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The Mumpsimus



a blog by Matthew Cheney



Updated: 2017-09-16T13:04:07.129-04:00

 



The Shape of Water

2017-09-16T13:04:07.147-04:00

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/XFYWazblaUA?rel=0" width="560">Of course, the most visible members of a film's creative team are the actors, and del Toro cast The Shape of Water beautifully. Sally Hawkins is not nearly as well known as she deserves to be — her performance in Happy-Go-Lucky alone ought to earn her eternal fame — but The Shape of Water will bring her a lot more notice, I expect. She hardly speaks, yet her eyes, face, and gesture[...]



A Convex Mirror: Twin Peaks

2017-09-05T20:02:47.460-04:00

That is the tune but there are no words. The words are only speculation (From the Latin speculum, mirror): They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. We see only postures of the dream, Riders of the motion that swings the face Into view under evening skies, with no False disarray as proof of authenticity. But it is life englobed. One would like to stick one's hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it.—John Ashbery1.John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique position, which is the same reservation I have about Ashbery's unique position, is that it's unique. I wish a wider variety of artists were similarly free.2.Twin Peaks: The Return was a giant trunk of adjectives: fascinating, frustrating, thrilling, tedious, beautiful, ugly, hilarious, sad, enthralling, enraging, you name it.[...]



My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye

2017-09-02T12:18:35.659-04:00

Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?This is not, though, a book much interested in answering such questions. It feels to me like a mix of Kafka, Robert Aickman, and J.M. Coetzee's most recent novels. While reading, I suspected NDiaye was doing something with the idea of an unreliable narrator and that by the end we would see how our confinement to Nadia's point of view had warped our perception of what is going on outside that point of view. To some extent, we do get this — clearly, she is a person whose internalized shame and quest to escape her upbringing has caused her to behave terribly to many people who've been unlucky enough to come into contact with her. But it does not explain the book. Even if we assume that Nadia is somehow insane, the only way to explain much of what happens would be to assume almost nothing in the novel's narrative is "real". There is no point that I can think of, though, in assuming that the vast majority of a novel's incidents and encounters aren't meant to be read at some level of reality within the story if we don't have at least a few clear clues to how we are supposed to read between the lines. (And such reading between the lines can be a tremendously effective technique — it expands the story and our experience of it, creating an entire separate story within our imaginations. It's a technique I'm quite fond of.) Thus, we are left, in My Heart Hemmed In, able to assume at least some of the incidents are projections of Nadia's paranoia, but probably not all.At the end of a 2016 consideration of NDiaye's work, Jeffrey Zuckerman writes:When psychology and realism no longer suffice to encompass our world, then whatever goes into the forest can come back out, albeit in a different form. Whatever escapes the confines of the psychological novel will be a fantastical, new aspect of our world. And if this is so, then readers weary of the present-day literary landscape should take notice. By straddling the realistic and the fantastic, by touching on the needs of the present moment and presenting new answers to age-old dilemmas, NDiaye is writing a literature both innovative and incredible.I am as weary of the present-day literary landscape as the next person, though the next person and I might define that landscape differently (I would define it as the small group of books that get much attention from US and UK litchat). As common to the present-day literary landscape as wearisome novels may be, just as com[...]



What Is To Be Done About The Social Novel?

2017-08-18T14:37:38.834-04:00

Chernyshevsky in prison, painting by Gorovych (1953)The new issue of Harper's includes a review-essay by Jonathan Dee that asks a question summed up by the writer of the headline as "Does the social novel have a future?" Ultimately, though, the essay is not so much concerned with that question as with questions of imagination and representation.Dee reviews (or at least mentions) four recent books (three novels, one nonfiction account) which got him thinking about questions of what tends to be called "cultural appropriation" and the limits of fictionality. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of "cultural appropriation" until he read Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and found himself thinking it's a good novel that also makes choices that he, when reading, grew uncomfortable with.I haven't read the books Dee writes about, but I expect I would generally agree with his assessment of them, and his description of Erpenbeck's book made me quite certain I would dislike it for all the reasons he offers, and probably more. (I've complained about similar problems of representation particularly with fiction by non-African writers about African people and places, for instance.) I share his discomfort with the term "cultural appropriation", but not his slow awakening to the phenomena it tries to name — my problem with the term is with the term itself, which seems to me vague and also unnecessary when plenty of other more specific and meaningful terms are available; further, I don't like the idea of culture as property, something with boundaries that can be legislated and policed, something one person can own and another cannot. Better to be specific, to talk of stereotyping, ignorance, and assumptions that reveal themselves in a text, and to show how they work, what they do (a fine model for this being Delany's essay "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which shows exactly how Le Guin's assumptions about sexuality render her novel more narrow and less truthful than it might have been otherwise). Better to raise questions not of appropriation, but of power: of hegemonic speaking and subaltern silence.Dee starts with "the social novel", though. He defines the social novel as one "set in the present and meant to dramatize, with an edge of advocacy, a real-life economic or racial or political crisis". He quickly moves away from this specific definition to discuss novelistic practice more generally:For most of two centuries the novelist was able to believe in himself as a special surrogate, empathically capable of crossing the border to any experience and returning with its re-creation, thereby forcing his audience to acknowledge a contemporary injustice: Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant.Here, Dee is stacking the deck so that he can make some arguments not about specific books but about The Novel as a phenomenon. All such endeavors will fail, because even at their best, they are generalizations for which exceptions abound. He is also, perhaps knowingly, telling a very male story — his exemplars are male, and he refers to the novelist over two centuries as "himself".His examples are interesting not just because they're men but also because their novels have not really stood the test of time well in comparison to other works. (Though, to be fair, they've done remarkably well in comparison to the piles of novels from their eras that nobody has even heard of anymore.) Hugo is best known as an inspiration to one of the most successful musicals of the last fifty years (the social novel turns out to metamorphose into pretty good kitsch). Zola's influence remained strong for a while, but do people still read him today? I suppose they do, especially in France, but his reach and influence are not at all that of, say, Flaubert, whose influence on fiction is so pervasive as to be almost invisible today. Then there are the Americans that Dee men[...]



