“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, May 31, 2011

Lost Classics: The Recognitions

The Recognitions
By William Gaddis

I’ll note this from the outset: not only is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) my favourite novel of all time, but also it is, in my opinion, the best U.S. novel written after 1950. Although the works of Gaddis, who died in 1998, have belatedly started to get some of the, uh, recognition they deserve, his books are still too infrequently read by the larger public. And to be fair, there are some legitimate reasons for this: The Recognitions is 956-pages long. Much of the writing in it is what would be considered difficult (inspiring Jonathan Franzen’s essay ‘Mr. Difficult’ about Gaddis), and it’s the kind of book wherein the punch-lines to jokes are quite literally withheld for hundreds of pages. It is also perhaps the funniest, most inventive and most beautiful book I have ever read.
            The novel does, however, have a plot; The Recognitions is the story of an extremely talented young artist, Wyatt Gwyon, who, after receiving a terrible review of his first painting exhibition (for the reason that he refused to pay the critic to write a good review), becomes a professional art forger, counterfeiting the works of the old Flemish masters for a shadowy international ring of criminal art dealers. While the book includes an enormous and encyclopaedic set of references to other topics, including the history of Christianity and pagan religions, alchemy, the Faust myth, and huge array of other characters and subplots, it is first and foremost a satire of the Greenwich Village art world in the 40s and 50s. The book contains long party scenes full of young ‘hip’ artists who are basically unbearable people, and its riotous skewering of bourgeois bohemians is, if anything, more relevant today than it ever has been.
            At the same time, it is also full of beautiful passages of moving writing, such as this short line about a young married couple venturing off on a cruise-ship for the first time: ‘Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided against all the inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.’
            When Gaddis published the book in 1955 at the age of 33, he had high hopes that it would establish his reputation as a writer, and, as he later stated: ‘I almost think that if I'd gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn't have been terribly surprised.’ But the tepid response meant that Gaddis returned to work in advertising and corporate speechwriting, and his book dwelled in obscurity for more than twenty years. In the interim, his reputation was buoyed by a book entitled, Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, which sought to demonstrate that almost all of the 55 contemporary reviews of The Recognitions demonstrated obvious errors (and that most reviewers hadn’t even finished reading the book!). Gaddis later won the National Book Award in 1976 for his second novel, JR, and enjoyed some small fame and recognition.
            But in many ways, this history is fitting for a book that is very much about artists who don’t get recognised and the final lines of the novel, which describe the fate of the work of a composer who dies in the collapse of a building, are often taken as fitting description of Gaddis’s own reception: ‘most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.’
            To put it simply, if you haven’t read The Recognitions, then you’re simply missing the best that 20th Century literature has to offer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Personae

