Pre-Order The Surrender

Anomalous Press has issued a Kickstarter to fund its 2016 titles, of which The Surrender is one. You can pre-order the book by funding the Kickstarter—there are lots of various contribution levels to choose from.

If you choose to pre-order, you’ll get the limited letterpress edition (there will be a regular, non-letterpress edition that will be available once these sell out). Anomalous Press books are quite beautiful, so if you do want to read The Surrender I’d recommend trying to get the letterpress.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano


Having just finished Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, I feel reaffirmed in my earlier judgment of him as a writer: very much what it would be like if an Éric Rohmer film was transformed into literature, a novel that’s made out of bits and pieces that aren’t really novelistic, a book that seems bound together by a desire to talk about something that isn’t very easy to talk about. And also, a book full of moments, phrases, sentiments that are very easily legible as “literary,” that all but cry out for you to underline them and reflect on them.

He is a writer that I never know exactly what to think about. One of the “good” writers who seems most immediately unimpressive, and yet one who rewards—almost requires—re-reading and pondering more than most I can think of. A writer who is clearly doing his own thing, and who makes you fight to say exactly that that thing is.

Modiano published this book in 2007, but it has a very timeless feel to it. The incidents here could have occurred at almost any time after World War II (somehow this book, like seemingly everything Modiano wrote, feels like it’s taken place in the world wrought by the Second World War), even though the book’s biggest cultural signpost, Moulin Rouge, had seen its best days in the Belle Époque. But I suppose that’s all to the scene Modiano is constructing, a belated world whose inhabitants are characterized by a lack of direction, a feeling of missing out on something good.

This is a book about what transpires during one’s youth, and how that contributes to the person you become as an adult, even if what transpires isn’t very much at all. The book opens by depicting the scene at the titular cafe—basically twentysomethings wasting time and finding themselves. In this first chapter, Modiano sets up the rest of the book and describes the lost youths in the process of losing their youth. We very quickly come to understand that the real action is happening elsewhere—vague personal histories and individuals that only make the briefest impressions on what happens in the cafe. One of the group that regularly meets at the cafe takes a sort of roll call, careful to record who comes in to the cafe on each day. A certain person borrows this register, underlining the name of a woman nicknamed Louki in a blue pen. That same woman is also occasionally seen in the company of a mysterious “brown-haired guy in the suede jacket.” The subsequent three chapters, each told from the perspective of one of these three people, will delve into the shadow-life behind the appearances in the cafe.

One character observes of his relationships at the cafe, “we live at the mercy of certain silences.” This is a statement with a degree of truth, but I think that this is mostly his truth, that of a hardened type who doesn’t mind escaping from his past. The others in this book seem to have more ambiguous relationships with these silences, more need to open them up, even as they fear them.

A different individual, the book’s final narrator, is obsessed with black holes, dark matter, and parts of Paris that he calls “neutral zones,” places that aren’t a part of any other place. As the city modernizes and reshapes itself, getting rid of old landmarks and installing new ones, he references the possibility of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life.” All the places from one’s youth gone, all the people died or moved away. This seems to be the sort of life he has reached, a life filled with silences, and it is an unhappy one.

This character also obsesses over the idea of eternal return, particularly the image of a beautiful summer, a perfect noon that he would like to live out forever. It’s a different sort of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life,” the fantasy version, the happy counterpart to his unhappy real life. This book may be thought of the story of how he got the one and not the other, and why one seems to impossible, the other inevitable.

As a writer, Modiano seems most interested in our relationships to our childhoods, and the way that the society and relationships of our young adulthood make us into the people we become as adults. He seems to be trying to fix the point at which our lives lose the sense of having new possibilities. Not only determining that moment, but also depicting the intangible aspects of that process, and trying and imbue it with a certain sense: a melancholy, dingy, and down to earth heroism and romanticism.

Pillar #6. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I remember that it was in the winter and spring of 2002 that I began to get very much into Thomas Pynchon. In December 2001 I read The Crying of Lot 49, which at the time seemed absolutely unlike any book I had ever read. (I was 23 and still had a lot of reading ahead of me.) I quickly moved on to Gravity’s Rainbow in January 2002, which was all over the place in terms of how much of it I understood and/or enjoyed. Undeterred, I next moved on to V.