"Grade Inflation" as a Path to Ungrading

2017-08-05T12:45:39.767-04:00

Cat Sidh, FlickrAt Jacobin, Ed Burmila writes about grade inflation as a symptom of the neoliberalization of education, pointing out that there is no group within contemporary higher ed for whom there is much benefit to a lowering of grades, and, indeed, there are many groups for whom a lowering of grades is at best inconvenient and at worst utterly undesireable.This seems to me an accurate assessment, but it misses any sense of opportunity. Burmila laments the loss of meaning in grades and seems to yearn for a time when teachers were tough and gentlemen preferred Cs. There is an assumption within what he writes that grades and grade-point averages can be useful and meaningful.I don't entirely deny that grades can mean something. But what they mean is obscured by the simplification of a grade: one instructor's C is another's B is another's D. Grades provide an alibi for us, they let us pretend we're seeing an assessment when what we're seeing is something so simplistic and reductive that it has just as much chance of being a distortion as it has of being a reflection of a person's accomplishment, knowledge, skills, or abilities.Nobody wants to lie to students about their achievements or give them a false sense of accomplishment, and we should work hard to avoid doing so. Pretty much everybody wants students to build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses so they can work on improving. In my experience, grades aren't a particularly effective tool for that. I've spent a lot of time and effort over the years trying to make grades meaningful, and I continue to do so, because grades are a fact of academic life for most students, teachers, and institutions. But again and again I find that the less I stress out about grading, and the less I think of grades as much of anything other than a very blunt, imprecise, summary measurement, the better I teach and the better my students learn.Students' anxiety about grades is, to me at least, a far greater impediment to learning than grade inflation. Indeed, one of the reasons I am now a passionate convert to the church of grading contracts is because it gets rid of that anxiety: "Do this, this, and this," the contract says, "and you are guaranteed a grade of X." I'm not an anything-goes teacher. You can't pass my class and do no work. (It's rare that a term goes by when at least one student doesn't get an F from me. I also feel utterly confident that just about any teacher on the planet would give an F to those students, unless it was the teacher's policy, as it is for some, to give a grade of  "incomplete" and let the student have more time. I don't believe in that model because it puts more work on the teacher, and anyone who is not salaried is volunteering to do unpaid labor later, so I insist on ending my class at the end of the term unless there are huge extenuating circumstances like medical emergencies, etc.) But I don't see any reason we shouldn't admit that grades are one of the least meaningful, least communicative ways of measuring accomplishment.The place we've gotten to now (in higher ed at least) is that lots of people inside and outside universities recognize that grades are hardly more accurate than astrology. Employers and grad schools recognize more and more that they can't use grades as meaningful summaries of years of work and study. (When 91% of Harvard students graduate with honors, those honors are decorative. And that's fine. It's nice to have decorations at graduation.) If you want to know if a graduate can communicate in writing, you have to look at that graduate's actual writing, not their grades. If you want to know if they can think logically, if they can research, if they can understand whatever it is you hope they understand, you have to find evidence for that beyond a GPA. Grades, which have always been subjective and always been hugely inconsistent, were never good measures of this stuff in the first place, but we preten[...]



Shetland: Attending to the Consequences of Violence

2017-07-31T17:28:59.284-04:00

From now on, whenever someone argues that their story or tv episode or movie or whatever absolutely couldn't possibly work without a graphic rape scene, I will think of episode 5 of the third series of the BBC show Shetland. The episode includes the kidnapping and rape of a regular series character. But we don't even see the kidnapping, only the moments leading up to it and then other characters' growing concern over the disappearance. She reappears, walking barefoot to a Glasgow police station, and at first there is relief: She's safe and she doesn't seem harmed. And then she tells the series' main character, DI Perez, that evidence will need to be collected. The rest of the episode and much of the final episode pay careful attention to her and her colleagues' work to come to grips with the event. The drama plays out through dialogue and restrained, thoughtful acting.I tend to watch murder shows with dinner. I'm quite used to munching away amidst fictional gore. But as I watched this episode of Shetland, my dinner got cold. It was riveting, moving, and thought-provoking in a way more blood & guts shows are not. It grappled with the personal and legal consequences of sexual assault (and not just to this one character) in ways I don't remember seeing on tv before.Shetland began as an adaptation of some novels by Ann Cleeves (which I haven't read), but series 3 took a turn away from the established format of adapting a Cleeves novel into two hour-long episodes. I liked this format, which bucked so many tv trends of endlessly deferring the conclusions of stories (every conclusion becomes, instead of an ending, a cliffhanger kicking part of the plotline into the next episode or season). I held off on watching the third series because I worried that what I had enjoyed about the show was the relative efficiency of its storytelling, which I feared would be lost in a 6-episode series. I was pleased, then, to see how the writers used the extra time to both create a bit more breathing room and probe more deeply into the long- and short-term effects of violence on people. The kind of attention to detail and character development that made episode 5 work so well would not have been possible in the shorter format.Cleeves wrote an interesting appreciation of the episode for The Guardian, not having had a hand in the story herself. Here's some key information she shared:What made the episode of Shetland unusual was the approach of the team behind the script. They took their time over the story and they were determined to tell it from the woman’s point of view. Gaby Chiappe, the scriptwriter, Clare Batty, the script executive, and Elaine Collins, the executive producer, consulted Rape Crisis, not with a quick phone call, but by travelling to its HQ in Leeds and listening to the staff for several hours. They asked what they would ideally like to see and what they’d hate, and were told that any graphic portrayal of sex would be problematic. At Rape Crisis there’s clearly a dislike for scenes that appear to titillate or glamorise.Though the episode was not directed by a woman (the last three episodes of the series were directed by Jan Matthys), women were key members of the creative team, which especially in tv is at least as important as the director. They researched what they were representing, and they had an explicit goal of not contributing to harmful representations of rape in popular culture. They were careful and deliberate, and they scheduled the necessary time to make sure what they were doing was really what they wanted it to be.At the center of the success of the episode is Alison O'Donnell's performance. She had not previously had much opportunity to stretch herself (a consequence of the shorter format, I expect; much got sacrificed to plot mechanics), and DS MacIntosh's characterization seemed a bit shallow: she's the peppy girl who likes to party, doesn't have [...]



Against Academic Conferences

2017-07-25T10:41:20.870-04:00

There's a lot I love about academia — more than I dislike, or I wouldn't be about to start my 5th year toward a PhD — but it is an often vexing world, particularly to those of us who've spent a lot of time outside it. If you've never gotten outside the groves of academe, you're likely to internalize academic practices and not simply think that they're normal, but be utterly convinced that they're acceptable and even, perhaps, the only way to do things. Academic publishing, for instance, is even more whackadoodle bonkers and exploitative than trade publishing, and back in the days when I only knew the world of trade publishing, I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. Most academic publishing makes trade publishing look positively noble, generous, and big-hearted.A recent piece by Pamela L. Gay on "The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel" got me thinking once again about one of the things I most dislike in academic life: traveling to conferences.Generally, the stuff I dislike about academia could fall into one of two (potentially overlapping) categories: neoliberalism and the logic of the winners. (I know the term neoliberalism is controversial, condemned as vague and meaningless, but it doesn't have to be vague and it certainly isn't meaningless. It is a bit clunky, though. Call the thing it points to whatever you want — rampant economism or the logic of the business class or arugula — I don't care, but there is a there there.) The logic of the winners is what I'll focus on here, because academic conferences are a perfect example of Things Winners Like So Much They Insist Everybody Must Like Them.Winners are people with academic jobs that pay a living wage, people with tenure, people with power over academic decision-making, people who sit on hiring committees and on promotion & tenure committees, people with travel budgets. They often don't feel like winners, because unless they're the president of Harvard or something like that, there's always a bigger winner up above them, but don't be fooled. If you have an academic job that covers all of your living expenses (if not your mound of student debt), you are a winner.I'm sure there are winners who don't like academic conferences, but lots of them do, or else conferences wouldn't be such a central part of academic life. In an age when we can instantly share our work with each other, when we can zap our video image across the world, when anybody with an internet connection can set up a website and publish just about anything, there's no great need for academics to get together and read papers at each other, as they do in my discipline. The scholarship can be shared and discussed otherwise.Some people might enjoy the social aspects of conferencing, and good for them. I'm not here to condemn them. If you've got the spare money to travel and you want to go have fun with your academic friends at some convention center somewhere, see a new city, splurge on a few nice dinners or a few too many overpriced cocktails, go for it! YOLO!But don't make it mandatory. Don't judge people's CVs by how many conference papers they've presented. Don't create an expectation that to be a good academic we must all join the jet set.In my experience, conferences are mostly a waste of time and money. I admit that might just be me, or mostly just me. I'm something of an introvert, I am often socially awkward, and I am usually anxious around people I don't know well. All bad things for a conference-goer, though not insurmountable challenges. If more conferences were dependably worthwhile, I wouldn't worry about it so much, I'd suck it up, I'd deal with the little obstacles and annoyances for the sake of the bigger stuff. But conferences are not dependably worthwhile — they are dependably not worthwhile — and they require serious investments of time and money.The first academic conf[...]



Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou

2017-07-15T12:20:10.669-04:00

A hazard of doing intense academic work all about novels and novelists and The Novel and the novelties of novelism, etc. etc. etc. ad noveleam, — as I have been doing for a few years now — is that you stop being able to enjoy novels. (Or maybe not you. Maybe this is just me. I long ago learned that I cannot binge on particular genres, whether novels or stories or poems or essays. After working as the series editor for the three Best American Fantasy anthologies, for instance, I hardly read any short fiction for a few years.)I didn't realize I wasn't enjoying novels until recently when, after not enjoying yet another book that had been highly praised and/or recommended by friends, I asked myself what the last novel I actually enjoyed was. I had to think long and hard. The answer: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, from February. (Before that, Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, December 2016.) Not that long ago, but given how many novels I read or tried to read after Darnielle's, it felt like a looooong time. Sickness can mess up any sense of time, and when you're book-sick, days feel like weeks, months, years.Anyway, that's all over now, at least for the moment. After tossing one book after another aside, I more or less randomly picked up Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich. I liked the bright pinkish-purple cover and the title, so I thought I'd give the first few pages a shot.Reader, I hardly put the book down until I was done with it.It's not that I thought it was the greatest novel ever written. I enjoyed it, admired much of it, but like many books, its later chapters can't live up to the promise of the earlier. The elements that unambiguously worked, though, really appealed to that readerly pleasure center, whatever it may be, and that's what I want to outline here. The parts of the book that didn't work for me were the final two chapters, and I didn't realize quite how much they didn't work for me until I'd made my way through them and could reflect on the novel as a whole. And by "not work" I don't mean they were terrrible; there's much of interest in them, but the feeling of disappointment and even frustration was acute because everything leading up to those last 50 pages felt just about perfect. In a mediocre book, those final chapters could have been the best things about it, but this is not a mediocre book.The concept of voice in writing is one I try to avoid because it too easily leads to mysticism — better, I think, to point to specific choices of language and structure. Yet, as a shorthand for the interplay of diction, tone, and style, there is an undeniable usefulness to talking about narrative voice with certain texts, and Why I Killed My Best Friend is one of them. There is a sprightliness that not only makes it an easy book to keep reading, but also contributes to an idea of the narrating character. This is one of the advantages of first-person narration for a certain type of writer (the easy access to characterization), but there are also pitfalls — while reading Why I Killed My Best Friend, I kept thinking of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper, not only because it has a similarly lively and engaging narrative voice, but also because the comparison highlights some of the dangers of such writing: Zink's novel, too, falls apart in the end, unable in its substance to rise to the energy and invention of its voice. (Though I thought this was more of a fatal flaw in Zink's novel, which for me began to fall apart around the middle.)Nonetheless, it was the energy and invention of the voice that drew me in, providing the delight that kept me reading Why I Killed My Best Friend to the final page. The way Michalopoulou (and Emmerich's translation) sets words, sentences, and paragraphs together expresses a cer[...]



Watching Fassbinder Now

2017-06-14T12:08:26.424-04:00

I've written a lot about Rainer Werner Fassbinder here at The Mumpsimus, and a few years ago created a video essay about his early films when Criterion released five of them as part of their (apparently discontinued) Eclipse series of bare-bones releases. I keep meaning to write more about RWF, to create new video essays (on Fassbinder and the recently deceased cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; on queer Fassbinder), and I will eventually, but for now I simply want to point out that U.S. viewers, at least, now have access to a big selection of Fassbinder films via TCM's new streaming site, Filmstruck, which replaced Hulu as the home to Criterion's streaming service.I'm giving Filmstruck a test ride, and so of course have delved into the Fassbinder titles. (And I'm not alone in that: here's a good new piece from Brandon Soderbergh on them.) There's quite a lot that hasn't been available in the U.S. for a while, most notably Querelle, which is streaming in a beautiful print that really conveys the vivid colors that are such a feature of the film's design. I've dreamed of a full Criterion edition of Querelle for years, as many of its home video releases have been of low quality. With luck, the availability of Querelle on Filmstruck signals a possible, eventual full Criterion release, which would be valuable simply for the addition of extra features, something Querelle really would benefit from, not only because it's a tremendously strange, even alienating movie, but because there's a documentary that makes a natural companion to it: Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, made during Querelle's filming and including interviews with members of the cast and crew. (New essays, etc. would also be helpful — I would to see, for instance, Steve Shaviro write a new essay on the film, since his take on it in The Cinematic Body is so great, but he's moved beyond a lot of what he wrote in that book since.) Anyway, it's great to have Querelle available in all its vivid, languorous glory.Much about Fassbinder's work remains remarkable — his extraordinary productivity, the great number of masterpieces, the ingenuity — but what consistently amazes me is the force and immediacy of his best work. I have no way to tell whether his films feel as radical now as they did when they first appeared, but they very much feel radical now. They unsettle common-sensical aesthetics and assumptions (those ideas of what a movie should be and do, how actors should act, how sounds should sound, how images should be made), but more than that they utterly scoff at conservative values and liberal pieties both. Thomas Elsaesser writes well about this in Fassbinder's Germany: "Fassbinder's 'strong' female characters (Maria Braun, Willie in Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) refuse victim thinking, not least because it presumes to create empathy at the price of exonerating them from a responsibility which no solidarity among victims can efface. But the status of victim also locks the subject into binary reciprocity, which ... Fassbinder's cinema constantly tries to break open, radicalize or displace. As a consequence, it may be possible to see the utopian dimension in Fassbinder's films about Germany not primarily, as [Kaja] Silverman argues for Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the ideal of masochistic ecstasy, but in the insistence — here true to the tradition of the anarcho-libertarian credo Fassbinder always professed — that the couple as a love relationship can only exist when it recognizes its place in other circuits of exchange."There is nothing safe when entering Fassbinder's oeuvre, nothing easy, nothing predictable. That, for me, is what makes it a worthwhile, necessary adventure. It's particularly valuable now; no filmmaker I know of so effectively dissects the ways that personal power and political power i[...]



