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ben lerner’s scapegoat

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At one point, quite late in Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04, the narrator/protagonist has a meeting with one of his graduate poetry students. The conversation soon reveals that the student, Calvin, has become psychologically unhinged.

“Well, you said once that we shouldn’t worry about our literary careers, should worry about being underwater.” I must have been joking around in class— half joking. “And in any new civilization you need those who have a sense of usable history and can reconstruct at least the basic concepts from science. Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean— that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic. I lost my girlfriend over that. Body without organs, for instance. I can swallow but there is a cost to swallowing in the sense that I don’t have the same kind of throat. That’s a metaphor but it has real effects, which is what she couldn’t understand. What’s tricky is you want to test it, take poison or whatever to show how you can absorb it, but you don’t know in that instance if it will be symbolic or spider out.”

The college did not have good psychiatric services. He was twenty- six; no one could force him to get help or even legally contact his parents, whoever they were.

“Nobody thinks we’ve been told the truth about Fukushima. Think about the milk you’re buying from a bodega, the hot particles there, I mean in addition to the hormones and what those do. There are rabbits being born there with three ears. The seas are poisoned. Look at this”— here he pulled his hair back, maybe to indicate his widow’s peak; I wasn’t sure— “that wasn’t there when I lived in Colorado. And I know that some of the bone mass in my jaw has thinned, can feel that when it clicks, but I can’t afford insurance. And now there is this storm, but who selects its name? You have a committee of like five guys in a situation room generating the names before they form. The World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee— I looked it up. And ever since I looked it up I can’t get service on my phone. Every call is just dropped.”

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents.

It’s a fairly convincing portrait of a graduate student, hopped up on Deleuze and Guattari and god knows what else, who has lost his bearings – and in particular, has lost his grasp on the relationship between personal events and global events. Calvin’s paranoia takes a particular shape: he is reading the matters of his own life as if they are directly related to their historical context, the apocalyptically-tinged context of our times. His difficulty swallowing has something to do with a failure of meaning that in turn has something to do with ‘being underwater’ – metaphorically as a cash-strapped student or literally given the climate change atmospherics of this work that runs from one New York City hurricane to another. Other illnesses have to do with radiation poisoning, with Fukushima, with international presumably-capitalist conspiracies. Hypochondria connects up with a political persecution complex; bad phone service becomes a symptom of living at the end of history.

Calvin more or less disappears from the novel after his cameo appearance; the narrator tries to check up on him a couple of times and later wonders if he should use some of his book advance to bankroll a run of therapy for him. 10:04 isn’t the sort of lock-plotted novel that forces readers to question a fleeting appearance or digressive encounter – there’s enough wandering and intermittency that Calvin’s scene doesn’t seem too discrepant in the general scheme of things.

But still, I think there’s something to be read in Calvin’s quick appearance in and subsequent removal from the novel. In a sense, isn’t Calvin’s psychopathology very similar to that of the novel as a form – and in a sense, of Ben Lerner’s two novels in particular. In his first, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow the inconclusive experiences of a young poet-cum-pothead as he messes with girls and doesn’t do his fellowship work, all leading up to… the terrorist bombing of the main train station in Madrid, an event totally out of proportion and sync with the foreground pseudo-plot. In 10:04, the same sort of situation obtains: framed by the two hurricanes that struck New York City in recent years, the novel itself traces out relatively banal plotlines drawn from the everyday life of literary Brooklyn. Will the narrator impregnate his friend? And what will become of his incipient romance with another woman as he tries to? Will the physiological deformity discovered in the early pages become symptomatic? What will he write his novel about?

While both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are carefully self-aware about the non-correlation between the banal foreground action and the cataclysmic backdrops, the simple fact of the juxatpositoning of the two elements in each case still begs a question about the relation between plot and context. Of course, this is what novels do – what they have always done. A doctor and his wife have a hard time in the rural France of the Second Empire. A woman is planning a party in London in the wake of the First World War. Two men wander Dublin as the world lurches toward the war and the empire toward its dissolution. Foreground and background, character and setting, everyday life and the workings of history – the novel as a form forces us to consider the relations between these elements.

Lerner, as I’ve said, is very self-aware about these issues – the text never forces the conjunctions, even seems ironically knowing about the forced nature of such line of thought that could read, for instance, the reproductive decision-making dilemmas of gentrifiers as somehow tantamount to the the specter of climate change. But that doesn’t prevent Lerner from bringing this minor character, this trouble graduate student, on stage as a sort of scapegoat – loaded with the sins or at least symptoms of the novel in which he is contained, or perhaps even the novel as a form in general – only to shuffle him off again almost immediately. Lerner’s conjunction of the personal and the macro-political belongs on the bookshelf, while Calvin’s belongs in a mental institution, or so the novel implicitly tells us.

