Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading, writing, and arithmetic in 2018

Stuff what I read:

Mina Loy Insel
Isaac Bashevis Singer The Magician of Lublin
Clarice Lispector Near to the Wild Heart
John Hawkes The Blood Oranges
Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov And Olga Knipper
Max Rostal Beethoven: The Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Willa Cather My Antonia
Beatrix Lehmann Rumour of Heaven 
Burton Kaplan Practicing for Artistic Success
D.H. Lawrence The Complete Stories (vol 3)
Herman Melville Battle Pieces 
Saint John of the Cross The Ascent of Mount Carmel
Frances Harper Iola Leroy
Marly Youmans The Foliate Head
Henry James "The Story of a Masterpiece"
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar A Mind at Peace
Henry James "A Most Extraordinary Case"
D.H. Lawrence Birds, Beasts and Flowers
Henry James "Crawford's Consistency"
Georgi Gospodinov Natural Novel
Henry James "An International Episode"
Kerana Angelova Elada Pinyo and Time 
Henry James "The Impressions of a Cousin"
Henry James "Crapy Cornelia"
Henry James "A Round of Visits"
W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk
Anton Chekhov "The Bear"
Anton Chekhov "A Proposal"
J. G. Farrell Troubles
Anton Chekhov "A Jubilee"
Anton Chekhov "Ivanov"
Anton Chekhov "The Seagull"
William Faulkner Light in August
Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"
Daniel Levitin This is Your Brain on Music
Iris Murdoch Nuns and Soldiers
Leo Tolstoy War and Peace
Isaiah Berlin The Hedgehog and the Fox
Invitation to German Poetry
George Eliot Middlemarch
Yasunari Kawabata Beauty and Sadness
Elie Wiesel Night
Saltykov-Shchedrin "The Eagle: Patron of the Arts"
Vsevolod Garshin "Four Days"
Vsevolod Garshin "The Red Flower"
Anton Chekhov "Death of a Government Clerk"
Anton Chekhov "Sergeant Prishibeyev"
Anton Chekhov "The Grasshopper"
Anton Chekhov "The House with the Mezzanine"
The Brothers Grimm Household Stories
Maxim Gorky "Chelkash"
Ivan Bunin "Brothers"
Frank Kermode The Sense of an Ending
Jedediah Berry The Manual of Detection
Joshua Mohr Fight Song
Kevin Brockmeier The Brief History of the Dead
Joan Chase During the Reign of the Queen of Persia
F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise

The poems in Marly Youmans' The Foliate Head are startling, vivid and strange. Excellent stuff. As I was reading the book, I had a powerful urge to set aside all of my current work and write a novel based on a tangential image inspired by the poetry. I managed to restrain myself, which was probably either a mistake or a blessing. I tell you that Youmans is a great poet, deserving a much wider audience. I can't remember if she'll have something new out in 2019. I hope so.

For my new project of Reading A Lot of Contemporary American Fiction, I chose as my first book Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection, because it was on our shelves at home and because it was billed as Kafkaesque. It is not Kafkaesque; it is mostly Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday with a more convincing ending. What is up with the American obsession with circuses and carnivals? A few years ago, even I wrote a detective story that features a traveling circus.

War and Peace, which book I've now read twice, is a masterpiece. Really, everyone should read it. Tolstoy wrote it while Nikolai Chernyshevsky was writing What is to be Done? Tolstoy must've laughed mightily all the way through Chernyshevsky's book, if he read it. I assume he did; Tolstoy read everything.

I continue to discover that most of the nonfiction books I pick up are not very well written. This is Your Brain on Music, for example, is 260 pages of breezy fluff, hardly touching upon music and so aimed at a "general audience" that Levitin says precious little of interest about the brain, either. Max Rostal's book about the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano was much better, sparkling with wit and insight. W.E.B. Du Bois and St John of the Cross are also quite worth reading, both authors exhorting the reader to get down to the hard work of improving humanity. If that's not your thing, then we will have a hard time being friends.

Stuff what I wrote:

My primary writing task for 2018 was to revise the manuscript of a novel-in-stories called Antosha. I declare it to be a fine book, made possibly more fine by the revision process. That process took longer than I'd initially envisioned, probably because I've lost the obsessive focus on writing that I have had for most of the last decade. Also because I've been very busy this year in general, with less time available for fussing with novels. Writing has become more of a leisure activity for me. I think that shows real progress on my part. Though I confess that I've begun trying my hand at poetry. This has been worthwhile, in that attempting to do something myself almost always makes me aware of how hard the job really is, and reveals that vast gulf between my efforts and those of really capable folks. A good learning experience, in other words.

