Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?”

A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.

Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then. Read the rest of this entry »

And the Winner is . . . .

Thanks to everybody who weighed the pros & the cons between choosing William H. Gass’ Middle C and John Williams’ Stoner as the subject of our late-summer reading group. If you’ve not checked, I am excited to inform you that the winner is . . . . John Williams’ Stoner! Sorry, Billy — maybe when you’re in paperback next year.

Anyway, I’m really excited to get your input on this. If you’ve not yet read Stoner, you should be able to do so in the matter of a couple of days. It’s not particularly long, and I found it reads quickly. With that in mind, would August 5th be a good time to begin? I (or anybody who volunteers) can post something — some introductory thoughts or reflections — about the book, and we can begin banging things about in the comments. From there, we can fluidly work out who wants to write a formal post and who wants to keep their participation to the comments. Sound good?

I should add, though I’d hope it’s obvious: everybody, whether you voted or not, is invited to participate in this. The novel is pretty fantastic, and I’m more than convinced it will resonate (for good and ill) with a good many of you plodding & peddling through the life academic. It’s a pessimistic novel, but not cynical; and even in the end, the whole is not nearly as pessimistic as the constituent parts. Ah, but I’ll save further comment for later.

Book Discussion, Anyone?

So, we’ve not done this in a while . . . anybody up for a book discussion series? Not one of the smarty-pant kinds we do around here regularly. But of a novel, poetry collection, etc.. If so, any suggestions? (Only about a month or so left of summer, so something of reasonable length and ambition would be nice, if we want to include the academically engaged/employed.)

Since I’m the one posting I’ll throw out the first suggestion: having recently read it, I’d love to discuss John Williams’ Stoner. It’s a pretty densely male novel, I admit, but the academic setting is appropriate to a lot of our interests here; and the sheer density of the masculinity, I find, is worth talking about. (I.e., I really want to write something about Williams’ portrayal of Stoner’s wife.)

UPDATE: Okay, a few of you have piped up, and a recurring comment has been “Stoner or Middle C would work fine.” (We apparently have the means available to get the latter to you, if it is chosen.) A few other books have been mentioned, but none of which have particularly interested me. So, there you have it. We’ll let this poll decide it for us.

The Blast From Passing Gass with a Lit Match to My Ass

The Reverend Jethro Furber is a poet unto himself until he is nothing but a poet unto others. This is Madness. Henry Pimber is a poet unto himself until he is a poet unto the trees. This is Sorrow (and Suicide). Israbestis Tott is not a poet but he clearly heard a poem and remembered it. This is Triumph.

Dwelling in the consciousness of “The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart” was in many ways like dwelling in my own. The reasons are different, but, Jethro – he and I – we are constantly composing our sing-song. And I, too, had my Pike, mine if only for a night in the garden of Ault, where wandering off, I saw the giant concrete Stephen Collins Foster and circled him with slurred speech until I climbed him and swirled ‘round his body, and, ornery, swirling my dick so swirled the piss, bracing my relief straight-arming his shoulder like old men do the wall above a urinal, drenching his inscription in our obstinacy…then, cup to his lips…Come on, drink this…Statuesquely stubborn, heh?…into the ovals of his eyes… You stupid fuckin’ Haunt… a taunt was rhymed:

You’re on the wrong side of the river, you know
Cast to look but never touch home
That’s the fate of late men commemorated in stone
So be a late man and hold your pose
While I laugh aloud about the place they chose
Here, on the wrong side of the Ohio

Abuse Your Muse. That’s one for Tott if he could grasp it. Foster speaks:

Mr. Lilly, my donor
Had a boner for my folk songs
But boy did he fuck me
If only somebody
Would pluck me
From where he stuck me
And set me up
In my old Kentucky

Stephen, it’s unbecoming of great men celebrated in stone to bitch and moan about being unlucky. Another one for Tott.

Speaking of Tott, did everyone follow the advice of Mr. Minto and reread Israbestis after you’d finished? Re-buy, Bob! Do you get it? No. Re-buy, Bob! Do you get it? No. Well, I’ll add my two cents to Robert’s sense, too, so you can fro and back, nose to the scents, forth and to: After you’ve reread Tott, go back to Furber; then back to Tott; then back to Furber; still Furber; Furber again; then back to … Now do you get it? You don’t if you didn’t … Hold on, Bill speaks:

Youthfully to the bench soars, torches around him, vibrating arms: oh this is His greatest triumph—to turn dung into a monument.
Ah well, too bad. I’ve given the game away.
Um? I have? Pity.

