Category: Literature

Renata Adler on Pauline Kael

In the New York Review of Books
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In 1980, Renata Adler reviewed Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down for the New York Review of Books in 1980. Both of them were staff writers at the New Yorker. Time magazine called this ‘the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years.’ A worthy candidate for hatchet job of the century?

Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: “whore” (and its derivatives “whorey,” “whorish,” “whoriness”), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; “myth,” “emblem” (also “mythic,” “emblematic”), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; “pop,” “comicstrip,” “trash” (“trashy”), “pulp” (“pulpy”), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with “mythic”; “urban poetic,” meaning marginally more violent than “pulpy”; “soft” (pejorative); “tension,” meaning, apparently, any desirable state; “rhythm,” used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; “visceral”; and “level.” These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—“visceral poetry of pulp,” e.g., or “mythic comic-strip level”—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in “ized” (“vegetabilized,” “robotized,” “aestheticized,” “utilized,” “mythicized”), and a kind of slang (“twerpy,” “dopey,” “dumb,” “grungy,” “horny,” “stinky,” “drip,” “stupes,” “crud”) which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness.

I leave aside for the moment Ms. Kael’s incessant but special use of words many critics use a lot: “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—as well as her two most characteristic grammatical constructions: “so/that” or “such/that,” used not as a mode of explication or comparison (as in, e.g., he was so lonely that he wept), but as an entirely new hype connective between two unrelated or unformulated thoughts; and her unprecedented use, many times per page and to new purposes, of the mock rhetorical question and the question mark.

Because what is most striking is that she has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic. Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective—what amounts to a staff cinema critics’ branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. I do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. “Swallowing this movie,” one finds on page 147, “is an unnatural act.” On page 151, “his way of pissing on us.” On page 153, “a little gas from undigested Antonioni.” On page 158, “these constipated flourishes.” On page 182, “as forlornly romantic as Cyrano’s plume dipped in horse manure.” On page 226, “the same brand of sanctifying horse manure.” On page 467, “a new brand of pop manure.” On page 120, “flatulent seriousness.” On page 226, “flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.” On page 353, “gaseous naïveté.” And elsewhere, everywhere, “flatulent,” “gaseous,” “gasbag,” “makes you feel a little queasy,” “makes you gag a little,” “just a belch from the Nixon era,” “you can’t cut through the crap in her,” “plastic turds.” Of an actress, “She’s making love to herself”; of a screenwriter, “He’s turned in on himself; he’s diddling his own talent.” “It’s tumescent filmmaking.” “Drama and politics don’t climax together.” Sometimes, one has the illusion that these oral, anal, or just physical epithets have some meaning—“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat,” for instance, or “the film is an icebag.” But then: “Coma is like a prophylactic.” One thinks, How, how is it like a prophylactic? “It’s so cleanly made.” Or a metaphor with a sadistic note which defies, precisely, physical comprehension. “The movie has had a spinal tap.”

Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

In The Millions
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Over at The Millions, a useful although by no means exhaustive list of books forthcoming in 2015 (including some that have already appeared in Britain but not yet in the US). There are new books by Tom McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rachel Kushner, Per Petterson, Joshua Cohen, Nell Zink and Anne Enright to look forward to, among others. And Alejandro Zambra, whose My Documents is forthcoming with Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2015, gets a mention…

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell andMarilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

January:

Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)

(…)

February:

(…)

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)

(…)

The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)

(…)

March:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)

(…)

Houellebecq on his new novel Soumission

In the Paris Review
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Michel Houellebecq’s new novel doesn’t seem quite as exciting anymore. The critic who conducted this in-depth interview has called Soumission ‘un suicide littéraire français’. Guess we’ll have to make our own minds up. 

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark … and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission(Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he’s given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt 

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French.

