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Showing posts from 2018

A Writer of Our TIme by Joshua Sperling

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Over the last few years, Verso released Portraits and Landscapes, two collections of John Berger's writings edited by Tom Overton, who is writing a biography of Berger. Meanwhile, Verso recently published Joshua Sperling's A Writer of Our Time, subtitled "The Life and Work of John Berger". It's partly a biography, partly a critical study, partly a tribute — and works well as each, so long as the partly is emphasized. In his introduction, Sperling says one of the goals of the book is to "provide a fuller picture of Berger's development", and that it does admirably.

Though I look forward eagerly to Overton's biography and I hope that fuller critical studies appear, Sperling's book is tremendously useful and welcome now as we reckon with Berger's legacy. Sperling says that Berger's "stature is undisputed, but the total significance of his work is often misunderstood. He simply produced too dizzying an array of forms for a culture …

Patriot (Seasons 1 and 2)

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Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous. —Nathanael West, Day of the Locust

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I want to say a few words in praise of the Amazon Prime show Patriot, which I never would have watched without a friend saying how strange, surprising, and affecting it is. Because of work and life, I haven't been able to read any fiction more than the occasional short story for a month or so now — my brain is pulled in too many other directions for me to hold a novel's details in mind — and few movies or tv shows have felt like anything other than loud wallpaper. This state of mind probably contributed to my appreciation of Patriot, as its mood fit so well with my own moment.

Patriot does not seem to have gathered many viewers, at least not among people I know or critics I read. (Amazon, like other services, doesn't release viewing numbers, so we can only use anecdotal evidence to guess about popularity or lack of it.) Season 1 got noticed here and there, Season 2 less so. In a media envi…

Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney

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My mother died on November 3, 2018. She was, in so many ways, my first reader and my first editor. Five days before her death, she asked me to write her something to read. I went home that night and wrote the following essay. I brought it to her the next day. Her eyesight had weakened, and she didn't have a lot of stamina, but she was able to read a couple paragraphs of it. It turned out to be the last thing I wrote while my mother was alive. I read it at her memorial service, and numerous people asked to have a copy of it, so I am posting it here for all who are interested. 


Ghosts
by Matthew Cheney

A reader of horror stories, and a fan of horror movies, I am familiar with ghosts and hauntings. As I’ve grown older, though, it seems strange to me that ghosts are typically represented as frightening, that being haunted is considered undesireable.

Certainly, screaming banshees flying through the ruins of gothic mansions at midnight aren’t exactly comforting. But I’m thinking of a dif…

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

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Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House is not an adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. The miniseries is a work of its own, separate, unique — but haunted by The Haunting of Hill House. And not only The Haunting of Hill House: the miniseries is also haunted by the first adaptation of Jackson's novel, the classic 1963 film The Haunting, and by numerous other stories and movies (The Legend of Hell House, The Shining, etc.).

During the first few episodes, I thought the connection to Jackson's novel was unnecessary, perhaps even burdensome. I assumed somebody had bought the rights and then, through the tortuous (and torturous) process of Hollywood development, the novel got more and more distant from the project while remaining contractually bound to it. Perhaps, I thought, Flanagan was able to do with this property what he'd done with Ouija: Origin of Evil and convince the producers to let him make the movie he wanted t…

Elsewhere

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I've mostly neglected The Mumpsimus this summer because I've been working on other things, including another blog, one related to and in support of my new job as Interim Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University: a blog called Finite Eyes.

I have drafts of a couple of uncompleted blog posts for this site, and I do hope to get around to finishing them, but I'm not sure when, as the busy-ness of learning a rather big new job does not leave lots of time for extra reading and writing. I'm also trying to turn my dissertation into a book worthy of proposing to a publisher, and this process has proved immensely time consuming and slow. So not a lot going on here, Mumpsimus readers, and not likely to be a lot for the foreseeable future. (Though there will be some, I'm sure, now and then.)

Donald Hall (1928-2018)

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Years ago, I picked up a couple of issues of Poetry magazine that Donald Hall had gotten rid of. I don't remember where. A yard sale or library sale, maybe. A random table in a random shop, a random shelf in a random hallway. I have no idea. I remember, though, that I almost passed them by. But I happened to look at the address label. Donald Hall. Eagle Pond Farm. Danbury, NH. No bookish New Hampshire native would have been able to resist.

