case. Indeed, based on the very cursory readings of thinkers like Freud and Zizek in The Argonauts, I would have to conclude that Nelson is out of her depth in attempting to critique them—either that or she is not putting in very much effort. I don’t know what the truth is—Nelson strikes me as a very intelligent, open-minded, well-read thinker—but insofar as the thought presented in The Argonauts, this is the conclusion I have to reach. And this is unfortunate, because this book very much does aspire to play in the realm of theory and make a few theoretical statements of its own. I think this is the flip side to Nelson’s very free and often energetic use of brief quotations throughout her book. As I’ve noted already, it has its strengths, but it does expose her to the appearance of a lack of rigor.

Moreover, many of the feminist critiques of mainstream culture that Nelson makes in The Argonauts too often read like something I would expect to find on The Huffington Post or some other generator of clickbait. They are just too one-sided, too spring-loaded with cynicism, lacking the sort of empathy, generosity, and patience that Nelson admirably has in such great quantities for those she regards as allies and fellow intellectuals. Again and again Nelson presents situations where she assumes bad faith on the part of people that I find it hard to believe bore her or her partner any ill intent whatsoever. Not only that, but she takes a tone toward straight culture that’s a sort of preening chic pride that I find very, very counter-productive. It’s the kind of condescending, no-win critique that slams a straight person for their perceived ignorance of trans/queer/feminist culture while also never giving that person the opportunity to “do the right thing” by dismissing them out of hand. I think it’s important to love yourself and take pride in what you are, but not at the cost of armoring yourself within a stylized coolness that implicitly casts aspersions toward those who are not what you are. That tone very much grates on my ears, both in real life and in books, and from what I’ve gathered about Nelson from interviews and profiles, that’s not really who she is. But more importantly, it prevents The Argonauts from taking a more pluralistic approach that gives a truly complex, multi-faceted picture of the question at hand. And this is to shortchange Nelson and her inquiry.

I appreciate that there are frustrations with trying to live a queer life in a largely straight culture—I’ve experienced these plenty of times myself. And I understand that sometimes a person will reach their limit with said frustrations and do something that they momentarily feel entitled to but are later ashamed of. I get it. And, in some very honest moments in this book, Nelson owns up to just that, and I commend her for that honesty and self-awareness. Unfortunately there are other moments in this book that bespeak unfounded assumptions, an unfocused anger, and a mocking pride that may have been satisfying to write but that are not at all interesting as reflections, and that will only be counter-productive in promoting the sort of understanding of trans culture that would make life easier for Nelson and her partner.

Then there are things like this:

Harry lets me in on a secret: guys are pretty nice to each other in public. Always greeting each other “hey boss” or nodding as they pass each other on the street.

Women aren’t like that. I don’t mean that women are all back-stabbers or have it in for each other or whatnot. But in public, we don’t not at each other nobly. Nor do we really need to, as this nod also means I mean you no violence.

Suffice to say, having presented as a man nearly every day of my adult life, I am unfamiliar with this practice, and I certainly don’t feel the need for reassurance that fellow men are not waiting to commit violent acts upon me.

I am tempted to chalk this up as an isolated moment or a piece of irony that doesn’t quite work, but the problem is that there are multiple instances of such things. Nelson is a better writer than this. Very obviously she is. She should have taken the care to remove such things.

This reminds me of something I once read in an interview with Deborah Eisenberg. Deborah Eisenberg said that she spends “most of my time trying to tear away banalities.” It really struck me, because if a writer like Eisenberg spends so much time pulling away banalities, then we all must need to do that. Indeed, writing banalities like the above quotation is part of the writing process, they are in all writers’ manuscripts. They’re just the things that come out as your work your way toward good writing. And we must pull them out relentlessly. I think that a blind eye to her own banalities is an issue with Nelson’s writing. I feel like I could lodge this critique of all of the work of hers I’ve read. And I wish she had been more careful here; these sorts of things dilute her style, which tends to be very refined and very smart when it is not dropping things like the above.

