The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

After hearing Gilbert Sorrentino’s name tossed around on a couple notable blogs, I knew I would have to check him out sooner or later. I had a few books I wanted to get to before Sorrentino, but last week I finally picked up Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and so far I have not been disappointed.

I’ll say that Sorrentino’s style takes a minute to get used to. Even though I had heard that he eschews plot and is highly experimental, I still was taken aback by the abrupt shifts and long narrator-reader monologues that often come out of nowhere and end with the same suddenness. This is a book that has no problem letting you know that it doesn’t really care about plot and is going to do damn well whatever it pleases.

In fact, in Imaginative Qualities, Sorrentino dishes out plenty of scorn and even some derision for novels and novelistic techniques. This scorn is often quite humorous. For instance, after writing "They lapsed into a bitter silence," Sorrentino annotates his own writing with the dry remark "I have the feeling I’ve read this sentence somewhere." Of course he has! There may not be as much as one novelist who has not had her characters lapse into a bitter silence at some point.

Elsewhere, Sorrentino writes

After, they did many more things, they graduated and Lou moved to Berkeley so that he could do graduate work, Sheila joined him and they married. O.K. (There’s a novel there, if any of you novelists want to write it you’re welcome to it.)

This "novel" that Sorrentino tosses out like a bone to the dogs has some similarities with the "bitter silences" that he can’t help but ridicule. Sorrentino is not interested in filling up his book with pages and pages of description of each character’s state of mind, or the places they live, or the sights they see. When he does, as with the bitter silence, Sorrentino can barely keep from laughing at himself for such an obviously contrived statement. In fact, Sorrentino doesn’t even believe he is qualified to tell us about this stuff, even if he did want to. He repeatedly stresses that although his characters are his creations, he can’t see into their inner psyche any more than we can.

At one point Sorrentino discusses a hypothetical meeting between him and his characters. Not the actual characters from Imaginative Qualities, mind you, but people who are similar to them.

Maybe I’ll meet him someday–he’s not that rare. If someone like, let’s say, Larry Poons, is endlessly reproducible, then certainly Lou Henry is. I’ll say to him that I think I’ve met him before, no? I think I’ve met your wife–Sheila? That will not be his wife’s name, of course. . . . He’ll have read this book, and will not have recognized himself. People who "recognize" themselves in books are never in the books. It is the meticulously woven fabric of the ruthless imagination that makes them think they did what the artist says they did.

Sorrentino is admitting that his characters are just types, 2-dimentional cutouts that anyone, with enough imagination, can see themselves in. That’s they way he likes it. He’s not writing his book to create characters that can "walk off the page" or to place them through trials and see how they respond. In fact, he seems to look on all that with a tired eye.*

Yet the fact remains that with no "realistic" characters and not much plot (although Sorrentino does insist that there is some plot, however subtle) I’ve still enjoyed roughly 1/3 of Imaginative Qualities. This is because Sorrentino has found ways other than plot and empathy to keep my mind busy, to keep me actively engaged with his words. I’m a firm believer that all the plot in the world can’t save a book that doesn’t tell the reader anything interesting, doesn’t keep her mind working on something. If we go back to Cloud Atlas, that’s why I think that book petered out toward the end. The plot and writing was certainly magnificent, but by the last 1/5, the book’s dialog with me had long since ended, and seeing it through to the end was, although pleasant from a mechanical point of view, empty.

Imaginative Qualities, at least so far as I’ve read it, feels like the opposite. There’s no technically well-built plot, but the book abounds in interesting thoughts that keep me reading and thinking. Sorrentino expertly gives me just enough information that, with some thought, I can figure out what he’s doing, but not so much information that it’s as though Prof. Sorrentino is teaching me Imaginative Qualities 101.

Thus far, the book has been compulsively readable, and I’m confident I’ll have more thoughts soon.

———
* I’m unsure yet if Sorrentino is pro this kind of novel or con it, or if he has no strong feelings. But clearly this is not the kind of book he wants to write.

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