“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Pseudo-Hiatus

Just a quick note for anyone who's noticed the lack of posts on this blog over the last few weeks: I'm taking a break from the blog until the end of January when my Triple R reviews will resume (unless, for whatever reason, I decide to post something in the interim). I have been reading away, trying to get through some books from 2010 that I missed along the way, so you can expect reviews of some or most of the following next year: Gert Jonke's The Distant Sound, Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Evan Dara's The Easy Chain, and a 'classic' novel--Henry Green's Loving. Oh, and happy new year and all of that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best AusLit 2010

Once again, in no particular order, I've listed my favourite works of Australian literature from 2010. This is an admittedly selective list and I'll just note quickly that it omits areas I tend not to read in, specifically 1) Australian genre-fiction, and 2) realist novels written by big-name authors. I have no doubt that I'm missing a lot of great genre work (and, of course, I hate the term 'genre', since much genre writing is both less formulaic and more innovative than much 'literary' writing), but--as to the second category--I'm simply allergic to that kind of fiction, so you won't see it here. Anyway, below is a list of great books definitely worth reading (and most of them were published by small publishers, too).

  • Other Stories by Wayne Macauley
I think I've raved about this book about as much as is possible, including naming it my favourite book of short stories from 2010, and being given the honour of launching it. If you haven't bought it yet, do so now, and if you want to know why you should, then read this or this.

  • Glissando by Dave Musgrave
To me, this is a book that really didn't get its due this year; many of the reviews of the book seemed more puzzled by it than anything else (or, worse, simply called it 'clever'). For my money, this is the most interesting Australian novel published in the last year, and it's full of inventive, comic prose, while still dealing with important Australian themes. All I can say is that from here on out, I'll read anything--absolutely anything--that David Musgrave publishes. Read the review here.

  • Like Being a Wife by Catherine Harris
This collection of stories reveals a sharp, dry wit and presents everyday situations through a wonderfully strange lens that never settles into either realism or surrealism. Harris is an extremely talented author and demonstrates mastery over the short form without ever simply falling into the trap of Carver-esque minimalism. Basically, it's a great book. Read the review here.

  • How a Moth Becomes a Boat by Josephine Rowe
Rowe offers a set of delightful stories in miniature, but, despite their brevity, they never feel slight or undernourished. This collection is real accomplishment and manages to do something genuinely interesting with the short story form. Read the review here.

  • The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland
The Mary Smokes Boys is a weird little book--and I mean this with the absolute greatest respect. Written in beautiful prose, this book keeps seeming like it's a realist novel, but, when you finish it, you realise it was something else entirely: a romance (in the medieval sense) or a fable that seems both in the world and somehow outside of it. Read the review here.

  • Child of Twilight by Carmel Bird
This is the first book I've ever read by Carmel Bird, and I'll have to admit that I was genuinely surprised to find that I really, really liked it, given that the themes within the book are outside of my usual interests. For me, it's not 100% perfect (I still have a few reservations about the framing device), but, at the end of the day, Bird is a world-class prose stylist. This is quite an unconventional novel full of weird and wonderful characters and which always manages to surprise, twisting and turning in directions that the reader wouldn't have expected. Read the review here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best Fiction in Translation 2010

Below is a list of my favourite books in translation from 2010 (in no particular order--I refuse to do 'top ten' lists as if such rankings are aesthetically meaningful). But these books are all incredibly great and worth reading. N.B. I've decided not to include any Roberto Bolano, for two reasons: 1) he's basically his own phenomenon at the moment (deservedly, I'd argue), and 2) I haven't read all of his books that have been translated this year. 

  • Zone by Mathias Enard
This novel composed of one continuous 517-page sentence is rightly being described as a masterpiece; it combines high modernism with spy-novel conceits and--whether or not you like it (and I did)--is a book that's certain to provoke a reaction. Read the full review here.
  • Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
This hysterically funny novel filled with stories told by unreliable narrators in the Congo is an exceptional mixture of literary erudition, bleak humour and prosaic brilliance (and it's yet another novel basically devoid of full stops). I got to meet Mabanckou at a conference in Melbourne this year, and he was also very gracious, which was exciting for me (at least). Read the full review here.
  • The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira
Aira--who uses a pseudo-Dadaist compositional technique that involves not revising--writes weird, mad, little novellas. The Literary Conference, a book about cloning Carlos Fuentes, is an otherworldly delight. Read the full review here.
  • Prose by Thomas Bernhard
This book, Bernhard's first, is a collection of stories that could ultimately be construed as his juvenilia--but Bernhard's juvenilia is still better than 99% of all other authors' mature prose. The story 'The Cap' in here was my favourite short story of 2010. Read the full review here
  • Microscripts by Robert Walser
Even if Walser weren't one of the most singular prose stylists of the 20th Century, this book would be worth its price just for its reproductions of his 'microscripts'--stories written in pencil on the back of little scraps of paper with tiny letters that are less than 1 mm tall. Read the full review here.
  •  Running Away by Jean-Philipe Toussaint
This book could be best-described as a cross between the movie Lost in Translation and a Three Stooges slapstick film. Toussaint is a writer who would appeal to fans of both Samuel Beckett and Haruki Murakami, and, for all of his jokes, his books also manage to locate a real sense of melancholy and loss. Read the full review here.
  • Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksander Hemon
Technically, not every story here is in translation, but 95% are. For my money, the Dalkey Archive, who published this collection, is pretty much the best press in the world, and while not every excerpt in here may appeal to you, Best European Fiction 2010 is a treasure-trove of authors who are still undeservedly unknown in the Anglophone world. Read the full review here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: Zone

