#tddl: the winner is…

On Sunday, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. Yes, that’s right, I’m a bit late. Sue me.

If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened over the three days of readings – and I recommend you do take a gander – here is my summary of Day One., a day about whiteness and the blindness of writers and judges in the face of it. Here is my summary of Day Two, a day mostly about mediocrity and the praise it can elicit if it is narrowly tailored to MFA standards (in this country: Literaturinstitut (see this review). And finally, here is my summary of Day Three, a day which saw the competition’s best text by a country mile, and one of its worst and if you’re still completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about this year’s event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

The five winners

So on Sunday, the venerable judges voted in a dramatic fashion. The day was full of surprises. You know what wasn’t a surprise? That the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunifaction history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. It didn’t even come in second, not until Bjerg’s MFA-by-numbers meditation on fatherhood and sad white men had its place in the spotlight.. Last year’s decision to sideline the politically interesting texts for Schmalz’s solid, but politically empty monologue was, as it turned out, a sign O’ the times. At least this year’s winner, Tanja Maljartschuk’s text, was very good, and sharp enough in focus and moral clarity, likely the second best text in a field that was, overall, stronger than last year’s.

Indeed, of the five texts I personally considered best, my three favorite texts also won three awards. Only Corinna T. Sievers, whose sharp text about womanhood, sex and the struggles of addiction confounded the judges, and Ally Klein, whose text about anxiety and panic attacks, a text which I would not have properly understood without help myself, went unrewarded.

The five writers as I would have liked them to win

Dündar did win an award – the third place Kelag award. And Raphaela Edelbauer won an audience award. Regrettably, the second and fourth place awards went to Bov Bjerg and Anna Stern respectively. I want to talk about these for a moment: most observers of the voting that led to Anna Stern award saw judges changing their vote, voting tactically – because here’s what almost happened: Joshua Groß’s bad text almost won, because Klaus Kastberger suffered some kind of mental breakdown and kept throwing his hat in the ring for Groß’s text which was politically and literarily dubious.

It was stunnning. I could not believe it – but in the end the explanation is simple enough. Despite women winning the majority of this year’s awards, the structure of the Bachmannpreis favors men. The reason women did well this year (unlike last year, for example) is that Edelbauer, Dündar and Tanja Maljartschuk have written texts that are generally considered among the best texts, across the board. Nobody could have excluded those three texts from awards. But that a mediocre writer of MFA or Literaturinstitut pabulum like Bov Bjerg not only gets praised , but also takes home an award at least three women would have deserved more, is a sign of a certain tolerance of white male mediocrity – or rather, a certain critical appreciation for a tone and style of writing, a nonchalant irrelevance.

Indeed, Kastberger compounded his sad performance when he praised Bjerg as one of the most relevant German writers of our time – which, if true, is a horrible indictment of contemporary German literature. Honestly, I don’t think it’s true, but it’s instructive that this is where Kastberger’s brain went, this is his category for Bjerg – and maybe that also explains his support for Joshua Groß. Important Male Novelist – a category he leaped to defend.

There’s another little nugget that turned up in the award’s aftermath: Anselm Neft, whose text used slurs and appropriated the voice of a socially weaker person with a language of cliché and stereotype that aimed for effect rather than depth, went on a Facebook rant about a critical voice on Twitter. He defended his use of that language and slurs and assembled a crowd of angry Germans who agreed with him. That crowd contained almost every signifcant participant in the #tddl-discussion on Twitter, plus some of the judges. Everybody agreed that it should be fine to use slurs against Roma and stupid, biased or cowardly to complain about this minor matter. Interestingly, among his supporters appear to be people involved in running the award: in the comments, he noted that someone had told him that he had only barely lost out on the audience voting, which Raphaela Edelbauer had ended up winning.

The whole sorry affair both underlined why texts like Dündar’s that critically interrogate German narratives have a steep hill to climb to win an award like this one, and why writers like Neft and Bjerg will for the foreseeable future have a shortcut to such honors. There’s no topic like the vague sadness of adult white men to win awards. That’s been true for decades, and at least on the basis of this year’s TDDL, it still appears to be true.

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#tddl: Day Two: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Boring

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Corinna T. Sievers, Ally Klein, Tanja Maljartschuk, Bov Bjerg and Anselm Neft. . You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For a summary of the first day click here.

