November Reading: A medium-sized screed against ‘S.’, plus Quin, Barry, Szirtes, Tartt

november 2013
This will be the third time I have written about JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a metafictional puzzle book that comes in the form of a faux-retro hardback of a novel, Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by one JM Straka, and that carries further sub- and supra-narratives in its editorial notes, and in the marginalia scrawled on its pages, and inserted between them, by a pair of obsessed students who, improbably, conduct a flirtation using the book as a dead letter office, even as come to fear for their lives.

First I wrote about it on my Friday Book Design Blog, where I commented on its exquisite presentation and sense of fun, and noted its debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, before ending with the slightly sniffy enquiry:

What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the destination’s worth the journey?

Left to my own devices, I would probably not have continued the journey. However, I was then asked to review it, for The Independent, and happily took back up the gauntlet, reading through to the very last page (something I wasn’t entirely sure Mark Lawson did for his rather general review in The Guardian).

This time I concluded that, though I was sure I had penetrated only partway to its mysteries, the journey was rewarding nevertheless. Sure, some aspects of the project remain hard to accept:

  • in practical terms, that Jen and Eric would keep scribbling in the margins of the book rather than, y’know, texting each other, especially when THEIR LIVES WERE IN DANGER because of it;
  • in conceptual terms, that the narrative of their relationship ran more or less chronologically through the book, from front to back, whereas any fule postgrad knows that the text is a two-dimensional space, rather than a temporal continuum, and their notes should have been a lot more confusing to read in tandem with the plot of the novel;
  • and, in literary terms, that we were actually supposed to believe there was a clan of dissident-writers fighting evil throughout history in our ‘universe’, whatever we were willing to believe about the ‘universe’ of Straka’ fiction.

Despite all this, then, the ‘novel’ (not a novel-within-a-novel, as some have said, but the opposite: a novel-around-a-novel, over-a-novel, above-a-novel) was kept alive by two things: the positively charming romance that grows in the margins between the two students, Jen and Eric, and the quality of the pastiche of ‘Ship of Theseus’, which reads like a sort of tough existentialist take on the Conrad/ Hemingway tradition, though it keeps slipping towards the fantastical.

If the underlying, background text hadn’t been worth reading – despite the fact that you know its primary, surface meaning is not what you’re supposed to be there for at all – then I’d have had a hard time keeping on with it.

Looking back on my reading experience, now, though, what occurs to me is this: that while Dorst is pastiching a certain strain of mid-century hardboiled quasi-philosophical literature, Abrams (as conceiver-in-chief) is pastiching something else entirely.

He is pastiching, or otherwise playing on, the very postmodern take on meaning and interpretation that has grown up in the past half century, following on from the post-structuralists of the mid-late 60s, that sees intertextuality, marginality and undecidability as central to the literary-critical enterprise.

Postmodern literature loves to play with the possibility of extra- or meta-textual work dominating and even crushing the work-at-source (Pale Fire); it loves the idea of the reader as detective, set loose in the drifting, numinous, authorless world of novel (Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose); in fact it loves this so much it romanticises it to the point where, laughably, ferreting around in dusty libraries becomes a supremely heroic act, and even a dangerous one (Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum [a book I must re-read], Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, and, eventually, as Eco loves pointing out, The Da Vinci Code).

S. does all this: it contains elements of all these other books. It is the metaficitonal paranoid-literary, literary-paranoid thriller/mystery par excellence.

Above all, it makes utterly concrete the idea of the Death of the Author: it insists that the job of generating meaning from the base text of the novel is taken from the author and handed over to the reader, whose modus operandi is to pick up and trace back the clues given strewn about the text to their original causes and proofs, which turn out to be the traces of earlier, further displaced causes and proofs … the infinite play of traces that are only ever traces of traces.

Unfortunately, it insists on this so much that it invents a pair of readers to demonstrate the fact – although of course Jen and Eric are nothing more than stooges or double agents, who seem to be showing how meaning is created on this side of the page, while actually smuggling it across wholesale from that side.

The leads we follow in the book are laid out like aniseed trails for dogs. It is a reverse-engineered pseudo-mystery, as closed as any cryptic crossword; and even when it is not entirely closed – when, for instance, the reader might find a final enigma, where they were hoping for a final truth – that ambiguity is a fixed, finite, closed one.

You dig and dig, but the bones you find do not come to be where they are by honest means, but are like those that naughty Creationist  God placed in the earth to fool palaeontologists.

It is not fixed meaning that makes for great literature, but the creative tensions between possible meanings: while these relations can potentially become near-infinite in their complexity, they do coalesce around points of density, like matter in the universe; they orbit each other and work on each other in ways it is still beyond our ken to measure.

Perhaps this is why some people (myself included) have been a little sniffy about S.: because it turns a certain kind of reader’s inclination for post-structuralism into a kind of game. It is post-structuralist kitsch. Enough.

During November I also finally read an Ann Quin novel, Three, following months of wanting to do so, based largely of unanimous praise for her novel Berg. Berg was checked out of the university library, so I picked Three. It’s an interesting read, pleasingly tricky and immersive, when you put your face full into it, but not I think essential.