Mathias Énard

Mathias Énard’s Zone tells the story of a day in the life of Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French secret service agent of Croatian heritage, who is travelling by train through Italy; Mirkovic’s journey is no simple holiday, however. He is carrying a briefcase filled with secret documents that he intends to turn over to a man in Rome in exchange for enough money to retire from his life as a spy. Despite this set-up—which may sound worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock movie—Zone is no page-turning thriller, or at least not one in any conventional sense. Indeed, this novel, which has been translated from the French, is best-known for its unusual formal qualities: its 517 pages are composed of one, continuously running sentence.
            Technically, there are few full-stops in the book (at a few points Mirkovic reads chapters of an imaginary novel with standard punctuation and formatting), but by and large the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that catalogues Mirkovic’s freely associating thoughts while he is riding on the train. The use of this mode has lead some reviewers to compare Zone to some of the monumental works of 20th-Century Modernism, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. With its political themes, pulp-fiction conceit, and more modern setting though, Zone is considerably more accessible than either of those two books. (And I would argue that more apt comparisons might be Claude Simon’s Flanders Road and Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, which share both Zone’s breathless style and its thematic emphasis on war and empire). Zone is, nonetheless, a highly allusive and intentionally ‘literary’ book, which references such writers as Ezra Pound, Jean Genet, Robert Walser, Proust, Hemmingway, Ferdinand Celine, Homer, William S. Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry, among many others.
            But more than anything, Zone is a book about the history of European wars and genocides (with a particular emphasis on the eastern end of the continent where it elides into the Middle East). Indeed, the spies that Mirkovic works with simply refer to Europe as the ‘zone’, and Énard shows an incredibly vivid and interesting familiarity with this material cataloguing the Trojan War, Napolean, World War II, the Balkan Wars, and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, in which Mirkovic served as a soldier. Mirkovic also spends a great deal of time ruminating on the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Yugoslav Wars, as well. All of which is to say that Zone isn’t exactly light reading, and Énard does nothing to spare his readers from the gritty details of life in a warzone.
            But for all of this ugliness, Zone itself is a beautifully written book, and Énard demonstrates incredibly precise control over his prose, which moves easily between Mirkovic’s present ride on the train and his often-harrowing memories. I’ll be honest—readers who are put off by difficult books (and don’t like stream-of-consciousness works by writers like Virginia Woofe and William Faulkner), probably won’t be converted by Zone, but for any reader willing to give something a little bit more challenging a go, Zone is an absolute must-read, and would certainly appeal to readers who have enjoyed Roberto Bolaño’s longer books like 2666 and The Savage Detectives. Zone is perhaps the most important literary work to be translated into English in 2010, and it’s absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in world literature.
Read an excerpt from Zone. Buy Zone here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What I've Reviewed in 2010 (with a Digression on Sexism and the Avant-Garde)

Next week, I'll be going through a series of my favourite books from 2010 (grouped to some degree by genre or country). In preparation, I thought I'd list the books I've reviewed this year; of course, this isn't the totality of what I've read (not even close), but these are basically the books I'll be choosing from next week. Here they are:

1.)  Zone by Mathias Enard (coming next week)
2.)  Six Tenses by Ryan O’Neill
3.)  Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse
4.)  A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
5.)  The Philanthropist by John Tesarsch
6.)  The Empty Family by Colm Toibin
7.)  The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
8.)  Leaving Home with Henry by Phillip Edmonds
9.)  The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira
10.)  The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland
11.) The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
12.) C by Tom McCarthy
13.) Like Being a Wife by Catherine Harris
14.) Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
15.) Other Stories by Wayne Macauley
16.) Richard Yates by Tao Lin
17.) Prose by Thomas Bernhard
18.) Kraken by China Mieville
19.) Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
20.) Selected Short Stories by Janet Frame
21.) Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
22.) Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis
23.) Microscripts by Robert Walser
24.) How a Moth Becomes a Boat by Josephine Rowe
25.) Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
26.) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
27.) Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson
28.) Antwerp by Roberto Bolano
29.) The Norseman’s Song by Joel Deane
30.) Child of Twilight by Carmel Bird
31.) The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
32.) Reality Hunger by David Shields
33.) Glissando by Dave Musgrave
34.) Running Away by Jean-Philipe Toussaint
35.) Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksander Hemon
36.) Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane
37.) 2666 by Roberto Bolano
38.) The Supply Party by Martin Edmond
39.) Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

I'm pleased that I was able to review authors from many different countries around the world, including Austria, Australia, Brazil, Chile, The Congo, El Salvador, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, The Philippines, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (I'm not quite sure what happened to continental Asia, which is something to consider for next year.)

