Weekendnotes, September 15-16

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 TV Girls, which won this year’s New Delta Review chapbook contest, received a rave review from Kelly Lynn Thomas at SmokeLong Quarterly:

…reading TV Girls felt like being an archaeologist from the future, excavating twenty-first century life, uncovering its dirty laundry and hidden secrets one by one.

The collection’s eponymous story, presumably based on The Bachelor, explores a group of twenty-five women “looking for love.” None of the women are named, only referred to with letters, and they drop out of the story one by one as they leave the set, seemingly having failed their quest. But of course, the quest was artificial from the beginning, and the story reminds the reader of this harsh fact over and over again. “The TV girls believe they can find love on national television,” the unnamed narrator states at the beginning. Right from the start, we know it’s a lost cause. What’s more, we as readers and watchers know that the TV girls themselves know it’s a lost cause. “Each TV girl says, he’s really, really the one.”


Also, Splice masthead contributor Anna MacDonald has a review of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s novel about the Jonestown massacre, Beautiful Revolutionary, in the Australian Book Review:

Woollett spent years researching the novel; she interviewed survivors and relatives of the deceased. Given the extent of this research — her preservation of Jones’s name and character, her utilisation of the biographies of those close to him, her detailed representation of the historical events leading up to and including the massacre on 18 November 1978 — it is a curious decision on the author’s part to change the names of other key historical figures, especially Jones’s lover, Carolyn Layton (who, in the novel, becomes Evelyn Lynden), and his wife, Marceline Baldwin (here, Rosaline).


And masthead contributor Thea Hawlin has been spending some time at the Venice Film Festival. At “the world’s oldest film festival”, she writes for AnOther, “[t]he whole industry appears to congregate on the floating city’s lido, a step away from the sand, hopping off vaporettos and water taxis. Groups mingle with espressos in small white cups or clink glasses of blood red Campari and ice, anticipating the next arrival.” Herewith, from new films directed by Damien Chazelle and Alfonso Cuarón to the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: Thea’s list of the films to catch this year at Venice, or later in the year as they make their way around the world.


The last book Thea reviewed for Splice was Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, and, fittingly enough, Sharlene Teo produced one of this week’s best literary essays, writing about her experiences with “imposter syndrome” for LitHub:

Some might contend that imposter syndrome and the inner critic are one and the same, but I beg to differ. A critic implies a degree of detachment, a position of removal from which one can judge and assess a particular piece of work. My imposter syndrome is murky, generalized yet far too personal. It is shame and doubt cleaved to the breastbone. The imposter does not trust her own subjectivity and finds it hard to untangle creativity and a sense of playfulness and flow from the thickening skein of her flaws. The imposter believes nothing she thinks or feels is valid or even worth saying. To a writer, such feelings of worthlessness are silencing. If I let it get the better of me, my imposter syndrome paralyses my creativity entirely, keeping me locked in a mirthless limbo between the guilt of fear-based procrastination and the feeling of being left behind.


And, starting with something like an inverse look at this phenomenon, Mary Kenagy Mitchell took to The Millions to write about her experience of reading the stories of Lydia Davis — of feeling Davis’ voice infiltrate her own thought processes:

Davis is mostly an acquired taste, but her way of seeing is contagious. She writes in a form that is, as far as I know, entirely her own. There is such a thing as flash fiction — stories of a page or so — but Davis takes brevity one step further. Many of her stories are no more than three or four lines; most are no more than a medium-sized paragraph. … She is, The New Yorker once quipped, “a writer’s writer’s writer” — but her work isn’t really difficult. It’s oddly shaped, true, but it’s also entertaining and frank and often full of emotion. Her subject matter is often maddeningly quiet: A rug is sold; strangers silently judge each other on a train; a woman tries to decide what to do while her baby naps; a bowl of cornmeal releases steam. Yet what she writes is somehow clearly fiction, not prose poems or aphorisms or miniature essays.


And speaking of writers becoming other writers, Olivia Laing’s Crudo — in which a version of Laing herself takes on the guise of Kathy Acker — has been the subject of yet another stellar essay, this time by Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker:

Escape from oneself, or, rather, its impossibility, is one of the novel’s preoccupations. Kathy, nervous about so many things, is supremely nervous about marriage. It means the end of a life of wanton independence, of living where she wants and leaving when she pleases. Ian, her husband-to-be, is “indisputably nice, everyone liked him, it was impossible not to,” which may be part of the reason that Kathy can’t stop picking fights with him over small matters, such as the unfortunate shade of brown that the porch of their house has been painted. He is already comfortably domestic, the household’s grocery shopper and cook; touchingly, he insists on preparing their wedding lunch and baking their cake himself. Meanwhile, Kathy’s intimacy issues keep bubbling up. “She had no idea what to do with love, she experienced it as invasion, as the prelude to loss and pain, she really didn’t have a clue,” Laing writes. The marriage is supposed to be “openish” — Kathy has had another lover as recently as May — but that doesn’t solve the problem of getting used to having someone else in the bed every night. Answering e-mails, exasperated with herself, she thinks, “Human relations, how.” The little punch of the period perfects the sentence, as if it were a reference to be filed away in some unsearchable index of life.


Finally, offering one of the best recent blends of literary criticism and biography, Joanne O’Leary has a long essay on the work of Maeve Brennan (pictured above) in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. Amid much discussion of Brennan’s eventful and largely troubled life, there are some especially sharp observations on the energies coursing through her short stories:

Brennan had the remarkable ability to move from a brutal one-liner to something more expansive and humane, as if she were merely switching camera angles:

When Hubert first saw Rose, he thought how light and definite her walk was, and that her expression was resolute. He never learned that the courage she showed came not from natural hope or from natural confidence or from any ignorant, natural source, but from her determination to avoid touching the two madnesses as they guided her, pressing too close to her and narrowing her path into a very thin line. She always walked in straight lines. She went from where she was to the place where she was going, and then back again to the place where she had been.

The rhythm of the long middle sentence gauges the movement of a body on a tightrope; the commas fall like knives, as one foot is placed in front of the other. Rose’s agility, we’re made to understand, derives not from grace but fear. This is Hubert, remembering her expression at the moment he proposed to her: ‘“It was careless of me to fall into this deep water,” her face seemed to say, “and I am all to blame for not having learned to swim, but even though I was stupid, not learning to swim, and even though the water is deep, I do not want to drown.”’ We never know, maybe couldn’t know, which one controls the other’s future; who’s holding the knife and who’s going under it. There’s such subtlety to Brennan’s writing that one might momentarily forget who’s in command of the narrative; that only Brennan could write Rose out of this situation, or force Hubert to empathise with his wife. No chance. Again and again, we watch her bid farewell to the people she’s made, as they edge towards the unhappy ending she’s prepared for them.


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