Tom LeClair's Lincoln's Billy is a work of revisionist historical fiction somewhat similar to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man or Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Like those novels, it refuses to take iconic American history at face value, presents a version of that history at odds with received wisdom and national myth-making. LeClair in fact confronts the most iconic figure of them all, Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic façade is even harder to pierce than the always rather dubious General Custer or the mostly unknown Mason and Dixon.
Lincoln's Billy most conspicuously contrasts with these predecessors in its scale. They are prodigious, expansive picaresque narratives that question fundamental beliefs about the nature and direction of American history. Lincoln's Billy is more compact and restrained, more narrowly concerned with conveying an impression of Abraham Lincoln somewhat at odds with the brooding but dignified Lincoln presented in popular biographies and films. The novel accomplishes this by taking the form of a first-person narrative purportedly written by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in his pre-Presidential days in Springfield, Illinois. The novel's title ironically echoes the title of Herndon's 1889 biography of Lincoln, Herndon's Lincoln, a book that at the time was itself attacked for offering a less-than-worshipful account of Lincoln, covering his unhappy marriage to Mary Todd and his bouts of depression (referred to in Lincoln's Billy as "the hypos").
"After devoting many of the last twenty-five years to Lincoln's biography," writes "Billy," "I decided to compose this brief autobiography. . .to set the record straight about me--and about Lincoln." Billy thus does tell us the story of his life with Lincoln during their partnership, but also after that partnership, the period of Herndon's life otherwise likely to be considered an afterthought by historians, for whom Herndon's time as Lincoln's associate is his main source of interest. Still, his story always circles back to Lincoln, and to Billy's ambition to tell the truth about the now martyred President, and so his autobiography also becomes a kind of shadow biography of Lincoln, the kind of truth he wasn't able to relate even in the published biography (produced in a collaboration with another writer, about which Billy ultimately seems ambivalent).
Although Billy's narrative essentially proceeds chronologically from Lincoln's death up to the publication of Herndon's Lincoln (as it turns out, Billy is writing his account just on the cusp of his own death), it does feature numerous digressions, as Billy looks back on his partnership with Lincoln. We are offered many putatively authentic conversations between Billy and "Mr. Lincoln," as Billy persists in calling him, conversations that take us back, often with Lincoln speaking in his quaint "Kaintuck" dialect, to Lincoln's experiences as a flatboat driver, his time "riding the circuit" as a lawyer, his boyhood problems with his father. Billy and Lincoln have frank talks about religion (Lincoln is revealed as a thoroughgoing unbeliever), politics (Lincoln always saw the world through a political lens), and, of course, race relations (Billy is a more vigorous abolitionist than Lincoln, and he often tries to get Lincoln to remove that political lens and confront the simple evil of slavery).
Ultimately, the most important revelations about Lincoln come from his recollections of the flatboat days, when his job was to take the flatboat and its cargo down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Here the Kentucky bumpkin is initiated into the ways of the world, and he does not flinch from them, however much we might want to think that "Father Abraham" would know little of such things. The most sensational revelation is held back until near the end of the novel, when we learn about one of Lincoln's activities in particular that may have profoundly influenced his later thought and actions related to slavery and emancipation--although even here Lincoln remains enigmatic, and we can't finally know exactly how his "secret" affected his decisions as President. Billy can only speculate.
Despite all of the disclosures about the "real" Lincoln, the "truth" about him only makes him seem more human, less the living statue his posthumous adoration may have made him. This is Billy's intention in writing his supplementary book, and LeClair himself succeeds in having his narrator fulfill this intention. Of course, Billy must finally still be considered a not entirely reliable narrator; his own story of ultimate failure--as a lawyer, as a farmer, perhaps even as a husband--raises the possibility he is motivated by a latent envy of Lincoln, a belief in his own moral superiority. Billy assures us that in the end Lincoln's caution was the right response to the national crisis he was attempting to manage, but in general Billy portrays himself as less willing to compromise with evil, although certainly he recognizes that Lincoln's agonizing sense of responsibility while President belies the notion that his political calculations were made in his own self-interest.
Billy shows no ambivalence at all toward Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he clearly detests. Indeed, living with her is one of the burdens Lincoln bears that only increases Billy's sympathy for him. (Even if it doesn't help him to understand why Lincoln married her in the first place.) Mary makes one actual appearance in Lincoln's Billy, followed up by a visit from her son Robert, both of whom try to convince Billy not to publish his biography full of "gossip" about the Lincolns' marriage and Lincoln's previous courtship of Ann Rutledge, allegedly his one true love. "Poor Robert," writes Billy, "Deputized by a mother ruled by the selfishness that Lincoln maintained ruled everyone, the Martyr's Son might eventually get free of her but never of the role she had assigned him as protector of a myth."
"Words are what Lincoln left me," Billy asserts in the novel's penultimate chapter. The "words" are those passed between Lincoln and Billy in the law office, and they are the words that reveal Lincoln to be a man, not a myth. If they are words that Tom LeClair has, for the most part, invented, they ring true enough in evoking a man of Lincoln's experience and temperament. LeClair is the author of an important critical work, The Art of Excess (1989), a study of the "mega-novel" in contemporary American fiction, and some readers might be surprised to find him in his own fiction producing, if not a mini-novel, a work of much more modest scope. In its quieter way, however, Lincoln's Billy manages not to just "re-create" a period in history, but to alter our perception of it.
