From a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde by Pam Rosenthal:

marilyn1How did a perpetually frightened and insecure young woman summon up such powers of illusion? Out of what fathomless need did an illegitimate child who spent years in foster homes command so much attention and so much love, even 40 years after her death? How, out of a series of doomed affairs and marriages and some not-very-good scripts, did she manage to tell us so much about sex? And what kept her from ever satisfying her own needs for love and respect?

Oates presents her story as a tale of the grotesque, a horror story akin to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” another book about an unhappy child with a mad mother. Like most horror stories, “Blonde” is a tale of freakish overcompensation, impossible wishes granted, awesome power ill-used, demons finally undefeated — the story of an injured child who can’t be healed, even by the love of the millions. There’s nothing supernatural in it, of course, unless you consider the immense sway that movie images and technology hold over all our imaginations.

Unlike genre horror fiction, though, “Blonde” is a huge, incantatory, expressionistic work that doubles back on itself to retell stories again and again, building its themes and variations through a seeming infinity of retakes. Description approaches hallucination. The action is told by numerous voices, some singular and famous, some anonymous and plural. Sometimes the narrative voice is breathless, almost gasping — the ghostly Marilyn Monroe voice, oddly formal and well mannered, too high and thin for the body that produced it.

Read the whole thing here

Blackbirds, Motorbikes & Berger

On John Berger:

Blackbirds are in fact solitary creatures by nature, and they prefer woodland and heaths as habitats, near to open ground. They have a fine lyrical repertoire, and sing richly and clearly with a mellow voice, rather like the dulcet tones of a flute. Furthermore, while the color black has connotations with death and darkness, with mystery and evil, Berger sees it also as the color of sex, of black truffles, of making out in the bare earth of a forest under an oak tree. I can visualize Berger in his kitchen, not far from an oak tree, anointing his sexy black Blackbird with pleasure and tenderness. I can see him lovingly checking the brake fluid, the cooling liquid, the oil, the tire pressure, gripping the chain with his left forefinger to test whether it’s tight enough. Turning on the ignition, he’ll watch the dials light up red and then he’ll examine the two headlights and hear the purr of his flute. Methodical gestures: careful and gentle, done as if the bike’s a living organism, done in the kitchen in front of the stove at night.

In front of Berger’s stove, in his kitchen, is the warmest spot at his chalet in winter. It’s a cozy corner that all visitors remember. Apparently, Berger’s house is pretty beat up inside; he likes it like that. I imagine there are all sorts of bike parts and gear spread about everywhere, amidst stacks of books, loose papers, scythes and work boots. I remember reading a few years ago in the conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph a surprisingly affectionate article on Berger, “Portrait of the Artist as a Wild Old Man,” which spoke about his “bashed-up home” and his curious affinity with the American polemicist Andrea Dworkin. “She emerges as an intolerant castrating feminist,” says Berger, “but in her fiction you can see that she is incredibly open, sensuous and tender. There’s a strange relationship between fury and devastating tenderness.” Just like a motorbike, I guess; just like Berger himself: pissed off and furious with the state of the world, with the Dark Age we now inhabit, yet full of devastating tenderness, too. In one of his essays on Rembrandt in The Shape of a Pocket, Berger cites Dworkin saying: “I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But the ones all shined up on the outside, the ass wigglers, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them. Not at all.”

I doubt I’ll ever understand how “the strange relationship between fury and and devastating tenderness” is like a motorbike, but I’m impressed that Berger likes Dworkin.  Though I should have known.


From a review of Flannery: A Life of Flanner O’Connor by Brad Gooch and Collected Works by Flannery O’Connor by Wendy Lesser at bookforum:

Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I thought to myself that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead,” she told the same reporter.

This was the sort of understanding and encouragement that surrounded Mary Flannery O’Connor from her earliest years in Savannah to her death at the age of thirty-nine in the Milledgeville area. But we should not be entirely sorry about that. Familial and social disapproval evidently spurred this writer on, enabling her to form a pearl around each painful speck of grit. That O’Connor’s pearls are among the most luminous and valuable we have in all of American literature does not detract in any way from their strangeness and hardness. Indeed, their value lies precisely in that hardness, that strangeness. However many times you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Good Country People,” you will not be able to figure out the source of their enormous power; in fact, they will become increasingly mysterious to you as the years go by.

Read the rest here

John Updike

US writer John Updike died today of lung cancer.  He was 76.  Sad.  I’m sad to lose him. 

From an obituary at the Times Online:

updike_185_x_270_475801aJohn Hoyer Updike was brought up in the Pennsylvanian town of Shillington (transformed into “Ollinger” in his stories) and educated at the high school where his father taught mathematics. A talented draughtsman, he initially harboured ambitions to be an artist, and later spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.

