Tag: US lit

Single para masterclass

Toni Morrison
Vintage, 2004

The opening paragraph of BELOVED is like the entire strange and beautiful novel in haiku form.

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away form the lively spite the house felt for them.

Not a condensation in terms of what happens, but all the modern operations the text will make. “124 was spiteful” is as interesting as it’s confusing. The reader can’t quite grasp what the opening sentences are really referring to. “Full of a baby’s venom”: baby’s venom is so striking that personally I missed the indefinite article, baby’s venom. Even if you know that this story is based on the Margaret Garner incident I imagine it takes a little extra reading labor to comprehend this curtain-opener. That the first sentence is personifying their house, which will become a motif opening all three parts, is pushed toward the bottom.

We learn who the main players are and that two sons have run away, making 124 a feminine space.

We learn how the ghost of the baby works: it can do poltergeist-like things, and it’s also capable of “relief periods” from weeks to months at a time. Later on we see that the ghost is capable of violence, bashing the poor dog’s eye out: if she can do that to a doggie… That’s the main reason why Beloved’s return is really scary: it’s not that kind of novel, but you feel she could murder everybody and turn it into a horror story (it does have elements of southern gothic without the trappings).

“Within two months, in the dead of winter, [Buglar and Howard] leaving their grandmother…” it’s a slight time jump, from the present action of 1873 to an indeterminate span of two months when the boys run away. There are no plot lines but more like arc segments composing the circle containing a great trauma. It doesn’t feel unfair to defer the trauma to the middle of the book, because this is not the mediocre type of mainstream literary novel that simply leads us on to it: it has lots of other events and backstories going on. BELOVED is both on the McCaffrey 100 and Elias’s metahistorical romance: it’s both an ambitious Great American statement, and an experimental historical fiction. In the latter case, these are the best kinds, the ones that refuse narrative uniformity, which makes the past safe to consume.

Modernist experimentation bears witness to the past in a way that highlights the parts of history that defy representation, and highlight the responsibility it puts on us. Morrison’s 3rd person limited narrator cleverly re-plays the incident of infanticide, Rashomon style, from different viewpoints, including that of the racist posse. Each time we inhabit a new character, except for the white people, we’re get a sympathetic presentation of their ethical stance, and there’s a variety of them. Sethe is more insulted by the forcing of her breast milk to other babies than physical violence, and that may or may not be how we and other characters see it.

The last bit about the opening paragraph is that it tells us Ohio has only been a state for seventy years. This is the narrator working like the Prologue for an Elizabethan play, we are in the author’s present in the late 80s, poised to voyage out.


Must we mean what we telepathically say?

Theodore Sturgeon
Vintage, 1999

Sturgeon’s novel is the most classically SF work on the McCaffery 100, and it helped explain why the commentary I read about him stress the short fiction. This book is actually a fix-up, common during the 50s, and the transition from pulp to book-length publishing, with short pieces getting anthologized into “novels.” MTH is made of three novellas, “The Fabulous Idiot,” “Baby is Three,” and “Morality,” and the form fits the theme: the novel is bearing witness to a gestalt, multiple human bodies comprising a single organism, the next stage in our evolution.

Homo gestaltus arises in the country side, with children and adults developing ESP, teleportation, and telekinesis — strikingly, it includes two little black girls with the rest of the white children, striking given that it was written in the eaerly 50s. The issues of integration are baked into the book’s structure, but I figure it caught the eye of McCaffery because it resonates so much with early 20th century theories, namely phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

 The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (1)

These great opening lines introduce Lone, a mute. “many-windowed” is an elegant way to de-familiarize clothes with holes, voids that expose and reveal but also admit light and with it perception.

