Ethnographers of the Everyday

Posted on | October 4, 2011 | Comments Off

The new issue of n1br has launched with my essay on Stephen Schryer’s new book Fantasies of the New Class—a study of how the post-war American novel dealt with the professionalization of intellectual culture.

The humanities have been looking a little haggard lately. The UK recently saw government-mandated cuts to university programs; American universities have experienced more of a war of attrition, a steady drainage of students and dollars. The humanities’ abiding self-defense—that art and literature defend values that the free market fails to support—may persuade in and of itself, but the academy has been little inclined to communicate those values in language and teaching that would secure their transfer to a new generation of students. As William Deresiewicz concluded in a review for The Nation on the current barrage of books on higher education, “The liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the ‘practical,’ narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable.” The humanities can no longer be counted on to operate as a check against the reductive machinery of a corporatized American culture. [More here.]

Amitav Ghosh Goes Up In Smoke

Posted on | October 1, 2011 | Comments Off

I have a review of River of Smoke, the second volume in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, up at the Barnes & Noble Review.  I’ve liked Ghosh in the past, and the first volume—once I got past its faux-historical vernacular—made for a spirited summer read.  The new installment, not so much.

The second book of a trilogy is a bit like the middle set of a tennis match: however engrossing the action, whatever happens at the end will necessarily recolor what happened before.  River of Smoke, the midway point in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy—his chronicle of the Opium Wars, the nineteenth-century contest between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty over the fate of trade in China—is densely packed with happenings and intrigue without ever managing to come together as a novel in its own right.  Instead, it reads as a very long prelude to what one can only presume will be the outbreak of war in the as-yet-unpublished third book. [More here.]

Irmgard Keun Comes Back to Life

Posted on | September 21, 2011 | 1 Comment

There is no shortage of literature about World War II, about Nazis, about the Holocaust, but German novels overtly critical of Nazism written in the 1930s are—for obvious reasons—hard to come by.  Until I recently read After Midnight by Irmgard Keun, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with an example.

After Midnight is a slender novella, and perhaps on account of its modest size, it had gotten buried in the pile of books on my floor until a Millions review—occasioned by Melville House’s recent republication—caused me to pull it from the mess.  Turns out I’d let myself be fooled by size: these 150 pages are as sharp as anything I’ve read this year.  (Her insane biography doesn’t hurt either: an affair with Joseph Roth, a lawsuit against the Gestapo, a faked suicide.)

What separates Keun from the pack—what little of one there is—of German writers processing the Nazi period from within is the fact that she trains her focus specifically on writers and the ways in which they were nullified by fascism.  Her narrator for this undertaking could not be more unlikely.  Sanna is a nineteen-year-old shop clerk, flighty and self-involved and most significantly, politically neutral in a world increasingly subject to the imperatives of ideology.  The darkening political mood in Frankfurt forms the backdrop for Sanna’s smaller dramas.  “Suddenly, we felt cold.  We were in a hurry to get home.  But the SS wouldn’t let us cross the Opera House Square to get to the Bockenheim Road.  We asked why not; what was going on?  But the SS are always arrogant and inclined to put on airs.”  More often than not, the Nazis are an encumbrance.  Even when Sanna gets taken in for questioning for “subversive statements,” her fear can’t entirely extinguish her sense of her own sexual charisma.  “He had a sort of gleam in his eyes—if he’d tried to kiss me I’d have kicked him in the belly as hard as I could, he could have perished before my eyes for all I cared, the brute,” she says of her Nazi inquisitor.

But Sanna’s very artlessness gives us a window into fascist Germany that is paradoxically acute.  Her failure to change significantly, to oblige our demand for a coherent character arc, frees Sanna to catch those around her in their gradual ideological decay.  Sanna’s brother Algin, a successful novelist at risk of purging by the Nazi party, first loses his artistic freedom and then loses his grip on his art entirely:

The National Socialists burned Algin’s book.  Algin has to write stories which [his wife] Liska thinks are stupid.  All of a sudden he’s ceased to be a wonderful writer.  As a matter of fact Algin himself often says the stuff he’s writing these days is stupid, dreadful, but it still annoys him to no end when Liska says so.  And now he is coming to think it’s not so stupid after all, for he has taken to expressing himself poetically on the subject of nature and the love for his homeland…

And then, on the other side, there is Heini.  A willful journalist prone to monologue, Heini provides the novella’s most deliberate critique of Nazism—and with it the most conspicuous mouthpiece for Keun’s own views.  “So now you’re thinking of writing a historical novel, are you?” Heini challenges Algin.  “It’ll be the work of a eunuch, Algin.  A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world.  A writer who is afraid is no true writer.”  Yet Heini’s tendentious speechifying, his exhausting irony, render his words just as powerless as those of the defeated Algin.

