On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. This time around, after taking a few weeks off, we’re catching up on the best criticism of the summer — so brace yourselves, because there’s quite a bit of it. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?
In home news this week, Splice masthead contributor Thea Hawlin wrote about the thematic treatment of love in Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity (trans. Saskia Vogel) for Review31:
…like most loves, Ester’s is worn down by one relentless factor: time. Time dissolves passion; it dissolves delusion; it unpins hope. Dependency, in turn, inevitably loses its original appeal and turns sore. Ester’s resilience is astounding as it is painful: ‘As always in the space between their encounters, the heart forgot all the negatives that the mind still recalled.’ Her seemingly unending ability to regenerate her emotions becomes almost admirable. Rather than dismissing her returns to the man she loves as foolish, Andersson shows us the strange compulsions that underpin such damaging behaviour. Ester’s determination ‘that progress was inevitable’ is a driving force so strong it erases any doubt: ‘Hope was all she wanted.’ Andersson reminds us again and again that ‘the largely positive can leave negative stains and vice versa.’ Even moments of damaging repetition hold the potential for restorative power and joy. She captures the tremendous highs of love — ‘bliss makes people light’ — but with those highs the somewhat inevitable crashing lows.
And, earlier in the summer, Thea also had a little review of Alex Johnson’s A Book of Book Lists in the Times Literary Supplement:
As Alex Johnson shows, book lists come in many forms. Yet A Book of Book Lists is not merely a book of book lists. It suggests how we read, and why: every list Johnson includes here reveals another way of thinking, another way of figuring things out…
But you’ll need to subscribe to the TLS if you want to read the full review…
Elsewhere, in small press industry news, there’s a fantastic interview with Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose Books on this month’s End of All Things podcast, hosted by Rob Cutforth. Among other things, Kevin has some important comments to make on the relationship between small press publishers and their authors, the attractions and dangers of larger publishing houses, and the best ways of getting books into the hands of readers.
“At one time, it used to be that you could get column inches in magazines and newspapers”, he says at one point (47:16). “But magazines and newspapers are virtually defunct. You don’t sell books from a review, really. Book sales — you’ll sell more from a good Amazon review. If you get a review in The Guardian, yes, you will get people and it will sell, but reviews… At one time, they had great heft and leverage with the reader. But not anymore…”
And at least some review venues are fighting the good fight for small press publications! Over at Full Stop, Sam Carter has a rave review of Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (trans. Charlotte Coombe), one of the new titles in the second round of books published by Charco Press:
As she deftly mobilizes themes of mobility and immobility, García Robayo demonstrates not only how circumstances catch us with little promise of release but also how we get caught up in the idea of finding a way to escape.
If, in other words, a school of fish can operate as a net of its own — a more visible one that’s also potentially more suffocating and sinister — García Robayo draws out the ways that, outside the piscine perspective, education is often complicit in making such nets seem natural. And this education happens not only in classrooms but everywhere, a set of recipes seemingly resistant to change and remarkably resilient in terms of producing lingering odors and overpowering aftertastes. Rewriting these recipes is certainly possible; what García Robayo depicts so compellingly are the bitter consequences of refusing to do so.
At 3AM Magazine, Imogen Woodberry reviews Normal People, the new novel by Sally Rooney, who is emerging as one of the most vocal champions of the small press scene in Ireland:
The protagonists of Rooney’s tales are young; Conversations with Friends focused on two girls in their early twenties, while Normal People deal with a boy and a girl at school, taking them through their time at university. These are of course years of pained emotions, when a bad mark, a romantic rejection or the failure of a political cause can appear to be catastrophes from which there is no return. But moments of lightness and pleasure, when they do come by, are also heightened too. The characters here are attractive, frequent artistic and literary circles and have only limited financial worries. The action is communicated through vignettes in which they go to parties, hang with friends, eye up potential love interests or cocoon themselves boyfriends and girlfriends.
Yet the tone of the novel is resolutely earnest. At one point Connell muses anxiously on his enjoyment of Emma in the face of its intellectual frivolity, on holiday, after leaving school, Marianne spends her time reading long articles about Syria and researching the ideological backgrounds of the journalists who wrote them, while over a later summer the pair message each other about the ‘architecture of global surveillance,’ agonising that they are constrained to correspond on the subject through email. When they turn to more personal matters it is with a similar tone of sedulous intellectualism, or at least as rendered by the clinically observational narrative voice.
Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books brings a real treat: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos reviewed — appreciatively — by Lorrie Moore:
The concentrated, flinty nature of Cusk’s mind… ensures that authorial intelligence is burned into the syntax of every line, despite the cloaked narrator in the foreground. Even if they technically belong to fictional others, the voices, with their stories of familial upheaval, traps, escapes to dubious safety, or dull drift, are chosen and arranged by Cusk as both reflections and arguments concerning life’s dissolutions and reconstructions. What runs through her trilogy is a coolly abstracted consciousness organizing all the stories — one that is alert to the mendacity and (as the trilogy suggests, if they are any good) the cruelty in stories (in a culture that glibly claims to value them). It is like reading the best kind of philosophy — steely, searching, brisk.
