Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Eimear McBride’s ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ and The Ride in Contemporary Letters

the-lesser-bohemians***Content warning: Things get racy***

The Bad Sex Award is a literary prize awarded to the author who writes the most cringeworthy scene in which sex happens in a particular year. A survey of past nominees suggest that the judges have more in mind then the ding an sich, and are more attentive to column inches; bad sex awards tend to follow the trendy novelists de nos jours, and probably marks a tipping point in any writer’s career when they move from middle-aged gravitas-endowed male author to punching bag, see Jonathan Franzen, John Banville. The John Banville parody twitter accounts, incidentally, marked the occasion of Banville’s nomination rather well:

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In one of my college tutorials, the conversation turned to the ways in which literature is a fairly paltry medium when it comes to the depiction of sex, especially in our age of spectacle or image capitalism; the extent to which sexual materials are available, distributed, makes ink on a page seem somewhat retrograde. Nevertheless, I might contest that with the next couple of examples. The sex scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, reads as follows:

Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about the other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here by as there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.

This paragraph does what DeLillo does best, in moving aqueously through a never stable milieu, with an attention to things moving in and out of shape(s), the reality inflected by the partiality of the lover’s perspectives, particularly in the barest suggestion that Klara Sax can see more of the occasion with her eyes closed. There is also the hint of Hamlet’s beast with two backs, cleverly hybridised with the cubist reference; the beast with four backs, as it were.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering treats if not quite ‘carnal intercourse, with ejaculation of semen within the natural female organ,’ the act of fellatio in terms as follows:

‘Where were you?’ he says, and I’d love to say I was out, like he is out all the time. Doing, making, being — or even shagging. I’d love to say, ‘I was just out shagging,’ in a debonair sort of voice…I put my hand gently against his shirt front and the gesture is so graceful, even as I watch it, that it leads me, quite easily, to the buckle of the belt, which I tug with my other hand, and so, by softly pushing him away while pulling him forward, I contrive to blow my husband, in our own kitchen. On a school day.

This is real, I think. This is real.

Though I am not sure that it is, actually. When we are done, Tom plants a dry, thoughtful kiss in the middle of my forehead. He can not claim that he has been fobbed off — not after his official, all-time favourite thing — but he knows that he has been fobbed off, all the same. And it makes him angry.

‘I just don’t know where you’re coming from,’ he says. A corporate phrase from my corporate boy.

This is a very unsettling, and of course, very funny paragraph. Veronica is coming to terms with, according herself to the fragments of her selfhood in the aftermath of her brother Liam’s suicide, and this is just one example of a behaviour she adopts in its aftermath, as a way of construing herself in the event’s wake, indicated by her jealousy in her husband’s seemingly effortless capacity to Be. Her husband exhibits concern for her behaviour, the prevailing domestic codes of behaviour in their household; the rules implied in the stand-alone clause ‘On a school day,’ means that this is not a regular occurrence, and that Veronica is shaking things up. Her ambivalence towards her husband in this scene, as well as her dominance, are expressed in her pushing him in two directions at once. Ultimately, the event is a failure. Veronica is uncertain as to whether what has just happened is real or not, unreality being an ongoing thematic concern in The Gathering. The bland sum-up from her husband deepens the uncanniness, and gestures towards the impossibility of accessing Veronica as a character in the conventional sense.

Both paragraphs are very different in their approaches, but there is a definite similarity in their approaches, and that is, primarily, their avoidance. Very little detail is given about who puts what where and for how long. This is why I have difficulties with the premise of the bad sex award, as it is one of the rare forays that the non-literary press makes into contemporary literature, to make fun of the conceptual apparatus of prose. And it is, often, very silly, but it is silly for a reason that writing itself is silly. Bald statements of all that is the case don’t read well, literary writing is decidedly ambiguous, elliptical, and at its best when (apologies for using a creative writing workshop phrase) showing, not telling. So it is also for representations of The Ride. Say things too directly, and it becomes monotonous, but go too far with the figurative language, and journalists will mock you publicly.

