a review of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset
Change is the only constant in West of Sunset: from Scott’s short-lived scripts to the stars’ ageing faces, the whole world seems fated to fade away. Some of O’Nan’s most suggestive passages conjure the feeling of freefall that can accompany uncontrollable change. Scott’s drunken blackouts are represented by sudden accelerations of narrative pace. In one sentence he’s ordering a double gin; in the next he’s “sprawled on someone’s wet lawn”. Like him, we’re left struggling to fill in the blanks. Later, he reflects on the “strangeness” of flying: “stepping through a door in one place, sitting still for a few hours, then stepping out a thousand miles away”. As the novel develops, O’Nan makes sure that we share this sense of disorientation – feeling, with Scott, the ground giving way beneath our feet. Consequently, when he wishes for his time with Sheilah “to last, and this new life, impossibly, to be his”, we feel the poignancy of that “impossibly”.
an interview for Bomb Magazine
If I can return to the misuse of philosophy in fiction — that is, to novelists who engage in overt philosophical posturing — I suppose my disappointment stems from my feeling that great works of art only murmur their knowledge, whereas the worst ones seem to want to parade it. Back in the seventies, Gordon Lish observed of Stanley Crawford that, reading his work, “one senses the pressure of having read all that’s to be read without trying to give evidence of erudition.” That sense of pressure is what I’m after. That’s why Wittgenstein disliked Tolstoy’s more didactic works; as he wrote in a letter to Norman Malcolm, “when Tolstoy turns his back to the reader, then he seems to me most impressive. His philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.” Cora Diamond’s gloss on that letter stresses the sense in which, for Wittgenstein, philosophy should be “contained in the work, but not by being spoken of, not by being told.”
I’d say it’s the same with the question of art and knowledge. Take Gerhard Richter’s painting, Betty (1988). Or Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In each case, the composition is organized in such a way that the perspectival structure forces a deviation of the spectator’s attention. That’s what a lot of the artworks I work on are doing. That’s what, say, Jason Schwartz is doing. Like Richter’s Betty, Schwartz’s work has its back turned. Like her, his language is looking at something I can’t see; it knows something I’ll never know. Confronted with this kind of object, the task is no longer to try to uncover art’s knowledge, but rather to follow its gaze.
a review of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC
The basic idea behind Harbach’s essay – and of the book after which it is named – is that American ﬁction now has ‘two centers of gravity: “MFA”, which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and “NYC”, which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry’. The collection takes stock of this split from the standpoints of various actors – authors, teachers, and other links in writing’s supply chain. And while it sometimes slips into banal self-involvement (e.g., bourgeois Brooklynites exaggerating their money worries) it also achieves, at a composite level, both a distinctive documentary value and a degree of critical reﬂexivity. Nor does the book reify its ‘two cultures’ into entirely separate spheres. Instead, several essays illustrate how ‘writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds’, blurring both their cultures and their economies (note, for instance, that NYC agents routinely ‘scout’ MFA cohorts, and MFA teachers get jobs on the back of book deals). While these articles are always partial, perhaps the volume surpasses the sum of its parts: cover to cover, MFA vs NYC implicitly demonstrates the inadequacies of divisive thinking.
a review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History
Sometimes it’s expressed; sometimes it’s repressed: either way, emotion is deeply embedded in literary criticism. As I. A. Richards reflected in 1929, critics are constantly torn between instinctive “feelings” and standardized “doctrines” – between “deciding we are too hot or too cold” and “hanging up a thermometer”. Our thermometers have grown increasingly technical since Richards’s day, augmented both by the post-1960s “theory” boom, and by newer developments in brain science and big data. But even when we aspire to scientific dispassion, it is widely assumed that we do what we do because, at bottom, we simply “love literature”. Why else would we do it? Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature provides a fascinating history of this presupposition. Lynch begins by clearing away the old cliché that literary scholars are cold-bloodedly loveless – the image, to quote Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, of “armies of academics measuring poetry” without allowing it into their hearts. Instead, Lynch observes, an English professor’s emotional life “is supposed to slop over onto her job; it’s all in a day’s work when it does.” In this sense, literary studies is an “oddly intimate profession”, whose practitioners are routinely expected to love their work – and, indeed, to transmit that love to their students. Lynch’s book excavates this expectation, uncovering its historical origins. At the same time, she emphasizes that love isn’t always a healthy emotion. As she points out, those who love literature sometimes forget “what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities”. With novels and poems, much like with people, love can be confusing and painful.
