Friday, March 13, 2015

A Review I Didn't Write

I was supposed to write this for The Rumpus,  but felt that I had to beg off since I was at such a loss to appreciate this book. I am sure it will find some sympathetic readers, but I just couldn't get on board with its efforts, and was mostly bored and annoyed as I made my way to the end. It doesn't help much to put pans and slams out there for books that aren't exactly raking in the readers anyway. I also felt like maybe my reaction revealed my lack of imagination, and was worried that it would undermine my authority as a reader if I were to write a review mostly consisting of "I don't get it." And maybe I am not the best reader of that kind of work these days -- I want fiction to be at least a little reader friendly, to be absorbing -- yes, to challenge and engage with formal adventures, to make you work a little, but still have basic elements like plot, and interesting characters, and setting. I did write out my puzzlement, which is what lies below.

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Reading Pharos Editions’s reissue of Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque, the big questions that immediately come to mind are, Why bring a book back from out-of-print? What and why is non-narrative fiction? How do I read a book that is all style, yet is not poetry? Why did Ben Marcus choose this as his one book to resurrect, and what light does that shed on Ben Marcus’s literary ambitions?




The context for the reissue Schwartz’s book matters, since it is the reason for its existence and part of its apparatus, beginning with Marcus’s brief yet abstract introduction. The Pharos Editions quirk is that the editors ask an admired writer – from Sherman Alexie to Ursula K. Le Guin – what one book would they rescue from obscurity, and then, on the strength of that recommendation, they republish it. A laudable task in the face of the tumult of novelty we face in these early years of the twenty-first century. But how do books that made such an impact in their first printing stand up years later – in this case, nearly twenty years after A German Picturesque’s first outing in 1996?

The story seems to be that one of famed Knopf editor Gordon Lish’s last acts before being fired from the literary publishing house was to anoint Schwartz with a publishing contract, but upon Lish’s departure, Schwartz’s poor book sat on the shelves for two years. And Lish is certainly someone who valued formal derring do in literature and original voices, so I can see why this ended up with Knopf. And I can see why someone who loved this book would want to see it given a real shot, rather than letting it remain an irascible editor's leftovers shoved into the back corner.

All books should be introduced to new readers by someone who loves them – like the friend who presses a dog-eared paperback into your hand. The trusted recommendation of someone with good taste helps you let your guard down and trust what’s coming. Europa Editions tried this with Tonga Books, a short-lived series edited by best-selling author Alice Sebold – her imprimatur gave heft to otherwise unknown authors. Pharos strives to do the same here, helping us see Schwartz through the lens of Marcus, whose books are raved about by those who appreciate experimental, stylistic fiction.

However, coming cold to both Marcus and Schwartz, Marcus’s assurances in the introduction that I was about to embark on short pieces of fiction that are “pure feeling” and “unknowable,” and which “pretend at a kind of sense” while written in “an aphasic English cleansed of obvious meaning” made me…. trepidatious. These are terms I might expect to find assigned to poetry, or to lyrical essays. What happens when fiction is senseless? What’s the point of made up things in the shape of stories that don’t cling together and do not say anything in their inability to cohere? When meaning and signification is replaced by mood and sensation, what weight does fiction’s non-reality have? Why would we seek this in prose fiction, rather than, say in Edouard Leve’s memoirs? His flat statements, since they are in a genre from which we expect a kind of "truth," are a fascinating indictment of the entertaining narrative imposed in memoirs upon the scatter of mundane events that make up our lives. But excising narrative from fiction doesn't tell us anything about fiction, that hasn't already been said decades ago. See: Gertrude Stein.

For me, what followed that introduction was a slog through a lot of pretty sentences whose main verb was “is.” After I got what the form was in the first several pages, it seemed pretty repetitious through to the last page. After I finished puzzling my way to the end of A German Picturesque (I should have known what was coming in the nouning of an adjective in the title) – I went to find stories by Marcus to see what exactly attracted him to this slim, nonsensical series of sentences.

I know Marcus primarily by reputation (his Notable American Women is perpetually on my bookcase’s “to read” shelf), and I admire his adventurous use of form as a communication and story-telling technique. But in everything of his that I read in an effort to reconstruct his choice of Schwartz for Pharos, style was deeply attached to meaning. When conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldmith or cris cheek make form all important, that choice of form becomes the meaning – it’s what we talk about, and think about and feel how it affects our understanding of genre, communication, and poetry as a THING.

