Monday, January 29, 2007

The aura of books

Sitting here all weekend with an iBook on my lap, reading online, hoping for emails to arrive, waiting for RSS feeds to update, the TV on uselessly, an iTunes playlist running, a work-in-progress in the background awaiting attention, I often wonder why those objects over there on the table should radiate such an incomparable aura.

A woman who wrote to me last year to deride this blog asked: "Have you ever managed to get a BOOK actually published? I doubt it". I remember my bafflement. Why would that make any difference to what is written here? Is it because books go through a process to be published and, along the way, absorb editorial and commercial authority, thereby transferring it to the words within, something a blog, even a blog of a book, could never absorb? It seems that way. Of the dozen or so reviews I've written that have been published on paper, only a few satisfy the need to speak that this space embodies, yet somehow they offer a guarantee, however small, to these notes, as gold in the Bank of England guarantees Sterling.
"What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" This question is extremely pressing, and historically pressing, but it is a question that a secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal.
Blanchot wrote that nearly 40 years ago. Last week, Andrew Bissett asserted that "Art exists for one reason: to bring pleasure", as if pleasure was one thing. He falls back on fashionable philistinism because the god of art fails to show himself. Nothing is at stake anymore but our boredom. Others instead might herald an imminent new age, the age of the internet, streaming media, instant access to escape, the end of patience. That at least has been happening for some time, and is often equated with a change of epoch, as Nick Tosches says, quoting Erich Auerbach:
"European civilisation is approaching the term of its existence," he stated bluntly near the end of his own days. We live now in what with a straight face is called the information age. Not enlightenment, not knowledge, surely not wisdom, but bits and bytes of meaningless ephemera.
And in the TLS, Stephen Burn quotes Italo Calvino at the beginning of his reassessment of Infinite Jest.
It has been the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us. Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium's end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called post-industrial era of technology
Burn doesn't claim that Foster Wallace's novel is an example of the affect of the millennium on literature as literature - in fact from his description of Infinite Jest it seems very old-fashioned. Instead he discusses the social resonance of the date-change for American writers. This innocent evasion suggests a blind spot as we wonder. In the same passage quoted above, Blanchot offers a reason why. His words have always stirred me, even if I don't understand what's he's saying exactly. It gives the kind of pleasure Andrew Bissett would either not recognise or, if he did, would dismiss for social reasons.
If one ceased publishing books in favour of communication by voice, image, or machine, this in no way change the reality of what is called the "book"; on the contrary, language, like speech, would thereby affirm all the more its predominance and its certitude of a possible truth. In other words, the Book always indicates an order that submits to unity, a system of notions in which are affirmed the primacy of speech over writing, of thoughts over language, and the promise of a communication that would one day be immediate and transparent.

Now it may be that writing requires the abandonment of all these principles, that is to say, the end and also the coming to completion of everything that guarantees our culture - not so that we might in idyllic fashion turn back, but rather so we might go beyond, that is, to the limit, in order to attempt to break the circle, the circle of circles: the totality of the concepts that founds history, that develops in history, and whose development history is. Writing, in this sense - in this direction in which it is not possible to maintain oneself alone, or even in the name of all without the tentative advances, the lapses, the turns and detours whose trace the texts [in The Infinite Conversation] bear - supposes a radical change of epoch: interruption, death itself - or, to speak hyperbolically, "the end of history". Writing in this way passes through the advent of communism, recognised as the ultimate affirmation - communism being still always beyond communism. Writing thus becomes a terrible responsibility. Invisibly, writing is called upon to undo the discourse in which, however unhappy we believe ourselves to be, we who have it at our disposal remain comfortably installed. From this point of view writing is the greatest violence, for it transgresses the law, every law, and also its own.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Failing as utopians