My youthful readings of Pynchon could make a Pillar in their own right (and probably will one day), so maybe I’ll just say one thing here. When I read these books I felt something very, very alive about them, something that seemed entirely essential to understand, but that was far beyond any sort of interpretation I could bring to these books. It was a little like being subjected to the same joke over and over, a joke that you don’t get but that leaves everyone around you laughing. I was dying to find my way into books like these. These were the years when I was very consciously trying to make myself understand this literary world that I had decided to adopt.

On my 24th birthday I was given Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation with some intimation that this would help make Pynchon comprehensible. There was also another P-word that this book promised to reveal to me: postmodern.

There was a certain kind of intellectual thrill of discovery that was possible in those days that doesn’t exist for me any longer. I don’t mean to say that reading doesn’t bring me the thrill of discovery or intellectual engagement any more—it does. But it all feels so different now. So many of the coordinates have been revealed to me that reading feels more like cultivating a somewhat orderly garden than scraping through a dense jungle.

I loved the feel of that dislocation when I read Pynchon and Baudrillard. It felt almost occult. This was reading at its most aspirational. There were powers at work here, a whole other world that I never knew existed. I had no idea of its shape or size, or even if it was actually there or not. Maybe I would never understand it. I trod on because I had some idea that there was something really, really important here, and getting it would gain me access to those conversations about books that I wanted to have. I can still remember exactly where I was when I read this book—it’s a reading experience that is burned into my mind. Out of the thousands of books I’ve read since then, there are very few for which I can find such distinct memories of reading.

There are eighteen essays in Simulacra and Simulation, and by far the longest and most potent of them is the first: “The Precession of Simulacra.” This is the essay containing that most memorable phrase “the desert of the real,” the essay that the Wachowskis must have had in mind when then made The Matrix. Its main idea is that what we now take for reality has itself detached from anything that might be called “real” in a conventional sense. Via a set of technologies and ideologies, the postmodern world has manufactured what Baudrillard terms the “hyperreal”: “a real without origin or reality.” The essay then goes on to argue for phenomena that either helped create or reflect this world order, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Apollo moon landings, Disneyland (and Los Angeles as a whole), and, most importantly, nuclear weapons and the logic of mutually assured destruction. Essentially, these and other phenomena have created an economy of signs and symbols where it is the symbolic value of actions that trumps their actual value. This new economy of signs and symbols has introduced a fundamentally new logic to our world, one where the intuitive assumptions about cause and effect, real and fake are no longer correct.

Looking at that list of referents can make the book seem dated—it was originally published in 1981, which accounts for the predominance of ’60s and ’70s motifs. So it says something that after the September 11 terrorists attacks, this was the book that so many people reached for. Or that one of the biggest movie franchises of the late ’90s and early ’00s was built around this ideology. No doubt our politics and economy has moved on since Baudrillard wrote this essay, but it has proven tenacious as an explanation of the world, and the ubiquity it has assumed constitutes an argument in itself.

Beyond the arguments laid out in that first essay, the subsequent essays seemed like something of a road map for intellectual fascinations I would take up in subsequent years. For instance, this book was the first place I encountered (or where I found impetus to finally explore) such personal intellectual milestones as: J.G. Ballard and Crash; Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science”; Apocalypse Now; a postmodern critique of the mass media; Philip K. Dick; and so many other things that I won’t include here for lack of time and space.

With well over a decade of hindsight, I find it fascinating that this book felt like such a lightning rod when I first tried to understand it. Looking back, the postmodern artistic aesthetic and poststructuralist philosophy that this book was so central to have been constant pre-occupations of my reading and intellectual life since. And the literatures and philosophies of the early and mid 20th century that laid the groundwork for this book were things that I deeply immersed myself in during the years after I had had my fill of the postmodernists.

I think that when you’re young there’s a certain amount of reading you have to do where you really don’t get it, where you’re breaking open doors that are locked to you. This is the way that you break out of the mass culture that everyone who is born in our world is indoctrinated with. This book certainly is one of my most important foundations in that sense. And it’s something that has been a frequent reference point since then, an essay I still regularly go back to and learn from.

Pillars #5. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I can no longer remember when I first heard the name “Susan Sontag,” but as far as I can remember, that name has always had an absolute omnipresence combined with a weightiness that simply could not be ignored. Even before I really knew who she was of what she did, I knew that she was as important and as intellectual as you could get.

The first thing I read by her was On Photography, which I think was in 2003. I’m sure a lot of it went right over my head at the time, but I got the basics of the book and I remember finding it easy to read and liking it very much.