We see similar methods of elision in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which probably devotes more pages to sex than any other novel I can remember, let alone a self-consciously experimental one:

Alright. He wets his lips then goes to the words at a similar lick



and allthecloudsthatloured upon our hours…hs right I’m right there I’m. I pull back quick. He presses it onto me as his body gives up. Wet on my chest, ends of my hair and my breast and the heat. Goes everywhere and him smearing it all down me as I, touching the threat of bruise on my lip, lay my head on his knee.

The most significant absence here, is the word semen, or come, or whatever word you want to substitute over ‘it.’ Sex in The Lesser Bohemians generally observes this rule, interior monologue emphasising immediate sensory perception over systematic apprehension, interspersed with erratic formatting, punctuation, etc. Though the above is unique in that it is one of the few occasions in which Shakespeare is channeled directly. It’s never totally cringeworthy, it’s relatively interesting and not at all sexy. McBride’s methodology is however, drained of some of its vitality by its overuse; there is an awful lot of riding in the book.

It’s peculiar then, that McBride, having demonstrated her commitment to showing, not telling, then spends quite of the novel doing the latter. About halfway through the text, the novel’s love interest, Stephen, outlines his personal history, over the course of fifty or so pages. This soliloquy is interrupted about seven times, as Claire Lowdon points out, solely in order to remind us that the main character, Eily, is there. The endless references to Stephen’s tic, repetitions of howlers such as ‘the irony wasn’t lost on me when,’ just emphasise the strings and incongruous presence of what seems to be a first-draft of a screenplay based on an Edna O’Brien novel within an Edna O’Brien novel. Stephen’s Miserable Irish Childhood™ (complete with alcoholic father, suffocating mother, sexual abuse, etc. etc.) manages to disperse any mystique that might have imbued the character, and it escalates to such an absurd level by what is not even his early adolescence that I lack the ability to do justice to the exorbitant heights of its ridiculous hamminess.

Further, the self-hatred fuelled drug vortex into which both characters fall into at various points are singularly unconvincing. Choosing just one example is difficult, but I might have to go for the one wherein Eily, after having injected herself with one marijuana too many, begins to argue with Stephen, (who has just taken her back for having sex with someone else) and then dares him and her flatmate, named Flatmate, to have a threesome with her. The rage that she manages to sustain after having smoked weed is one level of ridiculousness, the blows to which Stephen and Flatmate nearly come is another, but all this is trumped by the next morning, when Stephen, all strife forgotten, begins assisting Flatmate in converting the flat into a squat to fend of some meddling bailiffs. Knowing what McBride is capable of from the undeniable virtuosity and power of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and even some of The Lesser Bohemians’ more successful moments make these lapses from form all the more baffling.


The Life-Cry of Don De Lillo’s Ratner’s Star

The novel Ratner’s Star was pitched to me, in the few outlets that have posted their reviews of the text online, as a Menippean satire, a work that is usually in prose, multi-perspectival, in that it makes ideology or interior mental states targets of fun rather than individuals, and I can’t conjure a third trait to complete the Rule. It strikes me that this is a useful means of taxonimising a good heft of the post-war American literary milieu, at least those who I’ve read enough of in order to identify what they have in common with De Lillo. I won’t name them here because it should be fairly clear that when I talk about maximalist male authors with more interest in critiquing systems/order than the steady clockwork of characterisation, that I’m hardly talking about Franzen.

This is an abstruse way into Ratner’s Star, because I’m a little stumped for what to talk about. Spelling out the satire of the novel, its brilliant deconstruction of the mechanisms of scientific enquiry, its shortcomings, its ideological blind spots, would be too programmatic, not to mention futile in its re-hashing of the case, though I do think it’s worth mentioning that the hermetic, dry humour of the novel (its re-hashing similarly useless), is as funny, smatteringly laughing out loud in places funny as Beckett or Douglas Adams.

