George Saunders’s new novel—his first, after four collections of short stories and a novella—takes place in the afterlife. Or rather, it takes place in the “bardo,” a term that Saunders has borrowed from Buddhism for what might be called the “justafterlife”—the interval between a ghost’s separation from its body and its departure for whatever comes next. As in The Sixth Sense and other movies and television shows, the ghosts imagined by Saunders linger in our world because they either don’t know they’re dead or aren’t yet resigned to leaving. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they are told by browbeating angels who visit intermittently, but they refuse to listen.
Crain doesn’t exactly eviscerate Lincoln in the Bardo in his review (which also situates the novel in context with Saunders’s previous stories and essays), but he does make a strong case for passing on it.
Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, FullStop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.”Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”→
[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].
I had been warned about Woolf
written, I believe, to impress rather than to relate.
I don’t appreciate her writing and keep coming back for more
I may not be giving it a fair review since I only made it to page 65
pages and pages of surreal metaphors that go on for 10 paragraphs
Woolf had a huge obsession with semi-colons
The book just does not make any sense
I really liked the movie “the Hours”
I tried, I really did
Written by a lesbian
Kind of like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works
DO read “The Hours”, you will be impressed
I kept losing track of which character was musing about nothing
I suppose Woolf is considered a genius since she was apparently a cavalier writer of her generation
Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere
I’m grateful that contemporary writers can at least string together 2 sentences that follow one another in a logical sequence
Lets burn every sentence she ever penned to end all the unneccesary suffering that curious readers have to go through when they first pick up “Mrs. Dalloway.”
My suggestion: just watch The Hours – you’ll get all the beauty and none of the confusion
the person responsible, Virginia Wolf, has been dead for quite some time now
i have no interest in reading about that lifestyle
am stuck in her growling semicolons
slower than a tortoise
ramblings of a lunatic
As bad as Faulkner
So much language
so many words
and never getting to a plot
Stream of conscience you say?
I normally enjoy stream of consciousness
The narrative reads like the inner thoughts of a sugar crazed autistic kid with ADD in the middle of a carnival
everyone i know who likes this book only does so because he or she was told by some professor that it’s supposed to be good and can provide no evidence to confirm it
This book certainly shows the depravity of man and a self-centered life and the meaningless found amongst those who think of none but themselves.
The absence of spacing to differentiate between each character’s thought process makes for unnecessary confusion
I really liked the idea of the story taking place over the course of one day
THIS BOOK IS WORSE THAN AIDS!
meandering and repetetive
will suffice as kindling
The party! The party!
VW was mentally-ill
put me off
definitley not a fun read
pretty gross hair and stuff on it/ in it
I had had to read it, or was supposed to
haven’t been able to get past the first chapter
lovely idea, virginia and i applaud you for your creativity
I felt like I was reading some writing student’s homework assignment
I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.
I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).
I want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.
Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.
When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).
There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).
What is the book about?
Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.
What is the book about?
Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:
In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.
In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.
Now in 2011’s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.
That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!
What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).
Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.
But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.
Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with SteveZissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos!Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.
Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?
Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.
Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?
1. “In my more extravagant moments,” writes David Rieff in his introduction to Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “I sometimes think that my mother’s journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing…but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write.”
2. In my review of Reborn, the first of the trilogy Rieff alludes to, I wrote, “Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things.”
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is far closer to the ‘notebook’ side of things too, which I think most readers (or maybe I just mean me here) will appreciate.
3. I mean, this isn’t the autobiographical novel that Rieff suggests it might be (except of course it is).
Consciousness/Flesh offers something better: access to Sontag’s consciousness in its prime, not quite ripe, but full, heavy, bursting with intellectual energy, her mind attuned to (and attuning) the tumult of the time the journals cover, 1964 through 1980.
It’s an autobiography stripped of the pretense of presentation; it’s a novel stripped of the pretense of storytelling.
