Quarterly Conversation Issue 42

Fun fact. This issue contains our 1,000th article.


The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The four books of short fiction that John Barth has published (all now reprinted by Dalkey Archive as Collected Stories) offer a usefully synoptic view of Barth’s most signature moves as a writer of fiction—or at least those moves with which he is likely to remain most identified. Although Barth advises the reader in his brief introduction to Collected Stories that his “authorial inclination” has always been “toward books rather than discreet, stand-alone short stories,” the very ways in which he endeavors in each of these collected books to unify the series of “discreet” stories are revealing of Barth’s fundamental assumptions and ambitions. Thus, while it may be true that “short fiction is not my long suit,” as Barth puts it, these collected stories do reveal the ultimate purposes of Barth’s literary art.

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

The peak isn’t the one most folks point to. I’m speaking of John Barth, now in his mid-80s and debilitated, and of a career that stretches back to when he was a vigorous 25. At that age Barth published his debut, The Floating Opera, and just five years later came the work for which he’s most celebrated, The Sot-Weed Factor. I’d never deny that the 1960 novel was a watershed for American fiction, nor that what he accomplished over the following decade, in particular the stories of Lost In the Funhouse, established landmarks for what we now call Postmodernism. Nevertheless, the man’s career overall now suffers a misbegotten consensus. Too many critics—a catchall expression, I realize, but bear with me—hold that the author had shot his bolt by, give or take, 1972. That was the year he published Chimera, and the same ill-informed consensus considers the subsequent National Book Award as a kind of recognition for Lifetime Achievement, a late salute to Sot-Weed or Funhouse or both. Yes, the author was barely into his 40s, at that point. Yes, but whatever he published thereafter was at best hubristic overreach and at worst . . . well, see George Steiner’s treatment of LETTERS, a Neanderthal bashing in The New Yorker. That piece appeared in 1979, and from then on the buzz about the work, in the hive mind, fell away.

In Translation

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

I’ve left and returned a few times over the years—I don’t mean the village, but the bar; there have been periods when I’ve abandoned it entirely, but I’ve always come back in the end, to that stimulating daily journey, the one that prises me out of my solitude at the workshop in the evenings: down Calle de San Ramón where I live, along Calle del Carmen, Calle de la Paz, Paseo de la Constitución (formerly known as General Mola), and here I am—as on so many evenings for so many years—in Bar Castañer, my refuge: the protective gauze of cigarette smoke, which, today, like the snows of yesteryear, has vanished. You can’t smoke inside any more. Although, even after all these months of the smoking ban, the smell of nicotine that used to impregnate walls and tables may have gone, but other components of that comforting olfactory gauze linger on: the smell of old cooking oil, damp wool, sweaty vests and overalls, the smell of cheap beer and sour wine. All of these still allow me to recognise the place, to snuggle down in my nest and shuffle the cards. Lately, I’ve been coming almost every evening. Saying goodbye to all this was the dream of an empty-headed youth who ended up staying and who has, in the meantime, become a decrepit old man without ever passing through maturity.

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen and a half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency—the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially one the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colours (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkelling flippers, ski boots, baby booties and booties made of leather. The passing traveller may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near to U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about any more, but beyond the body—and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve.


A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Early on in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, the narrator offers this bit of difficult wisdom: “Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. . . . Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” It’s an implied celebration of literature, one that weaves itself into the fabric of Oblivion. Locked as we are within a given body, temperament, and time, literature can transport us, can transmute textual experience into an expansion of inwardness, an amplification of consciousness. The best books—which Agualusa’s charmingly melancholic novel approaches—haunt us and, indeed, cover us like “a different skin.” Here, however, writing is even more than that: for Ludo, the agoraphobic and mysteriously damaged protagonist, writing is a matter of life and death, a story she scrawls on the walls of her home with charcoal. Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility—and the tension—inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Is there a more chastening figure in contemporary American letters than Marilynne Robinson? Is there anyone else who seems, by her small but distinguished oeuvre, to call into question our literary predilections—for Franzonian cultural diagnostics, for confessional self-help, for vast, historical, double-hanky weepers? Or, more generally, is there a writer whose very presence—her unironic devotion to Christianity, her almost creepy level of calm, her spiritual maturity, her belief—undermines our own hectic cultural preoccupations—with Twitter icons, racist presidential candidates, our daily NASDAQ of microaggressions? Perhaps the only person who offers the same level of rebuke to contemporary life is Cormac McCarthy, a kind of grumpy, nihilistic older brother. Together they stand like Easter Island statues, implacable in the bleak gulf stream of our culture.

