“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Review: The Theory of Light and Matter

The Theory of Light and Matter
By Andrew Porter
Text Publishing

Andrew Porter’s debut collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, offers a series of stories about alienated and emotionally paralysed characters coping with a variety of traumas, such as failed relationships, broken families, and the deaths of loved ones. Porter attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, for better or for worse, his stories evoke the kind of writing associated with U.S. creative writing programs; written in a spare prose, Porter’s work recalls the minimalist realism of Raymond Carver (and before him, Hemmingway).
            Minimalism can be incredibly effective, and in stories like ‘Coyotes’, ‘Azul’, ‘Merkin’ and ‘Storms’, Porter displays his mastery of this genre. His particular gift lies in the ability to craft characters whose paths intersect in just such a way as to undo each other. These finely wrought relationships pulse with a sense of dismal inevitability that makes for gripping reading; like the proverbial onlooker at the scene of an accident, the reader is drawn in by morbid curiosity to watch these people’s lives fall apart.
For all of that, though, The Theory of Light and Matter is an ultimately uneven read. The result of Porter’s spare aesthetics is that the difference between a brilliant and an unsuccessful story can be – for lack of a better word – minimal. Moreover, while Porter’s style is arresting on first read, over a whole book it starts to feel monotonous, and the appearance of the epiphanies at the end of some stories (which is characteristic of Carver-esque minimalism) feels forced and predictable.
            Some stories are also marred by a lack of precision, as well. The stories are set in diverse localities around the U.S., but most of these places (with the exception of Houston) aren’t evoked with particular detail, and one wonders why Porter has bothered making their settings specific at all. At other points, details recur without clear purpose: Porter’s narrators seem to have a fondness for trees (particularly the banyan and the jacaranda), but what could such obsessions possibly signify? Moreover, Porter’s prose is too often careless, and stylistic oddities appear again and again for no clear reason (eg. an unidiomatic usage of ‘assure’ to mean ‘reassure’, the description of odd characters as being ‘not right’, and the construction ‘beg off’, meaning ‘to avoid’).
This critique may sound like nitpicking, but these lapses are indicative of the larger problem with Porter’s prose (as well as being indicative of a lack of scrupulous editing upon the book’s initial publication in the U.S. in 2008), which is often not so much minimal as simply unimaginative; this unfortunate tendency appears throughout the collection’s title story ‘The Theory of Light and Matter’ in which the narrator notes that her boyfriend ‘seemed to understand me . . . better than I understood myself.’ This is an unforgivable cliché. Ultimately, this story is weak enough that its inclusion in the book is puzzling. Not only does it contain one of the most trite sex scenes I’ve read in recent memory, but also the female protagonist is not believable, and ultimately reads like a male author’s idea of what women are like, rather than a flesh and blood creation.
            But despite these lapses, the collection is saved by its best work, and two stories in particular are absolutely exceptional, and deserving of the high praise that they have garnered. ‘Departures,’ a story about two young, high school rejects who begin dating women in the local Amish community, depicts characters who are simultaneously sympathetic and despicable. The opening story, ‘Holes’, which is about a young boy who dies after climbing into a sewer, ends on a haunting, unresolved note. Here, Porter moves away from the stock minimalism of academic creative writing, and, instead of offering an epiphany, his story opens out into a series of larger and more complicated questions.
These two stories alone are worth the price of the book. And the reason that they succeed is precisely because they step outside of the minimalist framework. Porter is a writer of enormous potential, and it can only be hoped that he keeps pushing himself in the intriguing directions presented by these two exceptional stories, rather than contenting himself with producing masterful, but ultimately derivative, works of minimalist prose.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review: Reality Hunger

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
By David Shields
Hamish Hamilton

