The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. This will be out in 2011. I don’t want to say that much about it. It’s too soon. But it has all the amazements we expect from Marcus in his construction of sentences and ideas, and then worlds more, all powered by a fantastic narrative. It’s a major book.
Unbelievably fun piece by Ed Park in Bookforum, on the invented sample quotations in the Chicago Manual of Style:
It’s like glimpsing the surviving title cards for some legendary ruined silent movie. The non sequiturs cluster into miniature Ashbery poems (5.70: “One committee member may be from Ohio, another from Pennsylvania, and a third from West Virginia. / Ronald adored her and she him”), and even the terser lists take on a shimmering pillow-book feel, as in this passage from 7.29, “Commonly Accepted Epithets”:
the Great Emancipator
the Wizard of Menlo Park
the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
Among the subplots Joshua Cohen cut from Witz:
a Spinoza section, set in seventeenth century Netherlands; a section written entirely in transliterated Yiddish; a section written entirely in Hebrew (untransliterated, which is to say with Hebrew characters); a section set in (the nonexistent Jewish) Heaven, which I severed to form my previous novel, A Heaven of Others; at least three other recipes, two scenes set at the White House, two in “Palestein,” and numerous recurring conversations between trees or people named for trees (this was never quite clear: Apfelbaum, Birnbaum, etc., straight through to Zitronenbaum), of whom only a Feigenbaum remains.
As for when I knew the book was finished: I’ll only know when my father finishes reading it.
I’m in a book club with a whole bunch of pseudonyms: Jeremiah’d, Paulie Groundphones, Li’l Broheim, Shampoosie, et al. Maybe their pseudonyms should be taken from the book we’re reading, instead of from the jovial thin air above, since the book is already populated by hundreds of perfectly named minor characters. But I’d want an hour with Hilary Spurling’s Invitation to the Dance to produce halfway decent analogues for each of my book club’s members. Last night was one of our most rollicking meetings to date: The spirits flowed liberally, and by the time Shampoosie had to leave for her engagement, the atmosphere had (sonically speaking) pleasurably devolved into this sort of vibe:
I got vague half-permission to record the meeting’s minutes here. I was astonished by how much beer I’d been served, and how easily it flowed into my massive gullet. Just before he was shrouded and bundled off to bed, Li’l Broheims, our hosts’ beatific infant son, staggered around the cacophony clutching a baguette nearly as tall as he was, grinding fine cheeses and flatbreads into the fine carpet. Maybe a less-hungover observer than I am could turn a nice analogy comparing Li’l Broheims to a drunken British soldier like those depicted in Anthony Powell’s Valley of the Bones, the book we’d met to discuss.
But not this guy. Because I AM TOO HUNGOVER TO DO ANYTHING. Which is all I wanted to say in the first place. So today being a low-volume work day I’ve just sat here hitting the internet harder than I have in a long time. 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., I’ve probably stood up three or four times, once to retrieve a pallet of Thai food from the overpriced (dance-club atmosphered) restaurant next door.
Among the many things I clicked on today, I finally had the chance to read Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s book on the rise of MFA culture, “a study of Planet MFA conducted from Planet PhD.” Then I read Molly Young’s review of James Franco’s debut collection, which in turn linked me back to Batuman’s review of the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories. I don’t have anything interesting to say about any of these book reviews. In both of Batuman’s essays, Joyce Carol Oates comes off as an exception to the rule of timid, tepid, guilt-imprisoned contemporary short fiction. In both essays, Don Quixote is the canonical first novel that successfully performed the literary innovations that four hundred years later are still being called innovations. And in both essays, she urges fiction writers to expunge the guilt and shame in being a contemporary writer in the face of global suffering, to shun the imperatives to write about
(A) nostalgic and historical subjects; (B) external, researched subjects, also sometimes historical; © their own self-loathing; and/or (D) terrible human suffering
[N.B. as a lover and collector of typos, that copyright symbol is about as awesome as it gets—unless it’s some kind of metadroll joke I’m too hungover to get?]
[Pointless Full Disclosure: I recently purchased from this writer her “favorite red chair, as well as two lamps, an ottoman, a saucepan, a carpet steam-cleaner, some geranium-scented laundry detergent, and approximately eight pounds of rice.” I’m also babysitting her car for a few months, it seems SUPER relevant and important to add. Buying a writer’s soap or borrowing her car unfortunately doesn’t transmit any of her intelligence to their new owner — although I wonder if some reptilian part of my brain wants to pretend that it does. The same goes of course for adopting a great writer’s dog, something I also did with no improvement to my critical faculties. Or, shit, I bet lots of editors, myself included, egoistically and falsely absorb some of the brilliance of a piece they’re editing, even if their edits mostly involve the introduction of typos and tautologies. The connection between leading a good life and thinking and writing well — I wonder how big that gap needs to be. It fluctuates. Brilliant assholes; generous buffoons; everyone in between. Eating Elif’s rice won’t help me think clearly about literature. Neither, apparently, will getting an MFA.]<—– (<(“the ghosts of deleted paragraphs rattle their chains from the margins.”)>)
[Once I’ve fully left my job, I wonder if I’ll start writing Tao Lin–style fan fiction about Keith Gessen, or hosting this blog on a domain with my full name on it, etc.]
