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.

David Peace’s Red Riding Film Adaptations Debut in the US

The film adaptations of David Peace‘s Red Riding quartet make their American debut this weekend. The films look pretty cool — kinda like Zodiac. The screen adaptations drop the 1977 segment of Peace’s original quartet, opting instead for the trilogy treatment. You can read Manohla Dargis’s detailed review for The New York Times here and Keith Phipps favorable review at the AV Club here. Trailer:

Occupied City — David Peace

“You want to know what happened, yes?” an old detective asks near the beginning of Occupied City. “No? You want to know the truth? Make up your mind! Which do you want to know; what happened, or the truth?” This preoccupation of “what happened” vs. “the truth” fuels the central tension in David Peace’s new novel, a postmodern noir exercise set in the desolation of 1948 Tokyo. Based on the true story of the Teikoku Bank Massacre, Occupied City investigates the postwar slaying of twelve bank employees who were poisoned by a man dressed (perhaps) as a government official. There’s a parenthetical “perhaps” around just about everything in Peace’s book; he cites Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories “In a Grove” and “Rashomon” (as well as Kurosawa’s film adaptation of that story) as inspirations for the structure of Occupied City.

And rightly so. The few witnesses who survived the massacre get to tell “what happened”; their testimony is combined in a pastiche of sources including official government documents, a detective’s notes, newspaper reports, and personal and professional letters from an obsessed American Lieutenant Colonel. There’s a classically-neutral narrator whose reportorial rationality is undercut at every turn by the interceding lamentations of a Beckettian speaker dipping into madness. And there are the dead, the victims who cry out to be seen as more than just victims. Peace’s techniques are somehow both stochastic and tightly controlled at the same time, as he weaves the disparate voices through his tale to square the different perspectives of “what happened” in an attempt to reach “the truth.” Peace’s language frequently vacillates between elliptical and elusive abstraction and the visceral immediacy one would expect from a detective novel. The verbal tics add up to a visual poetry, as Peace’s repetitions, redaction, strike-throughs, and columns reinvigorate a genre that too-often relies on stodgy convention. For many readers, this eclectic style will be at times challenging or even come off as pretentious, but those who submit to Peace’s tumult of language are in for quite a ride.

Occupied City is a smart, well-researched historical thriller that recalls the verbal grit and energy of James Ellroy, who Peace interviewed earlier thie year. Like Ellory, Peace’s detectives investigate the seamy gaps in history from myriad perspectives, prodding readers into violent alien territory. And like Ellroy’s work, there’s no easy “truth” at the bottom of this book, but there are plenty of unsettling questions. Occupied City is a stark, bewildering challenge from a writer who deserves a wider audience. Recommended.

Occupied City is new in hardback from Knopf this week.

David Peace on Occupied City

We’re currently reading–and really enjoying–David Peace’s Occupied City, a dark and bewildering account of the 1948 Teikoku Bank Massacre in Tokyo. Peace’s book gets its American debut later this week from Knopf. We’ll run a proper review then. For now, here’s Peace discussing the project, his difficulty in writing it, the crime’s contemporary resonance in modern Japan, and how he stole from Rashomon: