Coming up with a name for something is always fraught, and so naming my column here at The Nervous Breakdown proved to be challenging. While definitely easier than naming my daughter (sometimes I think it makes sense to wait until a child has reached a certain age to give them their final name) it nevertheless was still difficult. What I’ll be doing here is sharing my thoughts about the books I’ve read over the past month, why I’ve chosen them, where they’ve taken me, how they’re impacting me as a writer and a reader, and also, perhaps, offering you some detours, the kinds that will tempt you away from the computer screen and, yes, crack open (but please, not the spine!) some books. They are our friends. With this focus in mind for the column, some of the names I came up with were “Silverfish for Bookworms” (it’s one I’d used for my own blog and wished to resurrect, but I really wanted something new); “Once Upon a Time They Lived Happily Ever After” (a good title, but since it potentially narrows down my focus to “stories” instead of opening to include all fictions, I dropped it); “Babbling About Books” (yes, it’s corny but it did lead me to think of the next one which I also liked); “From the Desk of Babel’s Librarian” (I’m always happy to associate myself with Borges); “Well-Read Man’s Float” (I really liked this one, too, but it sounded kind of cocky and while “Unread Man’s Float” seems closer to the truth, it also felt wrong); and lastly, “A Community of Words” (it’s what William Gass calls texts—more on him later). But I finally came up with “A Reader’s Log(orrhea)”. Beware! The writing here will be unapologetically excessive and wordy, and maybe even (gasp!) purple. Here we go!
Deciding what to read is, for me, always marked by a certain degree of anxiety. I feel pulled back by the past, from all those classics that inspired countless other worthy works, but also simultaneously pushed along toward or pulled by whatever’s being published now. There are other tensions. As a fiction writer, I like to read things that are connected in some way—either thematically or structurally, or, ideally, both—to what I’m currently writing. As a reviewer, I also have books that are sent to me and pull me in yet another direction. I’m also often yanked by the independent presses; their vitality is overpowering, sometimes. And then there’s the tugging from the incredible, and innumerable, new works in translation. For instance, there’s Michael Hulse’s recent translation of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that’s been calling to me. (I’ve read three translations of it already, so why do I feel this pull?) And, just like everybody else, I have to wade through the major press conglomerate’s advertising bombardments of their latest, and usually unsatisfying and empty, bombast; but even so, I still keep looking because… you just never know.
So I began this year with two immediate objectives in mind: First, to read every book listed in William Gass’s essay “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars,” and second, to read or reread every book Gass has published. My reason for the Gass project was borne of a weird premonition about Gass. Rather than getting into my morbid thoughts, let me instead tell you that I opened this year with reading Gass’s first novel Omensetter’s Luck. A powerful debut, it’s divided into three parts, each part narrated by a different person. Having affinities to Faulkner and Hemingway, it rises above their influence because of its peculiar, while also still beautiful, descriptions, and also by its depiction of three very different minds. Following this, I read Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. It’s definitely an oddity where you’ll find Gass overtly flexing his experimental chops; there’s a fusion of minds here, a profusion of voices; there’s collage, and typeface and spatial play worthy of Apollinaire. And there are Gass’s meditations on language (something that you find throughout Gass’s fiction and his essays):
In language, there’s no imagination without music, because music is the movement of the imagination. But who can take imagination seriously when it binds its words with threads of feelings like spiders fill their webs with flies. Not alone because they eat them.
I reread In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and was once again overwhelmed by stories like “Order of Insects” (easily my favorite story by Gass), “Mrs. Mean,” “Icicles,” and the title story. And the novella The Pedersen Kid is a harrowing tale that demands rereading as each reread reveals new symbolic associations.
Next was a reread of Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I, once again, enjoyed every minute following his deep philosophical forays and then his extensive examinations of writers like Gertrude Stein, Nabokov, Borges, Henry James, and others. On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (another reread) is a short work, but no less inspiring, as Gass uses a primary color to lyrically explore metaphor, vulgarity, eroticism, and the imagination, and ultimately turns inside out conventional notions of the expository essay. Within the climate of mainstream media’s demand for concision, for easily digestible tidbits, for something that has a gist, On Being Blue is wonderfully out of place. The question is, do you have time for a sentence like this one?:
So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in Stevens or the sentences of Joyce or James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens—there—there—we’re here!…in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech…ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, and mindful Sublime.
