As part of my preparation for my interview with William Gass, I began April with a reread of Conversations with William Gass. Once again, I highly recommend Conversations as it offers a great mind essaying off-the-cuff, and doing it brilliantly. I followed this with a reading of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, another of Gass’s fifty literary pillars. It’s an incredibly elaborate orchestration of metafictional play and stylistic counterplay. Seamless collage of seemingly disparate elements like pulp genres, Irish folklore and mythology, and frame within a frame within a frame tales is one mark of its formal inventiveness. One of the joys of At Swim is getting tangled in, and having to disentangle yourself from, the various threads, and following all the characters in and out of their nested boxes. As to be expected from a novel about a writer writing about a writer writing a novel, there’s a lot of commentary about writing: “There are two ways to make big money, he said, to write a book or to make a book.” And this was the remark that “provoked” a group of pseudo-intellectuals to have a “discussion on the subject of Literature-great authors living and dead, the character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character.” Love that capital “L” there! This whole passage, with the bits about how the room “rang with the iron of fine words,” how the “names of great Russian masters were articulated with fastidious intonation,” and how psychoanalysis “was mentioned-with, however, a somewhat light touch,” is hilarious. And I think this statement: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another,” is critical, too, since it’s a justification, of sorts, of all the overlapping and juxtapositions of characters and settings throughout the course of the novel.

In my darker moments, usually after being away from art for some hours, and, mind you, this doesn’t just mean literature, but paintings, sculpture, film, or whatever, I start feeling kind of jittery, but the darkness takes on an especially despairing hue when I start to think about the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene. Sure, I’m guilty as anyone else of romanticizing past eras, characterizing them as golden ages, when of course the amount of dross to gold has always been grossly disproportionate all throughout history. However, these necessary caveats do little to assuage my disappointment with the various contemporary scenes and milieus. That said, there are, of course, massive exceptions, and fortunately these examples do provide respite from our consumerist culture’s celebration of mediocrity, its wallowing in sloppiness. For instance, as I write this, I’m listening to Beirut’s odd fusion of folkloric textures from the Balkans and Eastern Europe with pop forms, all seamed together by Zach Condon’s plaintive, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals (something which would normally annoy me but, strangely, as with Andrew Bird, the sincerity of the voice outweighs the obvious debt, and it might be because Condon also blends a bit of Robert Smith’s melancholy and Morrissey’s effete tonality). And during February, when New York City’s interminable winter and its resultant gloom invariably descends upon my household, well, upon my partner, but somehow it ends up being the primary theme anyway, I pulled through with books by William Gass, continuing my plan to consecutively read (and reread some of the books) his complete oeuvre. (I should mention that writing with music on is near impossible for me to do these days, and it is an incredible struggle for me to do this now, but there’s a feeling I want to stay in, and Beirut is helping me do that.)











Over at arts blog Big Other, they’re gathering together a reading group for Flann O’Brien’s great comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds, to be consumed at an approachable-yet-respectable clip of 100 pages/week. See AD Jameson’s post about reading guides for the complex-ish modernist book. But don’t be scared! To fully enjoy O’Brien, you really needn’t be equipped with anything more than a good sense of humor and a love for language. I highly encourage people to read along, or at least check in from time to time to listen in during the ensuing book banter.