Notes on Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni

2017-08-05T10:57:58.954-04:00

I've spent the last couple of weeks reading — almost devouring — Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel, recently translated by Zakiya Hanafi from the Italian (a very clear translation of a complex text; not reading Italian, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's one of the most readable works of academic theory I've ever encountered). I'm still working through where I agree and disagree with Mazzoni, but however my thinking evolves regarding his ideas, the book is unquestionably impressive and thought-provoking, and particularly valuable in how it develops and clarifies some of the classic concepts in the field from Bakhtin, Lukács, Erich Auerbach, and Ian Watt (among others). The only other recent book I've read that seems almost as clear and logical on similar topics is The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh, a less ambitious, less fulfilling, and less elegant book than Mazzoni's, but useful in filling in around some of Mazzoni's edges, since Mazzoni, like most writers and theorists, occasionally does a bit of hand waving to get around the paradoxes created by the concepts of fiction/nonfiction.For a good basic overview of Mazzoni's main ideas, see Alberto Comparini's review for the LA Review of Books and M.A. Orthoffer's review for The Complete Review. Here, I want to simply make some notes on things that stuck out for me on a first reading, and to offer a few quotations from the text. (I'll put page number citations in not from a desire to be all fancy-pants academic, but because it's tough to excerpt Mazzoni's ideas without doing some violence to them, and interested readers really should read the quotations in context.)image by Lin KristensenMazzoni's focus is more narrow than the book's title makes apparent. He's really writing about the literary novel in Europe, with occasional necessary forays to the British Isles and, in the later 20th century, to the U.S. This goes against the grain of some other recent writing on the novel, which tends toward a broader canvas. (See, for instance, Steven Moore's extraordinary [and extraordinarily idiosyncratic] two volumes, which in almost 2,000 pages only get up to the year 1800, or Michael Schmidt's 1,200-page The Novel: A Biography.) Mazzoni's knowledge seems to be of the novel in Italian, German, French, and English, and it is extraordinary rich knowledge, even if it rarely extends beyond Europe's borders — the key is that Mazzoni develops and exemplifies his ideas with works from the literary histories and traditions he knows intimately, and, unlike some other recent scholars, he doesn't pretend he can read all languages and know all cultures. This means he mostly writes about European novels by white men, and mostly the stuff canonized by undergraduate English classes over the last century or so — the novelistic Usual Suspects.Such an approach works well up to about 1940, because it allows Mazzoni to challenge and complicate a pretty settled (even dusty) academic discourse with its own most common examples, thus giving us a new view of a baby while flushing its slimy old bathwater down the drain. The approach is less convincing after 1940 partly because of the efflorescence of varieties of novels published since then (which Mazzoni admits), but also because after WWII literary conversation shows an ever-growing interest in novels not by white European guys. Couple that with the basic challenge of trying to figure out what the most meaningful works are in an era that's still very much alive and changing, an era where the discourse is far from settled, and you get Mazzoni's least convincing, most cursory writing. I laughed out loud when he declared Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones to be "three of the most [...]



A Quiet Passion

2017-05-24T14:39:46.250-04:00

Few cinematic genres are as consistently awful as the biopic. Many of the greatest filmmakers have avoided any temptation to enter that genre, and the ones that, for reasons of finances or temporary insanity, did give it a shot usually ended up creating some of their worst films. (Mike Leigh is one of the few great filmmakers to have also created great biopics with Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner.)Biopics of writers are especially hazardous. Most writers, after all, aren't as cinematic in their lives as Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs. Making the highly interior work of writing into something cinematically interesting is a nearly insuperable challenge, a challenge that usually results in Romantic cliché and general absurdity.Which brings me to Terence Davies' latest film, A Quiet Passion, a biopic of Emily Dickinson, a writer with perhaps the least cinematic life of them all. I am fascinated by Dickinson's poetry, but I'm not a Davies acolyte; I find his gauzy aesthetic generally uncompelling. However, I also think his adaptation of A House of Mirth is magnificent. Thus, I went to see A Quiet Passion wary but hopeful.Alas, I thought it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. The script is stunningly bad, the acting animatronic, and the portrayal of Dickinson narrow.My opinion is among a small minority. Most critics have viewed the film positively, even rapturously. I won't try to explain this beyond saying it's obvious that I am just the wrong audience for Terence Davies movies. I will admit, though, a slight suspicion that if Davies' name were erased from the film, the criticism would be harsher. It's not just that once a filmmaker has become celebrated for a particular style and approach, lovers of that style and approach react in Pavlovian ways to it. I'm sure there's some of that, but there's also a sense of following a career, of watching the (beloved) style and approach develop with new material. In some ways, that's one of the better effects of auteurism: it allows us to appreciate a variety of works by a filmmaker we admire. I, for instance, am so besotted with David Lynch that I can even find things to praise in Dune. There ought to be sensible limits though. I'm certainly not going to try tell you that Dune is a good movie.I will be curious to see the response of Dickinson scholars to this movie. Most film critics probably don't know anything about Dickinson or her poetry, but that really doesn't matter: a dully accurate biopic is still a dull pic; an utterly inaccurate and thrilling work of art is still a thrilling work of art. What does matter, though, to at least a certain extent, is the kind of Dickinson that Davies chooses to portray. While I'm not especially concerned with the accuracy of a film, I am interested in the sorts of decisions filmmakers make about what to include and not include. To exclude, for instance, characters such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Otis Phillips Lord, is to choose to portray Dickinson's literary and emotional lives in a particular way — a way that matches Davies' interest in repression, but which creates an unnecessarily attenuated portrayal.The strongest negative reaction to the film that I have found is Joanna Drucker's at the LA Review of Books, a review that is somewhat slipshod, but nonetheless raises a few important points. Drucker's hatred for the film makes her careless ("Whoever wrote the script..." she says of a film where the first credits at the end read: "Written and Directed by Terrence Davies"), and she objects multiple times to the portrayal of Amherst as a place that "resembles the English countryside of a Merchant-Ivory film instead of a tightly plotted New England town" — but the exteriors were filmed at the actual house in Amherst an[...]



Counternarratives by John Keene

2017-05-17T15:06:20.696-04:00


John Keene's Counternarratives is one of the most impressive short story collections I've ever read from a living writer, and I was pleased to have the chance to write about it for my old blogosphere friend Dan Wickett, who does wonders celebrating short fiction via his Emerging Writers Network. Here's a taste:
The stories of John Keene provide an aesthetic to push against the power of the cultural forces that venerate quick, easy thinking; forces that reduce knowledge to soundbites and hottakes and quick! mustread! breaking! stories, enforcing a compulsory presentism that is little more than mass amnesia — and self-aggrandizing mass amnesia at that. It’s a prose aesthetic to fight against any impulse insisting life here and life now is the most, the best, the worst, the only. His 2015 collection Counternarratives — easily one of the most invigorating English-language story collections of the last 25 years — offers us a powerful contemporary toolbox of approaches to language and knowledge. I say contemporary because one of the great values of Keene’s prose is that he has studied and emulated the writing not only of writers older than himself, but writers long dead by the time he was born, recognizing what they might, in their very different ways, offer, and then building on the offerings. Such study seems to be rare in current American fiction.