My review of Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers:
Readers who may have shied away from Joshua Cohen’s previous novel, Witz (2010), because of its daunting length (over 800 pages) and presumed difficulty will probably find his new novel, Book of Numbers, rather less intimidating and more accessible, if not exactly an airport book. At a mere 600 pages it is still bulky enough, and while its prose is not quite as dense and its narrative not quite as opaque as in Witz, it hardly represents an embrace of conventional formal strategies. Few readers are likely to regard it as a work of mainstream “literary fiction.” Continue reading
My essay-review of Harold Jaffe's Induced Coma is now available at The Kenyon Review Online:
If any writer deliberately proceeded throughout his career to almost ensure his work would be ignored by critics and publishers, it would have to be Harold Jaffe. Jaffe has steadfastly continued to write fiction that is formally and conceptually adventurous while at the same time advancing a radical sociopolitical critique that portrays US culture in the most starkly unfavorable light. From his first novel, Mole's Pity (1979), to his newest collection of “docufictions,” Induced Coma , Jaffe has challenged assumptions about fiction as a literary form and enlisted his work in the effort to resist the maleficent influences of America’s “official culture,” a culture that undermines human well-being and despises real human freedom. Since inevitably many readers are uncertain how to respond to these objections, at worst confused about, if not actively hostile toward, the purposes behind them, it is not surprising that Jaffe’s books are seldom reviewed and are usually published by small, even marginal, independent presses. . . . Continue reading.
Each of Jeremy M. Davies's first two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2014), emphatically reject the notion that, in fiction, form serves content, proceeding instead as each of them do by establishing a form to which narrative content must accommodate itself. Rose Alley especially subordinates its "story" to the operation of its formal devices. According to Davies in an interview, the book's chapters "were composed with predetermined vocabularies, taken from twelve different works (sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction): twelve lists of twelve words that had to be used, will I or nil I—though I was allowed to use them in whatever way I liked: all at once, in one long sentence, or spread out, etc."
Fancy is less directly Oulipian in its appeal to constraints, but it is still strictly formalized, nevertheless, it's narrative premise unorthodox but rigorously carried out. Its first-person narrator, a retired librarian named Rumrill, rehearses aloud the instructions for taking care of his cats that he wishes to give to a young couple, whom Rumrill designates as the Pickles, a soliloquy that soon enough expands into the story of Rumrill's life, including his relationship with the elderly and enigmatic Brocklebank, for whom he once performed the same duty he is now entrusting to the Pickles. The novel systematically alternates paragraphs beginning "Rumrill said:" with a much briefer paragraph, an aside of sorts, beginning "He added:." In addition, an occasional entry introduced with "Brockleman writes:" provides a quote from the late Brockleman's surviving manuscripts, which lay out a philosophy of cat-fancying that also acts as a series of Wittgensteinian reflections on our experience of reality itself.
In a sense, what both novels are "about" is determined by how effectively the eventual details of the story allow the formal devices to be realized and is otherwise almost inconsequential beyond plausibly elaborating on the initial premise--in Rose Alley the recreation of the circumstances surrounding a fictional movie shot in Paris in 1968, in Fancy the successful completion of Rumrill's monologue as the means of getting his story told. Rose Alley's formal structure encompasses more than the initial imposition of constraint, as its 12 chapters (a 13th is added from the perspective of the present) are presented not in a way that would give us an account, chronological or otherwise, of the making of the film--about the English Restoration poets John Wilmot and John Dryden, and the violent 1679 attack on the latter allegedly instigated by the former--but as a series of narratives about the people involved in making the film (or involved with people involved in making the film). The novel as a whole thus moves sideways, the chapters associated by who is involved with whom. We never get a panoptic view of the film in either its nascent or completed state, and the reader unfamiliar with the Rose Alley attack on Dryden (or with Wilmot) has to wait until the penultimate chapter to get an extended explanation.
The novel's mischievous formal gestures might be more enlivening if the characters and their stories were themselves more compelling, however. It would seem that we are to take as compensation for the lack of focus on the film and its actual production the eccentric and at times sexually adventurous behavior of the characters, a fairly motley collection of failed actors, a sensationalist producer, the faux avant-garde director and his writer wife, the film's editor and designer, as well as others more tangentially connected to the film. But these characters and their circumstances are only mildly interesting at best, and at times the lengthy expository detours away from a clear connection to other characters or to the film make for rather laborious reading.
If Rose Alley suffers from a lack of immediacy and a surfeit of exposition over drama, certainly Fancy risks succumbing to a similar fate, given its reliance on a single character and his continuous monologue. But in this more recent novel its one character (aside from those who have a presence only in the speaker's discourse) seizes our attention, initially through voice and style but ultimately as well through his obsessions and idiosyncrasies. His narration is nothing if not immediate, and while there are no other characters present to literally interact with Rumrill, he nevertheless manages to invest his nondescript town and his seemingly commonplace existence as a librarian with a kind of archetypal quality, himself an Everyman grappling with fundamental questions of existence, disguised as a fascination with cats.
