Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Where did it all go? Fiction and blogging and favorite books

I've had occasion recently to read through some of this blog's six-plus years of archives. Turns out I used to write about literature! Quite frequently! Ha! It's difficult to imagine having actually written some of those posts—when did I have the time, the energy? When was I thinking about that stuff? Where did it all go? In any case, reading some of those older posts, reading recent blog- and other online sources, engaging in some enjoyable off-blog literary conversations, and, oh yeah, reading a bunch of good fiction, have all helped reinvigorate me just a little bit, to remind me of some of what I might have forgotten. I'm hopeful to get things moving here. Well, hopeful might be too strong a word. We'll see.

To reflect some of this, I've refreshed and jumbled the literary links in my blogroll. Blogs newly added include Danny Byrne's — see his excellent review of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's marvelous novel/memoir, My Struggle — Daniel Davis Wood's Infinite Patience — his two most recent posts (one, two) are fascinating meditations on the omniscient narrator (which he calls "the knower") in Edward P. Jones remarkable novel from 2003, The Known World — and Ethan's new blog, Marooned Off Vesta, which seeks to "develop [his] own personal poetics of science fiction and of poetry", and which takes as one of its key influences, among other books and authors, the perhaps seemingly unlikely figure of Gabriel Josipovici, in particular his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (reminder: my review is here). Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ are more obvious inspirations, of course, but topics of other posts have included T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane and Denise Levertov. Good stuff. (Also added to the blogroll is David Winters' Why Not Burn Books, which however seems mostly to link to his typically excellent reviews that appear elsewhere - a handy service nonetheless.)

Since I'm providing some literary links, I would be remiss if I didn't mention long-time fellow traveler Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space, still my most essential literary blog. Like me, Stephen's posting has been very light on quantity this year, but unlike me, he's taken the time to write several excellent longer form reviews and essays. His recent essay on one of my favorite books, V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival, is a particular highlight, as are reviews of new novels from Josipovici (Infinity: The Story of a Moment) and Enrique Vila-Matas (Dublinesque), as well as his own review of Knausgaard's My Struggle, which, as is so often the case, led directly to my purchase of that book.

And I have been reading a fair amount of fiction lately. If I had to name the authors that have received the most attention (or at least the most attention to which I took enough notice to acquire and/or read a book) in my literary cohort (as defined by people whose blogs I read and twitter feeds I follow), I'd name, in loosely descending order, László Krasznahorkai, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lars Iyer, Clarice Lispector, Helen DeWitt, Gerald Murnane, Christine Schutt, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Gabriel Josipovici. All with new books, or books newly translated into English.

I've read books by all of these writers this year, except for Krasznahorkai, whose Satantango I have so far been unable to get anywhere with. DeWitt's very funny Lightning Rods I mentioned early in the year; Iyer's even funnier Dogma, ditto. Knausgaard's My Struggle is a great book - I eagerly await the English translation of volume II! - and I'd like to have something interesting to say about it, but there've been several good reviews of it (including especially the two linked above), so I feel no particular need to add another, at least for now. Lispector's first novel, Near to the Wild Heart was one of four newly translated Lispector novels published by New Directions this year, and was also my introduction to the Brazilian writer. It left me with little I could say about it, other than wanting to express a recognition that she was the real deal and that I will be reading more by her (also, in truth, I wasn't writing anything at the time I read it, so the result is that there is, several months on, little now left to report). But some stunning, often baffling writing in that novel. I enjoyed Vila-Matas' Dublinesque, but, again, would refer you to Stephen's review or David Winters'.  Gerald Murnane's Barley Patch seemed promising, and I liked quite a bit of what he was doing with it, but ultimately it didn't thrill me, sorry to report. I found myself bored with it, at times (though admittedly sometimes this boredom interested me).

The semi-dullness I experienced at the hands of Barley Patch, followed by a clutch of non-fiction (world-systems analysis and feminism), had me grasping for crime fiction to clear the air a bit. So I read the first two of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground), and the three novels comprising Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution). I'll have nothing whatsoever to say about these books, except that I found them interesting and entertaining and, especially with the Mina trilogy, sigh, gripping (I know, I know). But they did help clear some space.

Since then, I've been on something of a roll - reading great fiction, reading well, thinking about it, talking about it off-blog - yet struggling to find time or energy to write about it. An enthusiastic, passing mention, in the first Marooned Off Vesta post of Marge Piercy's 1976 feminist science fiction classic, Woman on the Edge of Time, encouraged me to read it immediately. I'd already had a friend's copy lying around gathering dust, and had by coincidence been eye-ing it as a possible next read. And I loved it. My initial sense was that it was formally conventional, that it was the ideas and the situation I was responding to, but as I read further, and discussed it, I began to question this sense. It encouraged me to really think, again, about what we take for granted in fiction.