4. Sontag’s intellect and spirit course through the book’s 500 pages, eliding any distinction between lives personal and professional. “What sex is the ‘I’?” she writes, “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The journals see her working through (if not resolving, thankfully) such issues.
5. An entry from late 1964, clearly background for Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (itself a series of notes), moves through a some thoughts on artists and poets, from Warhol to Breton to Duchamp (“DUCHAMP”) to simply “Style,” which, Rieff’s editorial note tells us, has a box drawn around it. The entry then moves to define
Work of Art
An experiment, a research (solving a “problem”) vs. form of a play
—before turning to a series of notes on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
6. A page or two later (1965) delivers the kind of gold vein we wish to discover in author’s notebooks:
PLOTS & SITUATIONS
Redemptive friendship (two women)
Novel in letters: the recluse-artist and his dealer a clairvoyant
A voyage to the underworld (Homer, Vergil [sic], Steppenwolf)
A collective hallucination (Story)
A work of art which is really a machine for dominating human beings
The discovery of a lost mss.
Two incestuous sisters
A space ship has landed
An ageing movie actress
A novel about the future. Machines. Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play the machine. Instant everything.
Smuggling a huge art-work (painting? Sculpture?) out of the country in pieces—called “The Invention of Liberty”
A project: sanctity (based on SW [Simone Weil]—with honesty of Sylvia Plath—only way to solve sex “I” is talk about it
7. The list above—and there’s so much material like it in Consciousness/Flesh—is why I love author’s notebooks, We get to see the raw material here and imagine along with the writer (if we choose), free of the clutter and weight of execution, of prose, of damnable detail.
There’s something joyfully cryptic about Sontag’s notes, like the solitary entry “…Habits of despair” in late July of 1970—or a few months later: “A convention of mutants (Marvel comics).”
If we wish we can puzzle the notes out, treat them as clues or keys that fit to the work she was publishing at the time or to the personal circumstances of her private life. Or (and to be clear, I choose this or) we can let these notes stand as strange figures in an unconventional autobiographical novel.
8. Those looking for more direct material about Sontag’s life (and really, why do you want more and what more do you want?) will likely be disappointed—everything here is oblique (lovely, lovely oblique).
Still, there are moments of intense personal detail, like this 1964 entry where Sontag describes her body:
Low blood pressure
Needs lots of sleep
Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts—not a high enough concentration)
Intolerance for liquor
Tendency to anemia
Heavy protein craving
Very good stomach—no heartburn, constipation, etc.
Negligible menstrual cramps
Easily tired by standing
Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)
There’s more autobiographical detail in that list than anyone craving a lurid expose could (should) hope for.
9. For many readers (or maybe I just mean me here) Consciousness/Flesh will be most fascinating as a curatorial project.
10. At times, Consciousness/Flesh resembles something close to David Markson’s so-called “notecard” novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point,The Last Novel):
Napoleon’s wet, chubby back (Tolstoy).
Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness.’
Nabokov talks of minor readers. ‘There must be minor readers because there are minor writers.’
Camus (Notebooks, Vol. II): ‘Is there a tragic dilettante-ism?'”
‘To think is to exaggerate.’ — Valéry.
and so on…
11. Sometimes, the lists Sontag offers—
(offers is not the right verb at all here—these are Sontag’s personal journals and notebooks, her private ideas, material never intended for public consumption, but yes we are greedy, yes; and some of us (or maybe I just mean me here) are greedier than others, far more interested in her private ideas and notes and lists than the essays and stories and novels she generated from them—and so no, she didn’t offer this, my verb is all wrong)
—sometimes Sontag [creates/notes/generates] very personal lists, like “Movies I saw as a child, when they came out” (composed 11/25/65). There’s something tender here, imagining the child Sontag watching Fantasia or Rebecca or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz in the theater; and then later, the adult Sontag, crafting her own lists, making those connections between past and present.