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

In an epistolary keynote address delivered this past June, poet Aaron Abeyta tells the Association of American University Presses “perhaps we are all here to trace and collect words, to sow meaning; we collect that thing which people discard as ordinary and bring it to a page of life where it can flourish and be the map of human struggle and therefore an instruction as to how we can all survive.” When I read his letter, I am interested in who “we” are. On one reading, Abeyta includes himself with the academic book publishers he addresses, thinking of writers and publishers collaborating to bring pages to life. On another reading, Abeyta identifies with his high school teacher who, to address his unruly classroom behavior, gave the freshman the key to the cabinet with seniors’ books. In the cabinet he found Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, learned that he would “love books and their saving power”, and discovered his own career path to university professor. On yet a third reading, perhaps Abeyta’s “we” speaks of writers and specifically poets. Writers are, after all, the ones who collect language, that “which people discard as ordinary.”

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

Part of what makes Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born work so well is that, though it’s so autobiographical in nature that its protagonist has the same lazy eye that’s apparent in Nettel’s author photo, the Mexican writer treats herself as a stranger. Nettel’s life seems alien to herself as she tries to recall it accurately, and to convey it diligently to otherss. To a large degree, it’s a novel precisely about this alienness, and the emotional wooziness that can cause. The Body Where I Was Born is then a novel rooted in, but wary of, the memoir form.

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Most books where characters openly debate the title theme would suggest sledgehammer finesse, but Bursey’s artistry here as in his 2011 debut lies in the shrewd, minutiae-driven exhibition of the obvious: liberation through transcription. Whatever’s being smuggled in, I doubt it’s message. More like the manipulations of a wry anti-novelistic sensibility: whatever he can get away with. At Johnny’s, over the course of several woozily digressive pages (a Bursey specialty), this image of purity is picked up, put down, interrupted, mauled . . . —but, taken on its own, it’s hard to see the purpose. A bull-session reproduced in admirable detail, if detailing not-too-bright conversation is in itself admirable, but Bursey doesn’t seem that interested in sounding these characters or presenting the dialog dramatically, as much more than detail work. The high burnish of this “super-realism” and its modest register leaves any obvious message-mongering at bay, and the conversation itself (including its planting) unresolved, in suspension. This formal adumbration of the bigger picture, so to speak, has a local correlative in the strong focus on moments of decision, transition, and sudden insights into roads taken and not.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #10 Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Definitely one of the most important activist groups to come about in the Internet age is Anonymous. Not only has this group been instrumental in many of the most important grassroots, fight-the-power actions of the past 10 years, it has also made essential contributions to the aesthetics and culture of the Internet (lolz, anyone? Church of Scientology South Park episode?).

But, by its very design, this group is shadowy and poorly understood. One of the main tenants of being in Anonymous is that you do not attempt to self-aggrandize or otherwise glamorize yourself, or even reveal that you are in Anonymous, which means, number one, you don’t talk to the press.

These are the reasons that Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is an important book, because she managed to get unprecedented access to the book (including even pasting in the contents of many chats that Anonymous members had during some of their most infamous campaigns). Understanding Anonymous from the inside out really puts much of Internet culture—and grassroots “street art” culture—into a new light. It also offers important new chapters on many of the manor political events of recent years.