His acute eye for cumulative detail was to find expression in his fiction. Throughout his life he tended to view himself as a craftsman rather than Olympian artist. The mechanics of turning memory into prose — typefaces, fonts and proofs — apparently fascinated him as much as the intellectual process.

His love affair with The New Yorker began when he was only 12, after an aunt gave him a subscription to William Shawn’s magazine as a Christmas present. John Cheever’s stories, printed in the magazine at regular intervals, were later to exert a strong influence on his work. Bookish by nature, Updike’s introverted personality was also shaped by his experience of the chronic skin complaint psoriasis (an affliction he shared with the British playwright Dennis Potter).

He first had a short story accepted by The New Yorker in 1954, the year he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. The following year, after his sojourn in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship, he began a two-year stint on The New Yorker, based in the “Talk of the Town” section.

The job gave Updike an entrée into the life of the city, but in 1957 he took the decisive step of leaving Manhattan to live in the relatively conventional surroundings of the coastal mill town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. In those innocent, pre-inflationary days, he calculated that a writer could make a satisfactory living from selling a handful of stories to The New Yorker each year.

As he later wrote of his departure from New York, he was glad to escape “the literary demi-monde of agents and would-bes and with-it non-participants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering . . . When I write, I aim in my mind not towards New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country-ish teen-aged boy finding them and having them speak to him.”

Read the whole thing here

Hortense Calisher

The Fiction of Hortense Calisher by Kathleen Snodgrass (Google Books)

Calisher at The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

Works of Hortense Calisher at the Authors Guild

Calisher’s political activism – co-signed letters to NYRB

Joyce Carol Oates reviewing Calisher’s novel, The Mysteries of Motion:

“Mysteries of Motion” is remarkable in its scrupulous attention to the details, both technological and psychological, of space flight: the sensations of liftoff and an attempted docking; the malaise of nongravity (“Now we desert into an element where the body can never be quite natural again”); the finicky attention to food, drink, hot water, comfort; the commingled wonder, apprehension, excitement, boredom; the necessary claustrophobic focusing upon one’s fellow travelers. Space travel begins to seem not at all visionary but merely practical, inevitable. Earth as the humanists would know it is finished. Gilpin wonders, as we do, “why even ordinary citizens still relegated so much of what was happening in the world to science fiction. They themselves were fiction, to the scientists.”

As the fated Citizen Courier approaches its destination—as the novel confronts its series of surprising climaxes—Miss Calisher’s prose becomes increasingly economic, urgent, surrealistic. Only one passenger goes mad, but all share in the hallucinatory nature of their predicament. As the novel ends, a mechanical failure prevents the spaceship’s landing. It orbits the space habitat, its passengers awaiting rescue, futilely or not they cannot know. Gilpin broods over the arcane term “Psychopannychy … All-night sleep of the soul; a state in which (according to some) the soul sleeps between death and the day of judgment.” Terror and optimism alternate. Gilpin’s logbook is addressed to us in increasingly incoherent language (“broken time, broken language, broken lives always fusing—breaking the mold?”). Long after the journey has ended for the reader, the Citizen Courier’s eloquent voices linger in the mind, haunting and prophetic. “If we are not dead—we are forestalled,” Gilpin observes, speaking, it might be surmised, for us all.

“Are we the country behind you, or the one before?” Gilpin asks rhetorically at the end of the novel and (perhaps) the end of his life. These voyagers set out in search of an ideal, a new civilization. And the fact that they find it difficult, as we all no doubt would, to abandon their earthly concerns, does not in Miss Calisher’s mind diminish the heroism of their attempt.

“Mysteries of Motion” is as demanding a novel as Miss Calisher’s “False Entry” and “The New Yorkers,” but its rewards are well worth the effort.   [more]


From Holcombe B. Noble at the New York Times:

Hortense Calisher, the novelist and short-story writer whose unpredictable turns of phrase, intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots captivated and puzzled readers for a half-century, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 97 and lived in Manhattan.  [more]

Dangerous Dan

From a review by Elizabeth Hay of Robert Kroetsch’s The Man from the Creeks at Brick:

