I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)
It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…
Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading
Today’s text is taken from Nicholson Baker’s U&I (pg 20, in its cute little US Random House hardback), which I happened to leafing through yesterday for some other reason, when I came across these lines:
Updike was much more important to me than Barthelme as a model and influence, and now the simple knowledge that he was alive and writing and had just published one of his best books, Self-Consciousness, felt like a piece of huge luck. How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!
I remember being struck by this when I read the book before, because that is what I had thought, too late, on reading the obituary of Samuel Beckett, when I was 17. I was suddenly struck with the fact that I had been alive, on the planet, at the same time as this person, and with what a huge privilege that was. Beckett would go on being read down the ages, and people in the future would pause from their reading, look out the window and wonder what the world was like, back then, that it could have produced such a response – and I knew. I was there! (Okay, I wasn’t alive when he was writing most of what people would be reading, down those ages, but that was only half the point: I was enviable. I was to be envied.)
The thought, the memory, passed, and I got on with whatever I was doing, but then that evening, as I was doing the ironing, I watched the BBC4 documentary ‘American Master: A Portrait of John Adams’, during which it was mentioned that Adams was the most performed living composer, and it struck me, again, as it had not struck me since Beckett, that here was someone I was privileged to be sharing the planet with: him, creating, me, listening. Continue reading
About a year ago I began writing a monthly post on this blog responding to the books that I had read over the last month – not reviews so much, nothing so considered; more a summation of what had stuck with me from those books. It’s not that I don’t like book reviews – people pay me to do those – but that I wanted to move beyond the balanced, culturally-engaged appraisal they call for to see if there was more to get out of writing about books once the books had been finished, put down, half-forgotten, and allowed to relax into the seething primordial swamp of read books, their sentences lost among the millions of other sentences read, processed, filed, erased. (It’s no surprise that I count among my favourite critical books Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.)
I kept it up for all of 2012, not always posting on time – but then not all of the books were timely books – and letting myself slip only for December. And, indeed, what I found as the year went by is that single issues, single books, tended to dominate the posts. Some months had photographs of big piles of books at the top (nine, ten, eleven books), some three, or even two. Sometimes those books were big books, and so took up lots of reading time (January 2013 I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which doesn’t leave much head space for anything else) but sometimes I had read other books but didn’t much feel like writing about them.
Then there’s the question of how you actually define reading. For a book to be read, must it be completed? Properly engaged with? Where do you draw the limits? If I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain does that mean I’ve not ‘been reading’ anything else? No. Also by my bed is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which I’ve been dipping into after a discussion of philosophy books with my good friend Neil and his son Harrison, who’s just starting to study the subject at school. As part of that discussion I took down from the shelf my favourite philosophical anthology Porcupines – that got read, too, a bit.
Last Saturday, while supposedly watching Borgen on television with my wife, I found myself dipping into another of my favourite ‘dipping into’ books, Clive James’s book of essays Cultural Amnesia; I read two or three entries, including his spirited takedown of Walter Benjamin Continue reading
David Foster Wallace sometimes gets lambasted for his use of footnotes and endnotes – they seem to have been fingered as part of his ‘schtick’, as if he invented the use of them in fiction: as if Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or, say, Tristram Shandy, had never existed – but it’s fair to say that he is a virtuoso of the form, and nowhere more so than in ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not’, the lead essay in his latest, posthumous non-fiction collection.
There are two particular things I noticed Wallace doing with footnotes in this piece, which was first published in The New York Times Play magazine in 2006 and runs in the Hamish Hamilton hardback to 29 pages (though the print is rather large, meaning that the footnote point size is not far off the point size of the normal body copy in my hardback edition of Infinite Jest). It includes 17 footnotes, three of which have footnotes of their own.
The first is the use of shortish footnotes to set up a rhythm, in the reader, up and down the page. Of course it’s not a regular rhythm, but it’s a definite pleasure to exercise your eye muscles in different ways than the usual, linear left-right progression, interrupted only by that skip up to the recto page. You zip to the bottom of the page; you are duly rewarded with a nugget of additional information, or analysis; and you bounce straight back up, energised, to continue with the author’s previous train of thought.
The best of these short, pithy notes contain jokes, as in the footnote to note 3, in which he adds to his reference to a “Special One-on-One Interview with Mr. Roger Federer” the note
(Only considerations of space and basic believability prevent a full description of the hassles involved in securing such a One-on-One. In brief, it’s rather like the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats.)