After the exchange that I quoted above, Calvin reacts wildly in response to the narrator’s suggestion that he might seek some psychological help.

“Okay, wow. Wow. You want to pathologize me, too. I guess that’s your job. You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something”— I sized Calvin up physically; he was taller than I was, nearly as tall as the protester, but thin, almost lanky; I involuntarily visualized punching him in the throat if he attacked me— “can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man- made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words— you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?” He stood up so suddenly I flinched, then felt bad for flinching. “Sorry for wasting your time,” he said, maybe holding back tears, and stormed out of my office, forgetting his legal pad.

In a sense, isn’t the ‘institution’ speaking through the narrator and the story that he tells us as much that of the ‘literary novel’ as a form as any that Calvin might be thinking of. A regulatory message, a message that keeps an ‘appropriate’ perspective on things – one that gets on with vivid interest in the conventional workings of conventional lives, even if as it solemnly acknowledges that the shit may in fact be about to hit the fan. I generally think Lerner’s a smart enough novelist to sidestep this ethically and politically perilous position. But then again, the reactions of some of his readers provide evidence more in line with Calvin’s response. For instance, at the end of her gushing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Nelson writes that upon reading Lerner’s new novel,

Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it.

In other words, despite the apocalyptic overlay, 10:04 more than anything else gave Nelson a revivified vision of her own demographically-appropriate and seemingly already-quite-comfortable daily life.

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October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm

choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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Originalml

I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)

Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007

Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

march of the headless women / fictionality, character identification, and whateverness

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Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.

It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.

Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”

Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.

I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:

That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters be­cause of, not despite, their fictionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the fictional framework established a protected affective enclosure that en­couraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real peo­ple. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior wit­nesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of oth­ers,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however fictitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realiza­tions was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the figures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identification. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall be­neath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratex­tual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a fictional “he” or “she” should re­ally be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.

Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their fictionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by re­minders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they configure our emotional responses in ways unique to fiction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our fictional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.

That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.

In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.

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January 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Posted in agamben, fiction, novel, whatever

3 for 2 for you: james miller’s sunshine state

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Hint: you might want to get yourself down to your local Waterstones* and grab yourself a copy of this. It’s on 3 for 2, so the price is right. It’s post-Ballardian eco-catastrophe cut to follow the lines of Heart of Darkness – just right for reading in the here and now. Perfect for the beach, the bath, the garret, the park, the couch, the sweaty summer bed, the well-worn scholar’s desk or anywhere else you might care to read it. And if you come by the Fitz afterwork on selected days of the week with your copy, I will, I promise, secure you an autograph from the esteemed author himself. **

* Obviously you can also buy it from your local independent. I think the author gets more if you do, you get ethical-hipster points, either way James Daunt will flourish even more than he’s flourishing, blossoms will bloom, etc etc. Or just grab it on 3 for 2. That’s the beauty – it’s your call.

** If you buy me a Taddy Lager, as Alpine is out of stock for the summer. But it’s Sam Smith’s, and therefore only £2.41.

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July 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Posted in crisis, dystopia, novel

what novels are for (according to conservative columnists)

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Slightly unfair to throw one columnist’s words from 2011 up against another’s from 1988. But this is, it seems to me, interesting to think about. Ross Douthat today in the NYT:

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

George Will in 1988 on Don DeLillo’s Libra, via here, and its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald:

DeLillo says he is just filling in “some of the blank spaces in the known record.” But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo’s lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book’s weaselly afterword, he says he has made “no attempt to furnish factual answers.” But in a New York Times interview he says, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood.”

History, says a DeLillo character, is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Of course. “They.” That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

Of course, neither of them are wrong about what novels generally and reflexively do when it comes to ethical questions. Contextualization and the relativism that comes of it, speculation to fill in the holes in the story where the assignment of goodness or evilness might otherwise fill the blank – all very much a part of the game, and you basically have to derange the form a bit in order to do otherwise with them.

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January 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in america, novel, Politics

“this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”: josipovici strikes a blow

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Was out for a drink with a colleague in Farringdon the other day and when he went in to buy us another round I picked up the copy of the Guardian that someone had left on the table. It was open to this, a media-scruff rendition of Josipovici’s new What Ever Happened to Modernism. Fantastic stuff:

“We are in a very fallow period,” Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel “profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears”.

