Shall I compare thee to a kick in the chest?

I’m searching google: “a short story is like a…” Stephen King says a short story is like “a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” Somebody says, “like a diamond.” No. “Like a snapshot.” Nope, boring. “Like a very rough sketch for a painting.” No, it’s not. “A short story is like a quiet bomb.” Hmmm. T. C. Boyle: “A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it.” Getting closer…

Whenever I finish reading a short story, it’s always really hard for me to start another. I always remember the last experience with mixed feelings, like a ride at an amusement park that made me nauseous even as it thrilled me, made me think about the possibility of dying. “Oh no, you’re not getting me back on that thing again.” I could never read stories back to back. There’s always a period of convalescence. And stories, to compare forms of torture, are worse than novels. I much prefer novels in the long run. Maybe it’s the difference between a knife to the gut and a prolonged hospital stay. 

And those are the good ones. When I finish a Philip Roth novel, I always feel exhausted. He always goes too far, past the point of propriety, past the point of getting it right. That’s his strength. In American Pastoral, over and over again to the point of masochism, the story of the all-American family and its tragic descent into disenchantment and loss is rehearsed, as if the narrator is putting himself through a protracted penance for the illusions he’d once held about himself and his country. Sabbath’s Theatre is just as torturous, though it’s a funnier book and there is something of a redemption at the end, albeit a grotesque, urolagnic one.

But the violence of a good story is of a different kind, I guess because of its concision. I read short stories in one sitting; there isn’t as much time to process things. I wouldn’t classify everything I’ve read lately as being “painful” - some of the stories, by Eudora Welty, by Roberto Bolano - have left me more with a sense of cosmic mystery and wonder than anything else. But others have been harsh indeed. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is as direct and punishing as they come. A man’s life in fifty pages. The brief glimpse of absolution at the end doesn’t alleviate what’s just been gone through - fifty pages of banality, declining health, bitter suffering, and, though the ending looks to deny it, nihilism. I read some Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever stories this year too, that similarly put you through the ringer. (And these guys are the believers! Discuss.) 

I always feel that it’s the form in a good story that is the consolation. That’s the beauty, the repreive. I marveled this year at how fast and loose certain stories were. In Eudora Welty’s The Hitch-Hikers, one thing follows another so nimbly, there is not a moment of slackness, not a moment at which you feel her digging uncomfortably in as though to say something. It felt very raw and exciting. How long did it take her to write it, I wonder. John Cheever’s The Country Husband (I know these are probably classics for anyone more deeply in love with the form, but I’m just getting to them) has something of the same quality. A weirdly unexamined plane crash, a dog with more life and freedom than the principals, a strange appearance of a woman from the past, also under-remaked, a strangely ubiquitous neighbor girl, like an annoying angel presence. This story has the same dreamlike atmosphere as the Welty; one thing following another. The forms as stringy and additive. Another book I read this year, Denis Johnson’s famous Jesus’ Son, takes this to the extreme.

Another reason I generally don’t look forward to reading short stories - besides the pain of seeing oneself - is that so many of them seem to follow very conventional patterns, both in form and action. It’s become such a testing grounds for authors, the short story, that there seems to be a tacit set of must-haves: the action nobody could have predicted, the bravura sentence, the tempestuous non-action, the lethargic writer character. They really try to pack it all in. That or they really try not to pack it in and then you have that other hell: the story of ennui. Even very good stories sometimes feel surprising in not entirely unexpected ways, if that makes any sense. One story that really breaks through all of that just by sheer will is Roberto Bolano’s Prefiguration of Lalo Cura. Bolano is so reckless sometimes. It’s hilarious and exciting; you don’t have time to think about what it’s doing, where it’s going. Bolano didn’t either. 



Miscellaneous links

B.R. Myers (once again) the lonely dissenter, bless his heart, taking on Jonathan Franzen’s widely touted Freedom.