The narrator is descriptive but struggles to articulate the “thing” inside Lone:

All around it, to its special senses, was a murmur, a sending. It soaked itself in the murmur, absorbed it as it came, all of it. Perhaps it matched and classified, or perhaps it simply fed, taking what it needed and discarding the rest in some intangible way. The idiot was unaware. The thing inside. …

Without words: Warm when the wet comes for a little but not enough for long enough. (Sadly): Never dark again. A feeling of pleasure. A Sense of subtle crushing and Take away the pink, the scratchy. Wait, wait, you can go back, yes, you can go back. Different, but almost as good. (Sleep feelings): Yes, that’s it! That’s the — oh! (Alarm): You’ve gone too far, come back, come back, come — (A twisting, a sudden cessation; and one less “voice.”)… It all rushes up, faster, faster, carrying me. (Answer): No, no. Nothing rushes. It’s still; something pulls you down on to it, that’s all(Fury): They don’t here us, stupid, stupid…they do…They don’t, only crying, only noises.

Without words, though. Impression, depression, dialogue. Radiations of fear, tense fields of awareness, discontent. (3)

Lone does not yet understand that he can read minds, and is picking up the infantile psychic utterances of the children of the gestalt. The first novella is a bracing string of micro scenes with space breaks — more narrative/thematic dis-integration, and the novel racing to set up all the dominoes which fall across the next two, leisurely paced sections.

I like how the text dives headfirst into the question of thinking and language, stating that psychic thoughts arrive “without words” then immediately proceeding to put them into words. If I could send a message directly to the mind, it seems too easy to imagine a verbal utterance in one’s head, like when a movie puts reverb on an actor’s line. Would it be an incomprehensible mush of abstract feelings and organic sensations? To me the novel argues that however telepathy works here, it operates as a linguistic code, which can be represented with words and tampered with via psychoanalysis and recovery of the repressed.

After an important contact with Alicia Kew, who grew up under an unltra-repressive father,  Lone, mauled and nearly unconscious, is taken in by a kind farmer couple named the Prodds. And indeed they prod him into speech, and raise him as a surrogate son. He leaves them when he can read that they want him gone, but still visits. After breakfast one day:

When he was finished they all sat around the table and for a time nobody said anything. Lone looked into Prodd’s eyes and found He’s a good boy but not the kind to set around and visit. He couldn’t understand the visit imagea vague and happy blur of conversation — sounds and laughter. He recognized this as one of the many lacks he was aware of in himself — lacks, rather than inadequacies; things he could not do and would never be able to o. So he just asked Prodd for the ax and went out. (41)

Brazenly, the word “visit” is categorized as an “image.” If that seems too easy, I think it’s in the service of lucid but not too conventional narration: it highlights the formal sound patterns embedded in language like a structuralist would, as well as the signifying nature of “visions” from the unconscious, as a psychoanalyst would.

Delany has a sophisticated, semiotic distinction between SF and so-called literature, but for simplicity I’ll just say that SF as a genre (genre itself being a bundle of historical assumptions constantly being undermined) is preoccupied with questions of technology. Like I said about Butler’s “Speech Sounds”, language can be related to as a technology in SF. Paul de Man described language as both the material and the tool; it’s embedded in the world as we perceive it, yet fundamentally different from reality. And despite reading and writing being solitary and silent activities, language is fundamentally a social tool.

We shall welcome the gestalt (and the anti-gravity engine, but that’s a McGuffin) as the purest expression of this aporia that has conditioned our existence. It may be clear why SF fans stick with the short stories, but it’s also clear why Delany, in his Paris Review interview, included Sturgeon with Bester, Zelazny, Russ, and Disch as science fiction’s high brow crew.

mass effect

Hannah Arendt
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985

Since the rise of international fascism has become more unequivocal than it already was, I figured it was a good time to revisit Arendt’s TOTALITARIANISM, or just the first chapter anyway. Anti-Semitism is as relevant now as then, but she devotes volume one of her ORIGINS trilogy to that concept. Most importantly I wanted to look at the role aesthetics and culture play in her political theory. In times like these, what is a writer to do?

She argues that the crisis opening the 20th century entailed the dissolution of class society into the mass society, which was then mobilized by demagogues into totalitarian movements, which are distinct from fascist movements but not in the least incompatible. Obviously economic classes still exist, but there is a new sense that the people are not bound together by overarching socioeconomic interests or even national identity. What does bind the masses together? That involves a lot of concepts that are hard for me to keep together, being the product of an American education — ideology grew up differently (more overtly) over here than in the old world, where class was more salient.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party… The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. (10)

The dissolution of class solidarity means the middle classes (who are especially squished in underdeveloped places like Germany, Russia, and China relative to Western capitalist democracies) are atomized, isolated, and fraught with existential loneliness. They are indifferent to the sham of bourgeois electoral politics. Atomized populations serve totalitarians because anybody’s willing to snitch on anybody. Fuck You Got Mine is their anthem.

