Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Breaking the logjam (pt 2)

I'd like to throw everything out.

Start over. Forget everything that's been said about saying things about literature. What happens when we start with a blank slate? Stop thinking the way people right now think. Stop thinking what people think. Could we get outside it? Can we look at this mess we're in with no bias, no preexisting judgment? Can we--I, you, the community of readers and writers--build and communicate a system of techniques and values relevant to the conversation about literature, from scratch, from nothing but logic and instinct, for no other purpose than to understand what we've got, and what we might want?

After all, it worked for Descartes.

Might be too violent, though. Too much. Non-starter issue, in any case: if I had such ambitious energy and focus, I'd probably be too busy using it to have the time to dream such things up.

But, maybe, I can, at least, learn how to let go. To loosen up, and to forget.

Herewith the continuation of your previously commenced chaos.


Julio Cortázar's The Winners is one of several TBR pile books I've recently started reading only to set back down after about fifty pages. Some of these books, I've found that my mind was elsewhere, and I wasn't pulling out ideas the way I would like. Other times it's been the books that have been been some other place, somewhere I realized I wasn't interested in learning how to visit. The Winners was one of the former. I enjoyed what I read. There's a lot going on in that book. Too much for me, right now. I'll come back to it, after I regenerate my powers of concentration and interpretation. After I settle down.

The book presents an intriguing premise: through a government-sponsored lottery, a group of Argentines win an expenses-paid cruise vacation. Some of the winners are friends, and some bring family and friends as guests, but many of the people are strangers to each other. In the prologue, the winners assemble at a cafe, where they begin to meet and are then shuttled to their ship. The lottery and the cruise seem surrounded by a vague cloud of mystery. On the page, the proceedings have a remarkable sense of flow and motion. I enjoyed feeling the group forming out of the multiple identities of the winners, who individually are not extraordinary people but become complex through the conversations and actions that lay the groundwork for social intrigues and tensions that I assume will play out through the remainder of the book.

I had to bail before the ship left shore. (Pure trivia: the prologue is about 100 pages. Just under a quarter of the book's length. Are there longer prologues out there? By page count, or percentage?) The book isn't a hard read at all. I'm sad the timing's off. Not the sort of book you want to try to focus on when you can't focus on it. When you can't fully go into it. I think I've decided that what I'm in the mood for literarily is to make one new friend, someone who can tell me a good life story over endless coffee in the corner booth of an empty diner. Starting Cortázar's book is like being introduced to a crowded in-progress party just before the host disappears into the kitchen and right after you've taken an extra dose of being socially inept. I can't even begin to ask where the bathroom is, let alone what these people are doing here, and why they matter to me.

Though I jumped ship, I didn't leave empty-handed. Here's a quote:

"...Well, Persio, here we are. What's going to happen?"

"Ah, that...I haven't had much time to study the question, but I'm already preparing the offensive."

"The offensive?"

"Yes. A thing or a fact has to be attacked in many ways. People usually select one tactic and only get halfway results. I always prepare my offensive and afterward synchronize the results."

"I understand," said Claudia in a tone of voice which revealed her lack of understanding.

"A kind of push-pull has to be in operation," said Persio. "I don't know if I'm making myself clear. Occasionally, it's as if there were things blocking the way, then they have to be pushed aside for one to make out what's happening further on. Women, for instance, and pardon my mentioning them in front of a child. But there are other things you have to grab by the handle and pull. That chap Dali knows what he's doing (maybe he doesn't, but it's all the same) when he paints a body full of drawers. It seems to me many things have handles. For example, poetic images. If one sees them from the outside, only the outer and obvious meaning can be grasped, even if it's sometimes well concealed. Are you satisfied with the exterior, the obvious meaning? No, you're not. You have to pull the handle and fall into the drawer. To pull is to appropriate, to approach, and even to go too far."

Setting aside the results-coordinating relevance to modern political practice, and setting aside the push-your-way-through relevance to my own in-need-of-a-push life situation, this passage presents an interesting metaphor for literary interpretation. It suggests that literary criticism--or at least, the best literary criticism, the stuff that really satisfies--is an act upon the object of study. You change the object of study in the process of extracting meaning from it. And you accomplish that, of course, by letting the thing change you: to discuss a work is to both bring it into yourself while putting yourself into it.

It was that closing clause that did it for me when I first read this passage. It's a long set-up to get there but those last six words open up, for me, something interesting: the possibility of damage. To study meaning is--possibly, if not necessarily--"to go too far." To overextend yourself, to cause harm. Taken in the context of the approach/appropriation bi-directional act of interpretation, might going too far mean swapping reality for fiction? The void becoming the person who peers into it?