The tenth issue of the online journal ATOPIA reflects "on the space left for literary, philosophical and artistic journals today." In the only original contribution in English, Lars Iyer discusses the attempt by Blanchot, among others, to set up a transnational journal in the 1960s.
The Revue Internationale was the Italian novelist’s Elio Vittorini’s idea, Blanchot remembers in 1996; he recalls that Italo Calvino, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass, Ingeborg Bachmann and Uwe Johnson being associated with the project; Louis-René des Forêts was its secretary, and Maurice Nadeau and Roland Barthes were also involved.
"If the idea proves to be utopian" Blanchot wrote to participants, "then we should be willing to fail as utopians". They failed. You can find the full text of Blanchot's notes in Literary Debate: Text and Contexts. He also wrote four articles for the journal, and ATOPIA republishes a translation of The Conquest of Space (from The Blanchot Reader) commemorating Gagarin's journey into space, which, as in all Blanchot, is uncannily similar to a journey into literature:
[It] is extraordinary, we have left the earth. Herein lies ... the true significance of the experience: man has freed himself from place. He has felt, at least for a moment, the sense of something decisive: far away - in an abstract distance of pure science - removed from the common condition symbolized by the force of gravity, there was a man, no longer in the sky, but in space, in a space which has no being or nature but is the pure and simple reality of a measurable (almost) void.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reviewers' block

Here its comes again, the herd. Treading the same old ground, their own ground, churning it, thick, brown and sticky. The collective incontinence. So, Melissa McClements in the Financial Times: "Vila-Matas seems determined to make his readers go intertextually insane":
Some of the other writers and literary thinkers referred to in just the first 25 pages include Spanish poet Justo Navarro, Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia, Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, French surrealist Jacques Vache, Italian humorist Achille Campanile, Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin, New York literary critic Harold Bloom, Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas, French poet Arthur Rimbaud, Czech writer Franz Kafka, American poet Ezra Pound and, most tellingly, Jorge Luis Borges, the giant of 20th-century Latin American literature, famous for his self-reflexive, labyrinthine fiction.
Is she trying to drive us insane too or don't her references count? "Czech writer" indeed.
Montano’s father is also suffering from his own kind of 'literary disease'. He is so steeped in literature that he can only see the world in terms of it - he walks around a particular park in Nantes because the surrealist Andre Breton wrote about it; and he sees his son’s erratic behaviour in terms of Hamlet’s mood swings.
Whereas mainstream reviewers see literature only in terms of the world, the world of fashion, the smug falsifications of realism and the demands of idle gratification.
At one point its narrator angrily throws aside a biography of the philosopher Thomas Browne - something readers not in the middle of a doctorate on literary critical theory might well find themselves emulating with this book itself.
The book itself - what an idea!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Poetry of Constraint competition

Task: in no more than five verses write a poem mentioning the following birdies in the following order: moorcock, partridge, plover, woodcock, hern, cushat, thrush and linnet.

Also, include a passionate critique of blood sports, a lyrical evocation of nature's sublime riches and one's personal feeling for a bonnie Scottish lass called Peggy. Do not mention haggis.

Winner just in: Robert Burns.

For big toe dipping

3:AM Magazine has undergone a redesign. Loads of stuff to discover or rediscover: frinstance, Andrew Stevens' interview with Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press and Tom McCarthy on Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book.

And while I'm paddling in the edgier waters, radical independent publisher Peter Owen has a blog. Check out its Modern Classics list for an impressive impression of its output.

Heavy novels

I didn't know of Enrique Vila-Matas' Montano, his new novel in translation, until I saw this absurdly short review in The New Statesman. I read Bartleby & Co in a day sometime ago, and forgot it immediately. But there was something attractive in its quiet but insistent preference not to be a normal novel; to be true, instead, to its own internal logic. In her 207 words, Nadia Saint reminds us that Bartleby & Co was "challenging", which it wasn't, so then warning that Montano is "really heavy stuff" doesn't put me off - and I hate heavy novels (The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter series, that sort of thing).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Philistinism, bis

The Guardian's Andrew Bissett asks:
I have a first-class degree and a masters in English Literature, and I've read plenty of difficult books, so if I can't enjoy Finnegan's Wake [sic], or large parts of Ulysses, where does the fault lie? With me? Or with an author who was lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose? Ditto various other modernist works designed principally to exclude the masses.
Neither. The fault lies in the culture of our mainstream arts media, in which it is the vogue to display faux simplicity and crass philistinism (some of its employees don't seem to understand the intentional fallacy), partly to look cool to their audience and colleagues, but principally to make a viable career even when that means betraying precisely what they claim to promote.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bernhard at the KGB

