“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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book Review: Robert Walser's Microscripts

By Robert Walser
New Directions

In theory, Robert Walser’s Microscripts is a selection of his later writings that have, by and large, not previously been available in English. And while Microscripts certainly does offer an interesting selection of his work, it also manages to do something else entirely: it presents visual reproductions (or what you and I call photographs) of some of the most unusual textual artefacts in European literature. To understand why this is the case, however, requires knowing a bit about Walser’s own life.
Although he wrote mainly in German, Walser was born in Switzerland in 1878. After a brief stint in the military, Walser attempted to make a go of a literary career; he succeeded in publishing four novels while living in Zurich and Berlin, but (like so many writers before and since) failed to earn a living from his art. Walser returned to Switzerland and became increasingly unstable. He eventually admitted to hearing voices and was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, resulting in his institutionalisation in 1929. While he continued writing for another five years, by the mid-1930s he had stopped writing entirely. He lived in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life, and died of a heart attack while walking through the snow in 1956.
After his death, Walser’s literary executor, Carl Seelig, discovered 526 small, cut-up scraps of paper, all of which had tiny pencil-writing on them that appeared indecipherable. At the time, Seelig assumed that these texts were either written in some strange code, or else simply the result of Walser’s mental illness. But as scholars later discovered, these texts were actually written in an archaic form of shorthand called Kurrent; their illegibility was further magnified by the fact that the letters themselves were minuscule, often measuring only a millimetre in height. As a result of this extreme compression, Walser was able to write entire short stories on the backs of business cards and cut-up pieces of envelopes.
Indeed, Walser’s unusual compositional method was not simply a result of his madness, and it appears that he began composing in this way around 1917. His pencil writing was in fact a response to a crippling writer’s block; he found that the mechanical process of his miniscule writing (which he described as a ‘logically consistent, office-like copying system’) enabled him to attain the prose style he desired. As he notes in one of his letters, the microscript method ‘revived my writerly enthusiasm…I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil.’
The Microscripts, published by New Directions, is a sort of archival record of these deeply unusual texts. The book offers beautiful, full-colour reproductions of many of the microscripts themselves, accompanied by both English translations and their German originals, as well as notes on their likely date and provenance. On a purely visual level, this is an undeniably beautiful book, which will appeal to anyone interested in art, design, typography, or the history of the book. But the main attraction, is, of course, Walser’s writing itself.
The texts within the microscripts are surely some of the most unusual pieces of writing in world literature. Walser’s short prose pieces are neither essay nor short story, and, in their elliptical, aphoristic quality, bear little resemblance to any codified genre of writing. But this, of course, is precisely their attraction. Walser’s prose constantly turns in completely unexpected directions, moving between absurd humour and sublimnity with ease. While they aren’t connected by linear narratives in the way that most readers would expect, they nonetheless contain their own logic. Their strangeness is precisely their value, since they force the reader to think about the very strangeness of language itself. One such microscript, for example, simply concludes by saying ‘This is certainly a peculiar story, and in any case it has never before appeared in print.’ Walser’s work is certainly unusual and most readers may find it strange, but, at the same time, his writing is not ‘difficult’ in the way that other modernist writers (like Joyce or Robert Musil) are; Walser’s writings are not obscure or full of literary allusion, but rather are written with an absolutely singular style. It’s also worth noting that many of these texts were produced before Walser’s stay in hospital, and they are not simply the products of madness, since they resemble his later writing.
For those interested in Walser’s late style, Microscripts, isn’t the best introduction (I would recommend, instead his novel The Robber, or else his Selected Writings), but they are an essential record of his writing – in every sense – and this book is an absolute treasure for anyone interested in more unusual modes of fiction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Overland Article on Book Piracy

I wrote an article on book piracy for the most recent issue of Overland. It's now available on the web for your general perusing and reading pleasure, so click here to have a read.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review: How a Moth Becomes a Boat

