Some Thoughts on Mark Fisher and João Gilberto Noll

Last week, Necessary Fiction published my review of Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll, a novel that I recommend. The review can be read here. I hope you enjoy it.

But early on, within the first paragraph, there is a sentence that bothers me, one that contains the phrase “a galaxy of questions swirl,” a disappointing choice in hindsight. If not a cliché, it comes close enough. The language we leave behind has various dates of expiration.

Anyway, here are some more thoughts on Atlantic Hotel:

Noll’s fiction, the two novels I have read, has what Mark Fisher called an “eerie” quality, which he set in contradistinction to the “weird”. These definitions constitute, with aid of various examples, a book on the subject, named, appropriately enough: The Weird and the Eerie. It was the last book Fisher published before dying, by suicide, earlier this year. Many passages from it merit a block quote.

The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition—perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all—between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence—the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something.

A great deal is absent in Atlantic Hotel. The narrator (unnamed) literally falls apart. His leg is amputated for no apparent reason. In the last few pages, his sight begins to fail. His hearing goes too. This is not the mannered, philosophical blindness of Jorge Luis Borges. This is a dimming of mind as well as body. But the prose continues, not far, but it continues.

And then there is the matter of style. Without reference to its content, you have difficulty finding many distinguishing characteristics: irony, simplicity, concision, and then what? These are can be found in abundance nowadays, in any text message, any clickbait article. What makes them so compelling here?

My suspicion is that these qualities, so highly prized, are symptoms of existential malaise. Better minds than mine have come, quite separately, to this determination. But it does bear repeating. And, in a striking way, without pleading its case too much, Atlantic Hotel evokes a much broader condition.

The narrator never speaks honestly. He can elaborate to a certain degree, but not at length, not with much intimacy. The subject here is not so much divided as atomized and inert. More than merely isolated, he is mostly void.

“Never connect,” Noll seems to say, to turn E.M. Forrester on his head. The author provides, through his fiction, an interesting case in which this holds. The frightening (or eerie) thing is the degree to which that holds in the real world.

Review: Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute

It has always been a bit mysterious to me that the forms of literary concision—short stories, lyric poetry, and novella etc.—remain secondary in the digital age, at least in comparison to the novel. Viewed strictly in terms of the attention economy, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

With so many distractions in life, wouldn’t readers of Roberto Bolaño prefer, say, Distant Star over 2666? The latter is several hundred pages longer than the former, and yet there’s no question which work is more popular. Something other than efficiency must be guiding readers.

Yet there is something to be said for concision. Unlike length, one can make the case that it is a good unto itself. A novella simply eats up less of our life. Even more than that, there are certain effects that naturally lend themselves to the form.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was reading Nathalie Sarraute. Her 1939 debut, Tropisms, was reissued last year by New Directions as part of their Pearls series. The novella is composed of episodes in the life of an unnamed bourgeois couple living in Paris. There is little to say about them that’s separable from the text itself. The plotless, impressionistic prose resists summary.

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When we meet the principle characters, they are on a walk in the city during springtime. They pause in front of a shop window:

A strange quietude, a sort of desperate satisfaction emanated from them.They looked closely at the White Sale display, clever imitations of snow covered mountains, or at a doll with teeth and eyes that, a regular intervals, lighted up, went out, lighted up, went out, each time at the same interval, lighted up and again went out.

I wrote “characters”, but in typing the passage above, it became clear that these are not characters at all. They are placeholders for bits of consciousness, not unlike the mysterious “it” that keeps reappearing the poetry of John Ashbery. The he’s and she’s and they’s form negative space around which sensory precepts and spasms of emotion congeal.

Despite the exacting nature of the physical descriptions, the general impression is of vagueness. But vagueness comes in different forms, and Tropisms comes in like the breeze. You can’t see the air but it refreshes nonetheless. A strange and beguiling book, and one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

What I’m Reading: Sloane, Harris, Kincaid, Lovecraft, Jannson

At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid: This was easily one of the weirdest books I’ve read in the past few years and all the better for it. I first encountered Kincaid’s work through the long essay “A Small Place” and there are certainly parallels to that book and the autobiographical fiction in this collection: themes of poverty, family relations, and the legacy of colonialism. Kincaid is known as a protest writer but the short stories collected here are much more ambiguous in their intent. The prose is intensely varied from one story to the next, taking radical shifts in register and perspective within the space of a few pages. Boundaries between fantasy and reality, between inner and outer life, are not so much transgressed as they are ground to bits and used as mulch for Kincaid’s imagination.

Free Will by Sam Harris: On a recent podcast, the controversial neuroscientist and moral philosopher said that disbelief in free will was his most strongly held conviction. He would more easily believe in the Abrahamic God of Creation, for instance, than in an autonomous “I” that is the author of each person’s actions. His case is compelling. While the position itself can be traced back to antiquity, Harris brings to bear modern evidence. Experiments using brain scans indicate relevant portions of our nervous system activate well before we consciously decide something. Of course, absence of free will has massive implications for contemporary society. Many of our institutions, including the US legal system, are predicated on its existence. Harris doesn’t supply many concrete alternatives. He does counsel for more compassion towards other conscious beings.  This is wholly consistent with his model of human behavior, in which even the worst person can’t help but be themselves. But it also has the mixed blessing of being generally good advice. If we are really to parse out the implications of what a world without free will should look like, more guidance is needed than what this slim volume provides.