A review by Dan Green of Diane Williams' new collection of stories ends with a comparison of Williams' work with Gary Lutz's. Next thing I knew, I'd ordered and read Lutz's brilliant and bizarre and fascinating early story collection, Stories in the Worst Way. And in Lutz I've found a new favorite writer (and may have fallen in love a little bit) (see also this fantastic and hilarious interview with Lutz at the Paris Review; on whether the stories in his new collection, Divorcer, are more "accessible": "Even in the lengthier of these new stories, despite their elliptical and fragmentary nature, there is something at least approximating an ongoingness of a sort, if not exactly a plot."). Thinking about Lutz's strange stories while also contemplating certain effects in science fiction was a useful and, for me, helpful exercise of recontextualizaton. Around this time I was reminded, via a twitter exchange, of Christine Schutt, who has a new novel out, Prosperous Friends. I'd previously read and liked her novel Florida, when it had been part of the scandalous class of 2004 National Book Award fiction nominees (that is, they were all books written by women). I was also aware of her name from the Dalkey Archive backlist. Prosperous Friends starts out as if it's going to be merely another entry, if a fantastically written entry, in the tired "dissolution of a marriage" novel genre, but it turned out to be much better and more interesting than that. Incidentally, Lutz, Schutt, and Williams were all edited by Gordon Lish - who now emerges as a rather more interesting figure to me than he had been previously (given his association in my mind with Raymond Carver, who I've never read, nor intend to).

Mixed in here was Josipovici's Infinity - an excellent novel, which I am also not prepared to write about at all, yet. I'd again refer you to Stephen's review (and I'd recommend, too, David Winters' review, at PN Review Online, though it's unfortunately subscription required).

Since then, over the last few weeks, I've been alternating some science fiction from Clifford D. Simak (two novels - Time is the Simplest Thing and Why Call Them Back From Heaven? - which, despite some clunkiness and other issues, have, like the science fiction mentioned above, helped me think about fictional problems in ways I haven't quite before) with multiple novels each from Gilbert Sorrentino (Steelwork and Red the Fiend) and John Hawkes (The Passion Artist), two giants of American post-war so-called post-modernism who I'd read quite a bit of before starting this blog but had not much returned to in subsequent years (long review of Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew notwithstanding). Included here are re-reads of Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight and Hawkes' The Lime Twig. Early returns are that the fiction of Sorrentino and Hawkes holds up, unlike that of other early favorites, such as Martin Amis.

I've covered a lot of ground here, mentioned a lot of writers. But what about those writers not published at the major houses, or even the already better-known independents? Neither FSG nor New Directions or Dalkey Archive? Not Grove, nor even Melville House? Do we as readers take chances on absolute or relative nobodies? I don’t really have an answer for that. My guess is, on balance, no. But, the thing is, I've left out one writer, in the meandering list above - Edmond Caldwell. Caldwell's Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is published by Say It With Stones, which primarily publishes poetry. They have it on their website; it retails for $15. It’s a decent-looking trade paperback, with entertaining back-cover copy in the place of blurb, plot summary, and author bio, in keeping with the spirit of the book. Yet I admit that I only know about the book, or took notice of it, because Edmond Caldwell has himself been a member of my blogging/tweeting circle (you may remember him from his blogs Contra James Wood and The Chagall Position). In connection with that, we’d blogrolled each other and linked to each other’s posts on occasion, and have exchanged some friendly e-mail. He was nice enough to send me a copy of the novel. I was already curious about it, but frankly, had little real idea what to expect. I’d gathered it included some material on the critic James Wood and, I admit, this made me a wee bit wary. I’d liked most of what he’d written about Wood’s domestication of various writers and their work, but still, I didn’t feel quite the animus towards Wood and at times wondered at the energy expended in the effort. And, to be honest, whenever Edmond posted a link to one of his stories appearing online, I had difficulty getting very far into them. While I had no trouble attributing this difficulty primarily to my own apparent inability to focus at all on fiction published online, this did little to mitigate my wariness. I admit to having fretted a little about how I'd read a novel by someone I'm friendly with (what I'd say, if asked). And when I received the book and read the apparently bland opening sentence (“They had just returned to the United States.”), I was even less sure … Yet, something nagged at me, a feeling that I’d want to read this novel, despite all of these trivial misgivings.

I needn’t have worried. This is a damn good novel. Better than that: it's fucking brilliant. I should here say that it was Dan Green's review of it that reminded me of the novel, which had slipped my mind and gotten filed away amid the post-move chaos over the summer. But, while Dan's review is positive, I feel he does some violence to the book (Steven Augustine objects on similar grounds as mine in his comments there, and he articulates these objections well). But at least it's a review! There are so few of them, and it very much deserves to be read and reviewed and discussed. I hope to have quite a bit more to say about Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant soon myself, but for now, let it suffice to say that it's frequently very funny, formally interesting, as well as being an excellent example of, horrors, politically viable fiction. I daresay it's an important book. Which I only mean in the best possible sense of: you should read it.

To finish up, were I to name my favorite new books of this year, I'd go with Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant; My Struggle; Dogma; Lightning Rods; and Infinity: The Story of a Moment.

1 comment:

Duncan Mitchel said...

I'm glad to hear you liked Woman on the Edge of Time. It was my introduction to her work back when it was published in 1976 -- some friends were passing around a copy. I read it twice in rapid succession before I gave it to the next person, and I've been following her work ever since. I've read Woman on the Edge of Time several times, and finally wrote about it here. I don't know whether it's formally conventional or not; I'm glad to see that you came to question that initial assessment. It has something in common with Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, which was published around the same time. And as you may know, Woman on the Edge of Time inspired the cyberpunks.