03 February 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle


John Darnielle's first novel (after the uncategorizable critical novella Black Sabbath's Master of Reality), Wolf in White Van, got a lot of attention and made the longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards. I read it when it came out, since I adore Darnielle's work as singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats, and thought maybe he'd be okay at writing novels, too, though I tried not to get my hopes up. After a few pages, I was entranced, and read the book quickly, almost in a fugue state, stopping only because at times I found it emotionally overwhelming. I never wrote about it because I didn't know how to do so in any way other than to say, "Go read this." To explain what made the book such a rich reading experience for myself would require delving into a lot of weirdnesses of personal response, useless to anybody else, and to talk much about the plot and structure would be to give away part of the novel's magic. I am not at all a spoiler alerter — quite the opposite, in fact, and I generally feel that any book or movie requiring a spoiler alert is a book or movie without much of interest beyond its plot machinations — but there are always exceptions, and the elegance with which Wolf shuffles and deals its information is such a carefully controlled performance that even to speak of the story's premise felt to me like a violation. (And it's not about Big Surprises. It doesn't take long to guess the big stuff; it's the way the information accumulates that is so powerful, so masterful.)

Universal Harvester is even more narratively tricksy than Wolf in White Van, but it seems to me much less harmed by description and analysis, and so I will offer here a few preliminary notes about the novel, with the assumption that you haven't read it but are, for whatever reason, nonetheless curious about its structure and effect.

18 January 2017

Elements of Style for the Age of Blight


Introductory
As the world burns away in political crises and ecological catastrophe, writers strain against meaninglessness, against the sense that their work is nothing more than a few grains of confectionary sugar tossed to a howling wind. What forms might fit our time, what stories might we tell against a future of no-one left to listen to stories?

No other label for where we are and where we’re going as a world seems quite so accurate as the one Kristine Ong Muslim has used for her recent collection of stories, The Age of Blight. It is a book of glimpses, shards, and lost myths; it works like a nightmare recollected during the day before you know the nightmare will return and sleep cannot be kept at bay indefinitely.

The Age of Blight and a thousand books like it will not forestall our own Age of Blight, but Muslim offers strategies for storytelling as the blasted era blightens. Her techniques for writing fiction are ones that make demands on the reader, but they're not the demands made by, for instance, a doorstopper novel flooded by streams of consciousness.




Elementary Rules of Usage
For all the enormity of its subject matter, Muslim’s book is tiny. It gathers 16 short stories in 103 pages (some of which are blank). The effect of reading it is similar to what it might be like to look at snapshots of crumbling insane asylums and quick sketches of endless, festering swamps. Much feels like it’s missing, but we don’t miss it, because it’s easy to imagine what is left out.

And imagination is key here, because imagination may be the only possible way to save ourselves, to find some way to live a good life even as the blight spreads in and outside the text. Solutions are few and far between; beauty rots; but still, we can dream.

Elements of Style for the Age of Blight: 
Omit needless words.


29 December 2016

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell


Garth Greenwell's debut novel What Belongs to You is one of the most celebrated and successful gay novels of 2016. Its success seems to me both odd and gratifying. It is a book that garnered the attention of the literati, and not just the gay literati, though it certainly has that (Edmund White blessed it with a blurb). It received praiseful notice from nearly all the major literary institutions in the U.S. (and elsewhere).

It is a remarkable novel, but were I a literary agent or publisher, much of what makes the novel remarkable would have caused me to assume it would not sell very well and would find, at best, a niche audience. (This is perhaps reason #28,302 that it's good I'm neither a publisher nor an agent!) I don't know the sales figures for What Belongs to You, but it hit the LA Times bestseller list for a couple weeks, got tremendous review coverage, and often seemed to be among the books of the moment — I traveled a lot during 2016, and nearly everywhere I went, somebody mentioned it (perhaps because they knew it was a book I would like). Despite being on New York Times critic Dwight Garner's top 10 list, it didn't make the Times list of 100 Notable Books (nor was it one of their 10 Best Books), it did make LitHub's "Baffling Omissions from the NY Times’ 100 Notable Books List" list, which is good for street cred.

It is, in the Delanyan sense, a book that has accrued an impressive set of literary markers.

