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Archive for August 2010


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OK. I’ve long really loved this song and I’m not about to explain why, at least not in the first person. But myxomatosis is fascinatingly awful to the entrant to the UK, as we don’t have anything like it in the USA. Here’s the wiki description:

In rabbits of the genus Sylvilagus (cottontail rabbits), myxomatosis only causes localized skin tumors, but the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is more severely affected.[1] At first, normally the disease is visible by lumps (myxomata) and puffiness around the head and genitals. It then may progress to acute conjunctivitis and possibly blindness; however, this also may be the first indication of the disease. The rabbits become listless, lose appetite, and develop a fever. Secondary bacterial infections occur in most cases which cause pneumonia and purulent inflammation of the lungs. In typical cases where the rabbit has no resistance death may take place with frightening rapidity, often in as little as 48 hrs. Death takes an average of 14 days.

Go read more of the wiki description for the absolutely fucked history of the spread of the disease. Horrific, and horrifically stupid mankind is. And you have no idea how many stories rural brit types have told me about how mixy rabbits are handled here. Benevolently bashed against a tree, charitably run over by cars. Here’s why you do that, Americans:

Jesus christ, this world, huh? But now to the point of the post. Philip Larkin’s poem on the subject:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Again, jesus god. Everyone forever should leave Larkin alone because to write one like this I’d give, well, I’d almost suppurate. Strange word that. Basically the verbal form of pus. To pus. Where the hell did Larkin find that? And the sort of miscross with piggish Latin “to be supper for someone” is the key. The rabbit’s misunderstanding of its problem crosses with our misunderstanding of the latinate word. Brilliantly disturbing line, eh, when you think about it, mixing the conjunctivitisy pus with fox’s rabbit for dinner. And that colon at the end of the third to last line really really bothers me in a vividly fucked up sort of way. Tragic punctuation. Think I’ll go back to the strangely more optimistic Radiohead song before I start to worry about my listlessness and lost appetite in a different manner than I already do. Or worry about the fact that I somehow think things will come right again if I can only keep quite still and wait.

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August 18, 2010 at 4:11 am

Posted in poetry


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Finally starting to receive random review copy through the mail. Lovely. Have been waiting for this perk to initiate since the first review was published…. Work with a guy (well, he’s emeritus) who was once probably the preeminent reviewer in the UK, or near the top. His pigeonhole (as they ridiculously call it here – and they laugh when I forget and call it a mailbox, which is, you know, what it actually is, a box where mail goes rather than a hole where pigeons live) still fills daily with unprovoked copy, most of which he leaves for others to take, some of which I have taken. He also gives them as gifts – when I was first hired he brilliantly left me this on my desk, which given the system we run where I work was an absolutely appropriate choice. But now I get my own, hurrah horray.

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August 17, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Posted in grub

robson on mccarthy on (implicitly) mcewan and the aimlessness of innovation

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In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:

What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.

In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.

OK. A few things about this:

1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:

McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.

I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”

But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).

2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.

At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.

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August 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

defoe’s novel of the future and the aggregate

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1. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year as a (pseudo, semi, proto) novel composed almost entirely of such moments. Unplotted (almost) protagonism. He walks, he sees, he walks some more. He survives, but there is no drama to it. The narrative arc a natural (historical, social, biological) event happening in the background. The dramatic turns are local, discrete, episodic, anonymous. In fact, aggregate.

2. The opening of the Journal and the initial confrontation with those “weekly bills of mortality”:

This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in
a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew's,
Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more
or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles's
parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number
considerably. For example:--

     From December 27 to January 3  { St Giles's      16
     "                              { St Andrew's     17

     "     January 3  "    "    10  { St Giles's      12
     "                              { St Andrew's     25

     "     January 10 "    "    17  { St Giles's      18
     "                              { St Andrew's     28

     "     January 17 "    "    24  { St Giles's      23
     "                              { St Andrew's     16

     "     January 24 "    "    31  { St Giles's      24
     "                              { St Andrew's     15

     "     January 30 " February 7  { St Giles's      21
     "                              { St Andrew's     23

     "     February 7 "     "   14  { St Giles's      24

Whereof one of the plague.

On the one hand, the “novel” turns from this initial confrontation toward narrativization, making the numbers come to life as individuals through the reportage of its protagonist / narrator. On the other hand, reverse-angled, we might say that the work never escapes the gravitational (computational?) force of this primal scene – that unlike its “realist” descendants, it can never quite attain escape velocity to become properly focalized upon the persistent developmental arc of an individual or small set of individuals.

3. His visit to the Aldgate plague pit as a climactic re-confrontation with the numbers, the lists, at the beginning of the work:

This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the
rest; but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it
sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in
rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they
had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell
quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the
indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to
be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it,
for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there
was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for
coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such
a calamity as this.

Here, the aggregate turning horribly back into the mass. The difference between the mass or crowd or undifferentiated group and the aggregate, which is vital and promiscuous if also sporadic, distracted, and brief.

4. From religion to politics and back again. Aggregation then almost algebraically  an inversion of the pit’s memento mori, a reminder that we live?

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August 17, 2010 at 11:01 am

Posted in aggregate, defoe

the transactions

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Confronted last night by a guy on the street, the usual proffered hand with a few coppers, the usual “I need some more to get a taxi.” But then, extraordinarily, he lifts his other sleeve to produce an arm absolutely soaked in blood, nearly gushing. “I need a taxi to get to a hospital.”