I think I’ve said enough about this book. And I think, as promised, a profoundly mixed take. Having written out my feelings on this book, I think I’ve just convinced myself to read Nelson’s next book; I’ll probably find a lot in there that I like. But I gather that certain aspects of Nelson’s style will just grate on me, and this is part of who she is as a writer.

17 Short Books

This was floating around social media yesterday, so I thought I’d share it here. 17 short books I stand behind absolutely.

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Reconsolidation by Janice Lee. One of the most beautiful, touching, and profound lyric essays I’ve read in a long time. An inspiration while I was writing The Surrender.

The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom. A the story of an incandescent, doomed love affair. Incredibly passionate, reminiscent of Lispector.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard. My first Bernhard, a major experience.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. One of a kind short stories about the universe. Read this long, long ago and it opened up a world.

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente. Four thematically related long stories, close to perfect each. For those who wish there was more Javier Marías in the world.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honore de Balzac. One of my favorite Balzacs. Endlessly limber, gender-bending, sexually risque story.

The Walk by Robert Walser. Walser on fever dream. Like nothing else he wrote.

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector. Not a novel, uncategorizable. The best Lispector.

The Literary Conference by César Aira. Aira trolling Carlos Fuentes and the ideas of greatness and originality. One of his best.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila. Psychologically horrifying, allegorical tale of two boys stuck at the bottom of a well.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. A personal foundation, and reputed to have been the inspiration for a movie that revolutionized film. Borges thought this book was pure greatness.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. You only need to write one novel when it is limitless and is unlike anything anyone has ever read.

Autoportrait by Edouard Levé. A genius, daring idea, flawlessly executed.

The Pelcari Project by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. This book so desperately needs to be back in print. Rey Rosa channeling Bioy, plus Wittgenstein, with a little Moya. Haunting, in the jungles of Guatemala.

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. Taut, a high wire act, deep and perplexing.

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat. Iranian existentialism; evocative, moving, unforgettable.

The Box Man by Kobo Abe. One of the most unstable, bizarre narrators I’ve ever encountered. Beckett, hold on to your hat.

A Report from the Deep Wilds of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral

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I’m a little over halfway through Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and thought I would drop in with some thoughts and observations.

This is a major early work for Vargas Llosa, his third novel (written when he was 33) and running to about 600 pages. Published in 1969, it grapples with what was then the recent past, the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría from 1948-56.

Conversation is where Vargas Llosa honed what has become his trademark technique—the mixing of various strands of time on the page, so that from paragraph to paragraph (and sometimes from sentence to sentence) we may jump from one temporal reality to another. This can be confusing, as sometimes a sentence being uttered by a character in, say 1950, is immediately followed by that same character saying something (to the same person even) in 1960. Needless to say, Vargas Llosa gives few cues as to these jumps, the reader generally having to figure it out through the texture of the stories being depicted.

Michal Greenberg sums it up well in The New York Review of Books:

Two characters will be engaged in a conversation, for example, during which thoughts, experiences, and prior conversations that relate to the current one are provoked in the characters’ minds. As the scene unfolds, these associations stitch into a unified narrative account. It’s a difficult, supremely modernist technique that Vargas Llosa has used throughout his career. When successful, it allows him to present a more or less seamless stream of concurrent realities and to bypass the cumbersome formality of flashbacks.

His social lens is wide, encompassing cholos (as the mixed-blood Indians of Peru are disparagingly called), businessmen, aristocrats, pimps, revolutionaries, foreigners, convicts, politicians, and artists in intertwining tales. His writing about Peru can be bitter, tinged with history’s cruelty . . .

Vargas Llosa also tends to do another thing that I would consider high modernist: he likes to hide significance in seemingly insignificant details. So for instance there will be a beautiful nightclub signer casually mentioned in the early pages, and some hundreds of pages later you will suddenly understand that this woman is the pansexual mistress of one of the central officials of the ruling dictatorship whose domestic life Vargas Llosa has been following for scores of pages.

