An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, newish from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails in a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. A few days after the first part of the interview posted, Lukes and Coffman hosted a book launch party in NYC for WTV: ACC; the pics in this interview are from that event (check out the Facebook page for more, including Jonathan Franzen reading from his piece on Vollmann).

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Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the formal elements of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. The collection seems to balance essays of a more academic flavor with memoir-vignettes, personal accounts, and riffs.

Christopher K. Coffman: We decided early on to intersperse among the academic essays pieces by non-scholars, or by scholars writing in a non-scholarly mode. The goal here was at least two-fold. We wanted to offer something a bit more accessible to WTV readers who were not in academia (although I think the average WTV fan can follow scholarly arguments as well as many of us in academia can). Also, we realized that some people with a privileged view on WTV’s work–such as those of WTV’s book designers who contributed (Bolte and Speaker Austin)–could add something of interest and great value to audiences in and out of academia, and we wanted to make space for that. I would have to look back through the e-mail log to be sure, but I think Daniel first came up with the idea of soliciting shorter pieces from non-scholars, and that I then conceived the structural component. I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s In Our Time, and the contrapuntal play between the stories and the very short inter-chapters in that book served for me as a paradigm of what Daniel and I have tried to do in this regard. Of course, as soon as we brought up the example of Hemingway, we recalled that WTV does something similar in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, so he beat us to the punch even there. At any rate, my hope is that our readers find in the short chapterlets material that serves as a response to or as an extension of ideas presented in the more properly scholarly readings that surround those shorter pieces.

The second question of arrangement was the placement of essays and interchapters, and we here grouped according to subject matter as well as we could, without merely replicating what McCaffery and Hemmingson had done for Expelled from Eden. We also, obviously, made space for both Larry and Michael as the authors of the Preface and Afterword. Our intention there, insofar as I can speak for both of us, is to make it clear that we are trying to situate our contribution to scholarship on WTV in relation to the work that Larry and Michael have already done. Finally, I wrote the Introduction not only because one of us had to, but also because Daniel was spoken for in the sense that he already had material that formed the basis for the really great chapter that he contributed. Also, I found the chance to frame the book’s material via an introduction that dealt with WTV’s place in the landscape of post-1945 American fiction appealing. That said, while the introduction bears my byline, my ongoing conversation with Daniel during the past few years shaped my thinking about WTV as much as any original ideas of my own, so he deserves a lot of credit for the introduction as well.

Daniel Lukes: I’ve been going back over the timeline to see if Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s edited volume The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, which also features some shorter pieces, was an influence on that, but it looks like we took our approach independently. Though I will say their book did serve as a model in some ways of what ours could be. Dealing with the “non-scholarly” pieces has been for me one of the most exciting parts of putting this book together (the distinction between “scholarlies” and “non-scholarlies” itself being one of the various amusing frameworks that Chris and I have been carrying around throughout the process). From the beginning I thought it would be very helpful to have some of Vollmann’s literary peers chime in: you just don’t hear too much from them about him. So we reached out to writers we thought might be Vollmann readers: some just weren’t (I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy reads Vollmann: the letter I mailed to a presumed representative of his returned unopened). Some were Vollmann fans/friends, but couldn’t make it for another reason; when Jonathan Franzen came through and expressed his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to contribute a piece, I felt some relief. And James Franco was a pleasure to work with. That said I think the primary value of the non-scholarlies is in the insights they offer into Vollmann’s world and writing practices, from those who have worked closely with him, in particular Carla Bolte, Mary Austin Speaker, and Mariya Gusev’s excellent and vivid pieces. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)”

Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)

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Got these as desk copies (as opposed to review copies) a few weeks ago. I’ve been picking through Africa 39 more or less at random, in between stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow. Hit or miss so far, as these affairs so often are. Here’s Margaret Busby, one of the panelists who helped compile the book (from The Guardian):

Africa39 is not an exercise constrained by labels, fashion and preconceived rules about genres, nor by what constitutes African writing. Twenty countries are represented by work created in a variety of African and European languages – Kiswahili, Igbo and Lingala as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Understandably, with the continuing debate about the validity of the “African writer” category, there are those who feel uncomfortable about participating in this venture (indeed, some have chosen to opt out).

Speaking of Gravity’s Rainbow (sort of), it shows up in Jonathan Franzen’s “translation” of Karl Kraus’s essays. I shouldn’t put translation in those suspicious quotation marks; he does translate—but the book he really wants to write is a memoir in footnotes. Maybe you read the excerpt Harper’s published a few years ago?