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Speaking of dissent, my new favorite art columnist is Matthew Collings. You can read him at the Modern Painters website now and, if you like those, he used to write pieces for the Saatchi Online website, too. I like his informal, diaristic style - his pieces shuffle from topic to topic, usually revolving around what he’s doing at the time, and I like the little capsule descriptions of particular works that are sprinkled into each piece. It reminds me of Donald Judd. Hardly anyone takes the time to do this. Most critics are too busy, as Robert Storr says, dropping names that begin with B and D to be bothered looking at the work. Here, from his latest article, is an example; he is talking about the two artists he was impressed with at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This kind of thing doesn’t seem like a big deal, maybe, but I think it’s the essence of good art criticism…

"Basil Beattie, who was born in Hartlepool in 1935, studied at this place when it was much straighter. His paintings in the Summer Exhibition this year were serious. They had a crisp, controlled sense of space; the areas of bare canvas and the slathered paint surfaces were in a playful, flipping, illusionistic relationship with each other; and the simple slice-of-apple or slice-of-cake shapes sat just right in a pile, with a lot of tension between them and the outer edges of the canvas. Beattie does a shorthand perspectival sort of railway-line image in some of these shapes, a railway diminishing to a vanishing point, which works as hatched lines. And I liked the Kiefer because of the wrought yellowy-white car-body-filler matter spread about by some shortcut method, not wrought like Expressionism but recalling more a kind of distressed effect one might have seen in home interiors photographed in a style magazine in the 1980s. And combining that kind of aesthetic with a theatrical Germanic operatic vibe is a good approach: It makes you alert to various visual themes because there’s nowhere seriously intellectual for them to go. You are thrown back onto surface, flow, tone, a fuzzy kitsch image versus a flowing, molten, serious abstract one."

I also admire his candor. Collings says what most people are probably thinking but not saying about contemporary art - that most of it is not very good, but he also knows that we can’t turn around and go back. Anyway, I find myself nodding along in vigorous agreement as I read, so I’m passing it on.

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I mentioned (here) how I was starting to see articles on John Baldessari everywhere. I guess that probably has something to do with the retrospective of his work, Pure Beauty, hitting New York. Here are two more reviews, from New York’s husband and wife criticial juggernaut, Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz.

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Some sprawling New Yorker shit, but from the Times - an article about sea glass collecting that turns out to be pretty good, if only because it just reconfirms what you already know about the diversity of people out there and their strange attractions.

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Sometimes, music, even the music on a president’s ipod, is just music, right? I wish that were the case, that not everything had to be politicized. But, who am I kidding? Politicians don’t take a step without calculating what it’ll do for their image, their electability, etc. So maybe this guy has a point, talking about the message Obama is sending with his choice of music and The Inherent Conservatism of Hip-Hop.

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letter Harold Pinter wrote in response to questions sent him by a class of grade fivers. It’s kind of funny, kind of snarky, but, as he says, he meant it to be taken seriously. In sum - Harry to kids: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte!

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I’m still working my way through Philip Roth’s novels. I’m a little wary of the newest ones, though. Reviews have been lukewarm and if they mark the decline some reviewers say they do, that’s a painful thing to witness, especially in an author who seems to have had a three-decade-long peak at a higher altitude than most novelists are lucky to get a view of. A couple of years ago, the New York Times did a feature on the best American novel of the last 25 years in which no fewer than six Roth novels made the shortlist. And if it had been about the past fifty years, there would have been six more on that list. That’s consistency. Anyway, all of this is just a long way of saying that nobody should be dismissing the newest novels any too casually, and if he does an interview, it’s probably something we should still be interested in. Here is a semi-recent one from the Guardian:

"I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range… To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities."

"I’m not good at finding ‘encouraging’ features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here."

positive review of his latest, Nemesis, by Greil Marcus.

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Didn’t I already post this? Speaking of the end of aesthetic literacy, here’s a review (by Christopher Knight) of someone who seems to be fully embracing it - Ryan Trecartin. There’s an aesthetic in his work, without a doubt, but it’s like the aesthetic at work in a bowl of soggy Fruit Loops. All the same, I feel like Trecartin is doing something as exciting as it is scary. Kind of aesthetics be damned. And maybe artists have to do that. It’s a good review, too. You can see bits of Trecartin’s videos on his Youtube channel.



Saint Passionate

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