#Gaddis2020 – a start

Since Twitter is about to embark on a big group read of William Gaddis’ two first novels, what with NYRB reprinting them, I wanted to share my favorite quote from The Recognitions, which, together with JR, ranks among my favorite novels – though I do think A Frolic of His Own is Gaddis’s most underrated book. Not as easy to read as Carpenter’s Gothic, not as Bernhardian as Agape, Agape, and not as spectacular as the first two. And yet, it is very good. That said, below, three quotes from The Recognitions, a masterpiece. If you feel intimidated by its heft and erudition – Gaddis worked as a researcher before he published this book – Steven Moore’s excellent and extensive “Reader’s Guide” is worth bookmarking. In fact, I recommend it. I’m sure there isn’t a greater expert on William Gaddis on earth. I’m not a huge fan of these “group reads” – but if that is what gets you into these two novels, then so be it. The Recognitions was an absolutely eye-opening reading experience, which was among the small handful of books that set me on the path of reading that I am on to this day, hurtling after books, trying not to drown.

 

“Something like writing is very private, isn’t it? How…how fragile situations are. […] Delicate, that’s why they keep breaking, they must break and you must get the pieces together and show it before it breaks again […]. That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is, when really…why, what happened when they opened Mary Stuart’s coffin? They found she’s taken two strokes of the blade, one slashed the nape of her neck and the second one took the head. But did any of the eye-witness accounts mention two strokes? No. […] They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them. […] Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all it’s dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just…sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.”

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“Do you know what it was? That everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted on vanity in His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today, that’s why your [Flemish Master’s] paintings are so cluttered with detail, this terror of emptiness, this absolute terror of space. Because God isn’t watching. Maybe he doesn’t see. Oh, this pious cult of the Middle Ages!”

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“What did you want from [this poet] that you didn’t get from his work? […] This passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour…what is it? What is it they want from a man that they did´n’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist but the dregs of his work? […] What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”

Embarking on Ammons

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Birthday Presents

Among my birthday presents, arriving through the mail as I am between homes and houses, was the enormous two volume edition of A.R. Ammons complete poems. The astonishment, first, that it exists. His name had slipped to the back rows, the less than notables, the – if not forgotten ones, then the ones, whose names start to slip our mind. Transcendentalism in American poetry, wasn’t there this guy, what was his name again…? And beyond this astonishment, a small surprise at the size of this, his hefty, large oeuvre, coming, of course, with a preface by Helen Vendler, who else, maybe this is mainly for her, maybe she lost track too, as books somehow started to accrue.

How do I read Ammons? We’ll see – I own some Ammons and have read all of that, but it is dwarfed by the reality of his output, the voluminous lack of restraint of a poetic masculinity that I am not sad to see leaving the stage. I will likely find the books I know and adore, and see what comes before and after, how much context and words and air surrounds the Ammons I know. I have gone straight to some of my favorite Ammons and already, I have changed while Ammons hasn’t, he hasn’t even left the protective awning of Helen Vendler’s critical support. In “Garbage,” Ammons derides an unnamed female poet, citing her words: “if I’m in / touch […] then I’ve got an edge: what / the hell kind of talk is that,” offering instead a calculated ethics of writing and rewriting, echoing the praxis of poets like Lowell, of whom his friend Kathleen Spivac remarked: “I’ve never […] seen a poet rewrite his poems so much.”

Looking at these volumes, over 900 pages each, at first I wondered whether this might not be the right poet for our searching, environmentally sensitive times, particularly poems like “Garbage” – but Ammons is difficult, he uses his voice not always to shine a light – often he uses it to hear himself proclaim. His Homeric gestures in “Tape for the New Year,” written to the background noise of drums and an imagined chorus, have echoes in the self-importance of some male Beat poets; they, too, are difficult to read today.

Reading my way through Ammons’s poetry is a daunting task, but the work’s voice, and the poet’s awareness of form and material, of the warp and woof of textures and melodies, is worth persevering, I think.

 

Berit Glanz: Pixeltänzer

Glanz, Berit (2019), Pixeltänzer, Schöffling
ISBN 978-3-89561-192-6

I have reviewed a brilliant recent German novel for World Literature Today. It’s an inventive novel that pushes the envelope creatively but it holds back on the political implications of her story. It is by far one of last year’s best novels by a German author. It should be translated as soon as possible. You can read the whole (too short) review here.

A Darwinian-Ovidian Tale

“There are four young friends wandering about in an underground world full of the debris of the past. One of the young people is called Donatello. The story involves a delivery to an unknown address. It is centered on a father figure. What is the text? Both the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Marble Faun. (…) Like the film, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel (…) is a Darwinian-Ovidian tale of a creature halfway between man and animal”

– Barbara Johnson

Anne Katharine Green: The Leavenworth Case

Green, Anne Katharine (2010 [1878]), The Leavenworth Case, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310612-8

Anne Katherine Green is widely seen as a precursor to modern mystery novels – or one of the first modern mystery novels, depending on how you want to judge eras. Michael Sims’s introduction makes clear how much writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Agatha Christie owe to Green’s work and to her 1878 debut novel The Leavenworth Case in particular. This book’s portly detective, who breaks his case by inviting all suspects into a room and explaining the facts of the case to them is clearly what Christie based her chubby Belgian detective Poirot on. In my experience, many of these “precursor” novels are interesting, often better literature than their more generic offspring, but also sometimes more dull, less concentrated and shaped. If there’s no genre conventions to use and work with, sometimes there’s a bit of Victorian shapelessness to some books, excuse my frank language. But the case of Anne Katherine Green is interesting.

