I Anti-Review Evan Lavender-Smith’s Anti-Novel, From Old Notebooks

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The style of this review is probably a bad idea.

In fact, it’s such a bad idea that it’s probable someone has already done it. Or considered doing it but had the good sense to refrain.

From Old Notebooks as the presentation of a subject through his daily jotting downs.

To clarify: All block quotes—like the one above—belong to Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.

Which I read twice last month.

And am writing about here.

From Old Notebooks: A Novel: An Essay.

From Old Notebooks: An Essay: A Novel.

From Old Notebooks blazons its anxiety of influence: Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Shakespeare.

Joycespeare.

References, critiques, ideas about Joyce, DFW, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche repeatedly evince in From Old Notebooks—and yet David Markson, whose format E L-S so clearly borrows, is evoked only thrice—and not until page 74 (this in a book of 201 pages):

I count David Markson’s literary-anecdote books among the few things I want to read over and over again, yet I have no idea whether they are actually any good. They’re like porn for English majors.

And then again on page 104:

If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book?

(I should point out that the page numbers I cite are from Dzanc Book’s first edition of From Old Notebooks; Dzanc’s 2012 printing puts the book back in print).

Like Markson’s anti-novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel), E L-S’s F.O.N. is constantly describing itself.

There may be some question as to F.O.N.’s status as fiction, poetry, philosophy, nonfiction, etc., but hopefully there will be no question about its status as a book.

Is E L-S’s book postmodern? Post-postmodern?

Perhaps there is nothing quintessentially postmodern about the self-reflexivity, fragmentation and pastiche of F.O.N., if only because all of it follows from form.

From Old Notebooks as a document constantly performing its self-critique:

If there were a Viking Portable Lavender-Smith containing an abridgment of F.O.N., I would be very interested to read it, because there’s no reason that the total value of the book wouldn’t be gained, through editorial happenstance, with much greater efficiency.

From Old Notebooks as a document of authorial anxiety.

A reader could make a case that there are a number of elided texts within or suggested by From Old Notebooks, including the one that gives the author the authority to write such a book.

F.O.N. is also a generative text, bustling with ideas for short stories, novels, plays, films, pamphlets, somethings—it is E L-S’s notebook after all (maybe). Just one very short example—

Novel about a haunted cryonics storage facility.

F.O.N.’s story ideas reminded me of my favorite Fitzgerald text, his Notebooks.

Reading From Old Notebooks is a pleasurable experience.

Personal anecdote on the reading experience:

Reading the book in my living room, my daughter and wife enter and begin doing some kind of mother-daughter yoga. My wife asks if they are distracting me from reading. I suggest that the book doesn’t work that way. The book performs its own discursions.

I shared the tiniest morsel here of my family; E L-S shares everything about his family in F.O.N.:

I know that the reconciliation of my writing life and my family life is one of the things that F.O.N. is finally about, but I can’t actually see it in the book; I don’t imagine I could point to an entry and say, Here is an example of that.

It would be impossible for me not to relate to the character of the author or novelist or narrator of F.O.N. (let me call him E L-S as a simple placeholder): We’re about the same age, we both have a son and a daughter (again of similar ages); we both teach composition. Similar literary obsessions. Etc. After reading through F.O.N. the first time I realized how weird it was that I didn’t feel contempt and jealousy for what E L-S pulls off in F.O.N.—that I didn’t hate him for it. That I felt proud of him (why?) and liked him.

There are moments where our obsessions diverge; the E L-S of F.O.N. is preoccupied with death to an extent that I simply don’t connect to. He:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about death.

I:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about sex.

But generally I get and feel and empathize with his descriptions of his son and daughter and wife.

And his work. Big time:

Getting up the motivation to grade student essays is like trying to pass a piece of shit through the eye of a needle.

Or

I have perfected my lecture after giving it for the third time, but my fourth class never gets to realize it because my voice is hoarse and I’m so tired from giving the same lecture four times in one day, so their experience of my perfect lecture at 8-9:40 PM is of approximately equal value to that of my students receiving my imperfect lecture at 8-9:40 AM, as well as my students at 2:30-3:55 and 5:30-7:10—and it all evens out to uniform mediocrity in the end.