Continue reading at Emerging Writers Network



Experiments with Feedback and Grading in a First-Year Writing Course

2017-05-12T13:17:16.261-04:00

It's been a while since I last wrote here about teaching, for a simple reason: I've been teaching the same course, First-Year Writing, for a couple of years now, and haven't really had much to say about it. (Literature grad students at UNH used to be able to get some lit courses to teach after a required year of teaching what we colloquially call 401, but various forces related to lower enrollments made my cohort the last to get any lit courses [when I taught Literary Analysis and then an American lit survey], and so for the past two years I've taught nothing but 401).For the upcoming year, the university awarded me a Dissertation Year Fellowship, so I will not be teaching. Before all memory of the past few years leaves my mind, here are some reflections...This academic year, bored to death with my own teaching, I decided to experiment with the course a bit, and those experiments worked out well generally, so perhaps they are worth sharing here.Most of my experiments are stolen/adapted from other teachers. Last summer, I went back to the work of Peter Elbow, the single greatest influence on my teaching of writing. Elbow's books Everyone Can Write, Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, and A Community of Writers were hugely influential on my teaching when I first encountered them as a young teacher, and I have returned to parts of each through the years to keep reminding myself of the basic principles of what I do.While Elbow provides the foundation for what I aim for with writing courses, my recent experiments have primarily been inspired by the experiments of my friend Robin DeRosa, the writings of John Warner at Inside Higher Ed and Arthur Chiaravalli's piece "Teachers Going Gradeless", as well as by the examples of some of my friends at UNH who tried out similar things and generously shared their thoughts and materials.The key changes in my teaching were the use of a "B Contract" and a portfolio system. These have worked so well that I plan to adapt them to as many courses that I teach in the future as I can.Of course, being an Elbow fan, I'd used portfolios before. I've always liked them in concept, but have often shied away from them because I struggled to find a system where reading and grading them did not overwhelm me in the time between when they were turned in and when grades were due to the registrar. For me, at least, there simply isn't time or energy to do a thorough, thoughtful reading of a portfolio at the end of a term. The B contract along with consistent self-evaluation assignments for the students help with that, and I no longer dread the final grading.If you want to see how all this plays out in policy and practice, my most recent syllabus is here. (Were I teaching in the fall, I would weed my syllabus. There's a lot of policies we're required to include, but the syllabus needs to be rewritten to be more manageable for students. Even I get lost in its brambles as it is!)The key problems I identified last summer as ones I wanted to solve this year were: 1.) The research papers are always the weakest of the term, and I generally don't enjoy reading and grading them or have much faith that students have learned a lot from the process; 2.) I needed to spend less time reading and grading student work generally, because I had become like a goldfish growing to fit its environment: I was devoting nearly the same amount of time to this one course as I used to devote to three courses. That's not sustainable with doctoral work to do, and by the end of last year, I was ragged.I sought out solutions, and the result was a slight improvement in the research papers and a significant improvement in my experience of grading. It's the latter I want to talk about here, si[...]



wood s lot

2017-05-09T12:40:00.356-04:00

I am just coming to the news that Mark Woods, who ran the wood s lot site, died in February.I'd not been reading wood s lot regularly for a while — life got complex, internet reading more fragmented, and wood s lot was just too rich, too full, too much: I hated skimming it, because it was material that needed to be absorbed more fully, more thoughtfully. I regret that, and am glad that the archives survive.I can't overstate the effect of wood s lot on me in the early days of blogging here. (The consistent quality of the site is awe-inspiring. I look back through my own archives here and mostly think I'm looking at the doodles of a child. Read through the archives of wood s lot and from the beginning you'll perceive a sharp mind arranging the signs and sights of the universe.) In the scrappy days before social networks and corporate bloggers, Mark Woods' site and David Auerbach's Waggish offered a literary seriousness that made online writing seem meaningful and worthwhile — another way of saying, I suppose, that I learned a lot from reading such sites, and they helped broaden an education that had prioritized too many American writers and too many highly familiar and famous artists. I admired and learned a lot from Mark Woods' range of references, certainly, but what I was in awe of was his productivity. Even when I was reading it more regularly, I just couldn't keep up with the richness wood s lot offered.Woods had a genius for collage. He didn't just find good stuff, he arranged it, sifting and shaping the driftwood of the internet into a vast polyphony instead of cacophony. The site is fundamentally a collection of quotes and links, and yet from them a strong sense of personality comes through, a sense of purpose, arrangement, intention, vision, and joy.But what is this desire to keep up? One of the lessons I take from wood s lot is to think beyond the cult of contemporaneity. This is not the say he was uninterested in contemporary literature, philosophy, and art — obviously not — but rather that the site never felt, to me at least, obsessed with staying absolutely up to the minute in the way that even the best of other sites do. No clickbait here, no hot takes. Even though we rarely encountered Woods' own words on the site, there was a consistent tone to how he put posts together, a tone of seriousness and contemplation, never a tone of up-to-the-minute rushing to get something out in time to catch a wave of hype. This is one reason why the site remains of interest now, nearly a year after the last post, and will remain so as long as it is available.It's pointless to try to describe what can be apprehended and appreciated most easily by spending time looking through the site. My words here feel inadequate, but reading the archives, spending time thinking about the words and images Mark Woods selected and presented for us, seems a fitting memorial.[...]



Delany at 75

2017-04-02T13:32:16.192-04:00

from The PolymathSamuel R. Delany just celebrated his 75th birthday, an auspicious occasion.I've been writing about Delany for over a decade now — I've written and published more about his work than about that of any other writer: introductions to new editions of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore; on his early pornographic novel Equinox; on his recent novel Dark Reflections; an interview in 2009. I spent some time last summer researching in his archives at Boston University and expect to return this summer, as about a third of my doctoral dissertation (in progress...) is devoted to his work. I've given presentations about him at academic conferences, and all of my academic friends are probably quite tired of my invoking his name at every possible opportunity.The simple fact is that I think Delany is one of the most important American writers, one who ought to be spoken of alongside any great American writer (however defined or identified) of the second half of the twentieth century. Though Delany readers disagree not only about their favorites among his works, but about what should be considered his major writings, the passion of the arguments indicates the range and richness of his oeuvre. As a novelist, he's more interesting than Updike, Mailer, Vidal, and other big white males who still so dominate the idea of post-World-War-II American lit; as a nonfiction writer, he's at least the equal of Sontag. And yet somehow he continues to get seen in very limited ways, ways that impoverish the reading of his works.The limited view of Delany often seems to result from personal preferences for particular texts or types of texts, and with a writer as complex as Delany, that's a fatal flaw. In fact, one of the great lessons of Delany's project is to encourage us to think beyond personal taste, to recognize personal taste as only a first step, an entry point. We all have our individual interests and preferences. (Myself, I like some of the early work well enough, but had Delany published nothing after Nova, I wouldn't be interested in him; of the fiction, The Mad Man and Dark Reflections are my favorites, though I think Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand could plausibly be offered as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series is perhaps his most impressive sustained work. For all that focus on the fiction, though, I generally feel most excited and inspired when reading his nonfiction.) However, to assess Delany within any sort of literary history, to take stock of his aesthetic and intellectual achievements, to understand anything that he's up to, requires less solipsism. Such an anti-egoistic idea extends well beyond the realm of literature, and is itself present as a concept in virtually all of his books, whether Empire Star or Times Square Red, Times Square Blue or Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.The conviction that Delany's work must be seen in multifarious ways by multifarious audiences with multifarious tastes was what led me a few years ago to organize a quick alternative roundtable discussion of Delany to counter one that Locus created in honor of his inauguration as a Grand Master of Science Fiction. I knew even then that my effort was inadequate — despite my attempts to make things otherwise, we were all male, for one obvious inadequacy — but the goal was simply to show some of the possible ways of broadening how we discuss and value Delany's work, hoping to inspire others.Of recent academic efforts, the special "Delany Lately" issue of African American Review (Fall 2015) and the symposium on Delany in the Winter [...]