So I would recommend this book even if it was a turgid, painful slog. But in fact it is the opposite of that. Coleman’s depiction of Anonymous is fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny (unlike most critics who write those words, I really mean that; I laughed as I read this book), hugely, hugely fascinating, and uncannily winds together many, many threads into a coherent and riveting narrative. This book is seriously fun to read. Fun. It’s just a great, great book, and you all should read it.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #9 Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell


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This is a book that definitely hasn’t gotten its due. So here’s a thing: if you’re sad that W.G. Sebald only managed to complete four “novels” in his lifetime, and you’ve read them all and you wish there were more, read Belomor. Which is not to say that Rothwell is a Sebald clone by any means, but the lineage is obviously there, and he is an author who can stand that comparison.

The book functions a little like The Emigrants, in that it consists of four narratives that only have thematic links (and, of course, the first-person voice telling these four stories links them as well). The first one is by far my favorite, a little Sebaldian yarn that implicates that Belomor canal (a pointless project (it was useless for commerce) dug by slave labor from the Soviet gulags and that may have killed as many as 25,000). It also brings in the Dresden firestorm and its legacy, as well as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which moved to Dresden in the 18th century, was stolen by the Soviets during the war, and has been relocated back to Dresden.

That should give some idea of the Sebaldian heft of this book. But it is not a primarily European focus: the Pueblo region of the United States and the wilds of northern Australia also figure prominently. This is an excellent, excellent book, hugely overlooked when it was published in 2014. I look forward to reading more Rothwell in 2016.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #8 A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari


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I turn to rhizomes.net to state the basic idea of A Thousand Plateaus:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To put it simply, this idea makes intuitive sense to me, and it accords very deeply with how I currently see the worlds of art and literature, as well as how function the book that I am currently most involved with.

A Thousand Plateaus is a very, very new book. Which is to say, its ideas will appear quite foreign, so it is a book to be read slowly, to be contemplated, and probably to be helped through by way of secondary texts and discussions. It is greatly worth the time involved.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #7 Reading / Writing Julien Gracq


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I’m not sure how to classify Reading / Writing Julien Gracq. You could call this a book of sixteen essays on literary subjects, which doesn’t tell you very much but may be the may you can say for sure.

These essays are composed of fragmentary chunks of thought that Gracq collects under subjects like “Literature and Painting,” “Landscape and the Novel,” and “Literature and History,” and he freely draws from all forms of artistic endeavor. There may be some sort of clear progression through and/or among the fragments that make up each essay, but that logic is very obscure. I didn’t really care, as Grazq’s intelligence is compelling on almost always a sentence-by-sentence level, and most definitely on a paragraph-by-paragraph level. You can just read the book for these insights alone and not even try to find a larger argument to each of the essays, or to the book as a whole.

True to the title, what Gracq considers most profoundly here are the experiences and aesthetics of reading and writing. His capacity to keep making fresh insights on these two subjects page after page (the book is some 400 pages long), and to not descend into repetition or the banal, is remarkable. If you care about either of these two topics, you should read this book.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #6 Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama


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There are very few books that I read this year, or in any other year, that are as humbling as this one. Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay is truly the work of a master scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to his task and has marshaled decades of learning and research in order to make a lasting statement about human societies.

The inquiry of this book can be state simply: Fukuyama simply wants to know why in some places the political order remains solid and enduring, while in others it is nearly impossible to maintain, always crumbling and melting away to chaos.

His answer is much more complex to explain, although the general thesis can be summed up: societies that have succeeded in building certain modern institutions can enjoy a steady political order, whereas others that depend on more traditional forms of organization find it difficult to do so. Note that “modern institutions” does not necessarily mean 20th-century states: one of Fukuyama’s key examples is ancient China, which he indeed identifies as one of the world’s first successful states.

Once Fukuyama has explained his theory of why some states thrive and others decay, he then relentlessly examines state after state after state: imperial Germany, 19th- and 20th-century America, Britain, France, Denmark, Argentina, Costa Rica, Nigeria . . . The erudition in this volume is immense, and part of the joy of this book is simply reading all of the fascinating case-studies and learning about far-flung parts of the Earth.

