New Criticals

Everything is So Distracting (Stray Observations)

Pictured: A Fainting Spell

a. Under the influence of summer heat and a recent illness, I nearly fainted in the street. Two young women, members of a Bruderhof community who live on my street, took pity and walked me home. Maybe this is embarrassing? This anecdote can't really serve as any kind of introduction, to myself or my concerns as a reader, which is kind of the point. More importantly it has allowed me to write and say the word "syncope" more than I ordinarily would. So I’m thinking about syncopation, then, too; as the wrench in the works, the sudden change of subject.

All the time in the world

b. There's a line from Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch that comes to mind from time to time: "…with all the time in the world to woodshed some of his bop ideas and kill us softly with some blues." Cortazar writes quite a lot about jazz, and this sentence is directly about jazz performance, but he also off-handedly nods toward a kind of improvisational poetics in his own work. Hopscotch is thrilling, a labyrinth as disconcertingly beautiful as any novel can be, and all along, Cortazar's playful instinct develops themes, motifs, and phrases at the leisurely pace of a man who knows he can afford to take his time. All great art is made in the meantime, in between time.

c. Roberto Bolaño, in 2666, imagines literature as a forest, and the monumental works, the lasting masterpieces, are the lakes, or strange mushrooms in the undergrowth. The image is inapt almost to the point of ridiculousness, exactly the kind of gambit that only Bolaño can pull off. At the center of 2666 Bolaño placed "The Part About the Crimes," a catalog of horrifying murders and failed police work, a city quietly made hellish, life there made meaningless by degrees. The repetition of small details gives the section its energy (I admit I was unfamiliar with the hyoid bone until I read this novel), but it remains one of the most difficult works I have ever read. Whenever I have felt like rereading 2666, "The Part About the Crimes" has stopped me. One day I'll get the better of such readerly cowardice, since the rewards of the book outweigh the horrors encountered. The image, becomes apt after all: you have to muster the energy to dive to the bottom of that lake again.

This makes me lightheaded
d. If I were still in school, still a graduate student of literature, I would certainly not write, if I could possibly avoid it, on the novels of Dickens, particularly Bleak House. In fact, I almost (almost) regret the papers I wrote on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, the Gothic, the Victorian, the Sensation novels. Those books wherein young aristocratic ladies faint at the sight of their reputations, and are often “discommoded,” and the men kidnap and rape, all while speechifying about the well-deserved state of the underclass. These are wild generalizations, obviously. The only nineteenth-century novelist west of the Urals worth reading is Flaubert, anyway.

e. Never mind, I’ll just go back and reread HHhH, reveling in its syncopated narration, Laurent Binet’s vinegar wit and his absolute adoration of the Czech resistance against Nazi Germany. I suppose there's a trend here, all the books or authors I've recommended had to be translated so I could read them. Not that I commission translations. You know what I mean.

f. "I don’t think it’s advisable to trust the books you read, lord knows they don’t trust you."

g. Syncope cuts off consciousness, perhaps as a defense mechanism, emerging through evolution from time immemorial when humans weren't very good at playing dead. Syncopation is disruption, the order broken or changed, a defense mechanism against the boring and the same. All literature worth reading breaks or disrupts accepted orders and ideas, with either a satirical eye or provocateur's smirk. I knew I had some kind of point to make.