Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.
Thanks, Davis Schneiderman, for inviting me here to participate. It seems your energy, enthusiasm and playfulness have pulled me along in your wake for a while now. How many times have we given readings together, yet I’m still out there in the audience cracking up when you perform? We also wrote a piece together about this new era of author do-it-yourself book promotion. Since I’m a guest here on Big Other, I’ll refer anyone who doesn’t know what’s going on back to your post to explain the game.
You know as well as anyone that book-promotion is one of my anti-talents. I suck at it. It’s almost like taking someone who has played a lot of flag football tournaments and putting her into a rugby game. I don’t know how to get the ball, but then when I suddenly have it, I don’t know what to do with it, and all too soon I’m underneath a big pile of other people.
What is the working title of the book?
The working title was Leave Her Alone, but the title became Something Wrong With Her. The book also has a subtitle (being a memoirish type of thing, they always seem to need one), but I’ve been having trouble having the subtitle come directly from my mouth (or fingers) to another’s ear (or eyes). I’m going to have to get past this (and my aversion is part of what the book’s about). But here’s the cover:
It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:
[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.
Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.
In honor of William Gass’s birthday, here is a list of some of my own touchstones (at least of the moment).
- Proust. All of In Search of Lost Time. Any translation.
- Naked Lunch. Not Burroughs’ absolute best, but his best known…and the most important for historical reasons.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Feed your head.
- Empire of the Senseless, Kathy Acker.The ultimate post-colonial fantasy.
- The Castle. Kafka saved my life.
- Omensetter’s Luck. Not Gass’ best-known, but it’s one the best books I’ve every read twice. Period.
- VAS: An Opera in Flatland, Steve Tomasula. One of my partners at &NOW, but one of my idols for making this book.
- Geek Love, Katherine Dunn.We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities.
- Calendar of Regrets, Lance Olsen. Bosch and Dan Rather.
- Moby Dick. My children pretend to be Queequeg.
- A Novel of Thank You, Gertrude Stein. Thank you very much.
- The Silent Cry, Kenzaburo Oe. Two brothers return to their ancestral home…
- Incest, from a Journal of Love, Anais Nin.Better than Miller.
- Funeral Rites, Jean Genet. Eating a cat.
- Double or Nothing, Raymond Federman. The voice in the closet.
- The Lost Ones, Samuel Beckett. The only humorless Beckett work? Federman’s favorite, from when derives the phrase “The twofold vibration.”
- Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino. Marco. Polo.
- Liberty’s Excess, Lidia Yuknavitch. Now I know how Joan of Arc felt.
- The Process, Brion Gysin. The most perfect novel you’ve never read.
- The Sheltering Sky/Let it Come Down/The Spider’s House: 3-way tie. Tea in the Sahara.
- Pinocchio in Venice, Robert Coover. He is the fox and the cat.
- Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson. Nixon = funny.
- NOX, Anne Carson. You unfold this book; it enfolds you.
- Reality Hunger, David Shields. Not the first to say these things, and that’s the point.
- The Melancholy of Anatomy, Shelley Jackson. You put your inside out…
- Keyhole Factory, William Gillespie. Limited edition from Spineless; forthcoming from Soft Skull. Unbelievably fantastic.
- The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano. Tales of the disappearing duo.
- The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard. The expanded edition includes the interior of a human chest.
- Peter Doyle, John Vernon.An out-of-print gem about Walt Whitman’s lover and Napoleon’s penis.
- The Jiri Chronicles and Other Fictions, Debra Di Blasi. With adfictions and products galore!
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami.Toru Okada’s cat runs away.
- Is it Sexual Harassment Yet?, Cris Mazza. Well, is it?
- Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann. Not The Magic Mountain. Which is why I like it so much.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison. Not her most innovative novel, linguistically, but the one I teach again and again for the way it immediately resonates with undergraduates.
- The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon. Not Gravity’s Rainbow. Which is why I like it so much.
Ben Tanzer is everywhere.
And now he is here for the most recent in what has clearly become an occasional series of interviews. That’s right, this Chicago man-about-town and publishing champion submitted to the grueling e-mail mindslog known to you as The Big Other interview.
Davis: Answer a banal question you might imagine a novice interviewer might ask?
Ben: I am wearing pants. Drinking coffee. Listening to The Avett Brothers. And wearing pants. It’s not even like I think of that as a requirement of this interview or any interview. Especially as I sit here at my kitchen table with the heat pouring over me like a wave of steamy goodness. But for the record. Pants on. Completely.
Davis: You seem to publish a book every three months or so, and not one of these is a Green Lantern, if you catch my meaning…
Ben: 2011 was a really good year for me in terms of writing. Having had a series of things come out over the course of the year, I felt self-conscious about it, though I’m proud of all the work. I’m thrilled that there’s interest from publishers and readers, but there’s some discomfort, too. Some of it is about how the release of the work is staggered. You write and write and you don’t know when things will actually pop. I suppose it’s like Ryan Gosling having three movies out this year. And no, I’m not really comparing myself to Ryan Gosling. For example, he’s Canadian, so right there you have that..