Weekendnotes, September 22-23

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?


It’s been a big week for so-called “hysterical realism”, or at least books in which stories generate stories which generate yet more stories, and that includes books written in this mode before the term even existed. First up, at 3AM Magazine, Jon Doyle has a smart, detailed take on Sam Byers’ new novel Perfidious Albion. Building on James Wood’s definition of “hysterical realism” in a now-famous essay from almost twenty years ago, Doyle asks: “What happens when reality itself begins to resemble an unconvincing possibility of its own?” Then he turns his attention to Byers:

Perfidious Albion, the second novel from Sam Byers, is hysterical fiction for this truly hysterical age — where the exhaustion and overworking of the conventions of realism now form a key part of realism’s very definition. The novel is set in the fictional town of Edmundsbury, notable only for the fact that it is not London, amidst a post-Brexit climate that looks a lot like the pre-Brexit one. Far-right populist parties are a key part of mainstream cultural discourse, further-right skinheads are a visible presence on the streets, and large corporations spread their insidious tentacles into the very fabric of society, willing to strangle any would-be resisters still naïve enough to think the hatchet of personal protest will be enough to ward off the suckers. Edmundsbury might be an imaginary setting within a speculative future, but you would be hard pressed to realise it. … While united in the narrative, the characters are drawn from the breadth of the socio-political spectrum. … What really links these characters, aside from living in Edmundsbury, is the possession of digital personas and secrets.


And Sam Byers himself reigns as one of the best literary critics on Twitter, using the platform to publish sharp yet brief critiques and appreciations of movements in contemporary literature. In response to Julius Taranto’s recent essay on “outgrowing” the work of David Foster Wallace, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Byers posted these remarks as part of a longer thread:

Click here to access the entire thread, and also be sure to check out Byers’ threads on Elena Ferrante and Rachel Kushner to get a more thorough sense of how he’s using Twitter as a venue for criticism.


Moving from posthumous views of David Foster Wallace to the posthumous books of writers working in a similarly adventurous vein, Daniel Green has written a typically perceptive review of The Solitary Twin, the final novel from the late Harry Mathews (pictured above), for Full Stop:

All of Mathews’s novels, despite their superficial oddities, their digressiveness, and their unorthodox formal structures, continue to put great emphasis on story. Indeed, his fiction is finally all about story, even as its underlying conceits distort, bend, and shuffle the elements of the stories they are also responsible for generating. The novels published prior to his membership in Oulipo, The ConversionsTlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, as well as many of his earlier short stories, are generally picaresque narratives that methodically extend their surrealistic premises but accentuate contingency and irresolution. The stories move from the curious to the improbable, and end without confirming that a satisfying conclusion to an inherently purposeful journey has been reached. Nevertheless, Mathews’s storytelling skills lead us through episodes and vignettes that are themselves captivating in their eccentricities if we allow the novels their own disorderly order.


And also at Full Stop, Devin Smith takes an associative and anecdotal approach to Death, a newly translated collection of short stories and prose poetry by the early twentieth century German writer Anna Croissant-Rust. “Death“, he writes, was originally published in 1914 and it “is a wild book”, “structurally [and] linguistically”, especially with “its mix of romantic 19th c. diction (torpor, imperious, etc) twisting into anarchic 20th c. syntax”:

Death might arrive in his spoopy formalwear, a skeletal grin wreathed in black; or as a laughing wave of fire sweeping along the walls of a packed, panicked theater; or silently, invisibly, in terrifying realism, as the body simply ceasing to breathe — but death will always arrive. [In her stories] Croissant-Rust has folded her experimentalism into a more fluid syntax; though many of her passages still carry the wandering, unexpected flavor and satisfying waviness of [her] poetry. The natural world remains ever-present; even in cities, it saturates the language, twisting up like vines between cobbles, sprouting like lichen on the brickwork; the page swirls alive with the acid nightmares of DeepDream.


Finally, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, Shane Maloney has penned an affectionate introduction to Alan Marshall’s Whispering in the Wind, first published in 1969 and recently reissued in Australia by Text Classics:

Our hero, Peter, is a young boy who dwells in a snug little bark hut deep in the bush with Crooked Mick, an old bushman and the greatest buckjump rider in all the world.

‘Crooked Mick of the Speewah’ was a long-established mythical figure, a product of the oral tradition of the droving campfire and the shearing shed, a giant of a man who would eat two sheep for lunch and could split a fence post just by staring at it. To Marshall’s contemporaneous readers, the presence of Crooked Mick was an unmistakable signal that Whispering in the Wind was a species of bush yarn, a tall tale whose whole point lay in the inventiveness of its telling.

“If ever you come across anyone who claims to have met Crooked Mick”, warned folklore collector Bill Wannan, “listen to them with deep respect, for they will be a prodigious liar.” Marshall had written the foreword to Wannan’s definitive Yarns, Ballads and Legends of the Australian People (1954), and it is difficult not to detect an element of chiacking in his depiction of Peter’s father figure.


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