12. While Reborn showcased the intimate thoughts of a nascent (and at times naïve) intellect, Consciousness/Flesh shows us an assured writer at perhaps her zenith. In September of 1975, Sontag defines herself as a writer:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my minority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relation to my own work.
13. Readers looking for a memoir or biography might be disappointed in Consciousness/Flesh; readers who seek to scrape its contours for “wisdom” (or worse, writing advice) should be castigated.
But As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh will reward those readers who take it on its own terms as an oblique, discursive (and incomplete) record of Sontag’s brilliant mind.
I’ll close this riff with one last note from the book, a fitting encapsulation of the relationship between reader and author—and, most importantly, author-as-reader-and-rereader:
Recycling one’s own life with books.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is new in trade paperback from Picador; you can read excerpts from the book at their site.
As the season for giving arrives, Biblioklept reviews three beautiful books that children and adults alike will enjoy.
First up is E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 Christmas classic Nutcracker in translation by Ralph Manheim and beautifully illustrated by the late Maurice Sendak. In 1983, Sendak designed sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s adaptation of Nutcracker and in 1984 he translated some of those designs into a book edition.
According to a 2001 profile with NPR, Sendak was initially unsure about working on what he considered “the most bland and banal of ballets.” However, upon reading Hoffman’s original text, Sendak discovered a work full of “weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece,” an observation he notes in his introduction to Nutcracker.
The NPR profile notes that Sendak intended to bring “Hoffmann’s original story back to audiences, especially by having the main character, a girl named Clara, brought back into the story.” Sendak believed
The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children. . . . [She goes] where the wild things are . . . She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.
These “strange, weird” qualities—the same tones that made Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are a classic of children’s literature—are on display in Nutcracker. Hoffman’s text in Manheim’s translation has a wonderfully episodic, even picaresque quality that restores a sense of adventure—and even peril—to the smooth play we might be familiar with sitting through each December.
Nutcracker’s reading level, length, and tone make it likely appropriate for children over eight or nine, but younger children will enjoy reading the story through Sendak’s marvelous and strange illustrations.
Nutcracker is available in a new hardback edition from Random House.
Koskeshi Kimonos is a fun and stylish book that uses kokeshi dolls to showcase facets of Japanese culture including attire and family life. The book features folding flaps, pull out sections, and other interactive features that will appeal to younger children. It’s the sort of aesthetically charming book that adults can enjoy as well.
Kokeshi Kimonos will likely appeal to younger readers—five to nine—and seems particularly suited to girls (although this doesn’t mean boys wouldn’t enjoy it, of course). The cute kokeshis are a wonderful alternative to the sterile, plastic world of Barbie and other facile dolls.
Finally, Ernest Raboff’s Albrecht Dürer, part of his Art for Children series. The book is out of print but not impossible to find.
Raboff presents Dürer’s life simply and in clear context, using about a dozen beautiful prints from the German master, as well as many of his etchings. Raboff also hand letters the book, and provides his own sketches and illustrations occasionally to clarify and explain Dürer’s work.
What I love most about Raboff’s book though is the way he integrates elements of art appreciation into his book in subtle, simple ways. Lovely:
Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.
In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.
Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.
Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”
“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:
“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”
“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”
The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.
“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.
“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.
“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”
Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.
“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.
“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”
“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.
“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”
The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”
Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”
But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”
I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.
The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.
I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill, again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.
The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly donehisresearch, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.
Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.
If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.
The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.
Two years ago, a typed manuscript for Roberto Bolaño’s unpublished novel The Third Reich The Third Reich was discovered. The Paris Review is serializing the novel, publishing it in full over four issues in a translation by Natasha Wimmer. I finished the first part of The Third Reich last night, reading the 63 pages in one engrossing session.
