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Archive for the ‘novel’ Category

upstairs / downstairs

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Well, you know how we tell the kids not to rely on wikipedia when they write their papers? Maybe, following our advice, they’re missing out a bit.  I was just looking for a summary of the plot of Henry Green’s 1945 novel Loving for this insanely encyclopedic lecture that I’m giving tomorrow and found the following, which is the full entry for the novel on that site:

Loving is a 1945 novel by British writer Henry Green. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Loving tells the story of the servants in Kinalty Castle, an upper-class Irish household during World War II.

In his 1975 memoir Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill relates that during a luncheon at the Ritz Hotel, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked Green what had led him to undertake the writing of Loving. Green replied, “I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest time of his life. The butler replied, ‘Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.'”

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March 23, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Posted in novel

credit crunch ulysses

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the ninth most emblematic webphoto of hackney

From the TLS review of Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire:

In an interview with a local free sheet, the Hackney Citizen, Sinclair mentioned that this book was originally meant to be a novel, a sort of Hackney Ulysses, prophetically structured around the theme of creeping debt and taking place over a single weekend. But the notion “was entirely negative . . . and I didn’t want really want to write on that depressing note”.

I will buy the book tomorrow, despite the fact that a) my wife yelled at me today for the sheer number of Amazon boxes that have been dropping through our mailslot this week and b) I yell at myself nightly for not reading any – any! – of the books that I so frequently buy. 480 pages – at the rate I read lately, if I came at it singlemindedly I might finish it just before the start of the 2012 Olympic Games.

I like the start of the review, too:

Writing in the TLS in November 1950, Julian Maclaren-Ross dismissed Roland Camberton, a London novelist who had settled into Maclaren-Ross’s Soho bohemia, as “devoid of any narrative gift”. A year later, the TLS was kinder to Camberton’s second novel, Rain on the Pavements, a loosely fictionalized account of the writer’s native Hackney. At the time, the London borough retained a strong Jewish identity – one from which Camberton, raised as an orthodox Jew (born Henry Cohen), had long been trying to escape. Julian Symons described this return to the novelist’s home territory as “a book of considerable charm”. But Camberton’s second novel was his last. As far as the literary world was concerned, he disappeared.

Camberton’s curtailed, mysterious literary life story might have been drawn up to Iain Sinclair’s specifications. Sinclair’s output and energy take up a lot more shelf space but, as the editor of London: City of disappearances, the co-author of Rodinsky’s Room, a quest for a missing East End cabbalist, and the creator of a distinctive oeuvre devoted to the vestigial, he naturally sees the vanishing Camberton as a kindred spirit. There is evidence, too, of a shared passion for the everyday details of urban life. Sinclair takes a passage from Rain on the Pavements as his own “statement of intent”:

“It was necessary to know every alley, every cul-de-sac, every arch, every passageway; every school, every hospital, every church, every synagogue; every police station, every post office, every labour exchange, every lavatory; every curious shop name, every kids’ gang, every hiding place, every muttering old man . . . . In fact everything; and having got to know everything, they had to hold this information firmly, to keep abreast of change, to locate the new position of beggars, newsboys, hawkers, street shows, gypsies, political meetings.”

This way of looking at the world, of combining attention to detail with Casaubon-like fantasies of completeness, has long been Sinclair’s favoured mode.

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March 1, 2009 at 12:08 am

Posted in crisis, london, novel

fallen women and aggregate fiction

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John Bowen in the TLS on a new book about Urania College, a “refuge for fallen women” that Charles Dickens established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s:

Hartley is fascinated by the lost “Casebook” in which Dickens recorded the stories of all the Urania women. They were obliged to tell him everything and, even if they sometimes lied or omitted things, it would still be an extraordinary document to read, for Dickens, we know, gained people’s confidence readily and was a deft and accurate reporter. Hartley has hunted widely, but the book probably went up in smoke in the great bonfire of his papers that Dickens lit one afternoon in the garden of Gad’s Hill. I think she overstates the case when she describes it as Dickens’s “ur-text, the book behind his other books” or posits that in filling it in he was writing “his sixteenth novel, but one he knew he could never publish”. She is on surer ground when she draws parallels between Dickens’s work at Urania Cottage and his own secret autobiographical writing. For, as he first imagined and then created the home for these young victims of bad parents or bad luck, he was also quietly exploring his own escape from childhood poverty and the street-life of nineteenth-century London. However different the successful and prosperous middle-aged novelist was from fifteen-year-old Emma Spencer, already a veteran of the Clerkenwell Workhouse and the Field Lane Ragged School when she arrived in Shepherd’s Bush, he also strongly identified with her and her kind. “A sloppy education”, he wryly confided to Miss Coutts, “is a kind of bringing up, that I think I can thoroughly understand.”

