Books Acquired (1.8.2015)

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I am taking a class titled 21st-Century Fiction: What Is The Contemporary? and three of the books in this photograph are part of the reading list. Absent titles are by Dan Chaon, Kathryn Davis, Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Sheila Heti. Some others. Wanted titles: Tao Lin’s Taipei (which I am reading now, which is surprisingly good).

I don’t know anything about Dodie Bellamy beyond the fact that she is often grouped with Kathy Acker, who are both often grouped with Dennis Cooper, who are all New Narrative people. New Narrators make the author present, her body and sexuality usually the prime subject. Letters of Mina Harker is a “sequel” to Dracula, except Mina Harker is a young woman who lives in 1980s San Francisco. On conceit alone, it reminds me of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream.

Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together, mainly because Powers blurbed his first book, The Lost Scrapbook, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Also, there is speculation that Powers is Dara (Or Dara is Powers). Flee is, according to its publisher Aurora Books, about “in which a New England town does just that.” I’ve read the first chapter, titled “38,839,” and it reeks of Gaddis (in a good way). Disembodied voices colliding into each other, a cacophonous plot; the absurd & banal drama of everyday, throwaway conversation. An Australian book show on Triple R Radio, who have a good and very rare interview with Gerald Murnane (whose book Inland I was really, really jazzed on), also really loves Dara. I’m pretty excited to read this one.

Evan Dara and Richard Powers are often grouped together, mainly because Dara’s first book was blurbed by Richard Powers, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Dara might be Powers (or Powers might be Dara?), but that doesn’t really matter. The Echo Maker is supposed to be one of those Big, Important American Books (as noted by the shallow, embossed seal on my used copy of the book). As I write this, I am listening to Powers read from The Echo Maker from an old Lannan Foundation talk (who also really love Gass) and I am really intrigued. I haven’t flipped through this, so I will reproduce the back copy.

On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter has a near-fatal car accident. His older sister, Karin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when Mark emerges fro a coma, he believes that this woman–who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister–is really an imposter. When Karin contacts the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnoses Mark as having Capgras syndrome. The mysterious nature of the disease, combined with the strange circumstances surrounding Mark’s accident, threaten to change all of their lives beyond recognition.

 

Can Xue (which roughly translates from Chinese, according to my mother, to “persistent & dirty snow”) is hailed by western critics to be the Chinese avant-garde heir to Kafka and Borges. Can Xue is a pen name for Deng Xiaohua. She is of my mother’s generation and her class, which means she grew up persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, which means she was sent to a “re-education camp” in the Chinese sticks and learned to farm. She taught herself English, has written criticism on Kafka and Borges. The strangeness of Kafka echoes in Xue. While the former’s strangeness arrives in the narrative with a kind of grim inevitability, the discovery of a debilitating truth lands like an obvious punchline that the reader stupidly forgets (or realizes too late, like the classic Seinfeld episode “The Comeback“), Xue’s arrives with a kind of startling innocence against the backdrop of dramatic irony. It is like watching, in Michael Haneke’s words in his great interview in The Paris Review,  a tragedy from the perspective of an idiot. The title story, “Vertical Motion,” can be read here.

Read “To the Measures Fall,” a Short Story by Richard Powers

“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers

First read-through: you are biking through the Cotswolds when you come across the thing. Spring of ’63. Twenty-one years old, in your junior year abroad at the University of York, after a spring term green with Chaucer, Milton, Byron, and Swinburne. (Remember Swinburne?) Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained.

Term’s out, and it’s time to see every square mile of this island. Bicycle clips, a Blue Guide, a transistor radio, and skin-hugging rain. Villages slip past on valley roads as twisty as the clauses in Henry James. The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt.

The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding. The dust jacket has disappeared, but the front matter suggests that you know all about Mr. Wentworth already. Born in 1888, the author of twelve previous books and the winner of awards too numerous to mention.

The first line reads, “A freak snow hit late that year, two weeks after the sand martins returned to the gravel pits near the South Downs.” The next few paragraphs sketch out a hard-pressed town, Wotton-on-Wold, much like the one you are in, with the “m” in it. On page 3, the author reveals the date: 1913. On the last page, a village search party finds the body of a young amputee captain who served at the Somme lying at the bottom of said gravel pits. Only seven years have passed, but the lilting opening cadences have darkened into fragments from another world.

The book seems to be a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War. You check the title page: copyright 1948. Aside from two bold exclamation points at the end of Chapter 1, the pages are unblemished, perhaps unread.

Pencilled into the upper right hand of the inside front is a price: 10/6 d. Exorbitant. You draw seven pounds a week for student expenses. A three-course Chinese dinner on Station Road costs four shillings, and lunch in the canteen is half that. A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist. Besides, you’ve just devoted your life to literature. You graze the start of Chapter 2, in which Trevor, a spindly farmer’s son with Addison’s disease, baffles his parents by insisting on going to university. You need to know how this beginning can reach so macabre an end.

The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.

How much do you offer the junk-store owner for his used book?

You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic.

How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?

Continue reading “Read “To the Measures Fall,” a Short Story by Richard Powers”

“I Want to Burn Every Novel I’ve Ever Written” — Read Richard Powers’s New Essay, “What Does Fiction Know?”

Places has published a new essay by novelist Richard Powers. “What Does Fiction Know” is kinda sorta about Berlin. A good read. From the essay—

Jane and I are in the aerospace hall, swept along from the 18th-century balloon fantasies to the Berlin Airlift, when I see it: the Rheintochter. I recognize it even before reading the tag. It’s a surface-to-air missile, one of the offspring of the V2, tested successfully but cancelled at the very end of the war in a power struggle between Göring, Speer, and Himmler. The romance of the name stops me: Wagner’s Rhine Maidens, guarding the gold that holds the secret to world dominion. The level of technology is stunning, years beyond the Allies’ similar efforts. But it’s the rocket’s gesamtkunstwerk — the total artwork of it — that does me in.

The thing is made of dark wood and bright chrome, shaped and polished like some loving piece of Amish furniture, as carefully crafted as anything out of the Museum of Decorative Arts: a lovely sculpture with a hint of Jugendstil. And it stands as just the simplest precursor to our infinitely more Wagnerian productions, those armed, unmanned drones right now winging through the Swat and Korengal valleys, the Predators and Reapers, controlled by satellite and coordinated by pilots at terminals on the far side of the planet. I stare at the Rhine daughter, seeing all the things she will yet grow up to become. Even a novelist can see that much; it does not take rocket science.

I feel like I’m having an asthma attack in a sealed coffin. Every guardedly optimistic, would-be redemptive human story I’ve ever shepherded into print has missed the point. We are built for this plot, shaped by evolution for it, and our steadily expanding mastery of the materials will not stop short of a magnum opus. No other craft that we put our hands to can hope to keep pace. By the time my wife and I find the exit through the labyrinth of machines, I want to burn every novel I’ve ever written.