The Mokers

modoc. n. One of the several small dummies set up to be knocked over by baseballs at a carnival tent; hence, a stupid person.
mohosca. n. Muscle; energy used in work.
mojo. n. Any narcotic.
mokers, the. n. Despondency; dejection; the blues.
mokus. n., adj. 1. Drunk. 2. Liquor.
molasses. n. A good-looking used automobile displayed to attract customers to a used-car lot.
moldy fig. 1. A prude; a pedant; one whose views or tastes are old-fashioned. 2. Specif., a person who prefers traditional jazz to the progressive forms.

The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. Eds. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner. Pocket, 1967.

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Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.

 

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A brief personal note on Bachmann’s “Malina”

Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.

I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.

Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.

I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.

There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.

But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.

And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.