Whew! Sentences, as Gary Lutz has written, may be lonely places, but they can (as demonstrated by Gass above) also be a place of solitude, a vast play space where you can sprawl. I followed On Being Blue with The World Within the Word. Highlights include “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence” (an important text for anyone interested in Stein’s innovations), “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” and “The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words.” Virtually every sentence by Gass dazzles, and each essay bubbles with his insightful extrapolations on whatever literature he’s examining. Habitations of the Word was next. I found his essay on Emerson (a meditation on the art of essay writing in general, really) was particularly useful to me. And I could go on about “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “Tropes of the Text,” “On Talking to Oneself,” “On Reading to Oneself,” “The Origin of the Extermination in the Imagination,” and “The Habitations of the Word,” but instead I’ll rave about his essay “‘And.’” Demonstrating his virtuosic erudition (and his love of words no matter how small; thanks, Horton!) Gass examines this conjunction from many different perspectives:
The anonymity of ‘and,’ its very invisibility, recommends the word to the student of language, for when we really look at it, study it, listen to it, ‘and’ no longer appears to be ‘and’ at all, because ‘and’ is, as we said, invisible, one of the threads that holds our clothes together: what business has it being a pants leg or the frilly panel of a blouse? The unwatched word is meaningless—a noise in the nose—it falls on the page as it pleases, while the writer is worrying about nouns and verbs, welfare checks or a love affair; whereas the watched word has many meanings, some of them profound; it has a wide range of functions, some of them essential; it has many lessons to teach us about language, some of them surprising; and it has metaphysical significance of an even salutary sort.
With such rigorous attention to minutiae, Gass’s essay is, in fact, an object lesson in how much we, as writers and readers, take for granted.
In between my readings of Gass was any number of detours. Inspired by Gass’s literary “pillars,” I reread Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium. Gass believes “that genius and originality should be evident almost at once and delivered like a punch—in a paragraph, a stanza, even an image,” and as I reread Harmonium (aloud, of course), I was continually pummeled by the richness of syntax, the vividness of the imagery. I was so inspired that I decided to read Stevens’s entire Collected Poetry & Prose (it’s almost a thousand pages long!) twice. Having finished all the poetry and plays, I’m in the middle reading the essays now. So, if you’re exhausted by all the leaden sentences out there, all the poetry and fiction without any music, dip into Stevens, a still wholly original voice and challenging thinker. John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig is another of Gass’s literary pillars that I read in January. I will have to reread it, of course, since I found myself sometimes lost (surely not a bad thing?) in Hawke’s lusciously lyrical prose and could hardly be bothered to connect the plot’s dots.
After I’d mentioned famed grammarian Karen Elizabeth Gordon in a blog post at Big Other [an online journal I edit] about grammar, style, and usage, Andrew Borgstrom, another writer, sent me a copy of Gordon’s book of fiction The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales. Its original title, Intimate Apparel: A Dictionary of the Senses, actually intimates much more what her project is, that is, envisioning the novel as an abecedary. Each alphabetical entry like “Dark,” “Drawers,” “Dusk,” “Farewell,” “Fur,” “Honey,” “Jar,” “Lunch,” “Socks,” “Stockings,” “Time,” “Towel,” “T-shirt,” “Undershirt,” “Wall,” and “Wedding Train” is a colorful swatch pieced together into a quilt by the novel’s two seamstresses. Gordon’s gothic pyrotechnics and sesquipedalian proclivities are in fine display here as she re-envisions tales by Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm, as well as creating her own (to interpolate one of her phrases) tangled balls of yarn.
I plan on writing more about this later somewhere, but Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames was incredible. In it, he collages three voices: Vincent van Gogh, his great grandson Theo van Gogh, and Mohammed Bouyeri (Theo’s murderer), and creates a polyvocal work seeping with anxiety, malice, fear, and doubt, as well as lyrical meditations on art, creativity, and the imagination.
