What else I’m reading: To The Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson

I’m not the best at reading non-fiction. It’s not that I have anything against facts; rumor has it facts are great. I’m just a novel reader by habit and novels are what I pour into my limited reading time.

Still, once in a while, after a while, fiction can start to feel too airy, too groundless, and it’s nice to go read something that deals with actual people doing real things. Still then it’s a strange choice for my latest foray into non-fiction to pick up To the Finland Station, a seventy-five year old history of revolutionary thought and activity between the French and Russian revolutions. Written by an American, none the less. But it’s a book I picked up at a Borders going-out-of-business sale (R.I.P.) in a buy-on-sight worthy New York Review Books edition a while back and with last year’s partial forced reduction of the TBR pile it started rising to the top of the stacks.

I’ve been dipping in and out of it much of this year. It was slow going at first, what with it being a dark winter and the fact that reading much of anything felt like a desperate chore, but over the last month the rhythm and flow of it have really caught me and I’m actually right now letting it distract me for another couple chapters from A True Novel.

I remain a total style addict even in nonfiction I guess and the book rewards reading with an appreciation for the art of story telling. Less a strict history of facts it’s more a series of character studies of influential thinkers in the realm of revolutionary histories and thought, leading up to the current extended focus on Marx and Engels, who are rather popping off the page with energy, coming off as cranky, moody geniuses situated against those who came before them.

Wilson isn’t afraid to give voice and color to these historical figures, to quietly reveal his own potential fascinations and sympathies and raised eyebrows throughout. Of course, it was 1940, and as he admits in an introduction added in 1971, he wasn’t exactly predicting the future when it comes to the Soviet Union. Which adds a certain additional layer of historical/modern awareness for readers today, reading this history of history as, itself, history.

I’m a bit under half-way through and as it’s the midway point of the year I’ll feel pretty content if, chapter by chapter, I finish the book sometime before the end of the year. Though that said I might have to speed up the timeline a bit to start working in at least a little more non-fiction into my reading diet.

Better late than never: a slightly under-cooked review of His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon

Author’s Note

Even by my limited to non-existent standards, this is not exactly a timely post.

To explain: once upon a time I pitched a review of Stephen Dixon’s latest novel, His Wife Leaves Him, to a certain online publication for which I have a lot of respect, to which I hoped to contribute, because, fighting the good fight, and all that. Time never worked out in the review’s favor: there was a significant delay between when I pitched the review and when review copies of the book were made available. And then there was the time spent reading the book and writing up the initial draft of the review. And then there was the time spent waiting for feedback to come in from the review’s editor; the feedback was excellent and the editor neatly called me out on what I was doing with the review and how it could stand to be improved. I can’t thank the editor enough for that feedback; but, unfortunately, between the time I submitted the original review and the time the feedback reached my inbox, I’d picked up another project that was basically the exact opposite of a writing project, a project that was sucking up every ounce of free time and energy for an exciting cause. Responding to the review feedback would have required a significant investment of time and energy because I would have needed to have dived back into the book and into the review itself to do justice to the feedback I was given. Priorities collided. I dropped the review. Next thing I knew it was Christmas. Next thing I new it was 2014. Next thing I knew it was June 2014 and I thought about the review and the fact that it was June 2014 and I started hyperventilating in my brain. Out of curiosity this last week I reached out to the review editor to apologize for dropping the ball and to confirm my suspicion that we were past all the sell-by dates on this thing. In the time that had passed she had moved on from the publication, and, well, that’s that.

Looking back, it probably makes sense that this was, I shouldn’t say a bad choice for a subject to pitch for that publication, but maybe more of a slightly misguided choice, a case of optimistic hopes getting the better of rational decision making. Something. The challenge with the piece that I turned in was that it tried to be a little bit too Internet-clever; and while there was and is enthusiasm in spades for the book and the author, there may have lacked a certain critical depth or nuance of insight into the subject to make it really shine as a review that would motivate readerships and discussions like I’d originally ideally hoped to provoke. I love the book and I love the author and I want you to love the book and the author as well and I’m not sure I found the right voice or the right insights to properly communicate that fact and that passion and the importance of the novel. For all my words, there just wasn’t enough there, really.

