Tuesday 20 February 2018

There are some excellent books on the just-announced 2018 short list.
Blue Self-Portrait by NoĆ©mi Lefebvre (Les Fugitives)       $32
It takes approximately an hour and a half to fly from Berlin to Paris. Upon that hour and a half, a human memory, especially one working at neurotically obsessive speed, can loop a very large amount of time indeed, an hour and a half is plenty of time to go over and go over the things, or several of the things, the unassimilable things, that happened in Berlin, in an attempt to assimilate those things, though they are not assimilable, in an attempt, rather, albeit an involuntary attempt, to damage oneself by the exercise of one’s memories, to draw self-blame and self-disgust from a situation the hopelessness of which cannot be attributed to anything worthy of self-blame or self-disgust but which is sufficiently involved to exercise the self-blame and self-disgust that seethe always beneath their veneer of not-caring, of niceness, the veneer that preserves self-blame and self-disgust from resolution into anything other than self-blame and self-disgust. Upon this hour and a half can be looped, such is the efficacy of human memory, not only, obsessively, the unassimilable things that happened in Berlin but also much else that happened even into the distant past, but, largely speaking, the more recent things that have bearing upon, or occupy the same memory-pocket, not the best metaphor, as the unassimilable things that happened in Berlin, for disappointment and failure seldom happen in a vacuum but resonate with, even if they are not the direct result of, disappointments and failures reaching back even into the distant past, self-blame and self-disgust having the benefit, or detriment, if a difference can be told between benefit and detriment, of binding experiences to form an identity, and, not only this, upon that hour and a half can be looped also an endless amount of speculation and projection as to what may be occurring in the minds of others, or in the mind of, in this case, a specific other, a German-American pianist and composer with whom the narrator, who has been visiting Berlin with her sister, has had some manner of romantic encounter, so to call it, the extent of which is unclear, both, seemingly, to the narrator and, certainly, to the reader, the reader being necessarily confined to the mental claustrophobia of the narrator, on account of the obsessive speculation and projection and also the inescapable escapist and self-abnegating fantasising on the part of the narrator, together with the comet-like attraction-and-avoidance of her endless mental orbit around the most unassimilable things that happened in Berlin, or that might have happened in Berlin, or that did not happen in Berlin but are extrapolative fantasies unavoidably attendant upon what happened in Berlin, untrue but just as real as truth, for all thoughts, regardless of actuality, do the same damage to the brain. Lefebvre’s exquisitely pedantic, fugue-like sentences, their structure perfectly indistinguishable from their content, bestow upon her the mantle of Thomas Bernhard, which, after all, does not fall upon just any hem-plucker but, in this case, fully upon someone who, not looking skyward, has crawled far enough into its shadow when looking for something else. Where Bernhard’s narrators tend to direct their loathing outwards until the reader realises that all loathing is in fact self-loathing, Lefebvre’s narrator acknowledges her self-loathing and self-disgust, abnegating herself rather for circumstances in which self-abnegation is neither appropriate nor inappropriate, her self-abnegation arising from the circumstances, from her connection with the circumstances, from her rather than from the circumstances, her self-abnegation not, despite her certainty, having, really, any effect upon the circumstances. Not at all not-funny, pitch-perfect in both voice and structure, full of sly commentary on history and modernity, and on the frailties of human personality and desire, providing for the reader simultaneous resistance and release, Lefebvre shares many of Bernhard’s strengths and qualities, and the book contains memorable and effective passages such as that in which the narrator recalls playing tennis with her mother-in-law, now her ex-mother-in-law, and finding she is not the type for ‘collective happiness’, or her hilariously scathing descriptions of Berlin’s Sony Centre or of Brecht’s house, now a restaurant, or of the narrator's inability to acknowledge the German-American pianist-composer's wife as anything but 'the accompaniment', or, indeed many other passages, but the excellence of the book is perhaps less in the passages than in the book as a whole. I will be surprised if I read a better book this year.    {THOMAS}
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)      $32
If a thought is thought it must be thought through to its end. This formula is productive both of great misery and of great literature, but, for most people, either consequence is fairly easily avoided through a simple lack of tenacity or focus, or through fear. Unfortunately, we are not all so easily saved from ourselves by such shortcomings. The narrator of Ariana Harwicz’s razor-fine novel Die, My Love finds herself living in the French countryside with a husband and young child, incapable of feeling anything other than displaced in every aspect of her life, both trapped by and excluded from the circumstances that have come to define her. She both longs for and is revolted by family life with her husband and child, the violence of her ambivalences make her incapable of either accepting or changing a situation about which there is nothing ostensibly wrong, she withdraws into herself, and, as the gap separating herself from the rest of existence widens, her attempts to bridge it become both more desperate and more doomed, further widening the gap. Every detail of everything around her causes her pain and harms her ability to feel anything other than the opposite of the way she feels she should feel. This negative electrostatic charge, so to call it, builds and builds but she is unable to discharge it, to return her situation to ‘normal’, to relieve the torment. In some ways, the support and love of her husband make it harder to regain a grip on ‘reality’ - if her husband had been a monster, her battles could have been played out in their home rather than inside her (it