Verona: A Young Woman Speaks by Harold Brodkey (1978)

What is going on here? You’re racing to catch up with yourself. Constantly asking yourself: how did I end up here? Hardly a chance to wonder where all of this could be going. Then you straight away go back to the beginning and start again:

“I know a lot. I know about happiness! …Even the happiness of childhood. I think of it now as a cruel middle-class happiness.”

What a place to start. But the whole story hangs off this, falls back on top of it, and explicates it: the falseness of childhood happiness, its triteness, its phoniness, its crassness – its middle-class-ness. But it’s magical. And it’s happiness. Something we will always grasp at.

A genius little story.

Mr A 

Verona: A Young Woman Speaks by Harold Brodkey (1978) 
Utility10/10 
Plausibility10/10 
Credibility10/10 
Depth9/10 
Subtlety10/10 
Engagement10/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence10/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative10/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun10/10 
Defamiliarisation10/10 
Total/10099/100 

Climbers by M John Harrison (1989)

This novel lulls you into a false sense of security. Then, every time the story comes to nothing you’re taken by surprise. Each mystery has nothing to it. All suspense drains away. And it’s only when it’s too late that you appreciate the mystery, and it’s only when you’ve finished the last page that you appreciate the suspense that’s been pulsing through the whole thing. The climbing itself, which is the substance of the novel, as well as its centre, is fascinating in and of itself. However, what’s most intriguing about this novel is how it works. It just does. And very well.

Of course it has legions of fans too. A novel with quite a following:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/10/robert-macfarlane-rereading-climbers

Roses, Rhododendron by Alice Adams (1976)

Great (minus the parentheses). And the ending – its neatness: why there needs to be a completed circle of the circular ending. If it works the circle has to be pretty twisted, so twisted in fact, that it’s not a circle. Such neatness always creates an unnatural strain that the reader is never going to fully buy. But that said (and minus the parentheses the author feels the need to drop willy-nilly), the story works very well – the reader is fully drawn in to the central character, her world, and gets the caught up sufficiently that the second turn-around to work pretty well, how things weren’t what they seemed. A good model of this type of story done well. It’s success rests on the richness of the protagonist (her voice / point of view / perspective) as well as of the world she inhabits. Great mother too. 

Mr A

Roses, Rhododendron by Alice Adams (1976) 
Utility9/10 
Plausibility8/10 
Credibility8/10 
Depth8/10 
Subtlety8/10 
Engagement9/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence8/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative9/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun8/10 
Defamiliarisation8/10 
Total/10083/100 

Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz (1960)

What have we here? It’s hard to say. When two middle-aged intellectuals from Warsaw take a trip to the countryside during World War II, they plot to… pervert two teenagers, to disturb the young girl’s fiancé, to have the two teenagers murder a leader in the Polish resistance – all to get off on it. That’s more or less the plot. And there’s not much more to it, substance wise. No, it’s not that there’s more to what’s happening, or that what’s happening only appears to be happening. Nothing like great big lumbering symbols on the metaphorical horizon. Yet it still manages to go all late Henry James, but with a wickedness that takes your breath away. The motivations are more than a bit dodgy and reasoning perverted, and the characterisation pretty twisted; bot no more twisted, dodgy or perverted than the reader themselves, who’s left bruised and battered. Which the reader more than deserves. 

Mr A

Milan Kundera tells us that Gombrowicz is “One of the great novelists of our century.” John Updike would have it that he is “A master of verbal burlesque, a connoisseur of psychological blackmail… one of the profoundest late moderns, with one of the lightest touches.” Is Gombrowicz “…the most important 20th-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of.” (Benjamin Paloff, Words Without Borders)? 

This novel is “A grotesque evocation of obsession. . . . Gombrowicz is a relentless psychoanalyzer and a consummate stylist; his prose is precise and forceful. . . . Borchardt’s translation (the first into English from the original Polish) is a model of consistency, maintaining a manic tone as it navigates between lengthy, comma-spliced sentences and sharp, declarative thrusts.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Borchardt . . . spins out a web of words that vibrate with unholy energy.” —Kirkus Reviews

Michael Dirda – The Washington Post: Pornografia “seems as sick, as pathologically creepy a novel as one is ever likely to read. In some ways, it resembles a rather more polymorphously perverse version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses or one of those disturbing fictions by European intellectuals that blend the philosophical with the erotic: Think of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye or Pierre Klossowski’s Roberte Ce Soir. … Through its sado-masochistic material and its almost Henry Jamesian analyses of human motives, Pornografia underscores Gombrowicz’s lifelong philosophical obsession: the quest for authenticity… Certainly, most readers will find Pornografiaperturbing, or worse: repulsive, confusing, ugly. As Milosz once said of Gombrowicz: ‘He had no reverence whatsoever for literature. He derided it as a snobbish ritual, and if he practiced it, he attempted to get rid of all its accepted rules.'”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pornografia

Extract:

How to Win by Rosellen Brown (1975)

Why the mischievous and gratuitous obfuscation? What is prose doing these days (post WW1), that we feel the need to make things difficult for the reader; or, as a reader, if we don’t feel put through our paces, fairly dumped into a writhing sea of incomprehension, do we not feel we’ve read anything worth the while. Why does there need to be this damn awkward struggle, or balance, this push and pull in a story, between crystal clear prose and that stubborn obfuscation that literary fiction seems to pride itself on? It turns out, you see, that this very same obfuscation is something of a secret ingredient – of all prose (and poetry too) – the indispensable ingredient, because ‘getting it’ is a key aspect of the reading experience; and you can’t get it if there’s nothing to be got. The more profound the engagement of the reader – in solving those little problems of who said that, or what was that, or where are we now, whose head are we in, is that irony, is that tongue in cheek –  the constant woody-Allening of the reader, such that we’re a nervous wreck not knowing what’s what, which way is up – the more this is the case, the more a piece of fiction strikes us, unsettles us, leaves a mark. Which is just what we want. These metaphorical bruises. 

However, there’s a balance that needs to be struck. And there needs to be more to a story than a puzzle to be solved. Yes, things are a bit jumbled up in this story; but, gratuitously so; we’re thrown around the protagonist’s stream of consciousness, a bit willy-nilly; we’e told the cause after the effect, get the explanation too late; but most of the ‘texture’ of the prose is provided by the first person’s scatty narration. Sure, you can work it out; at least, it’s something for you to be getting on with. The problem here, and in much modern fiction, is that there’s not much else to be getting on with. This isn’t ‘To the Lighthouse’ or late Henry James, where we are dealing with the subtlest of imponderables. This is a story about an incorrigibly naughty kid – a kid with a mental disability – and the feelings of exasperation and guilt of the mother: instead of handling this story with sensitivity and elegantly, it’s given depth by giving it a good shake, throwing sand in our eyes, and all to little or no effect. Apart from our confusion. Why do we not know where we are or what’s happening for the first page? Why are there erratic shifts of scene, view, aspect? As though the editing was done by a dog? The good bits, and there are quite a few, don’t shine any more brightly for all the hullabaloo. 

Though many disagree: https://garyswritestuff.wordpress.com/literary-criticism/point-of-view-in-rosellen-browns-how-to-win/

How to Win by Rosellen Brown (1975) 
Utility7/10 
Plausibility7/10 
Credibility7/10 
Depth6/10 
Subtlety6/10 
Engagement6/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence6/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative7/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun7/10 
Defamiliarisation6/10 
Total/10065/100 

A City of Churches by Donald Barthelme (1973)

There is general agreement that Barthelme is a master of the experimental short story, as well as the great modern innovator of the short story form. Famous for such stories as “Me and Miss Mandible” (1960) and “The Balloon” & “The Indian Uprising” (1968), receiving considerable critical acclaim as an innovator of the short story form on the publication of his 1964 collection ‘Come Back, Dr. Caligari’. Barthelme wrote over a hundred short stories, collected in City Life (1970), Sadness (1972), Amateurs (1976), Great Days (1979), and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), and later reprinted for the collections Sixty Stories (1981) & Forty Stories (1987), 

Derided by some as writing meaningless, academic, postmodern fiction, Barthelme’s work comes from a profound engagement with Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus – the philosophy of the absurd of Camus being the most obvious influence. He avoids traditional plot structures, always subverting the reader’s expectations, throwing out odd verbal collages and fragmented pieces, with constant non-sequiturs, all mixed together with his fundamental scepticism, sometimes grim humour, and laced with a sometimes hard to take irony, and with surrealism so thick and gloopy that you lose track of what’s what: but it’s the fragmentation, the falling apart of his fiction that most comes to the fore, that is the hardest to take, and that with which he has the most fun, mixing up, mashing up, forms and styles, stealing from dull and lifeless texts and cutting them adrift, appending ironic captions, cutting up and pasting together all sorts of odds and ends. 

But why nominate ‘In A City of Churches’ as The Best? It has none of the exuberance, joy, fun, silliness, cleverness, zaniness and seriousness of his most famous stories such as “Me and Miss Mandible” (1960) and “The Balloon” & “The Indian Uprising” (1968). A bit of a dull obvious plod through themes of individualism and society. Certainly not Barthelme at his best. Maybe at his most accessible. 

