31 December 2014

2014: Books and Stuff

Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall by Joseph Cornell

I was going to write a long account of all the various things I read, saw, listened to, etc. this year, as a way of preserving some of the experience of the year for myself, and maybe offering some amusement for the occasional random reader ... but the drafts became unwieldy, and nobody, including me, wants to read all that.

(I did the math and figured out that I was assigned to read about 50 books this year by teachers in classes I took, and then I read gazillions more both for my own research and to prepare for the Ph.D. general exam, for which I needed to be ready to answer questions about any English and American lit from Beowulf till now.)

Here, then, are mere glimpses at some things that stick out for one reason or another....

27 December 2014

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

For years, I've said I like novels to be x, y, or z; often that x, y, or z meant (in some way or another) unsettling, challenging, surprising... But those words feel inadequate, because inevitably there are things that are, for instance, unsettling in unproductive ways — a pulpy, detailed story of child molestation is probably unsettling and disturbing, but also plenty likely to be worthless, exploitative crap that aims primarily for the reader's gag reflex and puts the writer in the obnoxious position of nudging us endlessly with the question, "How much can you take?"

As I thought about why Damon Galgut's 1991 novel The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs worked so well for me where so many other books I've tried to read recently did not, I started to feel like I was finally moving toward some understanding of what the word disturbing, as praise, meant to me. It ties in with something Galgut himself said in an interview with Kianoosh Hashemzadeh for Web Conjunctions a few years ago:
...it seems to me, if you provide answers—the usual forms of literary catharsis are a kind of answer, things tie up and all the elements of the plot are neatly knotted at the end—you might have a good experience when you’re reading that book, but when you close the book you basically have closed any moral problems that the book raised and that’s it. Whereas if people are disturbed and unsettled, things have been raised and not resolved, people have to carry that around and work it out some way.
This is similar to things I've thought for a long time (I am, after all, a devotee of Chekhov, who famously said the job of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them), but Galgut's formulation there feels like it captures many of the qualities I value. The usual forms of literary catharsis is an interesting phrase, for instance, and makes me think of the thousand stories launched by Raymond Carver's example, stories that mistake bathos for epiphany. I think too of what Tom McCarthy called "the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism" that wallows in "a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling."

19 December 2014

Mr. Turner and Mr. Turing

Two new biographical films give viewers an opportunity to see diametrically opposite approaches not just to biography, but to film narrative itself.

A warning: I saw Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game months ago (as part of the annual Telluride at Dartmouth festival), and my thoughts here are based purely on memories that are getting ever dimmer. Nonetheless, the differences between the films are so striking that I couldn't help but keep thinking about them, to keep reading about the stories' subjects, and to keep coming back to the idea of how information is conveyed through moving pictures.

I went into both films with relatively high expectations, since I adore Mike Leigh's work and I had very much enjoyed Headhunters, the previous movie directed by Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum. And overall I did like both Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game; however, "like" is part of a broad spectrum, and for me, Mr. Turner was a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience that made it among the best movies I've seen in a long time, and The Imitation Game was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.

25 November 2014

Ferguson. Power.

Ferguson, Missouri. Nov. 24, 2014. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)

from "Power" by Audre Lorde:

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

(photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

21 November 2014

Fassbinder's Lili Marleen

I attended a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film Lili Marleen at the Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist series at Lincoln Center last weekend, and it was an extraordinary experience. This is one of Fassbinder's weirdest and in some ways most problematic films, a movie for which he had a relatively giant budget and got lots of publicity, but which has since become among the most hard-to-find Fassbinder films (which is really saying something!). Despite a lot of searching, I didn't come upon a reasonably-priced copy of it until I recently discovered an Australian DVD (seemingly out of print now) that was a library discard.