By Sergio De La Pava

Last year I reviewed Sergio De La Pava’s brilliant, 689-page, self-published novel A Naked Singularity, a wonderful book that blends the crime thriller with the ‘postmodern’ literary novel (eg. Pynchon, Wallace). This month, however, De La Pava has released his second book, Personae, which is much slimmer at around two hundred pages, and is also a genre-jumping work that proves A Naked Singularity was no fluke.
            Personae begins in the mode of a crime novel. We are told that the book comprises the police report of one Helen Tame, who we quickly learn is no ordinary detective. As a former world-class concert pianist, who has a nigh-supernatural ability to turn virtually invisible (a feat she accomplishes due to a mastery of arcane physical properties of light and acoustics), Tame only works unusual cases that have not been solved through normal means.
            In this instance, Tame is called to a crime scene involving the suspicious death of a very old man, and she comes into possession of a series of unusual manuscripts that appear to have been authored by the deceased. But while this set-up is wonderful and Tame is a fabulous character who could easily occupy a novel of many hundred pages, Personae unexpectedly swerves in another direction. We leave Tame’s narrative, and are suddenly given the contents of the manuscripts, which wander across various forms and genres, including a series of notes and errata (including an extended critique of the English-translation of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) a modernist-style short story (‘The Ocean’) whose attention to detail is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, an absurdist two-act play (‘Personae’) that recalls Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and a novella (‘Energeias’) that alternates between two different storylines, as well as a variety of pieces of newspaper articles, essays and the like.
            If this sounds a bit unusual, it is. But Personae’s charm lies precisely in this unceasing variation, which is very much intentional. The book makes continual references to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which clearly provides the form for the relentless innovation of this novel, which also contains a recurring leitmotif: Personae is very much an elegiac novel, which focuses on the notions of grief and death (which, in retrospect, is no surprise for those who have read De La Pava’s brilliant essay, ‘A Day’s Sail’, on Virginia Woolf, boxing and death over at Triple Canopy).
            The variations are all entertaining, although they might throw some readers who were expecting Personae to repeat the pulse-raising narrative of A Naked Singularity. In particular, I suspect that two sections of the book (the two-act play and a later moment that recounts what appears to be a conversation between a man and the devil) will frustrate readers who are allergic to characters discussing lofty philosophical issues (although De La Pava specifically ironises such a reaction at one point in the text). But, to be honest, that’s their loss: the pleasure of Personae lies precisely in the joy of tracking both the similarities and the disjunctures between each iteration of the novel (and it also demonstrates the virtuosity of De La Pava’s writing), and while it’s inevitable that some sections may work better than others, at its best Personae is as good as any contemporary writing coming out of the U.S.
Moreover, the book slowly reveals itself to have a deep, emotional centre which also touches on the issue of what it means to behave ethically in the world. The way in which De La Pava handles this slow transformation is absolutely masterful, as we being to realise that the book we are reading is actually very different from the book we thought we were reading (and I can’t say any more for fear of ruining the surprises), and it ends with a moment of beauty that recalls the final aria of Bach’s composition.
            Personae is another excellent book by De La Pava that demonstrates once again that he is one of the most dynamic and important younger novelists coming out of the U.S. But while Personae reveals this talent, it is also essential to note that, in many ways, it is an (intentionally) difficult book, and perhaps even more challenging than A Naked Singularity (despite being less than a third of its length). Indeed, I wish that more novelists had even half of the ambition and talent that De La Pava does.
For readers interested in an unusual and unforgettable experience, Personae presents a rewarding challenge and is already one of the most intriguing and brilliant novels I’ve read all year. This is a beautifully written work that I’ll keep thinking about for some time to come, and as soon as I finished the book, I immediately wanted to read it again—and I can’t think of any higher praise than that.

Read an excerpt from the book and buy Personae here.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Easy Chain