With crime novels, what I as a reader particularly enjoy is reading the environment outside of the plot – issues like class, race, culture, and their reflection in the objects surrounding the plot and characters. Because mystery novels are often epistemologically locked rooms, we as readers enter them as a detective enters a locked room where a murder has happened. We examine the interior, the paneling etc. And while the world of the mystery may seem to roam across broader landscapes, in reality, for the reader, they are all locked rooms, and we enter them suspiciously. This has interesting effects. The author’s implicit biases become part of the narrative and furniture. In influential books like Dorothy Sayers’s debut Whose Body?, the author’s antisemitism becomes part of the structure, part of how we read and understand that novel. I’m not saying anything new, McHale’s disquisition on postmodernism has already sufficiently explained how detective fiction and modernism are connected.

But I found it necessary to explain because of how extraordinarily well made Green’s debut is, and how it appears to address these critiques and ideas. The book is narrated by a Watson type character, a smart person who comes close enough to the mystery’s solution at various points that the resolution can be genuinely surprising. He travels, interviews suspects, collects, saves and presents evidence – and the tone of the novel is extraordinarily melodramatic, designed for the reader to follow this proto-Watson through New York and into the heart of a complex family intrigue. But he never gets a real grip on the solution – that is reserved for the detective. His name is Mr. Gryce and he is introduced like this:

And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, ink-stand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you—you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.

The first sentence, as Sims notes, is a reference to Wilkie Collins’s detective Sergeant Cuff from the 1868 novel The Moonstone, who is described as having eyes which “had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself.” The psychologist detective is its own tradition, but the detective who reads and interprets his environment is a different – and much more interesting – one, in my opinion. Green’s Mr. Gryce is almost a parody of these characters, but appearing long before them – his obsession of not looking into your eyes but carefully observing objects, things, appearances, is stressed more than once in the novel.

This makes him the perfect foil for the protagonist and his melodrama which is almost exclusively focused on psychology, on talking to people, trying to understand them, trying to intuit them. Detective fiction has more than once served as an analog for literary criticism, but this novel, curiously, long before the advent of academic literary New Criticism, offers a powerful and convincing rejection of speculative psychology. What matters are facts – and context, and plausibility. From Peter Szondi, we learn that an interpretation needs to be consistent, and so Mr. Gryce solves his case because he notes that of all the evidence he found, “the chain was complete, the links were fastened, but one link was of a different size and material from the rest and in this argued a break in the chain.” So he ends up offering a Poirot-esque confrontation that leads to a confession.

Mr. Gryce is not an unfathomable genius like Sherlock Holmes – and maybe in this the voice of a female writer becomes clearer. There’s no fetish of masculine genius here – Gryce is led by the facts and the quality of his analysis against his intuitions, and is in the end surprised by the confession. Usually the Watson character is the reader analog – he is our representation in the story. We’re smart but not that smart, observant, but not that observant. But The Leavenworth Case recalibrates this – the Watson character is there to show us the world, but our real analog is Mr. Gryce. We feel with Green’s Watson-like character, and we follow him on his adventure, but as readers thinking through the story, we are more like Mr. Gryce. We create a chain of evidence, and we don’t get all the way there – but neither does Mr. Gryce. The unpleasant celebration of the inexplicable, beautiful genius of Sherlock Holmes, sometimes offered with evidence that was not visible to us as readers, is undercut here. He is encouraging: when the narrator finds a piece of evidence, Gryce tells him: “don’t show it to me. Study it yourself and tell me what you think of it.”

Anne Katherine Greene wrote this novel over several years, pushing herself to finish it, publishing it finally to great success. She married a younger man and actor who later became a famous designer, but she was the primary breadwinner. It would seem counterintuitive then that Green was not a feminist, and in fact spoke out against suffrage in 1917, but here, as with writers like Mary McCarthy, the work itself is more complex. “[G]etting a wife,” we learn, is “the same as (…) acquiring any other species of property.” But in the novel, it is the female characters who plot, who shift things around, who cloud the waters, and men who have to try to hang on to this wild ride. In fact that quote is from a conversation where a man is trying to hang on to the facts of a contract in a situation where life has long made other plans. There is a malleability to this world, a kindness and a depth to its objects that justifies looking at them closer – and though many aspects of The Leavenworth Case became formative for the genre of modern mystery novels, one feels a bit miffed that Sherlock Holmes, who first turned up ten whole years later, has had so much influence on mystery fiction. Everybody in Greene’s novel loves, admires, fears and thinks – Sherlock just sneers. I can’t help but feel we need more of the former and less of the latter.

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Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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