I may just have to quote from a characterless invective towards the novel’s close that takes a global view of an eclipse forecasted by an ancient civilisation wiped out by nuclear war before our current ‘civilisation’ rose in its wake, and essentially spells out some of what the novel’s mission statement may be taken to be:

“To be Outside is to know an environment infinitely less complex than the one you left. Far from wishing to revisit misery, you are nonetheless able to experience once again some of the richness of inborn limits. You see our rapt entanglement in all around us, the press to measure and delve…Why are you here? To unsnarl us from our delimiting senses? To offer protective cladding against our cruelty and fear? The pain, the life-cry speak our most candid wonders. To out-premise these, by whatever tektite whirl you’ve mastered, would be to make us hypothetical, a creature of our own pretending, as are you.”

To quote, “Excuse me, but what the fuck is going on there?”

The paragraphing there is non-existent, the words of the section of which the above forms a part just spills and spills for pages. The rhythm is compulsive, the outlook is unrelenting, visceral, all the more so for its stepping out of the familiar novelistic framework, for its purging of all characters and scenarios we’ve been acclimatised to and for its filming a close-up of De Lillo’s monologuing face. Any other novelist would’ve been well advised to quell such faffery, as it is more likely than not to be heavy handed Malicking, but he pulls it off, and its pretty damn astounding.

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a stylistically and generically conflicted novel. On one hand it is, as it is billed by Jonathan Franzen in its blurb, the “ur-text of postwar fiction,” initiating the noble tradition of ‘the penis novel’ (here being a synonym for maximalist, encyclopaedic, post-thing) in contemporary American letters, a tradition extended by William Gass, the aforementioned Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don De Lillo &c. As the site of a phallogocentric topos, its critique has a wide scope: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, are all targets of Gaddis’ ‘pen.’

On the other side of this anticipation of the Pynchon and the general countercultural literary zeitgeist, there is a comedy of manners strain, which relates to the novel to which Gaddis probably owes the most, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Gaddis apes Proust’s capacity to have the many, many characters in the novel condemn themselves out of their own mouths, by reproducing their shallow dilettantish badinage for pages and pages and pages. You may have sensed that I thought this got a bit tedious, and you may be right. The Recognitions is just under a thousand pages and if I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the ‘creative class’ of 1950’s New York is.

That said, there is plenty of space in the maybe 35% of the novel outside of the dialogue, for descriptive prose of undeniable force and virtuosity, though maybe that’s the wrong word. Here also, Gaddis is schizophrenic. On the one hand he follows Proust’s lead, with deeply extravagant similes tortured to within an inch of their lives, drawing on the obscurities of Roman Catholic arcana, as Proust does with Renaissance painting:

“And the shadow he cast behind him as he turned away fell back seven centuries, to embrace the dissolute youth of Raymond Lully, and infatuation with the beautiful Ambrosia de Castello, which she discouraged; and if she seemed to succumb at last, offering to bear her breasts in return for a poem he had written to their glory, it was to show him, as he approached in that rapture of which only flesh is capable, a bosom eaten away by cancer: he turned away to his conversion, to his death years later stoned in North Africa, and to his celebration as a scholar, a poet, a missionary, a mystic, and one of the foremost figures in the history of alchemy.”


The following, I think, is more typical of an autonomous Gaddis ‘style:’

“In the afternoon, he worked at restoring old pictures, or in sketching, a half-attended occupation which broke off with twilight, and Christiane went on her way uncurious, uninterested in the litter of papers bearing suggestion of the order of her bones and those arrangements of her features which she left behind, unmenaced by magic, unafraid, she walked toward the Gare Saint-Lazare, unhurried, seldom reached it (for it was no destination) before she was interrupted, and down again, spread again, indifferent to the resurrection which filled her and died; and the Gare Saint-Lazare, a railway station, and so a beginning and an end, came forth on the evening vision, erect in testimony, and then (for what became of the man who was raised?) stood witness to a future which, like the past, was liable to no destination, and collected dirt in its fenestrated sores.”

One sentence. We might quibble with the repetitive insistence of aimlessness, non-linearity, the relationship established between the death, the Resurrection and Christiane seems forced, but I think there is something in the writing here about the contemporary urban space depending on inversions of perspective and fragmented symbolism which I sense as being deeply vital and original.


“Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.”

We have an urban cityscape, a panaromic view, some reach into the infinitude, the recursion the earth always makes into night, with all that that evokes. W have an automated authority, indifferently exerted with no agent, moral or otherwise, and I always appreciate a void in a descriptive passage, plural is a bonus.

It is in these deliberately uneven, weirdly punctuated and weirder worded sections that The Recognitions has its best moments I think, far from the endlessly re-hashed cocktail parties where the bohemian residents of Greenwich Village get really drunk, say pretentious things and get off with one another. It’s difficult to enjoy these parts past a certain point, particularly when Gaddis is models the New York patois onomatopoeically, making it clunky, often indecipherable. For some these may be necessary tags; dialogue is rarely signposted and I had to keep notes to figure out who was talking. But it was worth the effort. There are some staggeringly inventive and uncanny moments in the novel that I’m unlikely to forget. Reverend Gwyon’s re-modelling of his church from a Catholic one to one befitting the pagan deity Mithras and delivering a sun-worship ceremony to the horrified residents of his parish in rural Massachusetts is brilliant and macabre set-piece which testifies to Gaddis’ potency as a literary artist, at least when he wasn’t complaining about his peers and critics.

Too Many Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’


Before doing what it is that these posts do, whether it be parsing texts for political shortcomings, justifying my own intelligence in a work’s margins or talking about myself at a remove, I want to say that Infinite Jest is staggeringly good. Of all the achievement lit. I’ve read, books where the length or relative difficulty of the text becomes a kind of perverse selling point (“look at me, I’m reading this book!”), it apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre. William H. Gass’ The Tunnel could’ve lost 150 some pages towards the end, I shift into skimming mode for two-three of the episodes towards the end of Ulysses, and I could go on just about as long as Proust does about memory expressing the level of antipathy I have for at least two of the volumes of á la recherche. Infinite Jest is almost non-stop reward for the work you put in. Know this.

In comparison to Proust, there’s very few parts of Infinite Jest that are a slog, and many of the parts that critics have identified as slog-like, such as the Eschaton sequence, in which Foster Wallace lets us know that he can out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow, I actually had as much fun as I’ve ever had reading a book. Eschaton, by the by, is a complex geo-political strategy game played across tennis courts with an apparently endless proliferation of equations delimiting the state of play and tennis balls as nuclear warheads, something that references the V-2 rockets of Gravity’s Rainbow’s plot, while reducing them within the context of on international war-games picaresque of a picaresque.

In initial mind-drafts of this overlong thing, I had invectives against the Québecois separatist sections, convinced that I was of a mind with Foster Wallace’s editor, who deemed it a harangued and haranguing ‘huggermugger,’ lobbed in to prove that Foster Wallace is among the big boys, literarily speaking and is just tedious and incongruous. However, after finishing the book and coming in retrospect to assemble its foreshadowings, elisions and manifold, manifold hints about the structure of its plot, one comes to some sense of its indispensability, which is either a testament to Foster Wallace’s heightened levels of novelistic craftsmanship or an example of literary Stockholm syndrome, the month and a half you spend immersed in Inifinite Jest’s mass, the more mesmerised you become by the compulsive noticing and tortured asymmetry of the narrator’s voice. I would, maybe, take exception to some of the lengthy phone conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin. Their reckless and often hilarious badinage can’t disguise the leaden and expository tendencies beneath their dialogue, during which Foster Wallace feels compelled to lay out a setpiece about Hal finding his father after he has committed suicide and the resulting co-dependent relationships Hal establishes with a therapist he didn’t really need to see but felt the need to impress. It is characteristically funny and vivid, but credulity is stretched and sundered by having the two brothers rake over details they are certain to have covered at some point before. Why Foster Wallace didn’t establish this in some other mode, tense or with some other narrator is a bit mysterious, to say nothing of their for no reason anatomising of the nutty history of Québecois separatism.

