Weekendnotes, March 31-April 1

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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In home news, Splice masthead contributor Anna MacDonald has published not one but two pieces in the Australian Book Review: one on Gideon Haigh’s A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean, about an unsolved murder in 1930s Melbourne, and one on The Everlasting Sunday, the atmospheric début novel by Robert Lukins. And masthead contributor Thea Hawlin published a piece on the photographer Vivian Maier in AnOther.

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Elsewhere, it was a good week for small press publications that have already been out for some time. In Full Stop, Daniel Green published a typically incisive review of Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, edited by Jennifer Hodgson and released in February by And Other Stories. It’s a review that reserves its recommendation of the book for readers who already interested in Quin’s work, but it also offers a good overview of her back catalogue and points of interest:

Whether this book enhances or alters Ann Quin’s pre-existing reputation as a writer of unconventional, adventurous fiction is not as conclusive. The book is a miscellany, including works of nonfiction and collaborative prose pieces, rather than a collection of short fiction per se, and while several of the stories that are included evoke subjects and strategies found in Quin’s novels (one was later transformed into a novel), readers unfamiliar with the novels will probably find them less compelling absent the context of their specific associations with the phases of Quin’s all-too-brief career, which ended with the writer’s suicide less than 10 years after the publication of her first novel, Berg. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t provide much editorial guidance that could help us place the included short works in such context (although this omission was most likely prompted by the publisher, lest the book become too “academic”), and thus to a large extent we are left with a series of discrete prose works that vary enough in tone and approach to make their chronological presentation seem more haphazard than sequential, the reader’s experience of the collection as a whole oddly disconnected, without some broader perspective on the writer’s assumptions and ambitions.

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And David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, first published last year by Little Island Press, received an appreciative consideration by Liam Harrison in 3am Magazine:

Hayden’s estranging prose style is not easy work. If you read too much into the symbolism you may get lost down the philosopher’s rabbit-hole; on the other hand, if you ignore the subtleties of each tale, the bittersweet alterity may pass you by. These are stories to be digested slowly — they play on your nerves, sit on your tongue, churn in your gut.

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Elsewhere, in larger-profile periodicals, the New Yorker has had a surprisingly good run with recent reviews not written by James Wood. (It’s no surprise that they’re good reviews; it’s only a surprise that they’ve kept him off the page for so long.) Particularly impressive is Katy Waldman’s take on Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance, a novel in which the writer takes a version of himself as the protagonist exposed to the brutalities of the American justice system.

 

Zachary Lazar writes mazy hybrids of fact and fiction. … In Vengeance, the author’s tense and evocative new book, “Zachary” is back, though still reeling from the death of his dad. He goes on a pilgrimage to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the notorious converted plantation better known as Angola, ostensibly to see a Passion play performed by the inmates, but also with the hope that associating with penitent murderers and felons will help him grasp “the problem of violence.” What Vengeance really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel. Despite its powerful social critique, it is cautious and prismatic, openly troubled by its own claims to authority.

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Also impressive is Leslie Jamison’s attempt to revive interest in George Cain’s Blueschild Baby, a novel about drug addiction, written by a man addicted to drugs, which was originally published in 1970 and hailed by the New York Times as “the most important work of fiction by an Afro-American since Native Son”:

Blueschild Baby reads like a book-length attempt to exorcise with fiction what Cain couldn’t purge from his body. Cain understood the ravages of heroin as well as anyone, and his novel summons that devastation without mercy or reserve: a pusher shoving ice up a woman’s vagina to bring her back from an overdose, or a “haunted huddle” of junkies “nodding, stinking, burning, high,” lit by the glow of a TV playing cartoons. When George visits the projects where he was born, he gets a junkie named Fix to cop for him, “gaunt and hollow… skin strapped tight around the skull… there’s not enough junk in the world to quench his need.” But Cain also understood that criminalizing addicts only compounded the damages that addiction itself had wrought, and Blueschild Baby is a difficult, prickly book in part because it’s trying to tell two stories that sit together uneasily: the damage of drugs and the ways this damage has been deployed as moralizing rhetoric.

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And Laura Miller’s take on Christine Mangan’s Tangerine is a subtle piece of writing, an ultimately negative review, alert to the problems with the novel, even as it also finds convincing grounds for appreciating it:

A movie can rely on Tangier itself to provide the atmosphere. For a novel that leans so heavily on its setting, Tangerine rarely succeeds at evoking more of Tangier than its heat, its humidity (or dust), its “confined and chaotic streets,” and its sweet mint tea. This, the novel’s biggest weakness, is largely a failing of Mangan’s prose, which tends to be general rather than specific, lofty rather than grounded, received rather than observed. Whether Lucy or Alice is narrating, Mangan’s diction has the archaic gentility of someone incorrectly imagining how previous generations thought and spoke.

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Finally, Tim Parks (pictured above) has been publishing his occasional musings on literature in the New York Review of Books for many years now, and in his latest outing he asks whether literature is an artform ill-suited to the device of the flashback:

Every few days, working on my new novel, my thoughts flash back to something Colm Tóibín said at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival nine months ago: that flashbacks are infuriating. Speaking at an event to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Tóibín said Austen was marvelous because she was able to convey character and plot in the most satisfying way without the “clumsiness” of the flashback. Today, on the other hand, we have to hear how a character’s parents and even grandparents met and married. Writers skip back and forth in time filling in the gaps in their shaky stories. It is dull and incompetent.

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And away you go! See you back here on Monday…