NYC trained, he generally walks right past with a shake of the head, but transfixed by a combination of amazement, disgust, and fear, he produces a tenner for the guy from his pocket. “Holy fucking shit, jesus man. Here.”

Both quickly walk away, the transaction completed. Once a safe distance has elapsed, he turns to see – nearly per expectation, definitely per the usual – the guy working someone else over, the same act exactly.

Lucrative desperation. Pragmatism. Cost/benefit analysis.

This morning, he considers the scene. The alleyway, the razor blade, the pain and the tension of potentially cutting it a bit too deep this time. Arterial.

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August 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

Posted in london

saturday post: estuarial english

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– The fascination of cities, of infrastructure. Remember that? With a stable life came thoughts of infrastructure, a continual fantasy that the business pages, folded inside out and turned upside down, transliterated through some sort of magically optimistic and dialectical point of view, would reveal heaven itself. A moderate heaven, a modulated paradise of production and railroads.

– From the window of his upstairs bathroom he sometimes saw the tops of trains passing on the line to the north. He tried to tell himself how happy this should make him, how finally he is living amidst European modernity rather than American dysfunction and disorder.

– Now, from where he sits, he can see half of London, including some trains on the overground lines. There are very few places he visits downtown (and he goes downtown less and less) that he couldn’t safely say “I can see this, the skyward extensions of here, from my little balcony where I will sit and smoke tonight.”

– A Saturday with nothing to do but read, write if the mood captures him. What would he have traded for this a few months ago? But now, proving out some horrible but easy truism of human psychology, it is nearly unbearable. He paces.

– He writes students, trying to re-schedule missed meetings. Even on Saturday, yes. It is good to have something scheduled, some break in the run of the day. Someone told him this and he listened. His father tells him to make sure that he finds something to do everyday, especially on weekends.

– He feels that this is an experiment with, no, not just a form. But a mode of being in the world, or at least of seeing it. When he reads the new round of attacks on the literary status quo, he says to himself “At least here, in my Sunday posts, I am experimenting.”

– After a literary contest that he has judged, he is asked to say a few words to the contestants. He recommends Dubliners, of course. “How many of you have read it?” Two hands go up, though there are two hundred hands in the room, mostly the hands of “young writers.” The anti-epiphanies, the very torque of short fiction from the get go, he tries to explain. Later, in the bar, a young girl comes up to tell him that he is completely wrong about Dubliners. In no mood, and since this is off the clock, he basically tells her to fuck off and leave him alone. She is not his student; he is in no mood to engage with stupidity.

– Earlier that day he meets with his “agent.” He doesn’t want to talk about the novel though, and so they talk about other things. The state of the industry etc. Another day, he sits and helps friends who are in something of a bind. He tries not to expect anything in return for the good deed he is doing. He is slightly jealous of their something of a bind.

– He takes his phone off of silent, off of buzz. It rings, he talks. It rings again and he talks again. And then it rings no more.

– He owes emails and is sorry for that. He has missed meetings and is sorry for that too.

– His mother doesn’t have lung cancer, just pneumonia. In his family, this is called “good news” which explains all too much. He finds it interesting, slightly baffling, to talk to her when she is tremendously high on pain killers. The timbre of her voice changes, she giggles, is almost flirtatious, and he wonders yet again about their familial psychochemistry.

– Personal mythology about going to seed and writing. That the former might have to come before the later, but that the entire process is wrought with tremendous risk.

– He suspects he might write something excoriating about Tom McCarthy. There’s something about this new novel that rubs him the wrong way, just as Remainder did.

– Kafka’s notebooks in German on on the shelf next to him where he types. He is tempted to make a project for himself. To recapture a language lost. The problem is that – he has to admit in shame – that he finds them boring even in English. This would be a labor of love, respect, self-respect and for Kafka too.

– Tomorrow he will wander out to see the sea. He will write in his notebook words like estuarial, words like eel trap. He wonders what an eel trap looks like – this is the sort of question that now seems to him worth answering. It will be good to get out of London, to stop staring at this wonderful view. He would prefer a muddy bit, nothing too scenic, not even Nova Scotia. Something half-random and without proper amenities.He will walk and count on the world and his debit card to provide what is needed. He is the son of a tourist town; his grandmother sold tourist trinkets to Americans on bicycling tours who came over on the ferry. But still the sea, a sea wall, and that smell.

– He has never been and will never be a tourist when visiting a cold water seafront, haunted by fisheries that operate or operate no more. Florida is another matter, but along the mud and pubs of northern coastline, this is where he lives, wherever he is at the moment.

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August 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Posted in anxiety, sunday

the new new normal

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Just spent the morning banging out a piece centred on this, from the NYT:

The “new normal,” as it has come to be called on Wall Street, academia and CNBC, envisions an economy in which growth is too slow to bring down the unemployment rate, while the government is forced to intervene ever more forcefully in a struggling private sector. Stocks and bonds yield paltry returns, with better opportunities available for investors overseas.

Didn’t we just have a “new normal,” only slightly different from this one, a few years ago? Anyway, hope someone takes the piece… We’ll see. Again, wish I could link to it from here if it goes. Soon enough, if things go right….

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August 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Posted in crisis, economics