The story of Lili Marleen is relatively simple, and is very loosely based on the wartime experiences of Lale Andersen, whose performance of the title song was immensely popular, and whose book Der Himmel hat viele Farben is credited in the film. A mildly talented Berlin cabaret singer named Willie (Hannah Schygulla) falls in love with a Jewish musician named Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father (Mel Ferrer) is head of a powerful resistance organization based in Switzerland, and who does not approve of the love affair or Robert's proposal of marriage. A Nazi officer (Karl Heinz von Hassel) hears Willie perform one night, is captivated by her, and guides her into recording the song "Lili Marleen", which unexpectedly becomes a song beloved of all soldiers everywhere on Earth. Willie becomes a rich and famous star, summoned even by Hitler himself, while Robert continues to work for the resistance and ends up marrying someone else. By the end of the war, Robert is a great musician and conductor and Willie seems mostly forgotten, many of her friends dead or imprisoned, and Robert lost to her. She had no convictions aside from her love of Robert, but that love was not enough. (I should note here that there are interesting overlaps between the film and Kurt Vonnegut's great novel Mother Night. But that's a topic for another day...)

I was surprised to find that Lincoln Center was using the German dub of the film rather than the English-language original (it was a multinational production, so English was the lingua franca, and, given the dominance of English-language film, presumably made it easier to market). It was interesting to see Lili Marleen in German, but unfortunately the print did not come subtitled, and so Lincoln Center added subtitles by apparently having someone click on prepared blocks of text. The effect was bizarre: not only were the subtitles sometimes too light to read, but they were often off from what the actors were saying, and when the subtitler would get behind, they would simply click through whole paragraphs of text to catch up. My German's not great, but I was familiar with the film and can pick up enough German to know what was going on and where the subtitles belonged, but I missed plenty of details. The effect was to render the film more dreamlike and far less coherent in terms of plot and character relations than it actually is. Not a bad experience, though, as it heightened a lot of the effects Fassbinder seemed to be going for.

Afterward, I said to my companion, "That was like watching an anti-Nazi movie made in the style of Nazi movies." I'd vaguely had a similar feeling when I first watched the DVD, but it wasn't so vivid for me as when we watched the German version with terrible subtitling — my first experience of Nazi films was of unsubtitled 16mm prints and videotapes my WWII-obsessed father watched when I was a kid.

13 November 2014

The Hudson Prize and Blood: Stories

The first book written for adults that I ever coveted and loved and read to pieces was a short story collection: Stephen King's Night Shift, from which my cousin read me stories when we were both probably much too young, and which was one of the first books I ever bought myself. Ever since then, short story collections have seemed to me the most wonderful of all books.

I started publishing short stories professionally with "Getting a Date for Amelia" back in 2001. I barely remember the kid who wrote it (in the summer of 2000). I'm not a prolific fiction writer; I've been lucky enough to publish most of the stories I've written in the last decade or so, but I average only two stories a year. Fiction is the hardest thing in the world for me to write. Some stories have taken many years to find a final form. The kid who wrote "Getting a Date for Amelia" also managed to write a novel; it was mostly terrible (or, rather, not terrible, which might be interesting. Just nothing at all special. Rather boring, in fact. An extraordinarily useful exercise, though, dragging yourself through a novel-length piece of writing, even if the end result isn't all that great). I like fragments and miniatures too much to ever write a proper novel, I expect.


What? Get on with it? Ah.

Yes, I am dithering here.

Because I am about to write a sentence that still feels unreal, though I've been writing various forms of it into emails to friends for a little while now:

I am the 2014 winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript titled Blood: Stories that will be published by BLP in January 2016.

03 November 2014

"On the Government of the Living" at Interfictions Online


The marvelous Interfictions Online has now published my short story/prose poem "On the Government of the Living".

The piece, which takes its title from Michel Foucault but is not otherwise especially erudite, began purely as an exercise: I wanted to see if I could take what the Turkey City Lexicon calls "White Room Syndrome" and actually make it a viable, necessary element of the story. (Whenever a writing guide says, "Don't do this!" I inevitably want to try it out...) The effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, is rather Beckettesque.

17 October 2014

Notes on Passages from J.M. Coetzee's Foe

Though J.M. Coetzee's work has long fascinated me, I've avoided writing anything on Foe, because every time I tried to write anything, it felt obvious and stupid. It's the same feeling I've gotten whenever I've tried to write about Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka, two other favorites of mine. Perhaps what has defeated me with writing about Foe is something similar to what defeats me whenever I've tried to write about Beckett and Kafka, who were, in fact, considerable influences on Coetzee — their work is so what it is that to add words around it feels inevitably reductive, a violence against the art.