How a Moth Becomes a Boat
By Josephine Rowe
Hunter Publishers

Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat is a collection of short stories originally published by Cherry Fox Press in 2009, which has just been reissued for a wider audience by Hunter Publishers. But even to call Rowe’s work short stories is partially erroneous; this slender, 79-page book actually comprises nineteen extremely brief short stories, most of which are under 1000 words in keeping with the genre variously known as either flash fiction or micro fiction.
While the book may be slim, however, nothing about these stories feels slight. Although written in prose, Rowe’s stories have the feel and shape of lyric and confessional poetry (and fittingly, Rowe is also a poet). Rowe’s stories are wonderfully economical and concise; entire narratives develop over the space of a few hundred words, and despite its brevity, anyone finishing How a Moth Becomes a Boat will no doubt feel that they have, indeed, finished reading an entire collection of short fiction. Rowe consistently evokes precise images that deftly convey the emotional impact of a much larger story.
The stories cover varied terrain, but situations and themes return. Many stories involve younger artists and creative types living in sharehouses in suburban Melbourne (and abroad), or discuss the fallout from failed relationships or else the emotional scars inflicted by negligent or absent parents. But such a description doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the prose inside this book. Indeed, in its physical size, restrained prose and thematics, the book recalls Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers.
But there’s something in Rowe’s style that separates her from Garner as well. In the seeming simplicity of her spare prose, one can also sense the ghost of Modernism, and the style of such writers as William Carlos Williams (in his story ‘The Knife of the Times’) or even Gertrude Stein (in Tender Buttons).
There are too many great stories in here to name them all, but I’ll quickly note a few of my favourites, including ‘Tame’ about a father watching his children feed wild foxes, ‘Tape’ about a man who finds a cassette that contains a recording of his dead wife, and the stories ‘Love’ and ‘Belt’, which are both about a woman’s relationship with her estranged father. It’s a book-reviewing cliché to say of a short story collection that some stories are better than others; this is true of all short story collections, even the best ones. What I’d rather say here about Rowe’s work is that, while I had my favourites, every story kept me engaged and wanting to read more.
This is a beautifully wrought and wonderfully eclectic debut, written with a strong and unique authorial voice. In short, it’s exceptional – a brilliant, powerful collection of very short, short fiction.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program.

Interview on PBS, Tonight at 7.30 p.m.

I'm being interviewed on PBS tonight at 7.30 about my book, Known Unknowns. To listen along, click here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Listen to My Interview at Kill Your Darlings Blog

Several weeks ago I was interviewed by Estelle Tang for Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog. The interview is now up as a podcast for your listening pleasure. Here's Estelle's quick breakdown of the interview contents: 'Podcast roadmap: Washington DC; corpses; Capgras syndrome; the best place to buy drugs in America; The Education of Henry Adams; spoiling the end of The Great Gatsby; failure in the American tradition; Phantoms in the Brain; the terrible ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; the disintegration of systems; rampant individualism; how the writing brain is informed by the editorial brain; the Federal Government’s Book Industry Strategy Group.' So, if any of that interests you, click here to have a listen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

See (and Hear) Me Read at the Wheeler Centre on Mon., June 21st

On Monday, June 21 at 6 p.m., I'll be reading at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne as part of their Debut Mondays program. If you are on Facebook, you can RSVP to the event here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Review: Senselessness

By Horacio Castellanos Moya
New Directions

Horacio Castellanos Moya is an El Salvadorian author who currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvani, and has written eight novels in Spanish. His work has been praised by Roberto Bolaño and has received a variety of awards. Senselessness mirrors aspects of the author’s own life; it tells the story of an El Salvadorian writer who claims he has been forced to leave his own country for political reasons. He has fled to a neighbouring country (presumable Guatemala), and, out of work and desperate, the atheistic author has accepted a job with the Catholic Church editing a 1000-page report detailing the brutal massacre of indigenous people during Guatemala’s long civil war.
But style is at least as important as plot in Moya’s work. The prose is written in long, stream-of-consciousness sentences that recall the prose of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. Much of the novel’s first-person narrative comprises the narrator delineating all his own peccadilloes and anxieties in a process of endless self-reflection that recalls Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, and, for that matter, Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
That being said, our protagonist is not a particularly pleasant individual. Although he seems sympathetic enough at the beginning of the novel, we quickly learn that he has in fact not been ‘exiled’ at all, but rather fled from El Salvador as a result of making racist comments about the president in a magazine article. We watch his crass and deceitful attempts to seduce two women that he works with, although he is ultimately undermined by his own ineptitude. Indeed, his main interest in the reports of the Guatemalan massacres that he is editing lies in the poetic quality of the victim statements, which he believes he can use in his own writing (and, in this sense, the novel reflects on its own use of such atrocities for ultimately aesthetic ends).
But our narrator’s problems are not entirely imaginary, either. The 1000-page report is top-secret, and there are elements within the government who would happily silence everyone involved in its writing and publication by any means necessary. The anxiety and paranoia created by this editorial occupation ultimately overwhelms the narrator, until his actions become more and more unreasonable.
Senselessness is an unusual reading experience, and readers’ enjoyment of it will depend on their ability to tolerate the often-despicable main character, who can be vengeful, selfish and sex-obsessed. Moreover, many passages are charged with scatological language that might strike more conservative readers as prurient.
Katherine Silver who won a Penn award for translating this novel from Spanish, and you can see why: it would be a nightmare to translate these long and difficult sentences from their original Spanish, while retaining any amount of fidelity to the original. Ultimately, however, as a reader, you are nevertheless aware that you are reading a translation and not every passage feels fully realised in English.
Regardless, this is ultimately a deeply intriguing work by an important Central American author. Senselessness does depict an unlikable character, but also makes him human enough to keep the narrative compelling. Moreover the text deftly changes registers, shifting from absurdist comedy to beautiful evocations of the horrific events of the Guatemalan Civil War, resulting in an unusual and rewarding novel. Senselessness offers a sustained mediation on the relationship between individuals and greater political struggles, tinged with irony and wry humour.