The novel is not jaded or cynical or death-obsessed though (except when it is).

What E L-S is trying to do is to remove as much of the barrier between author and reader as possible:

Contemporary authors who construct a thick barrier between themselves and their readers such that authorial vulnerability is revealed negatively, i.e., via the construction of the barrier.

Perhaps my suggestion that E L-S tries to remove the barrier is wrong. Maybe instead: E L-S’s F.O.N. maps the barrier, points to the barrier’s structure, does not try to deny the barrier, but also tries to usher readers over it, under it, through its gaps—-and in this way channels a visceral reality that so much of contemporary fiction fails to achieve.

I really, really liked this book and will read it again.

 

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The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis compiles all 198 of Davis’s short stories in one handsome volume. That’s all four of Davis’s exceptional short story collections: Break It Down, Varieties of Disturbance, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and Almost No Memory. FS&G debuted the hardback edition a year ago, and this month Picador offers up a lovely (and more affordable) trade paperback version; it sports deckle edge pages and French flaps, and runs over 700 pages.

I front-load my review with this data to make it obvious that, if you have any interest in Lydia Davis, this is a book to pick up. It’s a wonderful collection, a tidy brick of words that begs for immersion, the kind of book you float around in, flipping pages at random to find and enjoy yet another strange little gem. Go get it.

If you’re not sure why you should be interested in Davis, read on.

Most of Davis’s stories are very short; many are just a paragraph or two, and some a mere sentence in length. They are not stories in the traditional sense: don’t look for sweeping character development or grand plot arcs. These stories thrive rather on tone, a keen sense of inspection, perception, and mood, and an intensity of observation on matters large and small. They are tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms.

“In a House Besieged,” from her first collection Break It Down (1986) reveals much about the Davis program. Here it is in full–

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

“In a House Besieged” illustrates a number of the themes and motifs that run throughout Davis’s oeuvre: unnamed protagonists identified only as “the man” and “the woman” (later stories might call them “the husband” and “the wife”) who are at once allegorical placeholders and at the same time singular individuals; a domestic setting (with family members as protagonists); an unknowable and perhaps unidentifiable threat; a pervasive sense of alienation balanced by an ironic sense of humor. The story’s brevity also shows that, from the outset of her publishing career, Davis was already working toward something wholly different from the Carveresque stories that dominated MFA fiction in the 80s.

The domestic settings of Break It Down–spaces often haunted by mothers and fathers–rear up again and again throughout the collection. 1997′s Almost No Memory kicks off with “Meat, My Husband,” a story about a wife who is trying to get her husband to eat healthier–a difficult prospect considering his affection for beef. The tale should be utterly banal, but instead it is humorous and even oddly moving; the wife, who narrates the piece, concludes by realizing that her husband would really just prefer to cook for himself. The insight transcends the particular domestic scenario: it seems applicable to the reader’s own life (or to this reader’s, anyway). “How He Is Often Right,” also from the same collection, is a short paragraph where the narrator concludes that the titular “he” is often wrong, “but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while [his decision] was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.” The story captures the way that we impart great meaning to the smallest arguments, dwelling on them, connecting them to our sense of identity. We see the same analysis at work in “The Outing” (also from Almost No Memory). In full–

An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

Davis’s sentence might be telescopic, but it also, paradoxically, puts the relationship in the story under a microscope. The reader can fill in the gaps with his or her own background: we’ve all experienced this anger, this silence, this refusal. We’ve been there. The story is real. It’s true.

The truth of Davis’s stories is what unites them; it’s the reader’s recognition of their truth that makes them so pleasurable. Take “Boring Friends” from 2001′s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (again, in full)–

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

Davis’s treatment on friendship consistently penetrates facades, exposes our competitive cores, and, at the same time, celebrates the joys we might take in others. This precarious line also evinces in Davis’s stories about taking care of young children. The short scene “Child Care” focuses on a grumpy father who’d rather watch TV than take his turn with the baby. Solution: “Together they watch The Odd Couple.” And perhaps it is because I have two young children, but I can’t recall a more accurate depiction of the simultaneous wonder and boredom of taking care of a new baby than “What You Learn About the Baby” (a lengthy treatise at six pages).

