When I think of Peter Taylor, I think of the closer to his story Dean of Men: "It is a strange world, Jack, in which an old man must tell a young man...moreWhen I think of Peter Taylor, I think of the closer to his story Dean of Men: "It is a strange world, Jack, in which an old man must tell a young man this."
In the story, of course, the point is that it is the old man who has become the stranger, and in turn Peter Taylor has become a stranger to current readers of stories. Many modernists and writers of the "other tradition" are still understood as pretty much current--Hemingway is, at least, Beckett is, Borges and Kafka are--but Taylor is writing in midcentury realist forms and dignified tones, in a generous fullness of exposition, about the South of the '30s; he is doubly or triply estranged and so largely neglected.
But it is still a strange world in which this is so. Sophisticated readers ask not to be led, gentlemanly-like, by the hand; less sophisticated readers lack the patience or the diligence for such careful tapestry.
But you know what? It's really no trouble if somebody holds a door for you now and then, or if they take you out to a nice dinner. You don't owe a thing other than your polite attention when it turns out the dinner was costly, the chef imported, every detail measured to the degree and timed to the second, each ingredient brought freshly from the pier or the market. But you do nonetheless owe your polite attention, and you'd be missing something beautiful and extravagant if you never showed up at the goddam table.
Taylor is a formally proficient teller of the seeming shaggy dog, a maker of stories that build up a bulk of description and feeling that seem unable to be contained and channeled into a form--and which then, miraculously, are.
Old houses, old architecture, old men--I like they way these things were built.(less)
Housekeeping has a distancing voice--brittle, isolationist and isolating--and the book is steeped in both death and its premonition, life seen as an u...moreHousekeeping has a distancing voice--brittle, isolationist and isolating--and the book is steeped in both death and its premonition, life seen as an unforgiving and unforgiveable thing tolerable only in ritualization or complete letting go.
Somehow, though, it remains also one of most humane and often even humorous books I know, still gentle in its ironies, humane and sympathetic in its treatment of the women and girls who make up the whole of the book, all of them suicides or suicides waiting to happen, all of them alone and adrift (sometimes literally).
The prose is as dense as anything I've read, not because difficult to read but because unflinching in its concision, with as much meaning packed into a sentence as in one of Proust's, is lyrically rich and a near-constant smack to the sinuses. While reading it I sometimes had to get up and pace around the room because it filled me full of so much I had to shake some of it out before sitting back down to read.
Few authors are canonized in the minds of writers, especially, quite as readily as has been Marilynne robinson. She's only on her third novel in thirty years, but it makes sense that writing like this would cook slow, the meat tender under the lid.(less)
This book was to some degree a political gesture when it was written--a radical reassessment of which lives are worth documenting and which voices wor...moreThis book was to some degree a political gesture when it was written--a radical reassessment of which lives are worth documenting and which voices worth being heard--but it would be a shame to read it that way.
What this book is is what life feels like during the hours you don't choose for yourself--as told by airline stewardesses, union bosses, factory workers, CEOs, car salesmen, whatever--and there's as much humanity in here as in any novel. It is also, incidentally, insanely useful source material for anyone writing a novel.
The interviews aren't transcribed straight, obviously; they're culled and edited expertly from longer conversations, and anyone who's conducted interviews knows how difficult it is to shape a coherent, legible story from a raw interview without losing the voice of the subject. Terkel was brilliant at it, gifted with the warmth and empathy and touch to elicit truly personal responses to the subjects' own working lives; he'll be very much missed, and still stands as a reminder of what good journalism can be.(less)
From Wharton to Wilson to Gardner to Wood, I always enjoy a good prescriptivist fiction tome--and make no mistake, Wood is here not offering a survey...moreFrom Wharton to Wilson to Gardner to Wood, I always enjoy a good prescriptivist fiction tome--and make no mistake, Wood is here not offering a survey or examination but a stance within literature every bit as political (and as complicated in its amendments and ramifications) as an economic policy.
Much of the argument seems to be that the novelistic voice has essentially progressed to its apotheosis in Flaubert's style indirect libre, so that Wood's job is then to characterize the different forms in which this narrative voice can be effective--thus cutting off other forms of narrative voice as either primitive waystations in the novel's evolution (devolved consciousness, even, the product of regressed minds) or as merely ineffective byways. In some areas, of course--characterization, for example--Wood's taste is a little more catholic.
But Wood was always most interesting in his appreciations, and not in the criticisms (like those of DFW) that he makes according to what, from the perspective of much of literature, seems a needlessly myopic formalism. That is to say, his vision of literature remains nuanced, compelling, and worthwhile, with Wood serving as both a contrarian conversational partner and a source of learning and amiable surface-level analysis.