The passage doesn't say all that, of course. The meaning is vague, but rings ominous. And yet, while this isn't a particularly tab-a-into-slot-b technical level of instruction about how to functionally work with literature, it does offer some comfort and encouragement to someone like me, who is, right here, right now, trying to figure out how to do what he is trying to do. Don't worry about fucking it up, Persio (Cortázar?) suggests: you should fuck it up. You're supposed to.

Not that we ought to go about things blindly. Deconstruction for fun and profit is a dangerous thing, as we see when Persio immediately reverses himself:

"Ah," said Claudia, making a discreet sign for Jorge to blow his nose.

"This place, for instance, is thick with significant elements: every table, every necktie. I see an underlying order within this awful disorder. I wonder what the outcome will be."

"So do I. But it's amusing."

"Amusement is always a spectacle: but let's not delve too deeply, for some foul trap is bound to come open at our feet. It's not that I'm against amusement, but every time I want to enjoy myself I must first lock up the laboratory and throw out all the acids and alkalines. I mean that I must surrender and give in to the appearance of things. You know very well how dramatic the humorous can be..."

It's hard to have fun when you're going too far all the time.

Breaking the logjam (pt 1)

The word transition is both a noun and a verb. A noun. That's funny. As if a word that describes temporal activity could itself be some thing: a room, a gun, a culprit. Complete, functional, and static. When really it can only ever be in that it goes.

Maybe it's not that funny. I don't know.

Maybe I should start with a quote, instead.


"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it."

- C. S. Lewis (full quote here)


I engage with literature. I grasp, I fumble. I think. I do literature. I participate in the discussion it causes. I react, I suggest. I say.

I feel no closer to understanding the stuff than I was before I learned to read.


For most of this year, I've been focusing most of my writing energy on fiction. Trying to. It's hard to focus these days. In this age. Even more so when your life feels riddled with transitions. What energy I can muster up after a day's work, what desire I can drill through the buzzing in my brain: I do my best to put that spare focus to good use when I sit down to write.

This--by the by--is why I find writing every day so valuable. Making a given piece of time sacred--as much and as often as possible--is a defense against myself. Let those walls fall, and my brain waves go Berzerk. There exists discussion about whether writing every day is necessary, or valuable. Some people don't need to. Maybe some people have better powers of concentration than me. Maybe some people are trust-fund humanoids armed with lasers. I don't have a laser. So I write every day.

So my blogging has suffered lately. That's fine. I've come to realize that for me, to understand literature is to write literature. To show you how I understand, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction is to write fiction that engages his in mimetic struggle. That radically oversimplifies the matter, of course. There is, or should be, a good deal of convolution, and expansion, and simplification, and experimentation, and personalization, and straight-up stealing along the way, all in the service of turning out things that started in other things--those other books, those other life experiences--but became their own unique things somewhere along the way. As if by magic. Coffee magic. Laptop magic.

I am not saying anything against the surrounding discussion. It's true that I have consciously decided not to write and publish book reviews. I could. I mean, I know I could try. But the whole "thesis statements and supporting arguments" thing isn't where it's at for me right now. I think I'm generating better results for myself when I write stories and novels. Hopefully, if or when my fiction should be published, others will also reap the benefits. That said, as a reader with some academic bent, critical essays and book reviews are still important to me. There's always room for more. I wish I had time to read and comment on more of it. Or, I wish I had the ability to pay more attention to it.

And yet. I've become restless. Mixed up. Rootless. Transitioning. For reasons both personal and literary. This past week, I finished writing a story, one I'd been working on for a month. Now I'm trying to find my next project. It's always an awkward time. Like looking for a job after you've been laid off, like looking for shelter after you've torched your tent. And the longer that period extends itself, the more awkward it becomes. It's a time for looking at everything, and not knowing what to make of it. My reading, I've been unable to settle down for a while. I think I'm coming off a short story high, without the correct novel to cushion the landing.

And, well. Lots of things. Work and love and death. It's been a year. Buy me a beer and I might mutter something about it, before I opt to nap on the bar. But you already know how it goes. You've had a year of your own.

Point being, I'm not surprised I've got that odd urge to do something critical. It would feel nice to prove things. To say, "This is so, here is why," and then to conclude with a hearty fist-pump, to the tune of applause and adulations from fans and foes.

Problem being that I feel like I've forgotten how to ask the right questions. They're similar to the questions that make me write stories, but I'm not certain they're the same. I can't tell. I feel blocked. It's like there's a question in front of all those other questions to which I've lost the answer: how do we talk about literature?

