Monday, July 04, 2005

It's the Fourth of July, and by gum The Bookery is open. Here's what I've got on the store stereo to celebrate: Copland's Appalachian Spring; Charles Ives' Three Places in New England; Leonard Bernstein's Candide, and Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein's opera about Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All. I think the Bernstein is particularly appropriate to our blinkered moment, a time when disillusionment is failing to translate into action or even useful paranoia. It ain't the best of all possible worlds by a damn sight, but we seem determined to behave as if it were. If the best lack all conviction, are they still the best?

Good article by Anthony Lane on Weldon Kees, a poet I have some affection for though I'm more than a little put off by those who call themselves his friends and advocates—Donald Justice, Dana Gioia. (This is related, perhaps, to my finickiness about book covers: packaging signifies.) If Raymond Chandler had been a poet (and he would have liked to have been, I think), he would have written like Kees. Spent part of the weekend rediscovering Joyce: I've reread all of Dubliners and I read "Eveline" and the first few pages of Ulysses out loud to Emily. Joyce was a powerful influence on me in my early twenties when I was trying to write fiction: at the time I was in love with the imaginative vigor of his prose and his willingness to let language o'erleap the requirements of realism. Nowadays I think the lesson to be learned from him is much harder: the restless drive to overcome what one has already mastered. Think about it: one perfect volume of short stories and never another. One masterful modernist take on the coming of age novel. One novel to end all novels and one feast of prose to end prose itself, maybe even to end English. (I mean "end" the way the Tarot deck means the "Death" card: the moment of transformation and renewal through destruction.) Joyce taught me contempt for artists who find a pleasing groove and stick to it for life. More important, he taught me through the representation of representation how language shapes my world—or put more humbly, how an artist or anyone makes choices (kind of like what David Foster Wallace said to the new gradautes of my cousin' alma mater). It's a lesson in freedom; not a bad subject ot meditate on today. Joyce ruined fiction for me: no other writer seems as capable of folding both the whole world and all the ways of writing about that world between two covers: everything else is miniatures. I prefer the adventure of signifiers to following some tedious construct called a "character" through his or her "setting" driven by a "plot." I can still enjoy what novels are best at, the vivid representation of a complex social milieu; I also like funny books (Gaddis manages to combine these things). Maybe it's just hard for me to find good novels because I'm so much more interested in form and style than in what a given book might be "about." I'm happy to learn "about" some subject or other (novels are a painless way to learn history), and I recognize that "about" is crucial to a novel; to any writing, maybe. But I wasn't drawn to pick up A Frolic of His Own because I'm particularly interested in a satire of our litigious culture in the Clinton years; I was drawn to it because of Gaddis' reputation as a master stylist. The hero of a novel by Joyce or Gaddis isn't so much a person as the English language as it is spoken at a particular time and place by a particular group or groups. That's the kind of adventure I'm invested in.

Picked up the latest New American Writing on Sunday: it's a humdinger of an issue, with translations from Darwish and Vallejo; poems by Elizabeth Robinson, Donald Revell, Andrew Joron, Stephen Ratcliffe, Dan Beachy-Quick, Sally Keith, Lara Glenum, and many other Americans; a little anthology of "The New Canadian Poetry" that includes work by Lisa Robertson, Christian Bok, Sina Queyras, and others I'm about to become familiar with; and another little anthology, "Nine Vietnamese Poets." An invaluable compilation, serving a broader function than the other magazines I've lately been immersed in (The Poker, The Tiny, Effing, etc.), which specialize in more local intensities of the moment. The wide and narrow ends of the telescope are equally valuable.


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