Because, of course, I have my own ideas--though less articulated--about what literature should do and what makes it hollow or horrible, and am much more interested in engaging the considered, well-articulated thought in this book than I am in finding random people who naively agree with my perspective without examining why. (less)
A review I wrote for elsewhere--I don't really want to bother capsuling it:
“I want to make unfinished things,” says the young Aleksandar Krsmanovic in...moreA review I wrote for elsewhere--I don't really want to bother capsuling it:
“I want to make unfinished things,” says the young Aleksandar Krsmanovic in Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (Grove Press, 345 pages, $24). He will paint “plums without stones, rivers without dams, Comrade Tito in a T-shirt!” But in Visegrad, Bosnia, in 1992, an unfinished thing is also a rifle without a sniper, a shooting without blood, or a Muslim girl without her rapist.
The witness to all of this is Aleksandar, and his narration is manic and bewildered, perennially in wonder or distraction: about Grandpa’s world-record 9.86-second heart attack while Carl Lewis ran for the gold, or a cuckold’s revenge on the tobacconist, or the fact that when a man is shot in the stomach he folds over just like when someone gets hit there in volleyball. In his relentless openness to every impression or idea, not to mention his headlong absurdist prose, he seems less a child of a certain age than a childlike eye and ear and voice, of any age.
There is a reason, of course, why Stanisic (like Gunter Grass and Jonathan Safran Foer) might choose a child to give voice to atrocity: it’s that the adult language of casualty counts and “shelling at Srebrenica,” the newsman’s reflex, no longer carries much meaning. Sad to say, it’s been dulled by overuse. A child, on the other hand, has never learned this language and must sort out the truth of the situation for himself, which is rarely about numbers but rather the fact that one of the soldiers was playing a Game Boy before assaulting a girl by the Drina dam.
And while Stanisic’s prose sometimes veers into a self-regarding preciosity, Aleksandar’s incomprehension and escapism—as his family escapes into exile in Germany and he returns much later to find everything he remembers—is meant to allow readers to feel anew, in language that is also new. You are forced to understand what the child doesn’t, and see what he doesn’t want to because he has “decided to have dreamed everything.”
Still, the book is most affecting—and effective—not in its perhaps too-aestheticized descriptions of war but rather in a brief section of letters from Aleksandar’s time in Germany, addressed to a long-lost girl in Sarajevo who never writes him back, and in Aleksandar’s own history-denying book entitled When Everything Was All Right. It his here that Stanisic shows the real efforts of a child who is trying to make sense of everything, even when he knows he is most likely writing the letters to himself.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how a soldier repairs a broken gramophone: He does it with the barrel of his gun. (less)
You’ll recognize this one near the top of every book critic’s list this year. Just as with García Márquez a while b...moreShort review/blurb I put elsewhere:
You’ll recognize this one near the top of every book critic’s list this year. Just as with García Márquez a while back, the heart of Latin American literature today is clutched tightly in the fist of Roberto Bolaño (Chilean, deceased). His style takes root in Cortázar and Borges, but while they always felt like European-Argentinian hyphenates, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives seems homegrown and impossibly vital. The book is a palimpsest of diaries and voices, springboarding from the story of a young Mexican poet to interviews with over 50 different characters who had encountered the ghostly, itinerant ringleaders of the avant-garde “visceral realist” poets Ulises (!) Lima and Arturo Belano (a thinly veiled Bolaño). It’s smart and sad and full of bawd, and somewhere along the way almost everyone has sex or dies. Somehow poetry seems fun again. (less)
An autobiography of escape in second-hand readings, the transformation of the despotic within the escaped, the ineluctability of the historically moda...moreAn autobiography of escape in second-hand readings, the transformation of the despotic within the escaped, the ineluctability of the historically modal, the limitless self-obsessions of an English professor. Etc.(less)
Elizabeth Bishop reminds me of a woman who buttoned her blouse all the way up to her chin and then sneakily, cheekily, undid the clasp that showed her...moreElizabeth Bishop reminds me of a woman who buttoned her blouse all the way up to her chin and then sneakily, cheekily, undid the clasp that showed her belly button.(less)
Each section in this book is a sentence, breaths withheld for too long and then released suddenly, in false relief, as something else goes terribly wr...moreEach section in this book is a sentence, breaths withheld for too long and then released suddenly, in false relief, as something else goes terribly wrong. At first it seems like a sad comedy down the jigsaw lines of crossed cultures, or a fable about the near-autism of being without shared language--and in part it is--but it's every consummation here that fails. What's strange is that this should be so exhilarating.(less)
This is a book I often recommend when asked to recommend a book by someone whose taste I don't know well.
It's not that it's "safe" (although everyone...moreThis is a book I often recommend when asked to recommend a book by someone whose taste I don't know well.
It's not that it's "safe" (although everyone seems to like it) but that it's one of those transcendent middebrow books like Salinger's--Shawshank Redemption, which everyone also likes, does the same thing in the movie genre--that confirms everything you already thought or wanted to believe, and makes it seem richer than you'd ever thought. For which I'm grateful.(less)