I recently tried again with Foe, and while it didn't feel quite as stupid and reductive as previous attempts — indeed, the writing helped me clarify some of my ideas about what the novel is up to — I don't think I'm going to go on. I started with a couple of passages toward the end of the book, and thought that might bring me back toward earlier parts, but as I started toward the earlier material, the feeling began again, the feeling of it being pointless — worse, harmful — to keep emitting utterances around that which defies language.

Here, then, are two basically first-draft almost-essays about the end of Foe, in case they are of any interest...

04 October 2014

What Ever Happened to Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici

This review was first published in Rain Taxi in the spring of 2011. I'd actually forgotten all about it, but then came across it as I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. In case it still holds some interest, here it is. (Page references are to the Yale hardcover, and were for the copyeditors to double check my quotes; they weren't in the print version of the review, but I've kept them in because, well, why not...)

One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? is that it all but forces us — dares us, even — to argue with it.  Josipovici presents an idiosyncratic definition of Modernism, he perceives the struggles of Modernist writers and artists as fundamentally spiritual, and he frames it all by describing his disenchantment with most of the critically-lauded British fiction of the last few decades, a disenchantment that he ascribes to such fiction’s attachment to non-Modernist 19th century desires.

The only readers likely to agree with Josipovici’s general view, then, are readers who accept his terms and share his tastes.  Such readers are probably few, and they are also the readers who least need the book.  It is those of us who may be sympathetic to one or another of Josipovici’s general arguments who really need it, because it is a powerfully clarifying volume, especially in its extended discussions of particular works.

01 October 2014

Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy

Press Play has now posted my latest video essay, "Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy". It also has a short text essay to accompany it. Here's how that one begins:
In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.

That triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain, injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.
Read and view more...

29 September 2014

"Patrimony" in Black Static 42

The latest issue of the venerable British horror/dark fiction magazine Black Static includes my latest story, "Patrimony", and is now available both in print and as an e-book in various formats. I'm thrilled with the accompanying illustration by Richard Wagner, and thankful to Andy Cox for buying the story and rushing it into print, because it's one of the strangest and most disturbing things I've ever written, and not the sort of thing that just any editor would get excited about.

For a preview, here's the first paragraph:
For most of my life, I worked in the gravel pit as an overseer. There had been gravel there for a long time, but there wasn’t much left. Mostly, we spent our days trying to decide where to set off dynamite. We didn’t have a lot of dynamite, so we wanted to be precise. We would go for weeks and even months without lighting a single stick. I spent my days – ten-, eleven-hour days – telling the workers to try over here, to look over there, to dig here, to prod there. We sought the best rock, the least sand.

13 September 2014

John Cheever's (Queer) "Country Husband"

Going through some of the secondary literature on John Cheever in preparation for a class in which I assigned the students to read his 1954 story "The Country Husband", I was surprised to find no discussion of the story within a queer context. My search was not comprehensive, but the connection seems so obvious to me, and so illuminating for the story, that I'm surprised it isn't mentioned by most people who write about Cheever's tale.

Paging through Blake Bailey's comprehensive biography of Cheever makes the connection even more obvious than the story itself does, for Bailey notes that Cheever's journal "in the early months of 1954 was filled with self-loathing on the subject" of homosexual desire. It's a running theme throughout the book, as Colm Tóibín points out in an insightful essay on Cheever and Bailey's biography for the London Review of Books:
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
Of course, in 1954 Cheever could not write a short story about his desires and have it published by The New Yorker, even if he had wanted to (Alan Gurganus's "Minor Heroism" is reportedly the first openly gay story the magazine published, a story sent to the magazine by Cheever, who had been Gurganus's teacher and was, rather to Gurganus's chagrin, in love with him. It appeared 20 years — almost to the day — after "The Country Husband"). But the torment of the story's protagonist, Francis Weed, is one entirely familiar to anyone who has ever repressed socially unacceptable feelings.

02 September 2014

Video Essay: "What Is Composition?"

My latest video essay is now available at Press Play. It's the first in a new series by various hands on cinematic terminology. My term was "composition", and so I made an essay creatively titled, "What Is Composition?"