Udo Berger, a German from Stuttgart with a passion for war games, narrates the story in the form of a journal he keeps, detailing the daily events of a vacation he is taking in a Spanish resort town with his girlfriend Ingeborg. The couple checks in to the Del Mar, a seaside hotel where Udo spent a few teenage summers with his family. He seems driven to return to this particular hotel, at least in part, by memories of the enigmatic Frau Else, an alluring German woman who married the hotel’s Spanish owner. Frau Else barely remembers Udo, a fact that disappoints him, yet he nevertheless pursues strange awkward conversations with her; it’s unclear to both Udo and the reader what, exactly, he hopes to gain from talking to her.
Indeed, Udo’s intentions and motivations are strange and murky in general. He’s the classic unreliable narrator. In particular, Udo’s perceptions (and descriptions of those perceptions) seem to be clouded by a radical fear of otherness, and an underlying contempt for almost everyone. He’s also a little paranoid, perhaps, in part anyway, because we get the sense that Ingeborg might be just a bit out of his league. Consider the following scene—
Ingeborg was at her most radiant, and when we walked into the club we were greeted with covert admiring glances. Admiring of Ingeborg and envious of me. Envy is something I always pick up on right away. Anyways, we didn’t plan to spend much time there. And yet as fate would have it, before long a German couple sat down at our table.
That German couple is Hanna and Charly, and Udo quickly comes to detest them, although he repeatedly points out that he covers his disgust at all times (and, by the end of Part I, it’s clear that he has an unvoiced sexual attraction to Hanna). Charly is boorish, foolhardy, and quick to make friends with the locals. Through him, the Germans become acquainted with two locals Udo dubs the Wolf and the Lamb. The Wolf and the Lamb take the four tourists to the kind of working class haunts that only locals go to; Charly and the girls find adventure in this, but Udo is contemptuous and disgusted of these clubs, bars, and restaurants. His depictions of the local spots veer into classic Bolaño territory, that mix of unnerving dread and surreal energy, a kind of Lynchian anxiety that suggests abyssal darkness looms under the veneer of every “normal” surface.
Udo would rather stay in the hotel and work on his war game; he’s devoted the summer to playing out a new strategy and writing an essay about it for one of the various magazines devoted to the hobby. Ingeborg is embarrassed and ashamed of Udo’s passion for games, and when Hanna shows interest in the large hexagonal board set up in their room, Ingeborg quickly rushes her out to the beach. Udo, for the first time realizes this division in his relationship with Ingeborg, who spends her time on various daytrips (perhaps, although Udo doesn’t seem to recognize this, with the Wolf and the Lamb)—yet he fecklessly makes amends by buying cheap gift store jewelery, and avers that losing Ingeborg would destroy him. A dark set up.
The only person apart from Frau Else who Udo takes any interest in is El Quemado (“the Burned One”), a horribly burn-scarred, well-muscled man who makes a living renting paddle boats to tourists. Udo becomes obsessed with El Quemado when he realizes that the man seems to build a shelter out of the paddle boats each night; over time, he strikes up a strange friendship, leading to the revelation that they share a trait: both consider themselves writers.
The Third Reich, composed at the beginning of Bolaño’s career as a novelist, doesn’t feature the labyrinthine syntax or heteroglossia of later works, but it does showcase the particularly Bolañonian sense of dread that seethes under so many of his works. The novel feels like a slow burn, with plenty of sinister elements in play—but there’s also the possibility that this nervous dread stems from Udo’s internal paranoia. In any case, Bolaño is beginning to play with the tropes of the detective novels and crime fiction he loved so much. As I argued in my review of Amulet last month, the more one reads Bolaño, the more difficult it is to parse his fictions from each other. Instead, they seem part of the Bolañoverse, a dark visceral inversion of our own world. Thus The Third Reich strongly recalls the title story in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, where the narrator B and his father take a bizarre, sinister vacation in Acapulco. The Third Reich also obviously recalls Nazi Literature in the Americas, which featured an entire chapter on neo-Nazi boardgames.