I also read a few chapbooks including David Peak’s Museum of Fucked with its aching portraits of disturbed, hurting, and despairing people living in rundown Chicago neighborhoods. Lonely Christopher’s Satan is a compelling exploration of disjunction and stuttering repetition.
Some other quick, but no less significant, detours last month were the following:
Joyelle McSweeney’s Nylund the Sarcographer, Gary Lutz’s I Looked Alive, Gordon Lish’s Zimzum, Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque, and J.A. Tyler’s Inconceivable Wilson [Tyler is a contributor at Big Other]. What they all share in common is language that calls attention to itself as language, as something malleable, almost sculptural. McSweeney’s book is dripping with sinuous, luxurious descriptions:
The muddy carpet had looked like the Seine at night, streaked with pink muddy light from the sky, or like rosebank after heavy rain, or the aftermath of an allmale garden party: kinky. Nylund had walked by the large department stores and seen small nodes of women emerge wearing hats as if guiding a flotilla of flowery islands down a river of Nereids’ hair. The effect proved artificial like a Victorian’s night charade, each woman’s head gleaming with a prow-shaped coif which bore up a sheaf of flowers. It was afternoon as Nylund watched this incredible current emerge and pull to a thread in both directions down the sidewalk, then thin out completely and disappear.
After reading this, you might consider picking up Joanna Howard’s On the Winding Stair, a collection of stories that goes for baroque as well, and also explores a similar kind of fragmentary narrative style.
Lutz is the king of sentences so I won’t bother cherry picking. Suffice to say, any of his three story collections is worth picking up and living with for a while.
I liked Gordon Lish’s Zimzum, its unnerving repetitions, its self-reflexive aspects. It is obsessive and deranged, and contains language that is —as you would expect from this architect of a particular brand of minimalism—pared down and tightly wound. It’s best read in one sitting, I think.
Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque is another beautiful little book. In it is contained twenty-one delicately tooled fictions, each of which startles with its intricacy, subtlety, and poetry:
I would touch a spot on the sheet.
I would touch the windows and the grass, the rip beneath the trees, by the boat—which, indeed, was sinking. The mountain in the bracken was the face, and pleasant, pertaining also to the pitter-patter in the walls, to farce, that is to say—at least inasmuch as the headboard was oxblood, but not old, and the door, of a sudden was open.
Yes, all kinds of doors open when reading Schwartz’s book.
J.A. Tyler’s short works are ubiquitous online and so it was great to finally read a longer, self-contained work. Without getting into too much detail, as I intend to explore it at greater length at Big Other, it’s a delving into a heart of darkness, but a darkness illumined by Tyler’s painterly, expressionistic effects, and also his insistent repetitions:
White, so much white, too much white, white in dark, black, light, lighter, lightened. Planes, boats, and a wall of starving people saying to me about not going in, about not moving through them, to the next, onward. And I went onward because I know no restrictions, I wanted, I want. And it is beyond strange now to exist without existing, to persist in pieces and minor movements, being re-tuned, returned. A lathe turns pieces. I turn. I spin. Spin, spin. The world moves and spins, lullabies of plane engines and boat engines and cars in gear and my boots designing footprints in loose dirt, in gravel, stamping into new places I go. I go. I go. I went, have gone, am going. I go, I go. Go.
Lastly, I began reading Gass’s massive tome The Tunnel. I’m five-sixths of the way through, and though I’d hate to condense my thoughts about it in a sentence or two, let me conclude by saying that one thing it raised for me is the feeling that, in general, there’s a lack of ambition in contemporary literature. Sometimes size does matter, not only in the length of pages, that large canvas where a writer can spread themselves out rather than spreading themselves thin, but in the girth of ideas. Also, it made me think that virtuosity is another quality that seems in short supply these days. What The Tunnel proves to me, actually, or, rather, what most of the books I’ve read this month prove to me is, among many other things, that most writers simply need to try harder.