Book Shelves #42, 10.14.2012


Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012

Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:


I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.


The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:


The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.


Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):


James Wood’s How Fiction Works got my goat: 


From my review:

Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.

The Novelist’s Lexicon

The Novelist’s Lexicon, new in hardback from Columbia University Press, is an auspicious and at times bewildering project originating from an international literary conference hosted by Le Monde a few years ago. Over seventy authors from more than a dozen countries were asked to write about a “key word that opens the door to his work.” A list of just a few of the authors here is probably more than enough to pique interest: Rick Moody, Helene Cixous, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Thirlwell, A.S. Byatt, David Peace, Dennis Cooper, and Annie Proulx all contribute pieces, mostly short, somewhere between 100 and 500 words. By nature, The Novelist’s Lexicon is a fragmentary affair, discontinuous, open to multiplicity, and unified only by its authors’ sense of craft, as well as an abiding intelligence.

Some authors take the project in earnest, like Lethem, whose piece “Furniture,” (which we excerpted late last year) pinpoints a fundamental yet largely unremarked upon element of novel-writing. French author Nicholas Fargues taps into etymology, offering a bit of advice in his piece “Novice”–

Don’t ‘make’ literature. Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a ‘writer.’ Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims; that’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow; let the aptest words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord.

Anne Weber’s piece “Waiting/Attention” suggests that a key word — or any key, really — is an impossible dream–

It would be a word that encapsulated my aspirations and expectations, my sadness and my joy, my amazement at the quince’s hairy skin, the wash of the sky, and the delicate pattern of the cyclamen’s leaves. And since everything would be contained in this single, essential word, since it would express everything, I wouldn’t need to write anymore. And good riddance, too!

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who goes with “Un-” also points to language’s simultaneous limitations and possibilities–

Un- as in never being satisfied with the language we have. Un- as in the realization of how difficult it is to communicate with people in a language you have invented yourself. Un- as in doubting whether you will ever succeed. Un- as in continuing to try even so. Un- as in suddenly launching yourself over a coffee table and transforming a dictionary into confetti.

Khemiri’s frustration with language (and paradoxical love) is thematic throughout Lexicon; we see it, for instance in David Peace’s “Plague.” Peace comes off like the crotchety old man in the group–

To be honest or stupid or both, but not churlish or contrary (I hope), I am uncertain I understand the premise of this lexicon. However, I am against the presumption of all premises and, equally, I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.

After this radical caveat, including the claim that he is under “duress” (did the folks at Le Monde put guns to these authors’ heads?), Peace goes on to discuss the word “plague,” tracing it through Western lit and showing how it evinces in his novel Occupied City (which we reviewed here, by the way).

Perhaps Peace should’ve just ignored the assignment, like Dennis Cooper, whose piece is “Signed D.C.” is simply a work of microfiction, imagining what would happen if Olive Oyl and Popeye who “peel like decals from the TV and live in the world.” The story is a clever, short five paragraphs, and ends with at least a trace of insight into Cooper’s writing process: “I am heavier than my constructions understand.” Maybe he didn’t ignore the assignment.

Cooper is not the only writer to let fiction reign — there are poems and meditations and strange riffs here, largely divorced of discussion from technique or craft. In any case, those interested in getting into the heads of some of the 21st century’s most prominent (and skillful) writers will wish to take notice of The Novelist’s Lexicon, a fun and repeatedly rewarding book. Recommended.

The Delighted States — Adam Thirlwell

This weekend, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States (new in a handsome trade paperback edition from Picador at the end of this month). The word “volume” seems to imply multiple, discrete editions, but really the term has more to do with Thirlwell’s sense of humor. Like an 18th century novel, The Delighted States comprises chapters, books, and volumes. That playfulness also echoes in the book’s subtitle: “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Despite the mock-serious tone there, the subtitle is a pretty accurate description of the book. Not that Thirlwell is pompous or long-winded. Rather, he’s the rare literary critic who manages to show authority without being didactic, who balances scholarly insight with playful humor and a willingness not to answer to every little detail.

But what is it about? From Thirlwell: “This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.” Thirlwell, a translator himself (the book flips over to his version of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Mademoiselle O”) uses translation (of books, of styles, of ideas) to relate a history of the rise of literary modernism. The first volume finds heroes in Gustave Flaubert and his would-be mistress, James Joyce and his French translator, Denis Diderot, Marcel Proust, and Balzac. There’s Gogol and Nabokov, Tolstoy and Borges–not to mention their characters, major and minor. It’s a lot of fun, but even better, it’s the kind of performance to which every literary critic should aspire. It makes you want to read the books you haven’t yet read and re-read the ones you already have.

Thirlwell, like any good avid reader, reads his books (and authors) in dialog with each other, and I can’t help but do the same. The hardback edition was published in 2008, but I can’t help read in Thirlwell’s work a response to David Shields’s new “manifesto” Reality Hunger. Both authors recognize that novelists attempt to represent or even re-enact “reality” in their works (despite Plato’s claim that mimesis was not the business of the poets). However, where Shields for some unclear reason nihilistically argues for the death of the novel, Thirlwell repeatedly demonstrates why a novelist’s depiction of reality is important. Thirlwell realizes that “The more a sign looks as if it’s real, the more it will have to be artificial,” citing Joyce’s interior monologues as an example. “The less artificial a sign is, the less likely it is to be convincing,” Thirlwell writes. Put another way, novels — and by proxy other narrative art forms — must use artifice to achieve reality. Like Shields, Thirlwell cites Joyce’s famous quote — “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man” — but the effect is far more satisfying in The Delighted States, where it is contextualized evidence used to bolster a point, and not mere solipsistic indulgence. But maybe I’m still holding a grudge against Shields. And maybe it’s not fair to use Thirlwell’s work to rap at his (metaphorical) knuckles. Unlike the sensationalism, negativity, and gimmicks of Reality Hunger, Thirlwell’s argument for the novel is measured, patient, well-researched–and thus far less likely to cause as big a stir. In a single parenthetical aside he reveals more about his critical subjectivity than Shields is ever willing to admit in an entire book: “Good novelists (or, maybe more honestly, the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are also morally avant-garde as well.” It’s a good thesis on its own, but what’s really wonderfully refreshing is Thirlwell’s honesty about bias in criticism–that “Good novelists” are really “the novelists I like.” Fantastic stuff so far, and I’m itching to read more.