While these techniques are interesting and add some excitement to Conversation, I would say that Vargas Llosa is firmly in line with the consolidators, not the innovators. Conversation is a fundamentally conservative novel. That is, by the time he wrote this book, such techniques had long since become common in modernistic fiction, and Vargas Llosa isn’t breaking any new ground. He’s simply employing decades-old innovations in his own idiosyncratic way toward the end of literary realism and something along the longs of political sociology.

I think the same could be said of Conversation as a whole. When you strip away the modernistic trappings, what you have here is a fairly conventional story: the main character is Santiago, son of a wealthy industrialist with connections to the upper echelons of Odría’s government. He has rejected his inheritance and gone to work at a newspaper as a journalist, and one day he runs across Ambrosio, a mixed-race dogcatcher who used to work for his and various other connected families as a driver. The two go into a dive called “The Cathedral,” where they have an epic, alcohol-fueled conversation covering the decade they’ve spent apart, which then forms the bulk of this book.

I keep comparing this book to a mob movie, because what we see most often here are depictions of how power gets exercised by Peru’s upper class. Conversation is filled with innumerable scenes of government officials leaning on newspaperman, disrupting (or calling) protests, conducting voter fraud, jockeying among one another for dominance, using the police as their personal henchmen, etc, etc, etc. This may be where the book is most interesting, in its understanding of how politics is practiced in Peru and its very lapidary depiction of the execution of various political schemes.

As much as Vargas Llosa should be commended for his grasp of politics and his ability to distill them on the page, this does, however, mean that Conversation’s main interest is sociological. At the moment I don’t feel that Vargas Llosa’s novel adds a whole lot that a history or an anthropological study of the same period would not. Santiago and Ambrosio are dutifully drawn as characters, but neither one seems to have a very rich interior consciousness. Their thoughts are boilerplace, what is required to fill the spaces the novel needs them to occupy, but not much more.

The other main strand of this novel is a maid named Amalia, an innocent who represents Peru’s lower classes, and who gets an education in worldliness by becoming employed with the aforementioned sexually ambitious mistress one of the governmental elite. I find her to be a slightly more compelling presence than Santiago, but not much more, definitely not enough to carry a 600-page novel.

And here we get to the crux of the matter: Conversation in the Cathedral is long. Because of Vargas Llosa’s formalist tricks, the book is a fairly arduous read, which makes those 600 pages feel even longer than they are. And I’m not sure that a 33-year-old Vargas Llosa quite had the necessary skill for a novel like this. At the moment, things are beginning to get repetitive. The names and dates are changing, but more or less the same thing keeps happening: Santiago laments his past, Odría’s men work the levers of power, Amalia becomes corrupted. For all of its modernistic trappings, the language is workmanlike—one goes on for pages here wanting an original image or some grouping of language that produces an original way of seeing the world.

Part of the problem here is that Conversation in the Cathedral is, by design, almost 100% past. To a large extent we know what is going to happen with these people and so the book is not so much about the plot resolving as it is about combing through the various strands that have brought about the present situation. This is the domain of Proust, and for a book like this to succeed, one requires an excellent eye for observing human beings, tack-sharp characterization, and some great capacity for original thought. In this book Vargas Llosa is not standing up to the challenge—it is not that he completely lacks what is called for, just that he does not have it the necessary amounts to support a 600-page, largely overdetermined novel (probably at 300 pages Conversation in the Cathedral would stand quite solidly).

This book is definitely most original and worth reading for its state-of-the-nation depiction of Peru in the ’50s. The ideas about a person’s identity (for which this book is often lauded) are run of the mill, and there is nothing in the perspectives of any of the characters that would challenge our everyday conceptions of who and what we are. To take, for instance Cortázar (with whom Vargas Llosa is often grouped), one of his short stories would surely contain many more original insights on the subject than the whole of this book and would feel more visionary as literature.