For 2019 my plan is to work on a new book, possibly completing a first draft. The idea for now is a collection of linked stories all set in the same small prairie town, possibly in 1976, very American stuff. The working title is Hilltop Stories. Hopefully some better title will present itself. I have about half a dozen story ideas sketched out already.

I was also delighted to learn that Miriam Burstein (a.k.a. the Little Professor) used my novel The Astrologer as a text again this year, in her autumn Introduction to Literary Analysis course. It's pleasing to think that The Astrologer has readers, even ones who might be under duress.

Additional stuff:

I did not buy any new hats this year, which is a shame. I did replace most of my black business suits with new suits in patterns of blue and brown, a significant change at the office. This is real progress.

Also, a partial list of authors I think I'll read in the coming year:

Helen DeWitt
Forrest Gander
Susan Howe
Rachel Kushner
Nathaniel Mackey
Fran Ross
Regina Ullmann
Jane Unrue
John Allman
Sherwood Anderson
Djuna Barnes
Kay Boyle
Marvin Cohen
Margaret Dawe
Debra Di Blasi
Thalia Field
James Byron Hall
Elaine Kraf
Christine Lehner
Carole Maso 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

the kind that is called frank

There I was, in the middle of This Side of Paradise, considering Amory's options as his star begins to fall at Princeton, when suddenly I came across this scene:
...he looked up and saw, ten yards from him, the man who had been in the cafe, and with his jump of astonishment the glass fell from his uplifted hand. There the man half sat, half leaned against a pile of pillows on the corner divan. His face was cast in the same yellow wax as in the cafe, neither the dull, pasty color of a dead man—rather a sort of virile pallor—nor unhealthy, you'd have called it; but like a strong man who'd worked in a mine or done night shifts in a damp climate. Amory looked him over carefully and later he could have drawn him after a fashion, down to the merest details. His mouth was the kind that is called frank, and he had steady gray eyes that moved slowly from one to the other of their group, with just the shade of a questioning expression. Amory noticed his hands; they weren't fine at all, but they had versatility and a tenuous strength... they were nervous hands that sat lightly along the cushions and moved constantly with little jerky openings and closings. Then, suddenly, Amory perceived the feet, and with a rush of blood to the head he realized he was afraid. The feet were all wrong ... with a sort of wrongness that he felt rather than knew.... It was like weakness in a good woman, or blood on satin; one of those terrible incongruities that shake little things in the back of the brain. He wore no shoes, but, instead, a sort of half moccasin, pointed, though, like the shoes they wore in the fourteenth century, and with the little ends curling up. They were a darkish brown and his toes seemed to fill them to the end....
The man on the divan is the Devil! "I've found my way into a Dostoyevski novel," I cried. "What next?"

Monday, December 24, 2018

the evanescent dangerous glory of her first daughter

For as long as we could remember, we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world.
Joan Chase's 1983 debut novel During the Reign of the Queen of Persia could be described as an impressionistic novel, along the lines of Alice Munro's work or Chekhov's "The Steppe," all filtered through a Willa Cather aesthetic. Yes, that's concise but broad enough; I could call my work here finished and leave off writing the rest of this essay. Alas for you, I will not leave off.
The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.
Mighty Reader did not care for this novel as much as I do, and possibly that's because she read it right after reading Barbara Comyn's dark Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, a destabilized and brutal sort of family story. Queen of Persia is, I think, less focused and paranoid and possibly just felt too diffuse and emotionally distant for Mighty Reader. I'm coming off some less intense reading so Chase's novel strikes me as pretty fine work.
All her hours at home were restless ones, tasks to rush through. Others would have done them for her, but too slowly to suit her, and the family a restless nuisance to be coped with, so that time would roll by and take her away.
Formally, Queen of Persia is a set of five overlapping stories about an extended family who live in a large house on a farm in Ohio, in the 1950s. The narration is a first-person plural "we" made up of the combined voices of the four girls living in the house, two sets of sisters who are cousins. There is a boy in the house as well, son to yet a third sister. Three of the girls will group together to talk about the forth and her beaus, or they will all speak together to describe following their grandfather out into pastures wet with morning dew, or seeing their dying aunt off to visit her oncologist. The sisters form alliances that shift and break apart constantly, fighting in secret among themselves because they have been forbidden to disturb their parents' peace. Their parents "have seen enough of that already."
She spoke to us incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or englufed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babes--stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble. Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn't want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. This she attributed mostly to liquor--which men turned to out of self-pity and vengeance.
Maybe the novel should be called Disturbing the Peace, or even War and Peace, because the primary theme is conflict, interpersonal battles of the large scale war Chase sees being waged between men and women, the field of battle and weapon of choice being either sex or money. Both of those weapons are dangerous powers, used often with destructive results.

