The Spoils: April 2013

A bookstore sale allowed me to pick up loads of titles this month, namely, the first seven titles in the list below. The last three came from a much-delayed online order.

  1. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists by Gideon Defoe (third book in a series but this and the fifth book on the Romantics are the ones I’m really interested in)
  2. The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest
  3. The Stain on the Snow by Georges Simenon (published in the US as Dirty Snow)
  4. Midnight Plus One by Gavin Lyall
  5. Before, During, and After: Poems by Hal Sirowitz
  6. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
  7. The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
  8. The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation by Fanny Howe
  9. The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 by Michael Palmer
  10. Thread by Michael Palmer (reviews from Jacket 2, Lana TurnerThe Constant Critic, Poetry magazine, and Publishers Weekly)
  11. Conjunctions 37: Twentieth Anniversary Issue (Fall 2001)
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Five From Stuart Dybek

Somewhat odd bringing up two American contributors (one here, the other in the next blog entry) from the Spring 1990 issue of Manoa, given how this very issue of the “Pacific Journal Of International Writing” features a special focus on Papua New Guinean literature. Still, I rather enjoyed the “five fictions” by Stuart Dybek and the five poems by Cole Swensen that I read this morning. I’ve come across Dybek’s name before, but I really don’t know his work.

Both Dybek and Swensen get three pages each, the former’s “fictions” more microfiction than standard-length short stories, at least the type of short-short pieces Lydia Davis is known for.

The first two pieces, “Confession” and “The Girl Downstairs,” are relatively straightforward in their depiction of situation rather than story, down to quirky little details: confessing to alcoholic Father Boguslaw “deadly sins” like “hitch-hiking, which I’d been convinced was an offense against the Fifth Commandment, which prohibited suicide” in the former and the latter with a narrator who wakes up in alarm one night only to be reassured that “it’s only the girl downstairs, the ordinary-looking one who wears rimless glasses and her hair in a bun, it’s only her moaning a floor below in that steady rising chant that she can’t know has disturbed me.”

The other three are progressively weirder and further away from conventional fiction.

“The Knife Thrower’s Daughter” is again situational about its title character like the second story, but while “The Girl Downstairs” has a conventionally descriptive first sentence in “The girl downstairs is moaning again,” the third story begins with a litany that displays more stylistic flourish: “Each evening at the dinner table, knives, forks, chopsticks, skewers, corkscrews, can openers, broken bottle necks, jagged-edged cracked plates of food embed themselves in the wall directly behind her.”

The first sentence of “Who” is even more breathless, taking eight lines of the nine-line piece to ask “Who has been stealing from me, picking my locks, bludgeoning in my windows and screens, rifling drawers, stalking the rooms leaving footprints of plaster dust up and down stairs…” It ends with the two other sentences that make up the piece, both questions that begin with another interrogative pronoun: “What am I missing? What did they find left to carry away?”

Finally, “Seven Sentences” is simply a paratactic enumeration that begins with “One. Tonight the moon has a street number,” and ends with “Seven. It will take more than a few days to erase tonight’s moon.” In between are the five other sentences, one barely so (Breath: a concertina of evening air pressed back and forth between us in a doorway.”), none of them enumerated with numbers like the first and the last. Instead, we get Lilacs. And Proverb. Also, A Novel. And Curtains.

Dybek’s Wikipedia entry has links to longer stories, none of which I’ve read yet, so I can’t say whether he’s better at longer stories. His views on the “flash fiction” trend a couple of decades ago can be found here and certainly illuminate the five pieces he published in Manoa twenty-two years ago.

Lethem Eat Cake

I love the idea of Jonathan Lethem. Reading about him and looking through his list of writings is something I find downright thrilling (“What imagination! What lunacy!”). Shamefully, however, out of all the fiction he’s published, the only one I’ve actually read is “The Elvis National Theater Of Okinawa.” It’s a wild story I really enjoyed, but it’s really short and co-authored, so I can’t really say how representative it is of Lethem, especially since his work just seems so wide-ranging.

“Dismantling Rushmores: Field Notes From The Life Of A 21st Century Novelist” isn’t fiction, but when a link to this appeared on my Twitter feed, I couldn’t resist clicking on it and feeling, well, thrilled to see him open with a discussion of Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” because hey, what’s this, and also because Lethem’s first sentence is something I agree with 100%. Now that I think about it, it’s thrilling because it’s a little scary.

The rest of the essay is just as engaging, to me especially. Lethem troubles what we mean when we say “pop culture” and ends with what would be called, if it were badly written, a rant against “the crime of Literary Rushmore.” Never mind the tiny regret I felt when I realized he was referring to Rushmore as in Mount rather than the film I’ve been itching to re-watch; Lethem’s essay was a fun read, for me anyway.