Enormous Recent Mega-Novels in Translation

Over at Literary Hub I’ve got a fun piece celebrating the publication of the grotesquely huge Bottom’s Dream by running down some of the biggest books to recently arrive in translation. Full list here, and here are a few to whet your appetite:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (tr. Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel)
2666 by Roberto Bolano (tr. Natasha Wimmer)
Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria (tr. Aritz Branton)
Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi (tr. Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, Pamela Williams) (not a novel, but how could you fail to include it?)

A Few Hasty Thoughts on All Souls by Christine Schutt

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all-souls

Christine Schutt came to national prominence in 2004 when she, alongside 4 other “quiet” “women” writers, were selected as finalists for the National Book Award. The minor outcry in the wake of the selections—how dare the people entrusted with the privilege of bestowing such honors ignore the too-big-to-fail turds?—handily revealed the implicit assumptions about what kind of fiction is considered worthy by the gatekeepers of our literary discourse, and it also had another benefit: an author of Schutt’s great talents and dedication was momentarily bandied about in the nation’s major reviews of books.

One wonders what those same people would have made of Virginia Woolf, were she alive, largely unknown, and being published as a midlist author on a midsized press today. I mention Woolf because Schutt references her more than once and resembles her to an impressive degree in her 2008 novel All Souls.

The book takes place amid the senior class in an elite women’s high school for the 1996-97 school year. What I most admire about this book—well, what I most admire is the writing, plain and simple, more on that in a moment—what I most admire about this book is its ability to enter the adolescent mind without itself being adolescent. Schutt has really captured what it feels like to be a high school teenager; that sense of practicing for real life, yet of also taking yourself deadly seriously—the book is robust with the thoughts, the notes, the essays of the teen mind—but she puts it into language that is so mature and refined and reflective; you get a momentary whiff of your teenage years while at the same time a sort of meditative, adult perspective on what it all means.

At the same time All Souls is a remarkably tactile book. There’s a bit about hair buried in there that gets at it. A bunch of seniors at the high school have just given a dance performance, and they are changing into their street clothes:

. . . Damn. Her mother was in the dressing room.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t wait. You were all so beautiful.” Mrs. Van de Ven, jostled, backed away from the door, watching. Far-fetched hair, lots of hair, spectacularly flying free of popping hair bands, hair astonishingly clean and glassy. If she could touch it . . .

“Mother, please, we’re all getting changed in here.”

There is so much happening here. First of all, that sentence where Schutt uses “hair” three times, it always puts me in mind of a very youthful plenitude (so much hair flying everywhere!), potentiated by the fact that it comes through the mind of an older woman who achingly remembers that she was once this age with her own bounteous hair. I read this and I can see all that hair, really feel it. And look at how economical Schutt is, just one 18-word sentence is needed.

But then, too, the way Schutt weaves from daughter’s consciousness to mother’s, the way we get the counterpoint, that childish irritation that comes from taking one’s mother for granted (which we all do at that age), contrasted against the mother who can no longer quite remember what that was like to think that like, and for just a second is beguiled and wants to have a way to get back into that adolescent world.

I suppose if you were of a certain disposition you could attack All Souls for being very much about beauty and hair, in the same way that someone might attack Mrs. Dalloway for being about a society lady throwing a party. In both cases it would be dumb, and for the same reason.

I’d like now to talk for a second about Schutt’s prose. In an interview between her and the critic David Winters that I published a few years back, Schutt says this about her own writing:

Christine Schutt: “By the mouth, for the ear”—is there any other way in which to write? For me, banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing. Hearing story is part of reading’s pleasure: “(S)he swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful./ She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished/ That heaven had made her such a man.” Why should we wonder at Desdemona’s “downright violence, and storm of fortunes” to wed the Moor and “with a greedy ear/Devour up (his) discourse”? Shakespeare gives a writer license to be extravagant with sound.