the second of my yearly essays on contemporary theory
‘Theory on theory’ is not in itself a project or program. Rather, work in this register represents something less explicitly thematised, yet more pervasive—call it an attitude, or a preoccupation. The seemingly vague psychologism of such terms may be the very source of their value: as John Guillory has observed, the notion of so-called ‘theory’ (understood as a singular noun) belongs less to the determinate reality of theoretical schools and approaches than to ‘the pedagogical imaginary’. When we commonly talk about, say, the ‘theory wars’, or about being for or against (or nowadays ‘after’) something called ‘theory’, we are playing a distinctive kind of language-game—one in which the word ‘theory’ points at an aspect of academia’s psychic life; its tacit self-understanding. As an umbrella term, ‘theory’ resembles what the intellectual historian Peter Gordon calls a ‘normative image’—an implicit mental picture, which constitutes ‘a precondition for concept-formation, although it is not in itself conceptual in form’. Later on, I will look more closely at these non-conceptual and ‘imaginary’ qualities that inhere in our ideas about theory. For now, I will simply note the curious sense in which ‘theory on theory’ connotes an orientation toward an orientation; an imagining of an image.
a review of Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel
The novel’s knowledge of the connection between the seen and the unseen—between what O’Connor calls “the concrete world” and its invisible outside or underside—is best captured by a description of classical statues. “Their gaze was collective,” Unrue writes, “trained upon a destination too distant, formless, timeless for the living person even to envisage.” The passage recalls both the disturbingly “eyeless” taxi driver who transports the narrator to the couple’s estate, and her encounter with a portrait whose “eyes appeared to gaze into the eyes of someone something just behind the painter.” Each of these sights could be said to express what she calls “patterns of anticipation”—where anticipation, much like desire, is largely defined by the absence of information. Of course, describing this absence gets us no closer to an account of what Unrue’s mysterious book is “about.” But maybe it helps us to formulate what it feels like to read it. So, here goes: reading Love Hotel feels like tracing someone’s gaze as they stare at something you can’t see. Or like feeling someone or something moving behind you, and turning to find nothing there. That tracing, that turning, that feeling marks the way art draws us into its mystery: the clocks stop, the world falls away, and suddenly, somehow, something appears.
a review of Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism
Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality”, whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover’s 1992 article “The End of Books,” but there are many more) or overstatements of the radical “newness” of new technologies. In this regard, her reading of Ulysses is especially suggestive. Building on Hugh Kenner’s earlier observations, Pressman posits the novel’s “Ithaca” section as a pre-digital instance of a “database aesthetic”. In so doing, she develops a deft critique of the idea that “narrative and database” are necessarily separate entities. As she reminds us, questions about “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” are among the most pressing issues facing “the humanities in a digital age”.
a review of Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History
Trauma conveys a kind of philosophical force: it puts pressure on the epistemological status—and the evidential value—of recollected and recounted memories. Crucially, for Caruth this pressure is not only epistemological; it is also necessarily ethical. This is because trauma cuts across the personal and the historical. Indeed, Caruth contends that trauma is “not so much a symptom of the unconscious as a symptom of history,” such that “the traumatized carry an impossible history within them.” For her, it follows that this “impossible” quality must be preserved—particularly if we wish to bear “witness” to the histories that our traumas transmit. It is easy to see this idea’s deconstructive colouring. Recalling Derrida’s similar style of ethical thought, Caruth argues that trauma’s aporia ought to be retained; that impossible histories call for appropriately unresolved types of testimony. In short, if we are ever to take stock of trauma, we must remain faithful to its “affront to understanding.”
a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days
In Erpenbeck’s world, everything is connected. Stylistically, this is conveyed through tiny parallels and repetitions—elusive leitmotifs that echo across the protagonist’s alternate lives. Indeed, the book’s basic theme of birth and death indirectly recurs in the minutiae of its imagery. In this way, Erpenbeck deploys the smallest details to recapitulate her ideas. One character considers how the bruises on corpses “change colour in the coffin,” and speculates that “this metamorphosis of colours” might stand in for “the sorts of development of which the person was no longer capable”—the other lives they might have lived.
Matt Jakubowski interviewed me for his series on “the role of the critic”
Can you describe a few of the ways that studying theory has affected you as a reader and a critic?
The most revealing thing is probably how it affected me as a person. In my late teens and early twenties, I basically lived and breathed so-called “French theory.” I really was like those “pallid theory boys” Simon Reynolds writes about. I identified with theory, and in doing so, I fitted a definite stereotype (which was pretty ironic by that point, when theory had already been declared “dead.”) Anyway, Marco Roth captures this quite well when he says that theory appeals to people who possess a “native anti-foundationalism”—an instinctive unease “about subject and object, language and self.” That kind of alienation is common to adolescence, of course. Indeed, adolescent identity is almost like theory’s ideal type. It’s no surprise if “floating signifiers” speak strongly to someone on the cusp of adulthood; “aporia” are appropriate to people whose lives are largely unmapped. Perhaps that’s part of what theory is: the time for theory is the time of youth. In the old, it ossifies into philosophy. My problem, though, is that I never grew out of my native attachment to theory. All my friends have matured and flourished, and I’m still here, at odds with my body, my words, and my world. Waiting for theory to finally swallow me.