(And just as I finished reading this, my Twitter feed throws me an interview. This I haven’t read yet, though I’m about to.)

MOOR EEFFOC

This is Chesterton, and I prefer these ideas to the ones in the response from Tolkien that also appears in the same blog entry. As odd as it may be to link Chesteron with M. John Harrison, this reminds me of “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” which I love. Anyway, emphases mine:

Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions – a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door – which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly. Dickens himself has given a perfect instance of how these nightmare minutiae grew upon him in his trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops into which he crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin’s Lane, “of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.” That wild word, “Moor Eeffoc,” is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle – the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate objects.

via The Blog of the American Chesterton Society: The “Mooreeffoc”

Five for Today

  1. Ermita is a district of the city of Manila where I live. It has long had a reputation as a red-light district, so I was surprised to learn that the word itself “always refers to an uninhabited or isolated place, a location for spiritual retreat”: the sacred and the profane?
  2. I like jazz a lot, but if there was a musical genre I’m trying to integrate in my work, it would be (punk) rock. Still, Lauren Camp’s “What’s In The Notes: The Sound Of Jazz In Poetry” made for interesting reading.
  3. I’m not really too cozy with the work of Richard Wilbur, but “A Birthday Card For Richard Wilbur” is a nice piece that spends time talking about simile, which is not one of my strong points, and it reminds me that Wilbur has a poem called “Lying.”
  4. “The Sweetest Sounds I Ever Heard” is a short piece about what it means for a piece of prose to be poetic. I’d prefer a longer discussion, but it’s not always that you read an article for general readers that focuses on the sonic quality of language in prose. As someone specializing in poetry for my MA but also struggling through taking a fiction class this semester, I enjoyed reading this.
  5. Actually, I used to aspire to be a fiction writer, and one of my early influences was Patrick McGrath, which means I very badly imitated him. These days, I don’t read him that often anymore, much less imitate him, but I still enjoyed his short stories a great deal when I re-read a couple last year. I like reading his interviews, too. Here’s another.

John Cheever on Lies and Life, Fiction and Reality

INTERVIEWER

I was reading the confessions of a novelist on writing novels: “If you want to be true to reality, start lying about it.” What do you think?

JOHN CHEEVER

Rubbish. For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken. Nabokov is a master at this. The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give an example of a preposterous lie that tells a great deal about life?

CHEEVER

Indeed. The vows of holy matrimony.

INTERVIEWER

What about verisimilitude and reality?

CHEEVER

Verisimilitude is, by my lights, a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he’s being told. If he truly believes he is standing on a rug, you can pull it out from under him. Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie. What I’ve always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live. This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 62, John Cheever

Another Five Books for 2011

Partially due to a conscious application of of grout, I was able to finish reading Jennifer Egan’s The Keep in five days, despite all the work that had still has to be done. Five days might seem too long to read a novel of only 250 pages, but as embarrassing as it may be to do so, I can deservedly call this a minor but undeniable achievement.

The other four books I listed are still there, as I expected, but I’ve also made progress with almost all of them, except The H.D. Book. That’s not bad, and I’m beginning to wonder if I should test myself by always keeping (at least) five books at hand. This may or may not work.

So since The Keep is now a title I can happily mark as read, it’s time for another list of five, one of which will take the place of the Egan novel:

  1. Blue Angel, White Shadow by Charlson Ong: From “embarrassing” to “downright shameful” characterizes my lousy record in reading contemporary Philippine literature. This novel entices me for being a detective story set in a contemporary Filipino-Chinese milieu by a writer whose way with words I find delicious.
  2. The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry: I used to read a lot of fantastic fiction, and this one might be a good way to return to the genre, as it seems to me best described as “slipstream metafictional noir.” That said, I’m not sure I want to read this now instead of saving it for some other time.
  3. Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago by James Conrad: This is a novel I picked up for its title and for being about “love, ambition, poetry, and nuclear waste.” I don’t know why I haven’t read it, but it seems a matter of bad timing or fatal causality: whenever I pick up the book, work goes crazy.
  4. Five Stories by Peter Straub: This might be a good choice: it’s a slim collection of stories I’m sure to learn a lot from on the technical level (here’s a sample). I miss the old days when I’d do a marathon reading of Peter Straub’s novels. I don’t even have his latest novel, but at least I have 5 Stories.
  5. I’ll cheat and cite two collections under one number, only because I don’t plan to read these cover to cover. While Patrick McGrath‘s Blood and Water and Other Tales and Graham Greene‘s Complete Short Stories are collections by writers who often view life from a somewhat bleak and grim perspective, I’m looking for stories by them that show a (darkly) humorous side to their writing.