But if atomized citizens care about nothing besides covering their own ass, there is also a desire to abandon this private existence. A desire to abandon the self into a greater purpose, or for a Dear Leader, extraordinary but also an unpretentious everyman. T.E. Lawrence abandoned himself by identifying with the Arab revolt and wearing a fabulous white costume. Self-abandonment was an escape from a stultifying, complacent bourgeois order.

We can see how the concepts that define the mass society, atomization/apathy and radical selflessness, lead into its aesthetic project: the all-out attack against bourgeois liberal hypocrisy. “You are a special, unique, self-contained individual human being, and you can make your human nature into anything you want it to be.” Where else would such lies come from other than the liberals?

Such an attack pleased both “the mob” which for Arendt is like the underbelly of the bourgeois, and the “elites”, the ruling class. The latter took “genuine delight” in how the former “destroyed respectability” (31). People knew what these European empires were doing in the African colonies, and the opium wars in China, and the brutal sugar plantations in Latin America; they knew what level of systemic barbarism sustained civilization in its extreme boredom. Who could really know the troubles seen by black and PoC who bear the weight of this history? If you’re a liberal, you duly feel pity. If you’re a fascist, or at least mobilized into a totalitarian movement, then you resent pity and its “very boundlessness, which seems to kill human dignity with a more deadly certainty than misery itself” (27).

It is more refreshing to explicitly embrace “violence, power, cruelty,” as “the supreme capacities of men” (28). That a theory of individualism could flourish under an economic system that turns people into cogs in mechanized slaughter and leave its beneficiaries isolated was an aporia to be rid of. Civilized language and behavior was unmanly. Official history and intellectual doctrines were lies. Terrorism was a beautiful expression of one’s existence frustrated by the powers that be. Fascism then undoes the liberal humanist screen that covers up the violence of the economic system, so that these forces can be fully unleashed. It shreds the form of capitalism to free its content. Liberals who equate militants with the fascists they oppose in public are confusing form with content.

Anyway, to the question of art. Arendt discusses avant-garde theories in light of totalitarianism. (This doesn’t necessarily mean people like Brecht were totalitarians, art and philosophy often has a bit of autonomy from politics.) Such theories were opposed to the romantic notion of great individual artists. The “elites” were in favor of anonymity as the “mob/masses” were into self-abandonment. Excellence in art was “a product of skill, craftsmanship, logic, and the realization of the potentialities of the material” (30).

Brecht sought to make work  that was properly subversive and radical, to force the hypocritical bourgeois to look in the mirror. He did not anticipate the allegiance between the mob and the ruling class that is possible in a totalitarian age.

The avant-garde did not know they were running their heads not against walls but against open doors, that a unanimous success would belie their claim to being a revolutionary minority, and would prove that they were about to express a new mass spirit or the spirit of the time. (33)

The Threepenny Opera was a success — or at least a sleeper hit. “The bourgeoisie could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy, whose popularity proved they had been right all along, so that the only political result of Brecht’s ‘revolution’ was to encourage everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob” (33).

See also: Tom Wolfe on “Radical Chic.”

The days of truly shocking the Moral Majority are over. Consumer capitalism can incorporate everything, can turn culture and art into commodity and any intellectual force into the next hip lifestyle.

Where this leaves us, I’m not too sure.


the making of the experimental essay(?)

John D’Agata ed.
Greywolf Press, 2016

“Brooklyn Is” by James Agee. D’Agata warns in the intro that “it is ten thousand words long, opening with a series of claustrophobic assertions that give us very little by way of a context. But then, very slowly, those assertions give way to observations, and those observations to scenes” (429).