This book is really for anyone who wants to understand what sorts of political orders human beings seem predisposed to, both of the successful kind and of the failing. It is for those curious about why civilization exists at all, why some have become great, and why some in our own era, including the one from within which I today write, seem to be failing.

It is also a book to make many literary writers more comprehensible, or at least to complement their own inquiries. On that score, I would say it would sit well beside, for example: László Krasznahorkai, W.G. Sebald, Wolfgang Hilbig, Thomas Mann. Read it beside Ton Judt’s Postwar.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #5 Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard


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I’ve heard people tell me that Gathering Evidence may be Bernhard’s best. I’ve read seven of his books—which is only a fraction of what he produced—and it’s clearly the best so far. It’s a staggering, staggering work.

The first reason you must read this book is for Bernhard’s depiction of the caves he and his fellow Austrians stood in for hours as makeshift air raid shelters during World War II. If anything is a plausible root of Bernhard’s lifelong sense of paranoia and panic, being forced to stand in these cramped, pitch-black quarters for hours as a child as people fainted and the threat of being buried alive loomed, this would be it. This is frightening, frightening shit. In fact, his whole evocation of wartime life in Austria is amazing and must be read as something to help comprehend how the world could have come to such a juncture, and just how horrible that war was.

But that is just one small part of what is a monumental autobiography of Thomas Bernhard. It is written in five parts, each part roughly 80 pages long, and the sense of structure and voice that Bernhard conjures in this book could well make for a lifetime’s worth of apprenticeship. Bernhard is telling his adolescence and young adulthood, but he is doing so by fixating on just a handful of central incidents, and I mean “central” in a very uncentral way. At times it is difficult to grasp just why Bernhard fixates on the things he does, but of course this is true to how we remember our lives and how we construct ourselves from the things that happen to us. Bernhard is “gathering evidence,” after all, and I’m sure he wonders just as much as we do.

Some of the best parts of this book are in Bernhard’s evocations of the medical procedures he was made to go through for his bad lungs (I had to stop reading at many points in order not to faint), as well as being left to die in a ward that was mostly full of tubercular cases on their deathbeds. There are also strange philosophical asides where Bernhard begins to espouse something like a personal philosophy, or an ethics, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if he means us to take these as the things he believed in his youth, or statements of the mature man who writes the book. It is an important difference, one that I think he purposefully obscures, but regardless they are profound, provocative, and utterly Bernhard.

And then of course there is the voice of this book, which could very well carry me along if Bernhard had chosen to spend 400 pages narrating the drying of paint on a wall. Who else is so expert at constructing a a plot out of the way his narrator sounds? What other voice of the last 100 years sounds so true? And perhaps never truer than in this book.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #4 The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson


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Thank God we have Marilynne Robinson to stick up for unfashionable opinions. And thank God we have her to remind us what “America” means, aside from all those things we think it means. I’m talking about cultural roots, about John Calvin, about the Transcendentalists, about unironic Christian belief, about the rural salt of the earth that for all intents and purposes stopped existing in this nation sometime shortly after we electrified the countryside.

But forget all that for a moment. What I really want to tell you about The Givenness of Things is how it sticks a shiv in the side of every techno-utopian, STEM-obsessing, materialist asshole who has ever given you a tight grin after hearing that you decided to major in a humanity. I have never read a living author make the case for the value of the humanities as well as Robinson does. She comes across as so completely rational, so calm, so purely kind and loving and quietly brilliant about the way she tells the kind of people who’s life goal is to build a driverless car to go fuck off.

We need an author like Robinson to remind us of everything that was forgotten while we were chasing the trends. A writer to remind us that, first and foremost, we are living creatures, and we will always be flesh and blood no matter what. A writer who can synthesize half a millennium of cultural thought in some 20 pages and not come off as sounding rushed or superficial. A writer who is truly conversant with the joy that anyone in this line of work should never lose touch with, and who has reminded us of that fact with every single book, going back now over three decades.