When a fiction writer deliberately breaks all the rules of fiction (that there should be a plot, that sentences should connect to each other, that you shouldn’t use the word “is” as your only verb in every sentence), what is there left to talk about? There are no characters nor any setting in A German Picturesque, as such. Everything, human and nonhuman, is static. Reading this book feels like talking to a crazy person who recites sentences clipped from a historical novel. Sort of like a Victorian Beckett protagonist – but Lucky’s rant was just a piece of Waiting for Godot, not the entire play, and for good reason. His flow of illucidity is energizing in the context of Didi and Gogo trying their best to make sense of the pointlessness of their endeavor through the aimless passing of time. He is pure energy and logorrhoea in the midst of their silence.

I believe strongly in foregrounding form, and in shaking up genre expectations. But taping together sentences with arcane words in them and calling it "fiction" doesn't seem to me to push the form in any useful way. Maybe you could see it as a dead end, a genetic offshoot of American literature that didn't go anywhere, but remains important because it tried to find a new path. Here is a sample of the Schwartz book -- this is one of the better pieces, I think. There are also passages that seem like babble to me. The opening of "Situs" for instance:
The lock was white. Its parts were not exquisite? Let me acknowledge the marks at the edges. The blot upon the ward, it was said, was the color the lament. The pins were antique. As for the knives -- well, I suppose I have been rather indelicate on this score.

The ax had been saved -- dear me.

A certain narrative, as you know, depicts the visit -- the corridor, the room, the rooms -- and a leave-taking in the evening. The lamps -- these -- were lighted. It might be appropriate to note the sheet, moreover -- despite the coins, the clatter of them, and despite the child.

The coil sat below the salt.
I mean really. And what's the point of doing this over and over again?

Or this, from "Ox":
There is a way to fall down and die in a doorway, you see. Armstrong, Happy Valley, Stink River. Passing: track. The animals run on the river sand, one by one. Skulls on the siding are the real thing. This is the street with the house that looks like ours. This is a knot of the sort in the West, on the dog or the ox slipping on the ice, all that weight tied on. The head was wet. The hooves came through the roof. There were sticks on the railroad -- and a pick.
I can see this being incredibly worthwhile to try ONCE. To try to evoke only tone, slippery memories and incomprehension. To unhinge the reader's expectations by using a particular form and voice that sound familiar, but filling it instead with completely subjective, inaccessible information. It's a cool trick, but just repeated and repeated and repeated, it doesn't add up to much. Maybe if this was part of something cohesive -- a novel instead of lots of disconnected stories all using the same style -- it might add up to more. Reading 100 pages of Schwartz doesn't leave me with much more than reading just two of the brief pieces.  They are so personal and inaccessible that, similar to the poetry of Trevor Joyce, if the point is for them to ever become legible to the reader, it requires lots of research as part of the reading. Or a personal interview with the author. But that's why I wrote a dissertation chapter on (Trevor) Joyce -- because there was 1) something interesting about his formal choices in "Trem Neul" and 2) he actually had something to say about poetry in his choice of form as well. Maybe I just need someone to argue me into seeing that Schwartz is doing this too. But I'm not going to spend years researching this book, like I did with Joyce, and neither is anyone else.

Is doing something is new enough on its own? Is it even new? How is this different from the formally-innovative nonsense prose pieces of Tender Buttons and the long chains of flat statements in The Making of Americans? Even if we do consider Schwartz's work to be totally inventive, I don't think making a thing just to make it, and not having much of real worth to say with it, is enough. Is "it hasn't been done before" enough reason to write a book and then, more importantly, publish it? Why would someone want to read this -- perhaps if you are a writer, bored of the known tricks and of thinking about fiction in a single way, it's fun to wrap your brain around a new way of approaching the concept of "book" and "story." But that has to be a tiny audience. And why not just turn to poetry then? (and then I go down the rabbit hole of but why even bother with genre if all the characteristics of a genre are totally inapplicable to something being called by that name).

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Anyway, this is the review I didn't write for the Rumpus. I'd been so excited for this book, and was so disappointed. I got so much more out of the last book I reviewed for the site, Eimear McBride's formally experimental A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. I had strong feelings about the form, even negative ones sometimes as it seemed like the author couldn't quite handle the challenge she'd set for herself, but it added up to something, it meant something about religion, and the body, and how we understand the self in relation to others. It might even change Irish fiction. When I got to the end, I kept thinking about it, I had strong opinions about how its form related to its content, to literary history, to Modernism. Its chaos and incomprehension had a purpose (even if an imperfectly rendered one).

I just can't care about the Schwartz pieces. I do not have as in depth a history with American fiction (especially on the avant-garde end) as I do with Irish literature, obviously, but even as I tried and tried to use Schwartz's work as a launching pad upon which to at least think through other questions, I just couldn't muster the energy it would take. His work just seemed too thin to justify the effort.

And there you have it. 1800 words of a non-review.

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