Subtraction from reality

At The Reading Experience, Daniel Green reviews David Winters’s Infinite Fictions. From the review:

Reckoning with literary qualities is something Winters does exceptionally well. Most of the books discussed in the first section of Infinite Fictions (“On Literature”) are complex, unconventional works of fiction, and Winters is painstaking in attempting to describe the strategies the author at hand seems to be using, to account for the effect of reading the work as registered in Winters’s own experience of it. As he says in the introduction to the book, “As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. . . Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I’m less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction.” Thus Winters attends to the specificity of the reading experience itself, something academic criticism generally abjures, while also avoiding the superficial approach of the most “trivial” kind of book reviews, the kind that aim merely to “make prescriptions.”

“Subtraction” from reality perhaps seems like a version of being “immersed” in a book, but I would presume Winters means something closer to what John Dewey called “pure experience,” which Dewey believed becomes most accessible to us as aesthetic experience.  According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself.” The reader truly receptive to the kind of experience art, in this case literary art, makes available is not in some kind of mystical trance but is fully engaged in an act of what Dewey calls “recreation,” perceiving the writer’s conceptual and expressive moves thoroughly enough that the reader in effect replays those moves. Literary criticism then becomes in part the attempt to communicate the tenor of this reading experience through the most felicitous description and analytical insight the critic can muster.

Riff on the end/beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow

Well: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before [—]”

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So. Okay. So I finished Gravity’s Rainbow on Friday night, and reread the opening section (and more than the opening section) on Saturday morning, resisting a compulsion to immediately return to the beginning.

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So: Okay: Right?

The ending of Gravity’s Rainbow cycles back to the beginning (like Finnegans Wake): Blicero’s rocket, screaming across the sky—yes? no?—to invade the dreams (?) of psychic Pirate Prentice? The book: a loop, a Möbius strip, a film, its reels discombobulated, jostled, scattered

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“…it’s all theatre,” we learn on the book’s first page (page 3); the book ends in a theater—the Orpheus Theater!—where maybe scattered Slothrop is the leading man, scattered, we find ourselves in him, parts of him—where the audience demands, on the book’s last page: “Start-the-show!”

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“You’re putting response before stimulus,” Spectro shakes his head at Pointsman, early in “Beyond the Zero,” the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow—does this describe the beginning/end of the novel? (“It has happened before”).

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Or, a bit earlier even, at the seance, (page 32), Gloaming describes one kind of plot: “…we should get something like a straight line” — but then gives us another kind of plot — “…however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain —conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape … classical paranoiac—” Is this the shape of Gravity’s Rainbow?

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—but right this moment it’s that final dash that intrigues me—this in a novel full of dashes, this in a novel that name-checks Emily Dickinson, Eternal Empress of Dashes—the fragmented conclusion is full of dashes, lines obliterated by more perfect, straight lines, simultaneously connecting and disconnecting—like the novel’s final line:

“Now everybody—“

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A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial note: I’d been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while, and when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the second part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. We discuss the book’s conclusion, including what some people might think of as “spoilers.”

Read part one of our discussion of  Flee.

The tl;dr version of all of this: Both Ryan and I loved Flee, a 2013 novel about the citizens of a New England town who, uh, flee, for reasons never made entirely clear I claim that “Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08.” Ryan called it a book “for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.” And I agree with him. — ET]

Ryan Chang: Right–Flee doesn’t prescribe a future, or at least an alternative future. “841” testifies to this. The A-burgian upstakers are no different from the new settlers, rejoicing in the bargains to be had in the town. Carol and Marcus quietly disappear (Spoiler alert). Flee is overall hesitant to prescribe, I think. In my previous e-mail, I was thinking out loud a bit, trying to see if something in the book was pointing to these spaces of the “nonidentical” as Adorno calls it; that Flee as an aesthetic object figures, in exactly what isn’t said, the suffocating presence that squeezes the life out of A-burg, could figure a moment of possibility in absence. Some kind of fracture that, even if it is a failure (as A-burg is, I think), is a temporary moment of reprieve from the administered life.

I’m not sure what the forms of Kimball’s “radical forgiveness” and “hospitality” would be, if he points to them — especially of the former. And is it only that the literary artists get to have all the fun of democracy? Exactly where does democratic critique happen off the page? I’m wondering because it seems that the form of popular critique — save from public protest and other distortions of space — are infected with exploitative capital, with ideology, unwittingly going along with the system that saves the banks before humanity. Additionally: to whom–or what–is forgiveness granted? Hospitality seems more tangible to me, but the phrases Yes? Who’s There? imply exclusion rather than inclusion to me. As if at the door of democracy, the speaker hesitates. Should not a radical affirmation continually say yes rather than no at the door? The questioning yes is skeptical. I wonder if a self-consciousness and -becoming out of administration is required. The molectular make-up of the present absence that suffocates A-Burg and, implicitly, whatever other small town, would have to be transposed, if you like, into another key. To mention Lerner again (briefly) — do you remember that scene in the book, with the first hurricane, the (eventually fictional) threat of Irene destroying the infrastructure as a moment when disparate communities — who would otherwise keep to themselves, much like the voices in Flee — begin convening? That was just a way of getting to the epigraph of the book: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” Continue reading

Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close Is a Tranquil Visual Poem

A few weekends ago, I spent several days primitive camping on a tiny, rocky island off Cape Canaveral. The weather was miserable and the fishing was poor, but the company and bourbon offered cheer. Still, by the time I got home I was terribly sore, thoroughly damp, and inhabited by one of those hangovers that sets up shop inside one’s soul as a kind of second-consciousness, coloring the world a dreadful surreal blue. I wanted to see my family, but they were out playing tennis. There was a small stack of packages waiting for me though—review copies for this blog—with Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close neatly nestled atop. After showering, I lay on my soft soft bed in the afternoon, read through the brief poem-novel-comic, and drifted into a gentle warm hazy nap. It was the most marvelous medicine. Sublime.

I read Birchfield Close again later that night and then every night for a week. McNaught’s work—see his longer novel Dockwood—is its own aesthetic experience: Minimal, gentle, tranquil, but also evocative and complex. Birchfield Close is (maybe) the (non-)story of two lads who climb upon a roof and spend the day observing (or not observing) their neighborhood.

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They see birds and people, dogs and snails, balloons and bikes (etc.), all rendered in gentle gradations of orange-pink and grey-blue and black-black.

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In one of my favorite little episodes, one boy reaches for a branch. His imagination transmutes the branch into a rifle, and a play-shooting spree ensues.

Birchfield Close is comprised entirely of such moments, yet none of its episodes feel discrete. Rather, each panel pushes (pushesThat’s not the right verb!) into the next, a miniature gesture that creates—that somehow is—the entire work. The effect is soothing.

I’ve read Birchfield Close a dozen times now (read? Is that the right verb?), and I’m still (happily) unsure what commentary McNaught might be making on media. The story is full of images of “entertainments” that may or may not be at odds with the neighborhood’s ambiance: a handheld video game, a banal soap opera, a pop song on the radio. In another favorite episode, we move from rooftop to an airplane flying through the sky to the actual inside of the airplane, where a passenger watches Nemo’s reunion with his overprotective father. On the next page, we are treated to the imaginative forms that the clouds might take—formations that the airplane passenger, wrapped up in viewing Finding Nemo on a tiny headrest screen, perhaps misses. But if there’s a judgment here, McNaught seems to leave it to the viewer to suss out. As we pan back down to the boys on the roof, we see that one remains watching the clouds, shaping them in his imagination (or perhaps he’s sharing an imaginative vision with the airplane passenger), while the other boy has returned to his own tiny screen to play a fighting game. He misses the sunset.

Or does he miss the sunset? Maybe it’s simply part of his own aesthetic experience with the game, a peripheral, environmental occurrence, one he enjoys as transitory and ambient, an event promised to repeat again and again. I like this second reading more, as it fits neatly with my own reading experience of Birchfield Close—the book is an ambient aesthetic experience, calming but quizzical, deeply enjoyable—physical: light, color, the touch of the fine thick paper. I’ve tried to capture some of that reading experience here but have undoubtedly failed. Better you read see think feel for yourself.

Birchfield Close and other books by Jon McNaught are available from the good people at Nobrow Press.

A rambling and possibly incoherent riff on Inherent Vice (film and novel) and The Crying of Lot 49

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A. The first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice, I was in the middle of rereading Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn’t read in fifteen years. I remembered the novel’s vibe, its milieu, but not really its details.

B. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and then immediately reread it. It seemed much stronger the second time—not nearly as silly. Darker. Oedipa Maas, precursor to Doc Sportello, trying not to lose the thread as she leaves the tower for the labyrinth, rushing dizzy into the sixties.

C. Another way of saying this: Inherent Vice is sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. Any number of details substantiate this claim (and alternately unravel it, if you wish, but let’s not travel there)—we could focus on the settings, sure, or maybe the cabals lurking in the metaphorical shadows of each narrative—is The Golden Fang another iteration of The Tristero?—but let me focus on the conclusions of both novels and then discuss the conclusion of PTA’s film.

D. A favorite line from a favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49: “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” Paranoia as a kind of sustained hope, a way to find meaning, order, a center.

E. The final pages of The Crying of Lot 49 find Oedipa trying to make sense of the labyrinth (my emphases in bold):

For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty (as Mucho now believed) or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

There is either meaning, or there is not meaning. Continue reading

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)

[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while nowand when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the first part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: So you’re reading Evan Dara’s Flee for a class, right? What’s the name of the class again? What are some of the other texts in the class?