In short, I’d written a pretty good blog post, not a really great book review. Which, frankly, I think, be it 2005 or 2014, is perfectly fine, even a little noble.* Because passion and substance are hardly mutually exclusive, and, it might be said, might even depend on each other, a little bit, and by stumbling our way through one we can find our way to the other, and failed attempts and false starts are still superior to empty coughs and blank pages.

So with that in mind I’m sharing a lightly cleaned up version of the original review as I submitted it. I took some of the feedback and rejected other bits of the feedback, depending on how the breeze was passing through my office in that second; you’d be forgiven for not taking this as seriously as I once would have liked you to have. Selfishly, I’d like to close the book on a piece of writing I was beyond thrilled to attempt, regardless of how close to its final form I ever got it; I need to kick this weight off my mind’s back. I don’t write enough these days to completely write it off. And, let’s face it, this probably isn’t the last I’ll write about Stephen Dixon’s work, and it’s certainly not the last I’ll read of his work, but I need to find a better headspace in which to do it if what’s in my head is really going to sync up with what’s in my heart and my gut.

Optimistically, though, as well, there is the hope that the passion I hope you’ll find below might transfer, that the love I have and had for the book can still mean something, itself, even this far out of date and out of context. And, who knows, what’s next.

* – I can somewhat proudly say I’ve written both at this point in what passes for my (unpaid, limited, impassioned) writing career; in both cases I’ve probably benefited more, personally, from the act of writing than the publication of the end results of those efforts. As for you, the reader: I literally don’t know. I’d like to think I’ve made someone somewhere buy a book they went on to like or feel challenged by, I’d like to think I’ve provoked a laugh or two or a thought or three along the way, but it’s honestly a little hard to tell, especially when there isn’t a comment section attached to the piece in question. Or when it’s suddenly 2014 and what comments sections there are are either the domains of, at best, tumbleweeds, at worst, scum and villainy. Never mind that, being 2014, the odds of anything getting read anywhere are pretty much completely dismal. Which sounds misanthropic, hand-wringing, self-pitying. Sure. But ask me again tomorrow. And/or again tomorrow’s tomorrow. I may answer the same way. Or.

Or.

—-

His Wife Leaves Him
Stephen Dixon
Fantagraphics Books

I.

Life is too short to repeat yourself: for what I feel is my decent, personal take on who Stephen Dixon is and what he does, go here to read my review of his 2010 story collection, What Is All This? (If you haven’t read Dixon yet, either, you might start with that book, too; though, spoiler alert, I think the subject of the review below is excellent, one of the author’s best, This? offers a better in-the-round portrait of Dixon’s extensive writing career.) Pretend there’s a big roman numeral I. at the top of that review and then when you’re done (or when you’ve come up from This? for air) come back here to pick up with part

II.

two, in which I discuss His Wife Leaves Him, Dixon’s latest novel, a meditation in portrait form on life and death, love, anger, and contemplation, a book I might consider his masterwork if my heart weren’t already with his earlier Interstate. Of course, it’s true, that you’ll always remember your first, but also for me, in this case, with these two books, there’s a two-sides-of-one-story thing happening, Interstate being the yin to the yang of Wife, in which, in Wife, the nightmare in question is made real, inescapable and sad.

(Except, not. Of course.)

Wife is the story of Martin Samuels and his wife Gwendolyn, who passes away following a pair of strokes and lengthy periods of harrowing at-home recovery. Through an extended, musical opening paragraph—the literary equivalent of climbing an entire range of mountains in one shot—Martin cares for and rages against Gwendolyn and their circumstances, holds himself together through the funeral and the later memorial alongside their two grown daughters, while beginning to remember their life together. Following that opening paragraph (39 pages) is a second paragraph (47 pages) that maps, through a rapid succession of dreams, the emotional terrain of a man in grief. Where dreams, in novels, can sometimes feel like cheap cheats, Dixon uses them to set an elegiac tone for whole swaths of Martin’s life, a subtle counter-melody to the remainder of the specific recollections that follow, as the novel travels from memory to memory, Martin’s regrets and compulsions pursuing him throughout the story, before he finally leaves his bedroom, to face what comes next. It’s complexly emotional reading, happy and sad, oddly funny and generally apolitical and entirely sincere, with little to no irony separating the specificness of the book from the specificness of our own stories and lives: at some point, we all have to make ourselves that final, first cup of coffee.

Dixon’s language is chewy, tasty in a way I’d like to think William Gass would appreciate. (Though, Dixon’s is more big-scoop-of-vanilla, Gass’s more the-entire-sundae-toppings-bar-at-once.) That language and Dixon’s way with moments are what keep me coming back to his work, time after time. There’s a free rhythm to his dialogue and description that makes his work feel more like a steady series of inhalations and exhalations than a breathless run through thin air. He has a way with turning scenes on a dime, precisely shaking a sequence’s cadence to maximize effect and maintain interest, as with the explosion of anger that follows the unfortunate piss-related incident that precedes Gwen’s death:

Without looking at her, he says “I need a minute to myself, but don’t worry, I’ll eventually take care of you,” and goes into the kitchen and drinks a glass of water and feels like throwing the glass into the sink but puts it down and bangs the top of the washing machine with his fist and yells “God-all-fucking-mighty, what am I going to do with you? I wish you’d die, already, die, already, and leave me in fucking peace.” Then he thinks “Oh, no. I hope she didn’t hear me; it’s the worst thing I’ve ever said.”

He follows the winding trains of thought that connect passages:

Ah, why’s he speculating on something that didn’t happen? Because it’s interesting, going through all the possibilities that could have happened and then zeroing in on what actually did. And what the hell else he’s got to do now? And he likes the idea of, well…of, that he was going to meet and get to know her no matter what.

And he finds poignance and meaning in his flowing streams of dialogue:

“…And she has a wonderful disposition, which is not looks, but helps. Soft, calm, as is her voice.” “How old is she?” and he told him and Manny said “Lots of years between you two, but that’s all right. She’ll take care of you in your old age.”

That said, the subject matter is often grim. His Wife Leaves Him is preoccupied with the emotional and physical truths of caring for the sick, of dealing with one’s own advancing age. The frequent references to piss and shit reflect the recurring difficulties of difficult love, of dealing with failings, both your own and of others. It’s an uncomfortable and compelling contrast to the simpler, more joyous aspects of meeting someone and spending a life with them, of losing them and having to figure out what to do next.

I think Dixon’s heart lies with the short story more than the novel; or, rather, with the idea of story, period, length be damned. In ramping up to this review, and in my steady progress toward reading everything of his I can get my hands on, I read both 30, his 1999 “novel,” and Story of a Story and Other Stories: A Novel. They both evince Dixon’s seemingly semi-intentional interest in mucking about with form. They were both enjoyable yet frustrating reads, with little narrative momentum to propel the reader from chapter to chapter or page to page. The stakes, as they are, can feel a bit low. It’s a common thread to Dixon’s novels, or, again, “novels.” They can at times feel like bundles of stories that just happen to have fallen between the same cover pages, or like stories that grew past the sizes any magazine or anthology could neatly contain. Historically, Dixon has either chosen to concern himself with this issue or to seem to ignore it completely; for example, I. and End of I. seem to choose not to, while Frog addresses it through masterful sequencing, Interstate offers its own fantastic solution. The story of Wife provides a pure sort of synthesis of these goals and interests, with its simply connected flow of memories and moments offering perhaps one ideal form of what a Dixon novel might look like, were he to choose one solution and stick with it. That said, I’m glad he hasn’t, and that he probably won’t. The restless variations he finds within what are undeniably his paragraphs and sentences serve to further make any book or story of his a new opportunity for the reader, for me, to see the form from a fresh vantage point.

His Wife Leaves Him most recalls Interstate in its ending. In the closing chapter of Interstate, Dixon pulls immense tension from the reversal of the seven-times-repeated nightmare that preceded it. In Interstate, everything is horrible, until it actually isn’t. That “happy” ending is as emotionally fraught as the rest of the novel. With Wife, the worst really does come to pass, the death of a loved one; nothing, no memory or dream, can reverse that. The final, understated pages demand sober contemplation.

And, here, I break in, some eight to ten months after I originally handed in this review, and I’ll forgive you if you choose to break away at this point; we’ll meet again. I’ll say that the rest of the review dealt with the idea of endings; the one point I’ll hold on to here (“As I said, I think asserting the idea that Dixon could have a single masterwork would be to do him a disservice,”) is, I think, a good point, but, maybe, it’s where the review broke down a bit for me, and where I couldn’t really find the words to make critical stuff of the emotional and intellectual experience of reading and processing so much of a single writer’s back catalogue. Like I said, this isn’t political writing, and while it’s deeply substantial, it’s the stuff of internal importance; Dixon isn’t here to hold a mirror to society and effect change or anything like that, he’s here to make us feel a thing or two, to participate in story, and, dammit, that’s enough. But what do I say about that? I don’t know. It’s what gives me years-erasing writer’s block, that realization that given a really great piece of work, I literally sometimes have no idea how to verbally respond to it without coming off like an attention-seeking dork. And so then. I didn’t really know how to end this review. Now, months and months later, free from what once passed for obligation, I can say that I don’t have to end this review. I think it’s enough to say that Dixon nails his endings but that endings are only ever beginnings. Or some crap like that. I’m lazy. I frustrate myself. I don’t know. We carry on. We meet again.

Please read this book.

What I’m Reading Right Now: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

I just this morning started reading A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and I’m already finding it hard to put down. I’ve been intrigued by this one for a while and the stars finally aligned* and I grabbed a copy. One of those books I wasn’t about to take out from the library; the beautiful slip-case edition needed to find a home on my shelves.**

The book is pitched as a 20th century reimagining of Wuthering Heights set in post-war Japan. To be honest I read Wuthering Heights probably in high school and I remember hating it, and today I probably couldn’t actually tell you anything real about it, but I’ve been assured enjoyment or even knowledge of Heights is not a prerequisite for the Mizumura book.

So far, I’m still in the lengthy prologue,*** but it feels like remarkably smooth reading, like, for being 800-plus pages, it’s going to feel like a much quicker, shorter, denser book? Even without getting into the frames and layers that I believe creep up as the book progresses, it’s already rich with detail and a complexity of characterization, focusing so far to some degree on the experience of being Japanese in America in the middle of the century–of feeling like a stranger in a strange land, period–and of seeing class and economic shifts as they’re happening from an intriguing perspective. And also gender relations and also the importance of story and story telling and escaping into a story. And. I kind of just want to escape into this story for a while.

* – Last year, and this is something I would have blogged a lot about last year, if I had been blogging last year, I took a year off from reading any book that wasn’t on my TBR pile as of January 1, with an exception or two for a book club pick or two. It was interesting, and, given some time and focus, I’d like to say more about it. Where it’s got me now though is that I’m trying to keep the (literal, physical) TBR pile at its current (relative) height: only acquiring books as I’m going to read them, be they from the library or the store or borrowing or whatever. And honestly after a year of having “limited” “access” to books having the world at your feet is a little, well, Shawshank Redemption-y, what with the terror of the openness of it and all. So when I say that the Mizumura book was on my radar for a while, I mean it in the sense that, according to the “rules,” it was out of reach. And then this that and the other and because I read for pleasure and not much for review these days and so I go by my whims with these things it took a while before I was able and willing to say, okay, now, do it, now. And now here we are.