New Yorkers, open your diaries. Everyone else, your wrists. On the 18th of February at 7pm, the KGB Bar hosts an evening of readings from the work of Thomas Bernhard. The organiser Jonathan Taylor writes that "several American writers who admire Bernhard or have been influenced by their encounters with his work will read and discuss chosen selections - bringing favorite Bernhardian monologues to life as performances, and exposing a wider public to the qualities that have drawn many innovative writers to his work."

The readers will be Wayne Koestenbaum, Rhonda Lieberman, Ben Marcus, Geoffrey O'Brien and, to my surprise, Dale Peck. Has he ever written on Bernhard? Jonathan Taylor says of Peck that his "favorite Bernhard novels are Old Masters, Concrete, and Woodcutters, although not always in that order."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The great year of reading

Spurious has often referred to his "Great Summer of Work" of a couple of years ago. This year marks the 20th anniversary of what could be called my Great Year of Reading; the year the dam of not-reading was finally breached. In 1985, the first cracks appeared. I read lots of JG Ballard. Never again. But it started something. In 1986, a trickle ran over the parched earth. 24 books. Plenty of Milan Kundera, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Philip Roth and, someone who was still well-known then, DM Thomas. In 1987 the waters broke.

It began with Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits before reverting to type with lots of JM Coetzee, Primo Levi, Updike, Nabokov, Peter Carey, VS Naipaul, and Amis and Roth again. In June, I discovered Chomsky. In September, I read Joseph Brodsky's sublime essays Less Than One. In November, I finished Swann's Way. Can such discoveries ever be made again?

1988 was a disappointment after that; what did I expect in reading three Joyce Carol Oates novels?! But the list does include Josipovici's The Lessons of Modernism, Janouch's Conversations with Kafka and Bryan Magee's The Great Philosophers. And I re-read Less Than One.

Looking at the '87 list, I wonder about novels that have little or no resonance in memory: Maggie Gee's Light Years, Omar Rivabella's Requiem for a Woman's Soul, Irini Spanidou's God's Snake, Nadine Gordimer's A Sport of Nature, and those that I recall as excellent yet contain no remembered detail: Jayne Anne Phillip's Machine Dreams and Jane Rogers' The Ice is Singing. Perhaps, since then, everything has been a re-reading, a return in search of the truth to an enchantment whose fulfilment is apparently only a gloomy repetition of the conditions requiring its presence.

The most embarrassing part of the list is the recurrence of the name Colin Wilson. I read a lot of him that year. The Outsider of course, but also things like Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution and innumerable, mercenary books about crime. Today I see he is interviewed by Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3's Private Passions about his taste in music. Go there for some no-nonsense good cheer.

Everyone, the Scrivener

Literature & Latte has announced the 1.0 version of Scrivener, its writing software for Mac users. I use the free version, relieved by its relatively limited functionality.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

In which the blogger is played by Pierce Brosnan

The apparent unfilmability of the sensuous evocations of Patrick Suskind's Perfume was the staple lead of many reviews of the new movie, as if the novel itself wafted those smells from its pages. In response, the spirited blogger Jahsonic asks What makes a novel unfilmable? and begins a tentative checklist: "plotnessness, philosophical introspections". "Being a novel" would be my first suggestion. A novel should be a novel because it cannot be anything else. The hype generated by an adaptation as an adaptation indicates a lack of faith in its original form, most obviously a lack in the original's cultural authority, but also the residual lack inherent to all art. A question borne on this lack is the one that excites me, drives my entire interest in writing: what cannot be written? Most novels seem only too possible.

Proust's In Search of Lost Time is not unfilmable yet the three attempts I've seen have been at best disappointing. They're just films, while Proust's novel is somehow more and less than a novel. Harold Pinter's screenplay for Joseph Losey never got made probably because it responded in kind to the radicalism of the novel's form. The radio version of the screenplay confirmed to me Stanley Kaufmann's statement that it is "the best screen adaptation ever made of a great work and that it is in itself a work of genius". It wouldn't be congenial to commercial cinema in which adaptations are a means of obscuring the residual lack, turning a unique novel into "a major motion picture".

However, last week, the BBC went against the grain when it announced that plans to make a drama about the cold-blooded murder of Jean Charles de Menezes had been dropped. While some suspect political motives and the producer sees it as a betrayal of de Menezes family, I doubt the film would have done anything but give the murderers and those in the media who spread disinformation in the immediate and crucial aftermath, the benefit of the doubt, the doubt inherent to art.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The anti-HypeMarketingGuff review

From Rino Breebaart:
I propose a Review that'll evaluate nothing less than six months old (and ideally a year (or several)). I propose a Review with goodly proportions of prose and consideration. I propose a Review without Hype or Promotional Haste or Specious ad-Guff. I propose the cultivation of Quality, Style and Timely Taste.

I propose The Slow Review.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The buried poetry

Tom Paulin has slumped considerably in Ellis Sharp's estimation because of a dodgy book recommendation. He hasn't slumped in mine. There's no room left. His review of Craig Raine's new book on TS Eliot's poetry (see excerpt) offers plenty more examples, following his Newsnight Review appearances, of the monotony of his left-wing philistinism.

First, I don't see how Raine's stated theme (that "the Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central, animating idea" of Eliot's poetry) demands, as Paulin claims, that the critic look closely at the poet's life. I read the theme to mean every modern life, not Eliot's. "The effect of this omission is to bury Eliot's life even more deeply" Paulin says. Well Eliot is dead so he can't live any more fully than through what remains, his poems, so Raine's close readings of them seems to be the right choice rather than a regretful "recourse". After all, reading them, and the thoughts of their best readers, might help us to live more fully.

But of course, Paulin's demand is to enable us to set such possibilities aside in favour of moralising. He wants Raine to discuss Eliot's "failed marriage to his first wife, the fascist Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who joined the Blackshirts and worshipped Oswald Mosley". Why not just say "his first wife, Vivienne"? Are we supposed to make a connection between their marriage and her fascism, or its failure and her fascism? Either way, in Paulin's rhetoric the woman is a fascist first and a human being second.

And if he wants Raine to read the poems in their wider context, he might start by reading the poems in their own context. The first lines of Eliot's poetry he quotes are "the most famous lines" of Gerontion ("And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner/ Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp/ Blistered in Brussels/ Patched and peeled in London") yet fails to include the less famous fact that it is not Eliot speaking here but an old man. "Eliot, as is well known, originally put 'Jew' in lower case" Paulin tells us ominously "and any account of the poem, especially post-Julius, has to address this. Raine chooses not to do so until his appendix." I don't know how Raine deals with it in the appendix but, last week, on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves he said he looked at Joyce's Ulysses, published in the same year and hardly an anti-Semitic text, and the same word is in lower case throughout (as a search of the online text proves). What does that tell you about James Joyce and his novel? What does it tell you about TS Eliot, champion of Joyce? "In the end" says Raine of the latter case, "we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader."

Friday, January 12, 2007


[Joanna] Newsom learned a lot about listening to music from her boyfriend Bill, for whom vinyl recordings are as much an invitation as a storage medium. "The way he listens to music is one of the most endearing and sweet things I’ve ever seen," she says, taking a sip of her beer. "He takes off his shoes, sets them down and gets comfortable. He kneels or sits in front of the record player, lifts the cover, reverently chooses a record, puts it on, closes the cover and just listens, start to finish. Whenever I go to see him and we listen to music like that, I register in myself how much better it feels than other ways of listening, which are like rushing to eat a meal because you’re super-hungry. You need to eat, just like you need to listen to music, but it never feels good if you do it like that. So I am trying to set my life up in a way where I don’t have to listen to music anyway other than putting on a record and sitting and listening."
From Arthur Magazine.

This craft of blogging

There's been a flurry of posts this week reporting "recently discovered" short recordings of Borges lecturing. All the Ms: Maud, Mountain 7 and Metafilter. It seems people are just beginning to catch up!

Perhaps in another six years a few more than Mountain 7 will notice this brilliant piece of Borges appreciation too.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

As people say

"I often tried to come closer to the truth, to this understanding of truth, even if only through silence. Through nothing. I didn't succeed. I never got beyond the attempts. There was always an ocean in the way, my inability to tie her heart, as people say, to mine. Just as I never succeed in coming into harmony with the truth, so nothing in my life succeeded, except my dying. I never wanted to die, and yet never tried to compel anything more rigorously. To make the world die in me, and myself die in the world, and everything to cease as though it had never been. Night is much darker yet than any notion of night, and day is just a gloomy and unbearable interval." He wanted to go home. We walked up the ravine.
From Thomas Bernhard's Frost, page 179, translated by Michael Hofmann.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the one Handke

The blog Short Term Memory Loss offers a substantial Books of the Year list. To my surprise, two Peter Handke novels are included - Across, one of my favourites (read the customer review for why), and Absence, which isn't. "I wanted to like them" says STML, "but they really got under my skin. There was something extraordinarily loveless about them - not just misanthropy, but a real self-hatred, and a kind of sexless passion." Well, one can't argue with impressions, but is this meant to be a warning or a recommendation?!

He goes on: "There’s also a terrible dichotomy of a writer who clearly hates modernity and its embodiment in America, but longs for wide-open spaces, grand vistas and a very American kind of freedom." Setting aside the half-rightness of that apparent clarity, presumably the brother in Repetition walking over the limestone escarpments of the Karst region of Slovenia and the woman crossing the Sierra de Gredos in the forthcoming novel are experiencing "a very American kind of freedom". If so, then US imperialism really knows no bounds. But there is more than one America.

Rimbaud too: the force and the lack

The most moving reading experiences tend to happen, at least for me, late at night, last thing, or before dawn. An example from the other night, with silence and darkness all around but for high winds and shifting banks of shingle in the distance.

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâchè...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry - It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

This is the final poem in Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems, yet only halfway through the edition in my hands, the Library of America's Collected Poetry and Prose. I turned the page to discover it was over, the final poem of the final book of poems. Doubly I was pitched into the night. This was what moved me, this abandonment. Soon, I closed my eyes and slept.

But not for long. Before night had become morning I was reading "The Final Work", an essay on Rimbaud opening part three of Blanchot's The Infinite Conversation. I have not read Rimbaud. However, this is never a drawback with reading Blanchot. Of course I know the myth, that Rimbaud abandoned poetry and became a traveller, a trader, a gun-runner. He became Leonardo DiCaprio. Blanchot blurs the sharpness of the break: "the end of literature" he writes "involves all of literature, since it must find in itself its necessity and its measure." He uses the words of Yves Bonnefoy to explain further:
It may be that "poetry, engaging us wholly in the quest for unity, in a relation as absolute as possible with the very presence of being ... does nothing other than separate us from other beings." Thus, "having wanted ... to find reality again in its depth, in its substance, the poet loses it all the more as harmony and communion." Rimbaud expressed this fundamental contrariety in diverse ways and at difference levels, in accordance with the movements that were proper to his life and his research: the contradiction within him of a force and a lack. The force is his uncontrollable energy, the power of invention, the affirmation of everything possible, and untiring hope; the lack, after the "stolen heart", is infinite dispossession, destitution, ennui, separation, affliction (sleep). But once again, and from out of this essential default, poetry in Rimbaud sees itself charged with the duty of transforming lack into a resource, the impossibility of speaking that is affliction into a new future of speech, and the privation of love into the exigency of "a love to be reinvented"; to take up another of Yves Bonnefoy's expressions, it is as though the degradations of being to something inert and produced ... had to be borne and assumed by the poet, brought into relation with that which is always of the future in poetic presence. But the contradiction remains: a contradiction between the personal search for salvation ... and the impersonal experience in which the neutral hides.