It may be Algin who threatens suicide, but it’s Heini who makes good on it. In these two figures, Keun maps her fate as it must have appeared in 1937: self-betrayal or death.  But then there’s Sanna, who gives Keun a kind of narrative escape hatch: ingenuousness as a vehicle for criticism.  It’s the same wily impulse that helped Keun avoid becoming an Algin or a Heini: after her suicide, publicly mourned by Arthur Koestler, Keun snuck back into Germany from exile in the Netherlands.

Blood, Guts, and Literature: Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty

Posted on | July 27, 2011 | Comments Off

The Art of Cruelty, I had to assure many people as I was toting it around, is not a handbook; the “art” of the title is literal.  Maggie Nelson’s interest is in aesthetic cruelty, specifically how art forces us to confront and negotiate the indignities, violent and otherwise, that people inflict on one another, and whether cruelty committed in the name of art can claim moral cover for itself.  As Nelson explains at the outset, “Given brutality’s particularly fraught relationship with representation, twentieth-century art that concerned itself with its depiction or activation often found itself in turbulent ethical and aesthetic waters.”  How does one make art about the horrors of recent decades without recapitulating them?

Given that the book treads into relatively heady waters, I was pleasantly surprised to see it land on the cover of the Times Book Review a couple weeks ago.  It’s not that it’s academic as such (we know how NYTBR feels about that); after all, it’s published by Norton.  Rather, it’s the sort of book that can casually reference Hegel and the Hostel movies with equal authority.  Nelson’s efforts to discern what makes for worthwhile cruelty carry her across the artistic landscape, from art (Francis Bacon, Kara Walker) to literature (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Plath) to film (Fassbinder, Lars von Trier) to pop culture more broadly (all of reality TV ever).  If there is a unifying theme—and sometimes it feels as if there isn’t one—it is that artistic cruelty is admissible when it isn’t of a dictatorial variety.  Artists can get away with cruelty when it provokes engagement, ambivalence, and the freedom to reject its tyranny.

Nelson is most comfortable in the register of abstraction.  She returns repeatedly to the notion of “space”—the extra breadth created when a work of art refuses to manipulate the viewer, or reader, into a preordained response: “This space exists,” writes Nelson, “when an artist may hope to give other people his or her problems, but also knows the transmission cannot be surely made, and that the fallout is likely to be unpredictable, disorderly.”  She tends to advance her argument by quotation, followed by a declaration of agreement or disagreement, rather than allowing herself the room (or space, if you will) to accrue rhetorical momentum of her own.  Instead, Nelson throws out references like darts: sometimes they hit, but sometimes they go flying off the board. Read more

The Novel Didn’t Come from Monkeys: Aleksandar Hemon’s “Aquarium”

Posted on | June 21, 2011 | 4 Comments

Credit: Bozovic

I have finally recovered enough from Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium”—about losing his nine-month-old daughter to a brain tumor—from the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue to commit my thoughts to writing.  For all the piece faults the friends who claimed, as Hemon and his wife struggled to navigate their child’s rapidly deteriorating condition, that “words failed,” I am not going to try to address their tragedy here with words.  It’s not my place.  I will say that I have probably not cried as fiercely from a piece of writing since I read Where the Red Fern Grows, circa 1992.

But beyond its central tragedy, “The Aquarium” also functions as a study of language acquisition, of how and why we might use stories to fill in the spaces that our own, limited experience can’t account for, and it’s this aspect of Hemon’s account that I think lends itself to further inquiry.  Hemon explores his own reaction alongside that of his elder daughter, a three-year-old in the midst of the kind of language bloom that strikes children her age, the sudden availability of new vocabulary far outstripping the occasions they have to use it.  In response to Ella’s newly conjured imaginary brother, Mingus, Hemon surmises:

The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have the experience to match.  She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.  Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect—in its California-ness. Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California.  The words demanded the story.