Of course, my observations are only drawn from the first fourth of the novel, but as a Bolaño fan I was not disappointed. I just wanted more—but I guess I’ll have to wait for the summer issue.
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
The blurb on the back of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies brazenly declares that Seth Grahame-Smith’s addition of zombie-fighting action to Austen’s classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Perhaps the blurb’s brag is just a bit of cheeky fun; after all, Austen’s staid survey of manners and mores is a perennial favorite, coming in second to only The Lord of the Rings in a recentBBC poll of British readers, as well as topping a similar poll in Australia. Clearly, people not only want to read it, they actually do, and in large numbers each year. There’s even been enough interest in it for a not-that-bad movie update just a few years ago. So it’s hardly as if Pride and Prejudice is a corpse in need of resuscitation. This begs the question: What nuances and comments does Grahame-Smith have to add? Not much, we’re afraid.
The most interesting aspect of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is its concept, a promise for weird laughs and sick kicks neatly summed up in its fantastically morbid cover. Grahame-Smith doesn’t so much re-imagine Pride, but simply stuff a murderous host of zombies into Austen’s romance. These “unmentionables,” as the polite Regency society folks call them, wage a war on good stolid Englishmen. Fortunately Mr. Bennet has trained his daughters, led by feisty Elizabeth, in the ways of the ninja. Between matchmaking, letter-writing, polite dances, and furtive glances at Mr. Darcy, the Bennet sisters slice up zombies left and right with their katanas. The press-release for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies claims that the book retains 85% of Austen’s original, and no major plot points are changed or missing. Instead, the reader is subjected to seemingly purposeless bouts of zombie fighting after every scene. Of course, to decry these fights as purposeless seems silly; after all, when you pick up a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you expect zombies, don’t you?
Grahame-Smith’s premise sounds like great good fun in theory, but it turns out that adding zombies and ninjas to a classic beloved romance is neither terribly engaging or interesting. We love zombies at Biblioklept, but the most effective zombie tales–28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead–work beyond horror and serve also as a form of social commentary or even satire. Grahame-Smith seems to miss, or even ignore, any opportunity to comment on, criticize, or otherwise inform the novel he’s cannibalizing. Instead, his additions convey the energy, wit, and sophistication of a one-note SNL sketch. The premise gets old fast, and it becomes increasingly confusing who this novel is for. It’s unlikely to appeal to most Austen fans, as it provides no real comment on her methods, plotting, or characterization, and as far as a zombies-and-ninjas riff goes, it’s pretty standard fare. Ultimately, it seems like more of a conversation piece than something you’d actually read for enjoyment, a little coffee table book that might evoke some interest. Flick through the amusing illustrations, chuckle, and move on.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is available soon from Quirk Books.
With her latest novel A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers up more evidence of why she is possibly America’s greatest living author. As in earlier works like Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, in A Mercy Morrison examines the strange intersections of race and geography, family and culture, memory and storytelling. And like those great novels before it, at the center of A Mercy (a center, mind you that Morrison frequently works to decenter) is that great post-modern question: what is identity?
The late-seventeenth-century America of A Mercy is at once paradoxically both alien and familiar. This America is seemingly wild and free and unconstrained, yet the land–purchased with the blood of the native Indians–is worked by slaves and indentured servants. The freedom to be viciously intolerant of anyone else’s religion abounds. A lazy eye might get you burned for a witch. Life is cheap and difficult, but there is also much beauty here, and for a time, the makeshift family of characters who populate A Mercy seems happy enough. Morrison’s genius in this novel, however, is to only present these moments of contentment and happiness in fragments, interspersed between each of her character’ desires for freedom, future, family, and ultimately, self. We see glimpses of one character’s joys or sufferings through the eyes of another character, a technique that builds and layers and enriches a narrative where, honestly, very little happens. A farmer-turned-trader gets sick and dies, never finishing the house he was building. Then his wife gets sick, and sends her young slave to get the blacksmith, a free black man, who she believes can heal her. By the time he arrives, she’s better, but her ersatz family is forever sundered. Summarized, the linear plot sounds thin, but the depth of storytelling around Morrison’s deceptively simple story is marvelous. Morrison achieves this depth via the different voices and perspectives that propel her novel.
