Thursday, May 23, 2013

Writing from the Darkest Shadows in the Room: a Quickie for Christine Schutt

Sebastien Tellier, the french electronic musician, issued a set of instructions for the way in which he wanted his first album, L'Incroyable Vérité, to be heard: with the lights off and by candle.

Nightwork makes a similar mood, except the light is made by burning the Freudian furniture and the writing comes from the darkest shadows in the room. The copy I read from the library came pre-highlighted with each of the favored stories in the table of contents accompanied by a highlighter star. Incest, frail and flawed mothers, women in decline, disturbed sons, and wealth. The sentences are mystifying, in places elegant in places vague. Admire the precipitous architecture of this piece of the first sentence in the collection and you'll get a sense of the spaces she's playing in:

She brought him what she had promised, and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, "I like your skin," when what she really liked was the color of her father's skin...

As a reader, there's work to be done to track back the referent and attempt to sort through the strata of impressions to see if there's a core, if the narrator is in the car with her father simply preferred her father's skin and was absorbed by the idea.  Schutt gives us both, she doesn't let us off the hook, in the best of her stories here she asks us to carry the baggage for the narrators. By the end of the collection, I felt that shock, something big and ugly was removed and my body reeled from it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading a Never Read

I acquire books with a slight compulsion, based on recommendations or references or some other chain of interest. The books will either be read immediately as part of a streak, brachiated with a Tarzan yodel, page to page, cover to cover then relegated to the spot on the shelf for exhausted matter or added as furniture, place-held for the future hours its leaves will turn. Of the collection of unreads, there's the assortment of never-reads. It's difficult to define what makes a never-read. The book may have been purchased, the glow of commercial appeal, the cover design, the font and layout, all appealing in the store, but the prose never quite catches or some other stronger strain keeps relegating that book with its realm of associated recommendations to the sidelines and so there's the small guilt of disposing of a book unread on which I spent money. Some are gifts and the guilt of money spent is replaced with the guilt of a friendly gesture ignored.  And still some are found items, dimly assuring in their centrality to the canon of literature that they will, one day, be consumed or at least thumbed through with feigned interest.

Prompted by an imminent capacity purge, I read a never-read, or read a portion. I was reminded of past presumed never-reads that I read and felt something near the hygienic satisfaction of an attic cleaned by toothbrush or what John Baldessari writes about in his pencil piece. Something inert, weighted, on the edge of oblivion, recalled and now found to be momentarily satisfying. I flipped through a journal given by a friend who had assistant-edited the thing. I found a piece that I enjoyed, "List of 50 (31 of 50): You Could Never Finish Stretching" by Blake Butler. The piece, registered as non fiction in the journal's ToC, is a list of cascading memories and impressions given by the author to a specific prompt. It's clean, honest and engrossing and works within the spare limits of its four-page mostly-single sentenced list to evoke a good portion of the strange parts of the author's childhood. 

Recently, I was turned onto , which is an experiment in mining the lost works edited by Gordon Lish. Having engaged with the idea, I logged onto my library's portal (to avoid further, permanent shelf-occupation) and kindly requested the archivist pull a few of these pieces out of storage. They arrived at my local branch and I read. I am apparently late to the Barry Hannah party, but the crazed discomfiting pace of The Tennis Handsome is sending me back to the stacks for more. Another, Campfires of the Dead by Peter Christopher, is partially through and I found the title story gorgeous and haunting, following a tack near Amy Hempel's world of ordinary days with their echoes.