There is, however, also some bad news: I only reviewed books by five female authors (about 13% of my reviews). I didn't consciously intend to exclude women writers, but--in looking at this list--it's clear that I need to at least think about gender in relation to what I review next year.

One reason for this skewing--or so I suspect--is that my preference is very much towards work that is in an 'experimental' or avant-garde tradition; despite the importance of many women in this tradition (just off the top of my head: Djuana Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mina Loy, H.D., Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Kathy Acker, etc.), it still often seems--and this may well be due to media bias and coverage--that there's a lower percentage of women writing in the 'experimental' tradition than in other areas (although I'm not naive; I realise there is a larger bias against women authors in all areas, full stop). I do wonder about the reasons for this: are women writers in this tradition simply facing an uphill battle for exposure, or is this an area of writing that is, in fact, overwhelming male--and, if so, why? (N.B. I'm not sympathetic to the argument that formally experimental writing is inherently sexist, although I'd certainly be willing to agree that its current cultural formation is sexist). I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments about why women appear under-represented in this area of fiction...

If nothing else, this gives me a good reason to look at a few authors I've been meaning to read, like Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek and Ingeborg Bachmann. Who else am I missing? What other female writers in the aftermath of the avant-garde are out there that I need to read?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Six Tenses

Six Tenses
By Ryan O’Neill
Ginninderra Press

Australian short-story writer Ryan O’Neill has now begun to get a bit more public attention—this year alone he’s had work appear in Best Australian Stories 2010, The Sleepers Alamanac, Vol. 6, and Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2. Although I have seen (and enjoyed) Ryan’s work in other journals, as well, I had no idea that he had already published a book of short stories, called Six Tenses, in 2005.
Indeed, 2005 was a year that marked the end of a dark time for Australian short stories; during the early oughties, publishers had become convinced that short stories were not marketable, and, as a result, very few collections by first-time authors were published. With the publication of Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots in 2006, which was soon followed by Nam Le’s The Boat in 2008, publishers started taking short stories more seriously again. There has now been a renaissance of the short story, with more and more collections published over the last several years, but the truth of the matter is that many of these ‘new’ collections have been receiving polite rejection notes from publishers for years; thus, what seems to be a sudden cultural groundswell of short-story writing is in fact merely a reflection of what our cultural gatekeepers determine to be a marketable product.
But O’Neill’s Six Tenses had the (unusual) misfortune of being published at least one year too early, and, as a result, this collection—which displays a compelling virtuosity—has been largely ignored. One of the pleasures of O’Neill’s work is that—unlike so many AusLit authors who are afraid of formal experimentation—Six Tenses displays a deep investment in innovative storytelling. The first story, also called ‘Six Tenses’, for example, is related out of chronological order and is divided into sections based on the tense and aspect of verb conjugations (eg. ‘Present Continuous’, ‘Present Simple’, ‘Future Perfect’ and so on). The story ‘Rasa’ (whose title is probably a pun on the notion of Tabula rasa) is intentionally written in the a-grammatical pidgin of a young Lithuanian woman enrolled in an ESL course, who opens the story by saying, ‘English is very beautiful for me. But I am not good at it. Also, I am not bad. I think I am normal. It is easier than Lithuanian, which is my mother tongue because it is my motherland.’
And language is the seminal theme of these stories; not only do many of the stories discuss language education and explicitly ruminate on grammar, syntax and punctuation, but also O’Neill repeatedly invokes figures of those who have lost their ability to speak, read or write (or else who are—like Rasa—not completely in control of their own language). In this sense, these stories are “metafictional” (i.e. fiction about fiction), but not in a purely formalist or clever sense; O’Neil’s stories are about the importance and value of language in our daily lives, and how language shapes the world that we live in.
That being said, many of these stories do have clever conceits and employ unusual techniques that betray the influence of several authors; Vladimir Nabokov looms particularly large, and ‘Rasa’ in particular could be read as a sort of inversion of his novel Lolita (whereas Lolita tells the story of a European man perverting an American innocence, ‘Rasa’ has an American perverting a European innocence; Lolita tells the story from the perspective of the older man, ‘Rasa’ from the perspective of the girl).
But while O’Neil’s work does have a formalist emphasis at points, his work is also often surprisingly tender and even sentimental. The story ‘A Hundred Words’, for example, opens with the birth of a girl named Lizzie in 1900. We are told the story of her entire life in a mere eight pages, but only at the end do we realise the story is, in fact, a deeply moving and loving elegy written by her grandson. The collection’s final story, ‘The Bookmark’, portrays the strained relationship between a father and son, but shows how words and reading bind together people who otherwise lack the vocabulary to articulate their emotions.
Six Tenses is weird and wonderful little book that—had things been a little different—might be seen as a minor masterpiece of Australian short fiction; anyone interested in the Australian short story who missed this book when it was initially published in 2005 will find much here that is worth both reading and re-reading.

