March 12, 2009

The Nature of Bland

Whenever I'm asked "what's your favorite novel?" or "What's the best novel you've read?" I hem and haw, explain that it's impossible to name just one best novel, that "favorite" is not the same as "best", that it changes by my mood, and finally I name a dozen books or so. Hours later I might still ponder the question, scold myself for failing to remember a title, and in extreme cases even call the innocent questioner in the middle of the night to revise my list.

However, if anyone ever asks me "What's the worst novel you've ever read?" I have one answer and one answer only - The Nature of Blood, by Caryl Phillips. Though more than two years have passed since I was forced to read it for a course in grad school, it still stands in my mind as the single worst published work I have ever read (since I got a degree in creative writing I've also read a lot of bad unpublished works, but I trust most of them will stay that way). Worse still, I had to write a detailed critique of the book, which naturally came out as pure vitriol. Of course, rereading it now (the critique, not the book) it's also a little amusing to see how angry I was at the damn thing, so here is my full analysis for your benefit (my favorite parts are in bold):

In The Nature of Blood, Caryl Phillips employs the postmodern technique of narrative fragmentation and juxtaposition to draw links between several stories of the Jewish experience in Europe and Palestine/Israel at three different historical points. Othello is also thrown into the mix, his addition apparently justified by his brief incursion into the Jewish ghetto in Venice and, less directly, by the oversimplifying parallels that can be drawn between his standing in society, and the situation of European Jewry.

The narrative techniques are varied, ranging from straightforward first and third person stories, to historical sketches, encyclopedia entries, dreams, and psychological profiles. The first person narrators are generally direct and reliable, presenting precisely what they experience and witness, including hallucinations and dreams, with few slippages. The third person narrator (or narrators) is usually distant, offering a factual account of the events, except in two spots (180 and 182) where he seems to address Othello directly, employing terms from modern American culture.

These various texts, modes of storytelling, and literary devices are combined to form a strictly postmodern novel, and when taken all together they should amount to an artifact devoid of a single meaning. This is not a judgment of value, but rather a logical conclusion. Postmodernism, as a revolt against authority and significance must also be a revolt against traditional interpretations and meanings. Thus, a novel that adopts the tools of postmodernism should also adopt its message of polysemy. In the era after the grand narratives have collapsed and everything is allowed, open to interpretation, questionable, transposable, ambiguous, and polysexual, a writer cannot expect his audience to walk away with a single shining message.

In The Nature of Blood, however, there is a profound lack of these multiple layers and shades of meanings. Phillips does not challenge any of our ideals or question any of the notions we live by. His positioning of diverse texts side by side implies an attempt to form super-subtle links between characters, situations and cultures. In my mind, however, these links never materialized, or else could only be constructed by overlooking major discrepancies, or by limiting our interpretations to broad, unsophisticated statements.

The only message conveyed in this book is a trivial amalgamation of politically correct clichés. There is nothing new here, nothing that we have not already heard and agreed upon a million times. There is nothing bold in speaking out against the Holocaust, or stating that blood libels are wrong. No intelligent being, at this day and age, would condone racism, bigotry, or discrimination. The retelling of Othello’s story adds no insight to the original text, and the bookend stories about Uncle Stephen and Malka are so plain and pointless they only serve to weaken to overall themes of the novel.

The main issue I had with this novel, however, is not its lack of insight, but rather the appalling shoddiness with which it was written and constructed. The sheer volume of literary offences Phillips commits is staggering. The Holocaust narratives, for example, were such an offensive combination of historical clichés and Anne Frank styled Pastiche that I half-expected Roberto Benigni to waltz through at some point, shouting “Buon Giorno, Principessa” at the top of his voice. There is nothing in Eva’s bland story to makes it unique, interesting, or insightful and the author’s significant distance from the events does not lead him to offer a fresh perspective of them. This seems to be simply an exploitation of the Holocaust to lend depth and gravitas to this insipid literary text. This abuse of historical material is aggravated by the relatively minor offences it is equated to in the parallel stories of Othello and Malka.

