What the Whole Thing is About

Caleb Crain. Rev. of Memory Theater, by Simon Critchley. The New York Times 16 December 2015

… In “The Phenomenology of Spirit,” Hegel imagined history as a long, bloody drama acted out by the spirit of history, which played all the characters. Critchley cleverly describes (or rather, claims that his late teacher cleverly described) Hegel’s idea of history as a moving memory theater — “a kind of proto-­cinema.” The narrator concludes that his own experiments have failed because his memory theater didn’t move, and he looks forward to a posthuman upgrade: “an endlessly recreating, re-enacting memory mechanism.” This sounds awfully like the Internet, to which it is so tempting nowadays to offload one’s more tedious tasks of remembering — and indeed, in a recent interview with Andrew Gallix of 3:AM Magazine, Critchley has admitted that the Internet is “what the whole thing is about.” Maybe it makes more sense to think of “Memory Theater” as an allegory.

This Obsessional Looking at the Human

Dan Kois, “The Misanthropic Genius of Joy Williams,” The New York Times Magazine 2 September 2015

“Could this obsessional looking at the human bring about the death of literature?” Williams asks.

Joy Williams, “Joy Williams, The Art of Fiction No. 223” by Paul Winner, The Paris Review 209 (Summer 2014)

We live and spawn and want — always there is this ghastly wanting— and we have done irredeemable harm to so much. Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves.

Impossible to Describe

Parul Sehgal, “Drawing Words From the Well of Art,” The New York Times 22 August 2014

. . . The painting Mr. Lerner, 35, had come to see is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc,” which depicts Joan swooning as she hears the call to battle. It’s something of a famous failure, but Mr. Lerner loves its flaws: “I like paintings that depict what paintings can’t depict, like hearing voices.” He said that the “glitches in the pictorial matrix” in this otherwise naturalistic painting — the cartoonish angels, the way Joan’s left hand dissolves into the paint — inspired his new novel’s questions about how artists render phenomena that seem impossible to describe: the passage of time, the texture of consciousness.

“What interests me about fiction,” he said, “is, in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”

Reading the Unreadable

This appeared on The New York Times‘s Opinionator blog on 27 February 2013. It featured in The Stone, a column devoted to philosophy moderated by Simon Critchley:

Reading the Unreadable
So many books, so little time. Who doesn’t feel the anxiety of it all? In a post at The Guardian’s Books blog, Andrew Gallix moves from a meditation on the phenomenon of the “failed or forgotten” writer, to the deliberate unreadability of the “conceptual writing” championed by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, to the inevitability of the “blank book” prophesied by Kierkegaard. Gallix wonders whether this kind of literary elusivity isn’t ultimately a gift; he claims, following Hegel, that “words give us the world by taking it away.”

A Flighty Mind Might Be Going Somewhere

Hanif Kureishi, “The Art of Distraction,” The New York Times 18 February 2012

…If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you. Seeing that a sentence has to have a particular shape can’t be forced; you have to wait for your own judgment to inform you, and it usually does, in time. Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious. Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multilayered as dreams. They might be where the excitement is. …A flighty mind might be going somewhere.

We Are All Bartlebys

An extract from Tom McCarthy‘s “David Foster Wallace: The Last Audit,” The New York Times Sunday 14 May 2011:

…Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation. The Jesuit presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.” He could just as well be describing the task of the novelist, who, of course, is also “called to account.” It’s hard not to see in the poor pencil-pushers huddled at their desks an image of the writer — nor, given Wallace’s untimely end, to shudder when they contemplate suicide.

Lost childhood pools, by this reading, would constitute a kind of pastoral mode cached (or trashed) within the postmodern “systems” novel — which, in turn, is what the systems-within-systems I.R.S. really stands for. The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction. The data-psychic character Sylvanshine can glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him, but is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor (for the novel in general, or this novel in particular) becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet. […]

…Wallace’s writing is haunted by modernism’s (very plural) legacy. One of the nicknames for the David Wallace character in “The Pale King” is “the young man carbuncular,” a moniker straight from Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Kafka’s “Castle” is explicitly invoked; and so, implicitly by the unfinished clerk-at-desk play, is the entirety of Beckett’s drama.

But there’s an older ghost haunting “The Pale King” even more, I think, one whose spectral presence combines both the political and metafictional ways of reading the book: Melville’s Bartleby, the meek and lowly copyist who cannot will himself to complete the act of copying — or, to put it another way, the writer who cannot will himself to complete the act of writing. In effect, all the I.R.S.’s clerical serfs are Bartlebys; through them, and through this book, he emerges as the melancholy impasse out of which the American novel has yet to work its way. America’s greatest writer, the author of “Moby-Dick,” spent his final 19 years as a customs officer — that is, a tax inspector. To research “The Pale King,” Wallace trained in accounting. We’re moving beyond haunting to possession here. Bartleby, of course, ends up dead, leaving a stack of undeliverable papers. This is the inheritance that Wallace earnestly, and perhaps fatally, grappled with. The outcome was as brilliant as it was sad — and the battle is the right one to engage in.

Abandoned Novels

A short extract from Dan Kois‘ “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?” The New York Times 4 March 2011

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992. What was to be the follow-up to his first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” instead was a black mark on his hard drive, five and a half years of work wasted.

That’s why you’ve never read “Fountain City,” just as you’ve never read John Updike’s “Willow,” Junot Díaz’s “Dark America” or Jennifer Egan’s “Inland Souls” — all abandoned by their authors after years of toil and piles of pages. Chabon, though, has recently published the first four chapters of “Fountain City” in the literary magazine McSweeney’s, complete with annotations that in turn bemoan and belittle the book that stole so much of his life before he put his misery out of its misery.

Why would a novel be, in Chabon’s parlance, “wrecked”? Authors, always sensitive creatures, might abandon a book in a fit of despair, as Stephenie Meyer initially did in 2008 with her “Twilight” spinoff “Midnight Sun,” which she declared herself “too sad” to finish after 12 chapters leaked to the Internet. More dramatically, in 1925 Evelyn Waugh burned his unpublished first novel, “The Temple at Thatch,” and attempted to drown himself in the sea after a friend gave it a bad review. (Stung by jellyfish, Waugh soon returned to shore.) More dramatically still, Nikolai Gogol died a mere 10 days after burning the manuscript of “Dead Souls II,” for the second time.

Sometimes success intrudes on a writer’s plans, transforming what once came easily into an impossible slog — as happened to two old friends, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Lee had written more than 100 pages of her second novel, “The Long Goodbye,” before “To Kill a Mockingbird” was even published in 1960. But the attention accompanying the wild success of “Mockingbird” slowed her output to a trickle. After years of fitful work, she seems to have given up, telling her cousin, “When you’re at the top there’s only one way to go.”

Capote, meanwhile, published chapters from his long-gestating “Answered Prayers” in Esquire, and the resulting fallout — longtime friends, recognizing themselves in the barely veiled portraits of desperation and decadence, cut Capote off — infuriated and hurt him. “What did they expect?” he asked his editor. “I’m a writer, I use everything.” Some think that Capote wrote more, but that the chapters were destroyed or lost; many, including his longtime partner, Jack Dunphy, believe he never wrote another word.

Then there are novels abandoned for the dullest of reasons, one as familiar to M.F.A. students and National Novel Writing Month participants as it is to the pros: The novel just isn’t working. …