The Man from the Creeks is a gold story based on a dog-eared poem. In a stroke of playful genius, Kroetsch takes the figures in Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and brings them to life: Dangerous Dan, the lady known as Lou, and the man from the creeks. In the end, you have everything—tall tale, adventure, quest, history, romance, tragedy, poetry, music, sex. Everything you need to know about the Klondike Gold Rush and everything you could hope for in a story. You have everything, and the characters, as tends to happen in a gold story, have nothing.
      How could I not have known about this great book? I heard about it ten years after it was published when I went to the Yukon last spring and was told twice: “Then you must read The Man from the Creeks.”
      The narrator is Lou’s only son, Peek, a boy who loves his mother and an old man who recalls their story, one and the same. He is 114 years old with a perfect memory of himself at fourteen, caught up in circumstances bigger and wilder than any but he can understand. It’s a story that’s been saved up for a lifetime.
      The characters are grandly human, all of them; the women even more vivid than the men. Lou is “tough and busty and wise,” and always a step ahead of the story. The lovely man from the creeks, Ben Redd, is always a step behind. In the opening pages, he comes to the rescue, saving castaways Lou and Peek from being thrown overboard on the boat to Skagway. Kroetsch employs that wily old narrative technique of jumping from the frypan into the fire into the drink, his characters negotiating hardship after hardship, as necessarily creative as Buster Keaton in getting out of one fix after another.
      Action, yes. But the weight of the book is emotional. Lou and Ben find what they need in the beginning—each other—but they feel impelled to scheme forward. It turns out that harder than packing straight up the Chilkoot Pass in the dead of winter, harder than building a boat from nothing on the shores of Lake Bennett, harder than getting the 560 miles downriver to Dawson, is being honest with each other about themselves. And so Lou and Ben, “sparring and holding on to each other at the same time,” arrive in the gold fields and succumb to their own confusion and to Dangerous Dan McGrew, “handsome in a pale way, under his grey bowler.”

Read the rest here

The Man from the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch

Double-Bind Choices

At NYT Books:

Like a ferocious bulletin from an alternate universe — tumbling, pell-mell, brilliant and strange — comes this explosive and discomfiting fifth novel by Carolyn Chute. Form doesn’t just follow feeling in these pages, it chases it helplessly with a butterfly net, casting about in multiple directions, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. But watching Chute miss what she’s after is more interesting than watching a lesser, better behaved writer catch tidier prey.

“The School on Heart’s Content Road” is as idiosyncratic as it is engaging. A mytho­poetics of the Second Amendment isn’t exactly common in modern American literary fiction. But neither is the depiction of contemporary American poverty: of the slow, relentless grind of never quite having enough, of the leaching of hope and ambition from those for whom a job at Wal-Mart is a rare opportunity, of the impossible double-bind choices made by the poor every day. This is a beautiful novel, a polemical novel, a messy novel. It’s a love song to a part of America that doesn’t have much of a voice, and is armed. Chute is such an extra­ordinary, vivid, empathic writer that it would be tempting to swoon into the love and overlook the bullets. To do that, however, would also be to dim the considerable power here: if the despair and the tenderness are real, so are the guns.



But I do think that because we’re sort of ‘living in the Matrix,’ we have this hunger for truth and fact because we know these things are important–and we’ve abdicated truth and fact in the larger society–so we’re just projecting our need for them onto other areas. I just think that fiction, like many other areas, is being asked to carry the burden for a society that no longer wants to confront itself.

Juno Diaz

Roberto Bolaño

From n + 1:

[Roberto] Bolaño’s reputation among Spanish speakers is secure, but his significance to us can’t be what it is to them. The same goes for Borges, the model Bolaño most often invoked. For Spanish speakers the importance of Borges is not confined to the black metaphysical jokes purveyed in his mind-bending fables. Hispanophone readers often describe a sense of their language as dripping with high-flown inclinations; literary Spanish tends to become humid with rhetoric and profuse with metaphors, something easy to see in modern poetry from Lorca onward. So Borges in his own language counts as a champion dessicator; he pushes Spanish toward the hard, cold, and dry. Even so, he strikes us as rhetorical enough. It fell to writers like Bolaño to complete the dryingout of literary prose already accomplished in other languages by writers like Hemingway and Camus. Bolaño can write page after page without indulging in a single metaphor, or adding a dab of rhetorical color to the account of a dinner party or a murder. Of course you can find perfect sentences in Bolaño, and crazy metaphors too, but for the most part he proceeds as if literature were too desperate an enterprise to bother with being well written. The rationale for his antieloquence belongs to the internal dynamic of any modern language: an idiom encrusted with poeticisms needs a solvent bath. But for Latin Americans of Bolaño’s generation there may also be political grounds for preferring writing degree zero to purple haze. One more disgusting feature of the Argentine junta (it is Argentines who predominate in Bolaño’s gallery of imaginary Nazi writers) was the generals’ magniloquence.

Our problem in America is hardly that our worst politicians speak too well, or that we lack for plain stylists. What is our problem, then—to which Bolaño seems a solution? American critics and regular readers alike usually don’t care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating [W. G.] Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can’t be a really important novelist anymore unless you can’t really write novels.

The whole thing is here

Books by and about W.G. Sebald at

Books by Roberto Bolaño at