The writing is often sloppy and flat, with lengthy descriptions of scenery and historical tidbits that do not reveal character or further the plot, such as it is. Othello’s rich Shakespearean tongue is torn out of his head and replaced with the chatterbox of a ditzy tourist. Early on in his narrative he reaches a profound conclusion, worthy of any vacationing ninth grader, that “much of Venice was quite different from the pretty city of the watercolors”(109). Then, in drawn-out paragraphs he tells us excitedly about how his attendant teaches him about gondolas (110-111), his lady friend teaches him about courtship (112-114), and his language teacher teaches him about politics (116). This narrative technique is so transparent and heavy-handed it’s almost comical.

I often found myself wondering who the target audience of this book is. Who would wade through forty pages of adjective-heavy descriptions delivered by an infuriatingly obtuse narrator? (I believe the phrase “lapping waves” appeared more than a few times in Othello’s languorous descriptions). Who would be interested in encyclopedic passages about Jewish communities of the 15th century, and still benefit, or enjoy, such a preschool-level line as: “In front of each person was a large illustrated Hebrew book of stories, which these Jews read from right to left”(57)?

Perhaps, as my friends and family often tell me, the problem lies with me. When I read a novel I expect an aesthetic experience, not a dry history lesson. When I read a Holocaust narrative I seek new insights, not rehashed clichés. When I read a work referring to one of Shakespeare’s plays I expect it to enhance my enjoyment of the original, not sour it. In historical fiction, a loathsome term, I expect to find an imaginative understanding of the historical details, not half-baked political agendas or hackneyed sermons. And finally, in all forms of fiction, I want to get close to the fictional individuals rather than hear descriptions of their environments or customs. The Nature of Blood is a wonderful example of everything a postmodern novel should not be – technique has displaced meaning, information misplaced the story and, the most grievous of offenses, research has replaced empathy.

Phillips, Caryl. The Nature of Blood. New York: Vintage, 1997.

February 24, 2009

Quantity and/or Quality

In Sunday's New York Times Book Review Geoff Nicholson wrote about the implications of being called a "wildly prolific" writer, and mentioned others who have earned this label like Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and William T. Vollmann. He laments that some readers see an abundance of quantity implies a lack of quality, and almost admits this himself when he concludes that:
perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, naïve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however “successful,” is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.
This reminded me of Raymond Carver's complaint against writers who don't take the time to polish their work because of pressures from agents and editors, or financial constraints, and then bemoan their suffering art. If Mr. Nicholson, whose work I've never read, feels that everything he produces is a sort of failure, and he is not simply feigning the position of the uncompromising, perfectionist artist, maybe he should spend some more time on his work rather than darting off to the next project (to be fair, Nicholson is not as prolific as the company he purports to keep - writing 20 books in 22 years hardly measures up to Oates's 100 in 45).

Isaac Asimov wrote more
than 520 books in 53 years

In response to Nicholson, Caleb Crain, in his blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, linked prolific writers to "excellent" composers, who don't produce a higher proportion of excellent work than "good" composers, but simply produce a higher total number of works. he claims this correlation between quantity and quality exists among writers as well, "If you subtract cases of early demise from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and mental illness, and handicap for poverty and/or day jobs."

I decided to test this theory on a quick and not-so random selection of ten 20th century authors I've recently read:

Practically all these writers are considered, rightfully or wrongfully, excellent, or brilliant, or at the very least successful (the list includes two Nobel Prize winners, as well as recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, The Jerusalem Prize, Guggenheim Fellowships, etcetera), but none of them is particularly prolific, even factoring in Crain's attenuating circumstances of additional occupations or early death. Aside from reinforcing my wariness when approaching overly-productive writers, these unofficial findings also made me feel better about my own modest productivity (in case you're wondering, my own output is similar to Malamud's - 2 novels and 12 stories completed in about nine years, though I can't vouch for the quality of the first novel).

John O'Hara wrote fourteen novels and more than
four hundred short stories, but none were as successful
or accomplished as his first novel Appointment in Samarra

At the end of his post Crain adds that, “In an age when authors write blogs, only the prolific will manage to write books at all.” That might be somewhat of an exaggeration; I think blogging (like translation, drawing, and reading), is ancillary to writing fiction, and can often inspire or exercise the brain, preparing it for the loftier, more difficult pursuit. Nevertheless, I must admit that at times I feel I have to abandon my various side projects for a while, and just sit down and write, no matter how poor I consider the results, just so I can feel like I'm still, and primarily, a writer of fiction.

