A handful of introductions to visiting writers I’ve given over the years
Brian Evenson is one of the most original and unusual American fiction writers of our time. He has a literary theory doctorate from the University of Washington, and he studied under the brilliant scholar Hazard Adams. Brian Evenson’s writing sometimes reflects this pedigree (he did not go the regular route for young writers of workshops and the MFA), but he also reveals an intensely personal and American bent in his fiction, colored by his contentious relations with the Mormon Church. Brian’s dismissal from Brigham Young University is a famous story in the academy, but it bears on his own growth as a writer only because it crystallized Brian’s rebellion against the church, which in turn fed a very fruitful vein in his writing. Yet a careful study of messianic behavior in a very western American setting is not all that Brian does with his fiction. The literary theory background and Brian’s great interest in French fiction and psychoanalytic theory have influenced him as much as his fight with the Mormon Church has. Brian Evenson writes beautifully about awful subjects, which is reminiscent of Georges Bataille. I sometimes have to put his stories or novels down, but I always return to the chilling, clean, intricately built writing. Brian Evenson does not fit into the categories of contemporary American prose. He is something of a new fabulist, but without the occasional preciousness of that tribe. He also echoes the meticulous unfolding of dread of Handke and Bernhard. He has some of the same concerns as Cormac McCarthy, but he goes further and deeper, and he works with both the contemporary and the historical subject, and the mythic-theological anxieties of the work are all Brian Evenson’s own. When I reread his books, I am impressed by the simplicity, ferocity, and integrity of the work. In his stories (where his writing is strongest, particularly in Altman’s Tongue and Contagion), he creates a new world with each sentence. We enter a situation, as if it has never been touched or read before, and we watch as the characters come to terms with their grim, surprising worlds. I believe Brian Evenson has an incredibly accurate feel for the right emotions in a situation, no matter how horrible and bizarre. He is not slumming, as many American writers do when describing horror or dismal conditions. His characters are ruthless and pitiless, but Evenson the writer is not. He is playing with some of the most interesting subjects of any American writer I know—dread, religious hysteria, and psychological edge states.
Cynthia Ozick is a writer who has received her due and fame relatively late in life. A graduate student at City College asked her advice on getting published, and she said, “Wait 20 years, like I did.”
Her writing is intensely, passionately careful, “every paragraph a poem,” she says. Her early master was Henry James, and her readers may get slightly claustrophobic rubbing elbow patches with some of the bookish loungers of her fiction. But wait a moment and these dust-covered creatures may suddenly rise a few feet off the floor at a literary cocktail party or throw the only copy of Bruno Schulz’s lost masterpiece The Messiah into the fireplace.
Her two most successful fictions: The Shawl and Envy, or Yiddish in America couldn’t be more different. The Shawl, about a Nazi concentration camp survivor, describes its subject with searing tact and amazing simplicity. It is not a plain story, but it is surely one of the most unadorned stories in our language. Envy is its opposite in many ways. The subject is a Yiddish poet transplanted in America, who is driven mad with envy of the one successful Yiddish writer, a short story writer a great deal like Isaac Beshevis Singer. The story mimics its name. Envy is the engine of the style, the structure, and the language of the story. It is a wild, inventive parable of a language’s death rattle. The Shawl is a whisper, Envy is a half-laughing, half-sobbing wail.
Her writing has always been worked over by an “anxiety about idolatry,” as Harold Bloom says, a fear that writing inevitably leads to idolatry. She says “the chief characteristic of any idol is that it is a system sufficient in itself.” She told Jason Holtman she has moved beyond this thinking, but there is still a beauty and truth to it. I think it relates to William Stafford’s efforts at understanding the organic form of literature, rather than the structure.
Cynthia Ozick’s books of fiction include Trust, The Pagan Rabbi, Bloodshed, Levitation, The Cannibal Galaxy, The Messiah of Stockholm, and The Shawl. Her two books of essays, Art and Ardor and Metaphor and Memory, rival William Gass and Guy Davenport for virtuosity of prose, integrity of insight, and depth of intelligence.
William Gass’s books of fiction include Omensetter's Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, The Tunnel, and Cartesian Sonata, and his collections of essays include On Being Blue, The World Within the Word, Finding a Form and Tests of Time. For over thirty years he taught in the philosophy department at Washington University in St. Louis—one of the preeminent fiction writers and literary essayists of our time scribbling away well down the hall from an English Department.
In his essay, “The Music of Prose,” William Gass says,
The producers of prose do not play scales or improve their skills by repeating passages of De Quincey or Sir Thomas Browne, although that might be a good idea… The sound of a word may be arbitrary and irrelevant to its meaning, but the associations created by incessant use are strong, so that you cannot make the sound m o o n without seeming to mean “moon.” By the time the noun has become a verb, its pronunciation will feel perfectly appropriate to the mood one is in when one moons, say, over a girl, and the “moo” in the mooning will add all its features without feeling the least discomfort…. No prose can pretend to greatness if its music is not also great; if it does not, indeed, construct a surround of sound to house its meaning the way flesh was once felt to embody the soul…
I’m here today to speak very briefly of William Gass’s career as an essayist. Like his fiction, which ranges from the baroque to the minimalist to exuberantly maximalist, Mr. Gass’s essays seek to cover the material they describe. He says, “my stories are malevolently anti-narrative and my essays maliciously anti-expository,” but I would rather say that his prose ruminations on other writers and philosophers and language choose the forms that fit their functions. Much of the nonfiction prose he writes reads as beautifully and complexly as his fiction does. The essays are organic extensions of the art and philosophy being studied, useful explanations yes, but also additions to the arts being scrutinized. I believe William Gass’s critical contributions will endure as long as his fiction, a unique coincidence of skills in American letters.