Michael Hoffman’s long review at NYRB is good. From that piece:

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

… The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

Alice Munro Wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

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Canadian writer Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Munro, 82, has written over a dozen short story collections in her career. Most of her stories–composed in a mode of psychological realism reminiscent of 19th-century modernism—focus on the lives of people in a small rural pocket of Canada. Munro’s stories appear with an almost-alarming ubiquity, popping up every year in the big anthologies and the best magazines (Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 claim that “outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership” strikes me as odd).

For an appreciative and comprehensive look at her work, take a look at this guide at The Millions. For a contrarian take on Munro, read Christian Lorentzen’s essay in The LRB.

Or, better yet, make your own informed opinion by reading some of her stories:

“Boys and Girls”

“Gravel”

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

“Fiction”

I Didn’t Like Joshua Cody’s Memoir [sic]

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Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic] showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago and despite my prejudices, I coasted through it over a few afternoons.

Those prejudices:

1) It’s a memoir.

2) There’s a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover.

3) The title [sic] is an unbearably too-clever pun (and this from a guy who loves puns).

The first thing I noticed about [sic] were the pictures : paintings, maps, charts, sketches, lists, collages, other texts, and so on interspersed throughout the text. I like pictures in books.

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The way that Cody uses these illustrations at first reminded me of  W.G. Sebald, who employed pictures in novels like Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in an oblique, documentary approach.

Cody is less oblique than Sebald, and perhaps flippant too. He doesn’t namecheck Sebald, at any rate, unlike David Byrne, who openly admitted to following Sebald’s path in his 2008 memoir Bicycle Diaries. (Cody does namecheck David Byrne though).

Then I edged my way into the plot, such as it is. I’ll lazily let publisher W.W. Norton summarize:

Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Facing a bone marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with beautiful Ariel, who gives him cocaine and a blow job in a Manhattan restaurant following his first treatment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed.

Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and studded with pages from his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.

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As Norton’s summary suggests, Cody’s memoir is highly discursive and playful, loaded with references to art, music, and literature. Digressions on figures like David Foster Wallace, Orson Welles, or Alexander Theroux lard the book—indeed, they often seem to edge out the story Cody intends to tell, his cancer memoir. He seems reticent to fully engage his own feelings, instead layering reference upon reference. These references become insufferable at times—are we supposed to care that Cody met David Lynch and would like to be his friend, or that Cody briefly studied ancient Greek? Cody is so busy trying to impress the reader that he forgets to express meaning.

We see this reticence, this turning away from, here over two pages: Cody moves from a story about buying a facsimile copy of Pound’s original draft of The Waste Land to a lengthy footnote that manages to name drop James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Woody Allen, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller (in just two sentences!) and then into a facsimile reproduction of one of the stories his brother would write for him as a child:

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The big problem with Cody’s memoir is that it never feels particularly real. I enjoy discursive referential postmodernism as much as the next fella, but [sic] often fails to cohere around a central idea, let alone an emotion. When Cody describes dating a stripper/dominatrix, it feels like a party trick, an inflated anecdote—there’s no emotional core, no contemplative connection to his illness. Other sexual episodes read like a parody of Henry Miller.

As its title suggests, [sic] is a dodge, a bait-and-switch, an evasion. Cody is clearly very clever—but a dazzling display of cleverness can’t sustain a narrative.

Franzen’s Desert Island Reading List Includes Russian Grammar Books; Fails to Include Flowers in the Attic or Uncanny X-Men

“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max

 

The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.

 

The World Without You (Book Acquired, 4.19.2012)

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The World Without You is forthcoming this summer from Joshua Henkin (Pantheon). Write up from Publisher’s Weekly:

Like a more bittersweet version of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You or a less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Henkin (Matrimony) tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate. One year after the death of their kidnapped journalist son, Leo, in Iraq, David and Marilyn Frankel, non-practicing Jews, call their entire mishpocha to their summer home in the Berkshires to attend his memorial service: Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel, who, after years of putting off parenthood, are having a difficult time getting pregnant; Lily, a D.C. lawyer who shows up without Malcolm, her restaurateur boyfriend of 10 years; Noelle, an Orthodox Jew who arrives from Jerusalem with her husband, Amram, and their four children; and Thisbe, Leo’s widow, a grad student who flies in from Berkeley with their three-year-old son, Calder. Over the course of the Fourth of July holiday, David and Marilyn will make a stunning announcement; Thisbe will reveal a secret; a game of Celebrity will cause Amram to drive off into the night; Leo will be remembered; and someone will pee on the carpet. The author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.