(…)

Seventies Throwback Fiction

From the new issue of n+1
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Good piece by Nicholas Dames on nostalgia for the 1970s and historical pastiche, in the new issue of n+1: 

HISTORICAL PASTICHE IS ONE OF OUR MOST important art forms, cutting across all media. We come to know it best through what we might call “decade-ism,” the artistic practice of parceling out history in ten-year spans. There is a menu of decades to choose from, and an audience with sophisticated tastes in recent period detail waiting to sample the latest clever, self-aware tweaking of classic ingredients. That TV serial set in the Sixties? It’s as rich as it looks, but the bitter aftertaste tells you the chef is sending up the clichés. Perhaps you’d prefer instead something from the Fifties (meaty, starchy) or, if you need something lighter, the Eighties (faintly metallic, a bit too sweet)? It doesn’t matter that these are simulacra. That knowingness only results in a finer appreciation for the precision and flair with which the results are prepared.

Not everything on the menu has been craved, though. The Seventies, that ragged decade, tends to be fodder for easy comedy. The details that attach to it — the polyester-and-feathered-hair-and-Moog-synthesizer aura — haven’t seemed ripe for mythic reinvention or idealizing treatment, more because of their banality than their unattractiveness. Images from the Seventies seem like meaningless citations without any larger significance, funny only because of their weird hollow particularity. Wasn’t the decade a dead end? Aren’t its details purely hermetic and self-regarding, artifacts from a time capsule no one would have intentionally preserved? Who would want to revisit that? Even Fredric Jameson, anatomist of our nostalgias, once commented that the specificity of the Seventies was its lack of specificity (ah, dialectical criticism! — one might almost think it an artifact of the very time it diagnoses). You can have a sincere or ironic taste for that trashy style, but you can’t pretend that anything world-historical gave that taste its alibi.

Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity. That’s what pastiche does: it supplies styles for a market that craves novelty, even the refurbished kind. But the recent burst of fictional resurrections of the Seventies — the most acclaimed novels of recent years among them — doesn’t just represent the establishment of a new consumer market. The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed. In a bid to transcend our knowing cynicism, as well as the shabby reputation the Seventies have had, these stories hold up that moment for complicated admiration and longing. No small melancholy attends that task of historical recovery. Few people, Flaubert remarked to a friend after writing Salammbô, could guess how sad one had to be to want to resuscitate Carthage. How sad does one have to be to want to resuscitate the era of stagflation?

Here is the territory the novels evoke: a mythic late summer, spacious, unsupervised, a little druggy, a little restless, hedged only by the feeling that everything is about to end. The actual location varies. It could be an upstate New York commune, a legacy of 1968, finding itself a victim of its own success (Arcadia); it could be a college campus in Rhode Island, a quiet refuge from Indian political turmoil (The Lowland); it could be a duplex community in Roanoke, Virginia, a turnout on the highway of downward mobility (Sister Golden Hair); it could be SoHo as the artists first move in (The Flamethrowers) or a Queens apartment complex as the immigrants start to move out (Dissident Gardens); it could even, in a slightly more literal version, be a Massachusetts summer arts camp (The Interestings). These are temporary, ramshackle utopias; no one ever quite gets over them. They are all, strikingly, collectives of one kind or another. Communal mourning saturates these stories: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies gives us a literal funeral, where college friends grieve over a dead friend and their mid-Seventies college days — but none of these novels is ever very far from a feeling that a group is coming or has come to an end. This feeling can take the form of wistfulness or, in the case of the professor of “Nixonology” who narrates A. M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven?, a barely respectable obsession. Put it in the terms of the tag-line leading in to one of the decade’s most famous guitar riffs: close your eyes and it slips away.

