Riff on some recent reading

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It seems that for the past two weeks I have been reading mostly final exams and research papers, but I have read some other things too.

I have all but finished Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, which I think is excellent contemporary fiction. Foster’s pieces do things that I did not know that I wanted contemporary fiction to do until I read the pieces. Read his story/poem/thing “Economies of Scale” to get an illustrating example. Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father deserves a proper review and I will give it one sooner rather than later. For now let me say that I am jealous of that title.

I’ve continued sifting unevenly through John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Earlier this year I tried reading one Dream Song a day and then realized I didn’t like reading one Dream Song a day. Some days I wanted to read three or five and some days I wanted to read none and some days I felt like skipping ahead to later Dream Songs and some days I got stuck on a few lines or a spare image or an oblique word and then I couldn’t move on. Here is Dream Song 30, which took me two days to read (I got hung up on “Hell talkt my brain awake” for more than a little while):

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I am still auditing/rereading William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions. I riffed on rereading it here and here and here) and hope to riff some more, but I doubt I’ll have anything comprehensible to write about the chapter I just finished, II.3 (Chapter 3 of Section II). The opening of this chapter is a stream-of-consciousness flowing so freely that it overwhelms the reader. Gaddis takes us into Wyatt’s addled brains, a space overstuffed with hurtling esoteric mythopoetic gobbledygook. (The section also strongly recalls Stephen Dedalus’s stroll on the beach in Chapter 3 of Ulyssesalthough Gaddis denied having read Joyce’s opus).

The interior of Wyatt’s skull is frustrating as hell, which is maybe half the point. Things don’t get any simpler when Wyatt goes to his childhood home where no one recognizes him. Or, rather, he is misrecognized, recognized as someone else: an acolyte of Mithras, Prester John, the Messiah. As always with The Recognitions though, there’s a radical ambiguity: Is Wyatt misrecognized? Or is there an originality under the surface that his ersatz fragmented family recognizes?

I have around 100 more pages left to read of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai. I’ve read the book at such a fast clip that I’m frankly suspicious of it. The book is 530 pages but feels like its 150 pages. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means it’s not a particularly dense novel, although it is rich in ideas—ideas about art, language, family. The book won me over when DeWitt steers the narrative into one of its first major side quests, the story of a musician named Kenzo Yamamoto. I recall reading late into the night, overtired but unable to put the book down. I stayed up too late and was too tired the next day, and then sneaked in a few sections during office hours the next morning. I think that means that I like the book very much—but I also find myself irked at times by something in DeWitt’s style—a sort of archness that veers into preciousness, a cleverness that interminably announces itself. The book tries to spin irony into earnestness, which is vaguely exhausting. I think I would have been head over heels in love with this book if I had read it ten or fifteen years ago.

In his recent review of The Last Samurai at Vulture — where the book garnered the dubious prize of being prematurely called “The Best Book of the Century” — Christian Lorentzen wrote that DeWitt’s “novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism.” But reading The Last Samurai, I am reminded of the books that Wood thought of as “hysterical realism.” Wood coined the term to describe a trend he saw in literature of the late nineties, literature that combined absurdity with social and cultural realism (at the expense of Wood’s precious psychological realism). Wood specifically applied his description to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (published, like The Last Samurai, in 2000), but slapped it down elsewhere, notably to David Foster Wallace. While I don’t endorse Wood’s scolding use of the phrase “hysterical realism,” I do think that it’s a useful (if perhaps too-nebulous) description for a set of trends in some of the major novels published in the late nineties and early 2000s: Infinite JestMiddlesexThe Corrections, A Heartbreaking Work of Something or Other, etc. And, to come in where I started: The Last Samurai shares a lot of the same features with these texts—the blending of styles and texts and disciplines, etc. DeWitt’s filtering a lot of the same stuff, I guess. I would maybe use the term post-postmodernism in place of “hysterical realism” though—although a novel need not be subsumed by any term, and maybe the best can’t really be described in language at all.

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Golding’s Pincher Martin, DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (Books acquired,16 Nov. 2018)

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I spent a relaxing hour and a half browsing my favorite local used bookstore this afternoon. I ended up finding a copy of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai, which all kindsa smart folks have been telling me to read for years. I didn’t like her follow-up Lightning Rods, and stalled out on her collection Some Trick earlier this year—but we’ll see.

William Goldman died today. I’ve always thought of him primarily as a screenwriter, and I think much of his screenwriting work is pretty great, The Princess Bride in particular (the one Goldman novel we own is The Princess Bride, currently in my daughter’s possession). I couldn’t help but look over some of his books today.

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…which is how I ended up picking up William Golding’s Pincher Martin. (Golding, not Goldman). I read his 1955 novel The Inheritors a few years ago and I think when I was talking about it somewhere (maybe online), someone recommended Pincher Martin—and I couldn’t pass up this Penguin edition with cover art by Paul Hogarth.