Not all of Davis’s stories focus on family and friends. There’s much here about academia: troubles with translation, grappling with tenure, the perils of teaching, and so on. There are at least three entries on grammar here. If not all readers can connect with these stories (although I certainly did), they need not worry–part of the joy of the book is its diversity. If a story doesn’t catch right away, flick to the next one, or one a hundred pages down the line. Perhaps you will alight on one of the collection’s imaginative historical biographies, like “Kafka Cooks Dinner” or “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman,” positively epic at 18 pages. Davis’s histories fascinate; they seem utterly real and true and absurd and improbable, all at the same time.

Indeed, discursive movement is the core of Davis’s, but her digressions all point to a thematic analysis of truth, of an individual’s attempt to understand the world in terms other than the individual herself. They dwell on problems of self-consciousness, often employing literary distortion as an analytical tool. Davis’s literary distortions always point to a concrete reality, a livable, experiential reality; the fact that we should experience the real as surreal or absurd only makes her work more truthful.

It would be easy to park Davis with the postmodernist counter-tradition, but I think her work looks to something else, something post-postmodernist (I write this, I know, at the risk of falling into an abyssal loop).  Davis’s work presages contemporary “flash fiction”; her stories’ brevity reflect the simultaneous contraction of our attention spans and the expansion of our diverse interests. Her story “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:” reads like a Facebook update. Here it is in full — “that Scotland has so few trees.” Davis transmutes an amusing annotation into a story that somehow brings the great critic back to life. The title of the story is also the title of the book; what follows then is a kind of meta-joke on reader expectations, subverting our expectations of Dr. Johnson’s (supposed) meta-commentary on the book-proper. But I fear I’m headed into a lit-crit navel-gazing snoozefest (in what has already been a long review). Far better to wrap things up, I think, by simply noting again how joyful it is to move through the book, to open at random and read. Very highly recommended.

Vanity Fair Interviews David Mitchell

Vanity Fair interviews David Mitchell about his new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The interviewer mistakenly (I believe, anyway) thinks James Wood is joking in his New Yorker review when he wonders if the book is “post-postmodernist.” Mitchell’s answer sounds about right.

VF: James Wood in the New Yorker was describing your books and he jokingly came up with the phrase post-postmodernism. If there were such a thing as post-postmodern literature, what do you think that might be?

DM: Oddly enough, I’m not sure if novelists are the best people to ask whither-the-novel questions. For me, it’s a little like I’m a duckbilled platypus and I’m being asked a question about taxonomy. You won’t get much of an answer out of a platypus because they’re busy going about their business digging tunnels, catching fish, and having sex. You really have to ask a critic, or a taxonomist. I feel like I should have a pithy answer because I’m a novelist and you’re asking a question about the future of the novel, but the biggest question I ever get to is, “How can I make this damned book work?” I rarely ever put my head above the rampart and see where this big lumbering behemoth called global literature is going.

(Thanks to the Bored Bookseller for the tip).

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.

Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).

Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” –

If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]

Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the

[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell's earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”

There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:

In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.

These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).

Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.

Post-postmodern Satire and More Juggalo Wonder

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the Insane Clown Posse and Juggalo culture where I argued that ICP’s project, so heavily distorted in the tropes and defenses of postmodernity, is essentially resistant to ironic satire and even parody. My piece was prompted largely by ICP’s newest video, Miracles,” a mawkish, sweetly dumb anthem brought to life as a mutant Spencer’s Gifts blacklight poster. A day or two after I posted, a friend sent me Daniel O’Brien’s article in Cracked, Learn Your Motherf#@kin’ Science: A Textbook for Juggalos.O’Brien’s piece seeks to correct ICP’s notion that “rainbows,” “giraffes,” and “magnets” are somehow unexplainable “miracles”; he uses Juggalo vernacular to address the myriad questions (and misapprehensions) expressed in “Miracles.” O’Brien juxtaposes Juggalo-speak against the schema of school texts to point out that “Miracles” is insanely, almost heroically stupid. He does this to be funny, of course, but I think that there’s a sense of exasperation to his parody. It buckles under the strain of mocking something already so radically open to an ironic viewpoint as to render said viewpoint null and void.