It’s the story of a middle-aged couple, Ruth and Leon, who are carrying on their stagnant relationship following the death of a young woman – named only, amusingly enough, as ‘S’ – whom they had sort of adopted for a few years, until an affair with Leon, and then her probable suicide. The novel pulls a number of bravura stylistic tricks: page-long paragraphs of unpunctuated dialogue between the couple, when they are together, acidly evoking their pathetic existence; then, when they are apart, long narrative paragraphs that follow one, then the other, as when Ruth dresses herself in S’s clothes in an erotic reverie, while Leon is out seeing to his orchids in the greenhouse; and finally sections that devolve into choppy poetry, evoking the super 8 films the three of them made together.

She unfolded, opened an ornamental box, tried on jewellery. Bracelets slipped up her arms, she extended herself over the bed. Arms held up towards the light, her wrists twisted until the bracelets fell, jangled against each other. She put them on her ankles. Undid her dress, put a dozen necklaces on, some draped over her breasts. In front of the mirror she pulled her breasts up by holding several necklaces above her neck. The beads sprang apart, rolled at her feet, scattered over the carpet, under the bed. She crawled along, gathered them up, hands groped before her, either side, behind. She dropped the beads one by one into the box. Two remained, which she held against her nipples.

It’s a book you have to lean in to, to concentrate on – it reminded me of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, in that regard, while it also recalled the south coast abandon of Mary Butts’ Armed With Madness.

Formally, then, it’s of interest, but as a novel it doesn’t really carry all before: the characters, the story they unveil, is small beer. I still want to read Berg, but honestly: if this had been Berg, it wouldn’t have made me want to run the rest of her books to ground.

I’ve been reading a  book of George Szirtes’ poems, having been along to see his farewell bash at UEA, where he has been teaching poetry for a long time. I only formally crossed paths with him once, when he was part of my PhD upgrade panel, and I found him a hugely personable and useful guide – giving praise enough to put me at my ease, pointing me in certain useful direction, gently steering me from others, less useful.

I love his Twitter feed – some riffs more than others, naturally – and was delighted when one of the three poems he read out at the close of the evening (giving himself no more time that the roster of Szirtes-tutored poets who lined up as a kind of guard of honour) was based on some of his tweets – the ‘poet and a translator walk into a bar’ riff.

He ended with a villanelle, of which I can recall nothing but the autumnal, winding-down appropriateness of it – and how its self-deprecating message was so at odds with the sprightly form. From my limited knowledge of poetry and poets, I place Szirtes alongside Paul Muldoon as someone who uses the textbook forms that others, presumably, consider beneath themselves – and yet make them clean, and clear and vital.

I’ve been reading Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies The Island, a collection of stories, have failed to get on with his Impac award-winning novel City of Bohane.  There are some corkers in there, not least the title story, and the tremendous ‘Fjord of Killary’, which you can read at The New Yorker. More importantly, for me, just now, they are stories that you can give to Creative Writing students, and say: Look, read this, you can see how it’s done.

The problem with finding stories to give to students is that the best, the very best of them have something uncopiable, unlearnable-from in them. The ironical tone of Lorrie Moore, the subterranean, ineffable narrative sense of Chekhov, the outlandish conceits and unveilings of George Saunders. Kevin Barry’s stories may be carried along on a high spring tide of effusive, laugh-dark Irish vernacular, but they are structured very carefully, and very obviously. When you reach the end, you can look back and see how he used the characters, their tics, the repetitions and accumulations, to get you there.

And I’ve been reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Allow me to repeat a joke:

I’m about three-quarters of the way through. As soon as I post this I’m going to go and try to finish it. It’s a warm – not too warm – bath of a book: old school, well-upholstered, well-tempered.

It’s not been blowing me away, though I have been lingering over it, revelling in its slow play of character and situation. Anyone could have written this, I’ve been thinking, on occasion: contemporary, New York setting, terrorism, central character who teeters, unfashionably, on the border of unlikeability, rather than over the other side of the fence, where the cool kids hang out.

When I say anyone could have written this, what I mean is that it lacks the heart-in-mouth foreboding of The Secret History and The Little Friend. Both of those books start with a clammy hand around your neck, and gently, gently squeeze it that little bit tighter with every page you read. That something might go very badly wrong is their point – you find yourself wanting the bad thing to happen, you long for it, if only because you know it’s coming.

With The Goldfinch, however, Tartt doesn’t quite establish this in the same way. Theo walks away from the museum explosion that kills his mother with the painting of the title in his bag, and that crime – insofar as it is a crime – does haunt him for the rest of the book, but it’s not the same. Bad things happen to Theo, but as he says right at the start, in a brief introductory scene before the long, long flashback of the novel, they are all thoroughly his fault.

So far, The Goldfinch seems to be a book about unhappiness, whereas the other two seem to be about different kinds of evil, and the dangers that unhappiness brings just aren’t that dramatic. I read on, deeply involved, caught in the currents of character and incident and prose, but not dragged under.

That reminds me: I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt, too, the extracts of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Penguin Portable. There’s something I don’t like about it. The essay is still half read, and it’s not fresh in my head, but it’s possible I was worried that, even then, she was fetishizing the whole banality of evil thing. She reads Eichmann through a literary-ethical lens, condemns him not for actions but for his evasions, for the kind of person he was, rather than what he did. That’s not the right way of looking at the world, like people who, when you brought up Salman Rushdie, said, dismissively, ‘Oh but of course The Satanic Verses is a terrible novel…’

To The Goldfinch…


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