And you bounce back up, full of zing, to continue with the primary, or in this case, secondary narrative. (Would I be beyond the bounds of fancy to describe the up-and-down bounce that these good, short footnotes provide to the reading eye as akin to the bounce of a tennis ball, pre-serve? I probably would.)
The other exquisite use of the footnote in this essay is as the carrier of subtextual resonance. While Wallace’s main subject is the sublime, superhuman on-court grace of Roger Federer in action, the secondary subject, its rhetorical shadow, is the all-too-human physical frailty and clayishness of the rest of us, symbolised in the essay by William Caines, the seven-year-old boy with liver cancer who performs the pre-match coin toss for the Wimbledon final (Federer vs Nadal) that Wallace is covering. Wallace writes (in the body copy):
It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin. The feeling, what-all it might mean, has a tip-of-the-tongue-type quality that remains elusive for at least two sets.
In fact, Wallace has already brought in his shadow theme, of his and our mortality, in his very first footnote, contrasting it to the seeming imperishability of Federer’s performance. the footnote starts: “There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body.”
Thereafter, the essay concentrates on the positive, on the match itself, on the whys and wherefores of Federer’s extraordinary brilliance, on the maths and the history that give context to it. And it continues in that vein until the last line – except for a lengthy footnote that comes in a page or so from the end.
One of my book pleasures of the year has been Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits (as recommended by Just William’s Luck). As he says, this is a book for all parents, and especially fathers – although perhaps let’s not get carried away. It’s mostly for literate, intelligent, liberal-minded fathers. But there’s a fair few of them in the world. It’s a plotless novel in which Abbott, an American university lecturer and part-time stay-at-home dad reflects on his strange life, as illuminated by the twin suns of his two-year-old daughter and pregnant-with-a-second-child wife.
The book is about the small wonders of domesticity, and the strange elation that comes from seeing life develop and blossom, intimately, but at one remove, but it is also a comedy of manners, that focuses on Abbott’s very male, middle-class uselessness, and his unstoppable over-intellectualisation of that uselessness. Here’s one very short example:
‘Wait,’ his wife says. ‘Did you put sunblock on her?’ Abbott nods his head in the manner of someone who could later deny having nodded.
It’s that kind of self-deprecation, shot through with a terrible self-awareness, that is the book’s dominant mode. Continue reading
Close reading is one of the joys of academia. You have to read stuff over and over again, you can’t give it the benefit of the doubt, and let it just slide by you. Thus a multiple reading, among the chaos of a weekend when I probably should have been doing something familial, of David Means’ story The Gulch.
Short stories have such obvious pleasures, and yet are – for me – such hedged around with confusion and uncertainty, that I positively love it when someone instructs or encourages me to read one. One – out of so many.
Collections of short stories, it often seems to me, are quite the worst place to read short stories. The presence of so many others, equally good, a few pages to the left or the right, seem to make the piece you are reading embarrassingly contingent, at worst redundant, as if they’re somehow shrugging at their own existence.
It is the wonderful trick of the novel, the bossy, lazy, egotistical novel, to make you feel, as you are reading it, that it is somehow necessary, obvious, inescapable. That they are the only novel in your life. In between readings, if it’s a good one, the novel will percolate, stew, grow, run the laps of your synapses. It’s got stamina. It’s got the time and the space to include its own rereadings (repetitions). Stories, even those as good as The Gulch, demand rereadings – which is a risk: after all there are all those other stories right there waiting to be read.
The DeLillo jag (Point Omega, again, most of The Angel Esmerelda, Running Dog) was academia-related, too. Point Omega, on about the third reading, is increasingly brilliant. What I’m coming to admire most about DeLillo, once I get beyond the pacing and the dialogue (okay: the sentences – even the spaces between the words seem charged, the prose equivalent of the Pinter pause) is the insouciance with which he manages to bring tacky low-rent thrillerish elements into his ascetic, high-flown prose. In Point Omega he actually (okay: not actually at all) brings Norman Bates down off the screen in the plot of the novel. He’s got a serial killer in his book, for crying out loud. It shouldn’t work. It should be like having a clown tumble on stage in the middle of Swan Lake. But somehow he pulls it off. Continue reading