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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

Nothing Happened: An Interview with Joseph O’Neill

October 3, 2014 | by

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Photo courtesy of the author

The narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s new novel, The Dog, decides to move to Dubai. Transitional places make more sense to him than those in which “everything has been built and all that remains is the business of being in buildings.” He sees his own life, in the aftermath of a recently disintegrated relationship, as somehow “posthumous” and shameful. And meanwhile his legal training, instead of arming his intellect, merely alerts him to the inadequacies of the language he’s forced to use. “Lost in a fantastic vigilance of ambiguity, obscurity, and import,” caged in by the feeling that “the very project of making sense [is] being mocked,” he drafts endless disclaimers and other corporate documents that he only slenderly understands. His new apartment tower is called The Situation. His preferred spa is called Unique. But even recreation is an exercise in compromise—“there’s more than one Unique.”

Javier Marías, paraphrasing Faulkner, once told an interviewer that “when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.” The Dog isn’t much interested in bright epiphanies. Instead it shows the extent of one man’s ignorance—his helplessness in a foreign world. The evocative sentences that helped to win O’Neill’s previous novel, Netherland, the 2009 PEN/ Faulkner Award and a wide readership, are largely absent here. With its deadpan existentialism and playful corporate-speak, The Dog is perhaps closer to a book like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. It is bleakly, unexpectedly funny.

I met O’Neill in Manhattan on an afternoon in mid-September. We talked about the fact that Netherland “very nearly didn’t get published at all,” the relationship between his work and that of Louis C.K., and why he is “deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels.”

It’s been mentioned by various reviewers that The Dog is a very different book to Netherland, at least in its tone. What sort of sentences did you find yourself looking for as you sat down to write, and what kinds of sentences did you find yourself striking out?

Generally, I want sentences that are both conscientious and surprising. For me, plot happens most of all at the level of the sentence. As I reader, I want to start a sentence and then be surprised by what happens to it, or intelligently happens. To be surprised by the conscientious movement of emotion and attention over the course of the sentence. I used to write poetry, and I think good poetry does that—captures a movement of intelligence. Still more generally, I want a verbal landscape that’s unusual—that I haven’t read a million times before, and that isn’t easily replicable in other forms. This approach animated the writing of Netherland.

In The Dog, my main character is a theorist—he is disposed toward theorizing and rationalizing, as well as to deep emotion, and is only occasionally given to recollection. To my mind, this makes him a comically urgent character—a man who is constantly caught short by this thoughts, who constantly needs to take a mental leak. That being the case, it wouldn’t have made sense to reuse the highly particular, contemplative voice of Netherland.

I’m not interested in writing stuff that’s indistinguishable from other stuff. I’m trying to avoid that deathly sense that here’s something you’ve read before, but with different characters, or with one situation replaced with another. I’m also deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels. Read More »

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Win Two Free Front-Row Seats: Ben Lerner in Conversation with Paul Holdengräber

September 12, 2014 | by

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The Paris Review has recently published two stories by Ben Lerner, who won our Terry Southern Prize this year: first was “False Spring” (issue 205) and then “Specimen Days” (issue 208). Both are excerpts from his excellent new novel 10:04. If you’ve opened a newspaper or book review in the past month, you’ve likely encountered rhapsodic praise for 10:04. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mr. Lerner packs so much brilliance and humor into each episode … this brain-tickling book imbues real experiences with a feeling of artistic possibility, leaving the observable world ‘a little changed, a little charged.’” In The Times, Dwight Garner wrote that Lerner is “among the most interesting young American novelists at present,” and in Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen called 10:04a beautiful and original novel … it signals a new direction in American fiction.” NPR said that it’s “strange and spectacular … Don’t even worry about classifying it; just let Lerner’s language sweep you off your feet.”

And why not let that sweeping happen in person? Next Tuesday, September 16, Lerner will appear at the New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengräber—it’s sure to be an expansive interview, and we’re giving away two front-row seats. (For proof of Holdengräber’s conversational acumen, check out his Art of Nonfiction interview with Adam Phillips, which we published in our Spring issue.)

For a chance to win, retweet our announcement below before three P.M. EST today. We’ll select two winners at random. Bonne chance!

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The Comic Voice: An Interview with Christina Nichol

August 7, 2014 | by

Christina-Nichol

Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press

Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.

Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.

ROTH

Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?

NICHOL

As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.

ROTH

And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.

RUSH

Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?

NICHOL

I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.

RUSH

Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject. Read More »

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Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel.

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)Read More »

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The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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Our Office Plants, Ourselves, and Other News

July 22, 2014 | by

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Polly Brown photographs plants in offices. Photo via The New Yorker; plant also via The New Yorker.

  • Coming soon to the two-euro coin: Tove Jansson’s face. How can you get one? “ ‘Some collectors consider it important to obtain the coin from circulation, but it is easier to purchase the special coin in polished proof quality from numismatic shops or the Mint of Finland online shop,’ says Mint of Finland CEO Paul Gustafsson.”
  • Bertrand Russell: bright guy and all, but was his pacifism really so logically rigorous? “The peace agenda of Russell and his followers was always based on the assumption that war is simply a euphemism for the madness of state-sponsored mass murder, and that we could prevent it by standing up for moral and political sanity … But the paths to war are paved not with malice but with righteous self-certainty. People who choose to participate in military action are more likely to be altruists than egotists.”
  • How should you explain what your novel’s about? Not like this: “This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town.”
  • The photographer Polly Brown “has spent the past year documenting the plants that bloom in the headquarters of Louis Vuitton, A.T. & T., Nike, Vogue, and even The New Yorker … Brown’s idea was to present the office plant as a representation [of] our ‘biophilic desires.’ ”
  • In 2002, radio producers interviewed “New Yorkers who were among the last—and in some cases, the very last—to hold jobs in industries that were dying … They came up with seven people—a Brooklyn fisherman, a water-tower builder, a cowbell maker, a knife-and-scissor grinder, a lighthouse keeper, an old-fashioned bra fitter, and a seltzer man.” The interviews are now online.

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