But ear alone can’t be all. Eyes (in the sense of image) and mind (capturing a scene) must be appealed to. Take the first sentence from an early story of mine, “The Summer After Barbara Claffey”: “I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck.” Sound, yes, but something is happening in the sentence that is meant to captivate from both a visual and plot standpoint. My stories may be musically arranged but there is also event, there is also action.

I think she gets it very right. The groupings of words that Schutt gives us in All Souls are often unusual, the prose feels very fresh and original to my ear. Yet it is also very, very tactile (as I’ve been saying), there is much action and emotion and personality in this book; in this book you are never far from some dilemma, some disappointment, some earnest reflection, some aspiration, some snide observation, some nostalgia . . . even though the prose and the shape of this book continually push themselves toward things that have never been seen in a literary novel.

Long story short: I don’t know very many novels that try to write about teenage women (or, really, teenagers at all), it’s just not a subject that gets taken very seriously in literary fiction, and not so many people do it; of those that do, it’s hard to think of novels that get beyond the typical tropes and clichés of this subject, or that don’t get swallowed up in a self-conscious effort to defy those things. All Souls feels easy, effortless. It makes this subject feel meaningful, and it makes it feel new, and it does it all very lightly, in the way that could easily be missed if you were not disposed to take this book seriously. It’s one of those wonderful books that is very much about language but it also very much about life and reality and our experiences of the world.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 45

Features


Queenpins: Megan Abbott’s Women in Noir

Queenpins: Megan Abbott’s Women in Noir

Megan Abbott is another consummate crime writer who deals with this feminine underside, putting women’s relationships at the center of what has always been a manly genre. Her neo-noir creations, published between 2005 and 2009, are flawless ’40s period pieces, two in the Los Angeles we know so well from The Big Sleep and The Black Dahlia. Her brand-name decor, the snappy, wise-cracking dialog, the endless twists of plot and descent into ever bleaker and lower social worlds, are all done to perfection. But where classic noir insisted on a kind of deadened sheen, a callous stupor in the face of unending corruption, Abbott gives us women who are fully alive to the evil broth they stew in. Far from being objectified creatures of male desire, Abbott’s women talk, feel, and relate to each other with great depth. The passion and complexities of women’s friendships motor these books. Women have all along been part of the noir novel, yet to find them vivid and at the fore disturbs, as if these long-legged blondes had been mute animals who now address us.


A Face to Meet the Faces That We Meet

A Face to Meet the Faces That We Meet

Restless Books, an independent press dedicated to publishing diverse international literature, has launched a new series of novella-length essays exploring the biographical, philosophical, racial, gendered, and aesthetic dimensions of one’s own face. At first blush it sounds like a marketing gimmick, an attempt to translate celebrity culture into literary style or to leverage the current confessional fad. It also risks the boredom of the 17th-century portrait gallery, over-burdening writers to be interesting without pandering;, reflective without navel-gazing. Which is why it’s no small feat that, for the most part, these first three installments in the “Face” series are so effective—and more so when read together.


Hiding: Looking for Henry Green

Hiding: Looking for Henry Green

Contemplating Green’s body of work more closely, however, reveals that even to the extent that Green was willing to work loosely within the confines of this important mode of English fiction, his novels simultaneously seek to escape, enlarging the scope of the “manners” portrayed, expanding the formal range of the scenic method, disturbing assumptions about the role of “voice” in fiction. If Green’s fiction finally doesn’t entirely leave the formal ambit of the novel of manners, it does stretch and reshape its conventions. This use of the form to alter its own usual habits, to determine possibilities not yet realized, is what most warrants considering Green an “experimental” writer. Literally Green’s novels explore new ways to test the limits of the presumed norms that novels must observe for them to be fully intelligible.