The day started with a text about a nymphomaniac female dentist, in a story by Corinna T. Sievers. With a few exceptions here and there, Sievers’s style was exceptionally clear and sharp, mostly, again, with a few exceptions, allowing the writer to modulate events and tone with some ease. Oh, and the story was largely pornographic. The scene ends on a slowly and carefully described blow job, performed by the dentist on one of her patients. This was not a surprise. In the novels I’d previously read of hers, explicit sex scenes were the rule rather than the exception. But it’s worth a closer look. These are novels about child abuse (in fact, two out of three novels broach the topic), crime, alcoholism, dysphoria. Two out of the three feature middle aged female protagonists who are struggling with the pressures and expectations placed on them in some way or another. To note one in particular, the widely acclaimed novel Maria Rosenblatt: it takes up the stucture and language of crime novels, with frightening ease, and inverts many of its assumptions. How does the story change if we turn the boozing detective who fucks around into a woman? How do other elements of the story have to stretch and adapt? Reviews of the book all mention its sexual explicitness – by comparison, just among the books I reviewed this week – I can assure you, despite the incredible flood of penises in Stephan Lohse’s novel, no review focused on the homoerotic or queer centering of male genitalia – we’re used to dick, as described by dudes. So far, each novel makes specific, different use of the explicit sexuality that appears to be Sievers’s hallmark – so if this writer is so clever what’s the point with the story as presented at the Bachmann-Preis? To understand you have to look at the complicated history of the Bachmannpreis. In the very first instalment, in 1977, Karin Struck presented a story involving female bodily functions and was severely upbraided by one of the critics: nobody is interested in the thoughts of a woman who menstruates! By contrast, a few years later, Urs Allemann took an award home with a story about a man who admits his pleasure in sleeping with infants. And there is one more possible contextual allusion: in her introduction, Sievers mentions Martin Walser as a writer she admires. On the one hand, yuck! On the other hand, a few hours after the reading, I had to think of the year Walser’s daughter, Alissa, presented a half-incestuous atory about a woman who uses her father’s money to purchase sex and then talks to him about it. Walser also took home an award – with a story that had possible autobiographical implications. Now, Sievers is, by profession, a dentist, and choosing to present a story about dentistry, when she had not done so in any of her previous novels, seems strategic, implicating her audience in the performance in a way that she could not have done with a written story. Her slow, strangely paced reading contributes to that theory. And there’s more: the reaction to the text, particularly by the male jurors, some of whom, like Klaus Kastberger, joked that they would want to get an appointment at her practice, “though we should talk about the price,” appears to have justified most of her literary choices. The story, much like Raphaela Edelbauer’s story that opened the first day, had significant problems, but, like Edelbauer’s text, on balance more good things than bad things and in my opinion had been the second best text presented at the competition thus far.

This assessment didn’t change after the second text of the day, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Ally Klein. Klein’s story did not appear to be any good – bad imagery, a surfeit of adjectives, flabby structure, more like a pile of excited descriptions than a serious piece of fiction. But as I browsed twitter, I came across a series of tweets by Sarah Wipauer, a writer who suffers from periodical and incapacitating panic attacks and as a sufferer of this affliction. She immediately recognized the symptoms in Ally Klein’s text. She was not just moved to tears, but brilliantly explained how the very deficient seeming nature of the text, like its images and adjectives and banal seeming prose was actually further evidence of its literary treatment of specific symptoms, and what seemed vague and imprecise was, in reality a well-made, precise text about this particular affliction.

The morning was brought to a close by a story by Tanja Maljartschuk. Maljartschuk has published multiple award-winning novels in Ukrainian – she has never published a longer narrative originally written in German. That said, her story was absolutely enjoyable. The most classically written story so far, written with professional routine, it is a story about a migrant who is constantly in danger of being picked up by the police, and an older woman with dementia. Their paths cross, as a strange combination of acts takes place, in a scene of biblical and literary allusion, the protagonist steals some money from the old lady, but ends up washing her feet, as he is, at the story’s end, arrested, with certain doom in his future. The benign theft has echoes of two texts in particular – there’s the encounter of Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s classic novel – and a sequence of scenes from Clemens Meyer’s debut novel Als wir träumten, where a whole group of impoverished, disillusioned young men steal from an older woman, but also take care of her, in a strange sense of symbiosis between two disadvantaged groups. Much as in Lohse’s racist text from yesterday, this echo connects racial and class issues, but unlike Lohse, Maljartschuk connects the two levels with skill and ease. If anything, the story is too well made, hiding its skill under a clear, startling veneer. By far the best story of the competition so far.

