16 March 2017

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge



When I heard, a few months ago, that Paul La Farge's new novel would be about H.P. Lovecraft, I groaned. For one thing, I don't care about Lovecraft (no, more than that: I actively dislike Lovecraft's writing, life, everything); for another, there's a boom in people writing about Lovecraft these days. Good writers, too! Not just the hacks of fandom churning out their unintentionally almost-funny imitations, not just cretins of the sort who bought Weird Tales because they would rather run it into the ground than have anybody taint its legacy with stories that aren't imitations of Lovecraft — no, I'm talking about good writers, interesting writers, original writers, and—

Ugh, I just don't get it. And then comes the announcement about Paul La Farge, a writer I've enjoyed for almost twenty years now, ever since a friend of mine spent some time at the MacDowell Colony when he was there and told me, "There's a guy here who writes weird surrealist stuff you'd like," and when I went to visit her we stopped by the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough and I picked up a copy of The Artist of the Missing, read it, liked it (a bit too closely imitative of Kafka/Calvino/Borges, but well done), then later bought his next novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction, which felt really original to me at the time, almost vertiginously so, as I hardly knew how to get my bearings with it, mostly because it was about histories I knew nothing about, but it haunted me. And then The Facts of Winter, a beautiful book of shimmering weird dreamstuff, lovely and yet also insubstantial. (I missed Luminous Airplanes somehow.) There were also various fun essays and interesting short stories that I caught here or there.

Thus, for some time now, La Farge's name has been one of the few that will induce me to pick up a book or magazine on the strength of his byline alone. His writing and his perspective are singular.

But ... Lovecraft? What was going on? Was he tired of suffering the obscurity of the highly literate, esoteric writer, and now wanted to jump on the apparent gravy train of Lovecraftianity? Everybody's got to eat, so good for him, but what was I to do, I who wanted to read Paul La Farge's new novel but...? And it has such a great Lynd Ward-ish cover... And...

And then, out of the blue, a publicist from Penguin Press asked me if I wanted a copy. What could I say? It wouldn't cost me anything. I could take a look at the first 25 pages or so and if it was too Lovecrafty, I could just pass the book on to one of the many people I know who (inexplicably!) are fascinated by old HPL and find enjoyment in reading his fiction. Sure, I said. Send it along.

08 March 2017

Selecting Woolf's Essays


It is time for a capacious, authoritative one-volume selection of Virginia Woolf's essays and journalism. (Perhaps one is in preparation. I don't know.) The sixth and final volume of her collected essays was released in 2011. It is wondrous, as are all of the volumes in the series, but though it's a goldmine for scholars, the series isn't really aimed at the everyday reader; each volume is relatively expensive (though not to the extent of an academic volume, e.g. the Cambridge Editions), and plenty of the material is ephemeral, repetitive, or esoteric.

A one-volume Selected Essays does exist, edited by David Bradshaw and published by Oxford World's Classics. It's better than nothing, but it's small and missing many of Woolf's best essays — including perhaps her single most-frequently-reprinted essay, "The Death of the Moth". Bradshaw also slights Woolf's literary essays, perhaps because the two Common Reader volumes remain in print. Also in print is Michèle Barnett's Women and Writing, and it's a pretty good selection, but as the title suggests, the focus is specific. (And in any case the selection was made in 1979, and Woolf scholarship has developed a lot since then. The authoritative Essays volumes didn't even start appearing until 1986.)

In 1993, Penguin published a two-volume selection of the essays edited by Rachel Bowlby. For what I assume were reasons of copyright, it was only released in the UK. It's a very good selection of 55 essays total (25 more than Bradshaw), though each volume was a little under 200 pages in length, so it could easily have been a single book.

I've been thinking about what it would be useful to have in a new Selected Essays, one built from the now complete Essays volumes. It deserves to be bigger than any of the selections so far, though not so gigantic that it's unwieldy. After all, it's drawing from thousands of pages of material. I would lean toward a length of 400-500 pages, say 150,000 words or so.

Any imagined table of contents I create must be highly provisional at best, subject to the vagaries of memory and personal taste, but as I think about it, I realize I do have some thought about what would be useful for students and, perhaps most importantly, for ordinary readers to have as a collection of Woolf's essays.

07 March 2017

45 Years


Andrew Haigh wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the century so far, Weekend, and his 2015 movie 45 Years is based on David Constantine's breathtaking short story "In Another Country" — as rich and perfect a story as you're ever likely to read.

For these reasons, I put off seeing the movie for a long time, because I feared it could not live up to my hopes and expectations for it.

And no, it couldn't live up to my hopes and expectations, and my hopes and expectations did, indeed, get in the way — but it's still an impressive film. In particular, the performances and the cinematography are magnificent.

The plot of 45 Years is simple, and starts right from the second scene: An older couple, Kate and Geoff, are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, having not been able to celebrate their 40th because of Geoff's heart bypass surgery. That week, Geoff receives an official letter letting him know that a body has been found encased in a melting glacier: the body of Katya, his girlfriend before he met Kate. He and Katya were hiking in Switzerland in 1962 when Katya fell into a crevasse. Kate knew this story, but hasn't thought about it in many years. Geoff explains to Kate that to make their traveling easier, he and Katya had told people they were married, and thus he was the next of kin, a detail Kate claims she never knew. The rest of the film is about the tension that then enters Kate and Geoff's relationship because of this new knowledge. Geoff can't stop obsessing about his past with Katya, and Kate is somehow deeply threatened and hurt by it all.

The problem I encountered after a first viewing of 45 Years was that I just didn't buy the premise. This is strange, because it's the same premise as the short story. But Constantine's emphases are rather different from those of the movie — his concern in the story, and in much of his writing, is at least as much with the passing of time and the power of memory as it is in the characters' relationship. The ending is entirely different (very powerful, very sad).

28 February 2017

"We must remain readers..."

photo by Black Cat Books


Virginia Woolf, from "How Should One Read a Book":
We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

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.