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?
In home news this week, Dana Diehl’s Our Dreams Might Align was the subject of an absolutely stellar review by Jen Corrigan at The Coil:
The tie that connects all the stories within the collection is not genre (for Diehl’s work plays with a variety of genres), but rather Diehl’s incomparable style and command of language. Whether Diehl is examining a realist rendition of two estranged sisters reuniting after one of them is released from prison in ‘Burn’ or creating a fairytale in which insecure teenagers turn into packs of animals in ‘The Boy Who Turns Into Toads,’ she employs a lyricism that makes everything feel as if it were happening in a dream. The breadth of possibility in this collection is enormous, and the prose is absolutely exquisite, each and every sentence tingling with a fire that refuses to quit burning.
And Splice masthead contributor Thea Hawlin writes about five female Italian Futurists for AnOther:
Futurism is largely remembered as a movement of violence, Fascism and “disprezzo della donna”, or “scorn for women”, as its manifesto proclaimed, and so female Futurists can prove a complicated contradiction, often sidelined or ignored within this famously misogynistic movement. Now, at the MAN museum in Sardinia, a long overdue retrospective is finally open to the public to highlight their role.
Elsewhere online, it has been an interesting week for new considerations of old books, as most of the best writing took a fresh look at titles that have been around for a while. Part of that was due to the death of Tom Wolfe on Monday, which prompted no shortage of reassessments of his work and his influence on American literature. Probably the best of these came from Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, not least because his was one of the few to look at Wolfe’s literary innovations over and above his journalistic ambitions:
His style, when it emerged, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, was genuinely arresting, and remains startlingly original. Its superficial affect — all those “Zowies!” and ellipses and broken sentences — was like the sound of AM radio shows in the same period, a collage of attention-seeking screams.
But beneath the affectations — no, within them, for, as with any good writer, the mannerisms were the bearers of the morality — was an observer of almost eerie particularity and accuracy. In his best books — The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff stand out from among many good ones — Wolfe did something more than get down his time right, as journalists ought to. He found a tone to match the time. Given an American reality of wild-eyed weirdness and psychedelic overcharge — of strip-tease artists bent over by synthetic breasts and cars customized to a point of Bavarian, rococo extravagance — any tone that was not, in itself, overcharged and even a little rococo seemed, he knew, inert.
Speaking of the legacies of late writers, Bret Easton Ellis gave an interesting, wide-ranging interview to Nathalie Olah of the Times Literary Supplement, ostensibly about the future of fiction, but in one conspicuous respect about a figure from its past:
NO: Has your attitude towards David Foster Wallace changed with time?
BEE: David started writing when he was twenty-one, because he saw the Brat Pack making money. He’d never written fiction before. But he was a genius – really quite smart— and he wrote a novel, The Broom of the System, that he thought aped what the publishers wanted, and he was right. They wanted it. Gerry Howard wanted it. It was hugely influenced by Less than Zero. He would say that a lot. He retracted it later, but he said Less than Zero was an influence and he had praised it a lot. And I do think in that sense he was a kind of fake. I think the emptiness that some of us find in his work is really a product of this experimental path he wanted to travel on. He wasn’t writing naturalistic fiction. He wasn’t writing realistic fiction. It was all kind of in quotation marks and very meta. People do see Infinite Jest as a breakout from that because he’d gotten sober and he was supposedly now writing from a much purer place. That book can also seem like an addict’s performance, in a way.
Those remarks sit pretty comfortably alongside Megan Garber’s incisive article about David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr, online at The Atlantic. The story about Wallace’s abuse of Karr isn’t new, since it was reported in D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace several years ago, but Garber takes pains to show how Max attempted to artfully conceal its dark heart in order to boost his claims of Wallace’s genius:
At the release of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, The New York Times conducted an interview with Max. One of the questions was this: “What was it about his feelings for her that created such trouble for Wallace?”