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I also thumbed through a copy of Robert Scholes’s Fabulation and Metafiction (1980), reading a big chunk of the chapter called “The Nature of Experimental Fiction.” The chapter begins with four illustrating quotations from four masters of metafiction:

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Some sentences on some books I’ve read or have been reading

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I finished Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains last week. The Plains is quite short—it’s a novella really—and is divided into three parts. I read Part I in two sittings, gulping down the first-person narrator’s description of an Australia that exists in some alternate universe, where aristocratic plainsmen of Inner Australia keep grand houses populated by every kind of artisan. The novel’s first 70 pages or so move at a brisk pace, brimming with hints of a mythology that Murnane’s narrator keeps always just outside the frame. I read Parts II and III (much shorter than Part I) at a much slower pace. Murnane’s prose condenses here, his sentences tangling out into thick knots of consciousness. I’m still not sure what to make of the novel’s conclusion.

I’m absolutely crawling through Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (in English translation by Harry Morales). Subtitled The Diary of Martín Santomé, this Uruguayan novel is told in lucid prose. Santomé’s journal entries track his day to day life as a man with three children—the youngest approaching adulthood—who was widowed early in life. He’s just now started up a love affair with a younger colleague (an affair that he doesn’t want to call an affair and an affair which I think is like hey a very bad idea, Martin!). It reminds me a bit of John Williams’ novel Stoner. I’ve been reading one or two of the diary entries a day, usually in the morning before I leave for work. It’s a different way to read a book (at least for me anyway).

Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man is my big re-read right now. I’m having a lot more fun with it the second time. I think the first time taught me how to read it. I’m moving pretty slowly but that’s fine.

I read most of Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11 in two sittings. I want to write a proper review of the novel, or novella, really, or really it’s something besides a novel or novella—anyway, I want to write a proper review on the thing, but I need to go back and finish his novel Minor Angels, which I started earlier in the summer but lost track of (I think I was trying to plow through the end of Eliot’s Middlemarch at the time).

I’ve read the first and third (but not the second) stories in Helen DeWitt’s new collection Some Trick and…I don’t know. There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust my reaction so far. I know that what she’s doing here would’ve flipped any wig I was wearing ten or twelve years ago, but I find myself not particularly persuaded to keep going. I skipped to the third story because it had a bunch of footnotes, a la DF Wallace and that intrigued me. It’s a bit clever, yes?

I’ve only read two of the stories in Tadao Tsuge’s collection of “alternative manga” (mostly from the sixties and seventies) Slum Wolf (in English translation by Ryan Holmberg), but there’s definitely a different flavor here—rough, weird, and a bit chilling. I hope to post a review of Slum Wolf at The Comics Journal next month.

Not pictured above because I read it on an iPad: The first two chapters of Anders Nilsen’s graphic novel Tongues, which is a loose retelling of the story of Prometheus and a few other myths (maybe). There’s a lot going on it. The art is gorgeous—a bit reminiscent of Geof Darrow, but more not as sprawly. Again, I hope to do a review at TCJ soon on these.

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Also not pictured because also an e-book: Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, a two-act play by Evan Dara. You can download the play here without paying upfront: The site instead gives this somewhat cryptic message on payment: “If you please, reciprocation accepted only after reading. Thank you.” The message actually makes sense after you’ve read the play, which is very much about paying for language—literally utterances as commodities. Mose Eakins is “imparlent” — he cannot communicate with those around him. The play is often funny, but also very sad, and it’s impossible not to read it as an allegory for the limitations of real communication in the age of late capitalism. I read it all at once last night. Speaking of which, I need to reciprocate now.

 

Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick (Book acquired 27 July 2018)

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I spent a week in Charleston, SC at the end of July. The city’s veneer of “historical charm” doesn’t quite cover over a past that it recognizes but seems not wholly reconciled to, but the grits were very good.

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I visited Blue Bicycle Books while I was there, where I was allowed to fondle a signed Faulkner with my unwashed hands. I picked up Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick in hardback there, despite not really liking Lightning Rods. I would’ve picked up her cult novel The Last Samurai instead, but they didn’t have it—and anyway, I’ve been reading mostly short stories and short novels (Murnane, Volodine, Melville) since getting through Eliot’s big fat novel Middlemarch last month.

Here’s publisher New Direction’s blurb—

For sheer unpredictable brilliance, Gogol may come to mind, but no author alive today takes a reader as far as Helen DeWitt into the funniest, most yonder dimensions of possibility. Her jumping-off points might be statistics, romance, the art world’s piranha tank, games of chance and games of skill, the travails of publishing, or success. “Look,” a character begins to explain, laying out some gambit reasonably enough, even if facing a world of boomeranging counterfactuals, situations spinning out to their utmost logical extremes, and Rube Goldberg-like moving parts, where things prove “more complicated than they had first appeared” and “at 3 a.m. the circumstances seem to attenuate.” In various ways, each tale carries DeWitt’s signature poker-face lament regarding the near-impossibility of the life of the mind when one is made to pay to have the time for it, in a world so sadly “taken up with all sorts of paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination.”