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson: Reading this was a treat. Jannson’s prose is direct, unpretentious but nonetheless incredibly evocative. This short novel relates discrete episodes in the life of Sophie, a young girl who has recently lost her mother. Somewhat reluctantly, she comes to live on an island in the Gulf of Finland under the care of her paternal grandmother. Their relationship, its joys and difficulties, is depicted with a sweetness that never becomes cloying. The island, the changes it undergoes with the seasons, parallels Sophie’s coming to terms with the beautiful and sometimes frightening world around her.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft: One of horror-master’s longest and, I think, best works, this novella follows the title character as he descends into inhuman madness. The trouble begins when Ward discovers that an ancestor had been conducting occult research in colonial Providence, Rhode Island. The young scholar resumes those researches—with predictably ghoulish results. But Lovecraft is more convincing here than practically anywhere else in his body of work. The setting of Providence and its environs, the author’s home town, is brilliantly realized. Lovecraft’s characteristic bigotry and overheated prose style are both present in abundance. But so is an obvious expertise in early American history. Whatever his limitations, stylistic or ethical, Lovecraft could be a disciplined writer when it came to background research.

To Walk the Night by William Sloane: This, along with another novel, The Edge of Running Water, form the author’s complete published works, gathered together by NYRB Classics under the title The Rim of Morning. A well respected writing instructor and editor, Sloan’s posthumous memory survived in the form of the ultimate SF writer’s-writer, as Stephen King explains in his introduction. His fans and publishers needn’t make such a hard sell. Slone’s prose is descriptive yet understated. His characters, particularly the female ones, are vivid to a degree that is sadly atypical in genre writers of the early 20th century. The difference between Sloan and Lovecraft is striking and instructive. The first novel in the collection, To Walk the Night, follows the narrator Bark Jones as he and his friend Jerry Lister investigate the mysterious death of an astronomy professor at their alma mater. The professor, whose body is completely consumed by fire, had been doing research in how to extend consciousness through space and time. The single person who can provide answers is the professor’s mysterious wife, who had wandered into town only days before the death. SF aficionados will probably recognize the tropes and plot twists that drive Sloan’s novel. They’ve been repeated and remixed a thousand times in novels, radio serials, movies, and television shows. It’s the sensitivity to character and place that makes this work special.

On Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Thanks to the film adaption by Steven Spielberg and Christian Bale’s subsequent career, this novel seems to be the popular entry point for readers interested Ballard. I’ve not seen the movie, but the book’s cinematic appeal was immediately apparent when I read it a few months ago.

Based on the author’s own internment in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, it details life in Shanghai International Settlement through the eyes of Jim, an adolescent boy with dreams of becoming a pilot. When Japan declares war on Britain and the United States, he becomes separated from his parents and must fight for survival, first as a runaway on the streets of Shanghai and then as a prisoner at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.

Ballard made a name for himself in 1960s and 70s for his bracingly pessimistic brand of futurism in novels such as Crash and High Rise. As well written as those books are, the depravity found in them feels at times too contrived to make for effective commentary on the human condition more generally. But the historical reality behind the events in Empire of the Sun brings themes of cruelty, exploitation, and survival into much sharper focus.

Ballard is at his most incisive when he evokes the casual violence inherent in the colonial system, both of the Western powers occupying Shanghai and of the Japanese Empire which replaced them. When, for instance, the camp guards beat a Chinese laborer to death, the indifference of the British seems both representative of larger crimes and singularly real in itself. And to Ballard’s further credit, he does not place his fictional avatar, Jim, above such brutality. Indeed, it’s Jim’s indifference, both towards his life and the lives of others, which comes in stark relief.

A dark lesson, but perhaps a necessary one if we want to understand people from less gentle ages. No one familiar with Ballard could fail to see how the author’s own wartime experiences planted the seeds for the fictional dystopias. With luck, we won’t see his actual past or his possible futures come to realization again.

On the Worth of Milk as Subject

Dairy Crest Semi Skimmed Milk Bottle

 

There is a third sort of hedge that classic prose omits, which we will call hedges of worth. The classic writer spends no time justifying her project. The classic writer does not compare its worth to the worth of other projects. A classic writer will write about milk, for example, with no indication that there can be a question about the worth of writing about milk, no indication that the reader could entertain any doubt about the worth of writing about milk.

From Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner.