29 August 2014

Jamie Marks Is Dead

Jamie Marks Is Dead is based on a book I love by a writer I love: One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak. I realized recently that I think of it as the first novel of "our" generation/group of writers — Chris is a few months older than me, and originally introduced me to probably half the writers and editors I know. I read One for Sorrow in manuscript, exhorted Juliet Ulman to buy and edit it for Bantam, and celebrated its publication. Chris sent me a copy with the kindest inscription penned onto its title page that any writer has ever given me. I feel like a kind of distant (crazy) uncle to the book, and thus also deeply protective toward it. I didn't read most of the reviews when it was released for fear that I would seek out any negative reviewers and do terrible things to them that would get me arrested.  When I found out it was being made into a movie, I was both excited for Chris and for the higher profile the book would likely gain, and terrified that the movie would just be awful. I mumbled to myself for weeks about the change of title before coming to accept it.

The movie was officially released in some major US cities today, and the distributor is also doing a simultaneous release on video-on-demand (Amazon, iTunes, etc.), so those of us, at least in the US, who can't get to one of the cities it's playing in can still see it. I watched it this morning.

The movie is not awful — far from it — and though at first I had my crazy-uncle fists clenched, ready to pounce on anything that even touched a hair of my beloved nephew's head, it was soon clear that this was a movie made from not only a general understanding of the book, but a profound sympathy with it. They're very different creatures, but if you love One for Sorrow, I think you're likely to love Jamie Marks Is Dead, too.

14 August 2014

Ferguson, Missouri, USA

Faith Rally
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

07 August 2014

Notes on Octavia Butler's Survivor

After reading Gerry Canavan's essay on two newly published short stories by Octavia Butler, one of which is a prequel to her 1978 novel Survivor, I decided it was time for me to read Survivor, since though I'd read most of Butler's books, and repeatedly assigned a couple of them in classes, I'd never gotten around to this one.

The problem, however, is that Survivor is a book Butler disavowed and, once she had the ability, she prohibited it from being reprinted. Used copies tend to sell for at least $65 (although one just sold on E-Bay for $15. Alas, I discovered it only after the sale!).

However, I figured I might be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and that's how I discovered my university library had a copy. (You can also find a bootleg PDF online if you search for it. But I didn't tell you that.) I went to the library fully expecting that the book did not exist — that it had disappeared off the shelf without anyone noticing, or that for some reason the catalogue was mistaken. But no. It was there: a hardcover without a dust-jacket, in pretty bad condition, its mustard-yellow boards scratched and torn, its corners crushed and frayed, its binding broken. I will be returning it with a note, something to the effect of: "Please take care of this book. It might not look like much, but it is rare. It is valuable. We need it to be preserved."

Having now read Survivor — or, more accurately, having compulsively devoured the novel in two days, which for me is very fast, indeed — what I find myself most wanting to say is exactly that, to whoever will listen: We need this book to be preserved.

01 August 2014

How Not to Write a Review, Unless You Want to Sound Like an Insufferable Prig

I know it's been all Snowpiercer all the time here lately, but this time it's not so much about that particular film as about how one reviewer has chosen to write about it, since his choices are ones that I detest in reviews, despite (or perhaps because of) how common those choices are.

I am, in other words, simply here to register a complaint.

There is a good argument to be made that we should not expend any time or attention on bad writing. Life is short, and there's plenty of great writing out there to read. But I am ignoring that argument for the moment, despite all it has to recommend it. Because sometimes something is just such a perfect model of What Not To Do that I can't help but want to scream against it.

The item in question is a review at The Los Angeles Review of Books by Len Gutkin. It is a negative review, but that's not the problem. I'm glad there are negative reviews of Snowpiercer, even though I loved the film, because I am suspicious of anything that seems to garner universal acclaim.

It would be nice, though, if the negative reviews could be something more than, "Waaaaa! I don't like this movie and other people do! I'm right, they're wrong! Waaaaaa! Pay attention to me!"

You think I exaggerate? Let me do something the review does not, and offer a bit of evidence...

31 July 2014

The Decay of the White Savior

Let's talk about white saviors, emotions, and endings.

Daniel José Older has an interesting take on Snowpiercer, particularly its ending, likening it to Children of Men:

20 July 2014

The Ideal Literary Life

I've never seen the life of the writer Raymond Roussel condensed so marvelously as in David Macey's The Lives of Michel Foucault (Foucault wrote a book on Roussel), where it becomes a kind of perfect literary life: a life of weirdness, alienation, mental illness, addiction, and suffering, all capped with a mysterious death:
Enormously rich, [Roussel] travelled the world but rarely left his hotel room or his cabin. He financed the publication of his own writings and the staging of his own plays, which were invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience. His writings excited little interest in his lifetime, though some of the surrealists — notably Breton in his Anthologie de l'humour noir — appreciated them. For much of his life Roussel suffered from serious neurotic illnesses provoked (or at least triggered), it is thought, by the spectacular failure of La Doublure (1897), a long verse-novel, written in alexandrines, about a stand-in actor. He was treated by Pierre Janet, who failed to see any literary talent in him and described him as un pauvre petit malade; Roussel is the "Martial" whose case is discussed in the first volume of De l'Angoisse à l'extase (1926). Roussel was a homosexual, though little is known about his sexual tastes and activities, and became totally dependent on barbituates in his later years. He died in Palermo, where his body was found in his hotel room, lying on a mattress which he had — presumably with great difficulty, given his physical state — pushed up against the door connecting his room to that of his travelling companion. The door, habitually left unlocked, was locked. Whether Roussel was murdered or committed suicide has never been determined. (125)
You have succeeded as a writer if someone can describe your work as "invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience".

18 July 2014

Snowpiercer: Total Cinema


Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years, and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker.)

As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...

16 July 2014

Whose Word Crimes?

Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes", a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.

I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.

But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?

Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer"
"Don't be a moron"
"You dumb mouthbreather"
"Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"
"you write like a spastic"
"Go back to preschool"
"Get out of the gene pool"
"Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?

It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg

For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams [2003], American Morons [2006], and The Janus Tree [2012]), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.
Continue reading at Strange Horizons.

14 July 2014

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

via The Paris Review

Nadine Gordimer has died at the age of 90, a significant age to reach, and yet, as always with the loss of a major figure (particularly one who stayed active and known) it feels like a robbery. We are greedy, we living people.

Writers satiate some of our greed against death by leaving us with their words. Gordimer's oeuvre is large (she began publishing fiction in South Africa in the late 1940s), and her fiction in particular will live long past this moment of her body's death.

Because Gordimer was so active in the anti-apartheid struggle, and her writing so often addresses the situation in South Africa at the time of its writing, it is easy to fall into the trap of reducing her to a political writer and to ignore or downplay the artistry of her work. She sometimes encouraged this view in her essays and interviews, but she also understood that she was not a propagandist, telling Jannika Hurwitt in 1979, "I am not by nature a political creature, and even now there is so much I don’t like in politics, and in political people—though I admire tremendously people who are politically active—there’s so much lying to oneself, self-deception, there has to be—you don’t make a good political fighter unless you can pretend the warts aren’t there."

09 July 2014

The Plausibles

Alfred Hitchcock in conversation with Francois Truffaut:
To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately. What's the ultimate in representative painting? Color photography. Don't you agree? There's quite a difference, you see, between the creation of a film and the making of a documentary. In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.

02 July 2014

Poetical Needy-brains, empoisoned pens, obscene invective...

via Rutgers University Community Repository

Two passages from Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot by Anna Beer, concerning the early 1640s:
As with the Internet in this century, people expressed real fears about the sheer number of new works appearing. Others condemned the whole notion of publication, particularly for money. Publication was imagined as "epidemical contagion", and "Pamphlet-mongers" were castigated for writing for "a little mercenary gain, and profit", as "poetical Needy-brains, who for a sordid gain or desire to have the style of a witty railer, will thus empoison your pen". The proliferation of new pamphlets was also resented by more (allegedly) serious writers, who complained that "such a book as that of thirty or forty sheets of paper is not likely to sell in this age were the matter never so good, but if it had been a lying and scandalous pamphlet of a sheet of paper ... to hold up Anarchy" then the printers would print it, knowing it would sell, be "vendable ware". (128-129)

