Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Tweet, Tweet, Twitterature

Full title: Twitterature. The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less
Authors: Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin
Genre: Fiction, adaptation
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Penguin (2009)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Surprise: an art, a technique

Full title: Pastoralia
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead Trade; reissue edition (2001)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There is a lot to be surprised by in George Saunders’ stories. To start with, his settings are always odd, albeit perfectly plausible. Saunders forces his texts to enter territories where narration appears to have no place: a theme park, a training session for drivers, the crowded meeting room in a Hyatt hotel, a banal apartment, a mock-wedding party, a trip home. But he manages to milk these settings of a lot of narrative juice. And that goes on to do some further surprising through refinement and minute attention to the most trivial of details.
To put it in different words, most of what George Saunders does rests on technique. As he often admitted, his stories are hard-worked, edited to the point of bleeding, reduced and condensed so as to attain the most instructive of coagulations. One can surely learn from him the art of writing and writing and writing. In Pastoralia, these aspects are happily married with the brevity of the dialogues and the professionally sculpted narrative bits, the slender construction of which offers delightful degustations of high-caloric narrative art. Chosen almost at random, a fragment from “Sea Oak”:
“When I get home the babies are asleep and Jade and Min are watching a phone-sex infomercial, three girls in leather jumpsuits eating bananas in slo-mo while across the screen runs a constant disclaimer: ‘Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones! Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones!”
Enough is said here to illustrate a social status, to point out a particular kind of cultural environment, and to draw humour from crude, unengaged observation.

Narrative diversions are one of Saunders’ favourite tools. With the ease permitted by the masterful handling of abundant streams of consciousness, he manages to inject humour into the stories by simply following the erratic trajectories of his characters’ thoughts.
Example. In “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” there are a lot of close-ups on the protagonist’s quirky mind-work. In one case, we find him in a room full of strangers. He describes them to us with an appetite of a third-person visitor but with the accuracy of a first-person participant. These people are lists of physical details, dished up in an orderly manner, one after another, as if by means of a conveyor belt. We see them from the outside, and we kind of understand the game. But then there’s a moment (like in almost every story in the book)… A moment when we find that hey, we’re not simply contemplating here; we’re also part of the process of discovery experienced by the very character whose thoughts we are following.
“Next to the white-haired woman was a pretty girl. A very pretty girl. Wow. One of the prettiest girls the barber has ever seen. Boy was she pretty.”
These exclamations are at the same time indications of the protagonist’s surprise, and an oblique intervention of the narrator/author, who insinuates himself in the story via such simple psychographies that add zing and give characters body.
Dynamic narration, erected on a foundation of springy dialogues and descriptions devoid of any emotional involvement, are also to be found in the title story. Here’s an example, one of many:
“Someone pokes their head in.
Young guy, kind of goofy-looking.
‘Bradley?’ Janet says. ‘Holy shit.’
‘Hey, nice greeting, Ma,’ the guy says, and walks in. He’s not supposed to walk in. No one’s supposed to walk in. I can’t remember a time when anyone has ever just walked in.
‘Fucking stinks in here,’ he says.”
And this is how a new character is introduced, without the slightest attempt at announcing his appearance or explaining why he was necessary at all. Unlike the previous example, here the reader finds no narratorial intervention whatsoever. No introduction, no character development, no physical description, no invasion of psychic spaces, no contenxtualisation. Everything we learn about this Bradley we learn through the dialogue into which he jumps from the very first moment. We get to know him as he hangs at the end of his own words.
Saunders is very fond of this narrative method, which gives excellent results by allowing the story to progress as if by itself, while at the same time forcing the reader to play an active role in the games of characterisation and story construction. It’s what holds the collection together – otherwise a series of narratives of unequal inclination, where the author doesn't rise to the surface as a unitary being but rather as a millipedic ego with his numerous feet in a lot of pots. Pots full of honey – it needs to be added: the honey of well-boiled surprise.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

“I am home and whole, so to speak”

Full title: Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
Author: Kevin Powers
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 96 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2014)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s impossible to find anything said about Kevin Powers that’s not dominated by references to his involvement in the Iraq war. So, quite naturally, one wonders, is it even imaginable to read his poems outside this tight frame? Of course, the title itself, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, will appear to be a first difficulty. But let’s pretend this ‘fighting’ is not what everybody has agreed upon; let’s say it is a metaphor. Of no particular war, of no military battle. What now?
The task would still be an immensely difficult one, since the texts in the collection are peppered with images that only make sense in war poetry. There are these perfectly fitting lines from the title poem, for instance:
“war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.”
Then there’s “Great Plain,” a poem whose central event is as horrible as any we can find in history books at school or on the news at dinner time: a boy who defies death in order to make a buck by selling unexploded mortars back to the American soldiers.
So yes, against this hard textual evidence, it’s hard to pretend this was not a collection of war poems. But still.
There are things in Powers’ poems which can be read in ways that transgress the logic of the genre. Because yes, there are things worse than wars, things that go deep into our DNA and make us blush at a genetic scale.
Then let’s say it. What these poems are greatly concerned with, is the operations of signs. The alarm is already present in the first poem, “Customs”:
“The world has been replaced
by our ideas about the world.”
Why is such a thing more horrible than war? Because the replacement Powers is talking about is the cause of the very idea of war. Without such a cataclysmic irreverence to the world, there would be little, if any, reasons to take up arms to defend one’s conviction, one’s misunderstandings, one’s allegiance to appearance. Powers seems to understand well this fact, which reviewers overlook almost programmatically. In his poems, Powers takes a peek through the screen of the obvious: the war, the news about the war, the sentiments the war has caused in viewers and soldiers alike. Here’s where the burden lies: in the realization that war is a mere by-product, a consequence (sad, no doubt) of our separation from the world. With this awareness comes the painful realization that we have always missed that which truly deserves our attention:
anything on earth has earned the right to be observed
it is a thing of beauty while in flight.”
(“The Torch and Pitchfork Blues”)
There’s regret in this statement, which reads like a reference to American Beauty. It’s the regret that things have turned out the way they have, and we ended up in this grand mutation of signs, where it is increasingly harder to find signifiers that we can explain.
“We no longer have to name
the sins that we are guilty of.
The evidence for every crime
exists. What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for the weight of what remains
as residue – every effort
must be made to scrub away
the stain we’ve made on time.”
(“Photographing the Suddenly Dead”)

