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There’s someone I’d like you to meet.

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There are all kinds of reasons to introduce two people. Maybe they would get along. Maybe they would have an interesting debate. Maybe they would fuck. Sometimes while I’m reading, I have a powerful desire to introduce the author to another author for some reason. Most recently, while reading John Haskell’s Out of My Skin, I kept wishing I were able to introduce him to Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint. My reasons were for the similarity of their visions, and for the fact that both authors seem uninterested in disguising what seems like their authentic way of perceiving the world. More specifically, for Haskell’s benefit, I think he could learn from Toussaint something about creating characters whose extreme eccentricities do not completely overwhelm their believability as people.
But who knows? Maybe they would also fuck.

23 thoughts on “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.

    1. I felt kind of weird about double-posting, but what I thought might be a passing association turned into a firm conviction that these two writers seem joined in some kind of mutually unacknowledged exploration.

      But I’ve only read one book by Toussaint. The Camera, I think it was. The best part of it was the first page. Not to say the rest of it was overly disappointing, but the strangeness of the prose on the first page was magical, and he was unable to capture that magic, I think. Though, to be fair, it may have become cloying after a while.

      Anyway, as someone who’s read and appreciates Haskell, I’ll be interested to hear your take on Toussaint.

  1. Since my review of Out of My Skin is forthcoming, I’m afraid of getting into this discussion because I don’t want it to be redundant. But…

    I think you’re right that it does seem that Haskell is “uninterested in disguising what seems like [his] authentic way of perceiving the world.” Although I would modify that to say that Haskell is interested in examining the ways in which perception is usually disguised in fiction, while at the same time admitting that his is just another kind of mask.

    It does seem, though, especially after your next sentence, that you prefer writers who mask the artifice of their fiction through all kinds of familiar techniques. (By “familiar” I mean what is most often seen because Haskell is using other familiar, although less conventional, techniques.) Or maybe you think that he didn’t accomplish what he set out to achieve. But this is unclear from what you’ve written above. And then you claim, even more troubling, that Haskell “could learn from Toussaint something about creating characters whose extreme eccentricities do not completely overwhelm their believability as people.” So by “believability” do you mean a strict adherence to a set of conventions that signal a certain kind of verisimilitude, and if so, what type? I mean what is “believability” as a person in fiction anyway? If I were to take someone I know and write about them, what I wrote about them, no matter how many details I provide, would not be believable. I may, if it was my interest, create a kind of mirror, but a mirror is nothing but a reflective surface.

    As you can probably can tell, I thought this book was great and that there weren’t any missteps in it.

    The title, Out of My Skin, is Haskell’s first signal of what his project is for this novel, that is, it is an introspective work, a work that explores an exploration of a certain kind of consciousness, a fictional mind, or, perhaps better stated, it is a novel-length exploration of a certain frame within which to understand a certain way of understanding a certain kind of consciousness. The narrator’s named Haskell, the fact of which, of course, throws so many other things into question. But I know you know that. And have you considered those moments when the narration inexplicably, but seamlessly, and still, paradoxically, jarringly moves from first to third person narration, where Haskell tells the reader what his lover is thinking? The real question is whether this was convincingly done. Personally, I think that’s inarguable.

    When you mention “extreme eccentricities” I immediately think of Beckett’s sundry walking tabula rasas, and especially the sucking stones sequence in Molloy. This character is completely “unbelievable” as a person, that is, he is unrecognizable as someone I know. But I believe that this character is “believable” because he is believably unbelievable. Also, I’d wager that all characters don’t resemble people at all. They shouldn’t be measure against people, really, but against fictions. And what character in fiction is convincing as a person anyway? If the character is convincing, it is because they are convincing as fictions.

    I think you’ve either misunderstood Haskell’s project, or you’re basically arguing for what is, ostensibly, your taste.

    I’ll leave you with this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyCCJ6B2WE

    1. Heh. I’m sorry my little post has “troubled” you, John. I didn’t intend my post to embrace my full opinion of the text, but I appreciate your struggle to parse it. I can already feel my energy drain from me as I foresee arguing with you about the finer points of authorial intent, but suffice it to say that, yes, I noted everything you mention in your comment. I’m aware of Haskell’s project, understand the extent to which he is challenging narrative conventions, and found him more or less successful. Where we differ, I think, is that while you seem to think it is his intention to occupy at all times throughout the text a kind of self-reflexive space, I believe that he is interested actually in passing through narrative conventions, poking and prodding them, occupying them, and then standing outside of them. He must occupy those conventions occasionally in order to build up emotional resonance–such as it is–and though he certainly wants to play with the reader’s connections to the character, he must use certain “dramatic” moments to do so, and such moments require sympathy. The problem was that he was unable to successfully occupy the conventional narrative mode he’d set up to create momentum when the story demanded it.

      I’m glad you thought the text was perfect and “inarguably” successful. But come on, to suggest that I can’t disagree with you without misunderstanding the text is an insult to us both.

      1. Thanks, Shya. I think I have more clarity about what you thought about the book.

        I didn’t intend to insult, but to probe the blanks that you left for me to fill on my own, and from what you said in your initial comment, as I’ve described above, it made it seem that you were insulting Haskell. And how could this statement be viewed as anything less than condescending?:
        “More specifically, for Haskell’s benefit, I think he could learn from Toussaint something about creating characters whose extreme eccentricities do not completely overwhelm their believability as people.”