You can buy Six Tenses here (HINT: you’ll need to scroll down to find it!).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Aliss at the Fire

Aliss at the Fire
By Jon Fosse
Dalkey Archive Press

Aliss at the Fire is the new novella by John Fosse, a Norwegian author who, aside from being a novelist, is also generally considered to be one of Europe’s greatest living playwrights; his work has been translated into more than 40 languages, he placed number 83 on The Daily Telegraph’s list of the top 100 living geniuses (certainly one of the most fatuous lists ever compiled), and he has also been awarded a lifetime stipend from the Norwegian government in anticipation of his future literary efforts. As befits the lowly place of literature-in-translation within English-speaking countries though, it remains unsurprising that few Australian readers will have ever heard of him.
            While I very much doubt that Aliss at the Fire is likely to make Fosse a household name, it is a beautiful and clever shorter novel. In the language known as book reviewese, this is the kind of book that would normally be described as ‘haunting,’ ‘dreamlike’ or ‘hallucinatory’, and, indeed, all of these descriptors would be apt.  The story starts out in the mind of Signe who is sitting in her kitchen in 2002 and thinking about the night that her husband, Asle, disappeared while out in a boat on a fjord in 1979. But despite the seeming simplicity of this narrative conceit, the story quickly turns in a series of different directions, jumping into Asle’s head, and then again further back in time to Asle’s great-great-grandmother, Aliss, who is tending a fire, and then again to the death of Aliss’s grand-nephew, also named Asle (and who is the great-uncle of the Asle who disappeared in 1979), who also suffered an untimely death.
            I don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of ruining its interesting and complex twists and turns, but the effect is extraordinary: the novel jumps across time such that every different moment seems to be happening at once. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate Signe’s thoughts from memory and hallucination; the reader can’t be certain what is fact and what is fiction.
            Despite the complexity of the narrative, Fosse’s language is incredibly restrained, repetitive and minimal in the tradition of Samuel Beckett, which only further serves to lend an otherworldly quality to events otherwise associated with the banality of daily life. Unsurprisingly for a playwright, Fosse’s dialogue is particularly wonderful, often conveying the inability of his characters to communicate with each other:
            ‘What are you thinking about, Signe says
            No nothing special, Asle says
            No, Signe says
            I guess I, Asle says
            Yes I, he says
            and he stands there and looks at her
            I, he says
            I, I, yes well. I’ll just, he says           
            You, Signe says
            Yes, Asle says
            You’ll, Signe says
            I, Asle says
            I guess I’ll go out onto the  fjord for a while, he says
            Today too, Signe says
            I think so, Asle says’
It may be hard to appreciate how wonderful (and funny!) this dialogue is when removed from its context, but it works wonderfully within Aliss at the Fire, and has also made me quite interested in tracking down and reading some of Fosse’s dramatic work, too.
            Aliss at the Fire is a little wonder of a novel, taking a simple concept and spinning it out into something that has a melancholic and strange beauty. Most impressively, Fosse is actually able to draw the whole work together at the end, with a conclusion that both sums up much of what has occurred, while simultaneously raising as many questions as it answers.
That being said, this is a book that—in its emphatic European-ness—probably won’t appeal to the sensibilities of most Australian readers, which is a shame, since this a wonderful and moving work of world literature. But this book would appeal to those readers who have an interest in the classic European cinema of the 1960s (the mood of this novel occupies a similar space to that of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1966 film Persona, for example). For those willing to be open-minded about their literary experiences, Aliss at the Fire is wonderfully suggestive narrative, and an exceptionally affecting work of contemporary literature.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Quote of the Day: Giorgio Agamben

'What is new about modern poetry is that confronted with a world that glorifies man so much the more it reduces him to an object, modern poetry unmasks the humanitarian ideology by making it rigorously its own the boutade that Balzac puts in Beau Brummel’s mouth: “Nothing less resembles man than man.” Apollinaire perfectly formulated the proposition in Les peintres cubists, where he writes, “above all, artists are men who wish to become inhuman.” Baudelaire’s antihumanism, Rimbaud’s call “to make one’s sole monstrous,” the marionette of Kleist, Lautremont’s “is it a man or a stone or a tree,” Mallarme’s “I am truly decomposed,” the arabesque of Matisse that confuses human figures and tapestries, “my ardor is rather of the order of the dead and unborn” from Klee, “the human doesn’t come into it” of Gottfried Benn, to the “nacreous snail’s trace” of Eugenio Montale, and “the head of the medusa and the Robot” of Paul Celan.'

--Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, 50.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Literary Links: Wherein Everything is Explained