** – It’s really, really physical, this book. A sight to hold.

*** – It’s over a hundred pages, told from the point of view of Mizumura, or “Mizumura,” hard to say which, hard to say if it matters yet. Major personal knowledge gap: role or importance of “modernism” and “post-modernism” in non-Western literature.

Drive

What if there is no one at the wheel.

What do you mean.

I mean we wonder so much about intent in this novel, about Kohler’s intentions versus Gass’s intentions and whose are primary and how we are meant to conflate or separate the two, but what if neither writer nor narrator is driving this book. What if the whole thing, the bloated bundle of pages, the complete collection of words, the entire enchilada, what if it is all simply symptom, cause’s effect, history’s inevitable utter vomit.

What must of necessity come back out when you stuff the world full to bursting with violence and optimism.

Of course then the question is: what next.

Loss in life

Loss in life: that’s what I mourn for; that’s what we all mourn for, all of us who have been touched by the fascism of the heart. It’s not having held what was in our hands to hold; not having felt the feelings we were promised by out parents, friends, and lovers; not having got the simple goods we were assured we had honestly earned and rightfully had coming.

— from The Tunnel by William Gass

You can read pages and pages of this book without connecting with a word of it, or without seeing the connections that might (or might not) be forming between the words, between them and you. It can feel very much like trying to see the entirety of the horizon from a single black jigsaw puzzle piece, plucked at random from a jar of thick sludge. Who is this guy, what is his story, what is he trying to tell me? Why do I sort of detest him even when I sometimes sort of think he’s maddeningly brilliant in the way he spins his words into meaningful prose?

For all its dispensing of plot and deconstruction of character, though, The Tunnel is still, at heart, a confessional, a book (weirdly) within the confessional tradition. And therefore begs us to allow ourselves to see ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, or, in this book, in his chair. Now and then, recognition glimmers. However murky. However much it sits uncomfortably in our laps.

It’s a perfect book for today, in its way. In our social media culture, how much of each other do we actually ever get to know? Whither the connections?

And breaking, and breaking

I’ve been reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for the latest Big Read at Conversational Reading. In large part because it’s one of those many books I’ve bought along the way with great intentions only to watch them slowly collect years’ worth of dust and dammit if I’m not going to read at least a few of them before I die.

“Reading” might be the wrong word though. The wrong term. It’s more like, more like drifting through it, like a photo of a vacation taken before the trip actually takes place. You see it but you don’t really get it. You don’t taste the ice cream. You don’t sweat the sun. You’re not at all there.

It really is a constant, claustrophobic reminder of human morality, of limitations on experience. A single trip is almost wasted on trying to grab it as it happens. While a return trip is only going to cost you.

Dearly.

I’ve been breaking

I finished school in May.

Since then, I’ve been on break, which mostly means I’ve been going to my day job and then trying very hard to do not a thing at night, and failing, a lot. Turns out when you’re used to going 80 miles an hour for about that many hours a week, when you suddenly have buckets of free time, and a desire to quote-unquote relax, it’s real easy to wind up staring at the walls, locked in the embrace of indecision. That is, when you’re not getting sucked into pretty much whatever you can justify as a way of breaking out of your “break” in order to not, you know, waste the entire night staring at the walls.

Reading, in particular, has been a casualty of this war against time, lately. I’ve started and stopped more books in the last few weeks than I have in probably the last ten years combined. It’s a little silly.

The last book I actually finished was a doozy, though. Heliopolis by James Scudamore is a pretty fantastic little book about economic disparity of the most extreme sort. It’s one of those books that’s pretty great throughout and then the last few pages just pick the whole book up and slam it through the hoop it’s created for itself. Killer stuff. Recommended.

So maybe it’s a case of having a hard time finding the book that’s meant to follow that. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve tried too soon to break out of my YA rock block. School got intense and it was about all I could handle this last semester. Of course, even then, I was reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, so, like, yeah. Brain, pummeled. And now I’m two-thirds through the Hunger Games trilogy, with the third book finally on the shelf across from me. I suspect I’ll have better luck with that than, say, DeLillo. I mean, Libra started fine and all, but. DeLillo and burn-out do not go well together.