A City of Churches by Donald Barthelme (1973)
Utility7/10 
Plausibility7/10 
Credibility7/10 
Depth7/10 
Subtlety7/10 
Engagement8/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence8/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative7/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun7/10 
Defamiliarisation8/10 
Total/10073/100 

An ‘interpretation’ of the story:

http://sittingbee.com/a-city-of-churches-donald-barthelme/

Read ‘A City of Churches’ at:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/04/22/a-city-of-churches

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (Volume 1 – 1905)

“From the outset, Sōseki’s fiction was against the grain. …the “I-novel,”(the product of writers in thrall to the notion that only the confession of actual incidents in their lives, the more shameful the better, deserved consideration as art) was still inchoate when Sōseki began I Am a Cat: not until 1907 did Tayama Katai inaugurate the genre with his novella Bedclothes (Futon). But even before Bedclothes, writers in the ascendant Naturalist school, influenced by Guy de Maupassantand Émile Zola, among others, were basing their fiction on material from their personal lives. Their work tended to be egocentric, dominated by the protagonist-cum-author’s point of view, unmediated reality serving as a substitute for artfully created verisimilitude.Sōseki deplored what he called “the gray skies of Naturalism.”He was not objecting to the use of autobiographical material in fiction. Like most writers, he incorporated material from his own life in everything he wrote, although he was artful, never literal. He was critical of what he perceived in naturalist fiction as an absence of intellectual interest and emotional power that resulted from portraying reality unalloyed.”

So, why write a novel from the point of view of a cat? “…When the story appeared in the January 10, 1905… readers clamoured for more, delighted by its wit and lightness of touch in contrast to the dogged earnestness of naturalist fiction, and Sōseki was happy to oblige.” So, that readers wanted it might be enough. But that just raises the question: why did readers want it? And why then?

There is in this novel Sōseki’s deep pessimism about humanity: “The feline narrator, an alley cat who has taken up residence in the home of an English professor named Sneeze, is increasingly dismayed by the conversations at the heart of the book between the professor and his cronies, who pay him frequent visits in his study. They include a doctor of aesthetics whose name means something like “bewildered” (Meitei, translated as Waverhouse), a fatuous pedant at work on a “history of hanging” who is polishing a glass ball in hopes of eventually producing a perfect sphere ten years down the line (the resemblance to Casaubon is intended), a sycophant vassal of the wealthy family down the street, a former houseboy, and a “new playwright” working on the “haiku theater.” The cat speaks with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused. He concludes early on that “humans are selfish and immoral” but gradually augments his understanding.”

“…If a model must be found, a more likely candidate would be Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which Sōseki certainly had read… He likens Tristram to a “sea cucumber distinguished by no form or shape, no beginning or end, no head or tail.” But this is not intended as a derogation. He continues, “The work that ensured a place in history for the compulsively perverse and morbidly neurasthenic Lawrence Sterne was the compulsively perverse and morbidly neurasthenic Tristram Shandy; no other novel plays men for fools and clowns so extravagantly, no other makes us cry so hard or laugh so loud.” …the tone and flavour of the satire, the digressive nature of the structure that defeats a narrative story line, the action consisting in the interruption of the action, and the self-lacerating humour, all these are evocative of Sterne’s masterwork.”

if any novel seems utterly pointless it is Sterne’s. Yet, it is so much fun. But is that all it is? How can we in any way quantify the ‘importance’ of Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’? And we are left with the same problem with Sōseki’s ‘I Am a Cat’: tremendous (intellectual) fun, but where are we by the end of Volume 1? Well, the thing is, we are, as human beings, exposed. Whereas bad novels seek to reassure us, confirm our thinking, our sense of self, and our place in the world; even stoke or massage our fragile egos; good novels throw us under the bus, even as we’re smiling at ourselves. Sōseki’s ‘I Am a Cat’ keeps making the reader ask themselves: really? Is this the way things are? Is this how I am? The reader is herself defamiliarised.

Mr A

The Key by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970)

A Polish-born Jewish-American writer, a leading figure in the Yiddish literary movement – he wrote and published exclusively in Yiddish, awarded two U.S. National Book Awards, & the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. 

“Singer had many literary influences, including the Yiddish translations he studied as a teenager: “I read everything: Stories, novels, plays, essays… I read Rajsen, Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Maupassant and Chekhov.” …His short stories, which critics feel contain his most lasting contributions, were influenced by Russian Anton Chekhov and French Guy de Maupassant. From Maupassant, Singer developed a finely grained sense of drama. Like those of the French master, Singer’s stories can pack enormous visceral excitement in the space of a few pages. From Chekhov, Singer developed his ability to draw characters of enormous complexity and dignity in the briefest of spaces. In the foreword to his personally selected volume of his finest short stories he describes the two aforementioned writers as the greatest masters of the short story form.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Bashevis_Singer

This is a solid, beautifully executed story, if a becoming a tad mawkish towards the end. The story’s arc – with a beginning, middle and end all heading determinedly towards an epiphany – becomes too obvious towards the end, and the sentiment a little heavy. But for all that, this is what short stories can do, should do, and do well, engage the reader fully on the journey taken. 