Coming to the sixty or so page home stretch, and finding Effy Dubbs mid-swing in crafting an account of Donald Gately’s dabblings in the criminal underworld of Boston Massachusetts, I began to doodle idle pleas in the margins for the narrative to get to wrapping up, before it gave way to an utterly stellar scene in which Gately binges on a stash of Substances with a felony-committing friend over a number of days, interspersed with Hal Incandenza’s childhood memories, hashing them over as vividly as your best sepia drenching word artists of nostalgia (like, dunno, Nabokov) while addressing their uncertain origin in a way that is not pretentious, overdone or hackneyed, but in a way that is not a little bit devastating.

But yes, Infinite Jest is really class, fun, funny and profound, and more than repays the amount of attention and time that it demands. It’s a shame that its twenty year anniversary (its set towards the end of last year, one of the background characters sports a Sinn Féin t-shirt, suggesting their prospects in the general election prospects sont bonnes) coincides with a film so devoted to explicating Foster Wallace as a person rather than the book(s) he has produced, because regardless of how complex, interesting he was, (and he was, he really was) having read Infinite Jest I really feel like his persona, let alone his actual, real-world personality, cannot compare with the complexity and intricacy of the questions thrown up by his novel. But, the book is very long and Foster Wallace is an incredibly entertaining speaker and short-form non-fiction writer, so there tis.


The beginning of Foster Wallace’s literary career, so the chronology has it, begins with him alienating creative writing professors with Thomas Pynchon influenced post-minimalism, which made use of the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida. This was all done, Foster Wallace later said, in order to project his intelligence onto others and make manifest his academic brilliance. It was also done, he said less often, in order to best Pynchon, and stage an Oedipal confrontation with his most significant influence. But Foster Wallace managed to make something novel of his maximalist pretensions, by subverting one of the key tenants of postmodernism, irony itself. He believed that it had exhausted its usefulness in making meaningful critiques of corporatist, mass-media hegemony (read: ‘The Man’). As he said:

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

In this attempt to get past irony, Foster Wallace is also earnestly working through his aesthetic framework. How is he to approach writing after a novel as expansive and ambitious as Gravity’s Rainbow? How was one to write with moral certainty after the Great Cultural Decentre-ing of the sixties, seventies and eighties?

The sobriety meetings that he attended for his alcoholism provided him with the answer, and allowed him to write with moral seriousness in a post-ironic milieu. As such, he shares a literary generation with that other great white male of post-postmodernism, Jonathan Franzen. In him and his scepticism regarding all things internet we behold the place Foster Wallace may well have occupied were he alive today, as a punchline for literary thinkpieces. D.T. Max, author of Foster Wallace’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, writes that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its platitudes, pseudo-religiosity and lack of engagingly abstract, intellectual schemae initially alienated Foster Wallace. ‘One day at a time,’ ‘higher power’ and ‘just do what is front of you to do,’ seemed insufficient, but as he later said in This is Water: “in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.” From this willingness to relax his over-active intellect, comes the impulse of post-postmodernism, the attempt to modulate a note of sincerity in a post-Reaganomics America. This tension is also played out in the some of the most engaging sections of Infinite Jest, through the eyes of the Bloomian decent-guy addict Don Gately.