This is most clear in the dual obligation – storytelling, followed by silence – that marked the new beginning. Urania women were obliged to tell their story to Dickens but, once they had done so, were forbidden ever to refer to it again, either to each other, the staff at the home, or in their future lives. The parallel with the ways that Dickens handled his own family’s shameful secrets is striking. After John Dickens was freed from prison and the twelve-year-old Charles was released from Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, the Dickens family never spoke about the events again. His parents, Dickens wrote, were “stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them”. He, by contrast, did tell the story but, like the Urania women, only to a single ear, that of his friend John Forster, who revealed nothing until after Dickens’s death. Telling the story once, then silence and a new start: for the Urania women, as for Dickens himself, a unique, taboo-breaking act of narration would act as a bridge to a new life.

All very thrilling, the proto-psychotherapeutic approach cum content-collection thing, the male author with notebook amid teenage fallen women (that he’s saving, that he’s transporting) thing.

But more pertinently, this semi-novelistic “Casebook” also would seem to provide one sort of model for the aggregate fiction (should I call it “aggregated realism”?) that I’ve been on about lately, no?

If I lived like Alain de Botton, I might might be tempted to throw myself into rewriting the Casebook as a historical novel at once accurate and blissfully anachronistic. It’s a fantastic idea, and if you have tons of free time, there – it’s yours. Credit me where the credits go. But given my lack of time (all that Dickens to teach, among many other things, all that other stuff to research), would be tempting in the shape of an updated and/or even dystopian model, that is if the dystopian genre hasn’t fizzled under the candlecap of the dystopia now were about to live through…

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February 21, 2009 at 12:03 am

her name here

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Fascinating interview with helen dewitt at if:book. HD gets into the mechanics of publishing, self-publishing, blogging and writing books, her personal history, and other interesting stuff.

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December 30, 2008 at 6:12 am

Posted in dewitt, novel

essentialism, really

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Have recently (finally) started Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s still early, unfairly so. But just a guess:

Having seem Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, one is in a very good position to see quickly and clearly what is wrong with Bolaño’s stuff. When one reads Bolaño’s stuff, one is placed in a very good position to see quickly and clearly what was wrong with Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, which maybe one missed the first time around.

(Sorry, chiastic thinking has taken over from my forehead on back. Taught Joyce last week – hither and thither, thither and hither….)

But I’ll finish it to make sure. And I’ll read the new one too, for good measure. Let’s hope I’m wrong given the time investment in front of me.

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December 15, 2008 at 1:11 am

Posted in novel

not yet, not yet, picture mickey mantle, picture joe d…

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I’m not an Ian McEwan fan. Look, he writes very elegantly. And Saturday is an excellent teaching text (in large part because you get to show students something fairly subtle about the Iraq War, rationalization, and a particularly novelistic form of lying…) His politics are… not very good… And he is one very clear case where the bad politics make for aesthetic failure. You’re really not supposed to be able to label a properly written novel symptomatic this quickly, but there’s no other word for what Saturday is. But that’s another post.

But I am reading On Chesil Beach right now, for some reason or another. Might have something more substantive to say about it soon. But for now I wanted to share something quite excellent with you. The situation is, basically, that a young man and a young woman have just been married and are spending their honeymoon night at an inn on the Dorset coast. Both are virgins. He is tremendously excited to get laid for the first time; she is absolutely revolted by the thought of sex. They’re about to get it on for the first time, and he’s totally misreading her panic reaction as an erotic swoon:

He was thrilled by the light touch of her hands, not so very far from his groin, and by the compliance of her lovely body enfolded in his arms and the passionate sound of her breathing rapidly through her nostrils. It brought him to a point of unfamiliar ecstasy, cold and sharp and just below the ribs, the way her tongue gently enveloped his and he pushed against it. Perhaps he could persuade her one day soon – perhaps this evening, and she might need no persuading – to take his cock into her soft and beautiful mouth. But that was a thought he needed to scramble away from as fast as he could, for he was in real danger of arriving too soon. He could feel it already beginning, tipping him toward disgrace. Just in time, he thought of the news, of the face of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, tall, stooping, walruslike, a war hero, an old buffer – he was everything that was not sex, and ideal for the purpose. Trade gap, pay pause, resale price maintenance. Some cursed him for giving away the empire, but there was no choice really, with these winds of change blowing through Africa. No one would have taken that same message from a Labour man. And he had just sacked a third of his cabinet in the “night of the long knives.” That took some nerve. Mac the Knife, was one headline, Macbeth! was another. Serious-minded people complained he was burying the nation in an avalanche of TVs, cars, supermarkets and other junk. He let the people have what they wanted. Bread and circuses. A new nation, and now he wanted us to join Europe, and who could say for sure that he was wrong?

Now if you’ve read your Barthes, maybe you know where I’m going with this. Always awkward to do the groundwork of social contextualization when you’re doing your histoire d’amour. But here, the relationship is literalized: the social detail, political factuality, the newspapery stuff is what the novel, like the novel’s protagonist here, tells itself so that it does not come too quickly.


(About the title of this post. Avert your eyes if you’d like to maintain an image of me as a sexless demiurge tapping away at posts morning noon and night. OK. In the USA, the shorthand version of this practice as delivered in popular culture usually takes the form of “thinking of a ballplayer.” Which is very, you know, heteronormative and homosocial and all. But that’s not my point. It went around as a mini-trope when I was an adolescent and was sensitive to such information. But when it went around tv and movies during my adolescence, it usually went around as a practice of middle-aged men, middle-aged men who could remember a different era of baseball than I could. Usually, they “thought about” Mickey Mantle. Every once in awhile, Joe DiMaggio if they were a bit older. And so, any time I’ve been tempted to, erm, try the technique out myself, my mind’s eye fills up with sepia toned portraits of players I never watched, Mantle, DiMaggio. The idea is, I guess, is that the practice take you back to the innocent b/w tv years of childhood, when matters like coming too quickly – or coming at all –  were not yet on the table. But when you get blocked this way, and are instead delivered to a strange screen-image nostalgia rut and rude citationality, everything gets all askew, you grow pensive and kind of meta, and, well, I won’t go into details, but you know. It’s not the best place to be when you really are where you want to be.

But it’s OK. Next time, for sure, I will think about Harold Macmillan, whoever he was. Sure to work, especially since no image, sepia or otherwise, erm, comes to mind….)

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September 9, 2008 at 12:25 am

Posted in distraction, novel, sex


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Finally something to read. I’ve had a bad summer of reading. Aside from the mongraphs (that I’ve complained about already….) I’ve had a particularly bad streak during the last month or so. Said streak has included, among other forgetable works, Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and (somewhat randomly) Will Ashon’s The Heritage. The former is truly terrible – it takes magical realist corniness to a new level, a seemingly endless thought experiment that never quite breaks the barrier of interestingness. The latter was just sort of dumb – it pretended to be a relatively high concept dystopia, and that’s what the reviews implied too, but mostly felt like I was hanging out with the kids I see on the bus to and from Finsbury Park everyday. Though I take it that I’m supposed to like it, I must admit that Chris Petit’s Robinson hasn’t been all that much more pleasurable to read, as it’s a slow drip hangover sort of book, even if it’s not without its redeeming moments and atmospherics. Perhaps it’s the right book at the wrong time for me, too close to the bone or not close enough.

But now, finally, something I actually sit down at night with pleasure to. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, which is interesting, and at work I’ve been reading the full (tho pictureless) version of her YOUR NAME HERE in pdf, part of which you might remember was published in the last issue of n+1. I found my way to her blog via a comment that she left on this post at Owen’s site, and she seems to be a reader of, well, my friends’ blogs…. All marks in her favor.

Anyway, it’s good to have something to read again. If only it wasn’t basically fucking August and time to start reading, you know, the stuff I have to teach in the fall… (including, yeah, Bleak House, which I skipped when we covered it in grad school, and which, yes, I have to tell a lot of 19 year old kids all about in a few weeks…)

I’ll have more to say about DeWitt in the next few days, I’m sure…

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July 30, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Posted in novel

in particular

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Adam Thirwell on Les Misérables in the Guardian:

When the book was finished, Hugo tried – and failed – to write a preface. The preface would have begun like this: “This book has been composed from the inside out. The idea engenders the characters, the characters produce the drama, and this is, in effect, the law of art. By having the ideal, that is God, as the generator instead of the idea, we can see that it fulfils the same function as nature. Destiny and in particular life, time and in particular this century, man and in particular the people, God and in particular the world, this is what I have tried to include in this book; it is a sort of essay on the infinite.”