Rumrill's language is consistently rather stilted, but this very quality is weirdly engaging, as we hear him attempting to explain himself as precisely as possible:
Rumrill said: Apropos, may I say that through my open door as you stepped in I saw little clouds frisk across the morning or evening sky? Which clouds looked by no means significant enough to be responsible, down here below the tropopause, at the height of the three stone stairs that access Rumrill's house--squat in the fashion of most detached residences in our town--for having left you both so wet and weary from your walk?
He added: Little round lucid clouds.
Not least of the reasons why Fancy is a compelling read is the undercurrent of humor running throughout, derived first of all from the implicit absurdity of Rumrill's situation, the mundane task with which he is ostensibly occupied at odds with the theatrical manner and ornate style he adopts to carry it out, his expansively developed, carefully articulated address essentially delivered into the void. Ultimately one could say that Fancy is a novel about language (that, in a sense, it is a novel in which there is only language), but it is language deployed in such a way that it becomes inextricable from character.
And yet Rumrill does not finally come off as a hopelessly absurd figure, or at least not entirely so. It is perhaps tempting to say that in his apparent loneliness he is a somewhat pitiable figure, illustrated most poignantly perhaps in his repeated references to "the woman with whom I had gone into the stacks," a fellow librarian whom Rumrill claims he often met in the stacks for a sexual assignation but who has long since left town. Eventually it becomes clear that these encounters were probably the closest thing to intimacy with another person Rumrill has experienced, and that he acutely realizes it even as he speaks of their relationship in the most impersonal terms. His relationship with Brocklebank could be described as close--he in fact cares for Brocklebank in the latter's dotage--but Brocklebank barely recognizes him most of the time, and what Rumrill really knows of Brocklebank comes from the writing reproduced throughout the text, the "system" Rumrill has adopted as his own.
Rumrill's real dilemma, however, is existential. So profound is his appreciation of the tenuousness of reality, in fact, that he is loath to leave his house in the first place for fear that when he is gone it and his life in it will blink out of existence. One of the most outrageous episodes in the novel recounts Rumrill's elaborate construction of a corridor of mirrors, placed in such a way along his route when he must be away from home that he can continue to see his house and thus remain assured it abides and will be there when he returns. Brocklebank's cat-fancying system appeals to Rumrill because of the way it seems to promise order and coherence, sense from the seemingly random: "The variation of the features of a basic unit [of the system] producing all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic, and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression and every needed differentiation on the other."
In its focus on a character who would like to impose certainty and consistency on a recalcitrant reality, Fancy is reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. While the narrator of Remainder continually rehearses episodes in his life in an effort to recreate them, however, Rumrill's rehearsal of his directions for the Pickles seems as likely to be the thing itself, the actual extent of his willingness to contemplate leaving the house and its cats (who may also, of course be a figment of Rumrill's discourse) in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Pickles. Rumrill speaks often of his dreams, and ultimately we have as much reason to believe that his purported recitation is one of those dreams as that he is actually performing it. Rumrill is not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an unavoidably contingent one, and part of the novel's lingering resonance comes from acknowledging this.
Fancy is more successful than Rose Alley in sustaining interest through its formal design, from which Davies has fashioned engrossing "content." If Rose Alley left me intrigued but too often impatient with its more arid stretches, Fancy leads me to now enthusiastically anticipate the author's next formally audacious work.
The impatience with which many writers (and some critics) regard "negative" reviews is in part a natural enough response, reflecting the tense relationship between artists and their critics that has probably always existed. On the other hand, it seems to me that such tension has become particularly acute in our time because of two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory phenomena: There are more published and aspiring-to-be published writers than ever before, and the audience for serious fiction (and poetry) continues to diminish. In these circumstances, negative reviews threaten to undermine the "community" that has come to substitute for the cultural recognition poets and novelists have lost and might deprive writers of whatever small chance they have of gaining readers among what remains of a general reading audience.
Defenders of negative reviews often justify them as providing a service to readers, who will be cautioned against spending their time with an inferior book. Even those who don't think reviews are primarily a form of consumer guidance (and thus a function of capitalism more than literature) nevertheless generally contend that the evaluative role of criticism should take precedence, helping readers come to a conclusion about a given work's merit. If this is done by offering evidence and cogent analysis, it is a perfectly valid exercise, although it would seem that the occasions for performing it should be limited: What's the point of subjecting a book by an early-career writer to harsh critical treatment when it's not likely to attract much of an audience anyway and can safely be left to its fated lack of attention as an ultimate verdict? Why take up too much review space and critical effort with bad books when what's really needed is for the good but neglected books to be discovered?
After all, in the long run lengthier critical commentary isn't going to be afforded to truly inferior work. Literary criticism of a more extended sort almost always centers on books that have continued to resonate, whose success is no longer at issue. Few serious critics--and not just academic critics--are going to devote these opportunities for more thorough critical reading to largely superfluous evaluation. Despite the widespread impression of critics as prescriptive taskmasters, literary hanging judges, evaluation is not the most essential task taken up by the literary critic. At their best, critics are not judges, but more like witnesses offering an account of the reading experience that has a tentative authority that comes from close and conscientious reading allied with a grasp of context--literary, cultural, historical. A critic of this kind describes, makes connections, explicates, albeit as the means to the discovery of value, a discovery the critic hopes the reader will share.
If criticism is not the act of rendering a critical verdict on a literary work, neither is it any kind of evaluation of the author of the work, a divining of the author's character or moral standing from his/her "presence" in the text. Thus a negative review is not an attempt to find fault with the writer but to point out flaws in the work through identifiable standards. (If the standards can't be identified then the review itself is fatally flawed and can't be taken seriously, anyway.) Likewise, a positive review is not an affirmation of the writer, but the qualities of the book at hand that make it artistically successful. Quite likely most writers would not take such offense at negative reviews if they didn't implicitly believe that a positive review is not just an expression of approval of a particular book they've written but also approval of their decision to be a writer, an acknowledgment of their inherent talent.
In my view, most of the debate about positive and negative reviews is misguided not only because it oversimplifies but because it proceeds according to mistaken assumptions about the objective of reviews, and of criticism in general. Reviews should not be written as a kindness to either readers or writers but as a contribution to the continued relevance and vitality of literature. While many reviews may be no more than a transitory register of unreflective opinion or superficial pronouncement (at times no more than perfunctory plot summary), others offer genuine insight into the immediate context and the aesthetic effect of the book under review, and the very best also help maintain the continuity of literature by declining to write about a new book as if it has arrived shorn of all connection to the writer's other work and to important literary history. Collectively, reviews provide the first layer of commentary on a literary work, which can be very influential in stimulating subsequent critical consideration of that work.
A reviewer can't be sure, of course, that the work being reviewed will receive subsequent critical attention. The presumption probably should be that it won't. However, the reviewer should also presume that a book presenting itself as a serious literary work deserves to be regarded as such, but also needs to be honestly assessed when it falls short of its ambition. Ultimately both readers and writers can only benefit from this kind of effort when carried out in good faith, even if it is not directly made on behalf of the well-being or convenience of either.
"The increasing popularity of the prose poem among current poets has itself brought the two forms into closer proximity, through the confluence of prose poetry and what is called “flash fiction.” Not all writers of flash fiction, of course, regard it as a version of prose poetry, but rather as an experiment in the radical reduction of plot, character, setting, or scene to the minimum extent possible while still retaining some semblance of structure and coherence. Nevertheless, a number of such writers do blur the boundaries between prose and poetry, from both sides of the diminishing line between the two, and among those should be counted the Canadian Meredith Quartermain, whose new book I, Bartleby is labeled “short stories” on its cover but surely does come close to making that line all but imperceptible, if not simply irrelevant."
My review at Full Stop.
I am making available here an e-book I have written on the current state and status of "experimental fiction." It does draw on essays and reviews previously written and published in various places (including the first iteration of this blog), but I have substantially recast them and added significantly to many of them.
Although the term "experimental fiction" is admittedly awkward and is frequently enough rejected by writers considered exemplary of the practice, I assume that most readers understand what is meant by the term (although in the book I try to clarify what I mean by it) and can accept it as a not very precise but useful way of gathering together writers and works who are "adventurous" in the way that I describe at the beginning of the book.
I have by no means attempted to be comprehensive in my survey of current experimental fiction, but I do believe the writers I examine are representative in their practices and in their tangible but also sometimes conflicted relationship to the experimental writers of the 1960s and 70s whose legacy these present writers have inherited. No small degree of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" is manifested among experimental writers of the past 20-30 years, what could be called the post-postmodernists, both shaping and misshaping the work they have produced. Sometimes it results in something new that successfully extends the postmodern legacy, while in other cases the result is fiction that doesn't so much express this influence as evade it, as I believe my discussions of the writers included here show.
In the "Interchapter: A Manifesto," included in The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom asserts that "True poetic history is the story of how poets as poets have suffered other poets, just as any true biography is the story of how anyone suffered his own family--or his own displacement of family into lovers and friends." In using the word "poets" Bloom does not confine himself to those writers of lyric poetry whom we now designate with the term but certainly includes writers or fiction and drama as well, all those writers who belong to what we now call collectively "literature," and thus by "poetic history" Bloom implicitly invokes literary history as a whole. This is probably the most direct explanation of what Bloom means by the "anxiety of influence" to be found in the book, and while it might even seem somewhat flippant, unpacking this statement could perhaps help clarify the insight into the nature of literary influence that is likely to remain Bloom's most lasting contribution to literary criticism, while also suggesting a view of literary history that perhaps cuts across the grain of most current notions of writing as a literary vocation that is itself embedded in what is called a literary "community."
The "other poets" that any individual poet "suffers" are what Bloom calls "precursor poets," those poets who are in fact most important in motivating the current poet to "overcome" the influence of the precursor poet. The attempt to do this does indeed produce "anxiety," not in the poet him/herself but manifest in the poems produced in the attempt. To say the younger poet (an "ephebe," in Bloom's parlance) suffers the precursor is to say both that the ephebe feels an intense rivalry (again, not so much a personal rivalry but one rooted in the latecomer poet's anxiety about the "originality" of his/her own work) but also that there is a kind of suffering involved in the "displacement" of the precursor, who in the poet's development is as important as family is for most people. Ultimately the poet recognizes the significance of the precursor's example (although elsewhere Bloom notes Wallace Stevens's reluctance to acknowledge the influence of Whitman), but also the imperative to break free.