The timing sucks. A bunch of large-scale group reads have started up across the Internet this week, such as #OccupyGaddis, a read of William Gaddis’s J R, and the Conversational Reading Big Read of A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, both of which sound awesome fun to the version of Darby that has the extra free time and the desire to use some of it contemplating and writing about tough literature much more often than he’s been able to the last few years, less awesome to the version of Darby that is dealing with the brain-cycle hiccup train crash that is that free time.

I’ve got things I should be doing, too, anyway, I guess. But.

In other news I’ve got a book review coming out in August that I somehow wrote during this last semester of school—I look forward to finding out what I actually wrote when the review comes out.

And I’m getting ready to self-publish a chapter of the graphic novel I started as a school project. Because it is 2012. And I can. So I will. (My imaginary Kickstarter campaign has already netted me an imaginary quajilliontry dollars so I ought to be able to handle the expense of posting the PDF and saying, “Fly.”)

Recent readings, and some bold claims

I’ve read almost as many books in the first two months of 2012 as I did in all of 2011. That statement? Not literally true. Give me another two months. Then the numbers will add up.

Granted, I don’t think I’ve picked up a single book with more than 300 pages in it since I finished A Clash of Kings shortly after the new year began. So. There’s that.

It’s been a weird mixed bag; some stuff I might have expected to like and didn’t like too much, some stuff I’ve gotten really excited about. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley was delightfully entertaining; one of those fun books with some good solid brains in it that really deserves to make the rounds. (And when Tina Fey picks up a British accent and nabs the lead role in the movie version, the one I’ve cast and shot in my head, I will be at the midnight showing.) I’m having a lot of fun with the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I look forward to wrapping up this week. There’s a book I’m going to be reviewing elsewhere in a couple months that I kind of want everyone to read.

And then there’s Steve Erickson’s newest novel, These Dreams of You.

I try not to use the phrase “have to,” as in, “you have to read this book,” because at the end of the day, it’s usually a lie. You don’t have to. You won’t die.

Still, you really probably ought to read this one.

I’m coming back around to it to say more, and I plan to spend some portion of the back half of 2012 rereading Erickson’s collected works, because it’s time for that to happen and I want to find what threads of his new book I can in his old work, but in the here and now I wanted to reiterate that These Dreams of You is the book people should pick up and start reading every time they consider complaining about how Jonathan Franzen shit in their Cyber-O’s that morning, or whatever. Which is pretty much all people do anymore on Twitter, I’m convinced.

Because, let me cut through the (slightly forced comparison) crap and lay it out: Franzen, at the end of the day, tried to do some mighty zeitgeist-capturing in Freedom, which he didn’t do so well, but also not so horribly. And then he’s said other stuff. Whatever. He’s human. It’s cool. Erickson, on the other hand, is a god, and in a godly fashion, he took the last 50 years of America and rolled it up into a 300 page story, completely resetting the bar for what Modern American Fiction ought to look like, and basically showing us our soul, and it is a confused one.

I tell you: he nailed it.

New video

I Am In Here from Darby Dixon III on Vimeo.

Kinetic type interpretation of the opening paragraphs of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

For the tech interested: all the stop-motion marker-y and cut-out-y stuff was shot using Dragonframe; that footage was combined, sliced, and diced with the rest of the type in After Effects. The audio was originally created in GarageBand, mucked up a bit in Audacity, and then the final bits of crunch were added in Audition (once I discovered that Audition was a thing that existed that I had, like, right there on my hard drive; awesome).

This video was originally conceived and created for an independent study project in the graphic design program at Cleveland State University, in an effort to explore the intersection of design and literature. Which is a fancy way of saying I like books and I like design and I like finding ways the two play off and interpret each other.

It’s like that

Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.

—from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf