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.

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Siri Hustvedt’s Living, Thinking, Looking (Book Acquired, 5.15.2012)


The whole point of these books acquired posts is to try to document interesting stuff that comes in before it winds up in my pile for months (to put things in perspective, I got a reader copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son back in January, and have finally gotten around to reading it just now). I usually spend a week or two looking over the book, maybe  publish a blurb or an excerpt of the book along with a photo, and then file it in one of three stacks — now, later, or never. Anyway, Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking ended up never getting stacked anywhere, because I kept going back to it, poking into her essays on Goya, Gerhard Richter, Freud, reading her riff on sleeping, which somehow synthesizes Macbeth and Nabokov and REM science, pausing over her consideration of the Bush admin’s rhetoric. I haven’t finished the book but I will. Hustvedt combines her keen intellect with a range of ideas to explore her subjects (primarily, if the title didn’t tip you, living, thinking, looking). There’s a lot of lit here, a lot of psych, and plenty of art. Good stuff.

In Brief: Novels from Siri Hustvedt, Katherine Shonk, and Benjamin Black

The narrator of Siri Hustvedt’s new novel The Summer Without Men is Mia Fredrickson, a sharp but wounded poet whose husband decides to put their marriage on “pause” after thirty years so he can shtup his younger assistant. Diagnosed with Brief Psychotic Disorder (“which means that you’re genuinely crazy but not for long”), Mia finds herself confined to a psychiatric hospital. The summer after her stay, she leaves Brooklyn for the “backwater town on what used to be the prairie in Minnesota” where she grew up, where she can be closer to her mom, who lives in an assisted living facility. Mia’s plan is to fill the summer with rest and poems—and ultimately restore her sanity. She spends time with her mother and her friends, becomes involved in the lives of a neighbor with two young children, and teaches a poetry workshop for pre-adolescent girls. Here, she encounters the “Gang of Four,” mean girls who spend their summer tormenting an alienated Chicago transplant with whom Mia strongly identifies. Composed in tight vivid prose, The Summer Without Men is energetic, and handles its subjects with depth and wit, painting its characters and their complex emotions in the kind of detail that rings true to life. 

Katherine Shonk’s début novel Happy Now? also features a heroine dealing with the psychic shock caused by the end of her marriage. Claire Kessler’s husband Jay commits suicide on Valentine’s Day, leaving a book-length suicide note on the coffee table that Claire cannot bring herself to read. Claire moves in with her sister, who emotionally abandons her husband during the process. Her parents try to help too, but her overprotective father ends up trailing her every move and smothering her. Claire’s adventures in psychoanalysis become a tragicomic journey, but one handled with compassion. Shonk has an ear for dialog and the good sense not to clutter her novel with too many plots or characters.

Elegy for April is the fourth novel of John Banville’s detective noir series under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. April Latimer is a doctor in conservative 1950s Dublin, whose unconventional behavior scandalizes what is essentially a big small town (her prominent Catholic family isn’t too keen that she’s dating a Nigerian man). When April disappears, her friend Phoebe Griffin enlists the help of her (sort-of) recovering alcoholic father, the brilliant pathologist Garret Quirke. Quirke’s investigation—also Phoebe’s investigation, of course—plumbs into the conservative mores of a secretive upper echelon of families, revealing hidden truths that are at times painful. Bleak, dark, and often morally ambivalent, Black’s book is best suited for those who don’t mind their mysteries delivered with ambiguity and loose ends.

The Summer Without Men, Happy Now?, and Elegy for April are all new in trade paperback this month from Picador.