Ryan Chang: Yeah, a class called 21st Century Fiction: What is Contemporary? We started out reading Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. We just finished reading Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (awful), and we’re moving onto Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Everything, up to Pynchon, has as its central conflict the dissolution of the subject vis. the postmodern. Perhaps because of the spatialization of time (Egan, Reed) or a steroidal fungibility of a self because of technology (Chaon). The awareness of how deeply we are disciplined by master narratives (Acker). We’ve yet to get to Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I’m looking forward to after the Chaon and Egan who, in their attempt to write novels critical of the contemporary (more so of Egan, who does nothing but neuter the very real state of late capitalism’s terror into entertainment), do not make it past the merely interesting. I liked the Egan much less than the Chaon; part of the problem is the prose style, I think — it’s characteristically white American, shaped by sentimentality and preoccupied with the syntax of conventional form. In other words, the blueberry muffin prose styles betray the experimental forms in which they’re enveloped.

ET: I always have to look up the word fungibility. Dara’s Flee seems to fit into that early theme you mention, the conflict of the dissolution of the subject, which is both the book’s formal rhetorical strategy, but also its plot program, encapsulated (maybe) on page 45: “What is the weight of we?” What do you make of Dara’s style here? Like initial impression?

RC: I’m about ~40 pages in. I think I mentioned in the Books Acquired thing I wrote that Dara, stylistically, is hitting hard on Gaddis. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the late Gaddis — Carpenter’s Gothic. (Agape Agape, too, but this is, of course, his letter to Bernhard.) I like that both focus on voice, on streams of speech that collide or blur into each other. The Gaddis influence is more of an echo than anything.
Specifically re: Dara — the interruptions, digressions and hesitations immediately struck me as something like a Tragic Greek chorus that, having incurred some sort of its own trauma (and not acting only as the all-knowing unconscious of the play), is completely disoriented, confused of its own purpose. But amidst the cacophony–or something like a directed cacophony towards the reader–they are still unwittingly functioning as a chorus. They’re giving us the stage for Flee’s story, hinting quietly at the book’s central plot conflict. Also naming characters (Carol, Rick, Marcus, etc), which is now more intriguing to me at the passage from p.45 you mention. What’s also different in Carpenter’s Gothic is, while that whole book remains on one diegetic level (as far as I can remember, it’s been a few years) because no narrator ever announces itself, in Dara, there’s a blurring of diegetic arenas, a refusal to centralize any narrative authority. Ok, so, re: dissolution of the subject: It seems that not only are the chorus members interrupting themselves, but they’re also interrupting the narrator as well. Each left-margin emdash cuts the narrator off, in a way, if you will. That scene when they’re pitying Rick, acting as a narrator with dialogue tags. The commonly individuated voice of the narrator is subsumed into the characters’ diegetic arena; a tension between the collective and individual implicit in prose structure alone. It also seems, by “36,551,” that whatever the population is fleeing from is not collectively driven (ie., the pity for Mark’s poorly planned meetings for something, we don’t know what yet), but selfishly driven. And in the flattening power of numbers, that selfishness — a hermetic individuality — becomes collective. There is a kind of infinite distance between I and we that, perhaps, the book is trying to trace? Or its relationship in the temporality of the novel is a perpetual expanding/contracting relationship, like a rubber band?

As far as I am in the book, the interruptions and digressions also have a hysteria to them that points to something the chorus is ignoring even in the face of the beginnings of a series of rude awakenings. Each voice just bemoans this dissolution of themselves; but, especially in the scene where Rick is, like, torn apart for his idea in service of the township, each voice is just narcissistically concerned with how it’s going to inconvenience them, rather than the potential worth of Rick’s idea.

ET: I teach an introductory American lit class, and today we were talking about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which I think offers this wonderful example of a first-person plural narrator, this kind of limited chorus that is not-quite omniscient, not-quite omnipresent, and hardly omnipotent. It’s this weird we that seems able to transcend time, but not space—it can live for more than eighty years but it can’t see into Emily Grierson’s house. Its limitations are human; its limitations are the limitations of all the members of a community. I had your email in the back of my head while I was riffing on all this today—that, yes, the we is this fiction that we all subscribe to (hey look, I just used it!)—it’s our linguistic tag for culture, religion, whatever—but it requires some other—a you, I guess, that we can all point to, an Emily Grierson that’s only part of the we by paradoxically not being a part of the we, by defining the weFlee doesn’t seem to have that other, at least not in the first seven chapters anyway, although it does foreground two protagonists in Rick and Carol—something that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook does not do. The Lost Scrapbook is far more polyglossic than Flee also, which again reminds me of Faulkner’s story in its unified we-ness—Flee‘s narrative voice somehow unifies entropy, breakdown, the chaotic rumbling becomes this throbbing tone of dissolution (“There’s no here here,” page 79), where the narcissistic flight of each member of the community paradoxically underwrites the viability of a community, the possibility of a community… Continue reading

Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’s novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine. Continue reading