From this impulse comes one of the more even more self-reflexive prose styles of the last few decades. While postmodernism brought us texts bristling with self-conscious possibilities, aware of book as book and author and reader as personae, post-postmodernism represents the author’s attempts to step outside of all this, take the reader aside, rub our shoulders and whisper words like ‘no,’ ‘actually,’ ‘yes,’ ‘please,’ and ‘sad’ in our ears. If you have ever read a recent piece of writing which steps out of its predominant mode to implore you on a point or other, that is Foster Wallace’s legacy. But, what David Foster Wallace didn’t understand about capitalism (he definitely does, in his Charlie Rose interview he discusses the ways in which Burger King sells burgers with the slogan “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”) is that, contrary to what Karl Marx thought, it is endlessly capable of dealing with contradiction. Rather than having contradictions overwhelm it, capitalism might be said to thrive on contradiction. Like the blob monster of many science fiction narratives, capitalism is capable of consuming something which may have posed an existential threat and take on its shape for the furtherance of its vile and tacky enterprise. As such, in the wake of the new sincerity, we get Wackaging ( http://wackaging.tumblr.com/ ) and the blurbs on Innocent Smoothies labels.  There is a section in Infinite Jest which addresses this, in which the reasons why video-calling is not a viable commercial enterprise and how the market steps in to solve the problem it creates. People don’t want video-calling because it requires maintaining one’s appearance on phone-calls, therefore a company begins producing custom-made masks of people at their most attractive. It’s a prescient metaphor for social media and reminds me of how much I wish I could stop marketing myself on various outlets and how transparent and awful all of this stuff is.

(As with all things, there is a PhD to be written on Foster Wallace’s use of the word ‘sad.’ Normally eschewed, I’m sure, by writers of serious literature as being too three-lettered to shoulder the burden of melancholy, depression or despair, far more robust embodiments of human misery; Foster Wallace makes frequent use of it. He was a highly self-conscious user of words, going so far as to begin writing a personal dictionary, and his use of the word ‘sad’ is part of his attempt to rehabilitate sincerity of expression in avant-garde literature.)

There is, furthermore, an extended interview in the footnotes with a former teammate of Orin Incandenza, in which details are provided of Orin’s behaviour in the early stages of his short-term relationships. The interviewee deposes that Orin: “is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone, -And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Away-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittility-Transcendentally-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole opennes-demeanour thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness; Orin Incandenza is the least open man I know.” In case you haven’t been paying attention so far (no judgement), this sounds eerily congruent with Foster Wallace’s own aesthetic.

And it’s difficult to shake this sense of irony, particularly when it is flagged by the author himself so frequently. For every time honesty, genuineness, moment-being is proposed as ultimate solution, we get an extended, improbable picaresque almost right out of Candide about the various misfortunes that have befallen any given addict/tennis player, albeit with far more instances of sexual assault played for laughs.  Which gets cloying, predictable and yucky. He addresses this intractability in his dishonesty granting him a greater verisimilitude via the film career of Jim O. Incandenza, but it doesn’t bring resolve the short circuit, it only perpetuates it further. To be expected.

In an earlier thing written on The Pale King, I mentioned how conservative Foster Wallace’s vision of generational gaps are, which is all the more surprising considering how much more reflexive his treatment of it is in Infinite Jest. The usual party line of Generation X as a generation of enfeoffed pastry people (in comparison to the Greatest Generation who survived the Depression and fought Hitler, ergo it would be best if Generation X get the opportunity to confront a catastrophe of a similar ilk) is in Infinite Jest, expressed by a disappointed and alcoholic father. I’m willing to attribute the hardening of this perspective into dogmatism by virtue of The Pale King being unfinished. At just under six-hundred pages it had barely started, and easily could have been two and a half times that length, ample time for Foster Wallace to ambiguate his position. At least I hope so.

Herman Melville: The Bright Young Thing/Upstart in contemporary American letters and his alleged magnum opus ‘Moby Dick or, ‘The Whale’’

I’ve recently attempted to read Moby Dick, a novel which despite its recent publication, has already been hailed by critics as a classic, appearing as it does (at least in my edition) in a Penguin Classics cover, a tasteful caprice reserved usually for 1) actual classic texts which have accrued enough regard over time to be regarded as indispensable, or 2) opportunistic singers who enjoy holding beleaguered publishers in a post-print era to ransom for their turgidly written score settling autobiographies. Forgive me if part of me recoils from this trivialisation of what a ‘classic’ is, and if I require a century or so of a grace period before I’m comfortable with the delineation. It is always a disquieting experience to have such a recent novel tipped as a mainstay in one’s lifetime, it sets a worrying precedent, perhaps I’ll be spending the rest of my life reading only contemporary literature, but I was determined to figure out what all the fuss was about so I sat down to read Moby Dick.