If you aren't from New Hampshire, or don't live in New Hampshire, Donald Hall's name may not mean a lot to you — maybe you know he's a poet, maybe you remember a children's book he wrote, maybe you read one of his essays in The New Yorker, maybe you heard him on NPR, maybe, maybe...

But for us New Hampshirites, Donald Hall is poetry. His death at the age of eighty-nine (a few months short of his ninetieth birthday) feels, in a literary sense, as monumental as the day the Old Man of the Mountain fell to rubble.

Writing in Crisis

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I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction.  —Virginia Woolf, The PargitersPreface
It seems my doctoral dissertation has hit the ProQuest dissertations databases, so now is perhaps a useful time to say a few words about it here. First, the details for finding it, since there doesn't seem to be an openly accessible link: The title is Lessoning Fiction: Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form, and it is Dissertation/thesis number 10786319 and ProQuest document ID 2056936547. (If you don't have access to any of those databases and would like a copy of the manuscript, feel free to email me and I will send you a PDF.)

Here's the abstract:
Writers committed to Modernist ideas of artistic autonomy may find that commitment challenged during times of socio-political crisis. This dissertation explores three writers who developed a similar literary strategy at such times: they pushed fictionality toward and beyond its limits, but ultimately preserved that fictionality, re…

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

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The first rejection letter I ever got was from Gardner Dozois. I was in 6th grade and had just learned about submitting stories to magazines; I had also just started reading my mother's boss's copies of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which Dozois had recently become editor of. I don't remember anything about the story I submitted, but I'm sure it was awful. I don't think I expected it to be accepted, because what I most remember is how excited I was to get a letter from the editor. My parents were kind and didn't tell me it was a form letter, nor that the signature was printed onto it, not written by the editor himself. I brought it to school to show my teacher. She, too, very kindly did not tell me that thousands of people likely got just this same letter. (After a few more submissions, I figured it out.)

Dozois also edited what may be the single most important anthology in my life: The Year's Best Science Fiction, Third Annual Collection, w…

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vanana Singh

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For the Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote about one of my favorite recent collections of short stories, Vandana Singh's Ambiguity Machines, published by the great Small Beer Press:
There is a stately elegance to all the stories collected in Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Singh’s second collection after The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Both books are rich with models of what science fiction can achieve as well as models of the short story as a form. Even when she is writing about far-future, faster-than-light-traveling aliens, Singh never resorts to the clichés familiar from space opera unless to undo them, never forces fast pacing with staccato sentences and short paragraphs, never plays gotcha! with the reader. Singh is a scientist — a professor of physics — and all of her stories show a scientist’s determination to develop ideas carefully and responsibly.  Yet Singh is also an artist, a writer who evokes sensual wonders in musical prose. Hers i…

Compulsory Genres

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In writing about Brian Evenson's book about Raymond Carver, I noted that both Evenson and I first read Carver right around the time we first read Kafka and Beckett, and we did so without knowledge of the contemporary American fiction writers he's often set alongside (e.g. Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, etc.). Later, I gained that context and, consequently, the context I'd originally brought faded, which is one reason why Brian's book so effectively brought Carver back to me — which is to say, it brought a way of reading Carver back to me. I don't mind the American writers Carver typically gets grouped with, but I'd be lying if I said their work really excites me. Kafka and Beckett, on the other hand, are among a very small group of 20th century writers whose work I am in awe of, work that I feel utterly incapable of writing about analytically, work that I can only point to and say, "That. Whatever great literature is, it must surely be that."