is for this reason, perhaps, that people subconsciously choose partners who will justify the negative feelings towards which they are inclined). The narrator feels more affinity with animals than with humans, she behaves erratically or not at all, she becomes obsessed with a neighbour but the encounters with him that she describes, and the moments of self-obliterative release they provide, are, I would say, entirely fantasised. Between these fantasies and ‘objective reality’, however, falls a wide area about which we and she must remain uncertain whether her perceptions, understandings and reactions are accurate or appropriate. At times the narrator’s love for her child creates small oases of anxiety in her depression, but these become rarer. Harwicz’s writing is exquisite, both sensitive and brutal, both lucid and claustrophobic, her observations both subtle and overwhelming. As the narrator loses her footing, the writer ensures that we are borne with her on through the novel, an experience not dissimilar to gathering speed downhill in a runaway pram*. (*Not a spoiler.)    {THOMAS}
Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden (Little Island Press)       $32
The act of writing is an act of forgetting as much as it is an act of memory. Description replaces experience, if there was experience there to start with, or otherwise description precludes the experience described, permitting experience only of itself. The pencil’s mark obscures whatever line it traces. That which is described becomes digestible as text, becomes definite, finite and defined. Whatever is described becomes ersatz, the currency of exchange between a writer and a reader, the tin chip passed between parties to a language game, pretending understanding, pretending being understood, the cosiest, most intimate of couplings. How reassuring to have one’s expectations fulfilled by text, but how tiresome, this pact-as-habit, this plethora of detail, this obsessive mentioning that enervates the experience that gets obscured by words. But every signifier has its limit. Every mentioned thing is mentioned at the exclusion of another thing, the excluded or unincludable thing that pushes the mentioned into view while remaining, carefully, out of sight, hidden in the place of greater force, unseen, unfaced, the unseeable and unfaceable warping the mentioning by exerting its weight upon it from behind. A reader has no business to supply anything beyond the text, but also has to complete the text with nothing but their own paltry store of experiences to supply the meanings of the words. How to proceed? How to read the unseen mechanics behind but not referred to by the text? The reader too has ungraspable weights that can be induced to rise and touch the undersurface of the text, pressing up upon it as those of the author press down, two sides of one skin, the text the shared rind of two ungraspable depths, if there are such things as depths, otherwise, without depths, a synclastic and anticlastic flexing of the only surface, two dimensions modelled in a third. If it is what is excluded that potentises text, if it is what is destroyed by writing that makes writing do what writing does, then the stories of David Hayden in Darker with the Lights On move like the sharpened tip of a great black crayon as it scribbles out all memory and knowledge. Not in these stories the reassurance of the expected, nor that of continuity or clarity. Answers are not given, perhaps withheld, though withholding requires an existence for which no evidence ensues, but we are participants in the ritual taking away of knowledge, the deanswering of questions, itself a sort of understanding. Many of the stories concern themselves with the tensions between memory and perception, between two times running concurrently, memory snarling on details and producing not-quite-narrative but a stuttering intimation of the vast force of passing time. What unfaceable calamity bridged the idyll of memory with the torment of the present? In ‘Dick’, for me, perhaps, the most memorable story in the collection, the main character is buried to the waist in the sand, declaring snippets of memory, of idyll even, like some character shoved from Beckett to somewhere beyond the apocalypse, declarative not in Beckettian wearidom and decline but in extremis, the object of some cruelty, disoriented by their own presence, spouting words such as those that may have spoken by the condemnee in Kafka’s ‘Penal Colony’ reading aloud the words as they are inscribed into his flesh by the harrow. It often seems Hayden’s characters’ backgrounds are withheld not only from the reader but seemingly also from the characters themselves. They are being dememorised by their stories, or they exist, as perhaps we all do, with great voids where stories could be expected to be. But stories come from somewhere, unseen, and visit themselves upon us. “There were stories everywhere. Stories in the body, stories in and out of time, stories in the chosen and the unchosen, stories under glass, stories under water, stories under flesh, hot and cold, stories in tumult and silence.” Remembering and inventing contest the same attention, preclude each other but find themselves indistinguishable from one another, as a matter of course in fiction, more problematically so in the lives of writers and of readers. The characters are disoriented but grasp at every chance to climb into, or out of, some awareness: “He senses his head thinking, his trunk big and loose, his delicate fingers flickering at the ends of his arms and decides that he is conscious: real.” The stories’ worlds are composed of granules of awareness, snatches of phrases forced out against their silencing. Reading is akin to viewing through a narrow tube: the perspective is limited but the focus is immense. What is not seen is always there, deforming what is seen, but unglimpsable, unassailable beyond the vertigo of any attempt to look in its direction. Hayden produces a spare disorienting beauty on the level of the sentence. His admixture of restraint, even paucity, and excess, produces a surrealism truncated rather than efflorescent, its effects cumulative rather than expansive, a surrealism not the furthest expression of surrealism’s usual tired romantic literary inclinations but of their opposite, their extinguishment, not the surrealism of dreams but of the repetitive banging of the back of the head as the reader is dragged down a flight of steps, their eyes either closed or open.    {THOMAS}
Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)         $26
It is overwhelmingly, facetiously tempting to call Gaudy Bauble a detective novel, principally because it is one (a fake detective novel is just as much a detective novel as a non-fake one, if there can be such a thing as a non-fake detective novel). In Gaudy Bauble the detectives, so to call them, never actually detect anything, they never leave their flats (except for dental repairs, &c), they are effectively ineffectual, placebos, and, when the lost budgerigar that triggered the investigation, so to call it, returns, it is not due to any detecting on their part. “Is not detective work labelling work?” states a voice, presumably that of P.I. Belahg, a writer mainly not writing the script for a television series seemingly entitled Querbird, being filmed by Blulip, Belahg’s lesbian Gilbert-and-George-like double, a film-maker whose ideas change faster than they can be realised. The investigation gains no traction not because there is a lack of evidence but because there is too much. Everything is evidence of something (or of everything). The investigation gains no traction because it is too thorough. The details are too much evidence to amount to anything in particular, only to everything. Every detail, every association, every etymological permutation, every taxonomy, every history, every identity is interrogated and dissolved, every distinction is ruptured, the narrative, so to call it, constantly derailed by detail and by the refusal of detail to retain a fixed identity. In total flux, attributions and prescribed identities function as little more than costumes (clothes have more stable identities than persons), everything mentioned becomes activated by that mentioning, becomes a protagonist, pulls the plot, so to call it, towards it, off course, if it could be said ever to have had a course, or to be a plot. The world, after all, consists not of plot, which is always a fictive result of arbitrary interpretation of an unjustifiably normative kind, but of details, details about which little of certainty can be said without making similarly normative transgressions against their true nature, which lies not in identity but in momentum. In flux, in the tohubohu which is the natural state of all entities and from which entities become exiled at the moment they become entities, the state to which all entities long to return, the only certainty that can be maintained is that of momentum, if a certainty can be maintained at all. Gaudy Bauble retains all the excitement and pace and rigour of a detective novel. More and more characters appear, change names, blur their distinctions, overwhelm the narrative from locations in its margins or beyond: “There can never be too many crackpot agents. There could never be too much hyperactive riffraff interfering with events.” The dichotomy between the performative and the authentic is constantly ruptured, as if this dichotomy were a wall set to measure and constrain us, against which it is our nature to rebel, to seek release into illimitable inclusivity. The conflation of the performative and the authentic manifests in a doubling of entities, not only of P.I. Belahg and Blulip, but of the actual and the representation: budgerigar and statuette, tooth and denture, the characters and their appearances on the TV show Querbird. All categories are in flux. There may be a lost budgerigar, a broken tooth, statuettes, and so forth, but these categories are not exclusive of other categories, and tend always, by ontological clinamen, towards these categories. This ontology, since something must be said, or since the author, in choosing to write the novel, has put it about that something must be said in order for the novel to be written, makes language the territory in which this clinamen, this queerness in the nature of the particles, will in this instance be traced. All presences, all absences, all substances, all entities, all dissolutions, all metamorphoses, all wounds and all healing of wounds, are exercises of language, are both problems of language and solutions to these problems of language. Waidner, with nothing more constrained than hyperactive brilliance, somehow combines the register of Janet & John or the Teletubbies with that of specialist academic obscurantism without being anywhere between these poles, for only the extremes are worth conflating. At times there are similarities of rhythm with texts written under lipogrammatic or other artificial constraints, or with the lyric style of Mark E. Smith, or with impromptu dramatic performances using only the text of foreign-language phrasebooks (recommended). “Might sea urchin odontogenesis, fully understood, provide the biochemical tools to transform mainstream prosthodontics?” But, really, the book is quite unlike anything else, and is an exemplar of the sort of enjoyable and uncompromising queering experiment at the edge of literature and with the substance of literature itselfthat literature so desperately needs if it is to open new potentials within itself. When the novel comes to a (sort-of) end, new, more fluid entities have been achieved in a game of ‘real-life’ Exquisite Corpse, the budgerigar has returned, the momentum of the investigation has been expended. “The truth is the only thing left now. The truth ate everyone else alive.”   {THOMAS}
We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)       $38
A sprawling but incisive retelling of King Lear, set against a backdrop of tradition, misogyny and corruption in modern India.
Long-listed for the Republic of Consciousness Prize.  
>> Modern rewritings of King Lear tend to have Lear the CEO of a corporation. See also Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn. 

Attrib. And other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press)       $32
This collection from centres upon the difficulties of communication and the way thoughts may never be fully communicable and yet can overwhelm you. Attrib. celebrates the tricksiness of language just as it confronts its limits. The stories are littered with the physical ephemera of language: dictionaries, dog-eared pages, bookmarks and old coffee stains on older books. 
"Vividly imagined instants of mental disarray." - Guardian

>> Attrib. has been awarded the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize!!

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