His emphasis

Ellis Sharp responds with a certain amount of perplexity to my review of the Frank Bascombe Trilogy. Unfortunately, due to a loss of formatting in the review, some quotations from the book appear to my own statements. For instance, I do not believe "that there are no transcendent themes in life" as Frank asserts. Indeed the review ends by observing one transcendent theme in Frank's life that makes the entire trilogy possible. Also, the long quotation he uses reveals a typo, so that has been fixed too.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


More fun evidence that the "literary snobs" who "look down" on popular fiction, so often alluded to by literary bloggers, journalists and "booklovers", are really straw men roaming the wilderness of the popular imagination.

The Guardian reports on a survey into "the UK's favourite literary guilty pleasure" and its blog asks for readers to be "honest" about what they wouldn't read in public: "guilty reads can apparently be anything, from an underworld thriller to a wizard's yarn, from a French cartoon to a horsey romp." Unfortunately I've never read any of these kinds of books, so I feel a little left out. I recently explained elsewhere what kind of read I seek. It seems odd to me to withhold such pleasure from oneself. So I suspect this is not what people feel guilty about! What gain then do they believe is being resisted by these "indulgent reads"? An answer might provide more interesting results to a literary survey.

Anyway it's pretty clear the people asked aren't really ashamed of reading Catherine Cookson, Stephen King or Ian Rankin. As James Wood pointed out after refusing to nominate his "Best American Novel of the Last 25 Years" (or whatever it was), people nominate according to assumptions. It's more likely they'd be embarrassed to be seen reading anything "pretentious" or "heavy", but they understand the drill. They're probably also the first to express indignation when such writers don't receive the top literary awards. It's about time the "debate" generated by this internal contradiction is disabled.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Last night I watched Sky News' live report from Fatboy Slim's beachside party for 20,000 paying guests. However, even without the TV, from my armchair I could hear the music. It wasn't intrusive and I didn't mind. Much worse are the regular booming firework displays from the pier. Window panes wobble in their frames. For a few moments, it's unclear what the hell is going on. Then there's silence save for a few flapping seagulls. Tim Footman relates a similar experience in Bangkok over the weekend. He hears news of the bombs.
I send a mass email, to say I'm OK, hope you are too. Half a dozen bounce back. Out of office. Happy New Year. Back Tuesday. Maybe. A firework goes off outside, and I jump, but just a little bit. Someone's rigged up a sound system. Heavy bass. I look out. You'd never know there was anything wrong. Just like the coup, and the tsunami before that. The dogs bark, but the dogs always bark.
Death is elsewhere. The novelty of being so close to the horror and glamour of a news event prompted a familiar question. How close is so close?

We watch Saddam experiencing the injustice he inflicted upon so many others, the same footage showed again and again as if in search of something hidden, and it's not enough. We want to know how and what he felt. The ghost of the fact is the story with which we're preoccupied.

The silence broken by dogs and seagulls, and the repetition of the search, remains under-explored in fiction, and is always under threat. Kafka turned towards it by turning away.
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.
Yet when an author wanders into this space, the critics hunt in packs. Joseph O'Neill joins those rejecting Franz Bascombe's latest spectral appearance in Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. He says the final volume is unconvincing compared to the two previous.
Those books ... are anchored by very real familial misfortunes (the death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, the troubles of an anguished fifteen-year-old son) that Frank, anomie notwithstanding, cannot help but humanly experience and communicate. The Lay of the Land, it transpires, has no comparable anchor - and this is where the trouble starts.
The trouble for O'Neill is that it doesn't ring true.
Thus it struck me, about a third of the way through, that Frank Bascombe repeatedly says, does, and thinks stuff that nobody would, not even Frank Bascombe. I ended up - like Kingsley Amis reading Virginia Woolf - muttering to myself, No he didn't; no, that isn't what he thought; no, that's just what she didnt say. [sic]
Well, yes, Kingsley Amis, Virginia Woolf! In my own apparently stillborn review, I wanted to make this aspect of the novel the real tragedy; not the deaths, break-ups and troubles - so very real that O'Neill's forgotten they're fictional - but that, despite Frank's extraordinary articulacy, his readers are in the same alienated position as his ex-wife and children. Even as the news increasingly resembles genre fiction, a literary novel is not the news.


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