Friday, August 24, 2007

But you know what they say about clubs that'll have me as a member

Matt Tiffany joins a club I think I helped create. (Again with the lack of references on my part, though--what with it being, like, bed time, now.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Cleveland, September 5 and 6

How did I miss this? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the excellent Half of a Yellow Sun, won a 2007 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. (The award was "created in 1935 to recognize outstanding works that contribute to society’s understanding of racism and foster an appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures." Zadie Smith won one last year for On Beauty.)

There's an awards ceremony on September 6 (which I think if I remember correctly involves an admission price?) and a reading on September 5 (which I think (hope?) is open to the public?). From this week's Cool Cleveland newsletter:

7 p.m. ANISFIELD-WOLF BOOK AWARD WINNERS, Ngozi Adichie and Martha Collins, will read at the Art Gallery in Trinity Commons, 2230 Euclid Ave. Contact Ron Antonucci, 216.623.2881 or rantonucci@cpl.org for more information.

Suffice it to say I'll be dragging everyone I know with me to the reading. (Assuming it's open to the public.)

More info on the award here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Be careful what you're wishing"

So then, there it is: I'm sitting in my muggy apartment and I've got chills.

I've been reading short stories with reckless abandon (read as: short things are all I can seem to focus on) and so it seems a good time to give Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson a shot, right? Because everybody and everybody else is all "Ooo Jesus' Son! Ooo ooo!" all the time, but I've put it off because a couple years ago I read one of his novels, The Name of the World, and I was less than impressed. But curiosity and repeated endorsements got to me, and I picked up a copy of Jesus' Son, and I just read the opening story, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," and, well: I was okay with it until I read the closing paragraph. Then, chills. The shock of seeing something unfamiliar, and knowing it completely.

If I follow the good advice, I won't read this book non-stop tonight. But: temptation.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

(Please hold.

The next available convergence of Spare Time and Worthy Inspiration will be with you shortly.)

(Or, longly.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sort of

So I started The Accidental by Ali Smith and I was like, "Whoa, this is my favorite book of the year." Then I got really bored with it. Then I got really psyched about it again. Then I got sort of bored again. And also vaguely annoyed. Then I think I figured it out: totally dig the kids, not so much into the parents. I'm still having an above-average amount of fun with the book, but not as much as I'd initially thought I was going to have. A'el.

Meanwhile, I've been idly thumbing through The Paris Review's interview archives. Yeah, I'm probably going to have to grab that first printed collection they put out. Total writer porn.

If you're looking for suggestions on where you might start (and, no, I'll save a couple of my friends the trouble of checking: the Eliot interview isn't available online), I've been digging the 1972 interview with John Berryman, and the 1977 interview with William Gass.

The Berryman interview has me itching to take another crack at reading The Dream Songs. The idea of looking at it is a "long poem" intrigues me. (I feel great interest the book, in but haven't yet managed to find my one-way entry into it.)

And the Gass interview has reawakened my interest in reading The Tunnel. Since pretty much every "critical" (or what-have-you) piece I've read of Gass's has made fireworks of recognition and identification go off in my head. (Like, I mean, go look at the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 12 and rolls through most of 13: gods, yes.) Maybe I'll hate the shit out of his fiction, but I'd have to guess at this point it would be a friendly sort of hatred.

Otherwise: I write and I write and I write. And I don't mind the heat but I hate the humidity. And I watch John from Cincinnati with my girlfriend. (I haven't decided if that show is meaningless or not, but I do know this: I am intensely curious about the upcoming season finale.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Might not be time for me to fill in that small gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition

Matt bounced this Lev Grossman bit my way about Spook Country. While Grossman liked the book, he does lightly complain of "a certain undeniable sameness" to Gibson's books. I doubt that's going to concern me much. Since I haven't read most of them. And in any case, I think I'm with Norm on this one: "I am really excited about the new one, because PR was effin' dynamite."

And I'll still read the rest of his stuff. Eventually. After I finish the Summer of Dostoevsky '06 project. Right.

Not that it's even close to being all Gibson all the time here at TDAOC HQ, the way my recent posting habits might suggest. I'm in the middle of Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document (with the far superior paperback cover). It's cool. It's good. I'm cool with it.


Do you sometimes think, when you're reading a book, "I like this well enough, but ___________, this person I know in some fashion, would like it so much more than I do"? That's about where I am. Not let down, just not brought up as much as I'd have perhaps hoped.

(Vague, I know, but it's late, and it's Tuesday, and I'm already totally blowing my "I'm going to sleep this week!" resolution. Sigh. All I'm saying is: folks, if you're in control of the finances for some major corporation, and you've been thinking about throwing a couple million sponsorship dollars my blog's way? Now's the time to start writing that check. I have no conscience about such matters.)