About a week after O’Brien and I ran our pieces on “Miracles,” Saturday Night Live attempted another parody of ICP (see my first post for more on their first attempt). Here’s their spoof of “Miracles”:

Again, it’s not very funny. There’s no insight or satirical value, no allegorical leap–it’s just an ironic viewpoint. But what else could it be? What’s left to a satirist when his subject is literally a clown in oversized shorts rapping about the magical mysteries of magnets? In her review of the episode at AV Club, Claire Zullkey wondered, “if SNL should get much credit for a near line-by-line parody of an Insane Clown Posse video that is already ridiculous and ironic,” and Annie Wu at TV Squad noted that “it quickly became obvious that the real Insane Clown Posse video was funnier. Sorry, ‘SNL,’ but no matter how hard you try, you cannot top unintentional ICP hilarity.”

But are ICP unintentional? As I argued in my previous post, they clearly tap into authenticity or “realness” in their project, both in their music and in their connection to their fans, the Juggalos. At the same time, this authenticity is bolstered by commonplace idioms and tropes of postmodernism–code names, fictional personas, costumes, make-up, self-invented mythos, argot, and a keen emphasis on self-referentiality. These postmodern defenses render the question of intentionality radically ambiguous. This is why the old techniques of satire and parody do not hold up very well against ICP: the realness of the thing in itself transcends the ironic viewpoint. Cracked did a much better job with this video:

It’s hardly hilarious, but its mash-up technique actually surpasses ironic-viewpoint-as-parody: there’s some real commentary here. The mash-up artist juxtaposes two “real” sources–a Glade Plug-in ad and clips from the original “Miracles” video and the result is genuine satire. What’s being mocked though isn’t the inanity of the Insane Clown Posse, but the larger inanity of mass commercial culture itself, in which people are encouraged to lose critical perspective, to be reduced to a child-like state of wonder by a fucking air freshener, a consumer product. The satire works by pointing out that the ICP video isn’t really any dumber than most other commercials–it’s just so brazenly over-the-top that we notice its inanity. Indeed “Miracles” calls attention to its inanity. It’s self-aware (perhaps). In any case, this juxtaposition of “the real” shows us that successful post-postmodern satire will not invoke an ironic viewpoint, but rather call attention to the limits of an ironic viewpoint. The “loudness” of ICP’s stupidity is so extreme that we take an ironic view, but what of the far-more subtle stupidities of Glade Plug-in commercials and their ilk? If “Miracles” is to be instructive, let us learn from its distortions, for what it distorts is really just part and parcel of 21st century American culture. It is a priori irony. It is meta-criticism. But it need not be instructive. It can simply be enjoyed for (whatever) it is.

Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil tells the story of a writer named Henry whose follow-up novel to a surprise smash hit is rejected. He moves to a large metropolitan city, gets a dog and a cat, takes clarinet lessons, joins an amateur theater group, and slowly forgets about writing fiction altogether. One day a stranger sends Henry a short story by Gustave Flaubert called St. Julian the Hospitator.” The sender has highlighted passages about Julian’s delight in slaughtering animals and also included a few pages of an original manuscript, a Beckettian play featuring two characters, Beatrice and Virgil. There’s also a note asking for help. Intrigued, or maybe bored, Henry visits the mysterious author, an old, creepy taxidermist (also named Henry). His play features two characters, Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey, who are trying to come to terms with a series of events they call The Horrors. The taxidermist’s project reignites Henry’s passion for writing and he’s soon helping the would-be playwright with revisions, blind to the inconsistencies and gaps in the old man’s strange behavior.

Beatrice and Virgil is a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences. Martel displays his keenest literary skill in the early part of the novel, flitting through the kinds of subjects that bookish nerds of a certain postmodernist bent tend to obsess over: the possibilities and challenges of writing in a particular language, the complexity of pseudonymous fame, the intellectual allure of the essay versus the power of fiction to narrativize higher truth. To address this latter problem, Henry proposes that his new book comprise two sections–a work of narrative fiction and an essay to explicate that work. Why the need for an essay? Henry proposes to write an artful, fictive account of the Holocaust. The essay, which Henry wants published on the flip side of the fiction, thus eliminating a front/back cover distinction, is meant to explicate the fiction. In many ways the first section of Beatrice and Virgil functions as counterpoint to Henry’s proposed essay, concisely addressing the problems of using anything other than historical facts to represent the Holocaust.

After Henry gets the taxidermist’s package and reads “St. Julian the Hospitator,”Beatrice and Virgil moves into a faster rhythm and continues to accelerate to its end, never sagging. At times, Martel relies on stock phrasing and overt exposition to afford this pacing. I found myself wishing a few times that he would trust his audience a bit more. Is it really necessary to directly explain the titular allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy? He could also be a bit less free with his narrator’s everyman style of questioning, a device employed often to propel the plot, but one somewhat inconsistent with Henry’s obvious intellectual acumen. Martel’s occasional use of lazy devices of the Dan Brown school directly contrasts the more experimental or postmodern aspects of his book. There’s the book’s initial section, which reads very much like a lyric essay; there’s the exegesis of “St. Julian”; there’s the taxidermist’s play, Beatrice and Virgil; there’s the book’s final section, “Games for Gustav.” This final section comprises thirteen short epigrams written in second-person perspective. “Games for Gustav,” Henry’s Holocaust art, demands audience identification with the victims of the Holocaust. Its brevity and ambiguity correlate to the narrative’s ahistorical engagement with the Holocaust and communicate a sense of apprehension and distance toward the subject. Is that subject Martel’s or Henry’s? In a piece I wrote last month about Beatrice and Virgil and the challenges of an aesthetic response to the Holocaust, I suggested that “Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure.”

Is Beatrice and Virgil an authentic response to the Holocaust? I won’t accuse Martel of using the Holocaust as a mere prop in his novel; indeed, anticipation of such an accusation is precisely what leads Henry to suffer over an essay to explicate his fiction. Martel’s book is about murder, horror, and how one might witness to or otherwise narrativize murder and horror; Henry’s “Games for Gustav” is just one of those attempts to witness. The novel engenders multiple readings then. We can take Henry’s “Games” as part and parcel of Martel’s program, read them perhaps as Martel’s own attempt at poetry after Auschwitz. This reading would subscribe to a traditional narrative arc–Henry faces a challenge, endures a perilous task, and finds resolution in his art: a valid artistic response to the Holocaust is possible. I think, however, that there is another, more complicated reading available, one far more ambiguous, one that places any aesthetic response to the Holocaust under suspicion. If we scrutinize the elements of traditional narrative fiction at work in the novel, we can see multiple ironies in Henry’s “hero arc,” ironies outside of Henry’s otherwise perspicacious gaze. To write an authentic aesthetic response to the Holocaust, Henry must face some kind of deathly extreme that will license such art. But is such a licensing, a conferring of authority possible? I won’t point to spoilers here but will say that I read the novel’s climax ironically. I believe it complicates Henry’s (and perhaps Martel’s) attempt to engage the Holocaust via metaphor and artifice and calls the novel’s resolution into question.

But these matters are probably better reserved for the detailed dialogues the book will no doubt inspire. Beatrice and Virgil raises essential questions of post-postmodernity, exploring the porous boundaries between autobiography and fiction, history and myth, and the limits of allegory. Its rewards are not in its answers but in its questions.

Beatrice and Virgil is new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau on April 13, 2010.

Self-Ironizing Anti-Satiric Culture and a Juggalo’s Sense of Wonder

Last year, Saturday Night Live ran an unfunny parody of an infamous viral video. SNL sought to mock the 2009 Gathering of the Juggalos Infomercial which advertised the tenth anniversary spectacular for that venerable event. The Gathering of the Juggalos is an annual outdoor music and culture festival initiated by and starring Insane Clown Posse. The best way to (try to) understand it is to watch the infomercial. You can watch the infomercial and SNL‘s parody at Current, which I suggest you do now. Done? Okay.