Around that time I also read In America—the National Book Award impressed me, and I was curious to see what Sontag’s intelligence looked like in fiction. I recall being rather baffled by the book, liking certain stretches but never really figuring out what made Sontag want to write the book or what it was all about.

Through the years that followed, I would find myself renewing my acquaintance with Sontag. She’s such a capacious, wide-ranging author that it seems difficult to read her systematically, so it seems that I just read her as chance and inclination contrived to make room for her.

Perhaps this explains why it took me so long to read what is possibly her best-known, and maybe just plain best work: the essay “Against Interpretation.” This essay hit me like nothing else of her had ever hit me. It was really one of those transcendent reading experiences where it’s like you’re under a spell; and I read it with that energy of true engagement, where virtually every sentence gave encouraged me to continue the argument in my head in several different ways at once. It was an essay that deeply influenced how I wrote, that showed me new ways that I might try to write essays, new techniques and tricks I could try out. I wrote at least one essay in clear imitation of it.

One of the things that I love about “Against Interpretation” is how it stretches back, to the very, very beginning. Its very first words are, “The earliest experience of art . . .” This is such a bold and, frankly, risky way to begin an essay, but it works for Sontag, because what she wants to talk about can withstand that sort of a context. This isn’t some overwrought rhetorical flourish . . . she makes a very good case that the thing she’s arguing goes back to our earliest thoughts about art.

Of course Sontag does not know what the earliest experience of art was like. Nobody knows what it was like. And yet she writes about it. She uses hedging words like “must have been” and “seems to have,” and these are the essayistic equivalent of sleight of hand, ways of saying things that you know to be true, despite the fact that you would come off as laughable and ridiculously pompous if you simply stated them as such.

What is Sontag talking about in this introductory section of her essay? She is talking about the idea that art is mimesis, that it is a representation of something that exists in the world. This theory of art, she tells us, has never seriously been challenged in all of the thousands of years of Western art since the Greeks first proposed it. The reason she brings this up, she says, is that mimesis requires that art justify itself (another sleight-of-hand: she never goes in to why this is, she just casually asserts it and moves on). And once you enter the realm of justification, you begin to talk about benefit, purpose, things like that, and you can never reclaim that innocent approach to art that you had before the discovery of theory. And this is the original sin of the art world: now art must justify itself, it must be interpreted. Sontag is writing against the idea of interpretation. She is trying to write against this experience of art.

Already there is so much that is impressive about this essay. To begin with, in just under three pages Sontag has taken us from the origins of all Western art to the present day, zeroing in on what may be the problem of all art. She has revealed the container that art exists in, and she has implied that there is some way to escape it. She has convinced us (or at least made us willing to consider) that there is a blind spot in all of our experiences of art.

It is said that good fiction requires the suspension of disbelief, and the same is no less true of essays such as this one. These three introductory pages have taken us into the world of the idea that Sontag is proposing. Like a skilled novelist she has given us just enough information to make this world live in our minds, to make her view of art and what has gone wrong with it exist for us. Even if only for an hour of our lives, Sontag’s argument about the original sin of art feels true, and this is essential to getting us to read the essay, to give it the gravity Sontag wants to invest in it, to make us feel why she is so passionate about getting rid of interpretation. There is scarcely a difference between this and the opening incident that proposes a lifelike character whose dilemma we cannot help but be fascinated by. This is when abstract intellectual debates begin to feel emotional and important, the way the ticking time bomb in a Hitchcock movie feels important. And Sontag does it so well here.

Another thing that is essential about this essay are the asides. Here are a few of them: “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”; “interpretation makes art manageable, conformable”; “our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”; and, of course, the most famous: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

It must be said that remarks like these, as brilliant and as inspiring as they are, are not easy to fit into an essay. They often stick out, disrupting the flow of the argument, sounding silly in the wrong context, simply taking you out of this suspension-of-disbelief that Sontag has so carefully constructed. Even reading them in this blog post, so out of context, they sound so less interesting than in the course of Sontag’s essay. Remarks such as these must be carefully fitted into their place, or else they must be abandoned (perhaps to be worked in to some other essay). What I’m saying is, it’s not easy to make these sorts of things work—these are the darlings you’re told to kill. It is impressive that Sontag can get so many into this piece, and that she can make these feel as though they are native to the flow of the essay, a flow that she has be so careful to establish and sustain.