Why would you want to deny yourself a chance to see Marilynne Robinson’s mind at work? These are essays unlike any other essays being published right now, the opportunity to interface with an intellect whose time on this Earth we are all fortunate to share.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #3 Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus


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Technically I read Aliens and Anorexia at the very end of 2014, but it was too late to include in my favorite reads of last year, so, hence. And I’m in the middle of Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor right now, which could as easily end up on my 2015 list.

I think I may have finally figured out how to describe Kraus’s voice as a novelist, which would be to call it the outsider’s view of the inside of the elite artworld establishment. Her characters are outsiders, and that’s more often than not because they just can’t do what it takes to be insiders. They hang out with Félix Guattari to watch the fall of Romanian Communism on CNN, and they’re just as smart and talented and dedicated as their colleagues in the spotlight, but they just lack the capacity to go there themselves. This generally comes across as healthy amounts of past trauma mixed with self-sabotage, a plain inability to function very well in that world, and a complete lack of interest in the kind of politicking and bullshit it takes to get what they world can give them.

Kraus writes amazingly well on the psychology of this individual, and she can also do biting satire, both of this person and the worlds they’ll perpetually be on the outside of. Kraus in conversant with the major strands of modernist and postmodernist theory and philosophy, and she can bring these elements into the book in poetic and organic ways (see the Guattari above, or the excellent use of Simone Weil in Aliens and Anorexia, which you can read more about here.)

And then there are her plots, which are bizarre and gripping and just scoot right along on the power of these immensely honest, likable, and perceptive third-person narrators. These are just great books, books that are fun and witty and deeply intelligent and edge, books that try to figure out complex moralities and that deeply care about human beings. Most of all, books that want art and literature to be about something.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #2 Counternarratives by John Keene


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The pieces in this book, which is comprised stories and novellas, are really just exquisite. One of the most apparent things about Counternarratives is that John Keene writes in a really lush, twisty register that runs counter to the very minimalist spareness that’s in style right now. I’d say that one of the reasons that spareness is currently au courant is because it’s far easier to master—and easier to teach in an MFA course—than the one Keene has chosen for these works. This is not a voice for beginners or dabblers, but, that said, Keene knows exactly how execute this sort of writing.

The pieces in Counternarratives were written over the course of years, and many have been published independently in various journals, but they all fit together so perfectly that they must have been written with some idea that they would one day form a larger whole. I think this sense of continuity is exactly what my friend Brad Johnson, bookseller extraordinaire at Diesel, a Bookstore, means every time he calls this book an “American Seiobo.” Each piece in Counternarratives has an independent life, but it’s also part of a larger project that’s moving forward through time and existing at various points of the New World, and inside of a wealth of different minds.

I would also suggest William T. Vollmann’s historical fictions of the Americas as a reference point for Counternarratives, for that’s exactly what this book is: fictions that begin with the colonization of Brazil and continue right up through the early 20th century, ending with a Beckettian alternate past/future. What’s truly astonishing is how Keene masters the voice of each era, not only finding the correct words and sentence structures but also being aware of the manners and preoccupations and methods of conveying information that would pertain to numerous different classes of individual writing in different forms at many different points in history. If a masterful novel is content to give you maybe 3 or 4 lifelike, idiosyncratic voices (at the most), Counternarratives gives you about 15, and they are all genuine, independently existing human beings, not mere pastiches or cheap impersonations.

And as the title suggests, these voices are the ones that have not been collected in the historical record. In effect, Keene is creating documents that fit into spaces where these voices might have existed, had they had the chance (and the education) to leave a written record of themselves. And this too is part of Counternarratives’ canvas: depicting these struggles to have a historical voice and to leave a mark. In fact, that very well may be the great theme running through this great book: the struggle to have a voice and to leave one’s mark on the world. It is a most human struggle that goes on today.


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 . . .


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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