February 21, 2009

The Collected Works of Franz Kafka - A Bibliophile's Fantasy

June 13 of this year will mark the 85th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death and, unlike many younger and less renowned writers, his work has not yet been collected in a definitive, dare I say "Deluxe," edition. Samuel Beckett, Kafka's spiritual if not literal Protégé, has been honored with the four volume Grove Centenary Edition of his complete works. Jorge Luis Borges, one of Kafka's many champions, has received three neat volumes by Penguin - one for his complete fictions, retranslated for the occasion, a second for a generous selection from his non-fiction writings, and a third for a selection of 200 poems, translated into English by a variety of writers, translators, and poets, and appearing alongside the original Spanish versions. But Kafka, in spite of his seminal importance, remains uncollected.

The Grove Centenary Edition of Samuel Beckett

I admit that there are some issues that would complicate publishing Kafka's complete works. First, much of it is now irretrievably lost, either disintigrated in the folds of time, or destroyed at the hands of people who obeyed Kafka's infamous request to burn all of his unpublished work. A notorious yet unsubstantiated story involves Kafka's lover Dora Diamant burning a completed draft of the unfinished story "The Burrow" ("Der Bau"), along with other works following his death. But even limiting ourselves to what still exists in this realm is problematic since there are certainly some letters Kafka has sent, which are known to still exist, that have not yet been made public. The most publicized case involves a whole stack of previously unseen documents, postcards, sketches, and personal belongings collected by Max Brod, Kafka's literary executor, which have been gathering dust if not mold in the almost certainly humid Tel Aviv apartment of one Esther Hoffe, Brod's former secretary and lover. These papers may include the original manuscripts of some of Kafka's famous works of fiction, including according to one estimation, the original manuscript of the unfinished "Wedding Preparations in the Country" ("Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande"). It is still unclear what has become of the papers following Hoffe's death in 2008, but it is assumed that the forty years that have passed since Brod's death have not been kind to them. On the other hand, it may be safe to assume that despite the great value of the original documents, there probably isn't much there that has not already been published by Brod.

The first page of Kafka's letter to his father

There are rumored to be other individuals who still hold on to a few Kafka's letters, either selfishly as collectors, or perhaps out of some misguided sense of protecting his privacy. According to The Kafka Project, an independent international investigation into his lost work:
Kafka's lost papers consist of 35 letters written to Dora Diamant in 1923 and 1924, and up to 20 notebooks, used for journals, sketches, thoughts and ideas, written during the last year of his life.
(The Kafka Project website seems to be somewhat out of date, and it is unclear if they are including Ms. Hoffee in their assessment of what's missing, or whether anything has changed following her death.)

So let's assume, for the time being, that at some point in the future everything that can be discovered will be discovered and made public. Even in this best case scenario, there's still the issue of copyright to deal with. Right now anyone who wants to publish any of Kafka's fiction, from his original and esteemed publisher Schocken Books to the slapdash and deplorable Dover Thrift Editions, can do so without much regard since his fiction has entered the public domain. I assume the copyright for the volumes of letters and diaries, first published between 1952 and 1974, still stands, probably in the hands of The Kafka Estate, or at the very least someone who would not be unwilling to have them republished, and thereby gain some more royalties, but new issues could always come up when it comes to permission and copyright. There are countless stories of literary executors withholding certain documents from scholars or publishers, perhaps most infamous is the case of Stephen Joyce, James Joyce's grandson (as detailed in a New Yorker story), who practically bullies researchers who wish to view his gradfather's papers. More encouragingly, Vladimir Nabokov's son, Dmitri, has finally relented and agreed to publish his father's last, unfinished novel The Original of Laura, after years of stating that he plans to destroy it (The perfectionist Vladimir made it clear that, upon his death, any unfinished work was to be destroyed).

