(Not Quite Reviews of) Stuff I Read in September

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So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.

So, what have I been reading?

Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.

I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.

S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:

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That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

Here’s his poem about The Purple One:

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“The thingness of books” (From Chrostowska’s Novel Permission)

The thingness of books, especially of many books kept in a small space, stacked high without rhyme or reason, can become impressive. I worry about being oppressed by the books I own––quite different from being oppressed by the ownership of books. There are days when I am certainly very oppressed by the presence of so many books in such a small space. There is really no more room for me with them around, just as there is no room for more books with me around. Yet I keep introducing new books, and reintroducing books that have either fallen or been misplaced and have now been picked up or found, or those I have lent (both with relief at the extra space and with apprehension at never seen them again) and that have just been returned to me. So now: loads and loads of books everywhere, and the fear that they will all come falling down one moment as I am passing through (or edging through) or sitting or (worse) dozing in my armchair, and that I or (more so) that they might be injured in the fall. The idea of all those books tipping over or (even) a shelf detaching itself from the wall and crashing to the floor, is positively nerve-wracking. Every time a book is taken off the shelf, transposed or put back I feel I am pushing my luck. I have so far been unusually lucky in avoiding an avalanche of book matter. I do believe a little order goes a long way, and that the ordering of books and maintaining always some semblance of order are possibly the best way of obviating the clutter typical of book-laden apartments. One really cannot speak of a book collection without having taken stock and organized and subjected one’s books to a more or less logical and consistent access-and-retrieval system. And apartments where the number of books impedes one’s access to them and exceeds a sustainable human-to-book ratio, books attract a frightful degree of clutter in a category unto itself. If it were merely dust and cobwebs everything would still be manageable; but a book heaven that has not been whipped into shape invites its owner to let go of themselves, is an invitation to physical sloth, if not intellectual sloth and downright mental confusion (too many books in too much chaos too often proves deadly for a thinking brain). The typical flat where books predominate, hence a space dominated by books, sooner or later adapts to the physical dimensions of books and reconfigures itself to accommodate even more of them––that is, ceases to be a flat and becomes a library. The sole occupant of such a space is, properly speaking, sharing accommodation. Without realizing it, this inhabitant has already given up many of the advantages of living alone. For starters, there is the uncontrollable, self-begetting clutter. You can deceive yourself that you could straighten up any day, but the mess that comes with the preponderance of books is addictive and ineradicable. It takes considerable exertion of the will to alter this reality. Similarly you may claim to be free to move out any day, to leave the mass and cramped conditions behind, but the truth is only too material: you are not going anywhere as long as you hold on to this many books. There is finally, the sheer lack of space for independent thought. These towers of intellect are known for their diminishing effects. You feel dwarfed both physically and mentally, and when this inequality in stature becomes too great you are done for as an independent thinker. Intellectual inferiority won’t let you scale the shoulders of giants to see further than them.

–From Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Book Acquired, 8.10.2013)

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Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission—got it in the mail on Saturday. I’d been swimming in the river, in the relentless August sun, for most of the day, and when I got home I just wanted to watch a film and drink some wine and pass out.

But I started reading. And reading. And then I looked up and and I was like fifty pages in.

Here’s publisher Dalkey Archive’s blurb:

Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received?Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.

And here’s novelist Teju Cole’s blurb, from the back of the book (for some reason not posted at Dalkey):

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Permission’s central premise (if such a work so soaked in deconstruction could be said to have a center) immediately recalled to me Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the paradox of giving:

To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity? Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?

The first few “chapters” — the narrator’s weekly missives to the unnamed artist — are thoroughly soaked in deconstruction and continental philosophy; this is a novel that cites Blanchot and Deleuze in its first twenty pages. However, the narrator promises that her book, “through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work) . . . becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.”

This promise seems true, as subsequent passages flow into personal memory, reflection—storytelling. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the narrator’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of the narrator’s first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon.

Strange and lovely stuff. More when I finish.