Sunday, September 12, 2010

Notes on Laird Hunt's The Exquisite

So, then, the literary situation facing us today is that of post-modernism—anything is permissible—but also one of conservatism—anything is permissible, but innovation is not valued as it was during the heyday of the major American post-modernists, literary ambition is treated with scorn. Thus the range of options apparently available to the writer. As is the case in Britain, the literary culture, as discerned through its critical commentary, has become small and mean. But there still exists numerous writers who seek to carry on in the spirit of the giants of American post-modernism. What do we do with them?

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I felt Laird Hunt's The Exquisite justified its existence. This isn't to say that I didn't have problems with it, merely that, after a prolonged period in which I was unable to read fiction, I found I could read this novel and did so with some enjoyment. In the comments to that earlier post, Ethan said that he found it "irritatingly precious", but also interesting enough. This isn't far off the mark.

In the novel, we find two related narratives, told in alternating chapters. Henry is our narrator for both. In the first, which takes place in New York City, apparently in the weeks or months after the 9/11 attacks, Henry gets caught up with some interesting if sketchy people—in particular a boss-type who goes by the name Aris Kindt, who's taken his name explicitly from the subject of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson and who has a variety of conflicting stories about his own history—who stage fake murders for people who, it seems, want to experience death to make themselves feel more alive, people who might be sleepwalking somewhat in the wake of 9/11. It seems obvious that Henry is getting set up in some elaborate fashion. In the second, Henry is in a mental hospital of some kind, trying to piece together his past, which may or may not include the activities in the first narrative, which may or may not have actually happened. He speaks to the ghosts of his aunt (who he may have let die) and possibly Kindt as well (who he may have killed, if he ever existed), who may also be, or have been, a patient at the hospital. (If you like, see Matthew Tiffany's enthusiastic review from 2006 at PopMatters for more details about the plot.)

I think we're supposed to be uncertain about the relationship between these two narratives, we're supposed to be uncertain about the relationships between the various characters, we're supposed to feel a kind of tension in that uncertainty. I can't say I did feel any narrative tension. I enjoyed much of what was written—including a lot of Kindt's pseudo-philosophizing, Henry's observations, and so on, and, in fact, I especially appreciated the treatment of 9/11 itself, which is clear enough, but in only passing and somewhat ghostly; you could miss the references to that event if you weren't paying enough attention (for example, normally perceptive Matthew Cheney admitted to not having read the book carefully and he seemed to have missed them). Even the fake murders idea had some promise, and it was treated fairly well (though not without some annoying silliness along the way). And I did feel some frisson reading the pages in which Henry is confronted by a man who seems to know rather a lot about his activities and about Kindt; one feels the onion beginning to be unpeeled and is uncertain about what will be found. This uncertainty was interesting. But my attention flagged considerably whenever we flipped a new chapter and it was time again for the hospital narrative. No doubt in part because it's been done, I was not impressed by either the idea or the execution here, in which one narrative is meant to call into question the reality of the other. I was bored reading these chapters and wanted to get back to the city.

