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.
I confess, I don’t really know what a literary pillar is. The more I tried to think about this list of 50 books, the more confused I became. If I interpreted literary pillars to mean classics of literature, then my list probably wouldn’t be that much different from anybody else’s: Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and so forth. But then it would be full of books that were there as a matter of received opinion, not necessarily books I’d enjoyed or rated or even necessarily been able to finish. On the other hand, if I were to produce a list of books that had shaped me as a reader and a writer, then it would inevitably be full of titles by Enid Blyton or R.J. Unstead or Ladybird Books or other works I’d be even more embarrassed to admit to reading now.
In the end I came to an odd compromise position. These are not all great books, they are not all books I necessarily rate highly now or even enjoyed. But they are all books that have helped to shape my mature tastes and interests, and they are all books that have lodged sufficiently in my memory for me to call them up without having to scour my bookshelves. In some ways, I think that memorability is the most important thing about all of them.
They are not pillars, in the sense that I don’t think the edifice of literature would come crumbling down if any or all of them were knocked away. But they are pillars in the sense that I think I might have been a different person, a different reader, a different critic, if I had not encountered these books.
I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order of author, because I honestly couldn’t think of any other arrangement for them.
1: English Music by Peter Ackroyd
There was a time, almost impossible to imagine nowadays, when Peter Ackroyd seemed to be one of the most important of contemporary English novelists. From Hawksmoor on, his work was inventive, daring, fresh, engaging. Most of the delight, of course, came down to an enjoyment of his skill at mimicry, tied in with a precise and detailed knowledge of London at various stages in its history. The high water mark, for me, was English Music, which really was Ackroyd doing the police, and everyone else, in different voices. Unfortunately, everything he has done since then has been a falling off. But I’ve read English Music several times, with real pleasure every time.
2: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’m not really a fan of Atwood, I’ve not actually read very much of her work. But I was a judge for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award, when this novel won, and of all the winners since then this is still the book that stands out most vividly for me.
3: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
I have now no idea what made me first pick up this book. I’d not heard of the author, but I’d presumably seen a review somewhere that sparked my interest. But I just loved the cleverness of it right from the start. He’s not been able to keep that up, and his best work since then has all been very different in tone and affect. But that first book was just a brilliant one-off that taught me a lot about what you could with story.
4: Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester
When this book was written it was the early 50s. Science fiction was at its most conservative, both politically and artistically. And along came this guy who played with the shape of the words on the page, who just put the most extraordinary literary invention at the service of the most traditional of sf stories (culled quite openly from The Count of Monte Christo), and in the process he produced the one truly classic sf novel of the entire decade.
5: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
I love short stories. I think I love them mostly because of Borges. I can read them over and over again (my copy of this book is falling apart), and they always stun me.
6: The New Confessions by William Boyd
There seemed to be something of a vogue at one point for sprawling novels that encompassed the whole of the twentieth century, and often seemed to use film as their guiding metaphor: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Star Struck by Nigel Williams, Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson. I’m not sure The New Confessions is the best of the bunch, I’m not sure it is the best thing Boyd has done (I slightly prefer The Blue Afternoon), but this was the novel that somehow confirmed him as a writer I wanted to follow.
7: 2001, A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
I had just seen the film. I was taking my O-Levels, and after the last of my exams needed something to read before school ended. There are times when the circumstances in which we read a book matter every bit as much as anything actually in the book. This was one of them. But it is still an amazing book.
8: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
So, back in the 80s I was reviewing regularly for the late, lamented Fiction Magazine, and at one point I was sent a bunch of first novels by new American writers. They were mostly technically competent but rather uninspiring. Flash forward a few years and everyone is suddenly talking about this book. I pick it up and realise that Chabon was actually one of those new American writers. Still don’t think The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is up to much, (though in retrospect I see much of his fascination with the fantastic), but this one excited me and introduced me to a writer I now read assiduously.
9: The Solitudes by John Crowley
10: Love and Sleep by John Crowley
11: Daemonomania by John Crowley
12: Endless Things by John Crowley
Is this a cheat? I could have listed these under one title, Aegypt (see Lawrence Durrell and Gene Wolfe below), because they do form one closely interwoven sequence. But they were written over 20 years and encountered not as one work but as four separate volumes. Anyway, this is my list so I can structure it how I want. There are some who will tell you that Crowley’s Little, Big is the finest work of contemporary fantasy, they could be right, but for me it is these four books that really work. The writing is gorgeous, the subtle interplay of themes is magnificent, and over four volumes there’s the space to really let the slow, insistent quality of the books work their magic on you. These probably come close to being the most essential books on my list.
