Remarks on the Beasts: On Nick Francis Potter’s New Animals


Nick Francis Potter’s New Animals (Subito Press) is a startling book, an unleashing of all-too-human humans and other monsters within wildly conceived spaces. While echoing Ben Marcus’s absurdist eviscerations of the nuclear family, George Saunders’s satirical takedowns of post-industrial society, and Brian Evenson’s bleak mind- and landscapes, Potter’s prose is its own animal.

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Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

Photo by Frank Di Piazza

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.

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Nick Potter’s “Literary Pillars”

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  2. All Fall Down – Mary Caponegro
  3. A Prank of Georges – Thalia Field & Abigail Lang
  4. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  5. Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli
  6. At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
  7. Autumn of the Patriarch – Garbriel García Márquez
  8. Berg – Ann Quin
  9. Big Questions – Anders Nilsen
  10. Bone – Jeff Smith
  11. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  12. Dies: a Sentence – Vanessa Place
  13. Epileptic – David B.
  14. Europeana – Patrik Ourdenik
  15. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut
  16. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
  17. Hey, Wait… – Jason
  18. Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
  19. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  20. Jimmy Corrigan – Chris Ware
  21. Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges
  22. Memories of My Father Watching T.V. – Curtis White
  23. Minor Angels – Antoine Volodine
  24. Molloy – Samuel Beckett
  25. Motorman – David Ohle
  26. Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo
  27. 60 Stories – Donald Barthelme
  28. Sleepers Awake – Kenneth Patchen
  29. Souls of the Labadie Tract – Susan Howe
  30. Stories in the Worst Way – Gary Lutz
  31. Take Five – D. Keith Mano
  32. Tender Buttons – Gertrude Stein
  33. The Age of Wire and String – Ben Marcus
  34. The Art Lover – Carole Maso
  35. The BFG – Roald Dahl
  36. The Dead Father – Donald Barthelme
  37. The Epileptic Bicycle – Edward Gorey
  38. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
  39. The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman – Lawrence Stern
  40. The Log of the SS Mrs Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
  41. The Magic Kingdom – Stanley Elkin
  42. The People of Paper – Salvador Plascencia
  43. The Regular Man – Dina Kelberman
  44. The Stranger – Albert Camus
  45. The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
  46. The Tin Drum – Günter Grass
  47. The Wavering Knife – Brian Evenson
  48. Ulysses – James Joyce
  49. Underworld – Don DeLillo
  50. Wittgenstein’s Mistress – David Markson
  51. Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.