Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Inland

Zadie Smith’s essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in the New York Review of Books asks us to

Imagine being a corpse. Not the experience of being a corpse—clearly being a corpse is the end of all experience. I mean: imagine this drawing represents an absolute certainty about you, namely, that you will one day be a corpse. Perhaps this is very easy. You are a brutal rationalist, harboring no illusions about the nature of existence. I am, a friend once explained, a “sentimental humanist.” Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse, even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor.

“Corpsed” letters may be characterized by a certain kind of desperation that contradicts itself in the act of speech (or writing); by writing, narrators acknowledge the necessity of communication and the inscrutable feeling that s/he has failed in that act of communication. That failure signals the desperation, and so on. How to figure/perform a “corpsed” perspective, outside of reality? Gerald Murnane’s Inland makes a kind of utopia out of death, but not a death as the absence of life. Death as the space wherein all people are irrevocably connected. Death and loss as, perhaps, the only thing that can be shared between us without the mediation of language, with fiction paradoxically as the sole vehicle.

Continue reading “Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Inland”

John Leonard, 1939-2008

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American critic John Leonard died of lung cancer last Wednesday. From The New York Times obituary:

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.

Shilling for DFW, Special Babies, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sunshine, and (Moby)Dick Jokes

This month’s issue of Harper’s has some great stuff, including a selection called “The Compliance Branch” from David Foster Wallace’s current work in progress. In the short piece, an unidentified narrator is overcome by a “fierce” infant:

The infant’s face, as I experienced it, was mostly eyes and lower lip, its nose a mere pinch, its forehead milky and domed, its pale red hair wispy, no eyebrows or lashes or even eyelids I could see. I never saw it blink. Its features seemed suggestions only. It had roughly as much face as a whale does. I did not like it at all.

Doesn’t this guy know that all babies are special? Evidence of special babies:

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You can read DFW’s last piece for Harper’s, “Tense Present,” an essay about grammar and usage and democracy, here. Or, alternately, you could treat yourself to the entirety of Consider the Lobster, where said essay is collected. Or, if you’re spectacularly lazy, hear DFW read unpublished work here and here.

Harper’s also has a great essay by ‘klept fave Ursula K. LeGuin. In “Staying Awake,” LeGuin takes on the relationship between reading, capitalism, literature in art. Good stuff. Bibliophile’s will appreciate LeGuin on the physiognomy of books:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

If you haven’t read LeGuin, I highly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that scrutinizes gender roles with more interesting results than, say, Eugenides’s Middlesex or Woolf’s Orlando.

Abrupt transition: Sunshine, the latest movie from director Danny Boyle, the mastermind behind Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, is out on DVD. Sunshine, scripted by long-time Boyle collaborator Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later), was eaten alive last summer by a host of tertiary blockbuster sequels. I liked Sunshine; in addition to being a shiny, beautiful movie, it also raised some interesting questions about the cost of existence, individual worth, and the merits of self-sacrifice. Although the end unravels a bit, the movie is well worth seeing. Recommended.

Finally, lit nerds and Melville fans such as myself might have a laugh at Teddy Wayne’s take on Ishmael as comedian. Sample joke:

What’s the deal with the biscuits? Do they really expect this to suffice for a six months’ imperialistic voyage for exotic spices? And the servings they give you—is this for, like, a baby sailor? Did I accidentally request the infant meal?

Ishmael’s a hack–get it? Is there anything funnier than whaling humor?

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