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Essays on Literature and Theory
By David Winters
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 David Winters
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Language as Astonishment
Micheline Aharonian Marcom, A Brief History of Yes
Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our "ordinary" discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review – any act of writing about – could run the risk of redundancy.
In fact, if words must be ventured about Marcom, "risk" is perhaps an appropriate one to open with. Most noticeably, she has taken risks with her subject matter. Her first three novels, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy, and Draining the Sea addressed the traumatic aftermath of genocide in Armenia and Guatemala. This trilogy told graphic stories of torture and brutality, but in an intensely poetic diction – a feat few writers might have attempted, for fear of merely aestheticizing atrocity. Her fourth book, The Mirror in the Well, explored a contrasting extreme of experience: eroticism, and specifically female sexuality, rendered with a rare explicitness – a fierce physicality far beyond that of Nin, or Lawrence, or other familiar landmarks of the genre.
Marcom's new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is less overtly transgressive than its predecessor – less centered on sex than on solitude; on the loneliness left after love is over. Previously, Marcom scaled the peak of what two people can do together, whereas now she digs into what drives them apart. So if Mirror expressed ecstasy, Yes explores ecstasy's ebbing. In this sense the texts are twinned, like the rise and fall of a single cycle. Both books concentrate closely on a couple; a woman and a man. In both, the narration is weighted towards, or focalized through, the woman's emotions and sensations. And each of these couples acquires an almost archetypal quality. Mirror made a point of anonymity: in homage to Marguerite Duras, it gave us no names, only "girl" and "boy," "lover" and "beloved." Yes treats these terms like traces of memory – each occurs only occasionally, but continues to echo over the text. Although Marcom now names her protagonist, her writing still ripples with namelessness, as if recalling a commonality that has been lost.
Of course, loss is the very locus of this novel. Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion. Essentially, the novel contains only one concretely plotted "event" – a Portuguese woman, Maria, is suddenly left by her lover, an unnamed American man. Moreover, this dissolution doesn't occur at the crux of a narrative arc, but at the book's outset: for both Maria and the reader, the love affair is always and already over, "its end entailed at its inception." Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship's end retrospectively alters its memory.
In this respect, as always in Marcom, the object of writing informs its form. Here, heartbreak requires not linear description, but circular distillation – a technique of "telling it over and over again," to cite Gertrude Stein. This circularity also aligns with the book's symbolism: the liaison lasts "a calendar year, August to August," closing up on itself at its end. But love's underlying recursive rhythm – the sense in which its loss completes it – is played out more subtly through Marcom's poetic style, which repeats and reprises the same small set of remembered circumstances. The resulting text is not so much a "novel," more an attempt to render the structure of sorrowful memory. For when we look back at our losses, as Marcom writes, our minds rarely stick to a "story." Rather, we accumulate an "augmenting account," in which "only the weight of increase remains," the wash of color that overcomes our memories as they fade.
The text therefore tracks the everyday alchemy – the act of internal translation – through which facts transform into memories, and memories merge into emotions. Marcom knows that there are no words for this process; that language can't capture a lost lover's afterlife in the mind. But what can't be articulated can still be obliquely attested to. Marcom marks her impossible object by means of the word saudade – a Portuguese term picked partly because of its lack of a direct English equivalent. Maria ruminates on its meaning, describing it as "the love that remains after the beloved has gone." This formulation suggests a significant ambiguity. In saudade, the negative path of nostalgia produces a positive outcome: love may be gone, but as long as its memory remains, love returns to itself; it goes on. This is why Maria says of her sadness that "I love this feeling as I love love ... this after-love feeling." And this is also the sense in which, in the end, she says yes – to death, which clears the ground for "growth," to absence, "another form of presence," and to grief, which is "not ground but sky ... so she is uplifted."
Marcom has remarked that her book was inspired by fado – the genre of Portuguese song that stages the sadness of saudade. But fado is only a formal precedent insofar as it sings the unsayable. The truth is that this book disrupts any generic method, just as it disrupts received rules of grammar and syntax. To this extent, its style exhibits what the critic Derek Attridge has called "singularity" – where singular works are those "that surprise, that disturb, that find new modes of representation and new objects to represent." This quality is evident everywhere in Yes, but it is worth picking a typical passage:
Water. The water in the glass. The clear glass, the clear water. Water and the glass the same color which is clear and the word clear which doesn't say the yes of the color or the isness of all of life in the color or nothing in the glass holding water oxygen light refracted on the glass which is the image on glass of the window, the blue peeking sky, fingerprints, greasy and earthy, so that the glass doesn't fly off into ethereal metaphors and the girl herself, Maria, in the glass: thin stretched-down face, dark eyes, the right darker than the left, the right hand lifted in prayer, in benediction, and the mouth smiling now, open, saying, singing herself.
Here the word "water" spills out a stream of language that liquidates language. Marcom mounts a metalinguistic attack on linguistic mechanics – note the embedded critique of the word "clear," and the stated resistance to "metaphors." These are the poles she steers between, like Scylla and Charybdis. The less clear her prose grows, the more oceanic, eliminating the edges between objects. There ensues a direct, non-metaphorical amalgamation of water, glass, window, and sky. Not only this, but the newly blurred sensory manifold is itself blurred with the consciousness that observes it: Maria's reflection makes her continuous with the water. Such is the song that many of Marcom's best sentences sing – proceeding by association and intuition, led less by rules than by faith, and always leading somewhere unforeseen: language as astonishment. No longer a bridge from A to B, writing is the water that rages beneath. Later on in Yes, a character talks of the "delicate wildness" of nature. The words might apply just as well to this writing; to the delicate wildness of its singular style.
If Marcom allows wildness to arise within language, this returns us to the question of risk. The risks writers take can be construed in crude terms – say, as a lack of concession to the "common reader," or a courting of controversial content. But Marcom's writing is also attuned to the subtler risks of style – or rather, it radically recasts style as risk. One of the lessons of her work is that fidelity to experience necessarily deforms familiar language. And if pursued with sufficient fidelity, this deformation will put the whole work at risk. To write in a truly unprecedented style is to ensure that the work stands or falls on that style. To be sure, Marcom's work doesn't always succeed – but its failures remain far richer, stronger, and more singular than those of works that fear imperfection.
In this respect, her writing takes risks not to secure "success," but to effect an experience of exigency and exhilaration. Rilke once wrote that works of art can only be judged on whether they have "arisen out of necessity." In Marcom, style is the sign of that necessity; of an artwork's urgent, internal need for its object to speak its own language, and no other. More recently than Rilke, Susan Sontag spoke of this trait in terms of stylistic "inevitability." The strongest works, Sontag argued, are those "so wholly centered in their style" that they "seem secreted, not constructed." The phrase rings equally true here too. To read Marcom, then, is to read writing that risks being the sole instance of its species – words that could only have been written the way they are written.
Work the Hurt
Sam Lipsyte, The Fun Parts
In an article about the stories his sportswriter father told him as a child, Sam Lipsyte remembers a revelation which "cracked the world right open for me." Always a "nervous" boy, Sam wondered whether stars like Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali were "nice" to his dad. "What the fuck does it matter," he was quizzed in return, "if everyone is nice or not?" The decisive insight was that it didn't; that only "the story mattered, and a story with everybody being nice wasn't much of a story anyway."
The thirteen stories in The Fun Parts impart similarly sharp lessons. Lipsyte's latest book, after novels Home Land and The Ask, marks a return to the short form in which he began, recalling the already classic Venus Drive. And like that collection, The Fun Parts showcases stories whose sheer telling – their force; their rhythmic momentum – tends to matter more than what they tell of. So if there is no "niceness" to be found in The Fun Parts (a book every bit as abrasive as The Ask) this could be because, stylistically, storytelling calls more clearly for cruelty. Lipsyte's luckless characters can be read as casualties of his craft; their misfortunes are functions of his stories' composition – and are all the funnier for it.
Lipsyte's stylistic tactics, learned partly from his teacher Gordon Lish, involve what the latter refers to as "torque," "swerve," and "refactoring." Although these terms sound opaque, the point they're meant to make is specific. For Lish, and similarly for Lipsyte, a successful story is one which relentlessly ratchets up its internal pressure, partly by feeding its linguistic output back into its input – like a nonlinear system in physics, or feedback on a guitar amp. Such a story starts with a sentence setting an initial condition. The second sentence reconfigures the first, curving or swerving back into it. The next sentence swerves harder still, and so on, always with the aim of raising the stakes, tightening the tautness. For instance, in a typical sequence from The Fun Parts, a story's narrator says of his father:
You had to hand it to him. I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he's absorbed in admiring whatever I've handed to him, kick away at his balls. That's my basic strategy. Except he has no balls. Testicular cancer.
What makes this paragraph's punchline comedic is that it's utterly unpredictable. And it's unpredictable because it is produced not by a premeditated plot, but by something almost like an algorithm. Here as elsewhere, Lipsyte's writing runs not from A to B to C, but from A1 to A2 to A3, each sentence increasing the energy in the system, bringing it to a boil, and hence setting off unexpected explosions.
Another example: in the story "The Real-Ass Jumbo," a character contemplates the future. Next thing we know, we see "his sister gang- raped in an abandoned Target outside Indianapolis." But before our brains can process this information, we learn that "strangest of all, he didn't have a sister," a surprise which in turn adds "urgency to his vision." Indeed, it is Lipsyte's spiraling search for urgency that creates these chaotic outcomes – in this he is a writer for whom, as Lish once put it, "the job is not to know what you are going to find." So if a character contracts cancer, or is created solely to be assaulted in a discount store, it's because that's what Lipsyte's escalatory logic entails.
Hard luck for them, but what makes this method compelling is that, like the blind fate that the Greeks called heimarmene, it closely reflects the cruel yet comic complexity of real life. About this, The Fun Parts is emphatic: "the world is not a decent place to live," decides one narrator. Another notes that life is like "a fish tank nobody cleans: just fish shit and dead fish." Stories like "Snacks" and "The Dungeon Master" dwell on the agonies of adolescence, charting the loss of a childhood in which "the world still seemed like something that could save me from the hurt, not be it."
But the world is the hurt in these stories – the void they reveal so remorselessly. In this respect, writing should "work the hurt," as a charlatan child-minder urges a breastfeeding mother in one of the book's more boisterous moments. Life is bitter; it will "bite your eyes out," but Lipsyte knows better than to express the pain of existence directly, unswervingly. "You can't share pain," a holocaust survivor reminds a recovering drug addict in "Deniers." So, to work the hurt isn't simply to share it but rather to see it and raise it, refactoring it through a story's style as much as its substance.
In "Nate's Pain is Now," the standout story of The Fun Parts, a writer of misery memoirs hears to his horror (and our humor) that his hurt has been trumped by that of a rival martyr. Demoralized, he goes for a walk by the river, where his ruminations give rise to a riff which is worth quoting at length:
I hated them, the gays, the straights. The races. The genders and ages. None of them loved me. I was feeling that forlorn hum. Maybe another memoir was burbling up.
Home, I called Jenkins, my agent.
"Nate stole my style," I told him. "My wife."
"Your agent, too," said Jenkins.
"I feel that forlorn hum coming on," I said. "It's going to be the best book yet. I've really suffered this time."
"What do you mean it's over?"
"It's Nate's time."
This sketch displays several distinctive Lipsytian tricks, from his trademark telegraphic compression ("home," not "when I got home") to the ironic elision of narrative voice and natural dialogue. For instance, the phrase "forlorn hum" first occurs in the narrative, where we're predisposed to permit its literary diction. But by later rerouting it into reported speech, Lipsyte renders it ridiculous, undermining his narrator's state of mind by means of mere repetition. Incidentally, this very device is reversed in "Deniers," where a piece of clichéd speech – "people ought to keep their traps shut" – returns in a defamiliarized form in the next sentence of narrative: "American traps tended to hang open." In this way, the everyday is replayed as rhythmic poetry.
Excerpted from Infinite Fictions by David Winters. Copyright © 2014 David Winters. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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