Tuesday, 29 January 2013

My Month in Books, January (Part One)

1. Lydia Davis — Varieties of Disturbance

When Davis isn’t off winning MacArthur fellowships and whipping up essential translations of Proust and Flaubert she also writes almost-award-winning story collections of pulsating sharpness. To spend time in Varieties of Disturbance is to nestle down inside a superhuman mind in a continual state of ecstatic whirr and recline divinely on dark and comforting truths about the human condition. Like Ali Smith (who is better at novels) Davis favours micro-portraits, throwaway whimsies, vacation snapshots in favour of the throbbing gristle of the long form. The longer stories in this beatific collection are superior to those in Almost No Memory, where space squeezed out substance (the exception here, perhaps, being the near tedious ‘Helen and Vi’), but the stars are the thumbnails. If anyone can compress epics into the space of two charming sentences, it is Davis, whose daringly antithetical translation of The Way by Swann’s illustrates the mangled contrarian logic at play in her literary project, and especially this sumptuous selection. Essential.

2. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: William H. Gass: Vol. 24-3

This is a short but epic issue on Gass—mostly tributes from his confrères and underlings, with a few critical pokings for appearance’s sake. Robert Coover contributed an obscene (not by his standards) homage to Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Walter Abish a cut-and-paste collage of 50 sentences, John Barth a brief hail-to-the-chief, Mary Caponegro an ecstatic and near-stalkerish piece of pseudoscholarly Gass worship, Rikki Ducornet a beautiful illustration, Michael Eastman some adoring work-shots of The Maestro, and the others various bits and boobs, mostly comic, appreciative and Gass-struck. As they should be.

3. Stephen D. Gutierrez — Elements

A collection of street-smart (says this pompous ass) stories with a remarkable flair for rhythm and beat. The stories here perform cartwheels, handstands and sly somersaults, sparkle with incendiary slang, and grapple with their own unwriteableness. The suite ‘Elements’ pokes around in East Los Angeles Mexican-American life, alternating between disembodied narrators and unconcealed autobiographical riffs on Steven D. Gutierrez’s tortured existence. As the collection progresses, Gutierrez serves up self-lacerating rants about his Cornell MFA program and the dolts who won’t publish his work—candour that is both somehow universal and laughably selfish. ‘Afterword’ contains three long-ish pieces that are stronger when Gutierrez removes himself from the picture (his life is always tortured, despite his success at teaching and getting laid a lot, which he is keen to tell us), running on a manic energy and sweaty desperation. Because Gutierrez inserts himself into the work he casts something of a shadow—he simply isn’t that likeable, and his views on writing I find unnecessarily stifling (only writing when inspiration strikes or perfect sentences are hit upon). He also tells us of his hatred for A Sentimental Education. At that point he lost me. Good story writer, challenging book.

4. Robert Coover — The Adventures of Lucky Pierre

Two posits. 1. Coover as Moralist—chastising today’s sex-crazed kids in the internet-porn age, where adult relationships are trashed in favour of the old in-and-out performed in beds, sheds, lifts, rowboats, kayaks, cockpits and swimming pools in all manner of Karmasutric combinations until loins spurt and shoot and ooze and heave and moan with the nerve-tingling pleasure a morning bagel and publishing internship cannot provide. 2. Coover as Immoralist—sex as the one true pleasure in life, revelling in the unlimited possibilities of locking organs with an infinite number of sexual partners, a freedom granted in the imagination only, coming on sofas, mattresses, kittens, sugarcanes, Audis, lettuce and deckchairs, again and again until one’s sexual organs shrivel like fridge-bound salad and one’s caveperson impulse to rut becomes a spiritual thing. Which one? Both. I delighted in this novel’s relentless, perverted comic energy, at once stimulating and disturbing and humiliating and insane, and I also couldn’t wait for the overblown indulgent bag of pomo bullplop to come to a climax. Such is the Coover experience.

5. Dubravka Ugrešić — The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays

I found myself trapped reading this book of essays on Serb-Croat pickles and peccadilloes. Plucking it idly from the library, based solely on my previous four sit-downs with Dubravka, I found the content not in my purview. And yet, her engaging voice kept me returning for more until—lo and behold!—all 288pp were completed, and I emerged 1% more knowledgeable about Balkan history (I have, of course, forgotten it all already). This is why reading is imperative for spongeheads like me: while we’re booking it we’re in possession of facts and opinions only a privileged few have access to. We are cranial conquistadors in our armchairs! For comment on the content, as ever, absent friend Chris has it covered and Harry has quotes in boldface, so you don’t forget, for the world is a sponge.