  • So this basically explains everything.
  • Here's a nice, little heartwarming (which is better than heart-worming) story about indie publishing in Melbs. And I agree, we are totally awesome.
  • Are you a latecomer to the Roberto Bolano party? Fear not, for here is your syllabus. (You still have to do the reading yourself, though).
  • N+1, in their usual style, publish an article that's kind of half awesome and kind of half really, really scarily wrong in a disastrous way. There is some bemoaning of the anti-intellectualism of writers' events ('As soon as you hear behind the bookish chatter, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually.'), when, in reality, these are basically complicated marketing opportunities (Shhhh! Don't tell anyone!). Then there's some stuff I think is pretty dead on: 'The novel’s anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one. The novel needs to get over the 19th century.' Then, of course, we have the inevitable fall back into a nostalgiac humanism: 'The novel is unexcelled at one thing only: the creation of interiority, or inwardness. How does life look and sound from the inside, where no public observes it and not even a friend listens in?' Ugh. Is this really so, because it seems to me that Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy (as well as just about every good book ever written) do a lot more than that? Aren't there other trajectories for the novel, other possibilities that lie somewhere beyond the old (and typically mutually exclusive) claims of morality, psychology, inwardness, or social critique? I think so, but finding it requires that we kill off humanism, and--since naive Romantic notions of the novel's 'insight' into the human condition form so much of both literature's marketing strategy and cultural aura--I don't see it disappearing anytime soon.
    • Stupid Article of the Week: Don't you love it when Gen-X Yaleies (right, right--they are technically Elis, as every good denizen of crossword-puzzle land knows) from elite cultural institutions like The Paris Review say banal things (e.g. 'According to Stein, the two tricks for contemporary magazines are to publish work that even he would want to read, and to use social media to inform people of what they should be reading.') and then we're all meant to pretend that it's interesting? Me, too. I love that.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Book Review: A Naked Singularity

    A Naked Singularity
    By Sergio De La Pava
    Amante Press

    Recently, The Quarterly Conversation, a U.S. literary magazine, ran a review of Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity calling it one of the best and most original novels of the last decade. While there is perhaps nothing unusual in a reviewer heaping praise on a book, De La Pava’s novel presents an interesting case: it was actually self-published via the company Xlibris in 2008. Even more impressively, there is no hyperbole in The Quarterly Conversation’s claim: A Naked Singularity is, without a doubt, one of the best and most original novels of the last decade, and the fact that it was self-published is simply astounding, given the complexity, formal inventiveness, and the brilliant writing in this novel.
                The book follows the story of a public-defense attorney named Casi (which is Spanish for ‘as if’), and opens by following him during a standard day as he negotiates a series of clients through the inhuman order of the New York criminal justice system. This opening section not only suggests an intimate knowledge of these processes, but also offers a blistering critique of the U.S. justice system and the disastrous consequences that result from calls to implement stronger notions of law and order; De La Pava renders the violence produced by state systems of control in all of its naked reality. But these grim insights are also alleviated by a dark comedy that delineates the absurdities of legal, bureaucratic processes.
                The first 200 pages or so of the book continue following Casi through his day as we are also introduced to his neighbours, including a Columbia psychology student who is watching every episode of The Honeymooners on repeat in an attempt to make Ralph Kramden into a person that feels psychologically real to him. We are also introduced to Casi’s family (who come from the other Colombia), through a hysterically funny party scene.
                But despite these wonderful digressions, at the heart of this book is a complicated and thrilling crime novel depicting a dangerous caper that involves international drug dealers. As this moment slowly approaches, the novel becomes increasingly compulsive reading, and the climax is a tense affair that is sure to set your pulse racing. And this is what is so impressive about De La Pava’s achievement: his book is both an innovative novel of ideas and a plot-driven thriller all at the same time, as both genres are thrown together (which is a sort of naked singularity of its own).
                This book has everything and then some: reflections on Descartes’ radical scepticism, The Jetsons, a discussion of Hume’s doubt that cause and effect exists, contemporary physics, a human embodiment of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a comprehensive history of middleweight boxing, an eight-page poem translated into broken English, a developmentally disabled inmate sentenced to death in Alabama, and a hotel that bears a strange resemblance to the Garden of Eden. This is a truly encyclopaedic novel, which is full of clever, punning prose. Consider this debate between two characters over the greatest man (with the gender specificity of said discussion noted in the novel) to have ever lived:
    ‘We have Homer . . . um . . . Simpson, Virgil. Aeneid. Who else did we say? Milton . . . Bradley. Bach, all the three B’s in fact, Bach, Leonard Bernstein and the other B. Hume, Kant, all the guys in that book, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, anybody who went to Berkeley. In fact anybody who went to any institution named after a dead philosopher including naturally Georgetown and Stanford, which are of course named after Phyllis George and Stanford Marsalis respectively. Gutenberg who conducted the Gutenberg trial. Nureyev Rudolph. Rudolph Valentino. Engelbert Humperdink for that matter. The guy who invented the Gouldberg variations, T.S. Eliot Gould. Oppenheimer and Manhattan, you know, of the Oppenheimer project [. . .] Hannibal. American Vespucci. Verdi. Vendredi. Veni, Vidi, Vici, all three of them. The Marx Brothers, Karl and Groucho. The guys they worked with, Engels and Harpo. Socrates and the guy who poisoned him then put him in a hemlock. Darwin and the first guy who coined the term Darwinism. Don Quixote and his sidekick . . . Tonto . . . Villa I think. The guy who discovered the nap. The guy who founded the Freudian slip. Pasteur, the inventor of milk. The guy who unearthed the tango, the guy who discovered cash. Tango and Cash. Locke along with Stock . . . even Barrel.’
                A Naked Singularity is raucous, wild writing that will appeal to readers who already enjoy writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo, Evan Dara and, especially, David Foster Wallace (indeed, fans of Infinite Jest need to run—not walk—to their nearest computer and buy A Naked Singularity immediately). But while it shares some surface similarities with these writers, A Naked Singularity isn’t imitation either. And more impressively, for all of its cleverness and artifice, this is a book that also contains moments that are truly moving as well; De La Pava seems able to master every genre and every possible register of prose.
    A Naked Singularity announces the presence of one of the most interesting and important voices in contemporary American literature. This novel isn’t good, and it isn’t great—it’s phenomenal. Go buy it now.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Quote of the Day: William Gaddis