Vladimir Nabokov's Notes and corrections
on Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"

Copyright issues have also plagued Penguin's admirable attempt to reissue Proust's In Search of Lost Time in English (the first entirely new English-language version in decades; all previous editions were simply revisions of Moncrieff's 1920's translations), effectively preventing the publication of the last three volumes of the masterpiece in the States. Though the complete novel was published in the UK in 2002, only the first four volumes are available in the US due to 1998's Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), aimed at protecting Disney's Mickey Mouse from becoming public domain, which extended the term of copyright by 20 years.
Thus, it will be around 2018 before the final three installments of the new translation will be made available here, unless, of course, Disney get their way and the copyright term is extended even further (see The Slate's "In Pursuit of Proust" for more on this case, and The New Yorker's "Righting Copywrongs" for arguments against the CTEA).

Only four of seven volumes are available in Penguin's new translation
of Proust's In Search of Lost Time

Getting back to the topic at hand, one of the reasons I crave this new, definitive edition of Kafka's work is that, though the fictions and diaries are still readily available, Schocken has not published new editions of the letters since 1990, and even then in less than appealing editions. The slim volume Letters to Ottla (Kafka's sister), unpublished since 1987, is particularly hard to find in decent condition. I won't deny that I would very much like to have a nice, neat collection, uniform in height and covers, of everything Kafka has ever comitted to paper.

So again, let's assume all issues of copyright and permission have been resolved, perhaps thanks to the scope and ambition of this fictional pet project of mine (let's pretend for a while that I am persuasive and have much charisma, we're assuming so much already). Naturally, as in the case of Penguin's Proust, new translations are in order, if not for the letters and diaries, at least for the fictions. Here we encounter yet another problem, since even among scholars there is little agreement on what a definitive edition of these works would look like. Each one of the three novels has been printed in various versions - rearranging elements, selecting between variant passages, and excising or restoring scenes. This is a problem that often occurs with works that were unpublished in the writer's lifetime and his unknowable intent must be reconstructed by scholars, who each have their own agenda. In the case of Kafka's novels, I think there is more or less consensus that Schocken's new translations based on the restored texts are the best (Breon Mitchell's The Trial and Mark Harman's The Castle and Amerika), but a serious new translation of the short stories is needed. Naturally, the new definitive editions should also include all the fragments and variations that relate to each work.

Below you will find my idea for how this definitive edition of Kafka's work can be designed (quite simple yet elegent, I believe) and how it would be broken down into seven volumes, each containing between 450 and 600 pages.

Volume I - The Complete Novels

a. The Missing Person / Amerika + fragments (200 pages)
b. The Trial + fragments (200 pages)
c. The Castle + fragments (200 pages)

Volume II - Collected Short Stories and Parables

a. The Complete Stories (450 pages)
b. Parables and Paradoxes (100 pages)

Volume III - Diaries and Notebooks

a. Diaries 1910 – 1923 (500 pages)
b. The Blue Octavo Notebooks (100 pages)

Volume IV - Letters 1

a. Letters to Felice (600 pages)

Volume V - Letters 2

a. Letter to his Father (50 pages)
b. Letters to Ottla and the Family (100 pages)
c. Letters to Milena (300 pages)

Volume VI - Letters 3

a. Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors (500 pages)
b. Unpublished letters (?)

Volume VII - Essays and professional writings

a. Literary Essays (50 pages; originally collected in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces)
b. Professional Writings (400 pages)

(An alternative compilation would be to combine the contents of Kafka's diaries, notebooks, and letters and rearrange them into chronological volumes, as was done, less inclusively, by famed editor Nahum N. Glatzer in the selection of Kafka's autobiographical writings, I Am a Memory Come Alive).

February 13, 2009

The Short, Tragic Life and the Short, Tragic Stories of Horacio Quiroga

I'm not sure how I found out about Horacio Quiroga, or why, out of all the authors I've heard of but have never read, I chose to purchase and read his book The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. I would like to say that I saw his name in one of the lists composed by Jorge Luis Borges, either "The Library of Babel" or "A Personal Library," but when I looked at them again I could not find his name there. I think I wanted to read his stories because I was getting tired of reading mostly American short stories, many of which resorted to PoMo tricks and devices, rather than attempt to tell a decent story.