… play along. Bill gave the game away so you could play the game. The name of the game is called name-calling is knowing: Jabberer; Pencil-licker; Local oracle; Village idiot; Town pump; The greengrocer; Determined gabbler; Hallfoot shuffler; Windy comedian; Lazy looking young fool; Button collector; Museum director; Digger of dry earth; Peeler of print from old paper; Feeder upon the past; Despoiler of the slain; Bugger of corpses; This peasant Trimalchio; Chinese water torturer; Master; Disciple; Host. … old Hidego and Seek playing hide and go seek with the key with me.

The lock is rusted now and the double gates are bound. Ivy and weeds squeeze what they’ve long been given and words chipped on headstones erode, re-wrote illegibly. This is the state we found it in. Then, Furber clears the overgrowth, carefully scrubs clean the markers, and lays the walk with his own hands, giving what little order he can – positively refurberishing! – Tott’s garden. Or was it more like: This, though, I would like to have remain: these pieces of shade; is that asking too much? Mem. Mem. Memory. And is it asking too much to ask who’s the father, who’s the son, and who’s the ghost? May I match-make a match made in the Heavens of Birth? … and not in that order … but in that order … but not. Party on, Gerth! This is, after all, a matter for Theology, not for Feeling, isn’t it? But, wouldn’t my naming be the opposite? Oh, shut up. Shit the dialectic already. I’ll clean it up, but only because you host me. You host me. I fill your skin and flutter in your undies. You host me. I please you with my divers wet wipes. You will never stop. You’ll never stop. Never never never. Skid marks. My host, My host! Why have you not heard Me clearly! My host, My host! Why have you digested bits and pieces of Me! Remembory! Please … Remember Me! No, no, no … Remember My Songs!

William Gass and the Music of Prose

In response to trying to produce a critique of Omensetter’s Luck as a whole, the biggest challenge has obviously been to narrow down which direction to take. As someone who tends to absorb and/or retain art and literature in terms of affect, I’d like to briefly touch on the part of the work of most interest to me psychologically, or in this case, psycholinguistically.

Before I sway too easily into the grave error we’ve been cautioned against that leads down the road of merely looking for insights into characters and ‘moral lessons,’ I’d like to keep just a moment more in regards to Robert’s thoughts on syntax and conceptual music. I have very much enjoyed (coming from a strong music theory background) seeing terminology one also uses in musical structures (i.e. phrase, period, subject, and later assonance and consonance when dealing in sound devises such as those in Frost, Swinburn or Emerson) being employed here.

A couple of days ago, I read a lovely essay by an Italian student at the University of Bologna entitled Dwelling upon Metaphors: The Translation of William Gass’s Novellas. What caught my eye in this dissertation were his thoughts on Gass’s essay in Finding a Form, “The Music of Prose” specifically. In this portion, he sees this ‘conceptual music’ as a type of second syntax:

 Musical form creates another syntax, which overlaps the grammatical and reinforces that set of directions sometimes, or adds another dimension by suggesting that two words, when they alliterate or rhyme, thereby modify each other, even if they’re not in any normally modifying position. Everything a sentence is is made manifest by its music (Gass, 1996).

This sheds an interesting light toward the question Brad previously posed, “Which has more influence over the other: does the note-level aspect inform the larger-scale musicality, or is it more that the larger-scale musicality making possible the hearing of the note-level aspect at all?” I mentioned briefly that I also had wondered this, and on first instinct was inclined to agree with the latter. Would we have even taken the chance to note the more intimate underpinnings of the text (the sentence Brad noted on p. 145, “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever…” being an excellent example) without previously taking in the ‘larger-scale musicality?’ I’m inclined to be doubtful.

In defense of the conclusion being the latter, where the larger-scale musicality makes possible the emergence of the smaller intricacies, what immediately struck me about Gass’s literary style even upon a cursory reading was this: simple diction and syntax. Except it’s not simple, not at all. It is what caused me to read and reread Tott’s indiscriminating rants on his imagined travels as metaphor for his pain time and time again. Of the entirety of the work (and I have mentioned it already in an earlier comment) my favorite is as follows:

 His dreams were not embarrassed by clichés, but in each he always knew the precise feel of the air, what  manner of birds were singing, the position of the sun, the kind of cloud, the form of emotion in himself and others, and every felicity of life (13).

I can’t recall ever reading something quite like it. In the complete chaos that surrounds Tott’s rambling, out comes this complete lack of repetition, a conclusively original thought and absolute clarity of mind. Gass’s sentences are so incredibly thick that they insist on being read time and time again. He has been called an unabashed sensualist, to which I feel there can be little dispute. I find it is the sentences-his use of diction and syntax-that ceaselessly hold blame for his linguistic success. Though they are unarguably essential, I feel it is his combination of words, not necessarily his aping vowels or repeated consonants that really render the work.

