Apr 152017
 

This is the second of James Purdy’s novels that I’ve read and I was not prepared for how different it would be from the first in style.

This novel begins as the narrator’s elderly husband tries to recover from a stroke. This event has brought his eventual death into view and Carrie, his younger and extremely deferential wife, copes by turning her attention to her memories of her long-dead daughter, a successful artist. The narrative is Carrie’s memoir telling of her coming-into-herself as a person as she steps out of her cloistered, conservative home to investigate her daughter’s sexual adventures and to understand her bohemian life.

As the story begins, Carrie is like soft clay, untouched by anything except her own sense of her untouchedness. As she meets other people—first her sister-in-law, then a man-hating Elizabethan obsessed with Edmund Spencer, and finally a man who reminds her of her first love but who was one of her daughter’s lovers—as she meets these people, she receives their way of being in the world into herself. She is not, however, adrift. What others mistake as impressionability and lack of identity is in fact a budding openness to life made possible by her not-yet-defined and not-yet-understood (but still weighty and valuable) sense of herself as having a self. At the end of the novel, Carrie is sensitive, loving, and strong.

This solid simplicity does not exhaust, however, the sophistication of the text we’re given. Although written in Carrie’s plain voice—simple sentences, naive diction, stacks of short paragraphs—the text is run-through with allusions to the myth of Persephone and The Fairie Queen. The resulting complexity of this memoir is extreme. There are echoes and repetitions and allusions galore. This complexity may not be Carrie’s alone—Purdy’s voice is there too, the allusions may belong to him—but it isn’t not Carrie’s voice either and so her simpleness can be read—at least possibly—as a bright reduction of life to essentials. In some of the best moments, this reduction manifests the dark clarity of a dream. All of this is handled with such a sureness and lightness of touch that the book reads as small and particular even though it is also, simultaneously, a heady meditation on the artist’s creation of the self.

As was the case in In a Shallow Grave, the ending here is happy, self-consciously so. But Carrie has earned her happiness in a way that the war veteran in that earlier novel hadn’t. I think the other characters are lucky to have her in their lives.

Shifting gears, this novel reminded me during long stretches of Washington Square. This in turn made me think of Wright Morris, a now more-or-less forgotten mid-century novelist I read a lot of in the 90s. My sense of him then was that many of his novels were working through the style and subjects of his immediate predecessors, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, etc. Purdy is a much better writer than Morris and possess a much stronger point of view. But given the way both Purdy’s novels evoked other works for me, I’m curious to what extent the stylistic differences in the two I’ve read might be the sign of a similar hearkening back and working though.

 April 15, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Apr 152017
 

In a Shallow Grave is the first novel I’ve read by James Purdy, an author I know next to nothing about.

It tells the story of a traumatized and disfigured war veteran who haunts (and eventually loses) his family home, which is a former slave plantation. The veteran spends his time reading books he doesn’t understand and writing letters to a young widow he is trying to court. These letters are written in an affected language imitating the incomprehensible books, and she accepts them only out of pity and only after being told to do so by a minister. The veteran’s only friends are his “applicants,” a black man and a handsome wanderer who keep him company and deliver his letters. The latter eventually sacrifices his life for him.

The language and the plotting of this book are disarmingly simple but self-consciously off-kilter. The narrative frame of reference is clearly gothic.  As I read two novels kept coming to mind: Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Harry Crews’s The Gospel Singer. I’m not sure either is is very much like Purdy’s novel, but something in the veteran’s efforts at love reminded me of McCuller’s love triangle, and his oddly sophisticated and manipulative naiveté reminded me of Crew’s protagonist.

What all of this means for me is that In a Shallow Grave reaches back to and evokes one of my very first adult literary passions. It’s one that predates this blog by years, and since I don’t read much of what gets called post-war “Southern Gothic” anymore, it has remained mostly invisible here. But it’s real and deep-seated, and as a result, I read this novel warmed by a deep reserve of sympathy for it’s project and style. Happily for me, it paid back the good will by being fresh rather than mannered.

