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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How Fiction Works — James Wood

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Literary critic and Harvard professor James Wood’s How Fiction Works, new in trade paperback from Picador, argues that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.” This thesis is rather broad, and really not so controversial; I’d certainly agree with it. It’s when Wood goes about showing how fiction successfully or unsuccessfully artfully represents reality that I find myself shouting at his text.

Not that I didn’t know that we were going to butt heads (to misapply a metaphor) before I began reading. After all, I was familiar enough with Wood’s aesthetic approach to literary criticism, one that eschews any notions of ideological underpinnings of a novel. In concrete terms, this means that all those discourses so (apparently) fashionable in English departments are out–you know, Marxist critiques, French deconstruction, post-colonial studies, gender readings, all that stuff. How wonderfully freeing for Wood to dispense with the baggage of history and ideology! Of course, certain novelists have felt the need to respond to these ideas, even if Wood hasn’t, leading our critic to deride a whole “genre” of “hysterical realism.” I happen to like a lot of this so-called “hysterical realism”: Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace spring to mind (Wood takes Wallace to task a few times in How Fiction Works, arguing that Wallace’s pseudo-business speak in “The Suffering Channel” is “fairly ugly, and a bit painful for more than a page or two”). Wood’s attack on “hysterical realism” centers on his claim that such novels privilege a (failed) attempt at a global, historical perspective at the cost of intimacy and human communication. The aesthetics here, for Wood, are precisely about how to accurately and intimately portray the world. To this end, Wood, favors writers like Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Chekov, and he spends much of How Fiction Works illustrating how marvelously these writers employ what he calls “free indirect style,” a type of narration where the lines between author’s and the character’s language are perfectly blended.

That Wood spends so much time on Flaubert and James (he devotes five pages to the latter’s ingenious use of the adverb “embarrassingly”) is telling when one considers the authors not represented in this book. While no literary critic should be condemned for not including every writer under the sun, it would be helpful if a book ostentatiously titled How Fiction Works took a look at something besides the work of dead white men. But there I go again, suggesting that ideology has some function in literature. Maybe I’m reaching here–to be fair, if Toni Morrison doesn’t even warrant a mention in Wood’s canon, then neither does Nathaniel Hawthorne (in fact, How Fiction Works is remarkably light on American writers in general–Melville only warrants a passing mention).

More disturbing than Wood’s limited pool of authors is his disingenuous claim that this book is for a common, everyday reader. With a hint of the anxiety of influence, he remarks that his hero Roland Barthes “does not write as if he expects to be read and comprehended by any kind of common reader,” but it must be noted that Wood will have lost anyone not fairly conversant with the history of literature by his first twenty pages.Hopefully, students new to literature will avoid Wood’s book and read something friendlier and more helpful, like Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor.

Did I forget to mention in all of this that I liked reading this book? Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed. I’d recommend How Fiction Works with the caveat that the reader not fall victim to Wood’s forceful rhetoric, to the erroneous assumption that Wood’s aesthetic values somehow trump one’s own. Read this book, but don’t mistake it for a substitute for the real education that great novels can provide. “I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries,” writes Wood in his introduction, but make no mistake, Wood cannot transmit the real in his criticism. It can only be found in reading the sources yourself.