That created such trouble for Wallace. This is the bias at work. Here, once again, is the male genius centered while the female genius is relegated to the margins. Karr is there, as a slight character, in Max’s biography of Wallace; she’s there, too, as a kind of human predicate, in interviews about him, in assessments of his literary contributions, in effusions about his genius. And often, too—the world can be so myopic that it can fail to see the genius sitting right in front of it—she is directly asked about him: what he was like. What it was like. How it was to have had, for a brief time, the privilege to spin around such an axis
Now for a new look at a handful of other “genius” figures. László Krasznahorkai (pictured above) arguably fits the bill. In a fascinating, carefully observed essay in the Sydney Review of Books, Rita Horanyi affirms Krasznahorkai’s talents while also giving due credit to the artistic abilities of his translators. This is especially necessary, Horanyi argues, because of the unique situation of Krasznahorkai’s most recent book, the short story collection The World Goes On:
The World Goes On was translated by all three of Krasznahorkai’s English translators: George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet and John Batki. While the differences in their work in The World Goes On are subtle, partly because Krasznahorkai’s style is highly distinctive, there are discernible differences between the translators’ approaches to his writing that are worth examining, as they raise interesting questions about how Krasznahorkai is presented to the English-speaking world and about the inherent difficulties in translation.
And, going back a little further in time, Daniel Green has come at last to John Williams’ Stoner, republished to great fanfare almost a decade ago. But Green’s reading of the novel isn’t an enthusiastic one, and runs contrary to many others:
Stoner also becomes the victim of a colleague, Hollis Lomax, who pursues a vendetta against him when Stoner impedes the progress of a preferred student. When the colleague becomes chairman of the department, he strips Stoner of the advanced courses he had been teaching, leaving him to the drudgework of freshman composition and introductory literature. Both the student and the colleague are portrayed as disabled, and while Stoner does or says nothing that demeans them for their afflictions, nevertheless their roles in the novel seem very peculiar. Exactly why they are depicted in this way is never clear (is it supposed to make Stoner’s downward journey even more pathetic that he is surpassed even by the handicapped?), and that Stoner’s primary antagonists, responsible for ruining his life, are an uncontrollable woman and a disabled man is, if not a sign of the author’s explicit (or even implicit) bias, a feature that certainly has disturbing overtones that today are difficult to dismiss as merely incidental.
And going back further still, Tobi Haslett at the New Yorker calls attention to a new biography of Alain Locke, author of The New Negro and one of the key figures behind the Harlem Renaissance:
The New Negro… stood as proof, Locke insisted, of a vital new sensibility: here was a briskly modern attitude hoisted up by the race’s youth. The collection, which expanded upon a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic, revelled in its eclecticism, as literature, music, scholarship, and art all jostled beside stately pronouncements by the race’s patriarchs, Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. The anthology was meant to signal a gutting and remaking of the black collective spirit. Locke would feed and discipline that spirit, playing the critic, publicist, taskmaster, and impresario to the movement’s most luminous figures. He was an exalted member of the squabbling clique that Hurston called “the niggerati” — and which we know, simply, as the Harlem Renaissance.
The term has a crispness that the thing itself did not. It was a movement spiked with rivalries and political hostility — not least because it ran alongside the sociological dramas of Communism, Garveyism, mob violence, and a staggering revolution in the shape and texture of black American life, as millions fled the poverty and the lynchings of the Jim Crow South. The cities of the North awaited them — as did higher wages and white police. With the Great Migration came a loud new world and a baffling new life, a chance to lunge, finally, at the transformative dream of the nation they’d been forced, at gunpoint, to build. Modernity had anointed a new hero, and invented, Locke thought, a New Negro.
But let’s finish with something new. At Review 31, here’s Guy Stevenson writing about Samuel Bolin’s novel Three Pioneers, recently published by After the Pause. It sounds like a bold and intriguing book, very much worth checking out:
The press release for this complicated and blackly comic book pitches it somewhere between Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings and J.M. Coetzee’s 1974 debut Dusklands. Though less accessible than James’s Booker winner, Three Pioneers follows in its ambitious footsteps by updating postmodernist methods and ideas most current writers lack the patience, skill or inclination to go near. Through three bizarre, unconnected narratives — from a researcher of black sites in present-day America, a nineteenth century explorer of Australia and a scientist preparing for cryogenic preservation in the ‘near future’ — Bolin resurrects and reanimates the questions about the nature of storytelling, memory and history that are a mainstay of Coetzee’s early fiction and of work by Coetzee’s influences Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges.
And away you go! See you back here on Monday…