In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don’t have a precise working definition of “lyrical realism” it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers – Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky – and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the “brute materiality of the external world.”As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity – who exactly is the “I” telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away – including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator’s identity – what remains is the “brute materiality” of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, “it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry.”But poetry, as Auden famously put it, “makes nothing happen,” and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its “pure facticity.” The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting “regular inspections of your library;” following “the ‘one in, one out’ rule;” spending “more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;” using the library more, and “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I’m dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we’re moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we’re finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we’ll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.
Ian Frazier’s piece in last week’s New Yorker is one of the oddest, funniest essays I’ve read in a long time. I laughed to myself as I read it the other day while sitting on the steps of the Art Institute in downtown Chicago (following an edifying meetup with fellow book bloggers Deep and Sam). The essay, “Pensees D’Automne,” is about a grown man’s passion for stomping acorns in the fall, and it contains many asides about things like health insurance and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Frazier, who has long written odd and funny things like this, has a new book out this week called Gone to New York: Adventures in the City. The book collects thirty years of Frazier’s journalism about New York. From a review in the Sun-Times:The non-linear way Frazier’s mind works is a delight to follow on the page. And don’t let the emphasis on New York City fool you. Frazier is one of us. In the introduction to Gone to New York, Jamaica Kincaid gets it right when she calls her pal “the authentic American,” whose work “is meant to form an arc, an arc that has not yet begun its curve.”Kincaid and Frazier are also involved in another recently released book, this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing. Kincaid is the editor this year and Frazier is joined as a contributor by luminaries like John McPhee, William T. Vollmann, and William Least-Heat Moon.