SNL‘s parody is not funny, it is merely observational; that is to say, it doesn’t ever approach satire. It is unfunny mimicry of something far funnier. There is no topping the riotous authenticity of the thing in itself. The original Juggalo infomercial’s joyful exuberance resists SNL‘s ironic aims–it can’t really be satirized. It is beyond kitsch, and eventually even schadenfreude. It does not seem real. Can the ICP enterprise be in earnest, though? Take their new video “Miracles,” for example–are these guys for real? Take a few minutes to watch this. I insist. (NB: Lyrics NSFW).

The video, apparently directed by Lisa Frank, communicates a sincere adoration and sense of wonder and possibility in a world of shit that’ll shock your eyelids, like: long neck giraffes, pet cats and dogs, fucking shooting stars and fucking rainbows, UFOs, crows, ghosts, moms, kids . . . you know, pure motherfucking magic. There’s a paradox in Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J in full malevolent get-up vamping in front of rainbows and stars and expressing anger at scientists who would dare to explain how fucking magnets work. Even more perplexing, earlier this year, ICP released the trailer for their Western film, Big Money Rustlas the deadly tale of debauchery, hedonism, and family love set in a small town of Mudbug. Again, I insist you watch the trailer. (NB: Language NSFW).

How might one go about satirizing that? It already seems framed as a parody of a parody. It’s anti-satiric. It self-ironizes. But again: How sincere are ICP?

Thomas Morton’s “In the Land of the Juggalos” (Vice magazine), the authoritative, in-depth investigation into the 2007 Gathering, reveals a close-knit culture of rejects reveling in “the worst aspects of goth, punk, gangsta rap, rave, nu-metal, and real metal to create a sub-culture so universally repulsive as to forestall any attempts at outside involvement.” Equally good, and more immediately accessible is Derek Erdman’s photo essay documenting the 2009 Gathering–the one advertised in the promo video. His marvelous, grotesque photos show a sincere audience, eager members of the Psychopathic Records “family.” Take a few minutes to suck it all in. These people are serious in their Juggaloness. But again, what of ICP themselves? They can’t be art-pranksters or scammers, can they? They are clearly serious about ICP as a money-making enterprise but what about as a form of art or cultural commentary? Can they be serious about the absurd sentimental content of “Miracles” or their woefully dumb Western film? Are they for real?

There is a radical authenticity about ICP’s project. It’s an autochthonous monster engendering a legion of mutant fans. Yet it also seems potently aware of its position. ICP/Juggalo culture strikes me as a form of ritual theater assuring a sense of belonging and even meaning in life to a group of people who choose to see themselves as outcast or othered. It is inconceivable to suggest that they are wholly or even partly unaware of how others see them; indeed, awareness of how others perceive them is exactly what gives meaning to being a down-assed ninja, a true Juggalo. They see you seeing them (seeing you seeing them).

Hence a condition of post-postmodernity, of a ludic and labyrinthine culture that produces subcultures resistant to irony, to parody, to the defenses of Modernism and the techniques of postmodernism. If we contrast the gap between SNL’s parody and the real thing, we might be led to what I think David Shields is trying to describe in his book Reality Hunger, a situation where the narrative techniques of modernity (and their counterparts in postmodernism) are no longer tenable forms of discourse and analysis in an increasingly technologically mediated world.

Experiment: Imagine that you wish to satirize (or parody) Walmart. Envision the details and observations you will use to mock the behemoth, its customers, its gross place in America. Then go to a Walmart. You are trumped. Hyperbole and irony are beyond you. There is no way to top the thing in itself. You are left merely with a set of observations, not insights. An ironic viewpoint does not cease to exist, but it can’t be supported via the traditional methods of Modernism or postmodernism. Contrast South Park‘s Walmart satire with the website People of Walmart. The former attempts to justify an ironic viewpoint through the logic of satire and mimesis. The latter is an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. It’s not even parody. It’s “real.”