First of all, and this may account for the raucous applause that greeted Melville when he burst from quiescent anonymity onto the literary scene this year with his six-hundred page novel (a length which suggests Melville is pitching for Jonathan Franzen-type respectability via girth), this text is committed to upholding the pretence that the last one hundred and fifty years of American literature simply has not been written. In an introduction to the text, Melville provides a sequence of quotations from scripture, philosophy and poetry that take whales as subject matter, in an obvious and egregious plundering of the methodology of Mark Z. Danielewski in House Of Leaves, based on introducing as many literary antecedents as possible, to simulate the experience of a digital hypertext on the page. Such well-worn postmodernist jazz hands won’t cut the mustard with even the most naïve illiterate. Secondly, Melville also robs Thomas Pynchon blind in making use of self-consciously antiquated syntax and appeals to the reader, those who have read Mason & Dixon (that all-too exclusive sub-coterie of a sub-coterie) will groan in recognising Melville’s unrepentant cribbery and for thirdly, worstly, Melville opens the text with an extended digression on a piece of visual art:

“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast…there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.”

He follows a muddy description of the painting with a sequence of opinions about the painting that are spoken allowed, unsignposted, perhaps giving the reader an insight into the fundamentally over-determined, irreducible and endlessly referential nature of art itself? Old hat. I put it down after four-hundred pages, Melville will have to drop the plagiarism and tryhard spectaculars of ‘device’ before he gets me to take him seriously as a contemporary American novelist.

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ and one-word titles

When discussing J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, one should probably start with its title. As you may have already noticed, it is one word long. It is striking in the promise that it implicitly makes in exploring the nature of the abstract concept of disgrace in itself. Reading the novel for the second time I was keen to figure out exactly what it is that Coetzee is saying about disgrace, more on that later, but is also set me off on the collecting of one-word abstract titles.

When I first learned about the novel as an undergrad, it was mostly through Ian Watt’s interesting but flawed study, The Rise of the Novel. For Watt, the novel was the first form that took account of the specific nature of the world. Social milieux, individualism and consumerism were the driving forces behind the emergence of the genre; abstraction was not within its repertoire. This is what makes the grand statements that underpin these one-word titles so captivating, it takes what is supposedly the most modern literary genre while pledging a return to medieval morality plays, when ‘human nature’ was not something we placed in quotation marks.

My bookshelves were as good a place to start in pursuit of this genre-within-a-genre as anywhere else and as such I submit the few that I have that do qualify, some that don’t and the few that are marginal or limit cases.


Martin Amis’ novel Success is one such example, but in terms of its exploration of the theme is sets for itself I’m uncertain how successful it is. It details two brothers, one of whom is more successful than the other in sexual, financial terms. At roughly the halfway point, the less successful, ‘nicer’ brother begins to overtake the other, only for the reader to find that the initially more successful brother’s success may have been a meta-fictional game all along. Success is moderately diverting as a narrative, but makes no grand statements in the way that one might wish. I own a copy of his novel Money and I’m hoping that it turns out to be more successful in that regard.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not strictly a novel, but from the parts that I have read (thin ice), it arguably anticipates the methodology of the maximalist novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace with its encyclopaedic knowledge of classical myth and the scope of its ambition. Since Ovid’s subject matter is change, it stands to reason (and also idle speculation, I suppose), that he is articulating a vision of a world based primarily in change. That said, this figuration of Ovid as a poet who is aware of the mutability of all things is a very modern understanding.

Another example is Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, a deft and fun examination of how our supposed free society offers more in the way of paralysis and frustration than fulfilment. His more recently published novel Purity, presumably qualifies too, but I haven’t read it yet. So.

I’m reliably informed that Milan Kundera’s Ignorance counts too, aswell as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. William S. Burroughs’ Junky may well also, it all depends on whether or not Burroughs acts the social diagnostician in it and says something in the way of all people being, in some way, junkies. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission also springs to mind.