Her impulse to narrative is, Hemon eventually realizes, an identical mechanism—in both form and function—to his own novel-writing:

One day at breakfast, while Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand… Much like Ella, I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography.  I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives…Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival.

Here, in one of the most devastating pieces of writing I’ve ever read, lies one of the most thoughtful, and coherent, explanations I’ve ever encountered of what novels achieve.  That Hemon links this phenomenon to our very capacity for language—a first order fact of human experience—makes it all the more appealing: his explanation is at once grounded in cognitive science and yet open to the full expressive potential of language, which is more than I can say for most literary forays into the biology of the mind. Read more

Heinrich Böll, Postwar Penitent

Posted on | May 25, 2011 | Comments Off

I have a piece on Heinrich Böll up at the Barnes & Noble Review, prompted by Melville House’s re-release of his “essential” works.  If you have to pick one, read The Clown.

The German Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, for whatever reason, has never enjoyed wide recognition on American shores. No less political than Grass, no less a historian of German collective memory than Sebald, Böll writes with a plucked-from-the-headlines quality that perhaps doesn’t translate readily for an American readership. Rooted in the Catholic world of the Ruhr valley, where a deeply held religious tradition battles with the more recent legacy of the Nazis, Böll’s novels root out the secrets lurking underneath the placid exterior of domestic life. As much as the spectre of World War II hangs in the background of his novels, it isn’t the war for which Böll wishes to hold Germany to account; rather, it’s the speed with which the country has moved on. [More here.]

Why Deborah Baker Is Not Janet Malcolm

Posted on | May 24, 2011 | Comments Off

I had a very short review of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker in Sunday’s issue of The Daily, but given the constraints of both space and technology, I figured I’d embellish here.  The Convert is, superficially speaking, a short biography of Maryam Jameelah, formerly Margaret Marcus—a Jewish convert to Islam who became famous for her religious tracts denouncing the West.  It’s an engrossing story, and one worth reading for its sheer unlikelihood, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d landed in a Janet Malcolm book gone awry.

Deborah Baker happened upon Jameelah’s story as she was browsing, with no particular direction, in the archives of the New York Public Library. I know this because Baker narrates The Convert in the first person, interspersing Jameelah’s letters with her own efforts to make sense of her subject.  (That Jameelah donated her papers to the Library before she moved from Larchmont to Pakistan says a lot unto itself about the extent to which she cultivated her own myth.)

Everything from the subtitle to the jacket copy—“a profound meditation on the roots of terror in our age of dread”—to Baker’s account of her own experience of 9/11 sets The Convert up to be an inquiry into the nature of radicalism.  There is merit to Baker’s claim that Jameelah’s life “went straight to the heart of the heated debate over the notion of a divide between Islam and the West,” but her hints at a causal link between Jameelah and the rise of a radical Jihadi ideology in Pakistan remain no more than hazy imputation.  If anything, Jameelah is symptomatic of a militancy that was already gaining traction in the wake of Partition.  The problem is that there are really two narratives at work in Baker’s book: that of Margaret Marcus’s journey to becoming Maryam Jameelah, and that of her rapidly declining mental health.  As the New York Times review pointed out, Baker refuses to answer her book’s central mystery: “Was Maryam Jameelah a schizophrenic? I couldn’t say,” she hedges.  What Baker does tell us is that Jameelah left the US for Pakistan as a way to avoid institutionalization, and that she was eventually committed again in Pakistan.

That Jameelah is, if not schizophrenic, at least some kind of serious crazy, makes it harder to figure out how literally to take her conversion narrative (not least because Baker almost never quotes from her many books, rendering it difficult to gauge their force).  Of Jameelah’s break with her mentor, Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the leader of Pakistan’s Islamist faction, Baker writes, “Every narrative possibility turns on a question of character.  In this case, the characters of Mawlana Mawdudi and Maryam Jameelah.  I could imagine any of these as possible scenarios”—Mawdudi and Jameelah gave differing accounts of why she was thrown out of the Mawlana’s home—“but before I could advance any further, there was one more question I was obliged to consider.  Which one did I secretly want to be true?” Read more