        Actually, what I’m saying is that it’s Haskell intention both “to occupy at all times throughout the text a kind of self-reflexive space” and to “[pass] through narrative conventions, poking and prodding them, occupying them, and then standing outside of them.” And I did think that he toyed with those conventions and used those “’dramatic’ moments to do so.” Our difference is that I was sympathetic to it, and you found yourself wavering.

        And yes, I think I can say that there are some texts out there that are, for me, perfect and “inarguably” successful. It’s nice when they come along from time to time.

        1. Yeah, I can see where you might have thought that. It was probably because I’d literally just put the book down that I didn’t think to provide context for my observation–the fact that the entire book is about the malleable nature of identity was so large in my mind I took it for granted.

          Anyway, I wavered, yes. I don’t think he quite pulled it off.

          Have you read his other work? His first book–I Am Not Jackson Pollock–is about similar issues of identity and change (all with continual reference to “golden age” hollywood cinema), though it’s more implicit. I found the stories quite affecting.

          1. I loved I Am Not Jackson Pollock. The story about the characters in Psycho is great. And the one about Topsy, the elephant. Laika, the dog in space. Glenn Gould.

            Do you think that Haskell was more successful with the shorts? I’d imagine it was a great challenge for Haskell to sustain his particular mood and his approach toward dealing with the “issues of identity and change” across the length of the novel. Which makes me think I should go read his other novel American Purgatorio now.

            I’m curious, too, about Jean-Philippe Toussaint. I’ll have to look him up. Thanks, Shya.

  2. i like this conversation, and i don’t think i’m ready to argue, but i feel like saying my piece nonetheless.

    i find haskell very interesting. i read the pollock book and out of my skin and i find myself thinking about both books quite often, but my take on them is pretty complicated.

    i’m fascinated by his program of blurring fiction and reality, but there are aspects of the project that i keep sticking on. in the pollock book it’s that the psychologies he describes seem impossibly simple, and in out of my skin the haskell character seems unnecessarily oblivious if not stupid, which is exacerbated by his naming the narrator after himself — it’s obvious he’s (the writer) not really oblivious or stupid.

    i keep thinking my objections might be an intended part of the project — that maybe haskell (the writer) is purposely reflecting elegant, if oversimplified and unlikely, psychologies onto what in real life (or in the case of the film-based stories in pollock, public domain) would be messy, complicated situations as a way of complicating this new-ish tendency among writers that ben marcus wrote about in that essay on him for the believer a long time ago.

    on the other hand, i might just be giving him too much credit.

    and i doubt i’m getting my point across anyway.

    i read toussaint’s the bathroom a long time ago, but only ever think of it when someone mentions his name. maybe i should give him another try.

    1. I think that, when successful, the simplicity of Haskell’s language and characters creates a space in which seemingly familiar ideas or experienced can be re-experiences in fresh ways. Or rather, in which the reader can feel a kind of innocence of observation. It’s risky, of course, because if it’s not clicking, it just comes across as simplistic and trite–and if you read reviews of Out Of My Skin, you’ll see that many readers feel this way about it. Self-reference can only get you so far. Even if your character is complicated by continuous investigation into the meaning of identity, in other words, that investigation itself must be sufficiently sophisticated or fresh for the work to succeed. I feel it succeeds sometimes, but not always.

  3. This reminded of the book Nixoncarver by Mark Maxwell, the premise of which seems to be to imagine the meeting of two of the unlikeliest figures, Raymond Carver and Dick Nixon, and “introduce” them to one another to see what would happen. Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” is another. I’m sure there are other instances of this subgenre as well.

    I think we probably (I at least do) “introduce” writers or artists to one another from time to time in our work. One of my early stories, for instance, I conceived of originally as a stylistic throwdown between Lorrie Moore and Annie Proulx. In their tug-of-war for the story’s voice and aesthetic, plus my own moderating of the two, it winds up being something untraceable to either, I hope, the double helices unzipping and rezipping to form a new entity entirely. But I feel as though this impetus might be similar to this idea of introducing writers to one another, whether literally or otherwise, in order that each “teach” the other something.

    1. Another instance is Mary Caponegro’s story “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” where she imagines Joseph Cornell and Emily Dickinson meeting. It’s in A Convergence of Birds, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.

      1. Nice…I’ve had my eye on that book for a while. It reminds me that Guy Davenport (who writes elsewhere of Cornell) does this quite a bit, I think, in Tatlin, to take one instance.

        1. One of the stories in TATLIN!, “1830,” imagines what Poe did during that year, after going AWOL from West Point.

          The other stories in that collection concern historical figures (for the most part), but they describe events and meetings that actually happen.

          …Except possibly for Tatlin hanging out with Shklovsky, which happens in the first story. I like to think that actually happened, but I don’t know for certain that it did. (Or whether they dreamed of using Tatlin’s flying device to escape Stalinist Russia.)

          In general, I think the meetings in Davenport’s stories are based on actual meetings—though Davenport takes great liberties with what the people in question discussed.

      1. I spoke with them very briefly after their (amazing) set at Pitchfork last summer, and they were very polite and kind. Humble, even.

        (Of course I have no idea what they’re really like.)

        1. maybe they were in a bad mood that night, but they were really rude. and i wasn’t even being obnoxious. they were running their own merch table and i was asking a question about the vinyl version of one of their albums and they just kept blowing my friend and me off. eh.

      2. In terms of band mashups I really love Tortoise and the Ex’s EP because they are so different, and all of a sudden you’ve got the paranoiac, jagged Ex cut with tingy sounds and horns. It’s like rain indoors or something.

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