This can all seem very archetypal, just a middle-aged generation mourning its youth. But what’s being mourned is even smaller and sharper than a decade: the post-OPEC-embargo, pre-Iran-hostage-crisis détente years on the American scene, as encapsulated in some landscapes that, however topographically different, share a family resemblance. Passive and wide-eyed protagonists, without obvious talents other than their sensitivity, drift through a world where grandiose hopes — for liberation or equality or world peace — are receding, but seem perhaps more realizable in the wash of their retreat. It’s not a moment to which any piety is owed: it’s “a world of fuckers,” as Meg Wolitzer’s teenagers see it; “a Ponzi scheme of herpes and divorce,” as one of Jonathan Lethem’s disillusioned ranters puts it. But there was space and time, we’re told. “We felt like we could play around,” one of Rush’s mourners recalls. It’s not that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive — more that it wasn’t all that bad to laze around in that late afternoon. Not much to miss, it seems; why might we miss it now?

(…)

Q&A with Elena Ferrante

In the New York Times
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Elena Ferrante, ‘the global literary sensation nobody knows’ dixit the Guardian, gives a rare email interview to the New York Times:

The author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante responded to written questions via email through her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The following is a translated transcript of that interview.

Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Italy and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the United States in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after James Wood’s review in The New Yorker in January 2013?

Q. Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in Italy?

A. I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In Italy my first book, “Troubling Love,” sold immediately, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Then the director Mario Martone read it and turned it into a memorable film. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t publish anything else for 10 years, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to publish “The Days of Abandonment.” The book was a success and had a wide readership, even if there was also a lot of resistance to [the protagonist] Olga’s reaction to being abandoned, — the same kind of resistance faced by Delia [the protagonist] in “Troubling Love.” The success of the book and of the film that was made from it focused even more attention onto the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novels are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.

Q. Where do you see yourself in the Italian literary tradition?

A. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Elsa Morante. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable.

(…)

Writing Machines

Tom McCarthy on realism and the real
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A new London Review of Books is just out (and still no review of Zone!). But there is a good piece by Tom McCarthy on the fallacy of the realist project:

In the introduction to the 1995 reissue of his 1973 masterpiece Crash, J.G. Ballard discusses ‘the balance between fiction and reality’. ‘We live,’ he writes,

in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

The paragraphs that follow are a little disappointing, as Ballard unquestioningly endorses some rather conservative beliefs about writing: first, a psychologism (the writer ‘offers the reader the contents of his own head’), then a positivism (he must ‘devise hypotheses and test them against the facts’), then a moralism (his novel’s main purpose is cautionary, a warning against a brutal technological future). But there’s still something important here, hinging on that word ‘invent’. Ballard doesn’t tell us that novelists should ‘discover’ or ‘intuit’ or ‘reveal’ reality: they must invent it. Reality isn’t there yet; it has to be brought forth or produced; and this is the duty and stake of writing.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. Take the many articles about the ‘true’ writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or the huge amount of attention paid to David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger. Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real’, ‘reality’ and ‘realism’.

Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention. Ford Madox Ford, in a passage from Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, brilliantly skewers the claim that a certain prose style – that of realism – faithfully and objectively captures historical events and mental activity:

Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint … If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr Slack – then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr Slack will point to his house-wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business you will have observed against Mr Slack’s wall … At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street … What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up … You will remember how Millicent’s hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna’d: and you will see in one corner of your mind’s eye a little picture of Mr Mills the vicar talking – oh, very kindly – to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton … But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe – and her expression! … Cox’s Aluminium Paint! … You remember the half empty tin that Mr Slack showed you – he had a most undignified cold – with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a real-gold sun …

Once we’ve stopped snickering at the conjunction of the words ‘Slack’, ‘erect’ and ‘Cox’ (which, given the coy erotics of the passage, the way Millicent moves and stirs beneath its link-ups, strikes me as far from accidental), we have little choice, whatever our aesthetic disposition, but to surrender to Ford’s argument. This is, of course, exactly how events and memory both proceed: associatively, digressing, jolting, looping.