The first assertion is that the masses of Brooklyn have a look “of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation” (433). More narcotic than the look of people on Manhattan. The island can be seen from Brooklyn, so they may appreciate what they have escaped by keeping it close at hand (with a dark analogy to the traumatized soldier who, on hearing thunder, is compelled to return to “what he has left in France”). Thesis statement: “All escapes are relative, and bestow their own peculiar forms of bondage.”

Agee has an excessive rhetoric and diction. He points out that urban life is host to many “horizontalities” and provincialism, but follows up with a jawbreaker sentence:

And again, this small-city quality is confused in the deep underground atomic drone of the intertextured procedures upon blind time of more hundreds on hundreds of thousands  of compacted individual human existences than the human imagination can comprehend or bear to comprehend. (434)

Yes, tons of people live in a close space in the city. The sentence overwhelms the prior insight, that a small-town dynamic exists in your city life (you go out and see the same doorman in your apartment, the same folks working the pizza joint around the corner, the same woman behind the desk at the local library branch etc).

“Deep underground atomic drone,” “intertextured procedures upon blind time,” “compacted individual human existences…” The third phrase could be easily condensed; the other two are verbose in a way that pushes from a philosophical gloominess into a near Lovecraftian scale of horror. This is why we love Agee.

Excess is the word. And I don’t just mean excess to describe his following sentences, all strung together by the conjunction or, often solid blocks on the page. There is also an excess of his language beyond his topic. Such an excess would be expected from the literature of Agee’s time, but if literature goes after an aesthetic “truth,” nonfiction of a journalist tradition has to get the facts — wouldn’t the techniques and rhetoric of literary prose get in the way?

Of course this is a false dilemma.  We know newspapers are often full of shit. And while we expect novels to be imaginative, they can also stuff themselves with facts, making them a welcome component of their imaginative projects. When Agee gives us a multi-paragraphed parenthesis,

(Observing the subway stations, in any part of Brooklyn, not in an hour of rush but in the leisured evening, you see this; how, wherever there is a choice of staircases, one toward Manhattan, one away, without thought or exception they descend the staircase toward the island. An imaginative designer would have foreseen this and would have omitted the alternatives entirely. [435]

I feel teased. So far Agee has given us this scientistic top-down yet opinionated view, and now moves into over-intellectual travelogue. No, having the Manhattan-bound and Brooklyn-bound lines in the same station is convenient. Just because the “fact” exists that Agee’s seen more folks using the island-bound stairs does not necessarily contain a normalizing “imaginative” value of island-bound stairs only. So this tease opens up the fact/value problem, which I think any reflective or experimental essay would touch on.

D’Agata tells us that Agee wrote to a friend (but he doesn’t cite it and I can’t find it elsewhere) that he has “a total suspicion of both ‘creative’ and ‘reportorial’ attitudes and methods, which therefore will require the development of more or less an entirely new form of writing.” Perhaps his beef was that the “creative” and the “reportorial” emphasize one or the other — too easy a solution for this dialectical relationship.

That new form may be a more eclectically structured essay, like the ones written by Susan Howe. They don’t have the rigor of theory or philosophy, but to use theory jargon, in their disorder they illuminate the materiality of lived experience.

The new form is like Agee’s description of Brooklyn: “though it has a ‘center,’ and hands, and eyes, and feet, it is chiefly no whole or recognizable animal but an exorbitant pulsing mass of scarcely discernible cellular jellies and tissues; a place where people merely ‘live'” (434).

And so he gives us information, but not in a way that adds up to a body. The info tumbles by in massive sentences, paratactically, with words like “gracilities,” referring to the animals in the Brooklyn zoo. It’s not an archaic word, just formal beyond belief (and the exact opposite of Agee’s style). It’s beautifully written information, but if people read nonfiction for the information, is the style superfluous at least for some? Maybe this question needs a reader-response theory, and I may have to close the books by dead smart people and head out to where people merely live.

gradual making


Ordered these two used anthologies some weeks back, but it’s D’Agata’s book this post will focus on.

The table of contents raised my eyebrows enough that I had to check it out: John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”? one of Dickinson’s letters? pieces from works of fiction like MOBY DICK or Irving’s satirical “History of New York”? There’s an implication that the essayistic can exist in any other prose form.