As fun as it would be to discuss in this regard, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t qualify, simply because of the presence of the definite article, bringing their total word counts to two and two respectively. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, John McGahern’s The Barracks and many, many others don’t qualify for the same reason.

Paul Auster’s Invisible doesn’t count, the title is a bit too specific, but if it was called Invisibility, it could have, seeing as much of it is concerned with the general flightiness of the phenomenal world and the fundamental unknowability of all human beings, how their inner lives are rendered invisible to us.

The less said about John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s Everyman the better, they were two novels that I had been looking forward to reading for a long time and as such read them back-to-back. They turned out to be so disappointing I tapped out in the last fifty to seventy pages. That was a bad week. However, Roth deserves an honourable mention for engaging in the kind of thematising that these titles should encourage; the title is pilfered from a morality play about exactly these same kind of Big Questions about The Human Condition. However, it provides interesting takes of none of these and depicts instead the life of a highly successful businessman who realises that he should have stayed with his first, gently aged but of course still quite attractive wife Phoebe, rather than the supermodel that he ended up with. In both we’re supposed to be gently swept along in the unearned melancholic nostalgia and believe that they hold some kind of significance for the ‘everyman.’ Bilge.

Will Self’s Umbrella and Emma Donoghue’s Room are unfortunately not included for their quite literal object titles. Though one could no doubt mount an argument to the contrary James Joyce’s Dubliners, Ulysses must be disallowed also, again because of specificity.

War and Peace is a near miss, Tolstoy should have chosen one or the other.

Maybe/Haven’t Read Yet

I haven’t read A.S. Byatt’s doorstopper Possession yet, so I am unsure whether is qualifies. If the novel says Something Important about how the human mind can be overtaken or become obsessed with something outside of itself, it might well do. Updates when they become available. Ditto John Banville’s Athena (though I’m dubious, if the novel is concerned with any of the things that the goddess Athena supposedly embodies, wisdom, courage, etc, it could get through on a technicality), Paul Auster’s Leviathan and John McGahern’s Memoir (if it deals with the nature of Memoiring, yes, if it’s an Irish misery narrative, no).

So what does Coetzee’s novel say about the nature of disgrace? Even after two readings, I’m not quite sure. Reading the book always makes me look up the defintion of disgrace and internally flit between the book and The Compact OED. A disgrace is the disfavour of one in a powerful and an exalted position, “with the withdrawal of honour…which accompanies it.” Archaic definitions also involve deformities, this will be important later.

The novel depicts David Lurie, a lecturer in romantic poetry in a South African university. He begins an affair with one of his students and when this is found out, he becomes a shamed public figure. Lurie refuses the mandatory media narrative of public apology, contrition and rehabilitation and maintains that he was only being true to himself. His stubborn commitment Nietzschean ethics ultimately loses him his job and he retreats to his daughter’s farm.

While Lurie is staying at the smallholding, helping out with various menial tasks, the farm is attacked. Lucy is raped and Lurie is disfigured. To Lurie’s horror, Lucy keeps her farm, intends to keep the child that she has conceived and marry Petrus, a man who is implicated in the attack. Lucy explains that she intends to live this life ‘with no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity,’ and Lurie’s gloss on her decision is as follows: “Like a dog.” “Yes,” she replies. “Like a dog.”

One can see why it is difficult to know what to make of this, when the only recourse against the trials that life submits one to is to abandon one’s dignity altogether. Lurie casting himself as a Byronic hero, as a “servant of eros” is unconvincing at best, self-indulgent at worst, a lecturer on poetry hopped up on his own iambs, ignoring the very real power relations present in his affair with his student Melanie. It is also his luxury to do so, and to plead the cause of his own individuality. In order to Lucy to continue to eke out an existence on her farm, she has no other choice.

Lurie’s own rationalisation is that: “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” We must submit ourselves, Coetzee seems to be saying, if not strictly to disgrace and hopefully, not to what Lucy undergoes, but to the ways in which life humbles us. what life humbles us with. It’s not a consolation, but anyone who’s read the ending will know that isn’t what this book is for.