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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


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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    I'm surprised to learn Andres Newman is so young. Also, great overview of his books in English. Andrés Neuman is... »
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    The Complete Review has the details of the future Englishing of our most recent Nobel laureate. And also, sales figures. For... »
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    Issue 38 right here. or TOC after the jump. Features Readings, Fragments,... »
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    Rivka Galchen on the new Kafka bio by Reiner Stach. I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks about Kafka for... »
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    My review of Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano. The most focused of the book’s three diffuse novellas is... »
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    At the NY TImes. I'm currently reading Book 1. Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following,... »
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Group Reads

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.

Life Perec

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

Your Face This Spring

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

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
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  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

Literature’s Ghosts

Ghosts Something I love about Cesar Aira–and a reason why we need more of his books available in translation–is his incredible range. This is they guy who can go from writing an off-kilter-but-clearly-realist novel to creating a Calvino-esque modern fable, and do an above-average job at each. (He's got 80-some more books left, and I'm dying to see them in my local bookstore.)

I just finished Ghosts, which seems to be a sort of extended allegory for the creative process in art. The book is about a half-finished high rise apartment building in Buenos Aires. A bunch of impoverished Chileans live in it while they finish building it, and some of them have a very casual relationship with ghosts that seem to live in the building too. They can see each other; they joke around; it's no big deal. For Aira, the ghosts are just another part of atmospheric detail, neither remarkable nor unremarkable.

Right in the middle of the book–right when you're starting to wonder–What's the deal with all these ghosts everywhere?–the action breaks off and Aira dives into an extended, 10-page digression on the nature of art. It begins with:

The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn't get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all–which technological advances have exacerbated if anything–isn't actually an essential part of cinema's charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

That "without ghosts" in the penultimate sentence is a killer, and I'm still trying to figure out just what it means.

As to the rest of Aira's legnthy digression, I won't even bother trying to summarize the range and twisted logic therein. Suffice to say, it ranges from Mbuntu and Bushmen societies to architectural aesthetics to the practice of the potlatch.

I will say, however, that Aira's constant invocation of structures–especially unfinished ones–is important in the context of Ghosts. The book, after all, takes place in an unfinished building, which (at least in this book) is Aira's favorite metaphor for the transitional area between the work of art as an idea and the work of art as reality.

I haven't quite gotten my head around the book sufficiently to have worked out a complete theory on what's happening in Ghosts. But I think the fact that the main character is a young woman who embodies a point between the world of the humans and the world of the ghosts is important. I also think the constant dramatization of daydreams and the aforementioned backdrop of an unfinished building all point to this book being about transitional areas between thought and reality–especially in regards to art.

I like what Aira says about "the made" and "the unmade" coexisting in literature. In my opinion, they coexist within the mind of the reader; that is, literature–in a very literal sense–is the imagination. The unmade we can take as the writer's vision, the made we can take as the words on the page, and the crossover occurs in that space within your head where the reading takes place.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Ghosts by Cesar Aira Review The Complete Review provides the first review I’ve seen of Ghosts, the newest translation from prodigious Argentine Cesar Aira. It’s a curious little book (as...
  2. Ghosts by Cesar Aira in NYTBR, Eventually The Literary Saloon reports that the NYTBR is finally catching on about Cesar Aira. That's good for them. And while you wait for them to...
  3. Wimmer on Aira Natasha Wimmer doesn't get too many words for her New York Times review of Ghosts by Cesar Aira, but she does make them count: Aira...
  4. Cesar Aira Interview With the U.S. release of Cesar Aira's novel Ghosts, it's a good time for an interview. As far as I know, though, no one Stateside...
  5. Cesar Aira At Feria Internacional del Libro de Guayaquil Nice write-up on Cesar Aira, who was speaking at the Book Fair in Guayaquil, Peru. The piece opens with a typically modest statement from the...

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2 comments to Literature’s Ghosts

  • Hey Scott,
    you should check out Aristotle’s metaphor on housebuilding (I believe he uses it in Metaphysics, to illustrate the mover who doesn’t move, and in Physics, precisely to discuss art -although there “art” is understood in a broader sense) pretty much the same thing. Also, it’s curious that the scholastic reading of Aristotle, for instance Thomas Aquinas, introduces the term “ghost” whenever they refer to “thought”.

  • Guillermo,
    These are very interesting points. Given the kind of writer Aira is, I find it hard to believe the resemblance to Aristotle is coincidental. Thanks for pointing this out!

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