Literary history--at least at the level of the time-tested and canonical--is thus the history of this struggle among "strong poets," the writers whose own achievement can't finally be separated from their simultaneous dependence on and resistance to the achievements of their eminent predecessors. In short, writers who want to be taken seriously can't ignore writing from the past because writing in the present inextricably emerges from the writing of the past, giving substance to the claim that the origin of a poem is always another poem. Writers find themselves within a "tradition" they can't finally evade, although in most cases they don't wish to evade it, but instead to transform it, at least to the extent that the tradition now can accommodate their own work. According to T. S. Eliot, the tradition itself is also thus transformed, but in Bloom's analysis this is not the orderly, "organic" process Eliot described, and "tradition" is certainly not the near-devotional object some of Eliot's followers want it to be. Instead it is fraught with conflict and unacknowledged envy.
It is also, of course, a conflict that arises from intense admiration. One attempts to "overcome" an influence only because the influence is real, because the poet and the work in question has had a profound effect on the would-be poet. But would-be poets are always going to be "anxious" in their admiration because the very qualities they admire pose the greatest threat to their own projects. How can those projects succeed if "other poets" have already made all the best moves and come upon the best subjects?
While Bloom is advancing a Freudian narrative in which quasi-psychological forces are manifested in the relationship between literary works, not a direct Freudian analysis of poets themselves, surely the notion of "rivalry" among writers is neither far-fetched nor confined to the use of images and tropes within writing itself. Certainly Bloom's focus on the anxiety of influence as a material textual feature is the more interesting application of psychoanalytic theory, providing as it does a concrete interpretive tool, but isn't it likely that writers view their own contemporaries not just as colleagues (perhaps not even colleagues) but as antagonists of a sort, potential threats to their artistic visions and literary reputations? How easy is it for a writer to rise above competitive impulses that to some extent seem only natural?
These questions for me are prompted in part by a current literary culture that seems devoted to creating an impression of great collegiality among writers. The most immediate and influential form of literary criticism--book reviewing--is dominated by novelists and poets, some of whom are also perceptive critics but many of whom have been assigned to write reviews under the apparent assumption that fiction writers are best situated to judge other fiction, poets other poetry. This assumption is dubious at best, but the primary effect of this practice is that most reviews dispense abundant praise, often long on superlatives and short on real analysis.
In addition, almost all books now come heavily "blurbed" by other writers, who often seem determined to outdo each other in the rhetorical excess with which they praise their fellow authors. The literary corners of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook liberally engage in various digital versions of handclapping for writers especially admired and frequently feature explicit appeals to "community" among writers, as if literature was a civic organization, or a team sport in which one pledges one's mutual support for teammates. Perhaps it is in this context that we can understand the controversy over "negative reviews": Some writers, and many critics, fail to fully join the team, venturing to question a team member's accomplishment and disrupting group camaraderie.
In surveying literary history, it is hard to identify another period in which serious writers expected to be, or indicated any desire to be, part of a literary community. Paris after World War I is often discussed as the setting for a gathering of like-minded modernists, but Hemingway's A Moveable Feast ought to be evidence enough that whatever friendships that might have formed at this time were laced with barely suppressed resentment and condescension, examples of writers suffering other writers. It seems to me that the push for "community" among writers is a direct function of the "program era" in American literature, the relocation of literary life to the academy, where it is administered in creative writing programs, where other writers are indeed colleagues, and where the wheels driving publication and recognition are greased by the spread of literary magazines sponsored by creative writing programs themselves and the substitution of tenure for commercial success. Under these circumstances, it becomes much easier to think of other writers as fellow members of a community (the community of creative writing teachers and students) rather than rivals, although also much easier as well to write safe but duly crafted, convention-approved fiction and poetry rather than challenge the hegemony of craft and convention by following inspiration where it leads.
Certainly at a time when literature occupies an ever-diminishing portion of public attention and offers an ever-diminishing prospect of providing a livelihood, the removal of writers to the security of academe and the rewards of community was and is understandable and perhaps inevitable. But ultimately this model makes no allowance for the more unruly impulses that kindle the imagination and that make the most profound kind of creativity possible. As Bloom says elsewhere in The Anxiety of Influence,
It does happen that one poet influences another, or more precisely, that one poet’s poems influence the poems of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
Today's literary culture of community doesn't much account for "misprision," or creative misinterpretation, because it doesn't really have much room for interpretation and judgment at all. All writing is taken with the same congratulatory enthusiasm, allowed to interpret itself through reviews stuffed with plot summary or overwritten superlatives. Program-era fiction gave rise to the vacuous marketing term "literary fiction," which is mostly applied to the kind of proficiently-written but uninspiring stories and novels issued by the writers within creative writing departments needing tenure or first publication. To judge by the blurbs, the tweets, and the tumblr posts these writers use to promote this work, they are reasonably satisfied with the results, but we could wonder whether some of them, perhaps among the more ambitious, don't finally feel a crippling constraint in all such enforced "generosity of spirit."
In his introduction to Infinite Fictions, his new collection of the reviews he has written over the past several years, David Winters refers to the review as "trivial," even contending that "triviality is among the allures of the form." Of course, Winters surely does not really think his reviews are in fact trivial--if they were, why would he expect anyone to read them, perhaps for some a second time now that they have been bundled together in a book? Instead, his characterization speaks to a no doubt widespread perception that book reviews are utilitarian and ephemeral, good for immediate consumer guidance but without lasting value as literary criticism (to the extent literary criticism itself has lasting value).