Those in particulars are interesting, aren’t they.

(via signandsight)

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July 15, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Posted in novel

only connect: kunkel in the lrb

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Benjamin Kunkel has an impressive review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the LRB. And the final paragraph’s the best part:

In many ways, Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2003) seems the complement to O’Neill’s Netherland, and is unsuccessful in a complementary way. DeLillo’s main character, too, lives in Manhattan, has a young wife, and works in finance. But where Hans attends to love and friendship, DeLillo’s Eric Packer is devoid of normal human warmth. And where Hans cannot bring himself to contemplate what he does for a living or to look long and hard at something like a new residential tower rising up (to quote DeLillo) ‘in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass’, DeLillo’s character thinks of nothing but financial processes, and has eyes only for whatever features of New York life vaunt their contemporaneity. The problem is a shared one: though warm-blooded human organisms, on the ancient model, swim through precisely this new urban world of global transactions and glassy-eyed condominiums, it is hard to make both the creature and his environment, the character and his setting, seem real at one and the same time. As a consequence, we don’t quite believe in the life of either Eric Packer or Hans van den Broek; the one seems too futuristic and the other out-of-date, and the exact location of the present moment, as in some excessively literal-minded philosophical discussion, impossible to specify. And yet we know that if we could only connect we would see that the world of financialisation and oil futures is contemporary and coextensive with the world of Hans and Rachel’s separation, and that both of these worlds overlap exactly with the worlds of cricket, Google Maps and sleek new architecture; there is, after all, just the one world or, for the individual, the one life. We also know that originality, in realist fiction, comes not only from capturing what’s historically new but also from correlating novelty with persistent inherited ways of acting, thinking and feeling. But the challenge posed to fictional representation by even the most ordinary contemporary life in New York City (or anywhere similar) may not yet have been met.

It’s a bad tic I’ve developed, I know, but, yeah, more on this later. (When I say that, I hope you’ve figured out, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to write another post on this or update this one – just that this blog is preoccupied with these issues and they will, inevitably, come up again later… Why am I so goddamned self-conscious about my writing here lately? Anyway…) The way that I’d deflect or inflect Kunkel’s very helpful formulation here is to say that from a certain perspective the novel runs on the very impossibility of resolving the micro / macro issue that he’s locating the unsuccessfulness of both O’Neill and DeLillo’s NYC novels in. Lukács’s time / meaning dilemma is easily translatable into this cold/warm blood thing BK’s doing, individual / glass architecture bit. And pace Lukács, or where Lukács went when the Hegelian warped into Marxism, the modernists drew this dilemma to the center of the work. Think this:

He was already halfway to the House of Commons, to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)—no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)—the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

I was going to post last week on the persistence of the idea, a truly noxious bit of critical bêtise if there ever was one, that somehow the end of Dalloway marks an affirmational point of closure (she feels again life, chooses life, it is the gift that SS has given her) but that’s neither here nor there, or not directly anyway. What matters is this: the novel cannot close the gap that Kunkel is nonetheless justified in wishing closed. The gap is like the clot of air that works the siphon, that makes the water flow up hill out of your swimming pool. But there is a huge difference – a difference that you can call the ethical or the political, as you will – between those writers who are aware of the gap, who can’t stop staring at the floater, the astigmatic flaw, and those who smoothprose it down into the stomach of their works without tasting it for all it is. This is the gap between DeLillo, I think, who understands why his work is dysfunctional, and O’Neill, who doesn’t.

(Imagine you’re seeing a huge swath of vivid instances of illustrative close reading right here. I could do it, I’m so sure, but I have no time….And if I had more time, I could have made this make sense, I think. But like I keep saying, think notebook, think diary, when you think AWP…)

I do think, though, that Kunkel is most definitely getting the point when he keeps taking it to Forster, over and over again, here. Forster’s maybe the trickiest case of the issue going – so hard to know what to make of the ends of those novels, the sang froid of the rendering of the dead prole under the bookcase and the happy lesbian sorority that ensues in one, the explosive ambiguity of the deferral in the other…

I have to get back to work, right now… God… I want to say something about the McEwan bit in the review… For real this time, more soon…. Maybe….