Now, Carver…

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

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At the end of my recent post about Raymond Carver, I noted the influence of James Purdy on Carver and Gordon Lish, an influence I hadn't paid attention to before. Coincidental to my rereading of Carver, I picked up a copy of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy. Over the years, I've read and enjoyed (or at least admired) a number of Purdy's novels, but only a couple of his stories. Roaming around in The Complete Short Stories, I was stunned, overwhelmed. It was a similar feeling as I had when I first picked up The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector — an impression of a vast, original, surprising oeuvre revealed and tantalizing, like standing at the edge of an extraordinary landscape: knowing that what is in front of you is unlike anything you've seen before, and that more wonder lies on the other side of the horizon.
There's more in Purdy's Complete Stories than I have time or inclination to delve into here, from brief stunners like "Sound of Talk…

"The Reader Awakes" in Woolf Studies Annual

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My academic essay "The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years" has now been published in Woolf Studies Annual volume 24 in a special section devoted to the late Jane Marcus. Here's the abstract:
This essay considers Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years as a text in which the aesthetic functions pedagogically to train the receptive reader’s imagination toward liberation from oppressive literary and social structures. This interpretation develops from implications within Jane Marcus’s reading of Woolf’s later writings and seeks an understanding of how we might continue to learn to read The Years. Marcus proposed that the form of Three Guineas, which required “much noisy page turning”, was key to the way it sought to teach readers to read and, thus, to think. This insight can be applied to The Years to develop an idea of the novel’s subversive pedagogy: the way it teaches readers to imagine new alternatives to old forms and exhausted ideol…

Reading Raymond Carver Now

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[May is National Short Story Month. I have no idea who declared it such, but for years I've paid attention to it thanks to Dan Wickett and the Emerging Writers Network. Last year, I wrote about John Keene's sentences for EWN. This year, I thought I'd write some quick posts about stories and writers I've been reading and rereading. This is the first.]

Put Yourself in My Shoes
After finishing my doctoral dissertation a month ago, I found myself with free time to read whatever I wanted, a luxury that has been rare over the last five years. The only things I wanted to read were short stories. I needed to clear my mind of all the words and ideas and feelings that the nearly-500 entries in my dissertation's bibliography mapped, the years of skimming and mining books and also reading books over and over, slowly, carefully; both exhausting practices that developed an  intellectual armature I now felt weighed down by. One of the central topics of my dissertation is the novel…

God's Own Country

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The revelatory, and perhaps even revolutionary, power of Francis Lee's film God's Own Country resides not in the plot, which follows a formula familiar for centuries, but in the absence of conflicts we have been trained to expect by other narratives. It is a film that has inevitably been marketed as a story of gay farmers, a kind of Brokeback Yorkshire — but the wonder is that it is not that, not at all. Brokeback Mountain is all about the pain of repressed love and socially unacceptable lives. In God's Own Country, love may be repressed, but it is not because of same-sex desire, and there are elements of life that are socially sanctioned, but not because of homosexuality. When it comes to farming in northern England, there are far bigger conflicts and problems than how two guys have sex.

This is not, though, one of those awful "gays are just like straights!" movie-of-the-week stories in which two people elicit all the feels by demonstrating that just because yo…

A Conversation with Nathan Alling Long

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Nathan Alling Long is the author of the flash-fiction collection The Origin of Doubt, recently published by Press 53. Timothy Liu said of the collection, "He blurs the lines between flash fictions and prose poems. All of a sudden, genre distinctions start to give way, and what we thought we thought we knew is altered, transformed. These stories span the gamut from traditional to queer trans-genre forms, marvelous to behold in times like these when political discourses and abuses of language have sunk to unforeseen lows."

Nathan's writings have appeared in a wide range of publications and venues, including Glimmer Train,Tin House, The SunStory Quarterly, Strange Tales V, and NPR. He has taught at various schools; currently, he teaches creative writing, literature, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stockton University. Though he has lived all around the country, and traveled all over the world, he now lives in Philadelphia.

I met Nathan in the summer of 2000 wh…

Virginia Woolf's Final Decade

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Today is the anniversary of Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. Tomorrow, I defend a doctoral dissertation with a chapter on Woolf's 1937 novel The Years, and I have spent much of last few years studying Woolf's writings and life in the 1930s especially. Here, a few thoughts on that.

Woolf's last decade is under-appreciated both by general readers and by scholars, although there seems to be growing scholarly interest in her final, not-quite-finished novel Between the Acts. ("Under-appreciated" is, of course, relative — Woolf is one of the most-studied writers of the 20th century, and many of her contemporaries don't have even a small percentage of the attention for their entire ouevres that Woolf has for her least-read writings.) The relative lack of interest in Woolf's life and work after The Waves has various sources, many of them having to do with why readers are attracted to Woolf in the first place. Her achievement with Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lightho…

BPM and The Young Karl Marx

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BPM: Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) tells the story of AIDS activists with ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, and its scenes of ACT UP meetings are among the most compelling representations of everyday political planning and argument I know of other than the extraordinary land reform debate scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. (There's also a powerful debate scene in Loach's later The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but Land and Freedom is even more remarkable in my eyes because it so patiently dramatizes a kind of conversation rarely even imagined by most of its likely viewers. Almost any other director would pare such scenes down to soundbites, but Campillo lets us watch discussions play out and doesn't simplify the arguments into pro/con battles. We see the characters react, think, respond.

Even in a movie like Land and Freedom, the narrative starts with a focal character and brings us into the story via that focal character. One of the most revolutionary moves…

Speculative Memoir

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Electric Literature has now published a roundtable discussion between Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and me about a thing we provisionally call "speculative memoir". This began when Sofia had separate conversations with us all over the last couple years about fiction in fact, the creative possibilities of nonfictional writing, the perils and possibilities of memoir, etc. She and I talked for a long time about it when I was first putting together ideas for my dissertation, and I've kept with quite a few of the ideas we originally discussed. (Perhaps no surprise, as my interest in the topic goes back a ways with one of the subjects of my dissertation, J.M. Coetzee.) And as someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, the distinctions always interest me.

Sofia also has a new book out, Monstrous Portraits, "an uncanny and imaginative autobiography of otherness", with drawings by her brother Del. Seek it out!

Under the Lines

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Sometimes I buy a book for its cover, and this is one, a 1979 Bantam edition of Andrew Holleran's classic Dancer from the Dance. The cover ... well, it speaks for itself.

Flipping through the book, I was at first annoyed to see some pages with underlining from a red felt-tipped marker. I find other people's annotations in books extremely distracting to the point where I usually can't even read a page with someone else's notes on it. (My own notes are fine. Its the imposition of someone else's reading experience — someone else's consciousness — that makes it impossible for me.) But then I was intrigued. Only two pages had underlining. Why only two? It wasn't like a textbook, where sometimes you'll find notes in some of the early pages and then nothing later, the student clearly having given up. No, these were pages 73 and 75. One sentence on each page.

A Sparkling Sentence

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This year is Muriel Spark'scentenary, and it's been fun to encounter the various tributes to her. I decided to reread The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most famous book, because I haven't read it in twenty years or so, though much of it remains vivid in my memory. It was my first Spark, and while I think I appreciated the sharpness of her language at the time, I valued other things in the book. Rereading it now, it is her sentences that amaze me most, because I've learned over the years that one of the greatest pleasures in reading Spark is the pleasure of watching her make complex linguistic acts look easy.

Here's an example that I stand in awe of, a single sentence that is a short story unto itself: Even stupid Mary Macgregor amazed herself by understanding Caesar’s Gallic Wars which as yet made no demands on her defective imagination and the words of which were easier to her than English to spell and pronounce, until suddenly one day it appeared, from an essay…

Ursula Le Guin: In Your Dreams, In Your Ideas...

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1. I am writing this on Virginia Woolf's 136th birthday. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died a few days ago, was a lifelong reader of Woolf's work, and the trace of Woolf's writing and thinking can be found not only throughout Le Guin's essays, but also in her fiction, different as it is in style and substance from Woolf's own. Le Guin not only read the famous novels, but she also cherished some of the works that get less notice these days, including Three Guineas, a fierce critique of patriarchy and militarism, the Woolf book that I think most deserves a revival in our cruel, murderous era.

It's likely that I started reading Woolf because of Le Guin. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I had heard that Le Guin was among the greatest of science fiction writers, so I sought out her work, and the library had some anthologies with her short stories in them (The Hugo Winners volumes, Again, Dangerous Visions, etc.) as well as her essay collection The Language of the Night,…