At the end of the day, we can already begin maneuvering the ins and outs of either side, and I know a good case can be made for both. However, this process could also clearly result in the dog chasing his tail. If we widen our gaze and apply this question to a broader spectrum of art and literature, could we pose it again and come to the same conclusion? Or is this a quandary best left specifically to this subtly explosive form?

On Some Sentences of William Gass

I.
This is a post about Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass. It will take the form of a bunch of scattered observations and hypotheses. But first some introduction of the perspective from which I’ve written what follows in section II, et al, and which I’ve gleaned from nearly constant perusal of Gass’s many books of essays since I discovered them a year or so ago.

After reading the essays, one has to notice at least two things: first, that Gass is radically constructivist about fictional worlds and characters; further, that he is a writer of sentences first – of scenes and stories a distant second.

As a constructivist he compares the author to God, and he relates the history of the development of the novel to the increasingly problematic question of the author’s moral relationship to the world he creates within his words. “Before us is the empty page, the deep o’er which, like God, though modestly, we brood.” The historical move from omniscient narrators, for example, into a preference for radically limited perspectives is a move as if God created a world to run according to lawful processes and then used those laws to excuse himself from responsibility for the tragedies that consequently befell his creatures. “Novels in which the novelist has effaced himself create worlds without gods.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Book Discussion Group, Omensetter’s Luck: On Henry Pimber as First Adam

A couple of days belated, but tonight we begin our long-promised discussion of William H. Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck. I’m very excited about this. Not least because I finally get to put on paper my own halting thoughts & comments about the book, now that I’ve read it for a second time, but also because I get to engage the perspectives & opinions of those who’ve agreed to read it with me. We’ll take this discussion as quickly or slowly as it warrants. Please, jump aboard even if this is the first you’ve heard of it.

With this first post, I’m kicking things off. Those who know my style & take on things like this know what not to expect anyway. I’m not interested in summarizing the book for you, introducing the characters. I’m very much assuming– and encourage the other writers in this discussion to do the same — that if you’re reading the post, you’ve either read the book (or are in the midst of reading it) or are keen on reading the thoughts of those who have. With that . . .

* * * Read the rest of this entry »

Book Discussion Group Announcement: Omensetter’s Luck

At long last, after at least one broken promise that I can recall, our discussion of William Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck is almost upon us. We’ve assembled a team of crack readers who will, starting next Monday, address the novel — some theme chosen or recurring, some criticism, some reflection, etc. You still have a week to start reading and readying yourself to take advantage of the opportunity to talk intelligently about a smart book. A week to find yourself a copy of the book — beg, borrow, or steal — so you might participate as you can. Ring in the holidays with the luckiest unlucky man who ever lived & his vaguely demonic friend & preacher. It’ll do your soul good.

Book Discussion Group: For Real This Time (Winter 2011 edition)

So, I’ve been talking a good game, on and off, for about six months or so, mostly behind closed doors, via email and such, about doing another literary book discussion group here on AUFS. The book that I keep coming back to when entertaining this notion is William Gass’ truly amazing debut novel Omensetter’s Luck. This is not simply because I want to read it again, though I do, but also because of all the novels I want to read at the moment it is the one that is mostly explicitly in the AUFS wheelhouse — fallen creation, vulgar limericks, evil preachers, vague rumblings of theology with an atheistic panache.

Is there any interest for such a thing, though? We can push it off until December, if that works for you working & student stiffs. I have in mind basically doing it like the Jennings reading group: open threads for a few weeks, followed by a cluster of three to five posts on a theme or direction of your choosing. If you’re interested, comment as such.

Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?

I have recently been on something of a “contemporary novel kick.” While I typically incline toward novels by dead white men, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by white men who are in fact still quite young. Books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which I started reading this afternoon over lunch). (Oh wait, there has been one living white woman, too — Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.) There are things one could say about all of these. Indeed, I know of many a blog and/or magazine dedicated to doing as much. But for our purposes here, I feel like they perhaps need a little more time — or, to be honest, perhaps it is merely I who need more time to know what to say about them. But for the sake of a self-indulgent gravitas, we’ll condemn these works to their present youth and insist for now that they “grow up a little” before we include them at this table peopled (mostly) by those under 35. There is heady stuff afoot here, as you know, and the church must first be thought out of its imperial impasse and Milbank put in his place. Read the rest of this entry »

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