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July 9, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, novel


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One of the things I was missing in the place that I used to live was a decent bookstore. In particular, I was missing decent bookstore tables. You know, where someone or something picks books, sets them up front, that sort of thing. For better or worse, the book table seems to me to be the only real reason that bookstores might keep existing, for a little while anyway. When I know that I need something, more often than not I order it or get it out of the library. I go to bookstores exclusively to find things I didn’t know that I wanted. Back in the place we left, we had a local independent bookstore with the tables that might as well have been labeled The Atlantic Monthly Selects from the New York Times Book Review and a Barnes and Noble whose algorithm was clearly set to Rust-Belt Middle Brow, Not Much Going on Here. Not a lot of fun, and I didn’t spend all that much time in them.

Anyway, there are some good bookstoresshops with some good book tables here where I am now. My neighborhood Waterstones isn’t great, but they do have a lovely table of fiction in translation, almost entirely new stuff or newly translated stuff that I haven’t heard of.

This is going to fall way, way short of a review, but Andrzej Stasiuk’s Nine is very much worthwhile, especially if you’re the sort that would be interested in a novel that, as far as I can tell, breaks every record for most tram trips per page. * (And, really, you are interested in that, as it’s a core demographic indicator amongst AWP’s readership..) Amidst the flashbacking flutter between Poland pre and post, we also get cafeterias, rooftops, apartment blocks, train stations, kiosks galore. Sold yet?

* Other works with tram ridership that come to mind? For me, Joyce’s “Araby,” Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Beckett stuff, mmmm

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April 28, 2008 at 12:53 am

Posted in novel


with 15 comments

I’ve read an astounding amount of Don DeLillo in the last two weeks – more than is healthy. White Noise, Mao II, Libra, and I’m just this short of finishing Underworld. My first time through for many of these, somehow. I’ve loved all of it except for White Noise, which I’ve read many times before. In fact, I sort of detest White Noise, and while it’s clear why, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise term to explain my antipathy.

Came this morning. There is nothing that I hate more in American fiction than the zany. OK – that’s a bit too much. But do you know what I mean when I say that? Underworld is not zany; Libra isn’t either; White Noise is nothing but. Almost nothing but – there are a few good spots – but even these are tinged with it.

Pynchon is zany through and through, and that’s why I don’t like him. Most of the obsolescent “postmodern” novelists are zany.

David Foster Wallace is very, very zany – zany to the max – but for some reason I can tolerate him at times. Not Infinite Jest – whose very title proclaims the zane right from the book shelf – but Oblivion was quite good. I’ll have to think about why this is so…

This is zany too, and it goes down a bit easier than the print equivalent.

But I’d be probably pretty gaggy were I to get the same in a film about the current or recent police actions. This, for instance, bothers. Not just this scene in particular, but the whole of the film.

The word zany comes from the Italian for, what is it, zanni or zanno, the servant character in commedia dell’arte. And there is something servile about it, something no man’s a hero to their valet, and everyone’s a valet, so throw the Beach Boys on the car radio and roll with it. But there aren’t servants in America, right? So…

Oof. Sorry about that picture. Scares me too. It’s a zanni, or a christmas-treasure statuette of one, available at the website that kindly stamped their image with their addy.

Anyway, sorry, free-associating away, priming the pumps toward full on blog return. But perhaps these are initial notes toward a project on the politico-aesthetics of the turn to and away from the zany. Featured topics will include psychedelia, pranksterism, Kurt Vonnegut (not that I’ll read it or anything, but I’m sure it’ll come up, and the hickup or hangup or tic that makes a candycolored mash (or M.A.S.H.) of grave things like war. Oh, and said project will also take up whatever has replaced the zany here and now, which is the unnamable thing that informs sentences like the following:

Barring a nuclear war or a full-scale economic collapse due to climate change, robot sex is very likely in the cards. (Flak Magazine)

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January 15, 2008 at 8:01 am

Posted in america, novel

falling man

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Don DeLillo’s Falling Man is the first bit of American fiction that I’ve read in quite awhile that I didn’t despise. It’s subtle and sharp, but blunted at the same time (did I promise anything other than impressionism here?), just what the times require. Nearly devoid of action (a husband comes home, an extremely arid affair takes place, kids huddle anxiously, a parent dies, someone finds a new line of work). The characterization is extremely abstract – we catch these people in the middle of things, and we are given very little save for the dry little actions and situations that we watch them march through, and still, in a very deep sense, we totally know who these people are. We live with them everyday – the backstory, as with our neighbors, is redundant. Delillo leaves the landscape out – we are all too familiar with it, and, really, it’s too boring to describe anyway: the upper west side apartment, the community center, the streets of the east side. Why bother?

