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Archive for August 17th, 2010

paydirt

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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