Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shelves to Read 2012

Keeping up with past years’ practice, I took a picture of the shelves of books I have collected to read in the future but not gotten to yet. It is a short-hand way to get a sense of one changing aspect of my reading life. For a while I have had the idea in mind to try to narrow the books down from two shelves to one, in part to free up the space and in part because I don’t think it is really necessary to have that many books in the queue. Maybe I’ve made some small dent this year, with some open space on both the upper and lower shelves. I’ve managed to read a number of things on the shelf last year, not buy too many new books, and cut a few I have resigned myself to never reading (I can’t even remember now why I wanted to read Netherland, which looks to be a kind of book I would find awfully dull). Still, never know when I’ll suddenly splurge and get a whole chunk of books that will fill the shelves right back up again.

Previous editions: 2011, 2010.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Tom McCarthy’s C (2010) is a massive disappointment that should have come nowhere near the Booker. The first chapter starts well enough with Serge Carrefax’s birth, but in some ways it sets up the major problem of the book, which reads like a very dutiful answer to the question of what would happen if someone was born in this strange situation. The review blurb from Jonathan Dee on the back cover is criminally inaccurate, referring to the novel as “an avant-garde epic” when it is neither avant-garde nor epic. In fact, it is very straightforward bildungsroman as we see Serge grow up against the historical backdrop of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Granted, aspects of the coming-of-age go awry as Serge is not successfully integrated into the community (for example, he thinks the experience of fighting in World War I is entertaining and that everyone else is just faking the shell shock afterwards), leading to a general flatness of character instead of roundness—but this ground has been explored many times over and much better by other novels.

The flatness gets to a key aspect of the novel: Serge sees the world as flat and can never get perspective right when drawing. He sees know depth in the world, and there is not much depth or growth to his character. You could say McCarthy is trying to use the flatness of the character to get to the roundness: the drama of Serge is his inability to see the world is round, leading to a death drive that hurls him forward. I think this is the most charitable explanation for what McCarthy is doing, but it doesn’t play out very well because the novel’s engagement with the world around Serge is itself so incredibly dry. You get the sense that McCarthy read a lot of theorizations of postmodern fiction as tied to flatness and space in historical metafictions, and then set out to write something that would fall into that category, leading to passages that read like watered down Pynchon or Powers, none of the excitement of the prose left intact. The worst parts are the didactic historical and scientific moments, McCarthy showing you he has done his homework by giving us not-usually-portrayed aspects of the rest cure experience or by having characters explain Egyptian entombment. I suppose many of the details McCarthy highlights would have been left out of your junior high world history textbook, but the passages read with about as much enthusiasm as the football coach who was assigned to teach the class to fill out his schedule. Historically and scientifically immersed fiction need not be so dull.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds

It has been some time since I have enjoyed a full-blown metafiction as much as I did Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a send-up of Irish folktales and fiction. The narrator, a college student in Dublin who drinks, sleeps, and writes instead of going to class, spins out the story of Dermot Trellis, a bartender who himself only writes and sleeps. Trellis works on a series of tales, including a tale of a “legendary hero of old Ireland,” a ludicrous American-style Western set in Ireland, the tale of an Irish curse, and others—all under his theory of “aestho-autogamy” whereby grown characters are born in life as well on the page with a complete back story. Several of Trellis’s characters, all of whom he forces to live in rooms above his bar in order to keep tabs on them, rebel against him while he sleeps in order to gain independence from the lives he forces them to play and eventually seek to destroy him in their own tale of revenge. Against this, the narrator’s uncle harasses him about his school attendance as his exams quickly approach.

At times, the parodies go on a little longer than I would really have liked. The story of legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool (“Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal.”) and the story of the curse each become a little tedious after a while. The strongest, because so ridiculous, is the Western, complete with Indian raiders on the Irish countryside. Otherwise, the book is best when it is shuttling between the various stories and the narrator’s life, other documents, and his insulting descriptions of his Uncle. At times the story of the characters rebelling against their author seems like a parodic reflection of the narrator’s struggle to make a story that will cohere; while it is that, by the end of the novel it becomes more and more apparent that their battle against Trellis is also much like the narrator’s rebellion against his uncle, their tale of revenge an outlet for his own resentment. The resolution to these dramas comes a little abruptly at the end of the novel, but that abruptness itself carries some significance in how lightly held the narrator’s opinions are and how quickly he will change them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Sam Savage is a writer I might never have heard of had it not been for reading someone’s blog review of his brilliant Glass (2011)—I don’t remember who it was now, unfortunately. Savage’s first novel, Firmin (2008), stars a rat who may, I think, also be the narrator, which is the kind of thing that might be a little gimmicky except that now that I’ve read Glass I would be more than willing to see what Savage does with the conceit.

There is a rat in Glass as well, Nigel, the pet of the delightfully named neighbor Mrs. Potts. Early on in the novel, Edna, the narrator, is asked to take care of Mrs. Potts’s plants and fish, and she gets saddled with the rat as well much against her will. Edna is in the process of writing—or, I should say, typing, a distinction that would be important to her—a memoir, or perhaps an introduction to a reissue of her late husband’s novel, she doesn’t quite know. Edna is a lifelong typist with two dry spells, and her decision to write her book puts an end to the second, motivated by a publisher’s request for a forward to the reissue of the novel, which Edna believe to be not nearly enough space for what she would have to say. The book, then, is the record of her typing, memories of the past mixed up with events in the present and tangents that distract her from her main purpose.

