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Category Archives: American Fiction

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:

“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.

You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”

There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”

Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”

Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:

“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”

The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:

“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”

I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!

Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

This anthology of 36 essays, short stories and poems concerned with addressing the financial inequalities, systematic injustice, entrenched racism and oppression, poor treatment of immigrants and increased mechanisation possesses a depth of shared experiences within an impassioned plea for a more emphatic ethics. This begins in the editor’s introduction with calls to look beyond the statistics of broken America to the wider human cost and need for a greater ‘bandwidth of care’.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Death By Gentrification: The Killing Of Alex Nieto’ concerns the shooting of a young security guard by San Francisco police in 2014 and shows how his past and Latino identity were used against him and how this relates to the gentrification of the victim’s neighbourhood. Solnit, known here for Wanderlust: A History of Walking, produces a memorable account of the events, trial and aftermath for the Nietos, with minimal English and Spanish, and neighbourhood who came together for one of their own.

Manuel Muñoz in ‘Fieldwork’ writes of his dying father who migrated from Central America to pick lettuce and cotton to support his family in jobs that are now vanishing. The poet, Juan Felipe Herrera recalls the unnamed and undocumented workers searching for ways out. Many contributions pivot around travel. There is a sense of the contributor’s ability to fly, as in Julia Alvarez’s ‘Mobility’, and the circumscribed social and economic mobility, language barriers and difficulties faced by the majority of Americans.

Natalie Diaz contributes one of the strongest poems, ‘American Arithmetic’. She points out that Native Americans constitute less than one per cent of the population yet 1.9 per cent of all police killings.

In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American – less than one, less than
whole – I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand –
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover,
I disappear completely.

Displacement and loss of sustainable employment and community permeate the anthology as facts of life with many contributors seemingly echoing Freeman’s notion that the solution lies ‘between us, not above us’ and not with governments. For example, in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story ‘Leander’, a white woman visits an African American church hosting a Save Our Lives protest and experiences a sufficient range of emotional and psychological pulls and uncertainties that she contributes financially to the cause and finds an elevated self-consciousness. Anne Dillard contributes a concise flash fiction calling upon artists unable to create on some days to work in a soup kitchen, give blood as part of a good day’s work.

There is an undertow of laying bare inequality without developing a narrative arc beyond precarious employment or having to sell blood plasma to survive, as well as a tendency to nullify raw experience and anger for sophistication. Notwithstanding, this is an important and nuanced anthology.

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/talesoftwoamericas/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_medium=review&utm_campaign=Tales

David Caddy 16th October 2017

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

In contrast to Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars, which I wrote about yesterday, Gordon Lish’s book, rich in language play, employs a loquacious first person narrative in two extended notes before and after a list of select vocabulary. It is implied that the narrator is loosely based on the author self, although this is more of a ploy to draw the reader more closely into the narrative world with its frequent call to check the factual details of the narrative online.

The first note delineates the biographical details of his mother and her sisters, Jewish immigrants from Austria, based in New York, and his own situation at Mills public high school, at Millbrae, California. Finding himself without a job and having to support a wife and three children he wrote to his winsome Aunt Adele asking for work not dissimilar to hers. Apparently, in 1963, Lish was refused tenure at the school due to his association with the Beat writers he published in Genesis West and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady of the Merry Pranksters. The narrator’s aunt worked as a section leader in cryptology for the National Reconnaissance Office and replied with a long list of words with the instruction to solve this and perhaps we’ll talk. There follows 165 pages of rarefied vocabulary and the quest to find some links between them to solve the puzzle.

‘Into The Cesspool’ makes play on ‘cess’ meaning a tax or levy before herding readers into the full on verbal play of a ‘cesspool’. Here is a random sample of the list:

DERISORY
STEREOPHONY
VALETUDINARIAN
MONISM
PHATIC
NEGENTROPIC
SUMMATE
SPECULARITY
ACTANTIAL
DEFERRAL
REGIME
CLASSIFCATORY
SYNTAGM
DOXA
LOCUTIVE

On first glance some connections and associations emerge, a succession of words from severable to spall about breaking apart, and then there are words that are variations of more common words. Soon one is lost in the Collins or Oxford English Dictionary placing words into sets of words, the ponderables and possibles, both repeated, that make up the list. The selection is seemingly isolated from context until one picks up on the repeated use of interpellate, mischance, perchance, orison and onton, which is not in the dictionary, as a sign of humour and the list becomes a way into Adele’s character. Adele, the spy and cryptologist has a predilection for words from a range of discourses that can be at a stretch connected to a cesspool, cloaca being an archaic word for sewer and so on. She has a wicked sense of humour beginning her list with ‘FLUSH LEFT’ and ending with ‘ALL SMALL CAPS’, which turn out to be the key to the puzzle. ‘Flush’ here is employed for all its meanings and has a neat comic touch.