Lazarus in Print: Notes on The Late American Novel

Posted on | May 6, 2011 | 2 Comments

There are two narratives about the “future of fiction” that refuse, not without reason, to die.  The first is practical: how will the novel survive in a media landscape increasingly hostile to long-form reading, also known as “the book”?  Of these there is no shortage, though by now we’ve moved from articles about the death of the book to articles about articles about the death of the book.  The literary world is fond of cataloguing the conditions of its own demise.  (The whole discourse brings to mind nothing so much as the Monty Python scene where the plague victim gets thrown onto the wagon of corpses.  “I’m not dead!” he protests.  “I’m getting better!”)  The second question is aesthetic: what should the novel of the future be?  What tack should literature take? Articles in this camp tend to be a little less frequent, though no less anxious.  Recent entries include Tao Lin’s parodic rehashing of thirty years worth of realism/postmodernism skirmishes and, more obliquely, Garth Risk Hallberg’s heady rejoinder to Zadie Smith’s now-famous essay “Two Paths for the Novel.”

My hope, in picking up The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, was that it would address both questions, ideally together.  The book is a collection of short essays on, well, exactly what it sounds like, that comes with an impressive pedigree: it’s co-edited by C. Max Magee of The Millions and includes among its contributors Jonathan Lethem, David Gates, and Rivka Galchen, to name just a few.  The admirable goal of the book, it seems, is to get these questions out of the hands of the commentariat and into those of the writers themselves—in most instances novelists.  “We wanted to hear from some of today’s most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless,” the editors explain.  But what do we actually hear?  The schism begins with the title: are we talking about novels or books more broadly?  About contemporary American fiction or the technology that delivers it?

The collection follows through on the apathy and fear the editors promise; optimism is harder to come by.  Among the highlights: Owen King on old people playing video games, Marco Roth on the decline of industry, Rudolph Delson on imagining Portnoy’s Complaint in 1910.  (You’ll have to trust me that these things do have to do the future of the book.)  But what’s really striking is that, while there’s a smattering of smart, concerned pieces, many of the contributors seem remarkably uninvolved with the premise of the collection, whatever it may be.  The reigning sentiment seems to be, in the tautological formulation of Lauren Groff, that “Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes.”  One must only muster the will to keep pattering at the keyboard—email and Twitter don’t count—and everything else will take care of itself.  Victoria Patterson is more straightforward: “I brood over my work rather than the fate of the book industry.”  Rivka Galchen has a cloyingly whimsical entry on…paper getting the avian flu?

Maybe it’s admirable, this faith in the durability of writing—I have more than a touch of it myself—but in The Late American Novel, it mostly comes off as evasive.  Is that really all it takes?

Wrestling with Geoff Dyer

Posted on | April 11, 2011 | 4 Comments

Geoff Dyer’s new collection of essays and criticism is suddenly everywhere, but I have only just finished Out of Sheer Rage, which he published in 1997.  That I am behind schedule on Geoff Dyer feels appropriate, however, given that Out of Sheer Rage is, in essence, a volume about procrastination.  “Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence” is the subtitle, but this is deliberately generous; it’s in fact a book about wrestling with Geoff Dyer.

I always feel a bit sheepish about my affection for Lawrence—his novels have more emotional mood swings than a teenager on prom night, plus there’s the dubious sexual psychology—and I picked up Out of Sheer Rage in part because I imagined Dyer might rescue him from the graveyard of embarrassment.  No luck there.  The only Lawrence I know is Lawrence the novelist, whom Dyer holds in mild but chronic contempt.  Of re-reading The Rainbow, he writes:

My impressions of the book were more or less unaltered.  It remained a book which I had no desire to re-read; as soon as I had finished re-reading The Rainbow it reverted to being what it was before I re-read it: a book which I had read and had no desire to re-re-read…As for Women in Love, I read it in my teens and, as far as I am concerned, it can stay read.  If we’re being utterly frank, I don’t want to re-read any novels by Lawrence.  And not only do I not want to re-read some of Lawrence’s books I don’t even want to read all of them.