Infinite Fictions itself certainly belies the notion that a book review cannot be a credible form of literary criticism. Far from engaging in "trivial" exercises in plot summary or facile judgment, Winters consistently provides meticulous description and analysis, dispensing praise or criticism only while also offering evidence and reasoning to support it. Perhaps in finding the review a congenial form precisely because of it "triviality," Winters is really expressing some impatience with academic criticism, which in its greater length, supposed rigor, and theoretical sophistication is more genuinely serious criticism--"real" criticism. Academic criticism in its present incarnation, while ostensibly often invoking "close reading" as an interpretive strategy, generally uses the strategy to "situate" a text within a larger theoretical, political, historical, or cultural perspective, not as a way of reckoning with a work's literary qualities per se.
Reckoning with literary qualities is something Winters does exceptionally well. Most of the books discussed in the first section of Infinite Fictions ("On Literature") are complex, unconventional works of fiction, and Winters is painstaking in attempting to describe the strategies the author at hand seems to be using, to account for the effect of reading the work as registered in Winters's own experience of it. As he says in the introduction to the book, "As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. . .Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I'm less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction." Thus Winters attends to the specificity of the reading experience itself, something academic criticism generally abjures, while also avoiding the superficial approach of the most "trivial" kind of book reviews, the kind that aim merely to "make prescriptions."
"Subtraction" from reality perhaps seems like a version of being "immersed" in a book, but I would presume Winters means something closer to what John Dewey called "pure experience," which Dewey believed becomes most accessible to us as aesthetic experience. According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is "experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself." The reader truly receptive to the kind of experience art, in this case literary art, makes available is not in some kind of mystical trance but is fully engaged in an act of what Dewey calls "recreation," perceiving the writer's conceptual and expressive moves thoroughly enough that the reader in effect replays those moves. Literary criticism then becomes in part the attempt to communicate the tenor of this reading experience through the most felicitous description and analytical insight the critic can muster.
I am not suggesting that David Winters is a proponent of the aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey, merely that Winters's account of his reading and reviewing practices seems strikingly evocative of Dewey's theory of "art as experience," which seems to me the most compelling elucidation of both the impulse to create art and the most fruitful way of responding to it. Criticism of fiction, of course, requires first of all an attentiveness to language, and Winters again proves very adept at assessing the stylistic qualities of the fiction he considers. Indeed, he gives special attention throughout the first section of the book to writers associated with the "school of Lish," such as Gary Lutz, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and Dawn Raffel (not to mention Lish himself), writers whose work is particularly focused on intricate effects of language. His skill at "close reading" is repeatedly demonstrated in these reviews.
About Lutz's Divorcer, Winters observes that "it's as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these 'stories,' like a rot in the grain of their language: something sweetly corrupt that can't be cut out of them. It's buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end. In each of the book's seven entries, words are put to work on pulling something apart--a family, a body, a memory of bodies together--in ways that render how life's breaking points really feel when reached." A story by Lipsyte "starts with a sentence setting an initial condition. The second sentence reconfigures the first, curving or swerving back into it. The next sentence swerves harder still, and so on, always with the aim of raising the stakes, tightening the tautness." Dawn Raffel's prose "clings closely to sensory surfaces, calibrating language to the contours of a world which can't clearly be spoken of."
Winters is drawn to fiction in which language does indeed mark a limit, beyond which the real can be sensed or captured fleetingly but otherwise "can't clearly be spoken of." Writing becomes a site where such brief moments of revelation might be afforded, but only through its implicit testimony that the effort to fully grasp a transcendent reality must fail. Thus the reviews in Infinite Fictions are focused on works that are not just stylistically but also formally adventurous, fiction that for the most part makes no pretense to be an exercise in realism, since the most realistic fiction would be that which concedes its own impossibility. Several of the books Winters discusses might even be described as subverting literature itself, working to produce a kind of anti-literature, such as Lars Iyers's Dogma, which deliberately fails to become literature as "a means of overcoming it," instead becoming "less than literature." Jason Schwartz's John the Posthumous is "impossible to synopsize" because it subverts the reading process itself: "In this respect, Schwartz's writing spins the reading process into reverse. His prose puts readers in a position where the most rudimentary aspects of reading are no longer givens . . . ." What Winters says about Gerald Murnane's Barley Patch could in some ways apply to most of the fiction he considers. Murnane's novel "begins before literature" in its refusal to take on conventional literary form. It "abandons the prearranged reading paths of realist novels, presenting instead a series of scenes set for stories that forget to occur; it progresses by means of digression and detour."
Winters includes several reviews of translated works, which also proceed through digression and detour, through the avoidance of the usual literary devices that distort rather than illuminate. Appropriately, he does not in these reviews attempt close stylistic analysis (which would at best be misleading for a translated text) but instead emphasizes more plausibly discernible elements such as voice or setting. If these reviews are somewhat more impressionistic, Winters nevertheless conveys a vivid sense of the way these books also participate in the kind of experimentation with form that in its determination to be "less than literature" still manages to extend the possibility of literature. "The book's most unfathomably mystery lies in the way it insistently spells itself out," he writes of Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque. "As a result. . .literature is returned to the realm of experience. The novel is not a puzzle to be solved. It has always and already solved itself, bringing what was buried back to life." Similarly, Andrzej Stasiak's Dukla is "all surface, all the way down. . .In the end there is no novel, and all that's left is what is sensed and felt."
