Saturday night now. Read a review of Knausgaard in London review and a review of Tim Parks in NYRB. Rupert sent the former and Phil sent the latter and I’ve written this to both.
I hope Parks is deeply grateful for the long and very closely considered review. I almost wonder if the review-essay is not better than the novel itself. It is so detailed that I found myself having less and less interest in possibly ever looking at the novel itself. And maybe it is an example of that old saw—damning with faint praise because while Walton does say (politely?) that Parks really does deserve a bigger reputation than he has had to date, he doesn’t rave about the current book in any convincing or persuasive way. He finds it to be strange and after each detail he adds we say to ourselves, “even more strange than you had told us.” And then there are the moments of comic relief, at Parks expense it seems, when we get the details about the naked bodies and the place where I chuckled out loud: the paragraph about how the publishers don’t seem to know what to make of the book: “they quote a review optimistically describing it as a ‘fast-paced comic novel,’ a phrase in which only the word “novel” feels accurate. More appropriate would have been the quotation from Schopenhauer that Parks used in his demolition job on Salman Rushdie: ‘The art [of the novel] lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life’—although you can understand why the sales department might have vetoed that.”
Finally, when I learned that Parks has lived in Italy since 1987 or something, I thought of your ex-pat friend who lives in France and I got off on an inner rant that goes like this: sorry, any writer who lives the ex-pat life in some warm, picturesque or faux-toney place like Italy or Corsica or such, can no longer be considered a “serious” writer back in his native land and reviews of his work will be forbidden. I thought too of Jonathan Carroll, American novelist who has lived in Vienna for years (after the peace corps maybe?). Long string of novels published steadily over the years. No one has heard of him but enough have heard of him somewhere (UK?) that he has a following, a core of readers, a publishing record.
And my point now is? A big journal like the NYRB should play some sort of game its own power and delusions and announce a policy of randomly publishing every so many years only manuscripts from the slush pile, review only books by self-published authors, find writers who have a miniscule reputation in a specific locale.
Or some other such fantasy project. Look up Ron Rash—for example. North Carolina author—the voice of Appalachia, winner of the Thomas Wolfe prize and of the biggest money prize for short stories.
I guess Tim Parks does nail it. What the heck do we want & wouldn’t it be better if we all took up Buddhist meditation.
The review of vol 2 of Knausgaard is written by Sheila Heti. She makes the mistake, in my mind, of building her review on a moment when she actually met Karl Ove K briefly and asked him briefly about a specific moment in the book and he replied Oh no, I made that up. Why on earth would she believe him even if they were there in real life speaking to one another? As a writer herself, wouldn’t she know that at any given moment, under any sort of momentary provocation an inquiry, a writer, a person, is liable to say anything for any zillion number of reasons. Especially people in the arts, the performing arts, actors, writers, comics, poseurs, fakes, pretenders, interviewers, anchor people, spokespeople, shapers of public opinion and taste, journalists, etc. And then for Heti to make a reviewer’s crisis-drama out of what is true, how can we trust Knausgaard in some other part of the work if he says he “made up” that poignant and telling detail about the orange peel and his father sweeping his hand through his hair. We all really pick and choose by our own lights and moods when we want to be literalists and when we want to be mythologists and contextualizers. And so do the writers we enjoy reading. There is an item making the rounds on Facebook precisely about this, at least about the form of it, the form it takes, the basic trope. A writer named Rachel Held Evans post an item on her site called “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony . . . ‘…Or divorce, or gossip, or slavery, or head coverings, or Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, or the “abomination” of eating shellfish and the hell-worthy sin of calling other people idiots. Then we need a little context.Then we need a little grace. Then we need a little room to disagree.”
Same holds for the literary worlds, I think, and the ever on-going hand-wringing about fiction and non-fiction, truth in fiction and truth in life and truth in memoir or re-created narrative or on and on. Tim Parks has found that taking up Buddhist meditative practice really won’t solve these questions any more than reading novels will do so. Vonnegut told us that reading novels was the Western form of zen meditation.
Rick Whitaker has taken a more extreme version of this anxiety to it’s logical and admirable point of perfection. His new novel An Honest Ghost is a total mosaic of passages from other books, other writers. I’m only about one-third of the way into it and I’ve begun to learn how to enjoy it more fully as I keep reading. For one thing I’ve taken to, finally, almost restrain myself from constantly turning to the back of the book where we can find exactly who said that originally, what book each phrase comes from. There is a loose and recognizable narrative that belongs to Whitaker as the originator of the book, the collector and arranger of the quotations. But there are two books, or a bicameral set of experiences: the narrative as poetic assemblage and the list of sources for each chapter. The Chord and the Arpeggio. Since the story is much about being gay, however, I find myself wondering if Whitaker has not re-invented a new/old kind of closet for himself, or for his characters. With a perfect mosaic of other voices, we have no narrative voice telling the whole story. Or at least not one that is much more available to us than the thin lines of grout between the tesserae will have be necessary. I read Whitaker’s first book some years ago and I took a look at it again to refresh my memory. It gives the reader the real pleasure of the narrator’s voice, a memorable voice, distinctive, complex, companionable, genuine. I wonder now why Whitaker, so successfully public as a gay writer has decided to re-closet the narrative voice he is capable of creating, even if it is behind not quite a solid door but a curtain of shifting beads. The “second” book listing the sources is fine as a variant of the old commonplace notebook: Whitaker has read widely and deeply and you get to be surprised at times (I thought I was the only one to have read Kenneth Burke’s only novel, or 8 Gates of Zen by John Daido Loori).
But the “first” book, the story, is too percussive as tale. Closer to music and poetry, prose poetry, poetic sequence. That’s how I am now trying to keep reading the book. Not sure I will or want to finish. It has all the curiosity factor of a strange, found object, yes, and the appeal of an Oulipo sort of game, yes. But as with a chocolate ice cream cone, after three or nine licks, the most intense excitement dies fast and one keeps eating just because.