Posts Tagged 'fiction'

My review of Roth’s new novel on Identity Theory

My review of Philip Roth’s new novel The Humbling has been posted over at Identity Theory. Roth has written several of the best books I’ve ever read, and I revere him for his mastery of the art of fiction. But unfortunately, The Humbling leaves a lot to be desired.


My review of Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée in Rain Taxi

Rain Taxi has published my review of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée as a part of its Spring 2009 Online Edition.

Canonized alive

booksthumbicon When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she was 62 years old—no spring chicken, but still a writer with a long career ahead of her. After receiving the Nobel, Morrison experienced literary deification, and in the sixteen long years since, she has been routinely accorded the same kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for long-dead writers whose canonical position is beyond dispute. Most critical discussion of her fiction now takes an assumption of greatness as its starting point. When a new Toni Morrison novel arrives, the question for reviewers and scholars is never, “Is it good?”—its quality is a given. Rather, the task is to fit the new work into the context of Morrison’s previous accomplishments and of great literature more broadly. Morrison, in short, has been canonized alive.

Given this fact, Morrison no doubt makes a tempting target for critics in search of an exalted literary reputation to deflate—the harder they come, the harder they fall. But actual attempts at Morrison takedowns are quite rare. The reason? Part of it might be her status as a beloved living legend within American literature. More fundamentally, though, I think it’s simply that her books are fully worthy of the extraordinary acclaim they’ve received. Also, despite having completed an apotheosis at such an early age, Morrison has never rested on her laurels. Her new novel, A Mercy, published late in 2008, is yet another worthy entry to an astoundingly rich body of work.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In the novel, Morrison interweaves the stories and voices of several characters—a slave girl; an Anglo-Dutch trader; his wife; and their orphaned Native American servant, among others—who are attempting to forge lives for themselves in the New World in the 1680s. At 167 pages, the novel is slim and dense, finding room for several involving storylines while also making nuanced, intelligent, and morally powerful arguments about the nature of freedom and bondage, the formation of the American character, and the American relationship to the land. All the while, Morrison’s language is intoxicating in its sounds and rhythms, routinely achieving beautifully poetic effects without sacrificing story or sense.

Here’s one brief illustrative passage, in which Jakob, the trader, ponders making a move to Barbados in the hope of achieving greater fortune and success:

Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.

What I love about this passage is not only its surface gorgeousness, but also the ways in which Morrison uses it to breathe new life into an old, overfamiliar metaphor. This is far from the first time that the stars have been used as a metaphor for hope; the conceit is so familiar that it found its way into Disney movies generations ago, and even then it was far from fresh. But here Morrison does something remarkable: the stars become “cream” for “the tasting,” and Jakob’s hope becomes an embodied hunger, rather than an abstract gaze heavenward. This idea forges a connection with the metaphor’s ancient heart, reconnecting the dots between the hungry, restless, unsettled feeling in Jakob’s gut and the milky splash of stars above. At the same time, Morrison quietly achieves some distance from Jakob’s perspective, noting the vulgarity of the stars, and thus calling into question both the ethics of his hopes and the fact that he has no real reason to believe that he might succeed. And so Morrison also uncovers another aspect of the metaphor that contemporary readers rarely give any thought: the idea of the heavens as existing on an altogether different scale than human hopes, and the idea that the stars reveal just how small a man who wishes upon them can be.

Earlier on the same page, Morrison achieves a very different, and startling effect, using a far more novel metaphor. Jakob has suffered the deaths of several young children, and when he finds his way to the seashore in a contemplative, hopeful mood, this is how Morrison describes it:

He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves.

The vast possibilities of the ocean (and of the New World for which he has crossed it) reach Jakob only in the form of “infant waves” dying in his hands. It’s a grim, startling passage, and one made all the more sad by the fact that Jakob seems scarcely aware of the fragility of his hopes, and even less aware of how the life he dreams of forging for himself might ruin the lives and hopes of those under his power.

Morrison is also capable of imbuing her writing with intense and beautifully evoked sensuality. Here’s a passage coming only a few pages later, from the point of view of Florens, a slave who has fallen for a free black blacksmith:

There will never be enough time to look how you move. Your arm goes up to strike iron. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop to pour water first on the iron then down your throat. Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break.