Of course, D’Agata is at pains to emphasize the creativity of nonfiction, making is drilled home as the central concept and it was only almost annoying. Three imperative epigraphs from Whitman, Pound, and Ashbery: Make it simple, make it new, make it sweet again.  Yes, there is an irreducible element of fiction in the writing of history or essays. But D’Agata’s introductions to each essay seemed reticent to develop this insight further. I started to feel like the idea was intended to seem more controversial than I thought it was.

But the aspects of this book that frustrated me are also what make it interesting as an experimental kind of anthology. Traditional pedagogy doesn’t seem to be on the book’s agenda. Sure there’s canonical things like White’s “Once More to the Lake” and Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” but also terribly obscure work: it was interesting to go with “Portrait of Picasso” rather than something meaty from Stein’s Lectures in America, or a sports piece from Baldwin instead of “Notes of a Native Son.”

D’Agata’s introductory pieces could be coyly ambiguous, even subversive. There’s one intro for a non-existent essay. His remarks for Mark Twain’s book length essay “Letters from the Earth” amount to two sentences explaining the maritime meaning of “mark twain.” It’s not until later (I’ve read all the introductions before reading all the pieces) that D’Agata more explicitly connects the pieces — they are a fragmented essay stringing along these essays, in chronological order, from personal narratives and aphorisms to modernist avant-gardeism to new journalism.

A few of them explicitly provide context for the essays, but the vast majority of the time they only indirectly address the formal concerns of the essay or its historical situation. The book is divided into years, but they don’t seem to correspond to when the pieces were published. One inspiring intro comes before “In the Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, a paratactic string of sentences with nothing in common except they refer to things in the fifties. D’Agata discusses the historical amnesia rapidly enforced by US society after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before finally ending with the journal of the Enola Gay’s bomber, which he apparently auctioned off for big money:

They are observations that appear to be unrelated on the page — his nots about the clouds, temperature, time, speed, his view of a city from thirty thousand feet, and then his view of smoke rings expanding out of the rubble…

Parataxis here is “a style of writing that levels everything in it equally, refuses to assign significance, and refuses responsibility.”

I also admired the climax at the end of the intro to James Agee’s “Brooklyn Is,” in which he brings up the old Penn Station’s great hall.

Maybe the building squeezed you down as it sucked you toward its gut, and maybe this was intentional, a stylistic trick to prepare you for that moment when the tunnels disappeared and the ceiling lifted up and the walls widened out as you flashed into a gleaming white atrium of light, its thin iron archways supporting a glass ceiling that was seven acres wide — a roof of pure sky — the largest indoor public space anywhere in the world, and one that felt so suddenly unburdensome to travelers that moving from that foyer to the Great Hall, as it was called, physically felt like having something lifted from our shoulders, the architectural equivalent of traveling, in other words, and the literary equivalent of being inside a sentence that is held aloft by language, by a vim of curiosity, and maybe by a little bit of fear of what comes next. 

There might be some confusion: shouldn’t the experience of a long sentence itself be the literary counterpart to the experience of the great hall? But still the performance is cool, demonstrating the value of Agee’s high-level rhetoric, using “And” as a way to make the aesthetic value and the discomfort of Penn station not become a contradiction, and repeated conjunction gives the sentence an American flavor.

The wide terrain of the essay genre in the hands of US writers presented here is galvanizing. Reportage is mixed with memoir and amazing experimental exercises. (Stein’s Picasso portrait was a special treat.) I feel his own essay, which encompasses the other essays, bears witness to how intertwined fiction and nonfiction, the traditional form of literature, are, while also acknowledging their autonomy. History is made by legions of people, and innovation comes gradually.


couple stories


For these are the kind of stories in Barth’s 1996 collection ON WITH THE STORY. All twelve of them, and the framing device, concern straight, white, upper bourgeois couples on vacation. A couple checks in to the hotel, do the usual business: topless beach, tennis, maybe some hot tub time, and of course post-coital bedtime stories. A story for each night of the vacay: as usual Barth has a eye on the old literature.

