Writing Like A Cubist Paints

I think essay collections are the perfect things for our new super-sped-up, Internet-fragmented lives.I like them becuase I can sneak an essay into a small bit of time–like the morning's subway ride. And if it's a good collection, I like the slowed-down feeling of coming back to it again and again over the course of a month or so.

Right now I'm reading William H. Gass's Finding a Form, recently published by the Dalkey Archive.

Gass writes wonderfully on Ford Madox Ford, and in this book he has an essay called "Ford's Impressionism." The title's a little misleading–half the essay is given over to a consideration of just what impressionism means (with shots at Monet et al.)–although you could just as well consider this proper preparation for Gass's remarks on Ford, which are excellent.

Late in the piece, Gass delivers a spot-on evocation of what it is like to read what is quite likely my favorite first-person novel ever, Ford's The Good Soldier:

By this method any occasion is dissolved into its elements (act, agent, object, qualities, and temporal successions–first this, then that); its various modes of apprehension are marked off (detailed close-ups, distant overviews, vague general effects); and all of these are stirred about, apparently higgledy-piggledy, until not only order but many actual bits are utterly lost. This mess is mixed with all sorts of memories and associations, some longer and more detailed as it were, by means of sidelongs and fractures, obscure details and elaborate digressions, surprising omissions and untoward simplifications.

I highlight those words because this to me has always been the most amazing thing about The Good Soldier. It is so true to life and so cohesive because of the fact that it contains so many gaps, so many "facts" that by textual analysis can be proven false. These are just the things that make it live.

Gass continues:

The fit is loose, but this method more nearly resembles the working habits of the cubists than those of the impressionists.

Of course, the real chances are that the writer began with the bits and let the words feel their way toward some absent whole the way a sketch suggests a face or a landcape, rather than commencing with a complete and disciplined design and then scrubbing things out and messing them up.

The impression we are after here, and which we with to give to the reader is that of a consciousness, not of a thing . . .

It's a fine essay. I look forward to dipping in and out of Finding a Form for several weeks to come.

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I have copies of “The World Within the Word” and “Fiction and the Figures of Life” if you’re interested in a temporary book swap.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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.

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