And this is why SNL’s Juggalo spoof signals the limits of parody and cultural parody’s satirical, mimetic aims. Like People of Walmart, it’s just an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. The postmodern distortions of ICP (their clown paint, their mythos, their argot, their identities, their Faygo) and the surreal, trashy carnival of the Gathering present an objective reality radically open to a host of ironic semiotic machinations delivered in an earnestness that trumps satire. ICP have already done the work for you. Their world hosts ironic oppositions; their nihilistic anthem “Fuck the World” directly contradicts the sugary magical wonder of “Miracles.” The weird identity-symbiosis they share with their fans is wholly defined by radical otherness and alienation. If you take the time to wade through comment boards on ICP related videos, news, and articles (you shouldn’t do that, btw, dear reader), you’ll find a fierce hatred of Juggalos–a fierce hatred that paradoxically defines and confers identity upon the Juggalo. This is a priori irony. ICP’s aesthetic identity resists mockery, renders mockery moot. A recent internet video, “The Juggalo News,” attempts to satirize Juggalo culture. It’s mildly amusing but ultimately offers no insight. It’s failed satire.

Far better to dispense with pointless parody and enjoy ICP’s works for whatever they are. Re-watch “Miracles.” Around 1:09 or so Violent J raps: “I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco bay / It tried to eat my cell phone” and Shaggy responds: “He ran away,” kicking a leg back and thrusting an arm forward in a pose evocative of Superman to illustrate the action of his bosom companion’s narrative. This is more precious than gold, Shaggy’s gesture, a miracle in “Miracles,” and I will take it as an earnest gift. ICP has brought me some measure of joy, and yes, tears (of laughter) in my time, so I do thank them.

Reality Hunger — David Shields

Just what, exactly, is David Shields’s Reality Hunger supposed to be about? He’s brazen enough to slap the subtitle “A Manifesto” right there under the title, suggesting a work of sustained principles calling for something to change or happen for some reason, but after reading the damn thing, I still have no real idea what he really wants or why I should care. If I had to venture a guess, it seems that Shields is suggesting that we quit reading, writing, and publishing “standard novels” and that “realism” in letters can only be located in lyric essays and other works free from genre constraint (even the memoir is too artificial for Shields, and autobiography ultimately represents facts without truth).

I think what he really wants is authenticity, which repeatedly gets called “reality,” a term he (repeatedly) fails to satisfactorily define. Reality Hunger seems to argue that authenticity in the 21st century must take the form of synthesis, must chop up and recombine disparate elements, genres, cultural artifacts. To that end, Shields’s book is a tour-de-force of citation and appropriation. Aspiring toward an aphoristic tone, Shields organizes the book into 618 short sections over 200 or so pages; most of the sections are not his work, but come rather from myriad sources across different cultures and eras. I have no problem with this (c’mon, this is Biblioklept!) and Shields clearly demonstrates that the practice is hardly new in the history of story-telling, rhetoric, or philosophy.

My real problem is the self-seriousness of it all. Shields aspires to “break” reality into his text by reapportioning and recombining varied citations, but this bid for authenticity is, of course, utterly artificial, often stolid, and not nearly as fun as such a playful medium would suggest. Even worse, it’s not really a proper synthesis; that is, in stacking bits of other people’s work together with some of his own thin connective tissue, Shields hasn’t achieved an authentic blend or, to use a term he’d hate, anything novel, anything new. The jarring stylistic shifts between sections will lead serious readers repeatedly to the book’s appendix to find out who originated the words Shields is copping.

If Reality Hunger approaches having a point, it comes in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto.” Here, he attacks “standard novels.” The term is appropriated from W.G. Sebald, a writer of marvelous and strange novels that Shields would love to be essays. In one of the few original lines in the book, Shields dismissively writes that “Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.” He goes on to argue that the personal/lyric essay is more closely aligned with philosophy, history, and science than novels, and that novels no longer have any legitimate response to these more “real” concerns. Which is utter bullshit, really, and seems more than anything to prove that Shields is probably not that well-read, despite his massive cut and paste catalog. Not that I think that he’s not that well-read. He just picks and chooses, according to his taste, what novels get to escape being “standard.” How can one read contemporary masterpieces like The Rings of Saturn or Infinite Jest or 2666 or Underworld and honestly say that they don’t hold value? Shields, of course, does/would presumably find room for these in his “manifesto.”