The voice of the young enslaved girl Florens initiates the novel with the enigmatic opening line, “Don’t be afraid.” Her opening command both engages and disorients (and, sign of a great novel, begs to be read again after completing the book). “Stranger things happen all the time everywhere,” she recognizes, before asking “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?” Right away, Morrison tells us this a novel about how to read, where to find cause, and possibly, how to create one’s own agency in a world that makes slaves and servants–or food–out of almost everybody.
This question of agency runs throughout each of the chapters that alternate with Florens’s first person narrative. There’s Jacob Vaark, who takes Florens as part of a debt owed him by a fading aristocrat. Vaark is disgusted at the aristocrat’s lavish lifestyle, and although the slave trade repels him – “God help me if this is not the most wretched business” – he agrees to take Florens at the pleading of her mother (Florens will be haunted forever by what she interprets as abandonment). Vaark is, however, smitten by the slaver’s elaborate house and vows to build one just as grand. His attempt to build a castle from his own labor in the New World, a castle free from any title or rank or order is his own claim to agency. There’s also the voice of his wife Rebekkah, who spends her chapter in a pox-ridden fever dream that dips and floats and weaves through time and space. Her father essentially sells her mail-order to Jacob. She leaves the dirty, crowded Old World on a dirty, crowded ship. Stuck in dark steerage, she makes a community with a group of whores, “Women of and for men,” who, in transit, exist in a strange uncomfortable comfort, a “blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” Rebekkah will attempt to forge another strange, transitory family when she arrives in America. She grows quickly to love Jacob; soon, she even loves Lina, the enslaved Indian girl Jacob buys for both pity and service. Lina and Rebekkah forge an alliance, weathering the death of the Vaark’s children, as well as Jacob’s extended absences as he expands his trade. They are less ready to accept another foundling, Sorrow, who Jacob brings home (solely for pity); a little bit crazy (“daft”), she spends much of the novel mysteriously pregnant. However, Lina quickly warms to Florens, treating her as her own daughter, even if Rebekkah will not. Also there are Scully and Willard, two indentured servants who may never gain their freedom. Willard imagines the family they all comprise: “A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.” But it’s not family, or community, or the idea of a country that A Mercy will validate. Instead, the novel suggests these concepts are ultimately transitory–like a passage over the Atlantic–and that there can only be a claiming of self.
Throughout the book, some characters gain agency, others die trying, and several lose themselves to grief and loss. But it’s Florens’s narrative that binds the text. She grows from a lovesick kid, desperate to please everyone, to a realized person with a conscious sense of her self. “The beginning begins with the shoes,” she says. “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes.” By the end of the novel she can go barefoot, free, in a sense, the soles of her feet “hard as cypress” – and this New World requires hard soles. And even if Morrison suggests that we need to learn to walk, hard-soled on our own feet, there is a great pleasure–a sad, sometimes sour, shocking pleasure–to be gained in walking for just a little while in these characters’ shoes. Very highly recommended.
I give up. I don’t know how to review The Savage Detectives.
Everyonetoldme I was supposed to love this book, but I didn’t. There, that’s a review. Not a good review, but there. I can’t remember a book ever taking me so long to finish or a book that I put down so often. When I truly love a book, I am moved. Often physically. Sometimes I have to stand up to read a book, I’m so moved. That’s a good book. (I never had to stand up during The Savage Detectives, although I often had to force myself to read thoroughly and not just skim). When I truly love a book, I’m a little sad and deflated when it’s over. I know a book is great if I’m compelled to go back and immediately reread sections. (Again, with Detectives, this didn’t happen). But it looks like I’m trashing the book. I shouldn’t. It has a lot going for it.
