8/6/19: On Toni Morrison

I was lucky enough to see Toni Morrison speak in Amsterdam, some 10 or 15 years ago. I hope that she did not suffer. There will be no new books or lectures from such a talented and powerful writer, talented and powerful person, and that is a sadness for us all.

I have Professor Abdul JanMohamed to thank for introducing me, in 1988, to Toni Morrison’s novels, to their beauty and sadness and joy and complexity, particularly The Bluest Eye and Beloved (which won the Pulitzer that year). From my earliest days writing, I wanted to tell emotionally powerful stories in different ways, using unusual structures and languages. I have Toni Morrison’s radical forms and lyric sensibilities to thank for this: the ways in which Manichean allegories (one of Professor JanMohamed’s fields of study) inflect Morrison’s work, the ways in which the ghost story and the stories of American slavery are entwined.

So thank you, Toni Morrison, for everything that you are. You have had a huge impact on me, and I can only hope to pay your influence forwards in meaningful ways.

7/25/19: book notes: dreamlives of debris

Lance Olsen, Dreamlives of Debris. Dzanc Books, 2017. Novel

Disclosure: Lance was my Ph.D. Committee Chair and Mentor, and I owe him so much in my development as a writer, a thinker, a reader, a humanoid, as someone who breathes this world.

Some things for me to learn/mull:

As I’ve read Lance’s work over the last 12 years, I’m startled, in Dreamlives of Debris, how startling and lyric Lance’s sentences have become. In earlier works, the sentences, even the shard/fragments, felt more raw – and now I’m struck by how each small module, less than a page (what he would call a narraticule) leaves me breathless, striking in language, as scattered in flight as Daedalus and Icarus and Debris, of whom he speaks. This language-heavy work has the added bonus, I think (occasionally, curse) of decentering my pleasures in the narraticule rather than in the whole, because the density seems to risk diminishing the whole. I felt this, recently, when reading Shelley Jackson’s Half-Life as well – that the intensity of small sections comes (inevitably?) at the risk of larger effect.

(I wonder, too, if my writing is similar, not in its quality but in the kinds and amount of work readers need to address.)

The effect of this book is like mining a very beautiful field of debris (no pun). It risks fetishing the language gems. I love the ways in which this book, like many of Lance’s extensive works, undermine what we expect from a novel. I find myself straining against the apparent (trope-driven) lack of pathos in the novel, which leaves me to wonder: is this pathos an ancient, outmoded concept? How can one break the laws of fiction and still retain pathos, or does it the entire taxonomy need a total reconfiguration?

Startling juxtapositions, detournements of language, especially verbs. A radical ontology, in the Beckettian tradition, where one constantly is reborn, afresh: a collage mind, which liberally quotes others, creating a chaos chorus; a narrator that can traverse history, allowing for a greater expense/expanse/depense of knowledge and language bits; a deep reliance on theory, placing Olsen in lineage (Nietsche, Bataille, Beckett come to mind); a conception of the novel as curation rather than as inspiration. I wrote, at first, that this book promotes a radical ontology that is pathological, but now I have no idea what that meant, and I’m keeping it.

The danger of a book like this, I think, is something that I recall from Lacan: that we tend to see all the objects in the worlds as versions of ourselves. It’s not point/counter-point (In talking about this book with Anne, I invoked Middlemarch – which seems ridiculous), but a refracted version of an ur-point. You wind up seeing yourself in everything, which is both blinding (making sightless) and blinding (the lightest light): every tree, every idea, every noun. It’s a kind of language-based narcissism, which is perhaps inevitable. If we are constantly remaking and reconstituting ourselves, minute by minute, then we may, filled with anxiety, have to reconfirm our presence in the external world, time and time again.

booknotes: Justin Torres, We The Animals

I ask my creative writing students to reverse engineer what they read; to isolate technical strategies they can articulate, evaluate, emulate, vary. And so here I am, writing on reading (not a review; not a critique; simply a notation of that which strikes me), giving a public forum to the transformative power of writing and reading, to the gift of a book, how the thousands of hours that go into the creation and publication of a book might impact another consciousness.

Justin Torres, We The Animals. Houghton, Mifflin, 2011. This book taught me a lot about shape. There’s doesn’t need to be a roundedness, a (provisional) closure. Yes, we read Tristram Shandy, we read books that feel wonderfully jagged, but we tend to make things self-enclosed (or, at least, this is my perception, the necessity of publishing, which I believe has fundamentally changed the way academics who are fiction writers have approached their craft). What strikes me most about We The Animals is the left turn the book makes about 90% through – from a fiction/memoir about three feral brothers, well-crafted and yet seeming lacking a destination other than coming of age, into the traumatic event near the end. The shape of We The Animals feels, if I had to draw it, like a dog leg. Of course, there’s foreshadowing (the homosocial behavior, the bookishness, the liminality of mixed-race), but the approach to the end accelerates quickly. It’s a lovely effect, which forces me to read and re-read – to read into – what nominally seems the work of brothers; all dirt and innocence. I note that the velocity of the climax makes problematic the denouement, which seems deliberately awkward, hinged: a kind of precipice of identity. Does the protagonist sense something about his sexuality long before? If so, the present tense-ishness of the narrative prevents retrospect (a curious choice, one that would give the book away). So, then, what is the function of this misdirection, this lack-of-self-consciousness preventing us from skipping to the end? Or, if not misdirection, a choice in narrative positioning which places me in the same place as the narrator? A forensic position, a combing of signs? I’m thinking here of Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, which seems to make the same kind of radical turn, forcing us to re-read, to re-evaluate, to have a different position of past events, but in a slightly unprepared way; a way in which you are strangely naked.

As a side note: I’m delighted to have, as coincidence, read three books by Iowa graduates that are doing really interesting things (Torres, Machado, Zhang). I remember the times when, reading for Versal, I could pick out the stories written by Iowa graduates. And while none of these books are doing anything too radical, there’s a newish intersection of subject matter, form, and structure that I find exciting.