Quiroga, who was born in the late 19th century in Uruguay, is seen as a predecessor to modern Latin American literature and went through what seem to be the typical writerly experiences of the period (briefly lived in Paris, founded a short-lived magazine, published some poems, experimented with drugs, and started a literary group). However, what seemed to shape his fiction more than anything is the succession of untimely deaths that surrounded him. When Quiroga was only two months old his father accidentally shot himself while returning from a hunting expedition. Appropriately enough, of the twelve stories in the collection four deal with sudden, senseless deaths; one of these stories, "The Dead Man" (1920), seems to be a sort of retelling or reimagining of the event, wherein a man is accidentally impaled on his own machete.

Quiroga's house in Misiones (reconstructed)

In 1903, while attempting to explain to his best friend, poet Federico Ferrando, how to operate a gun, Quiroga accidentally fired it and killed him. He was interrogated, put on trial, and eventually exonerated, then quickly left Uruguay for Buenos Aires. While there he met up with the writer Leopoldo Lugones and joined him on an expedition to Misiones, where he bought a tract of land and began work as a farmer, as well as teaching literature at a nearby college. In 1909 he married a former student, who soon grew despondent over their hard and lonely existence, and eventually poisoned herself with cyanide six years later (Quiroga's two children from that marriage also committed suicide later in their lives). In 1927 Quiroga married a woman thirty years his junior, who also hated life in Misiones, and eventually left him. In 1937 he was diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide by dosing himself with cyanide (Lugones also eventually killed himself with cyanide, exactly one year minus a day afterwards).

Stories of the Jungle (1918)

Death, or the spectre of it, appears in all of the stories in The Decapitated Chicken, which collects twelve works out of over 200 stories, spanning Quiroga's whole career. The earliest story in the book, "The Feather Pillow" (1907), is in my opinion the best and most disturbing of the collection - a sort of Gothic tale which draws on the common bed rest cure story and finally subverts it in a wonderfully horrifying way. In the similarly grisly title story, "The Decapitated Chicken" (1909), four simple-minded boys happen to witness the beheading of a chicken, which leads them to attempt the same process on their sister. Other stories, like "Sunstroke" (1908), "Drifting" (1912), and "A Slap in the Face" (1916), unfold in more predictable ways, but are so short that you don't really mind it. "In the Middle of the Night" (1919) and "The Son" (1935), on the other hand, are a bit too overwrought and sentimental.

Of all the stories in the book, "The Pursued" (1908) is the most distinctly modernist, falling somewhere between Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Kafka's "Description of a Struggle," it deals with madness, paranoia, and fraught human relationships, employing an existential and slightly comical tone. "The Incense Tree Roof" (1922) also points in a modernist direction, though significantly more comical and absurdist. The main image in this story is of a man who neglects everything around him so that he can repeatedly and pointlessly attempt to repair his leaky roof.

Quiroga at his Misiones home

The basic existential notion which comes up in all of these stories is that people cannot control their destiny, and in two of the stories, "Juan Darién" (1920) and "Anaconda" (1921), animals are subject to the same fate. These two were the least impressive stories in the collection, and reminded me a bit too much of certain anthropomorphic Rudyard Kipling stories. Both stories deal with the relationship between mankind and the natural world, and have allegorical overtones, which give them a certain unappealing moralistic hue.

Overall, Quiroga is well worth reading and perhaps, after I go through the hundred or so other writers I've heard of but have never read, I'll return to him.

January 31, 2009


This weekend I went to The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe's Basement Sale, where they sold records, comics, and old paperbacks at five for a dollar. Among the predictable Sci-Fi, western, crime, and romance potboiler paperbacks, only a few of them appealing in their cover art or titles (e.g Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips), I found at least one interesting book - The Feminists by Parley J. Cooper. Written in 1971, it deals with a nightmarish future, in the distant year of 1992, when women would rule the world with an iron fist.

This certainly isn't Swift's Modest Proposal, there is no satirical undertone here - there's barely an undertone at all. The word "bitch" comes up more than a few times in the book, and it is peppered with misogynistic statements like this thought, coming from the male protagonist:
...he doubted that any woman, even a Feminist soldier, would brave following them into the sewage system. Their inherited fear of rats was evident even in Angela, who was, he thought, braver than most.