He said: “Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

“I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock.” Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy remained more avant-garde than the so-called avant-garde today, Josipovici argued.

“An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie’s just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration.”

Was hard at the moment not to fantasize that the reason the paper was on the bar table and left open to that page in particular was because one of the authors in question or at least one of their acolytes had settled in for an early afternoon restorative, flipped through to this page, and then left in haste and in a tremendous huff….

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August 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Posted in josipovici, novel

reality hunger’s performative contradiction

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One of the only good things to happen to me over the last ten days was to happen upon a discarded review copy of David Shields’s forthcoming Reality Hunger near the office recycling bin. I want to review it myself, and will try to sort that out in the next few days, so I’m not going to say everything I have to say on here and right now. I can’t understand the breathless blurbage it’s received. I know what blurbs are and aren’t, believe me believe me, but still. I should have a chance to ask one of the Major Blurbbers what he was thinking at an Xmas party in a couple of hours. We’ll see.

Just for now: one of the things that Shields does in this book is copy other people’s stuff seamlessly into the book without attribution. Well, almost without attribution. There’s an appendix that starts as follows:

This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm thee publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages xxx-xxx by cutting along the dotted line.

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Stop; don’t read any farther.

Lovely – lots of us agree in principle with all of that. But if reality cannot be copyrighted, Reality Hunger still can be… and is. Right at the front of the book, there it is: Copyright © David Shields, 2010. In this day and age when all sorts of alternative models like creative commons and copyleft are in practice along with alternative means of distribution, it does seem like Shields’s offering is skewed from the start by this rather glaring performative contradiction. Technically, even in copying the above into my post, I am breaking the injunction at the front of the review copy not to “reproduce before publication of the finished book” any of its contents. I’m slightly tempted to start a blog where I post the book as a whole, one of its numbered entries a day. Hmmm…. I’m going to wait by the phone for those Random House lawyers to call.

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December 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

meanwhile back in america…

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This piece made me want to vomit. Quite seriously – kitchen started spinning about around me as I read it. Not the writer’s fault, he / she (she, right? I had to read it skippingly due to the vomit provocation) is all to the good. But lord almighty, what sort of world do we live in?

Quick! A corrective from Josipovici via this space:

Of course one can go on playing the game of who ‘really’ is in the Modernist tradition and who isn’t. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, ‘ambitious’ tends to mean ‘long’; ‘wildly imaginative’ tends to mean ‘working in the minor mode of fantasy’; ‘sensitive’ and ‘compassionate’ to mean ‘this author still writes like Hardy.’ Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway’s absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. ‘Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,’ she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don’t think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner’s critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.

Phew. OK. Let’s stick with that for awhile rather than the other thing! I was planning to read Handke tonight instead of this bit from Salon. Serious mistake!

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November 29, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Posted in novel

zadie smith on the novel

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Provoked it seems by the imminent release of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, a forthcoming book I’ve grumbled about before, Zadie Smith has another one of her big state-of-the-novel via the state-of-Zadie-Smith’s-writing-block pieces in the Guardian today. (You might remember her previous stab at this sort of thing in the course of reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder in the NYRB). Here’s a bit:

[…] Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It’s a tribute to Shields’s skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect “built” rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.

A deliberate polemic, it sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t”; to which I want to say, “Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too”. Anyway, there’s a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields’s provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he’s right.

Ultimately, though, Smith wants to stage a defense of the novel as a form. Problem is, she can’t quite get beyond two moves that don’t add up to all that much. On the one hand, she lists a bunch of good novels without quite establishing why they are good let alone if they have anything at all in common – Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and so on. On the other, she argues against Shields’s claims about the over-conformity of the genre that the history of the novel is a history of nonconformity. Fair enough. Beyond these two claims, all we get is a single sentence of praise for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (oy) for providing “‘a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses’, otherwise known as ‘other people.’)”

Disappointing, I must say. I was excited enough when I saw – but did not have time to read – the piece this morning as I was ferrying children to a kids’ play that I actually stopped and bought her new collection of essays on my way. While the death of the novel is the sort of news that stays news – when are we not hearing about the failure of this form, its readership, its profit model, its quality, etc – I’ll admit I’ve been thinking dark thoughts about the genre of late. I’ve got as much of myself as anyone invested in the form – I have just finished a book on the novel, I spend my days teaching very talented students about it, and I tap away at my own when the welter of academic work of all sorts momentarily recedes. But the academic humanties are in even more chaos than academia in general; the discipline of English has lost its path in the wake of theory; and to be honest I’ve not read anything new and good in 2009 save for Summertime by Coetzee, and as Smith explains in her piece, Summertime is an fin de la genre sort of novel down to its core. And let’s not even talk about dollars and pounds, bookshop placement, and failing publishing houses.