No chatty kids, no superheros, no invention of funk, no flipbook reversal of the collapse of the towers – what a gloriously dessicated work, just what our desiccated times require if we are not going to lie to ourselves, pretend its all still vivid and colorful and interesting just to cheer ourselves up. I am being a bit perverse, I know, but taste is taste, and my taste is and has long been fixed up those works that defy the generic mandate to vivification during a period when it is hard to believe that anything can be brought back to life.

It’s wonderful to find that Americans once in a while can write a good book, even today, after all the oxygen seems to have been sucked up by the harrowing tragic cycle crashing itself out daily on the news. But… despite the fact that Delillo has written a fine novel, it is one that, alternately subtly and not, repeatedly announces the terminal status of American culture, and in particular the culture of American novel writing. I won’t bore you with transcribed notes from the back of my book, but any work of fiction fixated upon a community center writing activity for Alzheimer’s patients and televised poker games (storytelling about a past that is fizzling away as the brain cells rapidly die off / Constant! Action! that is meaningless and boring and anti-programed by the empty randomness of the carddraw). And on the level of form, the novel delivers a similarly bleak message about the life in the US today by breaking the entire novel into a sort of montage of empty epiphanies. As it draws upon media images (per the title, but elsewhere as well) it strains to announce the fact that it is shuffling them, these photographs and scenes, recombining them randomly in order to render vividly the disjunction of the era.

In fact, he even seems to head into Eliot territory with this tactic, annoncing the image of the “falling man” to be just one card among many that might have been pulled:

She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, the figure twisting down in a story night sky.

The tarot deck is deployed in Eliot’s The Waste Land as an image of social and epistemological breakdown. Rather than writing a poem that is narratively organized, that follows the parameters of gradual, progressive revelation, Eliot’s conceit is that he is pulling cards (images and scenes) randomly off the deck, thus the disjunctive style of the piece, because there is no principle of social organization arranging the world into the image that he would like to see and believe in. And in a sense, to my mind, Delillo’s project runs in a parallel direction…


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June 22, 2007 at 2:30 am

Posted in modernism, novel

battle of the titans…

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…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.

Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.

More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s

fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.

…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?

And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?

Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”

Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

makes nothing happen?

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Finally got around to reading the (rather fantastic) piece on 24 that was in the New Yorker back in February. There’s a lot to clip out of it, but let’s start with this paragraph:

Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.

If you, like me, are a lit-person who occasionally (or not so occasionally) drifts into self-doubt about the importance or potential importance of whatever it is that we do, this paragraph (and all the paragraphs and pieces and tv shows and guantanamos that emerge, in part, from the described text) should make you feel a bit better… and, of course, worse. Narrative, in short, matters. Very little happens that isn’t wrapped in narrative. And in this case, narrative temporality matters most of all. This is clear, usually. But sometimes one forgets….

And weird… Check this out….

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 26, 2007 at 11:13 pm

Posted in distraction, empire, novel, war

“this hobble of being alive is rather serious”

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A paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess has just read a letter that her mother has written her in response to a request for advice on how to deal with her imminent marriage to Angel and the nasty event in her past:

She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.

The difference between Tess and her mother in terms of the significance that they find in this event is not simply a question – for Hardy or for Tess – of simple psychological makeup. Rather, it is a historical question. Hardy takes great pains to establish the vast generational difference between the mother and daughter as no mere matter of the conflictual divergence of child from parent. They are rendered as members of different species, very nearly, sundered from each other by the enormous acceleration of the rate of historical change.

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

This second paragraph is easy enough to understand. There is a very real gap between the two in terms of education and, it follows, discourse, knowledge. But the first paragraph suggests something more, something that rings very true while it, in a sense, defies explanation. The first paragraph – which registers the fact that what was a “haunting episode” for Tess is nothing more than a “passing accident” for her mother – emblematizes the pervasive modern sense that “today” “we” feel things more deeply than those that came before. That life – and the experiences that fill it – are more vivid, pressing, and real than they once were. That our lives matter to us in a way that theirs do not.