The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

2017-03-16T15:51:10.559-04:00

When I heard, a few months ago, that Paul La Farge's new novel would be about H.P. Lovecraft, I groaned. For one thing, I don't care about Lovecraft (no, more than that: I actively dislike Lovecraft's writing, life, everything); for another, there's a boom in people writing about Lovecraft these days. Good writers, too! Not just the hacks of fandom churning out their unintentionally almost-funny imitations, not just cretins of the sort who bought Weird Tales because they would rather run it into the ground than have anybody taint its legacy with stories that aren't imitations of Lovecraft — no, I'm talking about good writers, interesting writers, original writers, and—Ugh, I just don't get it. And then comes the announcement about Paul La Farge, a writer I've enjoyed for almost twenty years now, ever since a friend of mine spent some time at the MacDowell Colony when he was there and told me, "There's a guy here who writes weird surrealist stuff you'd like," and when I went to visit her we stopped by the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough and I picked up a copy of The Artist of the Missing, read it, liked it (a bit too closely imitative of Kafka/Calvino/Borges, but well done), then later bought his next novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction, which felt really original to me at the time, almost vertiginously so, as I hardly knew how to get my bearings with it, mostly because it was about histories I knew nothing about, but it haunted me. And then The Facts of Winter, a beautiful book of shimmering weird dreamstuff, lovely and yet also insubstantial. (I missed Luminous Airplanes somehow.) There were also various fun essays and interesting short stories that I caught here or there.Thus, for some time now, La Farge's name has been one of the few that will induce me to pick up a book or magazine on the strength of his byline alone. His writing and his perspective are singular.But ... Lovecraft? What was going on? Was he tired of suffering the obscurity of the highly literate, esoteric writer, and now wanted to jump on the apparent gravy train of Lovecraftianity? Everybody's got to eat, so good for him, but what was I to do, I who wanted to read Paul La Farge's new novel but...? And it has such a great Lynd Ward-ish cover... And...And then, out of the blue, a publicist from Penguin Press asked me if I wanted a copy. What could I say? It wouldn't cost me anything. I could take a look at the first 25 pages or so and if it was too Lovecrafty, I could just pass the book on to one of the many people I know who (inexplicably!) are fascinated by old HPL and find enjoyment in reading his fiction. Sure, I said. Send it along.The book arrived and the physical object itself was very nice. The cover is even better on the book than in pictures. The interior design is pleasant. I flipped through the novel a bit, not really having time to read it, hoping to be put off by a bunch of C'fyungpwyeevgghhhhhh and Shollllblagghhhwrryudddppt-Tupthe'yop and eldritch prose so I could then without any feeling of guilt put the book away and move on to work I really needed to do.Instead of being put off, though, I soon discovered I had read the first few chapters and my other work could wait.I have many words of praise of the other La Farge books I've read, but gripping is not one that first comes to mind. It's an accurate word, though, for most of The Night Ocean. (There were ten or twenty pages I thought could have used a bit of trimming. [I think that about most novels.] In some ways, that testifies to the grip the book had for me: I wanted it to stop piddling around in details and get moving again. [...]



Selecting Woolf's Essays

2017-03-08T12:40:46.484-05:00

It is time for a capacious, authoritative one-volume selection of Virginia Woolf's essays and journalism. (Perhaps one is in preparation. I don't know.) The sixth and final volume of her collected essays was released in 2011. It is wondrous, as are all of the volumes in the series, but though it's a goldmine for scholars, the series isn't really aimed at the everyday reader; each volume is relatively expensive (though not to the extent of an academic volume, e.g. the Cambridge Editions), and plenty of the material is ephemeral, repetitive, or esoteric.A one-volume Selected Essays does exist, edited by David Bradshaw and published by Oxford World's Classics. It's better than nothing, but it's small and missing many of Woolf's best essays — including perhaps her single most-frequently-reprinted essay, "The Death of the Moth". Bradshaw also slights Woolf's literary essays, perhaps because the two Common Reader volumes remain in print. Also in print is Michèle Barnett's Women and Writing, and it's a pretty good selection, but as the title suggests, the focus is specific. (And in any case the selection was made in 1979, and Woolf scholarship has developed a lot since then. The authoritative Essays volumes didn't even start appearing until 1986.)In 1993, Penguin published a two-volume selection of the essays edited by Rachel Bowlby. For what I assume were reasons of copyright, it was only released in the UK. It's a very good selection of 55 essays total (25 more than Bradshaw), though each volume was a little under 200 pages in length, so it could easily have been a single book.I've been thinking about what it would be useful to have in a new Selected Essays, one built from the now complete Essays volumes. It deserves to be bigger than any of the selections so far, though not so gigantic that it's unwieldy. After all, it's drawing from thousands of pages of material. I would lean toward a length of 400-500 pages, say 150,000 words or so.Any imagined table of contents I create must be highly provisional at best, subject to the vagaries of memory and personal taste, but as I think about it, I realize I do have some thought about what would be useful for students and, perhaps most importantly, for ordinary readers to have as a collection of Woolf's essays.Of course, the first priority of such a collection would be to include examples of Woolf's best writing. But beyond that, there's a need to see the development of her thinking and the development of her aesthetic, so we would want the earliest pieces from 1904 ("'The Son of Royal Langbrith'" and "Haworth, November 1904"), as well as thoughtful selections from 1905, the first year with a substantial body of work to choose from. I would err toward inclusion in the early essays, especially since they're mostly quite short. The two essay drafts left unfinished at Woolf's death, "Anon" and "The Reader", would end the book well, particularly since the last sentence of "The Reader" is "We are in a world where nothing is concluded." Additionally, it would be helpful to have a few sets of essays on topics and writers she explored throughout her life. (Bradshaw does a good job of this with his "Women and Fiction" section.) There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of ways to do this, and everyone will have their individual preferences. My own desire would be to make sure there are — in addition to obvious topics such as contemporary writers, English literary classics, women writers, etc. — substantial selections of Woolf's writings on biography, memoir, and autobiography (which she wrote about throughout her career, and which is a topic[...]



45 Years

2017-03-08T09:36:22.840-05:00

Andrew Haigh wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the century so far, Weekend, and his 2015 movie 45 Years is based on David Constantine's breathtaking short story "In Another Country" — as rich and perfect a story as you're ever likely to read.For these reasons, I put off seeing the movie for a long time, because I feared it could not live up to my hopes and expectations for it.And no, it couldn't live up to my hopes and expectations, and my hopes and expectations did, indeed, get in the way — but it's still an impressive film. In particular, the performances and the cinematography are magnificent.The plot of 45 Years is simple, and starts right from the second scene: An older couple, Kate and Geoff, are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, having not been able to celebrate their 40th because of Geoff's heart bypass surgery. That week, Geoff receives an official letter letting him know that a body has been found encased in a melting glacier: the body of Katya, his girlfriend before he met Kate. He and Katya were hiking in Switzerland in 1962 when Katya fell into a crevasse. Kate knew this story, but hasn't thought about it in many years. Geoff explains to Kate that to make their traveling easier, he and Katya had told people they were married, and thus he was the next of kin, a detail Kate claims she never knew. The rest of the film is about the tension that then enters Kate and Geoff's relationship because of this new knowledge. Geoff can't stop obsessing about his past with Katya, and Kate is somehow deeply threatened and hurt by it all.The problem I encountered after a first viewing of 45 Years was that I just didn't buy the premise. This is strange, because it's the same premise as the short story. But Constantine's emphases are rather different from those of the movie — his concern in the story, and in much of his writing, is at least as much with the passing of time and the power of memory as it is in the characters' relationship. The ending is entirely different (very powerful, very sad).Haigh is relatively young (he's a few years older than me — very young!) and his interest is less in memory and time than in the relationship. This is a somewhat more dramatic interest, anyway, and thus a good one for a narrative film. But it puts an awful lot of burden on Kate's reaction to the letter Geoff receives and his reaction to it. After first watching the film, I couldn't help wondering why she cared so much. After all, she's had 45 years with this guy. He's clearly a bit doddery. What is the big deal? How could they have gotten through 45 years together if she had such a fragile sense of their relationship that it could be threatened by a woman who'd been dead for half a century?I had a sense that there was an answer to this buried in a couple of quick moments, but I feared I was perhaps imposing my own reading on the material, so I went back and reviewed them. I think my reading, while hardly the only possible one, is supported by the evidence, and that made me appreciate the film's subtleties much more.The scene where Kate climbs into the attic and views old slides of Katya is obviously one of the key moments in the film, beautifully shot and acted, a truly great moment of cinema. It is also the key to my interpretation of Kate's character: She sees that Katya was pregnant, yes, but she also sees (or imagines she sees) other things that shake her world to the core.In a very brief conversation with Geoff, she says that all of the choices of their lives, even the biggest (whether to h[...]