The joke may be on the reader as one skips to the final note, which is a tour de force of narrative ebullience. The narrator is considerably deepened and extended into a maniacal loudmouth. The sentences are rich in rhythms, asides and resonate with biographical detail creating a memorable persona. The reader tends to look back on the long list as a conceit, a way into the deeper layers of language, and wants more engagement with the nature and uses of language. This then becomes the point of the list an insistence on grappling with the use of words within lived experience and literature. The final note succinctly illustrates this with its combination of a probing, quizzical tone and continual search for the right word. The narrator drew lessons from his Aunt and her witty and joyous list. Who would not like to discover more about such words as fent, spall, fard, slub, doce, pelf, frit, sot, ort and orse?

Cess: A Spokening has a power and pointed veracity as a language game and fiction of distinction.

David Caddy 11th August 2015

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

This sixth collection of informative essays and reviews showcasing Jim Burns’ encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century bohemianism contains thoughtful insights into the current scene and is by no means set in the past.

His first substantial point is that literary criticism by highlighting a few writers and poets from the Fifties and early Sixties overlook the wider social and cultural circumstances and sheer excitement of the period through an excess of analysis. Burns opens out the artificial boundaries and distinct categories of official criticism to reveal a more confused, floating world of writers and poets, little magazines, small presses and the ephemera of bohemia. Here we glimpse through essays on political rebels, beats, jazz musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers a somewhat looser field of connection and relationship as well as a deep enthusiasm to move forward to a better place. Underlining this is the contention that minor figures may well yield as much social, cultural and literary insight as some of the major figures. Burns is quite clear in understanding that, for example William Burroughs, whilst linked with Allen Ginsberg through friendship, is clearly drawing upon very different sources and techniques. His essay on Cities Of The Red Night portrays Burroughs as a moralist with the power to shock, provoke and disturb, employing humour, visual effects and shifting action from within the American tradition of outlaws and pirates.

His second provocation concerns the role of the little magazine. He echoes Samuel Beckett’s publisher, John Calder’s point that the Fifties sowed the seeds that sprouted in the much vaunted Sixties, and examines the world of Merlin, a short-lived little magazine in the Parisian bohemian world of the Fifties, which drew attention to Beckett’s writing. Merlin subsequently spawned a publishing house, which published editions of Watt and Molloy. In the essay, ‘What Will You Read Tomorrow?’ he laments the passing of the ‘alternative’ bookshops, which grew out of Sixties unrest and offered reading matter far removed from the big publishers and distributors. Given the decline of the independent and second hand bookshops, the narrowing range of Waterstones and Borders, and the fact that the Internet cannot always supply writing that is beyond the ordinary and fashionable, Burns sees a vital role for the little magazine as an outlet and resource. He writes:

And it seems to me that little magazines, for all their problems,
are a way of providing us with a system of exchanging ideas and information about the overlooked and the unusual. Isaac Rosenfeld once said of little magazines that they were outlets for ‘a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance.’ He also
said that one of the characteristics of a conservative age is ‘the shrinkage of extremes’ and he added: ‘I am used to thinking, because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society; I mean, of course, the serious writer, the conscious writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society.’
He asserts that the little magazine could provide the variety missing elsewhere, and the reassurance that there are other dissidents who don’t believe the big publishers and mass markets can supply everything that the imagination needs to keep it alive and alert to the world.

His essay on David Gascoyne’s life reminds the reader of the importance of the Parton Street Bookshop in Bloomsbury as a gathering place for young poets and their readers. It was there that Gascoyne met George Barker, Norman Cameron, Geoffrey Grigson, Roger Roughton and others, as well as where he bought imported surrealist publications. From there he would walk to Zwemmers Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to chat with Ruthven Todd and compare their imported stock. The key is that Gascoyne had a range of places to increase his reading and knowledge.