 April 15, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 012017
 

I stumbled upon this book seven or eight years ago in a used book store just down the street from the Stanley exit of Peel metro station in Montreal. I was writing my dissertation, and walking helped me sort out my ideas. Sometimes I wandered for hours.

That day the window display caught my eye, and I took a break to browse the bookstore’s shelves. When I saw this slim but enticingly named volume, I was curious what it was, picked it up and started to flip through it. Right away I saw Dillard compare a sentence to a worm inching forward in the darkness. Not long after I learned a manuscript left overnight was like a circus lion gone wild again. This was inventive wonderful stuff, and obviously I bought the book. Back home I read it through, felt recognized by it, and for the next few months kept it close at hand as I struggled to cobble together, for the first time, a book-length argument.

Last week while rearranging books in my library when I should have been working, I found myself standing and flipping through Dillard’s book again, and again I found myself amazed by what I read there. Seduced by passages that echoed in memory, I sat down and read it through for the first time in years, remembering those months spent writing as I did.

However my experience of the book this time around was more complicated than simple nostalgia. I was struck anew by how good Dillard is on writing and how good her writing itself is. But I was also surprised by how bad she seems to be on life and living. We’re all mysteries to each other, and I won’t pretend to know the terms of Dillard’s happiness. She certainly doesn’t need me to suggest how she should live. But I’m certain that how she lives would make me very unhappy if I imitated her.

There is a deeply religious sensibility in Dillard’s work that sits on its surface. But in this book, it seems cruelly monastic in ways that poison her conception of literary sensibility and literary pleasure. Beneath Dillard’s beautifully compact sentences are a hair shirt and tightly cinched belts of thorns, and her endurance of these pains feel competitive. The effect as a whole is ecstatic, apocalyptic and, somehow, inhumane.

Years ago, I needed desperately Dillard’s words about writing. I’m grateful she wrote them and grateful I found them. But the parts of the book I hadn’t gone back to over and over as I wrote and that, as a result, I hadn’t remembered, these parts have likely put me off this book for a long while.

 April 1, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Apr 012017
 

Nussbaum offers an explanation and a defence of the contribution that imagination and emotion can make to public discourse. In doing so, she pushes back against a naive conception of rationality that demands abstract, coldly technocratic approaches to public policy and law.

When first written her book engaged with important debates raging on the public stage. But reading it now in the first months of Trump’s presidency and as Republicans and far-right ideologues work brazenly to make life worse for so many people, her optimism and her faith in humanism feels like a voice from another world.

Regarding the judiciary and justice system, Nussbaum’s specific topic, I came away convinced that Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become pointless because they ask the wrong questions. Who is this person? Where do they come from? What is their sensibility? These questions—which hint at what kind of judicious spectator the nominee might be—are what matter, not questions about legal principles that invite nothing but dissimulation and the repetition of carefully prepared platitudes.

I mentioned something like this before, but we’ve accepted a radically deconstructive historiography & textualism as the basis of our public discourse, and it’s shredding the political fabric of our society.

 April 1, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312017
 

I loved the seasons of Justified that I’ve watched, and reading this novel is like hearing the TV from another room. So the writers and producers must be doing something right when it comes to the adaptation.

Ultimately though, however much I might enjoy watching something like Justified, my head just doesn’t work when it comes to reading the source fiction. Names don’t stick. I don’t notice the details that stitch together the ins-and-outs of what the bad guys are doing. Worse, I don’t care that I’m not able to make the links. For me, reading crime fiction means pages are flipped, words are read, but the plot just happens in a buzzing, oddly narcotic haze populated by shadows.

I think that the pleasure hard-boiled crime novels—like this one, like The Maltese Falcon—offer their reader is a chance to watch a blank figure of archaic masculine virtue struggle to do a difficult job in a modern world. This man is thrown about and put in danger, but he survives and eventually wins, and he does this through force of character alone. I imagine this is a fairly obvious observation about the genre.

What’s odd though is that, while I dislike reading this kind of crime fiction almost as a rule, I often enjoy watching it when it’s adapted to film or television. What’s going on?

My hunch is that the relevant difference is this: ogling a stylishly photographed strong, silent type of the sort offered up by crime fiction is good fun but identifying with one (which is what reading positions me to do) isn’t. In other words, I enjoy desiring Timothy Olyphant but find no pleasure in desiring to be a tough guy.

 March 31, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Mar 232017
 

I don’t like crime fiction. I knew this, and this book—which is as weird to me as The Sound of Music was to a young David Lynch1—confirms it.

I mean it’s great in a tough guy and dames kind of way. And if that’s your thing, cool.

I just don’t care.

At all.

 March 23, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Feb 282017
 

I first read Call Me by Your Name as I flew to Rome in December 2009 to work on a translation for a friend. I was staying in an apartment a couple blocks from the Coliseum, the Forum wasn’t much further away, and I was excited. The work was intense though, and for three weeks I was indoors all day every day, going out only for coffee and sandwiches, both taken standing up in nearby cafes in the mid-afternoon. My Rome, like Elio’s, was the nighttime city we walked through to go to restaurants and bars.

The book has been on my mind again recently because Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, The Big Splash) has filmed a soon to be released adaptation that I’m eager to see. So when an old friend asked for some book recommendations, I suggested it to him. Once I had, I decided I wanted to go back and read it again myself.

Reading it was, thankfully, less overwhelming than it was the first time. I knew what I was in for, which meant I wasn’t dying inside every few pages. Yet the power of the book was undiminished. Aciman writes a story of desire that is narrated in terms of desire. Chronology is indistinct but the experience of time is palpable. Identity is indistinct and yet every detail of every scene testifies to the presence of a person.

What was most astounding to me though was the extent to which the various wild and roaming feelings sparked by and constituting desire and love are represented clearly and authentically by the narration. In my own memory of being young and in love, I retain my feelings whole. Aciman remembers the pieces constituting that whole and brings them back to life for me as I read. It’s intoxicating stuff.

 February 28, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Jan 242017
 

Romance and the gothic, two dominant modes in the American novel, loom over Washington Square and frame expectations for how the plot might develop. Interestingly, all of these expectations are dashed.

The narration personifies both modes: romance is a meddling aunt, the gothic, a fierce and domineering father. Under their shadow, an allegory emerges both from the protagonist’s troubled courtship by a charming rake out to marry her for her fortune and from the narration’s evocation of and subsequent refusal of romantic and gothic expectations for how that courtship might proceed. The stakes of this allegory are nothing less than the novelist’s sense of the aesthetic possibilities of the American novel.

The heroine survives the mechanations of her father and aunt. She also escapes the rake’s attempts to marry her. And then twenty years after their engagement is called off, in the novel’s final and most powerful scene, the heroine, no longer young and no longer innocent, is confronted again by the rake and he still has eyes on her money. But this time around the heroine has her eyes on him as wellHe speaks, and she watches, and what she sees—powerfully and in an instant—is who he is and who he was. Fortified by a clear view of his character, she rejects him one last time and returns to her ordinary but not unhappy life.

What I read in this final staging of vision as knowledge is the author’s self-conscious choice of a realist mode and his glorious discovery of the character’s gaze as it’s vehicle.

 

 January 24, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Jan 132017
 

When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.

Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.

Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.

I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.

 January 13, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Jan 122017
 

Todd Haynes’s Carol offers so careful and so powerful a reading of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that it acted as a screen between me and the novel, directing my attention and shaping my responses. And so for me, Carol and Therese are as glamorous, sophisticated and brave in the book as they are in the film.

I wonder though: if I hadn’t seen the adaptation, would the attention to gloves and furs and scarves and purses and all the other recurring details of dress that I read as glamour, would they instead have seemed fetishistic? Would the silences and hesitations of the women as they test their sense of what’s possible between them have seemed so romantic? Would the brutality of the men’s rejection of their relationship have upset me more than it did?

Whatever the case, my movie-addled sense of the novel is that Carol and Therese are enjoying a slow-moving game of cat and mouse in which both of them are cats and both of them are playing mouse.

 January 12, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,