Print proliferated because almost every opinion generated a response, which in turn necessitated a counter-response from the maligned author. When the Smectymnuans, for example, attacked Bishop Hall, he replied, condemning their views, to which their response was a 219-page answer. The speed of these exchanges was often remarkable. Milton's own first pamphlet on Church reform received a reply within days of its publication. Vicious abuse of one's opponents characterised much of the debate. When in May 1642, around the time of his marital expedition to Oxfordshire, Milton wrote An Apology against a Pamphlet (in itself a response), he claimed to be furious at the way he had been personally attacked. Immersed as he was in this world of cheap print, he cannot have been genuinely surprised. Colourful, personal, and at times obscene invective was the order of the day, the religious and political pamphlets picking up the techniques of the earlier forms of popular writing, whether ballads or jestbooks, almanacs, or tales. (139-140)

01 July 2014

The Private Life of Power

Corey Robin, from The Reactionary Mind:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

30 June 2014

Notes on Teaching First-Year Composition as a Film & Media Course

It appears that next year I won't be teaching any first-year composition classes at UNH, which will put on hold an experiment I began this past term with FYC. (I'm teaching Literary Analysis this fall and probably a survey course in the spring.) I'll record here some thoughts on that experiment, both for my own future use and in case they are of use or interest to anyone else...

27 June 2014

Guy Davenport on Writing and Reading

Guy Davenport, illustration from Apples & Pears

I've just begun reading Andre Furlani's Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After, a magnificent book (so far), and went to track down one of the items cited there, a 2002 interview by B. Renner for the website Elimae. Alas, the site seems to have died, but god bless the Wayback Machine: here it is, cached.

The interview is not as meaty as some others, for instance Davenport's Paris Review interview, but it's always interesting, and I was particularly struck by this:
DAVENPORT: At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent.  Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion.  It took me years to shake off all this.  Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important.  And style: in what words and phrases the story is told.  (William Blackburn, the full name.  His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences.  I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.)
ELIMAE: Almost none of your stories take place in the U.S. or involve American characters. Is there a particular reason for this? Are Americans and the U.S. less noteworthy than other peoples and places, especially Europeans and Europe, or is it as simple as a matter of going to subject matter that hasn't already been done to death by other American writers? 

DAVENPORT: A clever critic might note that they are all set in the USA.  "Tatlin!" is a fable about totalitarian governments strangling creativity, not always blatantly and openly.  At the time I was lecturing on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, the classic study in our time of Government and The Poet.  Vladimir Tatlin's genius suffocated by Stalin seemed to me to be paradigmatic and timely.  I learned from Kafka's Amerika that you don't have to have a realistic knowledge of a place, and from Nabokov that "realism" is simply a fashionable mode.

We are still immigrants.  Culture imports and exports.  There was a great anxiety that European culture would be obliterated twice in the 20th century.  I became interested in "Europe" through Whistler's etchings.
And then there's a Davenport desert island list!
ELIMAE: Here's my version of the "desert island" question: if you could select any six books (besides your own) originally written in your lifetime, and be the author of those books, which six would they be?  

DAVENPORT: Your 6 books question is diabolical!  I couldn't have written any of 'em.
    Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
    P. Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
    Michel Tournier, Les Meteores
    Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny
    Mann, Doktor Faustus
    Beckett, Molloy
Finally, I also found an interesting mention of Davenport in this interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose whole response about the connection of writing and reading is great, but here's the Davenport part:
That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.

25 June 2014

The Narrative Arcade: On Vikram Chandra's "Artha"

Vikram Chandra's collection of interconnected stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a book I had thought of writing about in some detail, but I'm afraid time is not on my side with that, and a number of other writing projects need attention. One story I managed to make some notes on is "Artha", and here are those notes, in case some thoughts on the story are useful to someone else...

In thinking about Love and Longing in Bombay, I’m going to start by grasping some tiny pieces within the wholes, and see what I can do with them.

First, a single story, and a single page of that story, and not the words but the blank space.

The story: “Artha”. The page: 165 of the 1998 Back Bay Books paperback edition.

The two blank spaces between narrators and their narratives.

18 June 2014

We Are Living in a First-Draft World

The late David Markson did not have a computer. In March 2004, Laura Sims told him that there were things written about him on blogs. He replied:
NO, I've no idea what a Blog is. BLOG?
Sims sent him print-outs:
Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up. I bless your furry little heart, but please don't send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don't have a computer.


