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My review of Red Plenty

My review of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is up at The New Inquiry. It begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with a comparison with David Foster Wallace.

This review represents my effort to make sure that the true Red Plenty addicts — the ones who aren’t satisfied with the Crooked Timber event (which doesn’t yet seem to have its own separate link?) — can get their sick, Soviet fix.

Posted in Communism, Contemporary Fiction, publications. Comments Off

Thoughts on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Rather than review Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I want to reflect instead on who should read it.

Parks and long walks separate me from time and install me in a different dimension, an alternate one , obviously compatible with the true one, shall we say, or in any case, with the regular one, isolated and at times autonomous as it may be. (75-76)

First & foremost, they should be walkers, for whom each step taken is also one lost — a taking that makes no lasting claim & a loss that is never so final. Their destinations are familiar for their being so incomprehensibly foreign — for every recognition and remembrance they find, of which they try to take hold, proves eventually too heavy with significance, and slips the grip of its proper naming.

Generally, when I walk I look down. The ground is one of the most revealing indicators of the present condition; it is more eloquent in its damages, its deterioration, its unevenness, and irregularities of all sorts. I’m referring to urban as well as rural ground, difficult or congenial. And I’m specifically referring to the ground of paths, to ground altered by humans in general, because ground in the abstract, the ground of the world, speaks different, near-incomprehensible languages. (29)

Second & just as important, these readers should be sitters, who in arresting their forward motion detain, that is, somehow confine, the expansiveness of the moment — who, in those moments of cornering knowledge find themselves seized by a certain unknowing.

But what amazed me was that even though I could see them all on the far side of the fountain, beyond my companion and myself, I heard them as if their voices came from behind us, from where we were actually seated. Perhaps this was another effect of the place or, more precisely, of the mist created by the jets of water, which dissolved present time and distorted space; or it could have been a consequence of the symmetry. The present: until that afternoon I had rarely noticed the confused , and at times inconsistent, meaning of this word, to which we should add the sense of ambiguity it often possess. . . . (59-60) Read the rest of this entry »

Intoxication Without the Sex: Thoughts on Lars Iyer’s Dogma

As you no doubt already know, the heroes of Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious recently returned for another round. Too bad for poor W., Dogma goes the way of a downward spiral. Ah, I’m sorry, I’m supposed to alert the unsuspecting reader of spoilers, aren’t I, and then tuck them under the fold. If you fear further insensitivity, rest easy, it won’t happen again. For indeed, what strikes me as interesting about Dogma is that there is remarkably little else for a reviewer to release prematurely.

This is, for those who keep score of such things, of a piece with Iyer’s much discussed literary manifesto declaring the end of literature. Or certainly our response to its demise. Do we, for example, dare look for who has bloodied hands, since we may not have cleaned all well under our own fingernails? Might we eat the corpse, and attempt to find nourishment from the decaying heap at out feet? Or is it better to leave the dead for the dead, and find something else entirely to occupy our attention? However we choose, there is no avoiding the fact that something has been lost. How, then, to appreciate the abyss without falling in it is the question. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lars and W. Do America: A review of Lars Iyer’s Dogma

Few writers have captured the despair and self-loathing that necessarily accompany the academic life as perfectly as Lars Iyer, and surely fewer have done it so humorously. Spurious established the tone for the trilogy, immersing us in the abusive relationship between W. and Lars, in W.’s continually thwarted desires to somehow become worthy of philosopy, and in the sheer squalor of Lars’s existence. The infamous “damp” infecting Lars’s apartment resonated with the wisdom of the ancient Israelites, for whom mildew was a matter to be handled by the religious authorities.

By now, it’s practically required by law to compare Iyer’s work to Beckett and Bernhard, and while those comparisons are surely accurate, there is also something new and intriguing in Iyer’s framing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

While reading Lars Iyer’s recently released novel Spurious I had the curious feeling that he had somehow hacked my Gmail account and read the by-now-countless conversations I’ve had with my closest friends. My suspicion is, considering you lot keep coming around here, where posts untold were first given life in and left germs all over our respective chat archives, that if given the chance you’ll find Iyer cribbing from your conversations as well.

As with Beckett and Bernhard before him, nobody will be fooled by the apparent simplicity of Spurious. Two men, both reasonably intelligent academics, talk. And that is it, really. They talk on trains, on the phone, at the pub. There is talk of action, but no action as such. Well, no, that’s not quite true, is it? Talking is an action, too, after all. It may be more dull than, say, sex (one hopes), and more slow than a high-speed chase, but conversation, the simple being-with somebody else, is perhaps a more primal act than we, who are often bored with those with whom we have to spend time, might wish to believe. The main characters of Spurious, W. & Lars (the first-person narrator), are bound together in this primal act. They are, in fact, in talking, and I dare say only in talking, each other’s Messiah (149)—i.e., the (one) “to come” that “has come.” Fitting, perhaps, that the Messiah of a world such as ours should be so gloriously pitiful. Read the rest of this entry »

Sprawl – by Danielle Dutton

“Dear Mrs. Baxter, Welcome. Your earnest and expensive skepticism is otherworldly. For this reason, I advise you to take two or three sheets of paper and make a journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days. Idle romances, typographical reproductions, eye- and ear-witness testimony, the reality of our special community—I recommend all these pleasures to you now. You’ll need to keep track. You’ll have to be strong, Mrs. Baxter. Everything is different, but over time, to a certain extent, nothing really changes. Such is the critical authenticity of our every historical moment. Focus on apprehensible objects and their previously unapprehended relationship to other objects around your house or this place (your body to fish, glass to a quality of mind). It’s a good deal of fun. Yours, etc.” (16-17)

These are not the opening words of Danielle Dutton’s magnificent recent novel Sprawl (Siglio Press, 2010), but they do most clearly articulate both the approach she takes and all that she appears to regard as being at stake. Sprawl is, as I take it, its narrator’s own first-person “journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days.” We shouldn’t get too hung up about whether she is literally keeping a journal. The important part is that the novel presents us with a woman’s “earnest and expensive skepticism”—her inner state of mind & being, as it were, that come as a result & cost of being a part of the world. And her world is costly indeed, for it is that of the suburbs. Read the rest of this entry »

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