The plural narrator brings comparisons with Jeffrey Eugenides' later The Virgin Suicides, though perhaps it is more closely echoed in terms of tone and texture by the plural male narrative of Hannah Pittard's The Fates Will Find Their Way. I was reminded most strongly of As I Lay Dying, where the many separate voices strain as a chorus towards knowing, and are defeated one by one.
When we are grown up and have been through everything, we’ll be like that. We’ll order kittens drowned by the bagful. Then at night we’ll dress in our silken best, pile on jewels and whiz off to parties, bring home prizes for the family. We’ll bet on horses.
No, they won't do any of that. They will be orphaned, marry unhappily, have miscarriages and suicide attempts and long empty years, searching for happiness. They will move away from the farm but never away from who they have been. The novel has a deep theme of disease; not just the cancer that slowly kills Aunt Grace, but the disease of humanity, a poison within each of us that wears us down and estranges us from one another. On the farm where the novel is set, behind the barn, is a charnel ground, a boneyard where Granddad, the nominal patriarch of the family, drags animals after death and leaves them to rot. The boneyard is a recurrent image, a metaphor for how nothing in our past is ever truly dead and buried but instead stays forever with us, polluting the landscape and stinking up the air.
As we walked, the calcium dust blew up white onto our feet. The bones crunched and splintered and teeth rolled loose on the ground. We could have been walking in the valley of Gehenna. Then Katie jumped out; she came from behind one of the spindly locust trees that grew there in a single clump. "The Philistines are coming," she yelled, jabbing a jawbone within inches of us, spiking around with a sawed-off horn.
This is a bleak and unforgiving novel by many standards, but it is also a beautiful work. If Joan Chase hadn't died in April of this year, I'd write a fan letter to her.
The leaves had already fallen from the trees but winter had held off, and each day the land warmed, the fields the color of sand. Aunt Libby told us she considered those days a privilege--however dearly bought. Never before had she felt so tangibly the actual presence of love in the world, not even when her children were born. And she said it was something you could feel only once in a lifetime, because afterwards something in you had been burned away.

Monday, December 17, 2018

"not living, maybe, but still proof"

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of Hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end?
This book began life, I believe, as a 2003 short story in the New Yorker. That short story became, more or less, the first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead, a novel published in 2006. Most descriptions of the book that I've seen use the words "fantasy" and "adventure," which terms might be true but they are deceptive and simplistic. The fantasy and adventure elements are prosaic, almost invisible really; what catches the eye and the imagination are Brockmeier's themes, prose, and observations about humanity.

The premise is simple: there is, somewhere, the City, a place where the dead go after life on earth. Between the earth and the City there is a passage, a voyage, which is experienced differently by everyone. 
First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.
The City, which in my reading resembles nowhere more than it does New York City, is as large as it needs to be to hold ten billion inhabitants, and seems to obey all the same laws of nature as any earthly city, and the inhabitants live quite earthly lives. There are parks, subways, restaurants, furniture stores, and people labor and commute and eat dinner and sleep in beds and have fist fights and prejudices and romances. There seems to be an economy of sorts; people buy and sell goods, panhandle for spare change, and pay their tabs at bars and restaurants, though it's unclear how anyone gets a paycheck. There are a lot of churches. The City is not Heaven, and when people leave the City, permanently and without warning, nobody knows where they go, if they go anywhere. There are no clues in the City about the afterlife beyond the afterlife.

Not long after the novel begins, most of the dead begin to disappear from the City, enormous waves of vanishing, millions upon millions, and then billions upon billions. The enormous City becomes--if you'll pardon the expression--a ghost town, an almost abandoned place. Eventually the remaining inhabitants gather together into one neighborhood (possibly there are other groups, but it's unlikely and there is no mass communication in the City) and discover that there is one thing that they have in common, one thing that has kept them in the City: a woman named Laura Byrd.