People say this sort of thing all of the time, and probably it’s just the rough time I’ve been going through lately that makes it stick, but Philip Roth’s recent prediction that within 25 years the novel would be a “cultic” niche-market object (presumably, even more so than it is today) has been echoing around in my head the last few days. At any rate, adswithoutproducts will devote itself, primarily if not exclusively, to trying to provide some sort of answer to the question of the future of the novel. In particular, I’m going to consider both the value of the form and a few possibilities for its renewal. Another way to look at this turn, perhaps more of a relief than anything else to some, is that I will try to stop live-blogging my protacted early-mid-life crisis and do this instead. Many have suggested, perhaps with good reason, that work issues underlie a lot of the meta-mess that I get up to. So let’s see if I can’t figure out a few things to say. I’ll start very soon with a long overdue gloss on the title of my blog.

But for now: was joking with a couple of friends, apropos of I can’t tell you what, that ZS probably wouldn’t share the disdain for us academics that many in the writerly circuits do. The reason being, we speculated, that she in fact wants to be one of us. In part anyway – she probably isn’t fantasizing about board of studies meetings and the like. I don’t mean this in either a snarky or (certainly) a conceited way, and it’s something that definitely something that suggests something very promising about her, a sort of aspiration to gravitas that’s almost entirely missing from the scene nowadays. But of course the problem is that unlike us, and let’s extrapolate and say also unlike the best living practitioners of analysis of and speculation on the novel, she refuses to let actually enunciated politics muddle these essays up. For, and here’s a bit of a leap that I hope I’ll be able to land as I move through what I’ll say next, the central problematic of the novel has always been aligned with the problematic of politics, even left politics. That is to say, what novels have always tested and probed is the question of what’s in it for me and me and me to get onboard with an immersion in the they. This is the reason why the style indirect libre has long since stepped to the center as the definitive formal innovation (and question) of literary fiction, as it’s a form that negotiates between the atomised solipsistical I and the chattering, vulgar they. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. More to come, soon….

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 22, 2009 at 1:37 am

Posted in novel

family romance in aggregate

with 3 comments

Odd to think that one gets back to the time of Jesus, the climax of the Roman empire, via only 100 generations of ancestors or so. Am tonight imagining a book that would imagine into, at 5 pages a throw,  each one of them, likely the male ones for simplicity’s sake (ugh) in turn. Would require huge amounts of both research and guesswork, probably more of the latter than the former. I also imagine that much of the first 450 pp would be filled with something like the “gardening” sequence in The Life and Times of Michael K, except in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern. And then (from what I guess – I don’t really know who they were) a rapid shuffle from France to Soho to Quebec to Ontario, resting there for a bit until the last 15 pages, when we visit London (captaining a Lancaster bomber for the RAF) only to return to rustbelt Ontario, a veer (via a football scholarship) to Halifax, then New Jersey, and finally after circling around the northeast for a bit a jump back over the seas to London to… do what? Solve the problematique familiale once and for all? Drink in those Soho bars where the forefathers briefly worked or didn’t? Write this book in the Starbucks on Tavistock Square, a few blocks from the British Library?

Perhaps after this, that, and the other thing, on to something like this. Would take probably a decade, no? But would have nicely epical scope. Strange to think that no one’s ever done it, really. Or has someone?

Anyway, feel free to write me at the email address at the upper right-hand side of the page with offers of massive advances so I can quit my job and do this in less than a decade.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 3, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Posted in aggregate, novel

reality bites

with 5 comments

Kids asleep but Mad Men S03E01 came down in fuck’d shape and there was nothing else on TV. So I was going to write a rather nasty (but purposefully so!) post about this, but my wife talked me down. I was, well, talking some huge shit as we typed into the family laptops at the kitchen table just now, and she advised me to take what she didn’t refer to as a rampantly megalomaniacal sense of ownership of certain age-old literary forms and channel it into a better, more productive place than blognuking books that I haven’t read yet.

And then she went to bed. And then a few minutes later came down bitching about something that she was reading in bed that poaches on her territory (what does some girl who went to Andover have to tell us about fucking Tennessee? Ouch.) A second very good literary agency requested my wife’s m’script this week. She has earned more megalomania than I have, I suppose.