A Bastard Form of Writing

A Bastard Form of Writing

The insufficiency of our genre distinctions is a preoccupation of one of the more interesting editorial projects published in the last several years, John D’Agata’s three-volume, 2,000-page anthology A New History of the Essay. D’Agata is the author of three books, an editor at Seneca Review, and the director of the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored with former fact-checker Jim Fingal, was the subject of controversy years ago because of what some considered to be his flippancy about facts when writing nonfiction. Perhaps some of the people who objected to that book will find a similar presumption and flippancy in this anthology’s challenge to previous generic classifications, as works traditionally known as fiction and poetry are included here as “essays” alongside classic examples of the genre.


After Szymborska: The 2016 Szymborska Prize and Polish Poetry Today

After Szymborska: The 2016 Szymborska Prize and Polish Poetry Today

Meanwhile, Szymborska’s legacy since her death has been tended by her former assistant, Michał Rusinek, head of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation. Every year, the Foundation administers the Szymborska Prize, Poland’s leading poetry award. Rusinek has more of a taste for theatrics than his old boss, and the Prize ceremony is a glitzy, televised affair—a rare moment in the spotlight for an often-overlooked art form. The Prize got a double-dose of publicity this year when, at the ceremony on June 11, Jakub Kornhauser was announced as the winner. Kornhauser is the son of one of Poland’s leading poets and critics. A passionate cyclist and outspoken progressive, he is of Jewish descent.



Interviews

The Daniel Saldaña París Interview

The Daniel Saldaña París Interview


One of my premises, when I started writing the novel, was to see how far could I get with an extremely passive and unambitious character. In a way, it’s Bartleby’s premise too, and Melville’s character was one of my principal references for the first part of Among Strange Victims. I think that life is so fundamentally absurd and nonsensical that if you let yourself be carried along by the circumstances, without opposing any will, the resulting actions will be interesting, rather than tedious. Especially in Mexico, passiveness can take you to strange places, because of how bizarre everything is.


The Anca Cristofovici Interview

The Anca Cristofovici Interview


Certain works gave me a base: those of Claude Simon, in particular, or Joseph Brodsky, for their firm nonalignment, their rigor, and for their fine irony tinged with tenderness, or the work of Elizabeth Bishop—a master in the art of traveling light. Much like the documentary material, echoes of these writers have made their way into the novel, wittingly or not, along with other reminiscences. Here and there, I incorporated short excerpts. I hesitated to provide a list of these appropriations, since they seemed to be poetically more effective under cover, so to say. Still, I found a way to weave into the book’s fabric an allusion to the source of fragments I used deliberately.



In Translation

From Between Life and Death by Yoram Kaniuk

After the operation, my fever soared, I was told, and among the three viruses called virulent viruses, my virus was the worst. A real rascal, only one antibiotic could help, and it penetrated from the belly to the lungs, and they collapsed. Dr. Szold, who was both our family doctor and the head of the ICU in Surgery B, didn’t give up. A giant man, Szold. An outstanding doctor. It was Friday night. The one pharmacy that was open didn’t have what he was looking for. The hospital pharmacy was closed. Szold yelled at a nurse, they said, to go find the sleeping pharmacist. The nurse woke him up and he came, the poor man, he opened up and found that rare serum, Szold gave me an injection, and two pneumonias were struggling in me at the same time, I couldn’t breathe.



Reviews

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt


Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole.


The Life-Writer and In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

The Life-Writer and In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine


These continuities are at the heart of Constantine’s novel The Life-Writer, published in the U.K. in 2015 and just released in North America by Biblioasis. It begins abruptly, as Eric is dying—his identity and circumstances only gradually come into focus. Eric’s is a good death, as far as that is possible; he and his wife Katrin are able to spend the necessary time focusing “on where and who they were and what they were doing in the present tense.” Eric’s strongest wish is to leave nothing “that still needed to be mended or forgiven” between him and Katrin. “Was there any such thing?” It seems not. But there are gaps in her knowledge of him, and very near the end he is overcome with the urgency of filling them in.


Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli


Born in 1955, Tulli is one of Poland’s most original contemporary writers. She has received three nominations for the prestigious Nike Prize, and four of her novels translated into English to date, including In Red which was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award. Recently re-issued by Archipelago Books in paperback (they published a hardcover edition over a decade ago), Dreams and Stones truly defies simple classification. From the opening passages, the contemplative poetic imagery reads like a re-invented Book of Genesis, sketching out the life cycle of the metaphorical tree upon which a fruit ripens, falls to the ground, and germinates; it holds in its core the seeds of a great city and the parameters of the human system that surrounds it.


A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard

A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard


To say that Pascal Quignard’s words are a meditation or an exploration is too simplistic—there is a philosophical stream of consciousness in his writing that has a realism both enlightened and carnal which attempts to grasp the essence of human nature in a handful of grand themes. While these are revisited (and often together), the nuances of the subjects in which he finds connections ensure that an originality is retained: sex, whether the act itself or the analysis of its echoing effects on the psyche; art; mythology; books; and death, as found in Sex and Terror, The Sexual Night, and The Roving Shadows, among others. These are his themes, and memory is always present in what links them. Reading Quignard, one is struck by the feeling that they are witnessing someone transcribing his thoughts, pure and fresh as they form in the mind, or to use a fitting mythological connection, Athena springing from the head of Zeus.


Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter


After the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes wrote what he considered to be his most important poetic work, Crow: From the Life and Times of the Crow. At the book’s center is Crow, one of folklore’s iconic figures. Hughes uses this feathered symbol of death to take on mythology, Christianity, and conventional poetry. This is more or less the same Crow we find in the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Except that here, in a slim novel barely more than 100 pages, Crow is given the space to grow beyond his folkloric origins.


Interesting New Releases: September 2016

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Here are a few new releases for the month of September 2016 that have caught my eye. All of these, and many, many more new releases, can be found on my Interesting New Books — 2016 page.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker Sep 6, 2016. Pray for the children if Nicholson Baker is their substitute teacher.

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas. Sept 6. For years I’ve watched Mauro work on this book. I’m hearing great things, and I expect a lot.

The End of Imagination by Arundhati Roy Sep 6. Roy’s first book in a long time.

Jerusalem by Alan Moore September 13. 1280 pages. People have been waiting a long time for this book.

Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World by Adrian Goldsworthy. September 13. Rome is pretty damn fascinating.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead September 13. This one looks promising.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan September 13. McEwan writes about an affair from the perspective of a fetus. Sure.

Good People by Nir Baram September 13. This one has got me intrigued.

Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories by Robert Walser Sep 13. More Walser is always a good thing.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories by Matt Bell September 13. Stories to tide you over while you wait for Matt Bell’s next novel.

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles September 13. I always love it when poets can write good novels.

Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller Sep 20. We still know so little about what time actually is.

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries September 20. Frankfurt School group bio. Looks like fun!

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride Sep 20. Modernist Irish literature is alive and kicking.

Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt Sept 23. You may need a load of $$$ and a vacation to read this one.

The Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai Sept 27. A 2-in-1. The Last Wolf is this.

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano Sep 27. It just keeps coming.

Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas Sept 27. A selection of E V-M’s short stories, at last.

Ophelia in 483 Words

John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Over at Literary Hub they’ve republished my interview with Paul Griffiths from Music & Literature Issue 7. This is a fairly long and in-depth interview with Griffiths about his novel let me tell you. (Bless Music & Literature for publishing a nearly 7,000-word interview and Literary Hub for taking it whole.)

The key thing about let me tell you is that it is a constrained novel that is limited to the 483 words Ophelia utters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Incredibly, Griffiths makes a remarkably rich psychological novel out of this with language that is utterly beautiful.

Griffiths is not a member of the Oulipo, and as such he coincides with one of the theses of The End of Oulipo?, which is that most of the interesting work along Oulipian lines is being done outside of the Oulipo these days (with some exceptions).

Anyway, i encourage you all to read the interview, as I think Griffiths will make you see language in new ways—that was my experience in corresponding with him. And do read the book: it is a very beautiful, original novel.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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