Ok, I'm more or less done with the book itself. Now let me back up a bit and talk about the book's trappings and Hunt's own perspective. The novel has two epigraphs, one from Fernando Pessoa, the other from Maurice Blanchot. As if designed to appeal to me! Here they are, then. From Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet:
I fainted during a bit of my life. I regained consciousness without any memory of what I was, and the memory of who I was suffers for having been interrupted. There is in me a confused notion of an unknown interval, a futile effort on the part of my memory to want to find that other memory. I don't connect myself with myself. If I've lived, I forget having known it.
And from Blanchot's novel Death Sentence:
I entered. I shut the door. I sat down on the bed. The blackest space spread out before me.
So far so good. Then in the acknowledgments, Hunt cites Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as an influence (a man in a mental hospital recalling his journeys?), as well as the role played by both The Anatomy Lesson and Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, which he reminds us are discussed in Sebald's novel. Sounds promising. Then Hunt tells us that he wanted to avoid an obvious literary homage to Sebald (with pictures and quiet observation and melancholia and the like), what Pound would have called "dilution":
The approach then was to write a book unlike one Sebald would have written, while taking up and recasting his favorite themes and obsessions. An improbable ghost noir set in New York's East Village, involving portentous nightmares, a mock-murder service, and great quantities of pickled herring seemed to fit the bill.
This sounds a little glib. It might have been more illuminating to hear about the nature of the impulse to write on these themes. But it's an acknowledgment at the back of the novel; I shouldn't read too much into it. Regardless, Hunt cites all the right names, and he is a talented writer. After reading the novel, I came across a post in Largehearted Boy's Book Notes series, in which Hunt showed up to recommend some music and had this to say about his novel (which the blogger describes as a literary thriller that is "truly haunting" and "[s]hocking, intellectual, eerie, and wonderfully written"):
The traditional way of looking at what a novel does might be likened to a fist that opens, more or less slowly, onto to some object – a jewel, a key, a quarter, the proverbial lump of coal – that is thereby gradually revealed. The wave of experimentation that stretched out over the 20th century did considerable damage to this model – offering up one fist after another that opened onto nothing, or not what we expected (a palm full of question marks, the after-echo of its own opening, a little mirror). Some novels never opened at all, and others, written by especially crafty/annoying devils, seemed to be opening onto something, something we almost got a good look at, then abruptly slammed themselves shut. Which is to say that by century’s end, there were a lot of different models for how fiction could be written and why not (I seem to have said to myself) take advantage of them? The Exquisite then is two fists (kapow!) sitting side by side. One seems at first glance to be on its way to opening (maybe onto something dark and glowing and mysterious to do with New York and mock murder) and the other seems at first glance not to be doing much of anything (maybe just getting its nails done at some East Village hand and foot parlor). Look again, however, and the fists seem to have been reversed. Or have they?
And my doubts are confirmed. What had felt to me like the recombination of various literary techniques (with particular attention to certain genre tropes; enthusiastic bloggers routinely drew attention to his expert "use" of noir and ghost story elements, respectively), to little apparent purpose, is here revealed as just that. There's the reference to the traditional novel and to the 20th century "wave of experimentation" (innovation). In this context, the job of the serious, talented writer becomes either how to further experiment or how to recombine the fruits of previous experiments into something fresh and new. Looking back at the epigraphs from Pessoa and Blanchot, we can now see that they merely offer descriptions of a sort of the events that will unfold in the book and the themes explored. They have no bearing on the relationship to the writing itself, which very much seems to operate under the quintessentially American philosophy of "anything goes". After all, why not write a ghost noir in offbeat homage to W.G. Sebald?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Book to Come: A note prior to reading What Ever Happened to Modernism?

I keep thinking I'm going to find the time to finish up the set of blog posts I have hanging fire, but it doesn't seem to happen. One of these days. In the meantime, I ordered three new Gabriel Josipovici books, including What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which arrived today and has lately been the cause of much uncomprehending stir in the British press. As if he hadn't been making much the same sort of argument for 35 years. As it happens, the lecture Josipovici gave some three-plus years ago that led to this book was a momentous occasion in my life, and I wasn't even there. But the better blogs covered it, and the ensuing conversation led me back to his earlier books, On Trust and The Book of God. Much of my thinking since then, reflected in the content of this blog, has been guided, if you will, by the gentle spirit of those books. Indeed, the posts I have in mind to finish are very much in the vein of arguments I've been pursuing in that time. What does it mean to live in this time, now? What is our relationship to art? What is the meaning of art? What does it have to do with living now?

It's possible that I take the argument further afield than Josipovici takes it, if only because I'm more likely to write explicitly about politics. In his recent piece in the New Statesman, he attempted to explain some of the impetus behind the book, and specifically addressed the silly controversy surrounding his passing remarks on various high profile contemporary British writers (e.g., Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes). In it, he asks, again, what it is that happened to literary modernism in England, and in English-language writers more generally. Here, he is more focused on England itself, especially given the scuttlebutt about his assessments of Amis, McEwan, Barnes, etc. He recalls a different situation in the 1950s, when he first arrived in England, and wonders at how that culture has since become small and mean. In an earlier post, I excerpted some lines from that aforementioned lecture. In part he said there
. . . that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one.
I was reminded in a comment to that post that, while England was not overrun by Nazis, it was nevertheless "bombed to smithereens" during the war. I did not need the reminder, but it's still important to keep in mind. I wonder if the uncertainty following the war helped create a kind of cultural bubble, allowing for a final flowering of the modernist impulse, before that turning towards the "more innocent United States".

The United States, untouched by the war, in a position of immense political and, especially, economic power and prestige, actively taking on many of the responsibilities of the former British Empire—and also home to a spate of writers who either explicitly conceived of themselves, or were so identified by enthusiastic critics, as continuing in the spirit of modernism, writers who were collectively called "post-modernists" (cf. Barth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Hawkes, Elkin, Sorrentino, etc.). Of course, for them, as for so many, modernism was a period of literary history (hence post), in which certain literary techniques were introduced; that is, the modernists were innovators. And so the American post-modernists continued on innovating, apparently untroubled by doubt as to the legitimacy of the project itself. Now, the term post-modernism has been much abused, but I think it was inevitable that it morphed into the cultural tendency dominating our sense of the word today. It's a situation in which anything goes, in which there is no reason not to do any particular thing, let alone write a novel and try to get it published. A situation very different to that faced, on the one hand by the historical European modernists up to World War II or so, and on the other, by European writers at the close of the war.