The Missing Books, Now With Lit Hub Excerpt

missing-books-web-1000

missing-books-web-1000

As part of the release of The Missing Books this week, you can now read an excerpt of it at Literary Hub.

From the chatter I’ve been seeing this week on Twitter, people are digging this project. I think it’s pretty cool, and I hope you’ll check it out. If you’re thinking of getting in on this, the Lit Hub excerpt might help you make up your mind.

And if you’re a longtime reader who values the info at CR & are looking for a cool way to support the site, this is a win-win for both of us. So do have a look. Excerpt at this link, description and ordering info below.

The Missing Books is a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.

Featuring missing books from: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé. Nearly 100 titles in all.

In its pages you will find: an infinite book; a book nobody can read; an unwritten book worth $5 million; a book written on skin; a universal dictionary; a book of 25,000 pages; a missing book that will be found in 100 years.

The Missing Books is a living document. It will be updated and re-released as new missing books are discovered, and as a circumstance render missing books found.

Anyone who purchases a copy of The Missing Books also receives the right to receive for free all future versions of it that I release.

available as a downloadable ePub file and PDF file

Kindle ($4.99)

 

———Excerpts———

FROM THE BOOKS THAT ARE YET TO BE

Winter Journeys by various members of the Oulipo

An ongoing hypernovel written over three decades by the Oulipo, a collective of experimental writers (mostly French) who utilize writing constraints. The concept of this hypernovel was originated by Perec’s account, “The Winter Journey” (see The Books That Never Were). After the great success of that piece, other members of the Oulipo wrote their own sequels to Perec’s “Winter Journey,” and the idea caught on among the group. Subsequent “Winter Journey” installments have become a rite of passage among new Oulipo members. In 2013 an English-language edition of the original “Winter Journey” plus 20 sequels was published by Atlas Books, a volume of some 350 pages. One would imagine that it is a virtual certainty that, much like the Oulipo itself, the complete chronology of the “Winter Journey” is far from over.

Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatín

A theoretical project by Mario Bellatín, an experimental Peruvian author currently headquartered in Mexico City. He has already made some progress on “Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatín” (The Hundred Thousand Books of Bellatín), through which he aims to write and publish 1,000 copies each of some 100 literary works. A supposed list of the plots for these 100 books was published with the journal Dossier, among them: “17- Explicar la importancia del perro sin pata trasera en la existencia de Mario Bellatín” (17- To explain the importance of a dog without a hind leg to the existence of Mario Bellatín); “38- Un libro sólo sobre el tiempo anterior a que la enfermedad se presentará” (38- A book about the time before disease existed); “57- La particular sensación de inmortalidad que debió soportar hasta el día de su muerte” (57- A particular feeling of immortality that one must sustain until the day of your death).

 

FROM THE BOOKS THAT COME FROM BOOKS

The Winter Journey by Hugo Vernier

A strange book that plays a central role in an account of madness; said account was written by Georges Perec, who chose to title it “The Winter Journey.” Perec’s account goes as follows: one night a man discovers an obscure book titled The Winter Journey that seems to be the source text for all the major developments of French literature to-date (1939). All the great poets of the 19th and early 20th centuries have plagiarized this work, which the man is convinced was published before all of them. But his copy of the book is lost in the Second World War. The man then spends the rest of his life failing to find another copy and dies in a madhouse. It is unknown if Perec ever possessed a copy of The Winter Journey, and if so why he chose not to share it with the world in any way other than in this brief piece. Of course, if he did have a copy, it would help explain why he so avidly plagiarized his fellow authors; knowing that they, too, had already plagiarized, what difference would it make if he then took what they had already taken? To date no other copies of The Winter Journey have surfaced, although the Oulipo seems to be at work on their own version (see Winter Journeys).

 

FROM THE BOOKS THAT WERE LOST

The Owl in Daylight by Philip K. Dick

Unfinished final project by Philip K. Dick. According to some reports, Dick claimed Daylight as his Finnegans Wake; other (perhaps corresponding) reports say that this book would have combined ideas of Beethoven as humanity’s most incandescent genius with visions of heaven as a bath of lights. Others have argued that the correct source for this book was Dante’s Divine Comedy, or that the story was to have involved ideas of a quantum leap in human evolution that would bring about new concepts of reality. Plot summaries abound, generally involving higher life-forms and/or godlike beings, and the little that can be said about Owl has been gleaned from hearsay and some letters Dick wrote. To add to the confusion, at one point the author’s former wife published a version of the book that she claimed reflected her understanding of the project, but it has since been removed from circulation. Supposedly, the title is a reference to our inability to understand, our blindness.

Richard and Samuel by Kafka/Brod

Incomplete joint novel to have been co-authored by Franz Kafka and Max Brod. Brod was one of the most successful German authors of his day, Kafka one of the least. Fortunately for posterity, the former used his success and influence to win the latter publication with leading venues of the day, contributing to Kafka’s production as an author. The two were good friends and attempted to co-author a novel that would have been called Richard and Samuel. One imagines it a sort of Germanic Bouvard and Pécuchet, wherein two friends reflect on the absurdity of the world as they travel the land via train. Unfortunately, while Brod had no difficulties elaborating on the conceit the two had agreed upon, Kafka grew more and more despairing, and the project, like so many of Kafka’s, remained incomplete.

Interesting New Releases: October 2016

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Here are a few new releases for the month of October 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.

The Path of the Jaguar by Stephen Henighan October 1. Latest novel from one of my favorite critics, translators, and all around literary eminence.

Caught, Back, and Loving by Henry Green. Oct 4. Henry Green is your favorite author’s (and critic’s) favorite author. So incredibly pumped that NYRB Classics is reissuing all 9 of his novels.

Ghostland by Colin Dickey October 4. I’ve been a big fan of Colin’s essays for some time, and I love the topic for this book.

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga October 4. Probably the worst interview I’ve ever experienced, but she’s an interesting author.

A Greater Music by Bae Suah Oct 11. The first time I read Bae Suah, I knew she was a very special writer.

My Private Property by Mary Ruefle Oct 11. New short prose collection from one of my favorite essayists and poets.

In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine and The Life-Writer by David Constantine October 11. David Constantine is definitely one of the top stories writers on Earth. And DC’s first novel in a while is fire.

Reel: A Novel by Tobias Carroll Oct 11. Excited to see what Tobias Carroll can do.

Dear Mr. Beckett – Letters from the Publisher: The Samuel Beckett File Correspondence, Interviews, Photos Oct 13. Name says it all.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo Oct 18 More Magda.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 4 Volume Hardback Set Oct 19. All of Beckett’s letters. You might never escape.

The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories by Lynne Tillman Oct 21. Madame Realism is one of Tillman’s best creations.

Float by Anne Carson Oct 25. Looks like Anne Carson has channeled a little B.S. Johnson for this one.

Norte: A Novel by Edmundo Paz Soldán Oct 26. The translator (Valerie Miles) has impeccable taste, and I’ve published Paz Soldán before, so I know he’s got a lot of talent.

Now Available: The Missing Books by Scott Esposito

missing-books-web-1000

missing-books-web-1000

The Missing Books is a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.

Featuring missing books from: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé. Nearly 100 titles in all.

In its pages you will find: an infinite book; a book nobody can read; an unwritten book worth $5 million; a book written on skin; a universal dictionary; a book of 25,000 pages; a missing book that will be found in 100 years.

The Missing Books is a living document. It will be updated and re-released as new missing books are discovered, and as a circumstance render missing books found.

