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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

3: “Blasts and Lurches”

March 26, 2015 | by

From “A Fête Worse than Death” through “A Great Reckoning in a Little Room,” pp. 59–71

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This is the third entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

In their opening salvos to this celebration of/cerebration on Norman Rush’s Mating, it seems only reasonable that my virtual clubmates, Popkey and Piepenbring, have focused on the voice of the novel’s nameless first-person narrator. Without question, she’s a unique creation. Piepenbring calls her, approvingly, “strange,” a strangeness that Popkey would have us appreciate for a believable femaleness. I concede, as Popkey documents, that since Mating received the National Book Award for fiction, in 1991, it has been a point of debate, among critics and readers, to assess the degree of plausibility of the femaleness of Rush’s narrator (a nameless narrator who, in Rush’s third-person second novel, Mortals, has a brief walk-on part in which we learn both her pedestrian forename and her satisfying surname). 

Setting aside here the question of a male novelist’s capacity to imagine female prose (whatever that is), it seems to me that a deeper challenge, and the one by which we might measure Rush’s capacities, is his ability to imagine a character with a complex, plausible intellectual life. Though the human heart tested to its limits is amply central in the history of the novel, a human mind functioning at the peak of its powers is less well represented (and, when amply charted, is more typically criminal: Charles Kinbote and Humbert Humbert, for two). As such, I’m less concerned about veracity of voice than I am with memorableness of mind. No one I know talks like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in him. And no one I know takes in the world quite the way the narrator of Mating does. Read More »

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2: “I Had Been Working My Tits Down to Nubs”

March 19, 2015 | by

From “Martin Wade Leaves a Party” through “Sekopololo,” pp. 29–55

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This is the second entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

My God, that’s awful!” This was, by her own account, Elsa Rush’s reaction to one of the most memorable—and one of my favorite—lines in her husband’s novel: “I had been working my tits down to nubs.”

Some context: Our unnamed narrator is trying to ferret out what her current paramour, a British spy she calls Z., knows about the elusive Nelson Denoon, an iconoclastic figure in the anthropological world. Denoon, who has been hovering on the novel’s margins since its very first pages, will soon become—and I trust this is no spoiler—her lover; but, for the moment, he is merely “the pinnacle of whatever vineyard I was laboring in as a groundling,” the object of her “ressentiment.” “I was thirty-two,” our narrator explains, “and a woman and no doctorate yet, no thesis even, and closing in on my thesis deadline. I had been working my tits down to nubs in the study of man, with the result that my goals were receding farther the faster I ran.” Read More »

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Introducing the Mating Book Club

March 9, 2015 | by

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On April 7, at our annual Spring Revel, we’re honoring Norman Rush with our Hadada Prize, presented each year to “a distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” To celebrate, the Daily is hosting a book club of sorts.

Starting next Monday, March 16, we’re running a series of posts about Rush’s seminal 1991 novel, Mating. Twice a week, from start to finish, we’ll have writers examine a twenty-five-page installment of the book—not just to discuss the plot, but to offer the same spirit of reflection, debate, and restless inquiry that animates the novel itself. Whether you’re an avid fan of the book or completely new to it, we invite you to read along. Read More »

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Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by

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Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Ink and Paper and Repetition, and Other News

March 2, 2015 | by

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Ben Tolman, Suburbs (detail), 2012, ink on paper.

  • What makes certain writing publishable while the rest of it, the bulk of it, is consigned to the slag heap? Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb has launched Publishing the Unpublishable,” a series of e-books dedicated to challenging the precepts of literary merit. “If nothing else, the chance to stare into the face of deletion and creep around in the bins of what might never have been gives us the chance to see the world a completely different way.”
  • Protestantism, Catholicism, and their varying approaches to the novel: “To write a Catholic novel is thus to attempt something a little tricky, a little verging on the self-contradictory. And when a Catholic-aiming novel fails, it typically fails because it is at war with its own form … To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”
  • John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights”: “The Freeman ranks among the defining cultural expressions of black Houston … A single copy survives, physically, digitally, in any form, that we know of … In 1940, a man named Carter W. Wesley, a black publisher who’d at first worked under Love and later assumed control of the Freeman enterprise, lamented in print … that nobody appeared to possess a solitary copy of this great newspaper, which had started everything. Well, paper is useful—it gets used—especially by people who don’t have money to buy more.”
  • “More than six feel tall and four feet wide, Suburbs is Ben Tolman’s interpretation of the Wheaton, Maryland, community he called his home as a kid. Composing the drawing took six months: five days a week, fourteen hours each day, just ink and paper and repetition … the houses themselves are all faithful depictions. He inked each of the buildings based on photographs of the houses surrounding his own former home.”
  • The Mexican writer Sergio Pitol on smoking, hypnosis, and prose style: “I feel incapable of describing any action, no matter how simple, in a direct way. I said that other writers were able to do that, which did not mean I was less competent than they. In my case, plain and naked exposition, without flourishes, without detours, without echoes or shadows, fatally diminishes the efficiency of the story, converts it into a mere anecdote; a vulgarity, when all is said and done.”

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Intermittent Explosive Disorder: An Interview with Matt Sumell

February 17, 2015 | by

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Matt Sumell

In Spring 2012, The Paris Review published Matt Sumell’s short story “Toast,” in which the narrator, Alby, humiliates his girlfriend so creatively, and so often, that she ends the relationship. “Over the next few years,” Alby says in a typical passage, “I changed from a mostly passive prick to a mostly aggressive one, sexing a lot of girls and I’m pretty sure contracting HPV in my throat.”

“Toast” appears in Making Nice, Sumell’s first book, a collection of linked stories all told from Alby’s perspective. He’s a thirty-year-old having a hell of a time navigating the world since his mother died from cancer. Sumell’s stories are pugnacious, figuratively and literally. In “Punching Jackie,” Alby spars with his sister; in “OK,” he pushes his one-legged father over the side of a boat. Even when he isn’t taking anyone to task, the stories are full of fighting words: bitterness at the world, anger with fate, and misunderstanding of circumstance. Alby is lost. His outlets for self-discovery and definition are few and far between. Making Nice is hilarious in its prose, but painful in its nakedness.

Sumell and I met up to talk fighting, writing, and being named Matt on a freezing January afternoon. We ended up in Chelsea, at Barcade, a bar lined with arcade games where the tater tots are shaped like Tetris pieces. When we walked through the door, Sumell took a quick survey of the room and jetted from my side, making a beeline directly to Punch Out!! Nothing could seem more apropos.

You just returned from a trip to Manila with your father, Albert, to whom your book is dedicated. Your main character is also named Alby—which doesn’t strike me as a coincidence. What’s your relationship with your dad?

Oh, we’re going straight there, are we? Well, the funny thing about my father having that name—I’m the first born, but my great-grandfather’s name is Alby, and my grandfather’s name is Alby, and my father’s name is Albert. Read More »