    "--When we were sitting here listening to him read, it didn't occur to me, it's funny, it never occurred to me about him, pictures I've seen of him, and his poems, and the things he says in his poems . . . and I'd wanted to meet him. Esther's eyes had come to rest on the floor, and the shadow there from the chair meaningless until it moved.
        --And you're surprised . . . upset over this?
        --I'd wanted to meet him, she commenced, following the shadow's length back to its roots.
        --Meet him? And now a thing like this . . . I don't understand, you Esther, you're the one who always knows these things about people, these personal things about writers and painters and all the . . .
        --Yes, but . . .
        --Analyzing, dissecting, finding answers, and now . . . What did you want of him that you didn't get from his work? [. . .] this passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour . . . what is it? What is it they want from a man that they didn't get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he's done his work? What's any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around. What's left of the man when the work's done but a shambles of apology.
        --Wyatt, these romantic . . .
        --Yes, romantic, listen . . . Romantics! they marry cows and all kinds of comfort, soon enough their antics betray them to what would have been fatal in the work, I mean being obvious. No, here, it's competence right here in the world that's rewarded with romantic ends, and the romantics battling for competence, something to eat and carfare home . . . Look at the dentist's wife, she's a beauty. Who's the intimate of a saint, it's her Jesuit confessor, and the romantics end up anchorites in the desert."
    -- William Gaddis, The Recognitions (pp.94-6)

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Literary Links: Special Link Edition, Now with Extra Links!

    • Just say yes to NaNoWriMo.
    • Check out J. Safran Foer's new book Tree of Codes, which is a book made of die-cut pages that stack on top of each other and whatnot in a way that I can't explain so just look at the thing already. There's more good news: Foer didn't "write" the book, but rather cut up text from Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, which means that this could well be the least annoying book that Foer has ever written.  Huzzah! [Added: there's an even better link to info on the book here.]
    • The LRB on old Tommy Bernhard. Yup, he's still great.
    • Tried and failed to buy an ebook in our lovely, little convict colony? Register yer frustration at Lost Book Sales.
    • It's been 150 years and poor Emma Bovary is still misunderstood. Oddly, it seems that Amanda Lohrey (author of the recent Reading Madame Bovary) falls prey to the exact same misreading of Emma (at least based on the interview she gave to the ABC Book Show): "Flaubert is very, very condescending towards [Emma], he says that she reads too many books from the public library, too many romances that corrupt her mind and her loyalty to her husband." Is she Misreading Madame Bovary? (N.B. I haven't finished Lohrey's book yet, so I'm probably totally wrong about this...)
    • The Guardian asks the following question: will there ever be a great European novel? Answer: Yes, which The Guardian would know if its staff writers ever read any books from that area just across the Channel over there...what's it called? Switzerfrance? Or something.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Rejecting Wittgenstein's Mistress

    Above is David Markson's handwritten list covering the 54 rejections his classic novel Wittgenstein's Mistress received.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Book Review: The Philanthropist

    The Philanthropist
    By John Tesarsch
    Sleepers Publishing

    John Tesarsch’s debut novel, The Philanthropist, centres around Charles Bradshaw, an Australian industrialist in charge of a corporation worth nearly a billion dollars, who is also a prominent philanthropist. Charles, now in his 50s, is a wealthy and powerful man, but in the book’s opening pages he suffers a heart attack. While he narrowly survives, Charles is left in a physically debilitated state thereafter, and must step down from his corporate position. While he has plenty of money, Charles is left with nothing to fill his days, and is both forced to confront the grim realities of his family life and haunted by his own past actions.
                For all of his ‘generous’ acts of philanthropy (which, in many cases, were also convenient tax write-offs), Charles, himself, has been anything but kind in his personal life. Struggling with his ill-health, he quickly realises that he has ignored both his wife and his children, who have little interest in supporting him during his time of need. As a result, Charles tries to reach out to Anna, a woman he loved in his youth, in an attempt to come to terms with his unpleasant past.
                The book is populated by people who have intense emotions but are completely incapable of expressing them, and the the tone is generally melancholic. This combination is effective in a way that might recall novels like Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. The tone is aided by Tesarsch ’s writing, which is simple and sure, almost as if he were compiling the facts of a case for a legal brief (indeed, Tesarsch is a lawyer); this technique conveys an effective subtlety to character relationships and descriptions. There’s a good deal of legal knowledge in the book (usually delivered through the character of Anna, who is a judge), but it never becomes too heavy, and Tesarsch himself ironises such material by noting that ‘it is said that to study law is to allow the left brain to encircle the right and finally eat it.’
    Tesarch also does an excellent job of re-describing important events through the eyes of different characters, forcing the reader to acknowledge that our understanding of events is dependent on our point of view. Indeed, this is a book that attempts to investigate the notion of morality and what constitutes a ‘good’ act (as the title The Philanthropist suggests), but finds that, in the complex muddle of life, defining our own actions according to a rigid moral schema is extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is reflected in the character of Charles, who in so many ways desires to make amends for his past actions, but, due to his many character flaws, finds that all of his attempts at restitution only result in creating further problems.
    The Philanthropist is a tightly plotted novel with strong and interesting characters, written in prose that has an economic, concise beauty. This is a strong and compelling first novel that raises big questions, but refuses to provide us with easy answers.