Anyone who purchases a copy of The Missing Books also receives the right to receive for free all future versions of it that I release.

available as a downloadable ePub file and PDF file

Kindle ($4.99)

 

———Excerpts———

FROM THE BOOKS THAT ARE YET TO BE

Winter Journeys by various members of the Oulipo

An ongoing hypernovel written over three decades by the Oulipo, a collective of experimental writers (mostly French) who utilize writing constraints. The concept of this hypernovel was originated by Perec’s account, “The Winter Journey” (see The Books That Never Were). After the great success of that piece, other members of the Oulipo wrote their own sequels to Perec’s “Winter Journey,” and the idea caught on among the group. Subsequent “Winter Journey” installments have become a rite of passage among new Oulipo members. In 2013 an English-language edition of the original “Winter Journey” plus 20 sequels was published by Atlas Books, a volume of some 350 pages. One would imagine that it is a virtual certainty that, much like the Oulipo itself, the complete chronology of the “Winter Journey” is far from over.

Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatín

A theoretical project by Mario Bellatín, an experimental Peruvian author currently headquartered in Mexico City. He has already made some progress on “Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatín” (The Hundred Thousand Books of Bellatín), through which he aims to write and publish 1,000 copies each of some 100 literary works. A supposed list of the plots for these 100 books was published with the journal Dossier, among them: “17- Explicar la importancia del perro sin pata trasera en la existencia de Mario Bellatín” (17- To explain the importance of a dog without a hind leg to the existence of Mario Bellatín); “38- Un libro sólo sobre el tiempo anterior a que la enfermedad se presentará” (38- A book about the time before disease existed); “57- La particular sensación de inmortalidad que debió soportar hasta el día de su muerte” (57- A particular feeling of immortality that one must sustain until the day of your death).

 

FROM THE BOOKS THAT COME FROM BOOKS

The Winter Journey by Hugo Vernier

A strange book that plays a central role in an account of madness; said account was written by Georges Perec, who chose to title it “The Winter Journey.” Perec’s account goes as follows: one night a man discovers an obscure book titled The Winter Journey that seems to be the source text for all the major developments of French literature to-date (1939). All the great poets of the 19th and early 20th centuries have plagiarized this work, which the man is convinced was published before all of them. But his copy of the book is lost in the Second World War. The man then spends the rest of his life failing to find another copy and dies in a madhouse. It is unknown if Perec ever possessed a copy of The Winter Journey, and if so why he chose not to share it with the world in any way other than in this brief piece. Of course, if he did have a copy, it would help explain why he so avidly plagiarized his fellow authors; knowing that they, too, had already plagiarized, what difference would it make if he then took what they had already taken? To date no other copies of The Winter Journey have surfaced, although the Oulipo seems to be at work on their own version (see Winter Journeys).

 

FROM THE BOOKS THAT WERE LOST

The Owl in Daylight by Philip K. Dick

Unfinished final project by Philip K. Dick. According to some reports, Dick claimed Daylight as his Finnegans Wake; other (perhaps corresponding) reports say that this book would have combined ideas of Beethoven as humanity’s most incandescent genius with visions of heaven as a bath of lights. Others have argued that the correct source for this book was Dante’s Divine Comedy, or that the story was to have involved ideas of a quantum leap in human evolution that would bring about new concepts of reality. Plot summaries abound, generally involving higher life-forms and/or godlike beings, and the little that can be said about Owl has been gleaned from hearsay and some letters Dick wrote. To add to the confusion, at one point the author’s former wife published a version of the book that she claimed reflected her understanding of the project, but it has since been removed from circulation. Supposedly, the title is a reference to our inability to understand, our blindness.

Richard and Samuel by Kafka/Brod

Incomplete joint novel to have been co-authored by Franz Kafka and Max Brod. Brod was one of the most successful German authors of his day, Kafka one of the least. Fortunately for posterity, the former used his success and influence to win the latter publication with leading venues of the day, contributing to Kafka’s production as an author. The two were good friends and attempted to co-author a novel that would have been called Richard and Samuel. One imagines it a sort of Germanic Bouvard and Pécuchet, wherein two friends reflect on the absurdity of the world as they travel the land via train. Unfortunately, while Brod had no difficulties elaborating on the conceit the two had agreed upon, Kafka grew more and more despairing, and the project, like so many of Kafka’s, remained incomplete.

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

argo

argo

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.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-30-10-pm

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

250-conversation

250-conversation

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.

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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