The two afternoon readings were kicked off by Bov Bjerg. I don’t have a ton to say about this one, in part because my initial and also my second impression are/were wildly at odds with the audience reaction on Twitter and the jury’s enthusiastic reaction. I’ll write a review of his bestselling novel Auerhaus one of these days and will use the opportunity to go into more detail. What it is, is a very well made story about a father and a son, about depression and the fear of your child inheriting your own suicidal ideation. I may not understand panic attacks, but boy do I understand that fear. I want no child of mine to grow up suffering as I did and do. And on some days that does translate to: I want no child(ren). That said, the story is incredibly flat and boring and banal – incredibly so. It’s not its simplicity. I love well made simplicity. But I think the right comparison here is with the Maljartschuk story that preceded it. Both texts were well made, but while the achievement of Maljartschuk’s story is that of an experienced writer who has worked on their craft – the “well-made” aspect of Bov Bjerg text is that of MFA-taught well made writing. I have complained about the MFA-taught slickness before, particularly about the two major MFA mills in Germany, the Literaturinstituts in Leipzig and Hildesheim. I believe that the positive reaction to the story and the inability to see the exceptionally formulaic nature of its achievement (in other words, it’s literally institutionally well-made not literarily well made) is connected to the way the literary critical system in this country is set up – with Leipzig and Hildesheim producing a specific kind of writing, influencing the critics’s sense of the literary field – and in turn, the critics’s expectations shaping what is taught as a “well-made story” in Leipzig and Hildesheim. In a sense, this story was made for this stage, in a terribly boring cercle vicieux. This is not a bad story by any means, just an awfully dull one, the wrong kind of well made, with a fundamental expectation of universality that is typical of white men, which is why the lack of diversity this year is such a problem.

At least with the day’s final story, written and presented by Anselm Neft, we were back on more reliably German ground, as Neft appropriated the experience of marginalized people, used racist slurs against Roma, absolutely crowded his text with clichés and sloppy prose, and was generally not so much an embarrassment to the proceedings, but a solid representation of a year of this award with the largest percentage of German writers of recent years (Edelbauer was the only Austrian writer on the list this year). I admit, reader, I fell asleep during the story. I reread it later, but honestly, it wasn’t even offensive enough to keep yours truly awake.

Tomorrow’s group of writers is odd. I have no sense of who I really want to win the award. Tomorrow starts with Jakob Nolte, whose well received last novel is actually pretty bad (review forthcoming), and Stephan Groetzner, who reads exceptionally obnoxiously. God knows.

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Paulette Jiles: News of the World

Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
ISBN 978-0-06-240920-1

img_20161213_091117“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.

News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.

It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.

Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.

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Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.

So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

TWO: International Fiction Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, political and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.

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The Man’s Book

From the flap of this odd find:

The Man’s Book. (…) Action, suspense and thrills are the essential qualities of all the stories which are selected, from the pick of all the publisher’s lists, by an all-male editorial board who know the kind of tough, hard-hitting reading that men prefer. By its policy of providing vigorous, virile reading of high quality, in fine bindings at low cost the MAN’S BOOK SERIES has deservedly become the outstanding publishing triumph of recent years.

I haven’t started reading the book yet, because after this introduction, what else can the book be but a letdown? DSC_1130

Clothespin

After March 15 you will find a brief text on Whiteness and “White Trash” here. I decided to not explain these issues on a forum, where some bright bulbs react to criticism of Valkyrie with a simple-minded reference to “Original Sin”. Meanwhile, here’s a salient quote from a NYT review on a new book by Martha Sandweiss:

King, you see, was a white man who for 13 years passed as black. For many, that is unimaginable. Didn’t pigmentation give him up? It didn’t, because, as King’s story reaffirms, race is not really about skin color. If it were, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter White, for instance, could never have identified himself as “a Negro,” served as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. or written this paradoxical sentence: “The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” Race is the emperor’s new clothes: we don’t see it; we think it.