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Literary Links: pollytiks v. fiction

    So, um, yes, the debate about Politics and Fiction rages on at Overland's blog. I don't have too much more to say about it than what I've said there. My bone(s) of contention at this point is basically twofold: 1) I don't think authors have a moral/ethical imperative to write about politics and 2) I don't get why this whole argument is so focused on authors anyway; I think there are systemic issues regarding the dissemination of fiction that are much larger than authorial intent, basically.

    OK, some links for this week:
    • Re: the above, why not read Mayakovsky's 'Order No. 2 to the Army of the Arts' (1921)? I love this poem even though it calls for exactly what I'm arguing against (which, weirdly, kind of supports my argument about literature and potentiality).
    • There is, of course, another possibility in the above debate that's been left more or less unexplored: anyone for a spot of désoeuvrement?
    • Joshua Cohen has quickly become one of my favourite reviewers eva. This one on Doc Zhivago doesn't contain his trademark weisenheimerism, but, you know, it's still really good.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Book Review: The Lost Scrapbook

    The Lost Scrapbook
    By Evan Dara
    Aurora Publishers (www.aurora148.com)

    Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook was originally published in 1996, after being selected as the winner of the Fiction Collective 2’s innovative fiction contest by William Vollmann. The book received little press coverage at the time, but over the intervening fourteen years, it has gradually built up a rabid cult-following—and with good reason.
                The book is anything but mass-market fiction; this innovative novel is organised by a set of wildly inventive formal principles, which the first scene announces: The Last Scrapbook opens with a young person speaking to a career counsellor and refusing to settle on one occupation, saying ‘I am interested, almost exclusively, in being interested.’ The novel follows this logic: instead of focusing on one straightforward narrative, it offers a multiplicity, constantly jumping between characters, locations and scenes; even more impressively, these switches often occur in midsentence. While these radical transitions can be disorienting at first, readers will quickly adjust to this unusual style.
                These individual vignettes, which range over such topics as Warner Bros. cartoons, Noam Chomsky’s language theory, the music of Phillip Glass, and a pirate radio station that beams directly into Sony Walkman cassette players, are all funny and completely engaging.
                But for those who like more traditional narratives, The Lost Scrapbook isn’t simply clever textual artifice. The links between the different narratives slowly build over several hundred pages; some characters recur, as do occasional references to a lost scrapbook that belonged to one character’s grandfather (although these references are so oblique that you could easily miss them if you aren’t paying attention).
    Eventually, however, the narrative shifts again, focusing on a new set of voices in the small (imaginary) town of Isaura, Missouri, who begin to face an environmental disaster caused by a large, local corporation.
                For all of its erudition and formal experimentation, this is a book whose ending is moving and even sentimental (in a good way); even more impressively, the book’s many strands are ingeniously drawn together, as well. Dara’s project is effectively an attempt to imagine the social totality of a small community by representing all of the different voices in a locality—it is a genuine attempt to represent late capitalism in all of its networked complexity.
                I’ll be honest: I only found out about this book a few months ago, and upon reading it, I was blown away. It’s the best book I’ve read in years, and I liked it so much that I almost find it difficult to talk about clearly. Some readers have even called it the best American novel of the 1990s—whether or not this may be hyperbole, there’s certainly no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the best. This is a great book that deserves a wider readership and would certainly appeal to readers who like such authors as William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo and David Foster Wallace—particularly his novel Infinite Jest (which, interestingly, came out in the same year).
                There is, of course, another possible reason for the book’s obscurity, too. Evan Dara is a pen name, and no-one knows who the real author behind this book is aside from the author’s claim to live in Paris (Paris, Texas?). Although he’s maintained his anonymity, Dara began to have very minor interactions with the public when he started his own publishing house in 2008 to produce his second novel, The Easy Chain (which infamously contains 40 blank pages in the middle of the book), and keep The Lost Scrapbook in print. There is also one possible clue about Dara’s identity here: his publishing house is called Aurora, and The Lost Scrapbook refers to Aurora, Nebraska (‘I found myself on I-80…somewhere between Lincoln and Aurora…’). Could there be a link?
    But ultimately, anyone with even a passing interesting in the contemporary novel in English needs to read this book, which is truly a lost classic. Unfortunately, you won’t find The Lost Scrapbook in bookshops, but it can be purchased from Aurora publishers at their website: www.aurora148.com.

