I am on a train to Paris reading Her Not All Her: On/with Robert Walser by Elfriede Jelinek, number 18 in the Cahier Series, translated by Damion Searls, with paintings by Thomas Newbolt. “Writers, not unlike generals, often make the most tedious preparations before they proceed to the attack and bravely deliver your battles. Don’t leave your weapons at home all the time! Are you doing it on purpose? From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! That’s what it means to be an artist!”
Sometimes my life seems like an endless process of conquest; other times it feels like an interminable subjugation in exile. People often ask me, do you like it better here in London or in America. The only correct answer is “Stop asking me that stupid question.” When I’m not doing something for money, I read the new books that drift in from the homeland. The first one this year was A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about his conquest of Berlin and various pilgrimages to Spain, Japan and Ukraine. The Berlin chapter is potently dense, the best thing written on that city’s colonization by American artists. The Spain bit is a buddy movie starring Tom Bissell in Danny Glover-like “I’m too old for this shit” mode. The Japan part has the absurdist quality of a Beckett monologue. And although I am undomesticated and don’t generally go in for family stuff, the resolution of daddy issues in the Ukraine section is comically and dramatically satisfying. The locations don’t matter in the end because you read Lewis-Kraus for his smooth prose style.
You read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder for his smooth way with storytelling, an overvalued quality except when it’s done this well. Who thought the sad New York literary manchild genre could be reconquered to center its gaze not on a mirror but on a woman and who knew the best way to do that would be to filter it through a Catholic morality? This former altar boy didn’t, but amen, peace be with you, and also with you.
Storytelling is not the first thing you look for in a book by Joshua Cohen. You read him for his transgressions, his jokes, his puns, and his piles of similes: “introducing this Word into the story would be…like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.” It makes you think: what’s worse, actual shit or shitty poetry? A silly blurb on Four New Messages compares Cohen’s last book Witz to a comet. The new one is more like a cluster of asteroids impacting the heartland: a big dust cloud and fossils ensue.
One of the many amazing things about Jim Praley, the narrator of Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, is that he finds humorlessness sexy. A Map of Tulsa seems to me the third major blow in a series of what-it’s-like-to-be-me-type novels, after Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti‘s How Should a Person Be?, and that these books will be the litty thing the Obama administration era is remembered for. Lytal’s book has a bit more of a plot than the other two, and the plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be. You probably haven’t heard of this book because it doesn’t come out until April.
Now I have crossed through the Chunnel and I am going to go back to reading Elfriede Jelinek. Next year I plan to read all the posthumous works of Laura (Riding) Jackson.
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