They make a statement about my background, there's an error in it. They quote from a book, and they leave out a key line. They repudiate a statement of fact I've made, without checking, ergo announcing I'm a fake when the statement is 100% correct. Etc., etc., etc. Gawd.

I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket & torn them into even smaller pieces.
 From the wonderful little book Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, edited by Laura Sims.

09 June 2014

The Church of Science Fiction

Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.

Let's look at two examples.

Adam Roberts's new Guardian essay on science fiction and politics reminded me of a provocative essay in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies, "Fascism and Science Fiction" (JSTOR) by Aaron Santesso.

Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.

03 June 2014

Interfictions Online: The Indiegogo Campaign

Interfictions Online is doing some crowdfunding so that they can continue to pay contributors and not charge readers. Not only am I in favor of paying contributors and keeping material free for readers, I'm also a fan of Interfictions in all its various incarnations, since many of my friends and writers I admire have appeared there, are editors there, etc. And I'm not entirely selfless in passing on the appeal: I had a story in the first Interfictions anthology, and I've got a story coming out in a future issue of Interfictions Online.

You don't have to be selfless, either, though, because there are various items offered to people who give money, including a great set of new e-book anthologies.

02 June 2014

The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

I reviewed Mary Rickert's novel The Memory Garden for the Los Angeles Review of Books.I loved the book, but it was a difficult review to write because it's just about impossible to say anything about this novel without ruining a significant effect of the last quarter of it. I'm not a fan of spoiler warnings, and generally think such things give way too much emphasis to plot, but in this case I think it is a book that needs some sort of warning before you read anything about it, because the effect of the last quarter is just so powerful and so much more than merely about the plot. So I said that in the review. Which in and of itself is almost saying too much.

Here's a better review of The Memory Garden: Go read this book!

01 June 2014

Jay Lake (1964-2014)

© 2009 Mari Kurisato

We knew this day was coming, but that doesn't really make it easier.

After years of struggling with cancer, Jay Lake has died.

Jay leaves a legacy of family, of friendships, of writing, and of science. He had his genome sequenced, and he submitted himself to grueling experimental trials. He could have gone more quietly into this good night; he chose instead to try to help the people of a future that has been denied to him. One of his greatest legacies may be to have helped, in some small or large way, to move us closer to a cure for cancer.

In place of eulogy, here's something I wrote when Jay could read it.

Farewell, friend.

27 May 2014

For The Years

Hogarth Press first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell
Published in 1937, The Years was the last of her novels that Virginia Woolf lived to see released. Coming more than five years after the release of the poetic and, to many people, opaquely experimental The Waves, The Years seemed like the work of a totally different writer — it looked like a family novel, something along the lines of Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, the sort of book a younger Woolf had scorned.  

The Years became a bestseller in both the UK and the US, and garnered some good reviews — in the New York Times, Peter Monro Jack declared it "Virginia Woolf's Richest Novel". Its fame quickly faded, however. After Woolf's death, her husband Leonard claimed he didn't think it was among her best work, though he'd been afraid, he said, to tell her that, given how long she had worked on it and how hard that work had been for her. As Woolf's reputation increased in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among feminist academics, The Years tended to get shuffled aside in favor of the other novels and essays. Despite some advocacy from scholars and an extraordinary edition as part of the Cambridge Woolf, The Years remains relatively neglected. This is unfortunate, as it is a magnificent book.

25 May 2014

Another Armed, Angry White Man

At the Daily Beast, Cliff Schechter has a piece titled "How the NRA Enables Massacres", which, despite some hyperbolic language, is worth reading for the general information, as is his piece on a visit to the recent NRA convention. Schechter isn't reporting anything new, and the pieces are superficial compared to some earlier writings on all this, but it's always worth reminding ourselves that gun massacres in the US are part of a culture that has been carefully manufactured, protected, nurtured, enflamed.

I've written a lot about guns and gun culture here over the past few years. Writing those posts from scratch now, I would change occasional wording in some of them, clarify a few points, etc. (the hazards of writing on the fly), but you could take almost anything I've written previously and apply it to the latest massacre.