The most embarrassing chapter of Reality Hunger, “Hip-hop,” also reveals the most about Shields’s program. It’s also one of the few chapters to feature long sections of Shields’s own original prose. In a turgid, humorless, overly-analytical “defense” of hip-hop and “sampling culture,” Shields describes how hip-hop works, riffing on the function of “realness” in hip-hop, and grasping at the larger implications of a normalized recombinant art form within modern culture. And though I agree with pretty much everything that Shields has to say about piracy and copyright laws, the drastic artificiality of his style and tone is really too much here. It’s like someone trying to explain why a joke is funny.

The worst though is Shields’s assertion that “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” The sentence itself is a clever bit of sophistry that falls apart under any real scrutiny. I can name a dozen “real events” that I experienced in the last few hours alone, including eating dinner with my family, talking with my wife, and putting my daughter to bed. Complaining that we are denied “real events,” like the mopes Shields cites from Douglas Coupland’s Generation X who lament their “McLives,” is a way of excusing ourselves from the intensity of being present–at all times–in our own lives. The vapid philosophy of the spoiled whiners in Reality Bites wasn’t attractive back in the early nineties and it’s downright repellent now.

So what does it all add up to? I think that Reality Hunger works well as a description of post-postmodernity. And as much as I’ve ranted against it here it’s actually quite enjoyable as a compendium of clever quotations. As a manifesto though, it’s an utter failure. To be fair, he had no shot of convincing me that the novel is or should be dead. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

Reality Hunger is now available in hardback from Knopf.

David Shields’s Post-postmodernism

I’m halfway through David Shields’s much buzzed-about manifesto Reality Hunger, and it seems to me that the work is really an attempt at defining post-postmodernism, a term, I should clarify upfront, that he has not employed so far in the book. Shields tells us at the outset that his

intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)

Putting “reality” in quotation marks, under suspicion, or ironic scrutiny is one of core moves of postmodernist thought, and Shields relies on his audience to accept this premise, even as he repeatedly attempts to define what it means to break reality into art. The paradox inherent in the self-consciousness of the “burgeoning group” that Shields identifies evinces as a yearning for authenticity coupled with the need for the essential artifice of narrative. In a self-reflexive move that at once engenders and exemplifies the post-postmodern tension between authenticity and art that he is trying to describe, Shields comprises Reality Hunger out of hundreds and hundreds of citations from other authors. These quotations, literary samples, reconfigure into a new synthesis. Shields’s project is at once steeped in ambiguity–are these authors’ citations now his work? Do they simply lend credibility or actually create a new authenticity? Post-postmodernity then must always operate with “reality” under radical scrutiny but also primary privilege. Irony inheres but must be overcome somehow–winking at the audience is not enough. Artifice is necessary but must also be surpassed somehow. Shields’s post-postmodernism (again, I must stress that he does not use this term–he refers instead to an unnamed, organic group, a movement that is not a movement):

A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, unprofessional . . . Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a burring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

If Shields has possibly described two of his favorite examples throughout the book here, David Foster Wallace and W.G. Sebald, he’s also approached describing Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century (anti-)classic Tristram Shandy (a problematic volume thus-far unmentioned in Reality Hunger Shields cites in section 298).

I can’t help recalling the dreadful film Cloverfield here (again, so far unmentioned by Shields but hardly out of his scope). The film exemplifies the paradox between artificiality and authenticity that Shields sets out to carve-up: a major Hollywood monster-movie (could there be anything more unreal?) that predicates audience response on the “realism” of its medium–namely, the pretense that the entire film is shot on a hand-held digital camera by an amateur witness to the events. The film’s “art” then is to enact a manipulation of “authenticity”–the very “realness” and “rawness” of the document an utter construction. Reality Hunger traffics in whatever problems such a narrative construction might pose to a twenty-first-century audience. Full review when I finish.