Many reviewers and fans of Gary Lutz’s short fiction speak with passion about his sentences. Ben Marcus says, “Gary Lutz is a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention. He is not just an original literary artist, but maybe the only one to so strenuously reject the training wheels limiting American narrative practice.” Brian Evenson notes that Lutz’s “syntax, wonderfully knotted on the page, unbinds and blooms in the mouth, on the tongue.” The originality of Gary Lutz’s fiction lies in its organization, both on the level of the sentence and on the level of the mind of the story. These stories are ornately constructed, unbelievably realistic, in the old-fashioned sense of that word, and delightfully unexpected in their evolutions and convolutions.
Gary Lutz himself says (in an interview in The Believer), “A lot of what I seem to be doing when I try to get from one end of a sentence to the other—a crossing that can take hours, days, weeks—is introducing words to each other that in ordinary circumstance would never meet . . . because I have some other hunch that they belong together, even though anyone else might write them off as entirely incompatible. I guess I work my way through a sentence by instigating these relationships—a perverse sort of matchmaking, apparently—and then to keep the words from getting too cozy, I might reach for an uncustomary preposition that plunges the sentence into some queasy depths.”
Here are another couple of sentences of his from this same interview: “As for fiction versus poetry, the border between the two seems less secure than ever. A lot of writing passes back and forth without anyone summoning the authorities. Some people have told me that what I write is poetry, that it could be laid out as such. But I am a sucker for the old notions of poetry and would never think of my paragraphic jitter in that light. Besides, regarding my stuff as prose is a much more cost-efficient use of paper. The reader gets a full page.”
Gary Lutz has, if he’ll forgive the description, a cult following. He is also a very funny writer, however dark and pessimistic the larger implications of his characters’ trajectories are—but who’s to say a pessimist can’t also be hilarious. We live in troublous times and Gary Lutz is here to help us along toward this end. Heinrich Heine said, “Holland is always fifty years behind the times, so if I hear the world is about to end, I’ll go to Holland.” Gary Lutz is not behind the times; he is ahead of them. But if we do hear the world is about to end, it would be good to be caught in the intricate machinery of Lutz’s sentences and paragraphs while it happens.
Clifford Chase and I met in Donald Barthelme’s fiction workshop at City College in New York in 1983. We were part of what we considered an ecstatic experience. We joined with a group of friends after City College for monthly discussions of our work, and I have cherished Cliff’s tough, gentle, witty commentary on my writing ever since. Cliff himself wrote complex, metaphysical, oddly structured fiction when I first knew his work, and he has gradually reduced the furniture and opened up the space. He writes a quiet surface that roils with strange eddies underneath. The Hurry-up Song is a moving study of the language two gay brothers constructed to communicate in code with each other—despite six years’ difference in their ages. This language, an effort that went beyond any understanding of Cliff’s and his brother’s blooming sexualities, is an amazing discovery for Cliff. He explores his family and himself in unflinching detail and yet with great humor and affection. The book Cliff has been working on for several years now, about his childhood teddy bear Winkie, may seem like an odd direction to take after such a bracing family memoir. But it has many of the strengths The Hurry-up Song had, though applied to a surreal, playful subject that nevertheless achieves a depth and seriousness readers may not expect on first glance at this ragged piece of fabric and sewing. Winkie is a revelation as a character—plausible (or as plausible as a teddy bear can be), philosophical, curious. He echoes childhood stories, speaking in the grown-up voice we expect from good children’s books, but Winkie explores material and experiences (birth, for instance, which he mistakes for a bowel movement) children’s books usually don’t handle. All along, we know that this is Cliff Chase’s teddy bear, and formerly Cliff’s mother’s teddy bear, so the parallax effect is wonderful. We hear Cliff’s own voice piercing the bravado and fear of this teddy bear as he makes his first attempt to cross a busy Cairo street, for example. I am a great fan.
Richard Powers, better than any other fiction writer in the last few decades, probes, questions, plays with, and finds beautiful descriptive language for the most intriguing and ground-breaking of recent science. He also writes fiercely political tales that don’t preach against, but show, the essential injustices in the world. An interviewer described Powers as “the last generalist,” which was triggered by an answer Richard gave for his decision against a career in physics. He said he became disenchanted with the necessary specializations of science. His fiction has allowed him to range over all the continents of science and the “erotics of knowledge,” as he put it. In Galatea 2.2 the narrator prepares a neural network computer for a Turing test of human consciousness. He is training the computer in English literature, and he asks what the Emperor’s new clothes are made of (after reading the computer that fairy tale). The computer answers, “The Emperor’s new clothes are made of threads of ideas.” So too Richard Powers’ novels. In his work we bask in a climate of involuntary philosophy. “Shared bewilderment is the nearest thing we have to a universal language,” Powers said. But Richard Powers’ prose is anything but bewildering. There is a word for writing about images, ekphrasis. I don’t think there is any single word for writing effectively and visually about the most complex actions of modern science, but Richard Powers does so, without oversimplifying or losing anything in the translation. In another interview, he said, “Most research-oriented neural network computers are built to do one very local and definable thing (like learning how to form the past tense of English verbs, for instance). The titanic scope of even such limited tasks instills everyone who witnesses them with a humbling view of just how complex high-level cognition is.” Something like this reaction happens when one reads Richard Powers’ wonderful novels. We are humbled by just how complex high-level fiction can be.
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