Friday, June 11, 2010

DC Punk: The Black Eyes

In the early 2000s, my two favourite DC bands were Early Humans and The Black Eyes (indeed, members of both those groups came from an earlier band called Exaspirin, whose early recordings are available as a free download here.) The Black Eyes released two LPs and a 7" on Dischord, which are great, but, for me, it was all about their live shows. The Black Eyes had an unusual instrumental line-up: two drummers, two bassists, and one guitarist. They also had other pieces of drum kits strewn around the stage, such that all five members would be playing drums at points, as well as a dual-vocal attack, and, later on, skronky saxophone. Their shows were visually kinetic and sonically messy (in a good way). In terms of sound, their references were clearly late 70s postpunk of the dance-y variety (sort of a much better version of early Rapture).

Anyway, above is a clip of a live performance from 2002, which offers a good sense of what their shows were like. Two members of The Black Eyes, Jacob Long and Daniel Martin-McCormack are now in Mi Ami, a band that offers a more psychedelic variation of The Black Eyes sound.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Launch for Known Unknowns

My new collections of short stories, Known Unknowns, is being launched in Melbourne this Tuesday by Tony Birch. If you're in Melbourne, feel free to come along. Here are the details:

Launch of Known Unknowns
Tuesday, June 15th at 7 p.m.
Southpaw Bar
189 Gertrude St., Fitzroy

If you are on Facebook, you can even view the event and RSVP here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

I am a huge fan of David Mitchell’s first three books, particularly number9dream and Cloud Atlas, which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet recapitulates many of the issues that have motivated all his fiction, investigating the history of colonisation, globalisation and the relationship between individuals and larger social change. But, on a formal level, The Thousand Autumns is extremely different. Mitchell’s early books weren’t so much novels as they were cleverly stitched together collections of short stories; Cloud Atlas, for example contained six interconnected long stories that fit inside each other like Russian dolls. The Thousand Autumns, however, presents one more or less continuous narrative, but unfortunately this more traditional narrative structure doesn’t suit Mitchell’s considerable talents.
The book is set in Nagasaki, Japan, just around the beginning of the 19th Century. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch shipping clerk who has just been posted to Dejima, an artificial island that is the only available port of entry for Western goods into Japan, whose xenophobic laws prohibited both any contact with non-Dutch westerners and explicitly outlawed the practice of Christianity. To Mitchell’s credit, both the historical detail and the alien culture of Japan’s closed society are beautifully evoked.
The plot is more or less divided into three sections. The first section details Jacob’s new life in Dejima where he must navigate the conflicting interests of the corrupt Dutch traders on the island. Jacob’s situation is further complicated when he falls in love with a Japanese midwife, named Orito Abigawa, who is studying under Dejima’s resident physician, Dr. Marinus. The second section of the novel takes a gothic turn when Abigawa is abducted by an evil monk (who oddly resembles a malignant Yoda), named Enomoto; he intends to use Orito’s medical knowledge for mysterious, but unsavoury purposes. The third section details the British Navy’s attempt to capture Dejima in order to secure a monopoly on Japanese trade, and Jacob’s response to the British attack.
But this novel falters for several reasons. For one, the three principle characters, Jacob, Orito Abigawa, and a Japanese translator named Ogawa, are all paper-thin; flat characterisation can be used in exceptionally wonderful ways, but in this long historical novel, it’s hard to care about the fate of these people. Mitchell tries to draw the reader in by expressing these characters’ thoughts in italics, but this device ultimately feels forced and awkward. Many of the minor characters, however, are wonderful, particularly Dr. Marinus and the crew of the British naval ship The Phoebus, and they effectively upstage the protagonists throughout the narrative.
But the biggest problem is that the novel seems unsure of its own genre. To be fair, this is almost certainly intentional, since Mitchell’s books have often explored different genres: Cloud Atlas, for example, contains narratives that alternately fall under the category of historical fiction, crime/thriller, and science fiction. This genre switching works in Cloud Atlas, however, because each genre is matched to a separate narrative thread. But The Thousand Autumns tries to be everything at once: a historical novel, a romantic melodrama and a gothic thriller. It fails on all counts. The historical detail is undermined by the gothic mysticism, the romantic subplot is rendered both unbelievable and uninteresting by the thin characterisation, and the book fails as a page-turning gothic thriller for the simple reason that it is, at points, an absolute chore to read. Even Mitchell’s usually sparkling prose disappears for hundreds of pages at a time.
This book is a rare misstep by an author who has produced nothing but excellent work thus far. Mitchell, himself, has admitted that he significantly rewrote the book three times, and I believe him, because you can see his effort as you’re reading the novel. But this, of course, is the problem: the whole point of working and reworking prose is to give it the illusion of being effortless.
Despite its fantastic setting and the interesting historical source material it uses (largely drawn from Hendrik Doeff’s Recollections of Japan, which I am now keen to read), the languorous temporal duration suggested by the title The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet may unintentionally evoke the endurance-testing experience of reading Mitchell’s newest novel.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Triple R Interview with Dave Graney at 1 p.m. Tomorrow