“Against Interpretation” is scarcely 11 pages long, but it took me 45 minutes to read for the first time. (I know, because at the bottom of it I wrote, “45 excellent minutes.”) There you have it: it is a piece that retards your progress, that makes you linger over it, expanding it with your own thoughts, pondering the possibilities, simply reveling in its grandeur. And it is an essay whose main point has always stuck with me, whose question has always remained a question that I take with me when I experience art. How many essays do you remember the last line of? How many essays stick in your mind and condition your experience of art?

Excerpt from The Surrender


There’s a book that I wrote called The Surrender that will be publishing from Anomalous Press on March 31, 2016. It’s launching at this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, so you can get it at the Anomalous Press booth then, or in bookstores, etc thereafter.

If you would like an advance look at this book, some of The Surrender was excerpted at Entropy yesterday. (I also wrote a little about The Surrender in this post from November).

The book began its existence in the fall of 2014 when I published “The Last Redoubt” with The White Review. At the time I thought that essay was going to be the end, but early in 2015 I was presented with the opportunity to expand that essay into an entire book. So I added an essay that goes before “The Last Redoubt” and one that goes after it, thus forming a triptych of essays. The first essay deals with aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood—basically things leading up to the events depicted in “The Last Redoubt”—and then the third essay deals with the past few years, that is, things that happened after the events in “The Last Redoubt.”

The excerpts found at Entropy come from essay number one. You can read them here.

Translation Issue of The White Review

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Daniel Medin has once again edited a fantastic translation-themed issue of The White Review. You can find the full table of contents here. I’ve got a rundown of some of the highlights below, but before I get to that, thought I’d mention that Daniel and I are collaborating on a little something set to hit later this year. Details forthcoming.

Galina Rymbu: a remarkable young Russian poet (check Music & Literature for a feature on her own the line). “Sex Is a Desert” is an outstanding poem.

Liliana Colanzi: a Bolivian writer who is likely to attract some serious attention over the next couple years. Dalkey will be publishing a collection of her stories this year.

Li Er: Like Can Xue, this author takes Chinese fiction to new places.

Monika Rinck: Along with Uljana Wolf, a very interesting younger poet working in German.

Wioletta Greg: Part of a novella (the title is literally “Unripened Fruit”) that Portobello will be publishing down the line.

Esther Kinsky: She generated a reputation for stunning translations, and now she’s rising as a writer. Fitzcarraldo will publish her By the River in 2017.

Nir Baram: Reputedly “the Israeli Musil.”

Wolfgang Hildesheimer: a more or less forgotten genius, whose extraordinary biography of Mozart made waves when it was published. Hildesheimer knew everyone, read everything, translated Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. 2016’s his centennial year.

Books That I’ve Had Memorable Conversations About, 2015


I thought it would be an interesting addition to my favorite reads of 2015 to make a list of some of the books I’ve had the most memorable conversations about.

Sometimes even if a book doesn’t work as a whole, there can be a very memorable, impacting section in it, or even just a single extraordinarily pregnant image, which can often be easier to process in a conversation than an entire book. Other times books have just so overwhelmed you as an entire experience that it gives rise to remarkable encounters with fellow human beings, even though you can’t possible hope to bring the entire experience of the book into a single conversation. And sometimes a book opens up within you a space for a conversation you needed to have, either with or without knowing it. In all cases—and many others—this shows the great impact a book has had on your life and, for an hour or two, the life of another.

So here are a few books I read in 2015 that gave rise to very memorable conversations. Some of these are dramas I saw enacted on the stage that I’m counting as books read. And needless to say this is not an exhaustive list, just the ones that have come to mind. I purposely chose not to duplicate any from my “favorite reads of 2015” list, although obviously many of those would be applicable here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi)

Reconsolidation by Janice Lee

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Top Girls and Love and Information by Caryl Churchill

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean, Anna Milsom)

The Musical Brain: And Other Stories by César Aira (tr. Chris Andrews)

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (tr. Michael Hulse)

Vertical Motion by Can Xue (tr. Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping)

Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists by Joan Copjec

The Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin (tr. and contribution by Jacob Steinberg)

The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg

Boredom and Art: Passions Of The Will To Boredom by Julian Jason Haladyn

Favorite Reads of 2015: #13 Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky


One of the noteworthy reading things I did in 2015 was to go back to Dostoevsky after years and years away. I did it with one of his late works, and definitely among the best things he ever wrote, Demons (alternatively translated as The Possessed). It’s a major novel of his coming in at over 700 pages, and possibly the book of his that has aged the best.