The City is where the dead go after death, and they remain in the City only as long as someone on earth remembers them. When they are completely forgotten, they leave the City to an unknown fate. While the City is a fairly sedate place, it turns out that earth (in this near future, maybe 2050 or so)  is anything but Edenic:
The Americans and the Middle East had resumed hostilities, as had China and Spain and Australia and the Netherlands. Brazil was developing another mutagenic virus, one that would resist the latest antitoxins. Or maybe it was Italy. Or maybe Indonesia. There were so many rumors that it was hard to know for sure.

Now and then, someone who had died only a day or two before would happen into one of the centers of communication—the tavern or the tearoom, the river market or the colonnade—and the legions of the dead would mass around him, shouldering and jostling him for information. It was always the same: "Where did you live?" "Do you know anything about Central America?" "Is it true what they’re saying about the ice caps?"

Jeffrey Fallon, sixteen and from Park Falls, Wisconsin, said that the fighting hadn’t spread in from the coasts yet, but that the germs had, and he was living proof. "Or not living, maybe, but still proof," he corrected himself. The bad guys used to be Pakistan, and then they were Argentina and Turkey, and after that he had lost track.
Nobody knows where the mutagenic virus originated, but it swept the world and people died by the millions and then by the billions, and the ranks of the City swelled nearly double and then all of them--or almost all of them--passed on to whatever lies beyond the City, nobody on earth left to remember most of them.

Most of them, but not all of them. There is that Laura Byrd, after all, who by the midpoint of the novel may be the only human still living. Laura is part of an Antarctic expedition sponsored by the Coca Cola company,  a PR stunt to promote a new product (Coca Cola made with pure glacial water, Coke being part of a corporate conglomerate which has purchased the entire Antarctic continent). While Laura and her two colleagues are freezing in a malfunctioning hut a couple of hundred miles from the South Pole, the rest of the world is being wiped out by a man-made plague. Laura's colleagues set out to find a research station along the Ross Sea and Laura, waiting for their return, falls into lonely despair and tries to remember everyone she's ever met. This effort against despair is what keeps the City's remaining inhabitants in place.

This could all be pretty schlocky stuff in the wrong hands. The novel drags in the middle while Laura Byrd sets out across Antarctica and the residents of the City discover that the afterlife is not much different from life, but The Brief History of the Dead is an eerie, thoughtful book. Brockmeier asks if the afterlife is a human construction, and if memory is really a form of extended mortality. Brockmeier asks how many people we meet over the course of a life, and what impression they make upon us, and what we mean to them, whoever they are. Brockmeier asks us to think about the inevitable end of the world, bangs and whimpers and all. These are good questions to ask, good ideas to think about. Improbably, this novel was a best-seller, a pretty big hit. I chalk that up to the book's presentation of death as something inevitable which is followed by a baffling but mostly comforting/comfortable afterlife. The billions of deaths from man-made plague are all off-screen, discrete and emotionally distant from the story of the novel. Actual death is prosaic; the book's interests lie elsewhere.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Treading water is harder than it looks"

Fight Song, by Joshua Mohr

Mighty Reader bought a copy of this novel in 2013 at Elliott Bay Book Company, where Mohr was doing a reading. We were half an hour late to the event, not realizing that we were making a small spectacle of ourselves as we barged in and settled down in the second row. We missed the actual reading portion of the reading, but we were in time for the Q&A and the book sale/signing. Joshua Mohr is articulate and talks intelligently about the craft of writing, and he has definite ideas about what he wants out of the work. He also has some pretty spectacular tattoos, and his affect is one of a regular guy rather than an academic or an auteur.

Fight Song is a novel about regular guys, or rather regular guys seen through the harsh lens of slapstick comedy, a sort of suburban American Lucky Jim with the perversity and absurdity turned up to eleven. Bob and Jane Coffen live in an anonymous suburban village among anonymous suburban neighbors and chain stores wedged between franchise restaurants. Bob is a video game developer. Jane is apparently a stay-at-home mom to their two children, who spend their time gazing into computer screens, gaming or social networking. All of them are drifting away from each other. Jane especially feels the waste of her life, and as a way to assert herself as a real presence in the world, she is in training to break the world record for treading water. Another way Jane has asserted herself is by kicking Bob out of the house. Bob's response is to drift along, dazedly wondering what is wrong and how to fix it, eventually stumbling accidentally into a picaresque quest to win Jane's affections back. The rough outline of the story is pretty familiar territory, but we do not read for plot, we read for what the author builds around the plot. Mohr does some interesting things with what could easily have been a by-the-numbers romantic comedy.

