Weekendnotes, June 2-3

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 this week, Dana Diehl and her collaborator Melissa Goodrich spoke to The Offing about their story “Someday the Bees Are Melancholic”, and the hows and whys of collaboration in general:

We both felt like our work/art balance was off. We were spending too much of our creative energy on Power Points and worksheets, and we had to find a way to reincorporate writing into our lives. So, we started sending each other prompts at work. Silly little writing prompts that we challenged each other to respond to in the ten or so minutes we had off in the middle of the day.

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And Splice masthead contributor Thea Hawlin wrote about Peggy Guggenheim and her pavilion at the 1948 Venice Biennale, in a column published at AnOther:

The Greek Pavilion sits at the back of the Biennale Gardens, across a small bridge flanked by an olive grove with a triple-arched entrance. Its high, windowless walls provided the perfect canvas for Guggenheim, who crowded them with 136 works from 73 artists. The result was a vibrant chamber of colour. There, Kandinsky rubbed shoulders with Klee, Pollock and Motherwell; Rothko and Man Ray glowered down from white-washed walls; Calder mobiles gently twirled in the breeze.

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Elsewhere, at Full Stop, Lauren Friedlander delivered a lesson in how to write a negative review of a book without dismissing its ambitions; the book under scrutiny was A Good Day for Seppuku, the new short story collection by Kate Braverman:

[Braverman’s] resistance to contemporary fiction (populated with these ignorant “young writers” she speaks of) can’t help but tendril through her book like a delayed poison, staling the stories with a retro dew, the product of experimental boomer fiction that may not have lost its bile, but has lost its bite. Besides her political incorrectness (the triple-appropriation of “seppuku,” the Japanese suicide ritual by self-disembowelment which crept into mainstream America in the late 70s with the smash novel and TV show Shogun, is several shades of out-of-touch), her pessimism is ultimately unhelpful, uninsightful, and uninteresting in the contemporary landscape of fiction she so scorns.

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And at 3am MagazineAbe Nemon reviewed Woman at 1000 Degrees by the Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason (pictured above). The book, translated by Brian FitzGibbon seems to be just as manic as Braverman’s story collection, although Nemon finds it to be tonally very different:

In telling Herra’s sea-tossed life story in the manner of a rollicking picaresque, relating the relentless battering of fate heavily seasoned with a humour that defies the downbeat mood her Via Dolorosa life would seem to foreordain, Helgason seems to be hoping that maintaining a sort of upbeat stoicism, a constant burlesque and pantomime, will rope in readers as co-conspirators and get them to accept Herra as a purveyor of hard-won wisdom. The book’s central message is that bad things happen to good people like Herra, because life has no external meaning — God’s a capricious douche, what can you do? — and so it is up to each of us to supply meaning, to seize our fates and have our fun.

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Also at 3am, Richard Marshall published a detailed examination of the politics of Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest, a genre-bending Oulipian novel whose implicit political philosophy turns out to be as fascinating as its Thatcher-era political subjects:

This is straight to the point about White. He is a writer, and one with the political understanding to play off affectionate sympathy for the republican cause whilst writing towards an ambiguous poise. The formal prose, the playful constraints of the Oulipo game, all this adds a manner, formality, decorum and privacy to the writing that again rams up against the juiced-up Edenic republican freefall. His socialism is knowing and wised up: unlike most socialists White seems to believe in sin and that they’ll inherit it, to paraphrase Paulin. [The protagonist Rex King] is shown as someone whose democratic expansiveness faces the sly elitist primitivism of lethal and mysterious realpolitik. That King himself sits within the very same reactionary institutions out of which venal terror and death come is part of the pleasure of reading White. The plotting understands the instincts of the prophetic conservative as well as the prophetic revolutionary and the limitations of both.