David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, as its title suggests, is meant to be an aesthetic call to arms. Shields argues that the most interesting contemporary works of art, music, literature, film and television are those that attempt to introduce more ‘reality’ into their composition by including autobiography, memoir, documentary evidence or appropriating already-existing material. This desire for the authentic, which he terms ‘reality hunger’, is a result of the increasingly artificial notion of the world around us in modernized capitalist societies. Reality Hunger formally employs its own principles: the majority of the text is not actually Shields’s own writing, but instead comprises quotations from other authors that he has cut and re-appropriated into the book, which he likens to the process of sampling music.
As its subtitle states, the work is a manifesto. Manifestoes typically employ the agit-prop techniques of political radicalism, and Reality Hunger is no exception; many of Shields’s statements are intended to be provocative and to shock the reader. But on this score he isn’t very successful. Most of Shields’s arguments (that memoir is a genre that has legitimate literary merit, that what we presume to call ‘reality’ is in many ways itself an artificial construct, and that copyright law no longer reflects the use of intellectual property in the age of the internet) will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an undergraduate course in postmodern theory or media studies. Ultimately, many of his assertions come off as basically banal.
 At other points, his logic is either confused or faulty; Shields compares sampling in hip-hop to the use of autobiographical material in texts. This is certainly incorrect. Sampling is much closer to the process of allusion, or referencing other texts, which has been used in literature for centuries from Shakespeare (who based many of his plays on other stories) to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Moreover, Shields does himself a disservice by placing his own writing next to quotations from other, ultimately superior authors; the contrast between the prose styles doesn’t tally in his favour. The nadir of the book occurs when Shields quotes Kurt Cobain in an attempt to seem in touch with the culture that ultimately feels ham-fisted.
That being said, Shields’s arguments about the ways that literary texts can expand their horizons by using real-life material are ultimately very interesting, even if he repeats many ideas already associated with Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism (not to mention Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood). But while Shields’s arguments may offer a description of future works that successfully blend the fictive with reality, Reality Hunger is not one of them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Book Review: Glissando

By David Musgrave
Sleepers Publishing

Glissando, David Musgrave’s comic novel, is set in Australia in the early years of the 20th Century, and belongs to that novelistic genre known as the bildungsroman, which is a fancy word that means the ‘coming of age novel’. The book is narrated by one Archibald Fleiss (pronounced ‘fleece’, which offers a hint that Archie isn’t a completely reliable narrator), a young orphan, who soon discovers that he has a rich, if unusual and enigmatic, inheritance. But to describe Glissando in these terms makes it sound far more straightforward than it is. Glissando, ultimately, is strange, and I mean this as the highest possible compliment.
Glissando takes the reader through a variety of unexpected plot twists and turns, including a kidnapping and escape, the story of an enterprising architect who unwittingly becomes one of the first explorers of the interior of Australia, a star-crossed love story, and an imaginary history of a Dadaist, avant-garde theatre in rural Australia shortly after World War One.
Formally speaking, Glissando is a pastiche – which is to say that it is a hotchpotch, a medley – of a variety of different sources and styles. But as one character in Glissando points out, Australian is an anagram of saturnalia. The novel references the content and style of many other books, including Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Patrick White’s Voss, and Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, among others. But readers who may not be familiar with such literary allusions won’t be put off. The novel is essentially an engrossing yarn that is both hysterically funny and fantastically imaginative. Furthermore, Musgrave populates Glissando with wonderful, Dickensian characters who are simultaneously flawed and loveable.
Although the novel is not without moments of both sadness and tenderness, it’s overall spirit is comic, although the humour is generally dark and laconic. In this sense, too, Glissando is a novel that could only have been written by an Australian, and both its setting and style are uniquely antipodean. It places itself squarely in the Australian literary tradition, deploying an ironic tone not unlike that in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life.
Glissando is one of the most interesting and unique Australian novels that I have read in years, and I have no doubt that it will find readers who will embrace its magnificent oddity. I would also not be surprised to see it crop up on the shortlists of some major literary prizes before the year is out. In an alternate universe somewhere, Glissando is already an Australian classic.

Glissando launches at the Wheeler Centre for Books and Ideas on Friday, April 16th at 7 p.m.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters. You can buy Glissando here.