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Archive for the ‘novel’ Category

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….

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November 22, 2009 at 1:37 am

Posted in novel

family romance in aggregate

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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July 30, 2009 at 11:55 am

Posted in novel, temporality

the slowness of birth

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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.

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April 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in novel, temporality