I read the first 140 pages, the journal entries of young Garcia Madero, in a blur. Funny and passionate, Madero’s voice explodes with the immediacy and intensity of youth. He joins up with the visceral realists, a group of anti-establishment poets (who no one cares about). Led by two enigmatic outsiders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the visceral realists gripe about the state of Mexican and Latin American literature, screw around, and argue with each other (no one else will listen to them). Madero paints Mexico City in the mid-1970s as vibrant, a place full of poetry and art. He becomes a biblioklept, God bless him (yet he ethically agrees not to steal from a poor old blind bookseller). He writes poems. He has sex. He runs away from home, sort of. There’s a breathless energy to Madero’s narrative that makes the book hard to put down, and the first section of The Savage Detectives, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” culminates in one of the book’s most exciting events. Madero, Lima, and Belano help a young girl named Lupe escape from her belligerent pimp. Then, that portion of the story unresolved, the narrative shifts dramatically.
In the second section, “The Savage Detectives,” we are treated to, or subjected to, or made to endure, or made to navigate–pick your verb, please–over 450 pages of (one-sided) interviews spanning 20 years. Some of the interviewees appear consistently throughout this section, like Amadeo Salvatierra, who helps Lima and Belano in their quest to find the lost original visceral realist, Cesárea Tinajero. Other voices only pop up once to tell a weird story about Lima or Belano–or more accurately, a weird story about themselves with Lima or Belano playing bit parts. Some of these stories, like Lima’s strange time in a Tel Aviv prison, or Belano’s tenure as a national park guard in France are great; other times they are painfully tedious or repetitive (you know, like real life).
Technically, The Savage Detectives is quite an achievement. The myriad stories in the book’s main section represent the fragmented narratives that might compose a person’s life–a series of perspectives that others have about us, views that can never add up to a unified truth. The bulk of these stories are very much about poetry, art, and travel. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Detectives is a peripatetic novel, full of specific locations and very, very explicit directions (Joyce famously claimed that were Dublin destroyed in a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt based on his novel; the same seems true for Bolaño’s Mexico City). Also like Ulysses, Detectives is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on. Lots and lots of “and so on.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of heroism and adventure–saving kids from satanic caves, stow-away sea voyages, and dodging bullets from Liberian rebels make for interesting narrative peaks. However, most of the novel remains rooted in a realism that is often dreadfully visceral in its painstaking replication of just how depressing a life could be. As the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties, things get more bleak and more depressing for Lima and Belano. And it all adds up to an incomplete picture (literally; check out the last page of the book if you don’t believe me).
By the time we return to Madero’s journals in the third and final part of the novel, “The Sonora Desert,” the sadness and deflation of the previous section infects and tints every aspect of the narrative. Lima and Belano, with Madero and Lupe in tow, search desperately for the forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their search works as a pitiful parallel to “The Savage Detectives” section, a comment on the elusive nature of identity, and the strange disappointments that punctuate our expectations. Even the novel’s climactic ending seems understated after the monolithic middle section. And while this deflationary technique is undoubtedly a carefully considered conceit on Bolaño’s part, the payoff for the reader–this reader anyway–did not merit the effort and concentration that the book required. Or, to put it another way, after hours of time invested, I was unmoved.
As ravereviews of the English translation of his last novel 2666 begin seeping out of the critical woodwork (this month’s Harper’s has devoted a full four pages to the book), it seems that Bolaño will top most critics’ lists again this year. At over 900 pages and reportedly full of grim, bleak violence, it’s hard to imagine 2666 will be any easier to get through, and as FS&G summarily ignored our requests for a review copy, there’s no pressing obligation, I suppose. The critical praise heaped on 2666 this year will surely lead interested readers to The Savage Detectives. I think Mark Twain’s infamous note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would provide the best warning to these potential readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” While no serious critic could dismiss Bolaño’s lyrical skill and complex control of the many voices that populate Detectives, I think a number of readers–serious readers–would not be wrong for considering the tome a bit overrated.
Nadeem Aslam’s new novel The Wasted Vigil ambitiously attempts to contextualize three decades of conflict in Afghanistan through the lives of its three main characters: Marcus, an English doctor living near Tora Bora, whose Afghani wife was killed by the Taliban, Lara, a Russian woman searching for her missing brother who disappeared during the Soviet invasion, and David, the ex-CIA operative tortured by his past. There’s also the young Islamic fundamentalist Casa, who dreams of jihad–possibly the novel’s most interesting character. Aslam weaves these stories together in a meditation on art and war, beauty and violence, and family and politics, never shying away from the brutality of a good stoning or elective amputation.
The Wasted Vigil works best when Aslam restrains his language and communicates in a more journalistic style. These moments are few and far between, however; most of the time, Aslam is overly concerned with explicitly announcing every allusion and broadly indicating the critical or aesthetic importance of even the slightest of his characters’ actions. Aslam’s prose is far more satisfying when he backs away from overblown, overwritten sentences and simply lets his readers figure out what’s going on for themselves. That said, Aslam can certainly turn an artful phrase–it’s just that artful phrase piled upon artful phrase becomes showy, even tacky. Restraint allows prose to build rhythmically and payoff meaningfully, but there isn’t enough restraint here.
Of course, Aslam’s subject matter is hardly restrained. Afghanistan is a place of remarkable violence and brutality, but also a place rich with history and culture. Perhaps Aslam’s editors believed his audience deserved an overtly complex representation of Afghanistan, and perhaps they are right in this belief. After all, the country has been very much in the background of the West’s political conscience for the past decade (translating in to big success for other books about Afghanistan, notably Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner). Undoubtedly, there are a great many who will enjoy The Wasted Vigil. Those fascinated with Afghanistan and its sad, strange, violent history will have more than enough to mull over in this elaborate, intelligent, thoughtful novel.
The Wasted Vigil is now available in hardback from Knopf.
John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .
As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.
Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.
I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.
Mathias B. Freese’s slim collection of short stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, relays the weird, miserable, and even sometimes ghoulish existences of people you might pass on the street everyday. The stories read like psychological case studies, and there’s frequently a strange distance between the clinical detachment of the prose and the depressed or depraved sentiment expressed by the narrator. At times the effect is painful, as in “Herbie,” where the titular protagonist’s rage at his abusive father spills over into Oedipal violence. Elsewhere, the stories take on a wry surrealist humor. Freese’s knack for dissonance evinces in “Juan Peron’s Hands,” where a grave robber pines for a head but settles for hands. Far closer to home is “Young Man,” where Freese distills an entire life to a few bitter pages, exploring the modern disconnect between thought, action and identity.
I can’t be who I am in real life, so I can be who I am in thought, but who I am in thought is not who I am in deed, so I live between what is and what should be, and this serves to make sharper the cleavage–the crevices are clearly marked.
One of my favorites in the collection, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” disconcertingly (and humorously) condenses American obsession with celebrity into a fantasy ski trip, complete with the oddly sorta-prescient line: “I might even run for president if I can lose this accent” (the story was originally published in 1991). It is probably the deformed voyeur hero of “I’ll Make It, I Think” who delivers the closest thing to a mantra for these characters:
I’m not hurting anyone. So what if my morning shorts are sticky. I’m a good person. The outside, for sure, is a shambles–that’s not completely true, but I’ve made my point. Inside is fucked up some, but I’ll make it, I think.
Down to a Sunless Sea, for all its monsters and perverts and manic depressives, is never cruel in its darkness or unsympathetic in its distance. Freese creates real people here, and if we laugh at their pain, we’re laughing with them. Highly recommended.