[What would that last “etc” refer to, I also wonder? Going on the Tao Lin diet? Buying my own car? Moving to Alaska to teach comp at Juneau Community College with Gerhard Richter’s Daughters? Starting a weekly jogging club with Benjamin Cheever, Sam Frank, and Haruki Murakami?]
[Please don’t make me try to say anything else about anything I’ve read. Please don’t say nasty things about me on the internet. Or about Ariana Reines.]
[Paul Groundphones recently demanded that I read Jacob von Gunten as soon as humanly possible, which I did, and I can’t think of a better example of a work of art that’s feels simultaneously both “pointless” and essential; that’s quite so beautiful in its pointlessness. I love the wry, skillful incompetence of Walser’s narrators. I haven’t finished the novel yet. I’ve never read Stendhal.
- My novel will read like a press release — for life itself!
- What do you guys think about psychoanalysis!
I realize that every literate person in the Anglophone world already knows the wonders of this book, but I need to report that reading Cloud Atlas on this bus this morning I nearly exploded. It gave me a full body high; I made myself suppress the sounds of several different types of pleasure (none of that kind, Internet!). When I forced myself to look up, I assumed I’d missed my stop, and I had.
Seventh-Story Glory Hole
Walking through the Castro, I looked up at an attractive seven-story building. Someone had cut a three-inch circle out of their street-facing window. They’d lined the circle with soft black foam. The window was painted black, or maybe dark blue. I saw a long, flaccid penis hanging out of the hole. An impossibly high glory hole! The cock swayed gently in the tall breeze. I considered climbing an adjacent tree, or scaling the building itself. I would surely have perished had I made the attempt.
Drink This Now
She thought about piercing my throat with her razor. I’d die, but it’d also mean I’d finally stop talking. Then it dawned on her: I still hadn’t had my morning coffee. All my focus had been on preparing the eggs and onions. No wonder I’m babbling like an idiot. My coffee stood cooling by the stove while I sputtered and bloviated, rubbing my thumb against the plate to retrieve the last bits of onion. A well-rendered female character in a fictional short story, she dashed into the kitchen and returned with the mug. “Drink this,” she said, and pressed the warm cup into my hands. I swallowed it quickly like medicine.
Crabby chic. I’m bored by my style. I got it from you. If you’re British, does that mean your brown hat’s British? Running out the door this morning I grabbed something to read. The Fall 2010 number of thee Threepenny Review was at the top of the pile. It’s wrong for the bus: if you’re reading fiction, it should be bound in a book; if you’re going to read a magazine, it should have at least some politics or pop in it. Each item eventually repelled me—the scholarly ‘mystery’ felt contrived and overdramatized; a poem that maybe wanted to failed to make me consider seriously my own mortality. Then I got to Richard Locke’s review of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, which I enjoyed until I arrived at my stop.
Locke quotes Davis’s wonderful three-sentence story “A Different Man” in its entirety. I am a solipsist and a megalomaniac, though I use those terms interchangeably and probably don’t know what they mean. Reading the story there, I worried that my girlfriend might someday write a similar story about me, portraying me as a character who “kept his distance from her, who took offense, who was not reasonable.” With even more damning observations sprinkled in.
Free Wi-Fi at the Phoenix airport. I’m one of those guys sitting on the floor near an outlet, working on my laptop. Except I don’t really look like one of those guys, because I’m unshaven and there’s underwear spilling out of my shoulder bag and I’m not wearing a purple short-sleeved polo shirt with a company logo on the breast. Two soldiers in desert camo just sauntered by, at ease but still walking in step with each other. I slept poorly last night so this “text” is going to be awful, not worth your time. Fortunately, it’s still worth my time, which is why I’m writing it. Unclear however why it still then needs to go on the internet, aside from the fact that the magnetic attraction that your potential attention asserts on the “language inside me” serves as a fine stimulus to draw it out. Of me. Otherwise I’m lazy and it’ll stay inside while I check my email again and again.