Edna, it turns out, has a hard time organizing her thoughts, and her method of typing is to push out whatever thoughts she has at the moment she is motivated to write. She writes pages, or just a few lines, and then leaves off, with a blank line to indicate the break, and as pages come off the typewriter they go onto the table until the slowly wobble off onto the floor in a jumble. Because Edna can’t help but follow the train of associations, and keeps a list of issues she wants to get back to discussing at greater length, she is guaranteed to never finish her project.

The description of the book on its back cover does a little disservice to the actual story. The marketers play up the conflict between Edna and her late husband, asking readers to look for an answer to the question of whether Edna’s memoir is “homage” or “act of belated revenge” and if she or he was the victim in the relationship. This description makes the book sound like a distant cousin of Pale Fire, with a half-crazed narrator using textual commentary as personal attack, but that does not really capture what is happening here. Certainly Edna is unreliable in ways, and the text suggests some mental problems, some lifelong issues and others developments of late age. But despite her problems and those with her dead husband, neither of them come off as more than flawed people thrown together and left to complicate one another’s lives.

The rat, the plants, and the fish—all these things are thrown into Edna’s life and it is immediately easy to tell that they don’t stand a chance: the only thing to do is bet oneself which of the three will go first. Edna’s distraction from the pets and from her task mirror one another and indicate a more subtle plot to the novel as she becomes detached from the world and increasingly lonely, and it is this quieter narrative of Edna’s mental state in the current moment that most drives the novel forward to its climactic passages and uncertain end. The novel, finally, is a beautiful examination of memory and solitude, and it deserves to be more widely known.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Hour of the Star

Anyway whatever was going to happen, would happen. And for the time being nothing was happening, the two of them didn’t know how to invent happenings. --The Hour of the Star

This passage, from the middle of The Hour of the Star (trans. Benjamin Moser, 2011), Clarice Lispector’s final novel, places us at the beginning of a relationship that does not have much in the way of “happenings” even as the plot somehow inevitably does move forward. It is a moment when Lispector is at her most poignantly Steinian, with the repetition of the word “happenings” helping to make concrete what is otherwise usually an unremarkable and general word. This modernist obsession with the word as a solid entity and as fact is present from the first page, when the narrator begins a half-mad opening monologue on the nature of the world, art, and his motivations for writing his story. If his protagonist, Macabéa, and her boyfriend Olímpico don’t know how to make anything happen, neither does he, really: just as Macabéa is compelled to live her life but can never get around to anything that might be called living, the narrator is compelled to write his story of a “northeastern girl” despite not really having a direction. It is a story he must write but that he does not yet know.

What I found most amazing about The Hour of the Star was how Lispector pulls off a feat of balancing between a tongue-in-cheek relationship to the narrator and his protagonist and taking them quite seriously. The idea of not knowing where the plot is going and “just following the character” is taken to the extreme of following a character that has no volition at all to follow. The narrator avoids making Macabéa turn to prostitution out of fear of a cliché in the story of a girl going to the big city and finding it rough, and because a prostitute might have too much personality, or make the story too maudlin. As a result he ends up with a character even more abject. The story is at once a naturalist novel and a parody of its conventions: Sister Carrie made brief by a character that has none of the drive that gives Carrie a plot. But somehow along with the laughter comes a strikingly true howl of horror at a life wasted. In her introduction, Lispector writes that “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity.” The novel is nothing like the conventional historical or political novel that phrase might evoke, but it should keep us alive to the idea that the personal bears history in it and that Macabéa’s life bears the marks of a variety of public calamities. Her state of emergency is such that she cannot recognize it: when her only friend, inasmuch as she is a friend, notices her sad face, Macabéa is shocked because she has always thought of herself as happy. But her happiness is purely a thought inspired by radio advertisements; the surface of her face tells a greater truth than what is “inside.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Literary Conference

César Aira’s The Literary Conference (trans. Katherine Silver, 2010) didn’t wow me as much as it seems to have some others (I enjoyed Ghosts more), although it has its high points. The novel begins with the narrator, also named César Aira, solving a riddle of hidden treasure hundreds of years old before the eyes of an entire town, becoming rich in seconds as “the hero of the Macuto Line.” This is what he does accidentally in his off time: by day he is a translator, writer, and a scientific genius who plans world domination by attending a literary conference and creating an army of clones of Carlos Fuentes. The book, then, is a kind of ego fantasy—I was reminded of the U.S. writer Mark Leyner (who I haven’t thought of for quite some time), particularly his novel Et Tu, Babe. Leyner’s novel is even more over-the-top in its surrealism and narcissism, whereas Aira aims for a more conspicuously literary style.

Perhaps I should say “mimics” such a style, because one of the key themes running through the book undercutting its narcissism is a meditation on the narrator’s “vampirism” in relation to others in order to build himself out of other people. When he clones Carlos Fuentes, he explains, he is cloning “style cells” that contain Fuentes’s originality. Here the fictional Aira gives us a portrait of the real Aira, the writer known for producing a multitude of short books each with a distinct personality. Scott Esposito, recently responding to a longer essay on Aira (which I should say I haven’t had the time to read much of yet), sums up Aira’s approach to literature as a rejection of the idea of creating a unified world in the large novel, and thus a refusal of modernism and postmodernism, both of which question the capacity of the novel but do everything possible to maintain its world-building capacity. Instead, “Aira leads us toward a realignment of values in our literature, where representing totality is unnecessary.” Instead of the long novel that tries to encompass the world in a single authorial style, a multitude of shorter works that keep moving on to the next style. This idea seems plausible enough, yet in The Literary Conference Aira points to how this new literary mode itself might draw on world-dominating impulses that trace back to the modernism and postmodernism it replaces.