"We must remain readers..."

2017-02-28T11:29:08.946-05:00

(image)
photo by Black Cat Books


Virginia Woolf, from "How Should One Read a Book":
We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”



Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

2017-02-04T15:43:50.447-05:00

John Darnielle's first novel (after the uncategorizable critical novella Black Sabbath's Master of Reality), Wolf in White Van, got a lot of attention and made the longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards. I read it when it came out, since I adore Darnielle's work as singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats, and thought maybe he'd be okay at writing novels, too, though I tried not to get my hopes up. After a few pages, I was entranced, and read the book quickly, almost in a fugue state, stopping only because at times I found it emotionally overwhelming. I never wrote about it because I didn't know how to do so in any way other than to say, "Go read this." To explain what made the book such a rich reading experience for myself would require delving into a lot of weirdnesses of personal response, useless to anybody else, and to talk much about the plot and structure would be to give away part of the novel's magic. I am not at all a spoiler alerter — quite the opposite, in fact, and I generally feel that any book or movie requiring a spoiler alert is a book or movie without much of interest beyond its plot machinations — but there are always exceptions, and the elegance with which Wolf shuffles and deals its information is such a carefully controlled performance that even to speak of the story's premise felt to me like a violation. (And it's not about Big Surprises. It doesn't take long to guess the big stuff; it's the way the information accumulates that is so powerful, so masterful.)Universal Harvester is even more narratively tricksy than Wolf in White Van, but it seems to me much less harmed by description and analysis, and so I will offer here a few preliminary notes about the novel, with the assumption that you haven't read it but are, for whatever reason, nonetheless curious about its structure and effect.photo by Tony WebsterWolf is a monologue, and that's part of its power. There aren't many characters or events, relatively speaking, and so it is able to circle back again and again, until at the end what we have is a more-or-less complete picture of a few crucial moments in the narrator's life. It moves backwards in chronology, though not in a strictly linear way. (No coincidence that digging a hole is a central image in the book. Narratively, it digs deeper and deeper toward the one moment that changed everything in the narrator's life. Is there treasure there? is the question.)Universal Harvester is not exactly a monologue. It seems to be a limited third-person narration, but it moves between various characters, and the limits of that third-person narration seem less and less certain as the pages turn. Then suddenly there's a first-person moment. It's jarring, though also easy to miss. Later, there are more, until slowly we realize we're not reading a third-person narrative, but a first-person one. The narrator is telling us a story, and they know they are. They offer us other possible storylines, even. Some readers may interpret the first-person moments to be insertions into what is otherwise a third-person text, and I think that interpretation can work, but I prefer to think of the whole as a story being told by this narrator, with their apparent omniscience being not actual omniscience, but the omniscience of anyone telling a story. I may be particularly inclined to such an interpretation from own interests in storytelling and narration (I've been known to gobble Bakhtin's essays like Sean in Wolf in White Van eats candy), but nonetheless the text justifies it and i[...]



Elements of Style for the Age of Blight

2017-01-18T20:10:21.147-05:00

IntroductoryAs the world burns away in political crises and ecological catastrophe, writers strain against meaninglessness, against the sense that their work is nothing more than a few grains of confectionary sugar tossed to a howling wind. What forms might fit our time, what stories might we tell against a future of no-one left to listen to stories?No other label for where we are and where we’re going as a world seems quite so accurate as the one Kristine Ong Muslim has used for her recent collection of stories, The Age of Blight. It is a book of glimpses, shards, and lost myths; it works like a nightmare recollected during the day before you know the nightmare will return and sleep cannot be kept at bay indefinitely.The Age of Blight and a thousand books like it will not forestall our own Age of Blight, but Muslim offers strategies for storytelling as the blasted era blightens. Her techniques for writing fiction are ones that make demands on the reader, but they're not the demands made by, for instance, a doorstopper novel flooded by streams of consciousness.Elementary Rules of UsageFor all the enormity of its subject matter, Muslim’s book is tiny. It gathers 16 short stories in 103 pages (some of which are blank). The effect of reading it is similar to what it might be like to look at snapshots of crumbling insane asylums and quick sketches of endless, festering swamps. Much feels like it’s missing, but we don’t miss it, because it’s easy to imagine what is left out.And imagination is key here, because imagination may be the only possible way to save ourselves, to find some way to live a good life even as the blight spreads in and outside the text. Solutions are few and far between; beauty rots; but still, we can dream.∅ Elements of Style for the Age of Blight: Omit needless words.photo by Gerd LudwigMuslim sections her stories into four groups: Animals, Children, Instead of Human, and The Age of Blight. Some of the stories seem loosely connected by the repetition of place names (particularly Bardenstan and Outerbridge) and by vague references to disasters. A note at the beginning of the book says, “Bardenstan is a suburb. In 2115, something will happen that will put Bardenstan on the map. It will be known throughout history as the site closest to the epicenter of the fallout. Outerbridge, on the other hand, remains the only part of America where plants are still grown in soil.”We may assume, then, that we are in the territory of science fiction, but the stories themselves are more like poetic fragments of myth and nightmare than straightforward extrapolation. While a writer like Paolo Bacigalupi creates at least quasi-believable future scenarios (scenarios of resource scarcity, war, misery), Muslim seeks something else, something more visionary than speculative. At the same time, though, these stories feel like they come from a place of terror: terror at the shape of the real future we most likely will provide for this planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.It is the other-than-human characters that Muslim writes best, in fact. The stories in the first section of the book, devoted to animals, are evocative and unpredictable, unnerving; their images linger long in the imagination. Consider this first paragraph of the first story, “Leviathan”:It was the day the ancient sea beast finally reached your shore and died there. Unable to resurrect your sole prize after trawling the ocean floor for eighteen years, you secretly wired a pair of ar[...]



