Recent links of note:
“What Tweets and Emojis Did to the Novel”
Charles Finch, The New York Times
A favorite professor of mine once posed the question: “What is there to do after Joyce?” That is to say, how could one mine detail for meaning as he did, precisely in the direction that he did, and get any deeper? To try to repeat and yet outdo Joyce’s methods he called the “David Foster Wallace trap,” and, with all due respect to that late and often blisteringly insightful author, the David Foster Wallace trap has claimed and will claim more than just its namesake. Writing for The New York Times, Charles Finch describes a literary landscape that in the early 2000s was still beholden to the catalogue-and-explain approach: authors like Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith, he says, “were irradiated by the conviction that an author could observe life at the turn of the millennium and repackage it for readers with a set of decisive, fine-grained interpretations.” This impulse is in keeping with our contemporary lifestyle and runs deeper than money. With more data points, we are told by scientists and Google employees, we come closer to a perfectly measured life; more testimony and more scrutiny, according to politicians on both sides of the aisle, will bring the truth about our political system to light. Finch argues winningly that the recent literary vogue of “autofiction,” best exemplified by the deeply confessional tomes of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, signifies a deep uncertainty about the dopamine drip that today’s unmitigated access to information provides. Ferrante and Knausgaard promise to disclose little more than their own stories and make few pretensions about universal significance, but what they promise, they deliver: access to the whispered and continuous tale of personhood that “has survived, for now, the glittering surfaces of our age.”
“‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!’”
Barbara Newman, London Review of Books
Even discerning readers may not immediately recognize the title of Barbara Newman’s most recent piece in the London Review of Books, a quotation from Geoffrey Chaucer’s seven-hundred-line poem The Parliament of Fowls. One could, I imagine, find even more outlandish dialogue from the poet to reproduce, but the citation fulfills its office by reminding us of what is perfectly clear to all who have read him: Chaucer’s pre-eminence, beside Ovid, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and a few others, as one of the most dizzyingly imaginative forces of creation known to us. The breadth and lucidity of the characters alone in The Canterbury Tales is a wonder to behold; that Chaucer frames their individuality in such carefully wrought dramatic intrigues is something else entirely. Newman is here reviewing Marion Turner’s new biography, Chaucer: A European Life, which among other things asserts that Chaucer is to Dante as Ovid is to Virgil: the rangier, more freewheeling Chaucer and Ovid, the case roughly goes, invited flux and ambiguity into their verse precisely where Dante and Virgil sought to delimit such forces. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in their breathtaking evocation of individual personae, and from no other locus could it continue both to perplex and edify, as it does today. For more on Turner’s magnificent work, read Paul Dean in our May 2019 issue.
James Poulos, Modern Age
Bret Easton Ellis is best known among the tastemakers of today as the guy who wrote that book that the movie American Psycho is based on, you know, featuring Christian Bale, who is either a purveyor of representative perfection or a method-acting quack, but a good Bruce Wayne to be sure, and he shows up for better or for worse in all those mock-mockumentaries like The Big Short and Vice, but more to the point, who really does have that one scene as Patrick Bateman, what with the business cards and all that’s quite brilliant and sums it all up—I mean, eggshell white! That’s genius!—and I think anyone who says he doesn’t like the movie is kidding himself . . .
If I were Bret Easton Ellis, I should like to shed this reputation as quickly as possible. As much as authors might hate to admit it, their ability to tell a story depends on the listening ability of the audience. The picture he paints in White, his first work of nonfiction, is of a society caught between fiction and reality, where the so-called “democratization of the arts” has ended in our collective conscription into showbiz. “We’ve all become actors,” he says, and when we’re all actors, whom do you suppose we’d look up to? James Poulos, writing for Modern Age, does a fine job of contextualizing Ellis’s arguments about the performative world we inhabit—one that, of course, is made no more navigable by the tireless insistence of our unelected identity politicians that all reality, or realities, is, or are, performative, you know, and we just need to unpack all of it, smilingly, because it’s important to know one’s role in this charade, I mean discourse, but in the meantime, there’s a hilarious film where Christian Bale plays a psychopath with horrendous appetites and beliefs, and maybe it’s also sickening, but it’s actually quite funny and relevant in a lot of ways and also has a great scene about business cards. It’s a performance people could learn from, I think.