Passages like these defeat my critical faculties completely—all I can do is sit back and admire them. Morrison is an engrossing storyteller and a prose stylist of the first order, and she writes with both great sensitivity and thunderous moral authority. I know this is news to precisely no one, but here I’ll say it again: Toni Morrison is a great writer, and she has fully earned her early induction into the canon.

John Carroll Oates and Janet Franzen

In the Guardian, AJ Flood points to a Slate article by Katha Pollitt about A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s big new critical/historical survey of the lives, work, and reception of American women writers. I’ve just recently begun reading Showalter’s book, so I won’t comment on it here. But, like Flood, I was struck by one particular passage in Pollitt’s piece about Showalter’s book:

Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction?

This is a very sharp observation on Pollitt’s part. I’ve long been bothered by the way many critics tend to dismiss (or simply fail to notice) the grand (even awe-inspiring) scope of Joyce Carol Oates’s literary ambition, and I don’t doubt that gender plays at least some role in this. Oates is routinely bashed for being prolific, rather than admired for her vast range and phenomenal energy—whereas Philip Roth’s late-career burst of productivity has been widely hailed as a renaissance, and has cemented his place in the American literary canon.

Further, I think Pollitt is right on to point to the violence in Oates’s work as another potential source of the problem—it’s not very ladylike, after all, for a writer to devote so many pages to seriously elucidating a red-meat, manly theme like the role that violence plays in shaping American lives, identities, relationships, and culture (which is in fact one of the major preoccupations of Oates’s fiction). But in contrast, few critics blinked at the horrific violence that is the central concern of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. (In a side note, I also find it fascinating that no one has taken Bolaño to task for writing from what I think can only be understood as a feminist perspective on the nature and causes of violence against women. It is clearly men who are responsible for the violence in 2666, and Bolaño strongly suggests that the many female victims in the book would have been less vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that both the (male) murderers and the (male-dominated) state failed to take women seriously as individuals with rights and ethical stature; because the deaths of women (and especially poor women) are seen as not especially significant, it becomes that much easier for men to kill them. I wonder what the reception would have been if 2666 had been written by a woman—would critics have objected to the uncompromising stridency of the author’s feminist perspective?)

I suspect it’s not only the violence in Oates’s work that strikes some critics as unseemly, but also her absolute fearlessness about confronting dark events and emotions with both honesty and empathy. The result is sometimes unsettling in its intimacy, and also exhausting in its raw, searing energy. These are qualities that are often praised in male writers, but perhaps Oates’s gender leads some readers to dismiss the great intensity of her work as mere feminine emotionalism run amok. Never mind the serious intellectual (and especially philosophical) heft of much of her work—better to keep her safely in her place as just another sentimental scribbling woman.

As for Janet Franzen: again, I think Pollitt is right on here. The Corrections is far from a bad novel, but it is very difficult to imagine that the same book would have been seen as so earth-shatteringly important if it had been written by a woman. Yet, even before the infamous Oprah incident, Franzen’s book enjoyed an astounding amount of critical attention—I bought it on the day of its release (placing a real strain on my post-college part-time bookstore clerk’s wages) expecting something akin to the next Moby Dick, given all the wild, unadulterated praise the novel had received—but instead I found it to be nothing more than yet another solid but unexceptional contemporary novel, and certainly nothing to get all worked up about. I’ve experience similar disappointments when reading the work of a number of other recent literary “it” boys—some of them write good books, and some write bad ones, but there have been very few (like Bolaño) whose work actually lives up to all the hype.

At the very least, critics could start creating similar buzz and excitement over books by a few women writers every now and again. A handful of women writers of sterling, well-established reputations (Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison) tend to be treated with great seriousness and respect by critics—but very, very few seem to be given the kind of breathless and rapturous reception that mediocre (or worse) books by Franzen, Safran Foer, and their ilk enjoy on a routine basis. It is all too rare to read a review like the one that The New York Times ran on Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which recognizes the boldness, ambition, and importance of a new novel by a younger woman, and treats the book in much the same way a critic would consider the work of a man like Franzen. But you’ll never guess who wrote that particular review. All right, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t John Carroll Oates.

