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?
This week was a strong week for three particular publications: Full Stop, Asymptote, and the Sydney Review of Books. Let’s kick off with M. Lynx Qualey’s incisive review of Where the Bird Disappeared by the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Zaqtan, translated by Samuel Wilder:
[T]he union of Zaqtan and Wilder produces a musical prose that should be held up to one’s ear to catch all its whispers and echoes.
If Zaqtan’s Describing the Past was a new sort of Palestinian autobiographical novel, then Where the Bird Disappeared, published in Arabic in 2015, is a new sort of historical novel. The book’s twenty-six slender chapters take us from just before the 1948 Nakba, going backwards through layers of time, and before a flash-forward to a time that might be our own. But time isn’t linear, and it’s in this way that the book resists both nationalist and anti-nationalist narratives about how a Palestinian people have progressed or failed. All times continue to exist inside the book, the pasts and the present interpenetrable. The characters don’t develop alongside a nation-state, but instead move along the paths dictated by their personalities and the landscape around them.
That review was one highlight of this week’s offerings at Full Stop; another was Delaney Adams’ review of Nona Caspers’ The Fifth Woman:
The Fifth Woman by Nona Caspers is a novel composed of twenty-three short fictions. These individually titled pieces, while they stand alone beautifully and occur across different times, spaces, and even conceptions of reality, are unified by the central conceit of their narrator grieving the death of her partner. Caspers’s prose unifies form and content in a spectacular way as she writes the facts of grief, doing justice to both its devastation and transcendence, the sublime surreality it bestows on the world through the mere fact that one must continue to live in it. It is the quotidian and surreal aspects of grief and memory that accumulate to form the backbone of this novel.
Meanwhile, at Asymptote, Jacqueline Leung reviewed Thomas Clerc’s Interior, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, with an eye on the interplay between characterisation and the keen observation of detail:
Interior is an elaborate, three-hundred-page description of the experimental writer Thomas Clerc’s Paris apartment, a modest 50 square meters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. The reader begins at the doorstep and is taken on a room-by-room tour of all of Clerc’s furniture and possessions, guided by a narrator — Thomas — as he leaves no nook or cranny unexplained.
Published in French in 2013 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Interior is not Clerc’s first meticulous endeavor. In a previous book (Paris, musée du XXIe siècle, le dixième arrondissement; or Paris, Museum of the 21st Century, the Tenth Arrondissement), the writer walked along all the streets in his neighborhood and documented everything he saw over the course of three years, the same amount of time it took to construct this literary blueprint of his apartment.
Playful and painstakingly rich in detail, Interior is Clerc’s self-portrait, the writer exemplified through his property…
And, in a longer essay, Claire Jacobson offered a fascinating, subtle meditation on “the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on”:
One reason it can be so jarring to experience another culture is that we have to figure out our place in other people’s stories, which are often quite different from our own. When I first spent a semester at a Moroccan university at nineteen, it wasn’t the language that caused me the most trouble, but the fact that I had no idea how to conduct myself in this context. In the classroom, I was startled and put off by the fact that my professors gave their grades and feedback publicly, including when one of them yelled at me for not writing a good enough presentation proposal. In my friend’s home, I discovered too late that I was the only one who found silence awkward, and kept clumsily and needlessly trying to fill it. I’m still not comfortable bargaining in the souq, and I may never be.
My Arabic classes, much as I loved them, had not prepared me for the reality of any place where I would actually need to use the language.
Finally, at the SRB, Jason Childs assessed Richard Powers’ The Overstory with great generosity, and careful attention to Powers’ formal strategies, yet still came away disappointed:
[T]he real interest, for ecological thinkers, has typically been less in the content of Powers’ books than in the formal strategies by which they unveil the isomorphism of these seemingly disparate domains of knowledge and activity. Throughout his novels, Powers employs ‘stereoscopic’ structures, as Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey memorably put it, that produce cognitive as well as narrative outcomes. In a world characterised by increasingly specialised and thus self-enclosed epistemic discourses, these structures demonstrate how, in doing or talking about one apparently discrete thing, we are very often doing or talking about another. They express the basic insight of contemporary ecological thought: as Timothy Morton has recently written, ‘the leg bone’s connected to the toxic waste dump bone’.
This approach has often demanded a complex engagement with a wide variety of highly technical vocabularies — from genetics to artificial intelligence, from virtual reality to botany, from quantum mechanics to neuroscience — that has earned Powers a reputation as a novelist of ideas. … Against the backdrop of such declarations, The Overstory’s title seems to make some compelling promises: at once a literal term for the forest canopy; a signal that, in striving to see the wood for the trees, the usual scale of human narrative will zoom out to reveal a broader, less obvious set of patterns; and a witty narratalogical coinage, an intimation that this will indeed be, and will need to be, a metafiction, a story about what stories are and what else we’re doing when we tell them. Unfortunately, at the point in Powers’ career when this layered, recursive way of writing would be most appropriate, it is not strongly in evidence. What we have instead is a wonderfully accomplished, even magisterial, but rather conventional novel.
And the publication of The Stolen Season, the new novel by Rodney Hall (pictured above), gave Darius Sepehri an occasion to go back and reassess Hall’s several volumes of poetry, which is, retrospectively, an impressive body of work to rival his books of prose:
Hall is fascinated by the ways in which we are cruel and the ways in which we are innocent. ‘Domesticity’ from heaven, in a way (1970) rips away the veneer of the mundane — in the form of a blubbering baby and a broken Hoovermatic — to probe a conjugal power struggle figured as giants throwing each other around the house, in which — another characteristic of Hall — ‘the piercing hurt was shared’. Hall calls this brutality between secret sharers ‘a shadow-play’, and one partner promises to ‘clinch again/ the brute Antaeus of your independence’. The effect of odd love poems such as these is to stress human vulnerability and weakness, how precarious we are in our own nakedness when stripped of social status and conditioning. The interplay of a basic humanist commitment to generosity, wit, beauty, and the search for wisdom with the hallucinatory and terrifying spectre of what Lacan calls ‘the imaginary’ charges Hall’s poems with frisson.
And that’s all for this week! See you back here on Monday…