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Object Fiction?

In “Collaborating with Surveillance: Wolfgang Hilbig’s East German Fiction” (see below), Angela Woodward highlights, among other things, Hilbig’s tendency in his fiction to privilege objects over persons:

Hilbig gives objects clamorous voices that clang over partial and imprecise bits of human speech. In the most stunning story of this unflagging collection, “The Bottles in the Cellar,” empty cider bottles, unused during unsuccessful attempts to harvest the garden apples, begin to take over a house. The apples seem to grow menacingly, only to invade the house and rot. The bottles are themselves imbued with a malevolent life force: “they lay neck to belly, belly to neck, seeming to copulate in a peculiarly inflexible fashion which was lustful all the same and appeared not to fatigue them in the slightest.” The bottles bombard the narrator, brush their cobwebs against him, clank against each other, and seem to command him to drink himself senseless. The vicious physicality of things continues throughout the adult stories. The throb of a laboring refrigerator motor, the recalcitrant flicker of a corroded lamp, a stain on wallpaper that spreads like “lines of discolored vermin […] marching up the wall” all assert themselves so forcefully that the human protagonist seems by contrast battered down. The few figures who appear in the adult stories — a friend chased, beaten, then exiled; a meek mother; a sarcastic, complaining wife; a lover observed in her nakedness but perhaps never touched — can hardly compete with the stridency of these objects.

I have a private writing student, who’s also working in this vein; and I’m looking to recommend more writers/books/stories/poems to him. So far, I’ve come up with Nicholson Baker, Stevens, Late James, each of whom obsessively engage objects in their fiction (“supreme fiction,” in Stevens’s case). Guy Davenport’s Object on a Table is a fantastic examination of the genre of the still life. And then there’s Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, of course. Also, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

This working list is disgustingly white-male centric. Who/what else comes to mind?

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

4 thoughts on “Object Fiction?

    1. Thanks, Michael. I don’t know Ponge’s work at all, but his prose poems examining everyday objects sound promising.

      What about William Carlos Williams and his focus on objects, albeit in a different way, the focus sometimes descriptively reduced to one of his oft- and arguably over-quoted lines: “No ideas but in things”?

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