Demons concerns itself with the machinations of would-be revolutionaries in the middle of Russia’s 19th century, which, effectively, are petty members of the nobility of those who manage to exploit them to lead a nobility-like life. The plot centers around an attempt to foster a revolution in a small Russian town, and earlier this year I compared it to Krasznahorkai for the way in which the townspeople become caught up in their own madness, with predictably tragic results. This is a book that argues against nihilism by showing you just how awful that philosophy ends up being in pretty much everybody’s hands.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this book is the manner of its telling, which is through an outsider who observes the events from a distance and eventually becomes caught up within the machinations. The voice modulates quite a bit, from ironic to horrified to confused and distraught, and because the narrator only has so much knowledge you, the reader, get a very direct taste of the weirdness and perfidy on display in this story. It’s one of those stories that oftentimes feels bizarre, simply because you cannot fathom the motivations of the characters, even though you are aware that they are extraordinarily calculating and acting according to very clear motivations, albeit known only to themselves.

The book is fascinating both for its character portraits, whose insights into the nature of humanity are valuable to this day, and for what truth it manages to uncover about humanity as a political animal. In my read the book remains shocking and very humorous, and it does give a certain amount of historical insight into a period that remains very much relevant for Europe and Russia as historical entities. There is also one very outstanding scene where a puffed up “famous” novelist is entirely removed of his dignity, which I found very satisfying and will be very satisfying to many of you.

Subscriptions and Donations and Sales


As I sort of mentioned earlier this week, December is traditionally the time when all of your favorite publishers get those $$$ that let them keep giving you the books you love for the other 11 months in the year.

It would be immensely cool of you to spend a few of your hard-earned greenbacks on some of their wares this holiday season. This is in your own interest, as you are helping enable the publishers you love to survive another year so that they can keep giving you the books you love. And you are also spreading joy into the lives of people who work extraordinarily hard for pretty blah pay to give you those books. And you are also doing a huge favor to readers 10 and 20 years down the line, who will benefit from these publishers not having shriveled up and died amid a wave of apathy.

Anyway, if you want to do this, here are some recommendations. These are great gifts, or get one for yourself.

Archipelago Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off all books through December 26th with the coupon code NEWSITE at check-out.

Open Letter Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off with code BookSeason at checkout through Dec 31.

And Other Stories. Subscribe.

Verso Books. 50% off and free shipping on these titles through Dec 31.

Ugly Duckling Presse. Subscribe.

Wave Books. Subscribe.

Dorothy, a Publishing Project. All 12 books for $120.

Restless Books. Subscribe.

Melville House Publishing. Subscribe.

Music & Literature. Subscribe.

The Point. Subscribe.

The White Review. Subscribe.

Feed the Critic

I don’t know how widely this is known to people who aren’t lazy little litbloggers, but December is traditionally the “black friday” of the lame blogger world. In this month Amazon sales always go way up, ad revenues tend to spike, and this is also when the good readers of the world tend to open their kind hearts and pitch me a little change.

Which, all in all, makes for a nice little year-end bonus in the not-terribly-lucrative world of meaty literary criticism.

Not to get all “smallest violin in the world” about it, but doing this blog takes time. Yes, it’s fun to do, and it has benefits for me, and I enjoy pimping books I love, but it honestly does take a wee bit of effort to make this lame little blog happen every year. If you appreciate it and think it’s good for literary culture, please consider supporting it.

Anyway, if you’re a steadfast reader of this site and are so inclined to show your appreciation monetarily, now’s the best time. It’s easy. You can hit me directly with some Paypal love below. You can order some of your favorite 2016 titles through my Amazon links.* You can order gifts on Amazon here. You can buy The Latin American Mixtape, for yourself a total steal at just $2.99. There’s also Lady Chatterley’s Brother. Or order The End of Oulipo?, totally next-level literary criticism of the kind you’ve never read before.

* I know many of you have a completely justified and frothing hatred of Jeff Bezos and all of his projects. I understand! I put up the Amazon links in case you’re going to buy products there anyway, in which case doing so through my links will pretty much entirely kill Bezos’s razor-thin profit margin and hasten his demise. If you’d rather not purchase books from Amazon, find your local indie retailer here.


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


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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