What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

2016-12-29T13:48:12.505-05:00

Garth Greenwell's debut novel What Belongs to You is one of the most celebrated and successful gay novels of 2016. Its success seems to me both odd and gratifying. It is a book that garnered the attention of the literati, and not just the gay literati, though it certainly has that (Edmund White blessed it with a blurb). It received praiseful notice from nearly all the major literary institutions in the U.S. (and elsewhere).It is a remarkable novel, but were I a literary agent or publisher, much of what makes the novel remarkable would have caused me to assume it would not sell very well and would find, at best, a niche audience. (This is perhaps reason #28,302 that it's good I'm neither a publisher nor an agent!) I don't know the sales figures for What Belongs to You, but it hit the LA Times bestseller list for a couple weeks, got tremendous review coverage, and often seemed to be among the books of the moment — I traveled a lot during 2016, and nearly everywhere I went, somebody mentioned it (perhaps because they knew it was a book I would like). Despite being on New York Times critic Dwight Garner's top 10 list, it didn't make the Times list of 100 Notable Books (nor was it one of their 10 Best Books), it did make LitHub's "Baffling Omissions from the NY Times’ 100 Notable Books List" list, which is good for street cred.It is, in the Delanyan sense, a book that has accrued an impressive set of literary markers.I would love to talk with Greenwell's agent, editors, and his publicists at FSG to learn why and how this book worked for them. It gives me a little bit of hope about the future of literature that this debut novel by a writer without a big literary footprint was able to find such a good home. A "good home" for a book is not necessarily about big sales and big awards, nice as they are; it's about finding the right audience for that book, the audience that will appreciate and value it most fully. (And hopefully not cause major losses for the writer, publisher, booksellers....) FSG and Greenwell's foreign publishers seem to have done an excellent job at that, a job that other writers, agents, and publishers could learn from. As a reader, I want to live in a world where such successes are not surprising.(Now, I should note here that Greenwell was not a complete unknown when What Belongs to You was published. His pedigree is quite fine: he has graduate degrees from Harvard and from Iowa; the first section of the novel was originally published [in somewhat different form] when it won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and then went on to be a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Prize and a Lambda Award; he landed a story in The Paris Review in 2014; and in 2015 he was writing occasionally for The New Yorker's Page Turner blog and The Atlantic, though these I expect were the result of his having a book under contract with FSG [and thus also a way of getting Greenwell's name out there in prestigious places before the novel was published]. It helps, too, that he's a white male whose author photo makes him look sensitive and alluring. The world of literary fiction is still easier to debut in as a white guy than anything else, partly because of how seriously the Serious Books get taken — a deep, tenacious prejudice still assumes white guys write more seriously Serious Serious Books about Major Topics than do other types of humans. It's absurd, but it keeps up lots of free publicity for t[...]



Coetzee: The Life of Writing, The Good Story

2016-12-22T19:38:30.754-05:00

This piece first appeared in the Winter 2015 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Timeby David AttwellViking ($27.95)The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction, and Psychotherapyby J.M. Coetzee and Arabella KurtzViking ($27.95)In 1977, J.M. Coetzee struggled while beginning the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, because, he wrote in his notebook, he had failed in “the creation of a credible beloved you.” David Attwell explains this mysterious statement as a manifestation of Coetzee’s disaffection with illusionary realism, the kind of writing that pretends textual figures are real. A week later, Coetzee wrote: “I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me. This man MM, as a ‘he’ living in the world, bores me. ‘Creating’ an illusionistic reality in which he moves depresses me. Hence the exhausted quality of the writing.”Any fiction writer could sympathize with the feeling of frustration when beginning a difficult story, one that seems rich with possibility, but which the writer has not yet found a productive structure for. Coetzee’s frustration was heightened by his disaffection with the most common techniques of fiction. One of the many virtues of Attwell’s  J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, the first book to explore Coetzee’s manuscripts in depth, is that it shows how Coetzee’s novels serve to unite interests and challenges that are sometimes at direct odds with each other.Waiting for the Barbarians began as an aesthetic challenge, but the challenge was conquered when the world outside the text refused to stay outside, for just as Coetzee was beginning work on the novel, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested, tortured, and killed. The inquest was held in open court, and received international attention. Coetzee kept press clippings about it. Attwell writes that “Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habitation for desire’ that he was looking for… The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climactic self-destruction.”Attwell shows over and over that the tensions inherent within this two-way process, the dance of world and text, fuels much of Coetzee’s writing, often providing the animating force for his work.J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is not a comprehensive biography (for that we have J.C. Kannemeyer’s J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, which Attwell’s title echoes, perhaps confusingly), nor is it a comprehensive study of Coetzee’s manuscripts (archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin), as Attwell only spent five weeks with them and is more than aware that the wealth of papers will keep scholars busy for a very long time. Instead, Attwell’s book is a collection of glimpses and reflections. It provides detailed looks at the composition of some of Coetzee’s most famous novels, Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians, and intervenes in some of the controversies over Coetzee’s work: the presence or lack of political commitment; the place of South African history and landscape in the novels; the purpose of metafictional moves (especially in Foe and The Master of Peters[...]



Shirley Jackson at 100

2016-12-14T13:40:54.952-05:00

Today is Shirley Jackson's 100th birthday, and as I think about her marvelous body of writing, I can't help also thinking of the changes in her reputation over the last few decades, or, rather, my perception of the changes in her reputation. For me, she was always a model and a master, but there was a time when that opinion felt lonely, indeed.I discovered her as so many people discover her: by reading "The Lottery" in school. (Middle school or early high school, I don't remember which.) I loved the story, of course, but it wasn't until I got David Hartwell's extraordinary anthology The Dark Descent for Christmas one year that I really paid attention to Jackson's name, because the book includes the stories "The Summer People" and "The Beautiful Stranger", both of which I read again and again. Around the same time, I read Richard Lupoff's anthology What If? and thus encountered what would become one of my favorite short stories by anyone: "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts". After that, I sought out Jackson's work wherever I could find it.But it was not easy to find Jackson's books. This was the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I first started looking, nothing seemed to be in print. I got an omnibus edition of her most famous books, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery and other Stories (which ISFDB says was published in 1991; I expect I got it a year or two later). From one of the local libraries (which had hardly anything by Jackson, including the local college library) I was able to read The Magic of Shirley Jackson, which included some of her short stories, The Bird's Nest, and her two collections of humorous family stories (which I didn't pay much attention to). At some point, I got a battered and water-damaged old paperback of The Bird's Nest. I read the library's copy of Judy Oppenheimer's biography.And that was it. I tried for years to find copies of novels I'd only read descriptions of, particularly Hangsaman and The Sundial, but they seemed not to exist except as expensive listings in used book catalogues.Jackson was seen as a minor writer. While bookstore shelves filled to bursting with the endless emissions of Updike, Mailer, and their ilk, Jackson was perceived, at least by the literary mainstream, as the weird lady who wrote that story about the village where people stone each other to death ... and that horror novel that they made into a really creepy movie ... and wasn't there something about a castle?By the end of the 1990s, though, a change was afoot. A new generation of American writers who had read "The Lottery" in school and thought not "Ewww! Weird!" but "Hooray! Weird!" began publishing their own work. (Think Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem, just to choose two of the most currently prominent, and two who explicitly cite Jackson as a literary hero.) The moment when things felt like they were changing — that is to say, the moment I really noticed a change in Jackson's status — was in early 1997 with the publication of Just an Ordinary Day, a collection of previously uncollected and unpublished stories. Jonathan Lethem's review of the book for Salon gives a snapshot of just how much about Jackson had to be introduced to readers back then.In the summer of 1999, a big-budget remake of The Haunting was released in theatres, bringing the novel back to prominence. In July of 2000, a Modern Library hardcover edition of The[...]



"Perverse and Uncommercial"

2016-12-09T17:36:58.329-05:00


Since my book came out, lots of people have asked me to describe my writing. I'm not good at this. However, having now seen my writing described by reviewers and by common readers, I've got a few ideas about how other people describe it. "Not nice", "disturbing", "bewildering", etc. After a while, I found myself responding with the same two words when people asked what my writing is like. "Perverse and uncommercial," I heard myself say now and again. (I'm sure I have some rejection slips around somewhere that call my writing exactly that.)

I don't know if those terms are exactly true, but they seem to set up the right expectations in readers.

My friend Jeremy John Parker overheard my self-description. Being not only an excellent writer and discerning editor but also a talented designer, he decided there should be clothing, tote bags, mugs, etc. with "perverse and uncommercial" on them. And so there now are.

There are black t-shirts with white lettering and white everythings with grey lettering, should you desire one of your own.

Once I received the shirt I'd ordered (because how could I not order such a shirt?), I decided it was time for a new publicity photo, as seen above.