Part 2 of Infinite Fictions, "On Theory," ranges widely over several recent books of literary theory and philosophy, including Terry Eagleton's The Event of Literature, Franco Moretti's Distant Reading, and Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless. Some of the books reviewed are more or less straight theory or philosophy, such as the two books on Heidegger Winters discusses, a book by Jacques Ranciere, and The Faith of the Faithless. Others are works of theory as a mode of literary criticism, and, while Winters exhibits a thorough familiarity in general with contemporary critical theory and its philosophical roots, his reviews of the latter books are the most revealing and provide the most continuity with the underlying approach to criticism (and to literature) exemplified in the first part of Infinite Fictions.
In his review of Eagleton's book, Winters appears to side with Eagleton in the latter's disapproval of theory's drift from a focus on the specificity of literature to a "culturalism" that, in Winters's words, makes literary criticism "a subfield of cultural studies." Winters describes Eagleton's attempt to renew theory as the attempt "to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study." Winters's ultimate lack of enthusiasm for Franco Moretti's quantitative method of "distant reading," the polar opposite of "close literary analysis," is palpable:
The life that inheres in literature seems too capacious to be captured by a particular critical method. Ironically, many of Moretti's methods rely on instrumental reason--his ideal of distance belongs to the bourgeois spirit. But criticism can't be contained by what any one critic wants of it. Indeed, criticism reveals rhythms of its own, and these are not necessarily those of science.
In his review of Mark M. Freed's Robert Musil and the Nonmodern, a book that is typical of much contemporary academic criticism in its effort to "apply" critical theory and philosophy to works of literature, Winters perhaps most directly identifies the limitations of theory as a primary mode of literary criticism: "The academic study of literature has reached a slightly strange understanding of itself, if it assumes that insights drawn from philosophy and social theory can straightforwardly account for aspects of fictional worlds, and fictional characters." Winters continues: "Until critics give some closer attention to why they're applying their theories to fictional objects, such applications might seem to rely on little more than a confusion of categories."
Theory can provide a valuable perspective on the implications and entanglements of literature, but it can't subsume it. Winters concludes this review (which really becomes a reflection on the power of Musil's The Man Without Qualities) by asserting that "There's something about The Man Without Qualities that seems to resist conclusive criticism. Something not so much unfinished as uniquely continuous; infinite. The reason the novel is unlike anything else you've ever read is because it goes on reading itself when you're finished reading it." This "something" is a something not just about this particular novel but all great works of literature. They elude our attempts to find the critical angle that will render them finite, fully fathomed. Criticism can help us begin to fathom what we read, even if a good beginning is all we might really hope for. This book shows David Winters to be a critic remarkably gifted at getting us started.
Dawn Raffel is now probably best known for her 2012 book, The Secret Life of Objects, an unorthodox memoir in which the author invokes her past through reflections prompted by various objects she still possesses. While this book succeeds on its own terms, offering a concise but affecting account of the writer's relationships with family and friends, it would be an injustice if its relative success came to overshadow the accomplishments of her fiction, which are numerous and distinctive.
If Raffel's fiction is in danger of being overlooked, this admittedly might be due to its rather infrequent appearance. Her first book, the story collection In the Year of Long Division, came out in 1995, her first novel, Carrying the Body, was published in 2002, while a second collection of stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, appeared in 2010. (Raffel's author page indicates that a new book will soon be published, although it is described as a further work of nonfiction, a "cultural biography," rather than fiction). The long intervals between books apparently comes not from wavering ambition but an overabundance of care, as Raffel has spoken in interviews of taking up to a year on one of her stories, most of which are seldom more than a half-dozen pages long.
Although Raffel is a former student of Gordon Lish, and thus could loosely be grouped among those current writers influenced by his notion of "consecution" (writers such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt), the care that she takes is as much with the intervals and silences between sentences as it is in the construction and linking of sentences the strategies for which have been adopted by most of Lish's acolytes. Certainly Raffel takes pains over the rhythms and tonalities of her sentences, as we can plainly see in the very first story of In the Year of Long Division:
Fishing was the only sport in our town. How it was. Pick. Any house in our town was any house in our town. Any wind in our town was the wind in our town. Down was down. Queasy was a way of life. Bored to crackers, snap, kerplunk. ("We Were Our Age")
If some readers might find Raffel's prose "difficult," its difficulty arises first of all from primacy of sound over sense. The stop-and-start rhythm, the strategic repetition, the assonance modifying into outright rhyme (our-house-town-down)--these are the most immediate qualities of a passage such as this, and whatever narrative or descriptive work they also do must accommodate itself to the intonations of Raffel's language.
That language does indeed perform this other work, however, in its own unorthodox but ultimately compelling way. "Any house in our town was any house in our town" tells us almost all we need to know about this town, making any further sensory description superfluous. "Down was down," in addition to providing Raffel's signature wordplay, also clues us in on the type of wind pervading the town, the kind ensuring that "Queasy was a way of life."