And it’s time to brace yourself for a deluge of reviews of Olivia Laing’s Crudo. Crudo may or may not be the best novel of the year, but it’s probably the novel that will generate some of the best critical attention. Here’s Imogen Morell at 3AM Magazine:
Contradiction is thematically crucial to Crudo’s form and content. Kathy is conflicted and suffers the unravelling of self and subjectivity. Personal destabilisation reflects an online experience of tripping voices and contrary comments. The novel disrupts the temporality that a social media timeline inevitably constructs — events are jumbled and sentences are non-sequiturs. During this summer, incidents cannot take place ‘in a different order or reality from your own’. A refugee crisis is no longer a distant abstract, far removed from one’s own narrow relationality — Laing’s Kathy is forbidden the luxury of ignorance. Such an ambiguous narrative voice speaks in all tenses and persons and is bound to paradox. The ‘I’ and the ‘she’ of the text are the unlikely fusion of Acker and Laing’s voices and stories: both driving the other on, seeking power through each other’s anger and inconsistencies, blending two instances of non-fiction to create a united work of fiction. The two become bound, Laing holding both herself and Acker to account. Kraus experiences a similar emulsification when writing Acker’s life: ‘Acker’s texts channel Peignot, Bataille and Catullus. By reading her writings very closely, I began channelling Acker’. Kathy is a hybrid and layered product. Laing complicates the idea of identity, opening one’s lonely body to a more embracing, multiple singularity. Finally, Kathy Acker is as close to another being as she wanted to be, she has become another.
And, even better, here’s Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books:
The prose is instantly confessional, with a directness that most reminds me of emails I’ve received rather than books I’ve read. But in emails you talk of yourself in the first person without trouble or hesitation, and this narrator can’t quite settle on herself. Going back and forth between ‘she’ and ‘I’, as if a non-fiction writer were reminding herself to inhabit a character from the inside, the prose is an engine not quite yet warmed to a purr. Or is it deliberately not purring: is it stuttering instead, punk-like in its refusal to keep to the rules of the novel, like the work of Kathy Acker? And more than that, what if it’s the stuttering that makes the writing possible?
Finally, a trio of essays on contemporary writers of big, fat, epic novels. Back at Full Stop, Callum McAllister has no shortage of wonder to express at the majesty of CoDex 1962, arguably the crowning achievement of the Icelandic novelist Sjón:
CoDex is more an anthology of stories than it is a straightforward sequence. Our narrator, Jósef relentlessly diverges from his tale into exposition, folklore, dreams and literary allusion. Threads of the tale split off and refuse to resolve, or even resolve to seemingly little consequence. Jósef takes it upon himself to look at the origins of things before getting to the matter of plot, if he ever does. We learn how the town of Kükenstadt was formed around a chick that saved Europe from a raging berserker; how this troll formed part of the coast of Iceland; how Reykjavik was formed out of the fingerprint of “the universal boy” as he travelled through the cosmos. And we learn how the archangel Gabriel changed her sex, how she refused the call to bring Doomsday upon Europe, closed the gates of heaven and hell, and we learn how humanity is destined to meet its end.
And Cory Austin Knudson has a fascinating, intellectually knotty essay on right-wing conspiracism and its uncomfortable similarities to the events of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco (pictured above). It’s far too complex to pluck a meaningful snippet of text from it, but perhaps this is a good hook for the uninitiated:
When you wade into the QAnon community, the reality-distortion field that appears to envelop believers upon buying in (an initiation they refer to as “taking the red pill,” borrowing the Matrix-derived language used by the equally deranged incel community) takes on an almost irresistible virulence. For example, in writing this article I began to wonder how it would be taken were it to somehow filter into the QAnon echo chamber — I imagine I would first be identified as a psyop propagandist for the deep state detracting from the true wickedness of our satanic, pedophilic overlords; soon after I might be vaunted as an undercover baker injecting yet more consciousness of Q’s revelations into the public under the cover of incredulity and (perhaps a bit too much) snark… Following the white rabbit (another of the QAnon community’s favored phrases), I even now can’t help but wonder whether all these meta-levels of self-analysis would, when followed through to the end, result in a sudden, excruciating revelation of myself as yet another drop betokening the coming Storm, another tentative cock-crow preceding the Great Awakening.
That, after all, is the power of conspiracy thinking — sooner or later, everyone is implicated and we all become characters in the plot. … Precisely this kind of narrative/reality warp resulting from an all-encompassing conspiracy theory generated through the creative combination of otherwise free-floating fragments of dubious information constitutes the nucleus of Umberto Eco’s Il pendolo di Foucault.
Lastly: V.S. Naipaul. The Trinidadian Nobel Laureate died earlier in the summer. Amidst the many, many responses to Naipaul’s life and legacy — and, especially, his misogyny — there’s a sensitive essay by James Wood in the New Yorker, which returns attention to Naipaul’s books and especially his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas:
This double vision, moving between colonial rim and colonial center, between empathy and shame, pride and humiliation, brings extraordinary ironic power to Naipaul’s portrait of Mohun Biswas. The young man in South London was writing about his island, but, to some extent inevitably, he was not writing for his island; he was writing to be read by (the more enlightened of) his Oxford and London peers. A House for Mr. Biswas, like much of Naipaul’s work, examines but also enacts this terrible dividedness. Much of Naipaul’s work is the baring of a wound by a man who, confoundingly, appeared to enjoy — or was unable to prevent — inflicting further wounds on the already wounded. This dividedness, the woundedness and the wounding, made the man something of a monster but fed his work: it is why he is a writer with conservative vision and radical eyesight.
And away you go! See you back here on Monday…