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And at the Sydney Review of Books, Sophia Barnes casts an eye over the latest novel by Ceridwen Dovey — as well as Dovey’s work to date — with a similar eye towards the author’s political project:

Running through Dovey’s fictions is an interest in the intersection of politics with the everyday, from the sometimes unexpected intrusions of the one into the other, to the questions of culpability that the ignorance of a populace raises — and whether our participation in or resistance to a system of repression is conscious or unconscious. Where do our responsibilities as citizens of the countries into which we are born, or to which we immigrate, lie? What is the relationship of our identity as citizens to the atrocities committed in our country’s name? Where do good intentions — or simple apathy, or impotence — collide with our participation in a system of violence? Many of these questions are intimately woven into the fabric of In the Garden of the Fugitives, as Vita, a South-African born immigrant to Australia, who has spent time as a graduate student in the United States, struggles to define not only her connection to the country of her birth, but her role as an artist — a documentary filmmaker — in exploring that connection.

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Picking up on a book that has received recent coverage here on Splice, Daniel Fraser took to Berfrois to account for the unlikely readability of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, translated by Megan McDowell:

One of the effects of the way Zambra writes, described by McDowell in her translator’s foreword, is that on one level many of the texts read like recommendations from an absent and eloquent friend, one still feverish with the impact the book has had, the burning impression it has made. From this position Zambra appears at once as writer, reader, and critic, his voice imbued with a zeal for the transformative potential of literature, its vital connection to life, and a wish to share it with as many people as possible. This enthusiasm is undeniable, and several of the reviews are recommendations powerful enough to fill the reader with a desire to put the book down, set out for Latin America at once, learn Spanish, and translate the works so that English readers be denied them no longer.

However, something else, both more interesting and more unsettling is at work in Not to Read, a lack or sense of loss lying in between the light, a lack felt all the more acutely, given all the more weight because of the lightness that surrounds it. Something, quite pointedly, is missing. This spectral force calcifies across the text, both disrupting and giving form to the flow of autobiography and literary commentary at its surface, questioning and re-questioning the authority of literary practice. A nocturnal thread that weaves among the three principal figures of the literary work — writer, reader, and critic — its pattern reveals a glimpse of the problem that lies between them: the problem of literature itself.

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Finally, this was the week that Helen DeWitt’s story collection Some Trick took off. Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, DeWitt herself castigated the literary world’s lack of support for artistic innovation:

In the art world it’s understood that artists get excited by new techniques, new materials. It’s understood that artists get excited by conceptual possibilities. How is it possible for two physically indistinguishable objects to be different works of art? How can one be a work of art and another a mere real thing? It’s understood that process is interesting in its own right. … [But a] writer who tries to appropriate these paths to ambitious work will make many people profoundly unhappy. There are acceptable ways to be a literary genius; these are not among them.

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Then, in the New Yorker, James Wood tried to put a finger on Helen DeWitt’s peculiar aesthetic manoeuvres and the implied narrator of her stories:

What grounds all DeWitt’s brilliance and game-playing is the way that she dramatizes a certain kind of hyperintelligent rationalism and probes its irregular distribution of blindness and insight. That telltale “everyone knows”: it is thrown out by the implied narrator, who seems unaware that, in the larger scheme of things, almost no one knows anything at all about Georges Perec. Who speaks like this, and to what assumed audience?

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And in the Paris Review, Andrew Martin took an in-depth look at the stories in Some Trick, then stepped back to survey DeWitt’s broader thematic concerns:

DeWitt’s ruthless honesty about the sausage making of literary production is no doubt autobiographical. She has described her travails in the selling, copyediting, and typesetting of her now classic first novel, The Last Samurai, as well as the baroquely harrowing ordeals with the publishing industry and the financial difficulties that followed. But the generosity and humor of these stories soften any sense of personal grievance into something much more interesting and complicated. The stories are devastatingly specific, and yet they serve as broad parables about the inevitability of being misunderstood, both as an artist and as a person.

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And that’s all for this week! See you back here on Monday…