This passage above is typical of Out of Sheer Rage: it is a masterpiece of digression, a performance piece on the nature of procrastination. Dyer has the ability to turn a passing, even banal, observation, into an expansive revelation of metaphysical portent.  I will quote a section so absurd that it demands to be related in full:

I’ll say this for Italian TV: you’re never more than a few channels away from a western.  She was watching TV in that way of night porters the world over: they watch for hours but never become so absorbed in anything that they mind being interrupted.  Given that there are a finite number of westerns and infinite number of nights in which to watch them they figure that any gaps can be filled in later.  To them, each film is really no more than a segment of an epic ur-western spanning thousands if not millions of hours, offering a quantity of material so fast it can never be edited into a finished form.  The western thus takes the place of the great myths of antiquity: shifting glimpses of character and situations, variously recurring, but manifesting through the very fact of their myriad transformations, the existence of some stable, changeless order.

For a man claiming writer’s block, his words are bountiful.

I knew, in picking up the book, that it was not exactly a study of Lawrence.  It is, after all, a book that the Boston Phoenix called “a brilliant wank.”  But when, I kept wondering, does this book about not writing a book about Lawrence secretly become a book about Lawrence?  The answer is eventually, kind of.  When Dyer gets around to literary criticism, the broader purpose of his undertaking shifts into focus: “The best readings of art are art,” he quotes George Steiner, and this is clearly the tradition to which he aspires.  He wishes to make a case for criticism as a kind of living not with but through literature.  The Lawrence Dyer admires isn’t the novelist, but—fittingly—the man who struggled to be a novelist.  He likes Lawrence the letter-writer, Lawrence the critic, Lawrence the grump.  He likes the Lawrence who bears an uncanny resemblance to Geoff Dyer, but for the fact that Lawrence—unlike, supposedly, Dyer—had a rare ability to inhabit the present, an affirmative relationship to life.  As Lawrence’s widow, Frieda von Richthofen, put it in one of her letters, “To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything.  I called it love, but it was something else—Bejahnung in German, ‘saying yes.’”  Dyer finds in Lawrence’s letters and idle jottings an artlessness that, in the end, makes for greater art than his novels: “Could my own preference for writers’—not just Lawrence’s—notes and letters be part of a general, historical drift away from the novel?…One gets so weary watching authors sensations and thoughts get novelised, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.”  His paean to Lawrence, it turns out, is actually a eulogy for the novel.

The Next-Big-Thingism: Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife

Posted on | March 27, 2011 | 4 Comments

Am I turning into a curmudgeon?  I’m 0/2 on the most celebrated debut novels of the new decade. I recently finished Téa Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, and I’m having trouble understanding the fuss.  (It’s possible I was a curmudgeon already: upon hearing me complain about skateboarders on the sidewalk at the age of twelve, my mother declared that I would make a terrible old person.)  For those unfamiliar with Obreht’s rocket-like trajectory to literary stardom, a quick précis: first, The New Yorker included Obreht in its “20 Under 40” series, where she was the youngest, least-known author in the bunch; the novel quickly secured a place on all the spring fiction previews and anticipatory lists; the coveted New York Times triple treatment (a daily review, a NYTBR review, and a feature) leant weight to the hype, and adulatory reviews flowed in from most major newspapers.

The Tiger’s Wife impressed me in its early pages, but the novel quickly began to flag.  Its structure is awkward: Natalia Stefanovic, a young Balkan doctor in the midst of a humanitarian mission, learns that her grandfather has died, causing her to retreat into memory and tell the stories he, in turn, had told her as a child.  A Deathless Man appears at intervals throughout her grandfather’s life to test the limits of his faith in reason.  A tiger, having escaped from the zoo during the bombings of WWII, stalks her grandfather’s village and finds an unlikely ally in the mute child-bride of the local butcher.  These short fables—visibly inspired by Kipling, on whom Obreht relies as a touchstone—seem to interest Obreht much more than the overarching plot that links them together.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Obreht basically admitted as much: “I didn’t write it linearly at all. Very early on it became clear there were three story lines that needed to be interwoven. I wrote the parts that interested me the most first, then tried to develop the parts that were necessary but I was not as emotionally invested in later.”  Needed (italics mine) is the operative word here, as it’s clear the relationship between the novel’s disparate narratives is not organic and the fractured nature of its genesis shows through.  It’s as if Obreht patched together a quilt with rawhide instead of thread, leaving the seams visible.  A generous reading would interpret this as a kind of structural mirror of the Balkan world the novel portrays, but I’m not buying it. Read more

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