Bret Easton Ellis Is Right

David Foster Wallace was a literary genius. David Foster Wallace was also a self-dramatizing artiste— and, despite obvious motives of professional jealousy, kudos for Bret Easton Ellis for pointing that out back in 2012. The subject came onto my radar again while reading an interview with Ellis in the current issue of Vice. For the past few years, he has been outspoken in his disdain for what he regards as a peculiar and, in some ways, cultivated oversensitivity current in popular culture right now. I agree. The millennial generation, my generation, has a problem with valorizing powerlessness, especially in the face of isolation, addiction, depression and other forms of psychological distress. David Foster Wallace is in no small way responsible for giving that idea moral, aesthetic, and intellectual weight.

Much as I enjoy his fiction, there are moments where Wallace’s exploration of extreme psychology feels like an indulgence.  His novels and stories are overloaded with characters whose neuroses are somehow hyperattuned to whatever flavor of existential despair the author is trying to evoke.  This makes things interesting for the reader, but it also plays into a host of self-paralyzing beliefs—that agency is impossible under consumerism, that addiction is widely applicable model for everyday behavior, that being paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt confers some kind of privilege in analyzing how society works.

You could argue that it’s wrong to draw simplistic conclusions from such a complex and wide ranging body of work. You would be right. The scale and intellectual ambition of a novel like Infinite Jest prevents it from being trite, but the attitude that the “DFW” cult takes regarding issues such as mental illness is not so far removed from cloying webcomics like “I had a black dog, his name was depression.”

Great as they are, Wallace’s books make a poor guide to life. Gerald Howard, a man who edited both “DFW” and Bret Easton Ellis, says it best when he writes:

At the moment, the Wallace style is dominant and that is what drives Bret Ellis nuts. David’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College, “This is Water,” has assumed the stature of a manifesto and ultimate statement…I don’t buy it as a guide for right behavior. It feels uncomfortably close to those books of affirmations, no doubt inspiring but of questionable use when the hard stuff arrives. I truly believe that David was the finest writer of his generation, but his design for living seems to me naive and likely to collapse at the first impact of life’s implacable difficulties. It badly needed an injection of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius.

Lauding a writer is an understandable reaction following a suicide. In an egalitarian literary culture dead set against mythmaking, it’s one of the only ways we have left of seeing someone as  larger than life. That’s our poverty.  But I would rather celebrate “DFW” for his erudition, his intellectual ambition, his trust in the reader, than for his status as a victim of clinical depression.

With some justification, we’ve become skeptical of the claim that the alcoholism of writers like Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Cheever is somehow proof of genius and an authentic reaction to pressures of life. In fact, we’ve become quite shrill in denouncing that belief, just as we have become cynical regarding the deaths of rock stars like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.  Excess, it seems, does not lead to the palace of wisdom—unless we’re talking about an excess of sensitivity.

Review: Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos

For the past few months, I have been voraciously reading and rereading Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos. This collection, originally translated from Greek to English by Paul Merchant in 1968, has been out of print for years. It is now available again through Tavern Books, a small publisher based in Portland, Oregon, which specializes in reprints and translations of modern poetry. Each work they issue is manually printed and kept in stock in perpetuity– a brave gesture in this era of cultural pessimism.

In Twelve Poems, Ritsos pays homage to the father of modern Greek poetry, C.P. Cavafy, in a series of  short lyric poems on his life and work . These are partial in both senses of the word, both affectionate and tightly limited in their scope. But taken as a whole, this collection forms a rich and contradictory portrait of a creative spirty.

Chief among the virtues of the collection is a Whitmanesque embrace of contradiction. Genius and pretension happily coexist. Ritsos never makes any flattening distinction regarding them. Cavafy appears as a sincere charlatan, at once devoted to his art but affecting an odd, often comic public persona. “Hiding Places” describes the strange gestures (tentative yet theatrical) the poet used to impress his students:

But then, unsettled by our eyes on his back,
he turned and poked his face through the curtain
like a man wearing a long white tunic,
a little humorously, a little at odds with our times

Each poem in this collection is a gem of compound images. Ritsos maintains a sense ease and clarity despite some complex turns in syntax and frequent use of extended metaphor. The language never obscures the subject at hand.

Alongside Cavafy the clown, there is Cavafy the loner and insomniac. Not exactly a tragic figure but rather bittersweet, he maintains a connection to the world through acts of poetic imagination.  In “His Lamp at Dawn”, this commonplace item forms a metaphorical bridge through which the poet explores his native city of Alexandria.

at dawn its light pales and becomes one
with day’s flowering rose, with first clatter
of shop blinds, handcarts, fruit stands,
it becomes a visible reminder of his insomnia,
and also a glass bridge, leading from his glasses
to the lamp’s chimney, and from there to the glass
window-panes, and beyond them, on and on,
a glass bridge carrying him over the city,
through the city, his Alexandria, connecting
(since that’s his wish now) night with day.

Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) had a long and prolific career. He was poet, translator, communist activist, and resistance fighter against the Germans during World War II. His life was marked by periods of illness and confinement by government authorities. This collection presents an altogether different side to Ritsos than what his biography would suggest. It shows a poet gifted with lyrical fluency and a knack for rich characterization, forming a picture of a remarkable mentor and artist.