6. Alasdair Gray — Every Short Story, 1951-2012

Read and reviewed only for Tales Droll & Plausible, 131pp of new material. The stories range from the usual rambling nostalgia fare, i.e. ‘The Third Mister Glasgow’ and ‘Billy Semple,’ to contemporary satire, i.e. ‘Late Dinner,’ ‘Whisky and Water,’ and ‘ Gumbler’s Sheaf’ to relationship reflections, i.e. ‘Misogynist’ and ‘Maisie & Henry,’ to SF-infused oddness, i.e. ‘Goodbye Jimmy’ and ‘Voices in the Dark.’ Gray’s straightforward mannered style is present, as charming as ever, yet he remains to the end a mildly comic fantasist: no pathos or power has crept into his OAP writings, excepting perhaps the little frown that ends ‘Gumbler’s Sheaf.’ This enormous, unnecessarily bulky collection also includes a long story-by-story guide by Gray, with recycled autobiographical material from his many other books. My reviews of the other story collections are elsewhere, i.e. here: 1983, 1985, 1990, 1993, 2003. Possibly (but unlikely, mostly) Gray’s final-ever story for you, ‘Ending’:
Having beguiled with fiction until I had none left I resorted to facts, which also ran out. (p900)

7. Jonathan Franzen — Farther Away

Franzen’s second collection of non-fic trimmings is as strong as his first, albeit slacking on the long luscious literary essays that made How To Be Alone such a public event (remember, there were STREET PARTIES when that beast was published!), and too ornithological for five-star status. One man’s birdwatching is another man’s trainspotting and Franzen fills almost 90pp with enormous pieces on crested tits and other porn-flappers. Jeez. Otherwise, ‘On Autobiographical Fiction’ is a brilliant riff that could fill a monograph, ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ is a selfconsciously cranky anti-tech-abuse rant, and the title piece mixes Robinson Crusoe ruminations with beautiful reflections on his late mate DFW. His memorial service remarks are printed later, but ‘Farther Away’ is one of the most moving DFW encomiums since the deed. Otherwise, Franzen is in book weenie mode, talking up various lesser-known treats in GR-sized reviews (see my books-found-in-books shelf). A little too scrilla with filler, but otherwise a solid second album with no hint of sophomore slump.

8. John Barth — Giles Goat-Boy

I have emerged in a post-posttape daze, staggering about not sure what to think and whether to rate this old-skool postmo razzlematazzlical performance in the uppers or the lowers. The last Barth I read was Lost in the Funhouse, which I dismissed as dated experimental wankeroo (Barth was the keenest postmodder of the lot, and this collection reads like the marking of territory), and before then the excellent The Sot-Weed Factor (which bears no notable resemblance to Sorrentino’s 1983 novel Blue Pastoral) and the hairpulling Coming Soon!!! where Barth proves he can still run rings around Dave Eggers and all the bepermed whippersnappers now in their mid-forties (the fact Barth outlived DFW proves for him the funhouse was a goshdarn hoot).

Giles Goat-Boy is the most inventive, loopy, and acronym-heavy of the four, although it didn’t disprove my suspicion Barth’s work is trapped in the masculine mores of sixties academe. The first part, or “tape,” (the story is, implausibly, all spoken by GILES into tapes handed to Barth in the preface), is chock with ribald larks and a network of satirical plots and comic characters that keeps the story’s ventricles pulsing, although it soon becomes clear—beside the obvious “quest” narrative—making sense of the other strands is a pointless exercise. The second tape finds the novel more tedious for that lack of focus, although patient reading yields page-by-page rewards.

Mainly, for a book bursting with such erudition and evident metatextual heft and subtextual smartness, GG-B is the silliest, daftest novel I have read since the last JM Coetzee. Barth is the only writer I have read who writes about rape with a tittering comic jauntiness, and the three rapes of the dreadful female character Anastasia, and the overall pervy, creepy aura surrounding all references to sex, seems to be a constant in his work, and threatens him with the “dated humorists” pile alongside Elkin. It is unlikely I would recommend this to anyone except hardcore postmod Trekkies (who are the only people likely to read it anyway), but there are more ideas and innovative riffs on one page of this thing than a dozen other novels, so this is not an invitation to dismissal.

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