22 December 2016

Coetzee: The Life of Writing, The Good Story







by David Attwell
Viking ($27.95)

by J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Viking ($27.95)


In 1977, J.M. Coetzee struggled while beginning the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, because, he wrote in his notebook, he had failed in “the creation of a credible beloved you.” David Attwell explains this mysterious statement as a manifestation of Coetzee’s disaffection with illusionary realism, the kind of writing that pretends textual figures are real. A week later, Coetzee wrote: “I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me. This man MM, as a ‘he’ living in the world, bores me. ‘Creating’ an illusionistic reality in which he moves depresses me. Hence the exhausted quality of the writing.”

Any fiction writer could sympathize with the feeling of frustration when beginning a difficult story, one that seems rich with possibility, but which the writer has not yet found a productive structure for. Coetzee’s frustration was heightened by his disaffection with the most common techniques of fiction. One of the many virtues of Attwell’s  J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, the first book to explore Coetzee’s manuscripts in depth, is that it shows how Coetzee’s novels serve to unite interests and challenges that are sometimes at direct odds with each other.

Waiting for the Barbarians began as an aesthetic challenge, but the challenge was conquered when the world outside the text refused to stay outside, for just as Coetzee was beginning work on the novel, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested, tortured, and killed. The inquest was held in open court, and received international attention. Coetzee kept press clippings about it. Attwell writes that “Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habitation for desire’ that he was looking for… The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climactic self-destruction.”

Attwell shows over and over that the tensions inherent within this two-way process, the dance of world and text, fuels much of Coetzee’s writing, often providing the animating force for his work.

14 December 2016

Shirley Jackson at 100


Today is Shirley Jackson's 100th birthday, and as I think about her marvelous body of writing, I can't help also thinking of the changes in her reputation over the last few decades, or, rather, my perception of the changes in her reputation. For me, she was always a model and a master, but there was a time when that opinion felt lonely, indeed.

I discovered her as so many people discover her: by reading "The Lottery" in school. (Middle school or early high school, I don't remember which.) I loved the story, of course, but it wasn't until I got David Hartwell's extraordinary anthology The Dark Descent for Christmas one year that I really paid attention to Jackson's name, because the book includes the stories "The Summer People" and "The Beautiful Stranger", both of which I read again and again. Around the same time, I read Richard Lupoff's anthology What If? and thus encountered what would become one of my favorite short stories by anyone: "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts". After that, I sought out Jackson's work wherever I could find it.

But it was not easy to find Jackson's books. This was the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I first started looking, nothing seemed to be in print. I got an omnibus edition of her most famous books, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery and other Stories (which ISFDB says was published in 1991; I expect I got it a year or two later). From one of the local libraries (which had hardly anything by Jackson, including the local college library) I was able to read The Magic of Shirley Jackson, which included some of her short stories, The Bird's Nest, and her two collections of humorous family stories (which I didn't pay much attention to). At some point, I got a battered and water-damaged old paperback of The Bird's Nest. I read the library's copy of Judy Oppenheimer's biography.

And that was it. I tried for years to find copies of novels I'd only read descriptions of, particularly Hangsaman and The Sundial, but they seemed not to exist except as expensive listings in used book catalogues.

Jackson was seen as a minor writer. While bookstore shelves filled to bursting with the endless emissions of Updike, Mailer, and their ilk, Jackson was perceived, at least by the literary mainstream, as the weird lady who wrote that story about the village where people stone each other to death ... and that horror novel that they made into a really creepy movie ... and wasn't there something about a castle?

09 December 2016

"Perverse and Uncommercial"


Since my book came out, lots of people have asked me to describe my writing. I'm not good at this. However, having now seen my writing described by reviewers and by common readers, I've got a few ideas about how other people describe it. "Not nice", "disturbing", "bewildering", etc. After a while, I found myself responding with the same two words when people asked what my writing is like. "Perverse and uncommercial," I heard myself say now and again. (I'm sure I have some rejection slips around somewhere that call my writing exactly that.)

I don't know if those terms are exactly true, but they seem to set up the right expectations in readers.

My friend Jeremy John Parker overheard my self-description. Being not only an excellent writer and discerning editor but also a talented designer, he decided there should be clothing, tote bags, mugs, etc. with "perverse and uncommercial" on them. And so there now are.

There are black t-shirts with white lettering and white everythings with grey lettering, should you desire one of your own.