These pieces are like a domesticated, mainstreamed version of postmodernism. Narratives of upper middle class white couples, dreadfully straight, naturalistic, national magazine stuff with a bit of O. Henry like charm… But the familiar material is part of the fun, since Barth injects what could be stale shorts with encyclopedic details of quantum physics and narrative theorizing. The act of storytelling is some kind of profound part of humanity, but the reason is not as simple as telling stories in order to live. It’s probably more like staving off death, more Scheherezade than Didion.

The earlier stories focus on this kind of “primitive” storytelling, the need to put off the end, to fill up with words lest we’re met with silence, before moving on to more sophisticated narrative theory. “The End: An Introduction” for instance is narrated by a writing professor introducing an author traveling with heavy security, since her work, like Rushdie’s SATANIC VERSES, has attracted enmity from certain authorities. It’s taking a while to get her through campus onto the venue, so he fills the dead air with musings, including the millennial sense of termination.

In short and in sum, endings, endings everywhere; apocalypse large and small. Good-bye to the tropical rainforests; good-bye to the whales; good-bye to the mountain gorillas and the giant pandas and the rhinoceri; good-bye even to the humble frogs, one is beginning to hear, as our deteriorating ozone layer exposes their eggs to harmful radiation. Goodbye to the oldest continuous culture on the planet: the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, in process of extermination by Saddam Hussein even as I speak. Good-bye to the once-so-cosmopolitan Beirut and once-so-hospitable Sarajevo, as we who never had the chance to know them knew those excellent cities. The end of this, the end of that; little wonder we grow weary of “endism,” as I have heard it called. (15)

The influence of Barth’s diction on Wallace and Baker and maybe other writers after him became way more obvious to me. Indeed this story reminded me a lot of THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I’m still pondering a year after experiencing it.

More procrastination in the next story: A wife learns terrible news, news that could compromise the emotional happiness between her and the husband forever. Their time of equilibrium is over; she just has to cross over to the garden where the husband is at work to tell him. But the narrator, at pains to keep this moment at bay, starts describing the trees on the property, the birds and the nearby lake. There’s some business with Zeno’s paradox: how Achilles cannot catch up with the tortoise, since the distance between them is infinitely divisible.

Barth is famously a novelist who doesn’t usually do stories (his remark of being a long-distance rather than a sprint writer actually shows up in this text), so that when he does put out a collection it feels thoroughly composed. These are not novel chapters that have been published separately as stories, but rather a set of stories connected by small motifs (objects as well as bits of language) to loosely comprise an alternate narrative world. One white couple, Joan and Frank Pollack, appear in two stories (and I suspect they are the couple of the framing device. The phrase “On with the story”crops up in each one. A story about folks in South Carolina preparing for Hurricane Daishika is followed later with a story of a couple riding out Hurricane Emile in the Bahamas, which came after the first one.

That last one about Hurricane Emile, “‘Waves’ by Amien Richard”, was definitely my favorite piece. Amien Richard is the nom de plume of a straight white upper mid-class couple: Amy ‘n’ Richard. They’ve got it made as far as writers go: they apply for grant money to go on fun exotic trips and make non-fiction pieces out of them. Here they are in an island resort paradise, scuba diving, trying to keep their minds off something — something terrible has happened to them in the recent past. They’re trying to heal, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Most interesting is the narration itself. It uses the legion “we” pronoun, but Amy and Richard are free to insert their own voices and separate themselves from the couple unit from time to time, which seemed like a wonderful way to dramatize the dynamic of these characters, and made what could have been a really boring story (as they try to distract themselves) into something delightful and energetic. For instance, when Amy and Richard swim around in a reef:

Has any of this advanced the story? (It has, between the lines, Amy here opines in pained parentheses; but she isn’t prepared to say how just yet. [What she did — unnoticed by Richard but not by the central joint narrative intelligence of this story — was give the slip to her mates recently somewhat oppressive though understandable monitoring of her ((as she perceives it)) and dive down behind a pile of living coral to see whether she would carry through on her one-tenth-serious inclination to drown herself. As her held breath reached its limit, however, she happened to catch sight of the corkscrew inner spiral of a small, ground-down conch shell on the sea floor: a dainty, perfect, tapered bush-and-ivory auger, not uncommon in these waters but in this instance uncommonly fine in its coloration and its intactness-within-attrition. Instead of blowing out the last of her air therefore to find out whether she could actually inhale water as… others have done before her, she forced herself a fathom deeper, retrieved the token, and shot to the surface. No Richard ((he has ducked under in search of her)); then there he is, looking the other way, toward shore. She recovers her breath and inner balance; returns to snorkeling as if nonchalantly, although her heart still pounds; tucks it for safekeeping into the crotch of her bikini, faute de mieux; then clasps her hands behind her back, the better to feign insouciance.]) (124)