The Easy Chain
By Evan Dara
Aurora Publishing, 2008

With recent publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, there’s been a lot written about Wallace’s legacy, and he’s usually portrayed as both a literary genius and a ‘strikingly original’ voice (to use the language of book review-ese). While I’d agree that Wallace was a phenomenal writer, I’m less convinced of his uniqueness, given the presence of many living U.S. authors who have written similarly experimental novels of exceptional merit that have remained lesser known for the simple reason that their work often just hasn’t gotten the same kind of press. Chief among this group of excellent but underrated U.S. writers is Evan Dara, whose first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was published in 1996, the same year as Infinite Jest.
            To be fair there are legitimate reasons why Dara hasn’t become a household name. Number one on this list would be Dara’s own strictly enforced anonymity: Evan Dara is, in fact, a pseudonym, and no-one knows any biographical details about the writer behind Dara’s books, except for the fact that he lived in Paris at some point. Moreover, after the release of The Lost Scrapbook, nothing more was heard from Dara for twelve years, until his second book, The Easy Chain, appeared in 2008. Further adding to the enigma of Dara is the fact that his book was published by Aurora Publishers, a company that Dara appears to have set up himself, and which only publishes his books (So far anyway. Since 2009, the Aurora website has claimed it will publish translations of two Italian novels, but they have not appeared, and I can find no information about either the authors or their translators anywhere on the internet—although to be fair, there is still information that exceeds Google’s grasp).
            The plot of The Easy Chain is (relatively) easy to describe: Lincoln Selwyn, a young Englishman who’s been raised in Belgium, arrives in Chicago and quickly climbs the social ladder to become one of the most influential people in the city, but he just as suddenly disappears, leaving no trace of his whereabouts. If that synopsis sounds straightforward, the book is anything but. Its first 200 pages detail the rise of Selwyn, but this is all related through the gossip of those who knew him and rendered in unattributed dialogue; the speakers all note Lincoln’s incredible charisma, describing him as ‘superluminous in a way. He takes you in at a shake, and at the first trespassing of fingertips you’re instantaneous old friends’. At page 207, this stream of discourse suddenly stops and is followed by 42 nearly blank pages of text (I suspect it’s this gesture that would’ve sent most publishers running for the hills).
            The gap in the text replicates Lincoln’s disappearance; since he has gone the gossip about him also ceases, but it also reflects a larger formal strategy in the book. The Easy Chain makes several references to the notion of ‘negative space’—a concept from visual art that refers to the space around and between the subject of a drawing or painting. The novel reflects this technique—giving us not the ‘story’ of Lincoln but a series of details around it from which the narrative itself can be inferred. Indeed, we as readers never really get to know Lincoln, who, despite being the protagonist of the book, has all of the substance of a rumour even after 500 pages. That Dara is able to achieve this effect and still make the book compelling is a testament to his incredible skill.
            The rest of the book offers a set of intriguing and unexpected detours, from a seemingly factual essay on the corporate control of public water in Chicago to what appears to be the undertaking of a terrorist attack on a significant local landmark, as well as 60-odd pages of repetitive text that’s formatted like lines of poetry. But these twists and turns all pale in comparison to the final part of the book, which offers the monologue of a man being interrogated under (apparently) violent circumstances: this section is a mind-bending display of sheer linguistic virtuousity and also comprises some of the funniest writing I have ever read (if in a dark and twisted way). While this is a book whose narrative is intentionally never resolved (much like Infinite Jest), the last section does introduce a character—the daughter of the interrogated man—who suffers from autism and whose disconnection from the world serves as a foil to Lincoln’s uncanny ability to form an instantaneous emotional connection with every single person he meets.
            While The Easy Chain is not an easy book by any stretch of the imagination, it’s also a book whose strange detours are not arbitrary, but rather part and parcel of a carefully planned and executed formal principle. This is also true of Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, which spends hundreds of pages seemingly meandering between unrelated narratives (with transitions that confusingly occur mid-sentence), before the reader realises that all of these stories are linked by one traumatic event that connects an entire community. And, moreover, for all of their formal innovation, Dara’s novels are both exceptionally funny and surprisingly warm and human; one never gets the sense that his experimentation is simply an exercise in technique for technique’s sake.
Simply put, Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain is without a doubt, my favourite book that I’ve read in 2011, and in my (not very) humble opinion, Dara is the best-kept secret in all of contemporary American literature today. His highly conceptual but beautifully written novels compare favourably to the best work of William Gaddis (who also gets a passing mention in The Pale King), and I’d argue that readers who enjoys Wallace’s work would be doing themselves a disservice not to read Dara’s work. The only caution regarding The Easy Chain I might add is this: those who haven’t read Dara before might find that it’s best to start off by reading the slightly more accessible The Lost Scrapbook first to become accustomed to his style, but anyone who reads either book will discover perhaps the most interesting author writing in English today.

You can purchase The Easy Chain from the website of Aurora Publishers: www.aurora148.com.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thomas Pynchon's Fingers

So, here's Thomas Pynchon's fingers forming (appropriately) a V in the back of this photo, which comes from an interesting story about him in the LA Times.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Inhuman

'The emancipation of the subject in art is the emancipation of art's own autonomy; if art is freed from consideration of its recipient, its sensual facade becomes increasingly a matter of indifference. The facade is transformed into a function of the content, which derives its force from what is not socially approved and prearranged. Art is spiritualized not by the ideas it affirms but through the ele­mental--the intentionless--that is able to receive the spirit in itself; the dialectic of the elemental and spirit is the truth content. Aesthetic spirituality has always been more compatible with the fauve, the savage, than with what has already been appropriated by culture. Spiritualized, the artwork becomes in itself what was pre­viously attributed to it as its cathartic effect on another spirit: the sublimation of nature. The sublime, which Kant reserved exclusively for nature, later became the historical constituent of art itself. The sublime draws the demarcation line between art and what was later called arts and crafts . Kant covertly considered art to be a servant. Art becomes human in the instant in which it terminates this service. Its humanity is incompatible with any ideology of service to humankind. It is loyal to humanity only through inhumanity toward it.'
--Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pp. 196-7.