William Burroughs makes the same point when discussing his cut-up technique: ‘Take a walk down a city street … You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments … Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.’ He’s right as well. We don’t walk down the street saying to ourselves: ‘As I walk down the street, comma, I contemplate the question of faith, or adultery, or x or y or z.’ It turns out that the 20th-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than 19th-century realists ever did. But it’s also the case that realism’s founders – if not their descendants – fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up, and take delight, from time to time, in shoving poles and ladders through the parlour windows. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, often held up as one of 19th-century realism’s triumphs, but he also wrote Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which two semi-educated men try to translate a series of cultural paradigms (‘being’ a gentleman gardener, ‘being’ an aesthete or a lover) into experiences that they might live (or re-live) in an ‘authentic’ manner, even re-enacting the postures from book illustrations in their bid for this imagined authenticity – with effects as farcical as those produced by their 16th-century predecessor Don Quixote. Balzac generated all the counts and countesses of his Comédie humaine – rounded characters who are so often admired for the way they seem to live and breathe – but his novella Sarrasine is a ruthless laying bare of the very mechanism through which the fantasy of the ‘natural’ operates. In mistaking a castrato – a simulacrum that has no original – for the most genuine and unadulterated embodiment of woman, the sculptor Sarrasine enacts the error at the source of realism itself. When his error is revealed, both he and Balzac’s readers are confronted with the fact that, as Barthes put it in 1970, ‘realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real’; it ‘copies what is already a copy’. It is no coincidence that Bouvard and Pécuchet are trained, like Melville’s Bartleby, as copy-clerks.

It’s an interesting paradox that the 19th-century realists took the counter-realist impulse much further than the 20th-century anti-realists. Ford and Burroughs put forward a claim to have helped pioneer new and radical ways of depicting lived life accurately. But Balzac and Flaubert whip the rug out from under the very possibility of doing this. What opens up beneath the place where we wrongly thought a solid floor lay is an abyss, endlessly regressive, of convention on convention, code on code, reading of reading of reading. (It’s telling that Flaubert’s last text, the end-point to which this trajectory carries him, is a dictionary: the Dictionary of Received Ideas into which Bouvard et Pécuchet tapers off.) That such blatant and splendid take-downs of naturalism are written into the core of the realist tradition makes the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over, all the more simple-minded.

(…)

Plastic Words at Raven Row

13 December 2014 to 30 January 2015
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Exciting line-up of events launching next week at Raven Row, including a talk chaired by future Fitzcarraldo Editions author Brian Dillon on 16 December, with Tom McCarthy, McKenzie Wark and Janice Kerbel, on ‘Artists, Writing and Literature’. Another one to look forward to is Helen DeWitt, Chris Kraus and  Jeremy Akerman on 15 January ‘about the forms of publication best suited to writing in an expanded field’. The full programme is available on the Raven Row website.

Organised by John Douglas Millar, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams.

Raven Row plays host for six weeks to a series of public events that mine the contested space between contemporary literature and art.

Taking this space as a starting point, the participants – including leading writers, visual and performance artists – reflect on the possible overlaps, parallels, tangents and interferences between some of today’s most adventurous forms of writing and art making. The variety of formats reflects the diversity of the contributors, spanning readings, performances, panel discussions and publishing experiments.

A companion display entitled Marginalia with artworks by Eleanor Antin, Isidore Isou, John Murphy and Philippe Thomas, curated by Antony Hudek, will be on view during events and upon request.

At each event, the pop-up bookshop Luminous Books will present a selection of titles written by and related to the speakers in Plastic Words. For the final event in the series, Luminous Books will join forces with Publication Studio for its first London appearance.

All events are free. Except for the opening event, reservations are encouraged. Please click on the links to the events for more information.

Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson

In the Guardian
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In the words of the commissioning editor who is behind this piece, this interview by Ned Beauman with William Gibson, on the occasion of the release of his novel The Peripheral, is the ‘nerdiest ever bit of commissioning’: 

Let me make one thing clear from the start: this is not going to be one of those hard-hitting Lynn Barber-type profiles. I am a huge William Gibson guy, and I have been since I was 13 years old. Earlier this year I took my devotion to the extreme lengths – the excessive lengths, let’s all admit – of publishing what was essentially a William Gibson tribute novel, like a small-town Black Sabbath playing an evening of wonky covers at the pub. So when I tell you that Gibson picked me up in his car from my hotel in Vancouver, so I didn’t even have to get a taxi – and indeed that he was impeccably hospitable and generous over the ensuing 24 hours – you might think: “How awfully convenient that this lifelong hero of Beauman’s, whom he is clearly desperate to be friends with, should happen to be a really nice guy.” Yes, I agree, it is awfully convenient, but sometimes things just turn out that way.

The effect that Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer had on me when I read it as an adolescent – comparable to a defibrillator applied directly to my forebrain – was the same effect that it had on speculative fiction in general when it was first published in 1984. People who wouldn’t normally be seen reading a book about a hacker in the future who sneaks on to a space station to help a computer turn into a god – and that’s a lot of people, perhaps including you – they made an exception for Neuromancer, because it was just too brilliant to ignore. Neuromanceroriginated a subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, which later withered away, redundant, because cyberpunk had become the condition of the real world. Gibson could therefore be credited with anticipating the information age, with the result that for the last 30 years he has regularly been pressed into service as a prophet. And yet you’re not giving his fiction its due if you just score it on the accuracy of its predictions like a six-horse accumulator. Call me biased, but I think the most interesting thing about a novelist is the inherent quality of his or her novels. And Gibson’s – 11 so far – are some of the best and most singular novels by anyone writing in English.

Gibson picked me up that day so that we could drive about 20 minutes northeast to Dusty Greenwell Park, a margin of grass overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Dusty Greenwell Park is not the most arcadian of retreats. Down the slope, past a snarl of blackberry bushes, is Canada’s largest container grain-loading facility, where trainloads of malt are disgorged into containers and then trucked off to the shipping terminals. Trains thunder past for minutes at a time, almost drowning out conversation, and a grain elevator, discoloured by rust and moss and pigeon shit, blocks part of the view of the North Shore Mountains across the bay. We visited because this was the setting of one of the climactic scenes of Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, in which “the narrow park leap[s] into shivering, seemingly shadowless incandescence” as a spy flees a patrolling helicopter.

Spook Country is not the book that Gibson, 66, is currently promoting. That is his superb new novel The Peripheral. But The Peripheral is set partly in the American south in the 2030s, and partly in London in the 2100s, so it would have been difficult to find a directly relevant excursion within the Vancouver city limits.

In the book, it’s a sort of transtemporal Skype running on a mysterious Chinese server that accounts for those two eras becoming entangled in a single story. By bringing them face to face, Gibson was addressing the tendency of any given generation to assume that “the inhabitants of the past are hicks and rubes, and the inhabitants of the future are effete, overcomplicated beings with big brains and weak figures. We always think of ourselves as the cream of creation.” Although he generally defers to his unconscious when asked about his creative process, Gibson allowed that this book may have had its origin in a news story he read about a midwestern Christian militia called Hutaree whose members were arrested in 2010 for an alleged conspiracy to kill local police officers.

“The thing that struck me was that several very young teenagers had been left to fend for themselves when all of the adults had been taken away to jail,” he said. “I started imagining being one of those kids and how I would understand the world.” The setting also fed on Gibson’s own upbringing in small-town South Carolina, the film Winter’s Bone and the HBO series Deadwood, about a lawless town during the Gold Rush. “I wanted the equivalent of the city slickers, from a very different world, turning up in Deadwood. Initially I thought the other world would be New York or Los Angeles. But at some point I realised that could be the future.”