There are other fascinating essays on a range of subjects from the Paris-Amsterdam underground, Surrealistic Prague, to Henry Miller, B. Traven, and the Edward Dorn / LeRoi Jones correspondence, as well as the extensive Beat Scene interview with Burns by Kevin Ring from Spring 2014. This compelling volume of essays is a joy to read and contains much information and material that is hard to find.

David Caddy 13th April 2015

In The Footsteps Of The Silver King

In The Footsteps Of The Silver King

As an admirer of Paul Kareem Tayyar’s energetic poetry, I looked forward to reading his latest novella, In The Footsteps of the Silver King (Spout Hill Press 2012) and was not disappointed. The narrative moves from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Oregon and to Iran in a transformative quest for the narrator’s dead father’s World Games silver medal. It effortlessly draws the reader into American popular culture and history from the perspective of the son of an Iranian who immigrated in the mid-70s. The novella offers a reading of recent American history that is witty, engaging and heavily anchored with cultural references. Characters that the narrator meets are representative of the highs and low of Californian life and intimately connected to the politics, culture and sport of the period.

 

Miller was getting romantic, a sportscaster-poet channeling his

inner Kerouac to give us a sense of the moment. I couldn’t blame

him. “And there’s a hanging curve just off the corner. Ball. 1-1.”

 

One sees that baseball in America occupies a similar place to cricket in England with the same fascination with radio commentary and importance of playground. Indeed, this is a playful novella that asserts the pleasures of the physical and is driven by considerable wit and charm. In short, it is a joy to read.

Dave Newman’s Raymond Carver

Dave Newman’s Raymond Carver

Short story writer and poet, Dave Newman’s second novel, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books), builds upon his oeuvre with an impressive range of humour from satire to self-deprecation through poetic word play. Like Carver, Newman’s writing exudes authenticity yet offers more than realism in its confrontation of deeper issues. The narrator, Dan Charles, struggles to find a balance between making a living to support his family and finding the energy to be creative. Deep inside working class America and the underbelly of higher education, here ‘The teachers wait tables. The bartenders teach school’ as ‘it is required that you must do to be.’

 

It’s almost weeks into the semester, and I can’t afford a bullet-

proof vest. I can’t afford anything. The students all think I’m in

charge of their lives, but I make less money than a shoe store

manager at the mall and with no job security.

 

He and his wife both have second jobs. The novel explores the concept of choice, through its use of detail, with a rigorous sense of humour that makes it lived and memorable. In the tradition of Bukowski, Carver, Philip Levine and Richard Ford, the novel questions literary and cultural assumptions with an engaging freshness about what matters most and shows that things for those with a work ethic are not as they should be. It is a novel marked by absence. Although based in Pittsburgh, the novel has a national and international relevance that elevates it beyond testimony.  Above all, it is very funny and that is recommendation enough.

Gerald Locklin’s Novellas

Gerald Locklin’s Novellas

Spout Hill Press have republished Gerald Locklin’s classic novella, The Case Of The Missing Blue Volkswagen, originally published in 1984, republished in 1999, with an introduction by John Brantingham that views its post-modern style and structure as a means of having a conversation with the reader about the limits of fiction. It is a fruitful way into the work that is at once playful, funny and greater than the sum of its parts. Locklin’s casual style functions effectively on many levels and is very funny.

http://spouthillpress.com

Spout Hill has also published Locklin’s lost novella’s Last Tango in Long Beach and Come Back, Bear to present the original trilogy for the first time.  If you have never read any Locklin, the best introduction is to say that he entertains and provokes in equal measure in a beguiling way. A central figure in Los Angeles writing since the Seventies, these beautifully produced novellas are at the heart of his social satire.

 

Locklin’s Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013 from Presa Press contains some of his best recent poetry.  As Edward Field writes, ‘The male spirit in him remains honest, bighearted, sentimental, generous, gentle, vulnerable, but sassy in the face of adversity…’ I have always thought that he is the male equivalent to that other brilliant maverick Camille Paglia. Both are always worth reading.

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