The place of hegemonic masculinity in this type of event is especially clear this time, but it's been present before and is a common component to why this sort of thing happens. It's a racialized hegemonic masculinity, too, the deadly scream of the angry white man — a sense of entitlement thwarted. In the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel writes: "As men experience it, masculinity may not be the experience of power. But it is the experience of entitlement to power" (185).

The NRA and the gun manufacturers have become experts at stoking that sense of entitlement and profiting off of it. At every possible moment, the NRA, the manufacturers, and their minions point out as many threats to power as they can imagine, and then they offer their commodities as tools for stabilizing and strengthening that power.

22 May 2014

"America never was America to me"

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
I thought of my favorite Langston Hughes poem, "Let American Be America Again" while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's extraordinary new essay at The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations" (for which we should just give Coates the Pulitzer right now):
If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
Read the whole essay. If you're a U.S. citizen, or even not, it's unlikely you'll read anything more important today.

Update 5/23: Coates on how he got to his current position on reparations. Including:
There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people. There is significantly less evidence for the proposition that culture is a major part of what's wrong with black people. But we don't really talk about white supremacy. We talk about inequality, vestigial racism, and culture. Our conversation omits a major portion of the evidence.

Storytellers: Escaping the Nightmare of Myth in Chaudhuri and Rushdie

Continuing on from yesterday's post about Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address (a novella included in the collection Freedom Song), here's a bit more academic writing about the book. This time, my goal is to undermine, or at least question, the common opposition of Chaudhuri's "realism" to Salman Rushdie's "magical realism". The two writers have frequently been set against each other as polar opposites, but my argument here is that they have far more in common than might be obvious at first...

In his 2009 essay “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, Amit Chaudhuri tells of a conversation he had with the Bengali poet Utpal Kumar Basu:
We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’ (91-92)
Chaudhury goes on to explore the implications of this statement, and of the desire to solidify an idea of pure cultural identity (“Our fairy tales … We don’t start with…”) against ideas of modernism and cosmopolitanism, but here I would like to take the statements in the above paragraph more on their surface and to explore the effect of the stated and implied Once upon a time…
Salman Rushdie’s Shame does not begin with exactly those words, but the sense of a fairy tale beginning is strong: “In the remote border town of Q., which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters.” The narrator quickly assumes the role of storyteller: “…the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil…” (3), the narrative voice here asserting, for the first of many times in Shame, the kind of presence that most European novels of the 19th century sought to vanquish in the name of realism.

The idea of realism led to third-person narratives unburdened by the presence of a narrator, and the success of that style has created a sense that storytelling was a more primitive tradition, a tradition that the 19th Century European novel first refined and then progressed beyond. The realist European novel is inextricable from a particular idea of European progress, and the aesthetic is strongly located within a specific, and quite narrow, time and place. Storytelling may be universal, written narrative may have a long and multicultural history, but the realistic novel is a particular technology.

21 May 2014

Notes on A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri

Here are some thoughts after reading Amit Chaudhuri's first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which I read in the collection Freedom Song (which is what the page numbers below reference). I struggled with Chaudhuri — his goals for fiction are not mine. Nonetheless, I found it to be a productive struggle, and enjoyed writing about the book for a seminar on postcolonial fiction from Southeast Asia.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting here some of the material I came up with during that seminar that I doubt I'm going to develop into something more polished, at least immediately, but which seems worth preserving, even if my ideas are based on false premises, misreadings, or other potential pitfalls of quick apprehension...


He did not know what to do with his unexpected knowledge. But he felt a slight, almost negligible, twinge of pleasure, as meaning took birth in his mind, and died the next instant. (117)

Here we have the protagonist, Sandeep, discovering the pleasure of meaning in a word and name (“Alpana”), but the moment could be extended to the novel as a whole and, in particular, its perspective on the city of Calcutta. If we accept Majumdar’s proposal that this novel presents a flaneur’s-eye-view of life and the city, then the cityscape of the novel is less a stable conglomeration of stone and steel than it is an ever-flowing multiplicity of sensations. It is a place full of objects, but the objects live in constant moments of being, and those moments of being are created within the perceptions of the people who come in contact with them. Thus, there is no one object, no one city; rather, there is a practically infinite field of encounters, and those encounters erupt and fall into memory within the space of an instant.