The “central joint narrative intelligence” is the couple’s collaboration on the manuscript that is the story (Barth never permits the reader to be immersed, to forget they’re reading words on a page). It’s such a fun idea, and it’s also a throwback to the 18th century  English novels, always from this or that lost manuscript. At a glance it seems naive or gimmicky, but such devices were ironic ways to confront the profound lack of authority we have to craft literary fiction. It’s 19th century realism that shrugs off this problem or tries to distract the reader from it.

“‘Waves'” also theorizes about narrative in more formal way beyond the Scheherezade notion. The Russian formalists taught us that a given work has a syuzhet and a fabula, a plot and a story. You could generally observe that postmodernist fiction saturates the text with syuzhet while the fabula is far more obscure than usual (hence the interest in mystery stories by American pomo authors, really anti-mysteries, since they’re about how the bigger truth of What Happened eludes us).

What happened that damaged this couple so badly? Barth never tells outright, but there are more than enough clues that you can figure it out.

“Are we waves or particles?” Amy asks. Forget Richard Powers, Barth is my nomination for the true author of SCRAPBOOK, which never gets as cutesy or light as the later stories in this collection do. “The Stories of our Lives” is like that Simpsons episode, complete with physical transitions of people’s objects, a misplaced coin or pair of shades. Evan Dara didn’t have to use those kinds of tricks while putting things off til the last end-stop. And there were so many ding-dong kids these days gags that I was reminded by Barth will never be as cool as Coover or Pynchon.

We learn late in the collection that this frame couple, staving off the end of the vacation with stories, is about to end. If I comprehended it right, Frank Pollard has terminal pancreatic cancer: this really is the last vacation, and the final full-stop. A little bit of pathos with all this pomo esoterica.

All the same though, it was light, and it’s summertime.


cool carson (quote)

Maggie Nelson’s THE ARGONAUTS pp. 48-49

What exactly is lost to us when words are wasted? [Anne Carson] Can it be that words comprise one of the few economies left on earth in which plentitude — surfeit, even — comes at no cost?

Recently I received in the mail a literary magazine that featured an interview with Anne Carson in which she answers certain questions — the boring ones? the too personal ones? — with empty brackets [[ ]]. There is something to learn here; I probably would have written a dissertation on each query, prompting the reply I’ve heard countless times in my life: “Really, it’s terrific — it’s just the people upstairs who say we’ve got to trim it back a little.” The sight of Carson’s brackets made me feel instantly ashamed of my compulsion to put my cards more decidedly on the table. But the more I thought about the brackets, the more they bugged me. They seemed to make a fetish of the unssaid, rather than simply letting it be contained in the sayable.

Many years ago, Carson gave a lecture at Teachers & Writers in New York City, at which she introduced (to me) the concept of leaving a space empty so that God could rush in. I knew a bit about this concept from my boyfriend at the time, who was big into bonsai. In bonsai you often plan the tree off-center in the pot to make space for the divine. But that night Carson made the concept literary. (Act so that there is no use in a center: a piece of Steinian wisdom Carson says she tries to impart to her students.) I had never heard of Carson before that night, but the room was packed and everyone else there clearly had. She gave a real lecture, with a Xeroxed slide list of Edward Hopper paintings and everything. She made being a professorial writer seem like the coolest thing you could ever be. I went home fastened to the concept of leaving the center empty for God. It was like stumbling into a tarot reading or AA meeting and hearing the one thing that will keep you going, in heart or art, for years.

Sitting now at my desk in my windowless office, its back wall painted pale blue in commemoration of the sky, I stare at the brackets in the Carson interview and try to enjoy them as markers of that evening from so long ago. But some revelations do not stand.