The plot is exactly what you would expect, with a heroic man taking on the the dreaded Feminocracy. I don't want to spoil the book for everyone, so stop reading now if you don't want to know what happens in the end. The last line of the book is:
The battle of the sexes was coming to an end.

Finally, I really think the title of the book should have been Feministas, but even so, it's still worth the 20 cent investment.

Postscript, 12 February 2009 - I should have pointed out the implications of the middle paragraph on the back cover:
Men must get permission to make love to any female - even if she is willing - or the penalty is death!
This means that there might be a situation where a man asks permission to make love to a woman, and perhaps receives this permission, even though she is not willing (I don't think that would still be considered "making love," I believe it's more like rape). Apparently, if you thought the objectification of women would end when they ruled the world you were sadly mistaken.

January 23, 2009

Vonnegut in Retrospect

In his "Autobiographical Collage" Palm Sunday The late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. came up with the interesting idea of grading his books, not in comparison to other writers, but only in relation to his own output. As he put it:

The grades I hand out to myself do not place me in literary history. I am comparing myself with myself. Thus can I give myself an A+ for Cat's Cradle, while knowing that there was a writer named William Shakespeare.

Here are the grades he gave himself, along with my comments:

Player Piano - B

His only novel I have not yet read.

The Sirens of Titan - A

I agree. A fun, well-executed sci-fi parable.

Mother Night - A

I would say A-, worth reading but has a few glitches.

Cat's Cradle - A+

I agree, or even say A++; his best book by far.

God Bless you Mr. Rosewater - A

Really didn't do it for me, I would say B-, but perhaps I was suffering from Vonnegut fatigue at that point.

Slaughterhouse Five - A+

I agree. Rightfully celebrated as a great literary accomplishment, though not as starkly original or entertaining as Cat's Cradle.

Welcome to the Monkey House - B-

Sounds about right. An uneven collection of stories.

Breakfast of Champions - C

He's being too harsh, I would give it a solid B, it has a lot of good ideas in it, even if it is a bit scattered.

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons - C

I agree. A totally unnecessary collection of odds and ends.

Slapstick - D

I agree. An uninteresting idea, executed poorly. His worst book.

Jailbird - A

Again, Vonnegut fatigue. I'd give it a solid B.

Palm Sunday - C

It's kind of funny that he gives such a low grade to this book as he's writing it, and mentioning it in the book itself (admittedly, only towards the end of the book), but I would agree. In general his novels are much better than his autobiographical essays or "collages".

Vonnegut wrote ten more books after Palm Sunday, but did not grade them on the same scale, so I can only give you my assessment of them:

Deadeye Dick - B-

Standard mid-level vonnegut. If you're a fan you'll like it, but it's nothing special.

Galapagos - A-

Pretty good book with some entertaining literary schticks.

Bluebeard - A

I really liked it, especially for its amusing depictions of American minimalist artists.

Hocus Pocus - A

Smart and Funny. His best book from his later period.

Fates Worse than Death - B-

Like Palm Sunday, a collection of somewhat autobiographical writings, and thus not all that great.

Timequake - A-

It's nice to see Vonnegut's famous creation Kilgore Trout again, and in such a central role, but the book is a bit creaky.

God Bless you Dr. Kevorkian - B-

Originally broadcast on the radio. Very brief, rarely insightful, and only occasionally entertaining.

Bagombo Snuff Box - C+

A collection of less successful early stories not included in Welcome to the Monkey House.

A Man Without a Country - C

A rehash of old ideas and jokes (from Timequake, Hocus Pocus, Slaughterhouse 5 and others) some of them updated to fit the current events of the time (e.g. Bush's War on/of Terror).

I haven't read Vonnegut's posthumous Armageddon in Retrospect, but since it's a collection of essays I probably wouldn't have ranked it that high anyway. Look at the Birdie, a collection of fourteen previously unpublished short stories, doesn't seem too promising either - if Vonnegut deemed these stories unworthy of inclusion in the two previous collections, which had some not-so-great stories, they must really be sub-par.