I would argue that this is a fundamental experience of modernity. Not the fact that things matter more to us than to others, but simply the sense that they do. We cannot truly know what it felt like to starve, to be raped, to lose a child at birth back then (or – as I’ll explain – over there) – we only know or think we know that we feel equivalent experiences more now than they did then. For a sixteenth-century peasant farmer to starve must have been hard, for sure; but for “us” to starve today would be unbearable, would cut to our exquisitely developed nerves.

Is it simply that life is improving, and with life, expectations? For Tess’s mother and her generational cohort, was being raped by the son of the Good Family nearby a rite of passage of sorts, an fact of life trivial enough to be universal and thus unworthy of excessive contemplation? There is no sign in Hardy that this in fact is the case. No, it has to be something that’s changed in us… a heightened sensitivity, a doubling-up of feeling that comes of consciousness itself?

Is it in a fact the sense that we are more fully-conscious than they were. The injury would cut the skin, and hurt, but today, bathed in consciousness, we not only feel the cut but feel ourselves feeling the cut. We don’t doubt that the women and the men of the past were conscious… to some degree. Perhaps only minimally-conscious, or so weathered by pain and lack that a sort of callus developed over their sensitive parts, a callus that never has a chance to form today. No, let’s stick with the minimal-consciousness idea, as it jives with so much else that we know – or can assume – about the men and women of the past, who knew no future, could anticipate no change, and filled the hole between birth and death, if they bothered to fill it at all, with the mind-evactuating hum of religious dogma, another anaesthetic – an “opiate” in fact.


My parents, for instance, do not whine about the place that they live. To me my life will have been lived in vain if I do not ultimately and for the most part live just where I want to iive. My father didn’t require fulfillment from his work as I do from mine, just money. I also require if not an ideal marriage at least one grounded in a sort of soul-to-soul contact, a deeper sympathy – ultimately, “real love.” My parents, clearly, did not require this. While I love my child dearly, at time I rage inside for my lost youth, freedom that has disappeared never to return. My wife does as well, but I am fairly certain that my mother did not. The suffocation of childrearing seemed perfectly natural, the only thing for her, right?

And just imagine for a second the simplicity and happy austerity of grandparents… Like children, even when they were in the prime of life.

Sometimes, when the pressures and dissatisfactions mount up, when I very nearly can’t take it anymore because I literally can’t think about anything but what it wrong with everything and everything that is still to be done – I am overworked and undersatisfied, things were better back then and might never be good, really good, again – I put myself in my place by thinking “Just how shitty would it be, really, if you were elsewhere and in other conditions – the conditions of perhaps most people in the world. If it wasn’t just taken for granted that you would eat and stay warm and that this child you have would survive and prosper. If there were bombs falling or strangers in uniform at the door. Or were diseased and dying young. Imagine that – and then complain!”

It works for awhile, but it is not in any way a permanent fix.


Is this – all this – what Hardy / Angel Clare means by the “ache of modernism” that they find in Tess? That despite her meagre origins, she somehow feels it too?

Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.

“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”

“Oh no, sir … not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”

“But you have your indoor fears–eh?”

“Well–yes, sir.”

“What of?”

“I couldn’t quite say.”

“The milk turning sour?”


“Life in general?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah–so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”

“It is–now you put it that way.”

“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”

She maintained a hesitating silence.

“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”

She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly —

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.

Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.

They are perfect for each other, these two. A love story not unlike my own. They take everything very seriously, too seriously. The fact is that the world exists for them – what happens happens because they are there, at the summation point of history, to feel it, to suffer from it.

Only now does the strange paragraph before Angel’s assignment of the “ache” to his soon-to-be wife start to make sense….


One way the “ache of modernism” become political is Oscar Wilde’s way in the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

Another way – a more recent way – the ache becomes political informs the novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which each moment of discomfort, each disappointment, generally erotic but also drawn from other categories of experience, adds another wire, another sprocket, to the edifice called “post-humanity” that he is steadily building, fantasizing into existence. When it is built, we will be able – so Houellebecq claims – to retreat back into the slumber of the ages, the quiescence of mindless and well-oiled simplicity.


But of course, as we have heard, “modernity” is not just a temporal field, but also a geographical determination. We are not only more modern that those that came before, but also those who live elsewhere. We cannot stop telling ourselves this, as it is the story that explains everything at once, why things are the way they are, and why we are permitted to do the things that we do. It permits the equal sign to stand where ordinarily it could not. And it enables us to explain certain psycho-sociological aporia that otherwise would stick in the craw.

We cannot stop telling ourselves this.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

January 26, 2007 at 1:55 am