My friend met me at the airport in Albuquerque and told me he hadn’t eaten even though he’d had a layover in Phoenix because he was boycotting the entire state of Arizona. As I deplaned in Phoenix just now a douchey blonde guy looked through me, aggressively unsympathetic to my humanity, as far as I could tell, only because I wasn’t the brother in law he was waiting for. I felt like flipping twin birds at everyone within eyeshot and declaiming, clearly and loudly, “FUCK YOU, PHOENIX, AND EVERYTHING ELSE CONTAINED BY THE STATE OF ARIZONA, INCLUDING ME, AND ALL OF THIS PIZZA. BECAUSE OF YOUR IMMIGRATION POLICIES, I GUESS”
On the plane I read more of the New Yorker 20 under 40 issue. Yesterday, which seems like a long time ago, I wrote this about the Josh Ferris story:
(I’m on a sadness junket in Santa Fe.) I thought “Pilot,” Joshua Ferris’s story in the 20 under 40 issue of the New Yorker, was great. I haven’t read his first novel, which I know is written in first-person plural, but I was very impressed by the narrative control of this new story. It’s written in the “close third-person,” where the narrative voice is contained entirely by one consciousness, except it’s communicated with a “he” or “she” instead of an “I.” Maybe a better term for “Pilot”‘s voice is “the clingy third person.”
Lawrence is a newly, shakily recovered alcoholic filmmaker who can’t believe he’s been invited to a fashionable Hollywood party, doesn’t want to go, but feels he must for the sake of the TV pilot he’s writing. He’s desperately insecure and spends most of the story neurotically trying to engage other people, to get the things he needs without appearing so clingy. The story reads as if it were written in a more conventional third person — “He thought, ‘I should get out of here,'” e.g. — but then Lawrence’s voice, so strong and desperate and charming, has sort of crawled up inside the third person narrative and infected that voice with its self-obsession and neediness. The result is a pleasure to read. Ferris didn’t invent this technique, but he deploys it beautifully.
Who cares about my take on Joshua Ferris’s narrative control! I do(n’t)! Not sure if this is a journalistically responsible article. Phoenix Airport free Wi-Fi is barely functional. I’m entitled to one full meal for every delayed layover I have, regardless of the hour or Arizona’s immigration policy.
The Jonathan Safran Foer story irritated me even as I found parts of it familiar, smart, and…. “original.” I think it would be funny to write a novel that marketed itself as “vegetarian fiction.” I like the idea that Tao Lin writes “vegan fiction,” if if he doesn’t market it as such. Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” is a vegetarian story. Not a lot of meat in it, but plenty of complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins. That’s a joke, insofar as I don’t know what it means and I’m saying it only because I like to.
I can’t help reading all of these 20 under 40 stories imagining their authors writing them at the behest of the New Yorker’s fiction editors. “Hey, Dinaw, submit a story to the 20 under 40 thing. You have a shot.” All fiction everywhere is “by definition” contrived, but these stories are maybe more contrived than usual. For that reason. Which doesn’t nec. make them bad. Solicited = contrived, unless the fiction writer responds to the solicitation with a piece of fiction they’d already written but not published, submitting something they wrote uncontrivedly. Which is impossible, because nothing is written uncontrivedly. But there are degrees. The Ferris story is contrived and great. I’m not as crazy about the Foer story. It’s my fault that I read it as a second-person half-fictional sexy love note to his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, and it’s my lightweight brain alone that makes me read the “house” he refers to in the last paragraph as their dope brownstone in [specific part of Brooklyn TK]. My bad my bad
The Rivka Galchen story is great. It’s narrated by a woman who, like Galchen, has just published a well-received novel. Like the Ferris story, it features an unproduced television pilot. It’s also the first instance of an fictional, ekphrastic blog I can think of, there must be more: icantstandmywife.blogspot.com. (As of this writing, no one has yet reserved this blog. Which is surprising. Full disclosure: Phoenix Airport Wi-Fi has officially crapped out so I can’t check. I’d be surprised if Galchen didn’t reserve it herself. Update: PHX Wi-Fi never resolved, so I’m posting this from California, and of course someone, probably Galchen, reserved the URL. Goodnight)
I skipped the story called “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone.” Rant about this sort of declarative second-person short-story title TK, ad naus. Let me know if you read this story, by Philipp Meyer, and if you think I could’ve learned something about myself by reading it. If you think the horizons of my limited worldview would’ve been pushed out a hectare or two. If so, I’ll read it.
More misc. notes on this New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010: The spread of illos of the writers (p. 90-1) is pointless and unappetizing. There are Q&As online, huh? That sounds good, but then What is the point of printing these straightforward, moody, photo-based line illos??? At least list the names of their favorite newspapers or where they went to elementary school or how many siblings they have alongside their portraits. The Chris Ware cover, on the other hand, and like the Steve Powers illos with the Shteyngart, are wonderful. Something has been beeping off to my left for a few minutes. (I’m sitting at gate A2. Come say hi!! This is a rebroadcast of a previous episode) Reading through these stories I was occasionally like, “this is awesome, but when I finally man up and decide to write fiction myself, my fiction is going to be all gnarly and unexpected and different and rad, and a drug-addict teenager in upstate new york is going to read it and decide that [oh my god, sorry, redacted]” but then I read the Gary Shteyngart story, and that thought bubble immediately dissolved, and I realized Ah, shit, this is it, he did it, damn, etc, I am mollified.