13: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Is this science fiction’s Finnegans Wake? A broken, disorienting narrative that loops back around on itself, episodes that arise and disappear, unexplained occurrences that separate the city from the country that surrounds it. My first encounter with science fiction that wasn’t just full of wonders but that was genuinely wonderful.
As I mentioned a while back, I’m now the nonfiction and reviews editor at Requited, an online journal. My first issue as nonfiction editor went up at the beginning of July. This week, the reviews section was established, and I’m pleased to announce that the first review is up: Paul Kincaid’s take on Gregory Feeley’s Kentauros. Do check it out (and thanks, Paul).
If anyone out there would like to propose a review, please contact me. Reviews will be posted as received/accepted, independent of the issues themselves (which are biannual). Priority will be given to things I personally like and/or consider “important.” Oh, and reviews need not be of books—try me!
[By now it was late. The three stars were dimpling the sky. The baby raccoon was crying for its milk (I’d taken in an orphan the week before). But Jeremy and I weren’t finished yet discussing the movies we’d just watched.]
A D: You had a rather serious reaction to this one, Jeremy. Were you crying afterward?
Jeremy: Yes. Crying because I realized how much of my life I had wasted watching movies. What George Lucas did for his own franchise with the prequels, Malick did for all of cinema with The Tree of Life.
Ryan W. Bradley‘s story, “The Pit Bull’s Tooth,” is up at Wigleaf, and his chapbook, MILE ZERO will be out in September from Maverick Duck Press.
Elaine Castillo had poems published in Issue 12 of > kill author, and a piece forthcoming from Used Furniture Review, both from her poetry manuscript CANDIDA: A TRANSLATION. Several of her short films will be screened in Glasgow on April 9, for the Digital Desperados premiere night at the Center for Contemporary Arts.
Greg Gerke wrote about William H. Gass at The Nervous Breakdown–touching on his essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” his story “Mrs. Mean,” and meeting the man himself at the Strand Bookstore.
Paul Kincaid has had reviews of The Anatomy of Utopia, by Karoly Pinter, at SF Site; Nexus: Ascension, by Robert Boyczuk, in New York Review of Science Fiction 270, February 2011; and The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, in Vector 265, Winter 2011. The BSFA also published a chapbook, Into the Woods: Robert Holdstock Remembered, which included “An Answer” as its introduction; “The Memory of Stories,” an interview Kincaid conducted with Holdstock; and “Robert Holdstock: A Roundtable Discussion,” in which Kincaid took part. Finally, Palgrave Macmillan have apparently published Teaching Science Fiction, edited by Andy Sawyer & Peter Wright, which contains Kincaid’s essay “Through Time and Space: A Brief History of Science Fiction,” in which he attempts to compress 500 years and the entire global endeavour of science fiction into just 6,000 words (don’t try this at home, kids).
Michael Leong‘s writing has recently appeared online at So and So Magazine; Action, Yes; Marsh Hawk Review; and Blackbox Manifold and in print in Hotel Amerika. His manuscript The Philosophy of Decomposition / Re-composition as Explanation: A Poe and Stein Mash-up was a semi-finalist for the 2011 Sentence Book Award and will be published in the near future as a chapbook by Delete Press. He will be reading from that work at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) as well as giving a paper on generic hybridity in C.D. Wright’s long poem One Big Self.
John Madera was accepted to attend Brown University’s MFA in Literary Arts program, Fall 2011. “The Museum of Oddities & Eccentricities,” a collaboration with Lily Hoang, appears in Unfinished, Stories Finished by Lily Hoang (Jaded Ibis Press). He also reviewed Ted Pelton’s Bartleby, the Sportscaster (Rain Taxi: Review of Books, Spring 2011 Print Edition) and Renee Gladman’s Event Factory (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 2011). Madera, along with John Reed, John Deming, and Tim Brown, took part in the National Book Critics Circle’s Celebrates Small Press Month panel, with Barbara Hoffert
Amber Sparks‘s story, “A Brief, Bright Fire to Sweep the World Clean,” appeared in the March issue of PANK. The story was shortlisted for PANK’s 1001 Awesome Words Contest. Two of her previously published stories (“Tours of the Cities We Have Lost” from Unsaid 5, and “You Will Be the Living Equation” from Annalemma 7) were published in the latest issue of Zine Scene’s Reprint.
J. A. Tyler‘s second book, A Man of Glass & All the Ways We Have Failed, is now available from Fugue State Press. Please eat this book up.