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    Writers and Values: A (Final?) Response to Overland

    Earlier this week, new Overland Fiction Editor, Jane Gleeson-White, posted a response to my recent article in Kill Your Darlings on political fiction. By this point, I’ve already discussed these issues at length with several Overland editors, and there’s not too much new for me to say. But it might be useful to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I even took issue with Overland’s position to begin with. I’ll also note from the outset that my article was wrong on (at least) one point: Overland is clearly not advocating social realism as such—my bad, guys!
    As to Gleeson-White’s article, I think she’s misunderstood my point—it’s not that I’m necessarily against including the ‘political’ within fiction (and thus she registers surprise when I point out that it’s possible to write great fiction with explicitly ‘political’ content). My concerns, thus far, have been twofold: 1) I (still) don’t understand what it means to write ‘politically engaged’ fiction and suspect the notion rests on problematic assumptions, and 2) I worry that Overland’s position is basically proscriptive, saying that writing must be ‘politically engaged’.
    Gleeson-White, however, denies this second assertion, claiming ‘It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work “must be overtly political” – and nor would I,’ but this doesn’t square with Woodhead’s previous statement that: ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’ From my perspective, an ‘imperative’ is imperative, not a matter of preference (but perhaps Gleeson-White is disputing that such fiction need be ‘overt’).
    As to the first point, I’ve already delineated my concerns with Overland’s previous attempts to define ‘politically engaged’ fiction: their use of uninterrogated assumptions about ethics, aesthetics, the nature of language, and what constitutes a ‘political’ disposition in fiction, as well as a reliance on simplistic notions of hermeneutics (i.e. the interpretation of texts) and of the relationship between authorial intent, textual effect and reader response. I raised these concerns because these assumptions suggest a basically anti-intellectual notion of the ‘literary’. I expect such gestures in broadsheets, but not in Overland, one of the few journals that presents complex, critical analysis for a popular audience in Australia. (And if Peter Craven’s comments about Meanjin are to be believed—along with the (temporary?) discontinuation of Heat—it appears that we’re about to lose several of the other journals that provide such a space.)
                 I also disliked the emphasis of Ted Genoways’s original piece (although he’s got his own problems right now), which Woodhead then took up: both place the ‘blame’ for problems with contemporary fiction on writers. This blame is misplaced. Over the last two decades, the publishing industry has been subjected to an incredible regime of economic rationalism. As a result, it is now incredibly hard for new writers of ‘literary’ fiction to place a book with a mainstream publisher, and those lucky/stubborn/talented enough to publish with a smaller house will rarely be paid anything even remotely resembling a liveable wage. This is not even to speak of the forces pushing writers to produce books that are ‘marketable’ rather than, you know, good.
    Writers increasingly find themselves powerless in the face of a globalised, networked industry—are we now going to blame them for the output of those industrial networks? Even many ‘successful’ writers I know (I’m speaking here of people who’ve won major Australian prizes) are not able to support themselves through writing. Are the current struggles writers face—to maintain a ‘real’ job while finding time to write—not enough, or do we need to accuse them of ruining literature and laden them with ‘ethical’ burdens, as well?
    I similarly took issue with Rjurik Davidson’s critique of Creative Writing programs. Not only are such programs often the only space in which emerging writers can receive both instructional and financial (via scholarships and stipends) support, but also they are one of the last institutions in which aesthetic merit is held to be a more important criteria of a text than its marketability. Whatever the flaws of such programs, they can’t be held accountable for the larger production of literature (and, indeed, few Australian publishers pay much attention to Creative Writing programs in any systematic way), and I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit. To do so is both bad theory and bad praxis.
    The issue here is one of ‘value’: in the face of overwhelming economic rationalism, what possibilities exist for maintaining other forms of value—such as aesthetic merit—or, indeed, of creating new forms of value that are about something more than just the bottom line. Attacking writers, so far as I can see, does nothing to achieve this end, nor does attacking one of the few institutions that still supports some form of value outside of economic exchange.
    My interest—which is reflected in both my radio reviews and this blog—is in locating the good fiction that is already out there, but, for the above reasons, has remained largely obscure. And good fiction is already out there, including ‘political’ fiction, like Martin Edmond’s Luca Antara (which offers a creative re-imagining of Australia’s discovery and colonisation placed alongside contemporary narratives of a man named ‘Martin Edmond’ driving a taxi in Sydney), or Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (a narrative about industry wreaking havoc on a small, U.S. town, in which the entire town is given a voice, thereby connecting the alienated individual with the social), or Wayne Macauley’s Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe (a surreal narrative about Melbourne’s housing crisis that also plays with notions of utopia and autonomy) or his Caravan Story (which is in fact a narrative about economic rationalism being applied to the arts!). All of these texts contain ‘political’ themes but do so in imaginative ways, and can’t just be reduced to ‘politics’ or even ‘political engagement’ as such (although they can be read that way—as I have just done). They are also all published by small publishers who still believe that there are values more important than money.
    So that’s where I’m coming from, but I’m not sure that these larger objections really affect Overland much on a practical level: if these arguments for a ‘politically engaged fiction’ result, as Gleeson-White suggests, in Overland working to shape the future of Australian fiction by publishing new voices and new types of literature, then I have nothing to protest. Locating and publishing such voices (who, I presume, will include authors less well-known that Christos Tsoilkas, Alexis Wright, and Janette Turner-Hospital) is, in and of itself, a laudable goal, and I, for one, look forward to seeing what they uncover.