Tomorrow at 1 p.m., I will be interviewed about Known Unknowns on Triple R's Banana Lounge by Dave Graney (of The Coral Snakes and The Moodists) and Elizabeth McCarthy.

I'll also be on Triple R at 7.45 a.m. in my usual Breakfasters slot, where I'll be reviewing David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Now, let's take a second to remember how awesome The Moodists were:

RIP David Markson

One of my favorite writers, David Markson, died a few days ago. He is perhaps best remembered for Wittgenstein's Mistress, a novel written in short aphoristic sections about a woman who is (apparently) the last person left alive on earth. Most of his later novels were written in this same style (including the wonderful Reader's Block). His earlier works, however, are very much written in the style of 'pulp' novels, including the noir-y detective novel Epitaph for a Tramp and the (hysterically funny) comic western, The Ballad of Dingus Magee, which was actually turned into a major motion picture starring Frank Sinatra called Dirty Dingus Magee. Markson was a phenomenal talent, and his death is a serious loss for readers of experimental literature.

You can read interviews with the man himself here and here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Known Unknowns Reviewed at With Extra Pulp

Another very nice review of the book is up at With Extra Pulp: 'To simply sweep over these stories as “Washington circa post-September 11 stories would not be sufficient. Stinston’s stories are filled with dark humour and odd characters, some of whom reappear throughout. And a dead dog. Fourteen short stories make up “Known Unknowns”. The uncertainty of the people of America, and larger global shift that occurred in September 11’s aftermath, provide only a faint backdrop to the stories in here. Stories which stand independently and become almost beacons of the short story genre.'

I really enjoyed this, too: ‘Also, just an aside, I did a very broad sweep of Googledom to gauge other people's reactions and possibly respond to. What I found was Stinson's own blog post, where he read and reviewed Irma Gold's review of his book for Overland's blog. That's confusing right? Authors reviewing reviews of their book? One sec, I'm dizzy.’ Does this now mean I’m now reviewing this review of my review of Irma Gold’s review of my book? If so, that’s awesome.

Read the whole review here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interview on ABC Radio's The Book Show

This morning I was interviewed on The Book Show about digital publishing, book piracy, and the Federal Book Industry Study Group. You can download the interview here.

My specific segment starts at about 16 minutes and 30 seconds into the broadcast (not that I would listen to my own interview, of course . . .).

Laurie Steed Reviews Known Unknowns

Laurie Steed presents a very kind review of Known Unknowns on the Readings website: 'The Long Story Shorts series by Affirm Press just took a giant leap forward. I mean no disrespect to either Barry Divola or Bob Franklin, who preceded Emmett Stinson in the series. It’s just that on reading Known Unknowns, you are reawakened to the endless possibilities of the short form.'

To read the whole thing, go here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quote of the Day

‘I am constructing here a commonsensical book from which nothing at all can be learned. There are, to be sure, persons who wish to extract from books guiding principles for their lives. For this sort of most estimable individual I am therefore, to my gigantic regret, not writing. Is that a pity? Oh, yes. O you driest, most upright, virtuous and respectable, kindest, quietest of adventurers – slumber sweetly, for the while.’ – Robert Walser, The Robber

(N.B. The image above is a sample of one of Walser's microscripts.)