The most interesting formal conceit is the way Mohr builds a world out of metaphors. Do you remember how Miss Havisham in Great Expectations has turned herself a living image of the disappointed bride? Mohr does something similar in his novel, turning the figurative into the literal.

Take for example Jane's quest to break the world record for treading water. She is already treading water in her life, going absolutely nowhere while people watch from nearby, and she tries to find a way to turn this life into something worth the effort, not quite seeing the absurdity of it and how it's just another way of isolating herself. There in the pool she is alone, her Speedo-clad coach (another absurd comic character) standing on the edge of the pool telling her to empty her mind, to let go of everything in her life because reality is a distraction that will weigh her down, exhaust and drown her. Only if you block out your life can you stay afloat; a sad lesson.

There is also the neighbor, Schumann, a psychotic ex-football hero whose mid-life crisis is manifesting itself as a manic calling to create mayhem all around him, to treat all of life as an enemy team who must be crushed in random acts of criminal competition. Schumann puts on his old Purdue football uniform about halfway through the novel, a knight clad in the armor of his youth, and he wears it wherever he goes. Schumann does not, I point out, seem to have a job. Schumann's subplot involves kidnapping an angry wizard. Really.

Bob's sense that time has stopped at work--that he no longer really contributes ideas or even matters much to the business whose early success was built on his creativity--is embodied in a ten-year recognition award: a plock, part plaque and part clock, with Bob's name engraved incorrectly and the clock merely for show, the hands fixed at midnight.

In the opening pages of the novel, Bob is biking home from work, his hated plock in a messenger bag across his chest. Schumann, driving an SUV, challenges Bob to a race, promising not to exceed 7mph. Bob uncharacteristically accepts the challenge and is surprised when Schumann runs him off the road (into an oleander hedge, oleander being a highly poisonous plant).

Mohr's suburban world is mostly empty, sketched in and not particularly important; what he does give us is vigorously imagined but so unbelievable that it's exhausting at times. Fight Song is a modern Don Quixote, in which every character believes in his own glorious destiny, with enemies all around to be vanquished. It is all over-the-top, breathless and frenetic. I am tempted to say that Mohr is determined to outweird himself in each chapter, to ratchet up the farce until we are nearly in Rabelais' territory. Is this a satire on rom-coms? I can't be sure. It has the vague shape of the redemptive comedy, but the tone is more like Bukowski than it is like Capra. That's not a complaint.

Fight Song, though filled with melancholy and longing, is a hopeful novel. Mohr is clearly sympathetic to his protagonist Bob, no matter how hard and ridiculous the life he's given his creation. After Jane kicks him out of the house, Bob is launched on a traditional hero's quest, looking for a personal fight song, a way to rally his spirits and become something or someone, to self-actualize as the motivational speakers used to say, or to win at the game. Games and competition, in fact, are the central metaphor of Fight Song, a metaphor that Mohr is wise enough to let the reader discover on his own. Self-actualization and victory are initially presented as prizes we should covet, but slowly the ideas of competition and personal glory for their own sake are revealed to be shallow, antisocial, selfish and ultimately meaningless. Personal victory comes at the price of community, family and love. At least that's what I think Mohr is saying.

Monday, December 3, 2018

What the writer wants

Do you know why I believe in the novel? It's a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street. I believe this, George. Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next. Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints.

--Don DeLillo

A writer wants to be read. More than that, a writer wants the work he likes to write to be read. No, not just read, but his gift and singular vision should be actively sought after by a legion of readers. A writer clings to his gift and singular vision; he doesn't want to adapt his writing to the reader. This can be a problem for the writer. It is never a problem for the reader, because there is generally no shortage of good books by other writers. A reader can abandon a writer in mid-sentence. I have done this myself. A writer has no such luxury. And yet, a writer wants to believe Ezra Pound's "no art grows by looking into the eyes of the public." A respectable writer doesn't want to write to the market. What's a writer to do?