The Key by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970) 
Utility10/10 
Plausibility10/10 
Credibility8/10 
Depth8/10 
Subtlety8/10 
Engagement10/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence10/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative10/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun8/10 
Defamiliarisation8/10 
Total/10092/100 

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970)

There’s no doubt that Didion is a brilliant writer – her ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ (2005) is a great piece of writing: deeply, profoundly affecting. But this novel, which Time magazine included in its “TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”, is a very different kettle of fish. 

It is a “scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust” (Book World). And a “terrifying book,” according to The New York Times, which went on to say that “there hasn’t been another American writer of Joan Didion’s quality since Nathanel West” – and it is very similar to West’s ‘The Day of the Locust’ (1939), as it is to J G Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ (1975) and ‘Crash’ (1973), as well as probably lots of novels of that time: spare novels of terrifying worlds with no meaning, in which nothing can be done, nothing achieved, noting won nor lost – the kind of world in Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ (1942), or in a host of novels by Bret Easton Ellis of ‘American Psycho’ (1991) fame, especially his first novel, ‘Less than Zero’ of 1985, all of which seem to be designed to leave the reader cold, perhaps reflecting on their own meaningful engagement with an apparently meaningless world, but feeling a little smug nonetheless, feeling themselves to be one of the intellectuals, in the know. 

Is that the kind of comforting cynicism being offered by Bret Easton Ellis? Is it enough to catch his knowing wink: yes, the universe is such a crock? Bret Easton Ellis is still writing this kind of stuff – it’s clever, slick and cool. But it’s not much else. Or is there something more to it?

In Didion’s novel, her second, of which she wrote “I didn’t think it was going to make it… And suddenly it did make it”, one might ask why she bothered. What is she selling? What’s she giving us? What’s the take-away? Why do authors write novels like this? What do they get out of it? If only to ‘make it’? Then, why did this novel ‘make it’? And why did Bret Easton Ellis feel the need to say: “For a few decades, this was my favourite modern American novel… revelatory” But, what is revealed?

So that today, when we say: oh, you’ve got to read this novel, we can say that it’s well written. If it’s engaging, and it is, it primarily pulls this off only through not giving the reader a clear enough idea of what’s going on, so the reader is constantly solving a puzzle as they go. That old trick. Also, it’s terribly sad. And sad stuff, even gratuitous sad stuff, gets you every time. But where are we by the end of it? 

At least we’re a little shaken. And we must have cause to reflect on our fundamental loneliness, maybe even get started on life’s unanswerable questions. Which is so much more than the mild but hollow satisfaction we get on reading the entirely predictable, shallow and cartoonish fiction that is classed as ‘diverting’, the perfect way to while away the hours on a long flight, fishing at the canal, sitting at the laundromat, or waiting for the grim reaper. 

And yet, the difference between Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ (2005) and ‘Play it as it Lays’ (1970), seems an important one, and not just one of different forms or styles, but one which gets to the nub of the problem: what is fiction for (though the former isn’t fiction, but autobiography). 

Gold Coast by James Alan McPherson (1969)

There is a superfluity of stories centred on writers, that is writers, or would-be writers, or failed writers as the protagonist, which can suggest a real want in imagination on the writer’s part. And here we go again, with another protagonist who’s a writer. And the story is about him being a writer. Which, having been done a million times before, raises the question: why not write a story about some other kind of guy? Also, it’s about him being black, which promises so much more – questions of identity are bread and butter for a story. But this guy is black in the most peculiar and offhand way. The protagonist’s race seems to be almost entirely incidental – which doesn’t really make for a good story about race – unless that’s the point. Overall, it’s interesting, but doesn’t seem to work, if it is trying to work at all. No, it doesn’t hang together very well. But it’s interesting. And that might be more important. And it’s different enough form every other story about some guy who’s a failed writer. Which just goes to show.

Mr A

Gold Coast by James Alan McPherson (1969) 
Utility7/10 
Plausibility7/10 
Credibility8/10 
Depth7/10 
Subtlety7/10 
Engagement7/10 
Cogency / Structure / Coherence7/10 
Affective / Empathy / Evocative7/10 
Novelty / Surprise / Fun7/10 
Defamiliarisation8/10 
Total/10072/100