Once I received the shirt I'd ordered (because how could I not order such a shirt?), I decided it was time for a new publicity photo, as seen above.

08 December 2016

The Return of David R. Bunch


In the earliest days of this blog, I declared David R. Bunch to be "unjustly neglected". This was true back then, but not nearly as true as it is today, when all his books are out of print and usually sell for high prices on the secondary market (if you can find them).

After I wrote that post in 2004, Jeff VanderMeer and I started talking about ways to get Bunch back into print. I sought out every stray Bunch story I could find. I tracked down the rightsholder. I typed up a section of Bunch's novel-in-linked-stories Moderan before tendonitis forced me to stop typing much of anything for a few months, and made the thought of returning to typing up Moderan painful. Various obstacles presented themselves. (I started a master's degree. I became series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies. I moved to New Jersey. My father died. I moved back to New Hampshire. Etc.) In amidst it all, I couldn't follow up on the idea of reprinting Bunch, though it was never forgotten by me and a few other folks, at least.

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer moved from one success to another, in terms of Jeff's writing, Ann's editing, and their joint anthology projects. As they began putting together The Big Book of Science Fiction, they thought of Bunch, ultimately reprinting three of his Moderan stories, the first time any Bunch had been reprinted in almost 20 years. 

And then they wondered if maybe they could find a way to do what we'd dreamed of doing more than a decade ago: Bringing Bunch back into print.

Their tremendous efforts have now paid off. New York Review of Books Classics will publish a new edition of Bunch's Moderan, possibly with some previously uncollected and/or unpublished Moderan stories (Bunch kept writing about Moderan after the book was published, and always dreamed of a complete Moderan volume. It's too early to say whether this edition will be able to be that).

23 November 2016

Against the Chill


Hopefully, someday my contribution to peace
Will help just a bit to turn the tide
And perhaps I can tell my children six
And later on their own children
That at least in the future they need not be silent
When they are asked, "Where was your mother, when?" 
—Pete Seeger, "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage"
Faculty and grad students at my university are being targeted by right-wing groups who publicize their names and contact information because these faculty and students have criticized racist and sexist acts on campus. The Women's Studies department in particular has been attacked in the state newspaper for the crime of offering supplies to students who were participating in a protest against Donald Trump. The president of our university just sent out an email giving staff and students information about what to do if they are attacked. Numerous students have reported being harassed, spat upon, told they'd be deported, etc.

The right wing detests many segments of academia. The basic idea of women's studies programs, ethnic studies programs, queer studies programs, etc. are anathema to them, but right-wing vitriol is not limited to the humanities — ask a climate scientist what life is like these days.

These trends are not new, but they are emboldened and concentrated by the success of Donald Trump and the nazis, klansmen, and various troglodytes associated with him. Hate crimes are on the rise. The media, trapped in the ideology of false equivalence, terrified of losing access to people in power, besotted by celebrity, makes white supremacists look like GQ models and ends up running headlines questioning if Jews are people. Things will only get worse.

The chilling effect is already strong.

Within the last few days, I've heard from a number of academics (some with tenure) who say they are being very careful. They're changing their social media habits (in some cases, deleting their social media accounts altogether), making themselves less accessible, being careful not to show any political partiality around their students. They need their jobs, after all. They have bills to pay, kids to support, lives to live. Just yesterday, one of my friends was called in to a meeting with a dean to discuss a Tweet from her personal account, a Tweet I had to read three times before I could figure out what in it might ever be construed as "misrepresenting the university". She's got tenure, at least, so she might be safe for now. For now.

17 November 2016

BLP, Blood, and the ACLU



My publisher, Black Lawrence Press, has announced that for every book they sell through their website from now through the end of the year, they will donate $1 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

I will match this for my own book, Blood: Stories, meaning that every copy sold through the BLP website will also send $2 to the ACLU.

I'm an ACLU member, and pleased with this choice of an organization to support because so many of BLP's authors are among the groups targeted by harassment, civil rights violations, and hate crimes — all of which are on the rise and likely to continue rising.

13 November 2016

Out of the Past



In the archives of the New York Times, materials about Germany and the rise of the Nazis to power are vast. It would take days to read through it all. Though it would be an informative experience, I don't have the time to do so at the moment, but I was curious to see the general progression of news and opinion as it all happened.

Here are a few items that stuck out to me as I skimmed around:

1932
7 February