Especially an American writer. There is this thing called "contemporary American literature" that is studied at universities, and not just in America. I just saw a course description from the University of Edinburgh: "what it means to be American in the context of theories of the contemporary such as identity politics and postmodernity." Okay, sure, I can see that. But American literature must be more than the politics and culture into which the novels are released, yes? And America is not a uniform land, you may have noticed. Neither identity politics nor postmodernism are uniformly distributed across these fifty states, and surely a) identity politics enters the American media primarily as marketing rather than a subject with which to thoughtfully engage, and b) most American novels are anything but postmodern. Most American novelists are neither Ta-Nehisi Coates nor Paul Auster. But I have noticed, I think, that the serious modern American novelist is often having an identity crisis. If there is a Bloomian "anxiety of influence," then certainly a lot of modern American novelists have sweaty palms. What does it mean to be an "American" writer?

Me, I have no idea. I must confess that for the last decade or more I've kept myself pretty much in ignorance of contemporary American fiction. Yet I am supposedly a contemporary American novelist. I can tell because I was born in South Carolina and have lived my entire life in America, and I also have a published novel. My reading, however, has been almost entirely European. As has, I believe, the reading of most American novelists, though possibly contemporary writers are reading mostly other living writers and it's just old hermit crabs like me who remain in the dark. This is a personal failing on my part, as I believe it's incumbent upon me to read my fellows, especially as I want to be read during my lifetime.

I admit that I have an aversion to modern American novels, because I've been disappointed by a number of recent high-profile authors, and too many of my contemporaries seem to be caught up in the trap of trying to establish themselves as "American" writers. Maybe that's not necessarily a new phenomenon. Since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Americans have been told that we must cast off the shadow of Old Europe and stand in the full light of the vigorous New World sun, which shines with the powerful light of independence and personal actualization. Or something like that. We are told, we American artists, that we have a calling, which is to "make it new." We are called to set our art apart from that of Europe, to prove that our books are made of stuff equal to the stodgy old volumes choking those poorly-visited libraries across the Atlantic. Possibly, you know, we're even superior to Dead Old Europe. In some writers this search for an authentic American voice has become a frantic crisis of personality. Reading these crisis narratives annoys the hell out of me.

Isn't the bigger problem with talking about "American" fiction that there is nothing new and interesting about it as fiction which has to do with America? I will discount subject matter, because anyone can write about anywhere these days. And they do. Simply by being an American, I am not therefore fascinated with America and its culture and politics. And simply by being about contemporary America, a novel does not become interesting, or more imporantly a good novel. Somewhere I read that American fiction is "art developing in parallel with the evolution of a colonial nation through an independence movement into a free democracy." Okay, maybe, but does anyone makes that claim about French literature since the Republic was declared? How many people will readily add American fiction to the category of "post-colonial fiction?" I am tempted strongly to deny that there is anything essentially "American" in American literature unless the author is self-consciously attempting to create a distinctly "American" fiction. I am strongly tempted to label that sort of self-consciously "American" writing as false, as being written in bad faith.

The more I read and write, the more I am convinced that everything has been done already. Modernist and Postmodernist narrative play was not invented in the late 20th century; it's as old as Lawrence Sterne, and maybe older. I might point a curious reader to chapter XII of The Iliad, where Homer steps out of the dramatic flow to remind us that we are listening to him tell us an old story, then he leaps ahead in time to describe the forces of nature washing away the Greek battlements long after Troy has fallen, just before he circles around and rejoins the battle, already in progress. Aren't whatever formal attributes one might claim for American fiction already the formal attributes of a previous fiction, art being a continuum of revolutions that lead nowhere in particular? There is no progress, only difference, et cetera?

What is new in a novel, or any work of art, but the character of the author? And America is, as they say, the melting pot, the land of immigrants, a divided nation of tribes, and all of that. Is there then a distinctly American voice? Just like everywhere else, there are a lot of voices, most of them not so distinct. I am pretty suspicious of the idea of contemporary American fiction except as a loose category denoting mostly language of composition and country of first publication. Language of composition might itself be questionable criteria, as I believe there are American novels being published by American publishers in all manner of tongues other than English. Where was I? Oh, yes, contemporary American fiction as a thing, as a meaningful term, is a problem for me. There are a lot of Americas, after all. Which statement itself is a cliche, I know, a common Americanism ("Look at us, the multiculture! We love and hate it!").

All that having been said, I am much interested in contemporary American fiction, whatever it is. I am, after all, a contemporary American fiction writer. I put a lot of belief into the idea that good contemporary fiction matters, no matter what its native land, because all good fiction matters. Novelists are not necessarily the abstract and brief chronicles of the time, but neither are they nothing. I am going to test my theories (or lack of them) about contemporary American fiction by reading a lot of it, which is something I've never really done.