But Raffel's attention to the lacunae between and among these sentences, to what needn't or perhaps even can't be said, is just as painstaking. So ruthless is she in eliminating the unnecessary, in fact, trusting in the reader to bridge the gaps and to acknowledge the unstated, that some readers might be disoriented from the lack of expository directions and situational detail. This feature of Raffel's fiction is perhaps what has encouraged the view that it is a version of "minimalism" (for example, in John Domini's review of Restless Universe reprinted in his book The Sea-God's Herb), but while Raffel's work does to some extent recall the similarly reduced fictions of Mary Robison, her stories rely even less on narrative than most minimalist fiction, in which conventional "drama" is often missing but things happen nevertheless. Raffel's stories convey something closer to a literary impressionism, a blurry but distinguishable evocation of a scene or episode, often, as in "We Were Our Age," an exercise in memory more than storytelling.
A more conventionally recognizable feature of Raffel's fiction is her extensive use of dialogue, which is in fact the dominant mode in some stories. (Perhaps reflecting the influence of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, whom Raffel has identified as among her earliest inspirations.) One of the stories in Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, "The Myth of Drowning," is entirely a dialogue set-piece, and its development is typical, as a man and a woman before sleep talk about a story the woman had told:
"How was it that she drowned?"
"Who knows," she said. "She couldn't swim. Or cramps. Maybe undertow. The undertow was wicked"
"You know what I mean."
"No, what do you mean?"
"I mean people were there," he said. "That's how you told it. A crowd on the shore."
"That's what the myth is: Drowning is noisy. It isn't," she said.
"It isn't," she said.
"I heard you the first time."
"Tired, I said."
"Broad daylight," he said.
"And shallow," he said. "No one could see her?"
Although by the end of this brief dialogue (around two pages long) we can piece together what must be the context of the conversation (the couple have had a tense evening, the man believes the woman sees herself as the drowning woman), the absence of authorial assistance is made even more acute by the abbreviated, discontinuous nature of the dialogue itself. But that comes not from a distortion of human speech patterns but an affirmation of it, an attempt to capture the way we actually talk to each other with fidelity. As David Winters says of Raffel's dialogue, "This is speech as it is spoken in life, not in literature: shorn of explanatory apparatus, driven more by conflicting agendas than by semantics, and, in its resultant asymmetry, rife with abrupt about-faces and non sequiturs."
Consistent with the strategies of her prose style more generally, Raffel's dialogue calls on the reader's capacity to infer the not-said from the said, the encompassing context from the fleeting clues we do get. In asking us to read closely and carefully, she also suggests that reading fiction is not merely the registering of the words on the page but also remaining alert to their subtler intimations, the discursive and aesthetic reverberations created by the tension between what those words signify and what they leave unexpressed. The reader's experience will be incomplete without this sort of attentiveness, but this doesn't make her work difficult or inaccessible. Only readers who close themselves off to the possibility of a more expansive reading experience, expansive in the sense that reading is more than gliding along the surface of words but can be provisional and recursive, will find Raffel's fiction perplexing. Patient readers will find it enlivening.
It might seem that Raffel's aesthetic strategy would work best in short fiction (and some of her stories are short enough to be called "flash fiction"), but her only novel, Carrying the Body, is also quite good as well. It shares with Raffel's stories a focus on family relations, although where many of the stories focus on relationships between parents and children, Carrying the Body portrays family drama more broadly, beginning with a pair of estranged sisters, one of whom left home young to experience life more fully, while the older sister remained in the home to care for their debilitated father. The younger sister returns to the home with her young son and eventually leaves again, abandoning the child, who becomes increasingly ill, to the ministrations of the older sister, a job for which she is clearly not prepared. The novel traces the development of the relationship between the older sister (referred to throughout as "the aunt") and the child, using the same elliptical methods as in the stories, which prove to work perfectly well in evoking the hesitant, tentative growth of the aunt's concern for the child, as well as her increasing desperation about her own inadequacy in dealing with the situation she finds herself confronting.
Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (2010) is the most recent fiction (in book form) Raffel has published, and while the stories in this collection are generally similar in approach to those in her first book, a few of them, such as "The Air and Its Relatives," although still fragmented and conducted largely in dialogue, are arguably somewhat more conventional. The focus is even more resolutely on parent-children relationships. "The Air and Its Relatives" is a memory story about the narrator and her father, framed by a series of scenes in which the father is teaching the daughter how to drive. The fragmentation of the story serves to emphasize the episodic quality of memory, so that the story coheres in a readily perceptible way. The story's elegiac tone is consistent with many of the other stories in the book as well, and the book is further unified by a motif provided by the book's title, itself a reference to Max Born's The Restless Universe, which is explicitly identified in "The Air and Its Relatives" as a book the daughter and the father would read aloud together. We live in a "restless" universe of change and ineffable mystery, not least in the human experience of love and loss this book explores.
Further Adventures in The Restless Universe begins with an epigraph from Born that not only applies to this book but could also serve metaphorically as an apt description of Raffel's fiction as a whole: "Visible light covers only about one octave, speaking in musical terms." It is certainly appropriate to think of Raffel's work "in musical terms," even if it is a music, like that of, say, John Cage or Morton Feldman, that keenly exploits absence and quiet as part of its musical scheme. And if visible light is only one part of the spectrum, and not the largest, so too does Raffel's fiction make explicitly visible only a sampling of the world in which its characters act, talk, and subsist. With the reader's help, it manages to strongly illuminate, nonetheless.