Immigrants longing for Eldorado

booksthumbiconIn Eldorado, the latest novel from the acclaimed French writer Laurent Gaudé (translated into English by Adriana Hunter, and published by MacAdam/Cage in 2008), a Sicilian naval captain and a Sudanese emigrant take parallel (and perilous) journeys through Europe and Africa. Gaudé’s book reads as a raw and fast-moving tale of suspense, and also examines the tangled ethics of immigration with powerful moral clarity. Eldorado is extremely unsubtle and sometimes even outright melodramatic, but also gripping, forceful, and memorable.

Salvatore Piracci, Gaudé’s Italian captain, has made a career of tracking down the imperiled boats of would-be immigrants and bringing the (relatively) lucky survivors into custody. But after hearing the story of an immigrant woman whose child died after the men she paid to take them to Europe instead abandoned them at sea, Salvatore is deeply shaken, and begins to doubt that he has been doing the right thing. Later, another immigrant who Salvatore has rescued from a stormy sea pleads with Salvatore for his freedom, and begs him not to turn him in to the Italian authorities (who will certainly send him right back home). Salvatore refuses because it is what he is expected to do, and because it is what he has always done in the past. “You can change my life,” the immigrant points out to him in desperation—and Salvatore knows that the immigrant is right, and comes to understand that he not only has the power to let the immigrant go, but also an ethical obligation to do so. All the same, he abandons the immigrant to the authorities. Soon after, however, he realizes that his career as a naval captain is over, because he can no longer devote himself in good conscience to his work.

Of Salvatore’s realization, Gaudé writes, “The guardian of the citadel was growing weary while its assailants were younger every time. And they were beautiful, lit up by the hope in their eyes.” Salvatore has grown tired of his duties, which he has come to see as both unethical and ultimately pointless. And when he thinks of the incredible power of the desire that has driven the immigrants toward Europe, he realizes that there is nothing at all that he wants for himself with comparable strength. His his life has no driving force, and he has no dreams, and he in fact has been crushing the dreams and hopes of others without any real consideration of the ethical implications of his actions.

With Eldorado Gaudé poses a series of piercing, provocative questions about the ethical responsibilities of individuals in the context of deeply immoral authorities and systems. If laws and authorities require unethical behavior, or at least cause unethical outcomes, should an individual rebel against those laws and authorities? If an individual does not act, and lets authority have its way, is that individual ethically culpable? Is violence ever justified in the service of ends that are indisputably just? Should those people (or perhaps even cultures) who have no dreams make way for others who do?

Whatever the answers, Gaudé suggests that these kinds of conflicts will inevitably continue to arise. Sulemain, the young Sudanese man who is the novel’s other major character, simply will not be deterred in his efforts to reach European shores. “The world’s too big for my feet,” he reflects, “but I will carry on.” As long as people hunger for better lives, the dream of Eldorado will always beckon, and people like Salvatore will have to make decisions about where they stand.

My review of Waberi’s In the United States of Africa on PopMatters

My review of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa appears today on PopMatters. In Waberi’s novel, Africa is the center of the world’s economic, political, and cultural power, while Paris is impoverished and Swiss refugees flee their war-torn land. It’s a clever premise—and one that might have quickly worn thin if Waberi weren’t such a gifted stylist. His writing is lush and beautiful, as well as very funny, and that’s what makes In the United States of Africa a success.

Wallace article and unfinished novel excerpt in The New Yorker

booksthumbiconD.T. Max has written a fascinating and very lengthy biographical-critical essay on David Foster Wallace for The New Yorker. In the piece, Max draws on interviews, personal letters, and Wallace’s published work in order to create a portrait of Wallace as a writer and as a sufferer of mental illness. The essay also includes extensive discussion of The Pale King, an unfinished novel that Foster had been working on for the better part of a decade. The New Yorker also has an excerpt from the unfinished work.

Max’s essay makes for grim reading on the whole, but it is also full of insight about Wallace’s writing process and about his ideas about the aesthetics and purpose of fiction. In the following passage, Max writes about Foster’s desire to craft “morally passionate fiction”:

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool.

Though it was the flashy, ironic, and metafictional qualities of Wallace’s work that initially caught my attention back when I was an eager undergraduate reader in the process of forming my literary tastes, it was the moral qualities of his fiction, I think, that led me to devour all of Infinite Jest‘s thousand-plus pages in the midst of an extremely busy academic term. Wallace’s fiction dazzles on the surface due to his great mental and verbal agility, but it is his sincere moral seriousness that truly makes his writing exceptional.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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