I’ll just say this one thing. When someone says something like “genre is a minimum-security prison” I reach for my… Althusserian sensibilities. Postulating yourself outside of genre is just as effective as closing your eyes and thinking really hard about being extra-ideological, and for exactly the same reasons. It follows like night follows day that this Shields guy looks to have written a blogbook without a blog, which we can recognize as generic (though not in the good sense) even if the convened panel of illustrious authors cannot, and from the looks of it not a very good blog either. Genre has always already housed his ass. I am tempted to illustrate. Maybe tomorrow.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Posted in novel

hell 8: david foster wallace in hell

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Via the Rumpus, Tim Martin on David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous novel:

There is also much unpublished work. For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

As I was saying before, there is a temporality that’s essential to the novel as a form and against which authors can only ever really tweak and vary. The sunniest it gets is purgatorial dullglow; generally, though, it reverts to the infernal on a low-setting. It is something to mark the historical progression of the form and its affectual expectations: we run from Emma Bovary’s (and her author’s) scandalous discovery that all of these heightened moments and blissful intervals advertised by novels were at the whim of repetitive, reiterative time’s erosive power all the way to this: a sense that after years and years of boredom one might, if one is lucky and DFW was not wrong or lying, find one’s way somehow to a narrow window of pleasure drip, measured in seconds, and grounded in nothing more tumultous than a sense that it is on-balance good to be alive.

Of course, this steady slide into bleakness – the reversal of the axes of happiness and the boredom that it costs – is driven in part by the internal logic of a form running its course, a sort of intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit from generic trope to fall as the genre is refined toward fulfilment. But it’s also hard not to take this intensification of the problem, as it runs from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace’s Flaubertianism, as a particularly bleak if also complex index of something that’s gone a bit wrong with the world and our collective and individual daydreams about it.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

la jetée in starbucks, lukács on durée

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Lukács in The Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

In Starbucks again, just about the same time as yesterday when I posted. There are American kids sitting across from me, Americans on their collegiate trip to Europe. He is trying to repair his rolling suitcase; the handle has come off and he’s bought some electrical tape.

The approximation of manhood, of male adulthood, that is taping a handle back to the place where it belongs, weaving the tape in and out into a silver X on a black bag, around and around and then giving it a strong tug to see if it will hold…. this is familiar. On our first trip to Europe, 1996, the key broke off in my luggage lock. We were staying in a shitty hotel on Rue Monsieur Le Prince, and I couldn’t think of the French word for hammer. Un mallet madame? Il faut que je utilise un mallet pour ouvrir le…. mon sac. She ignored us; I found a large stone in the Jardin du Luxembourg the next day and bashed the fucker open.

On our last trip to Europe before we had children, was it 2003, the wheel broke off my rolling bag as we made our way to the Earls Court Tube on our way to a flight to Ireland. My wife was to give a paper at a conference on television; I was to stalk around the city for several days and I did! But first, I had to purchase a new and incredibly expensive bag at the Left Luggage stall at Waterloo Station, a Left Luggage stall that I now see all the time while I stand around under the clock, waiting for my nights out to start.

What Lukács means to say, ultimately, maybe, is that you start by breaking your bag and then fixing it in Europe and you end by taking pictures of American kids whose bags are broken and then fixed. That’s just the sort of electrical tape that holds the thing together as a form. It’s bourgeois and subsumed with the melancholy of that class, its temporal dysfunction. And as such, like all bourgeois forms, especially the melancholic ones, it potentially repurposeable but only with great care and difficulty.

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 30, 2009 at 11:55 am

Posted in novel, temporality

the slowness of birth

with 11 comments

Like every other “life event,” giving birth has an odder temporality than one is led to expect by ambient cultural models, fiction and movies, and the like. Some of my favorite moments in fiction take up this issue – Emma Bovary’s death, which seems to go on for ever and ever, the slow starvation of Michael K. in Coetzee’s novel.

We’re used to laughing at Emma’s question: Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion, et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres. But then again, what words and abstract concepts mean in life is exactly what good novels, like the novel in which she lives, show. And what they show, again and again, is that above all else these things mean a particular way that time passes, generally more slowly than one would expect.

I spend my working life thinking ever more deeply into the following passage from Lukács Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

I suppose what I should start saying when I say that I don’t believe in the event is that I do in fact believe in events, I just think that those events take time, sometimes astoundingly long periods of time. When I resist the im selben Augenblick temporality of certain strands of the analysis of the modern, this, at base, is what I’m talking about. I am not sure whether I learned to be this way from reading novels, or if I found in the novel a materialization of what I had always been thinking about, looking to think about.

And so here we are. The water (or as they say here, waters) broke last night, and we drove through the deserted streets of North London down to the hospital – a hospital that happens to be located exactly across the street from my place of work. The midwife checked – yes, the waters have broken. Everyone is healthy but no real contractions have started, and so we are sent home. We will return today if they start. Or, if not, we will return tomorrow morning to “be induced.” There was a little bed in the room, pictured above, waiting to catch what came.

This sort of thing happened the last time around too – “giving birth” spread into a two day process. But it still takes one by surprise, when it happens this way. I guess I’ll read the book that I am supposed to review today. If we’re not moving forward tonight, perhaps we’ll check into a hotel downtown, a hotel I pass every day on the way to the Underground, and wait through another night of slowly giving birth.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in novel, temporality

alors l’angleterre, part 1.1

with 71 comments

One of the strangest things about England is that, despite the fact that its the birthplace and ancestral home of the political form that we identify with the interests of the middle class, it has lacked, for a good long while, a proper bourgeoisie. I mean to say, specifically in this case, that it lacks a class that thinks properly bourgeois thoughts, the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption.

It’s topcoats and overalls, socio-psychologically speaking, all the way down.

Of course as there’s a deep and complex relationship between bourgeois subjectivity and the novel form (no surprise, really, there – this is not new, neither in its historicity nor its formal immanence), so it really is no wonder that, well, the English have under-performed on this front over the past hundred years or so, with few exceptions.

Bourgeois subjectivity. That sounds awful doesn’t it? I think what I mean, to be a little more serious than I have been is, yes, bourgeois subjectivity but more specifically a sense of the personal contingency of class, that class-position can change – and, in particular, can change for reasons that are both your doing and definitely not your doing. I want to eat this or fuck this or write this but if  I do I might fall… or maybe rise. Rigidity of social forms (and I’m not so much making an argument about reliative social mobility so much as relative perceived social mobility) is incompatible with the type of subjectivity I am trying to describe. The sense that things can change breeds hope and fear, mystification and ambition, false consciousness, interiority, “narcissism,” and an ambiguously-important sense that all of this is just a show, unreal.

I am amazed at how deeply the English believe in the reality of class. Trust me, this is both a bad and good thing. Americans tend to live in a fantasy of mobility and egalitarian meritocracy, yes, but the English seem to believe, down deep, that they are actually better or worse than other people, like for real, down deep, because of the conditions of their birth.

So, here begins a list of reasons why, for the last 100 years, the wholly-formed denizens of this nation*, with the sole exception of Virginia Woolf, and despite market-dominance for the two centuries before 1900, haven’t been able to write truly persuasive prose fiction, that is to say novels persuasive enough to stay on the world’s shelf and reread, well, willingly. I’ll have more reasons for you very soon.

Obviously, of course all this presumes (and perhaps indicts, though obviously I have mixed feelings about this) the fact that the novel is a bourgeois form. I think it’s also fairly obvious that it is, even though the wonderful thing about genres and forms are that they are reappropriable, redeployable, can be detourned and all the rest. But there are different ways of failing to make the cut. And it’s also interesting to think that the English once possessed a bourgeois sensibility (one is almost tempted to say a modern sensibility, in a longview sort of way), and then somehow lost it.

But let’s not, for now, have an argument about the politics of the form. Let’s just figure out why the English can’t write them and go from there. Americans can, South Africans can, Australians and Canadians can, the Irish can, but Brits – keep calm and carry on, I guess.

* Obviously it’s a bit weird to exclude non-ethnically English writers. In this case, since they have access to a different set of ideological matrices though, I think it’s fair. Go look at the Booker List. Colonials, colonials, recent arrivals, and Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? We all might have a novel or two that we’ve liked from this place, sure, but really, I think you know what I mean. Someone will say Ballard, inevitably, but seriously, something’s gone wrong in the land of Defoe and Fielding, Austen and Eliot, Dickens and Woolf.

(There, less narcissistic… You all were right… This feels much better…. But as you might imagine, this is going to end-around toward “narcissism,” eventually… And fuck, I screwed up the elision in the title first time around. The English can’t write novels, but sons of Anglo-Canada can’t write in French, it’s still true…)

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April 17, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Posted in england, novel