Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.
[A guest post from Matt Dube. Matt Dube is the fiction editor for the online journal H_NGM_N. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-MO university. His short story manuscript _Pay What You Owe Me_ is unpublished but unpublishable.]
Add it up: I’m not Lydia Davis (thirty-four stories in Break It Down) or Etgar Kertet (I counted thirty-five stories in his latest, Suddenly a Knock on the Door), but my manuscript is twenty-four self-consciously separate stories. There are themes that connect them, of course, but those same themes will probably connect everything I ever write. Twenty-four is just about double the usual recommended number for a book of stories coming out of an MFA program, isn’t it? And more importantly, who can think about twenty-four things at once? Didn’t someone say you’re a genius if you can mange two? I got a handle on how to order them by cheating: I broke the book down into four sections of about thirty-five pages. Then, I put the four sections in order: the first stories introduce the book’s themes (being in debt to other people) and the methods (lightly surreal, often about family); the stories in this last section sound to me, at least, like the last word on the subject. Think Beckett, and that good kind of exhaustion. The sections between those poles? That’s where the stories go that try out different versions of the initial set-up, stories that make sense in relation to other stories, stories that show I’m a schematic thinker and an improviser, a tinkerer and a clown. Within the sections, I tried mostly to not do too much of the same thing: not too many first person stories in a row, not too many that and on an image, not too many in a row with plots that hinge on surprise. In a chapbook, I think I’d call that kind of limited range a strength, but in the collection, it became a liability. Continue reading
How can I contain myself? (But perhaps the question is: how could Gass both contain and not contain himself to have done what he did?) Having had The Tunnel to go back to every morning was like having the one you love next to you, to be transfixed and freshened, to be, as that worthy words man said, surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. (First post on approaching The Tunnel)
In the end (and there can’t be an end to such a work that reverberates on itself and the whole of literature, philosophy, and history), Gass’s explication of Kohler’s consciousness is all tongue, all logos, but a logos of the highest order. Is there pity and terror? Is there sentimentality? Many monsters have their sweet side and though some have called Kohler a monster, I would just call him a guy who tells the truth of his story, no matter the lies of old age one tells to lessen the pains of the past. At the center of his thoughts is the idea of the fascism of the heart, with Kohler himself as the case study. He gives us his life in many slices of pie (sugar and sweets, such as ice cream and cake abound in the book). He also heaps us with shit, with the staged, and with something surfacely sentimental, but wholly human:
In addition to being a superb writer (one of the finest of the past fifty years, by my reckoning), B.S. Johnson was also a gifted filmmaker, writing, directing, and acting in both films and programs for television.
Johnson’s final film was Fat Man on a Beach (1973); he wrote it and starred in it. (It was directed by Johnson’s agent/producer and close friend Michael Bakewell, who among other things produced Eh Joe, Samuel Beckett’s first work for television). Fat Man is, just like Johnson’s novels, a wonder of aggressively biting metatextuality, cheeky absurdism, and relentless formal experimentation (which is really, as that man always reminds us, play). It’s also a reminiscence on his time in Wales, and, sadly, some of the last footage we have of the man (he took his life that same year, at the age of 40).
You can watch the film in its entirety at YouTube; to encourage you further, I’ve cut holes in this blog through which you can view it. “Cut to the bananas!”
[Please note that I’ve updated both of these posts with photos that Yuriy sent me.]
I’d like to ask a few more questions about Three Blondes and Death, if you don’t mind. Perhaps the most memorable and complicated aspect of that novel is its syntax. I’ll quote a short passage to illustrate:
It’d been unusually warm all that spring. The vegetation was much more advanced than usual. It really looked almost as in the middle of June. The grass was thick. It was bright green. It covered the earth like a bright layer of paint. The paint seemed shiny. It seemed still wet. It seemed to have been poured out of a can and to have spread over the earth. It seemed to have spread by itself. The earth therefore seemed tilted. (13)
How did you arrive at such a style?
Oh, yes, that syntax! You can’t imagine how much grief and pain it cost me.