A lot of what we perceive is the result of how we represent.
Here, Steven Spielberg shooting War Horse: references to this type
of confusion appear often in Kevin Powers' poems.
Source: Dream Works Studios
To arrive at this awareness, one must understand that the tragedy of humankind is our disappearance behind the very signs we have created. This, of course, sends us head-first into terrible problems of morality, where we are asked to finger-point the thing we consider more important: the tragedy of one, or the catastrophe of the world?
“Before there was
brushed nickel there was iron, before
Tommy Dunlap was pushed idly from the bus
into that busy intersection, there was
a plenitude of grief already. Measured
against all that, a single incident recedes
into no biggie.”
(“The Torch and Pitchfork Blues”)

Issues of morality, ontological relevance, and a sense of metaphysical doubt cannot escape the genre known as “war poetry.” But the point is this: there’s a wider space where the poems of Kevin Powers can be placed. There, questions of more fundamental gravity must be asked, as the logic of war recedes into a concern of a second order.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

To write like a surgeon

Full title: Speech Begins after Death
Author: Michel Foucault, Philippe Artières
Genre: Non fiction, interview
Attributes: 96 pages, hardcover
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In 1968, Michel Foucault participated in a series of private interviews with Claude Bonnefoy (also known for having conducted a series of interviews with Eugene Ionesco). There were ten conversations in total, all intended for publication. For some reason, though, the planned publication did not happen. What’s more, the interviews with Bonnefoy passed unnoticed for a very long time, so most of them were gradually lost. The script of the first of these interviews was discovered fairly lately. Although it appears to end abruptly, the script was interesting enough to make it into a volume on its own. This is how Speech Begins After Death came about, with a twenty-page introduction by Philippe Artières, who clarifies a few important things about Foucault’s relationship with interviews, lectures, rallies, and other forms of public speech.
A few topics form the flesh of this thin but dense volume, in which Foucault displayed himself as a relaxed, casual at times, uninhibited interviewee. What really stands out, though, is the theme of writing. This interview, which Artières defines as “Foucault putting himself in danger,” marks an interesting point in the career of the philosopher-speaker: his employment of “autobiographical speech.” Indeed, Foucault talks extensively about his childhood and the medical discourse in which he was raised, as the son of a surgeon. The memory of his upbringing offers him the opportunity to talk about his later development as a writer with the words and logic of a medic:
“The physician listens, but does so to cut through the speech of the other and reach the silent truth of the body. The physician doesn’t speak, he acts, that is, he feels, he intervenes. The surgeon discovers the lesion in the sleeping body, opens the body and sews it back up again, he operates; all this is done in silence, the absolute reduction of words. The only words he utters are those few words of diagnosis and therapy.”
Writing, to Foucault, is like clinical analysis, or like dissection.
Source: Dentistry and Medicine
One doesn't need to know much about Foucault to realize that right here, in this definition of the medical profession, lies the very essence of his career as a writer. He says it upfront: the silence of physicians, doubled by that of writers, generates a unified silence, from which writing rises like a necessity, like an “obligation,” and, at the same time, like a dissection.
“I've transformed the scalpel into a pen. I've gone from the efficacy of healing to the inefficacy of free speech; for the scar on the body I've substituted graffiti on paper; for the ineradicability of the scar I've substituted the perfectly eradicable and expungeable sign of writing. Maybe I should go further. For me the sheet of paper may be the body of the other.”
From beyond his texts, Foucault almost always requires to be quoted through long passages, like the ones above, because there is, behind his words, a desire and a lack: the desire to find out for himself what he might be able to say on a given topic, and the lack of a clear trajectory. Surprising as it may seem, the latter is not a shortcoming of his philosophy, but the actual principle that puts things in motion. Through this interview, as through his oeuvre, Foucault is attempting to satisfy the desire and overcome the lack; and he does so through a convincing theory of writing (convincing because so very personal). To him, as the interview makes apparent, writing is a tool used in the much more complex process of reflection.
“When I begin to write an essay or a book, or anything, I don’t really know where it’s going to lead or where it’ll end up or what I’m going to show. I only discover what I have to show in the actual movement of writing, as if writing specifically meant diagnosing what I had wanted to say at the very moment I began to write.”

Through this exploratory writing Foucault learned, made light, discerned the atmosphere of things. And this is the reason why he didn't consider himself a systemic philosopher, but rather a scalpel-wielding surgeon, a muted-yet-eloquent diagnoser; one who took every task as a new beginning, every word as a new operation.