By now we had found a bench and we were both sipping from little cans of Boss Coffee that we’d picked up at Fujiya Japanese Foods on the way to the park. This made the outing rather Gibsonian in ways that neither of us realised at the time. Boss Coffee is manufactured by Suntory, and I’ve since learned that a lot of the malt in the containers before us would have been bound for Suntory’s beer and whisky breweries in Japan. Huge Japanese conglomerates with tentacles in the most unlikely places; the hypercomplex networks of globalised commerce; really good espresso – these have been quintessential Gibson tropes ever sinceNeuromancer.

By and large, I like Gibson now for the same reasons I liked Neuromancer when I first read it: his books are really cool – and I don’t mean “cool” as in “hip” or “chic”, I mean “cool” as in “awesome” or “rad”. That sounds like faint praise, because 13-year-olds have no taste and “cool” is not a respectable term of critical approbation. But what I mean by “cool” is that Gibson presents you with something new – a technology, a garment, a building, a scheme, an expertise, a power structure – and this new thing is burnished with so much imagination and lyricism and attention to detail, and so much of the noir and the gothic and the postmodern all at once, that it’s electrifyingly exciting just to contemplate. He does this several times on every page, and intersperses some old junk that he did not invent, and then connects all this stuff up so unpredictably that the connections are themselves exciting. And before long the connections are dense enough that he has a world, and he lets you shadow a small cast of reprobates as they pinball through every echelon of that world.

Krapp Hour

Anne Carson's literary talk-show in Granta
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Excellent piece by Anne Carson in the penultimate issue of Granta:

Cast:   KRAPP, host
              guests, various

Set: a TV talk show, minimal lighting, blackouts where marked. Kitchen chair for KRAPP, couch for guests. Couch is not big enough for all guests, they gradually pile up. Guests are introduced by KRAPP briefly hoisting a placard from a pile under his chair.

(enter KRAPP, K, to brief theme music)

K: not much you have to know about me, I need very little space and I like very little attention. Funny to end up here you may think, in this line of work, did I back into it, well more or less, I guess I did, yes and no, never mind, more important is other people do (need space, like attention), they come here, their eyes are bright, I love the brightness of their eyes, it is ever a surprise to me. If I had a family (I don’t have a family) I cannot imagine they would look at me with such bright eyes. Admittedly there was a time I thought I would grow and flourish here, become happy and interesting and modern, well my old dad put paid to that notion the one time he came to the show – ‘unchanged for the worse’ he said and I believe I have adhered to that standard ever since.

(K holds up placard JACK KEROUAC AND HIS MOTHER GABRIELLE (GABE), enter GK and JK)

GK:       we’re going to Radio City after this
JK:        it’s her birthday
GK:       I’ll be sixty-four where does the time go
K:          where indeed
GK:       I wasn’t always this fat when I stopped wearing a girdle I        
                 went all over the place
JK:           say something in French Ma
GK:          qu’est-ce que tu veux savoir
JK:           you tutoyed him Ma, hear that she tutoyed you
K:             so she did
GK:          it’s like that afternoon the Filipino butler kept giving me drinks
K:             you’ve a butler
GK:          no Barney Rosset’s butler we went for dinner
JK:           had a big screaming dinner all talking French Gallimard         
                 was there you’re speaking pure eighteenth-century Norman
                 dialect he said to me
GK:          I played the piano then I went downstairs started kidding
                 the little butler I was having a ball
JK:           later we hit the bars did Fifth Avenue supposed to have an
                  interview with Holiday magazine never made it
GK:          Florida when we lived there he didn’t drink at all but over
                  here oh my
JK:           I can take it you know Li Po drank all those guys drank
                 dharma bums roaming China
K:             Buddhists I suppose
GK:          think I’d like a sandwich

(GK wanders off)

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist
Elizbaeth Harrower

Whatever you think about James Wood, he is one of the few people with enough clout that an article on the ‘forgotten’ novelist Elizabeth Harrower will get people interested in reading her. In this instance, the story of her ‘rediscovery’ happens to be a good one:

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”

Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”

Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.

Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.

Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”

Fitz Carraldo Editions