Monthly archives: August, 2015

Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City and the Culture of Capitalism

When Jonathan Franzen’s first novel The Twenty-Seventh City had its 25th anniversary re-issue back in September of 2013,  it was almost as ignored as much as it was when it was first published in 1988. While Eric Lundgren in The Millions wrote a poignant and nostalic reflection on the novel and its relationship to the city of St. Louis and Nina Martyris contributed an excellent piece on the novel’s complex portrayal of the Indian-American experience in the LARB, Paurl Segal wrote in Slate of its many failings. And that, at least as far as I could tell, was pretty much that.

The book is definitely not without its faults, but it does a lot of things very well indeed, and if you are a fan of Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon you will recognize their influence on the book, which attempts to ‘unveil’ certain previously hidden or unacknowledged economic and sociological aspects of our lives to us. And though critics such as James Wood would decry any such attempts to go beyond the ‘proper’ scope of the novel (i.e., the investigation of the ‘soul’ of the isolated individual) as what Wood called ‘hysterical realism’, Franzen’s novel largely succeeds in its aim to get us to confront how our individuality is predicated and threatened by vectors of power and history.   Lev Grossman, writing in Time Magazine, captures the ambitions of books like this superbly:

What I see now when I look at books like White Teeth and Infinite Jest and Underworld is—among many other things—an attempt to gesture at the infinite, overabundant, overwhelming complexity of reality, and the increasing force with which that complexity is borne in upon us by means electronic and otherwise (i.e. by the overabundance of blogs like this one). Those books rarely end without a suggestion that they could have gone on and on indefinitely, because the world’s narrative resources are just that inexhaustible. You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them.

If you don’t like these kinds of novels, don’t read them. But if you do, this one will open you up to considering, among other things, the role that capitalism plays in your life while you aren’t watching! Very few novels have attempted such a feat, and in this twenty-nine year old’s first novel, we see many of the above characteristics deployed with the maturity of a much older writer.

Franzen’s latest book, Purity won’t attempt any such feats: he’s long since changed his mind about the kinds of things that fiction ought to be doing. Oh, I’ll read it, and probably enjoy it well enough, but it probably won’t remain bubbling away in my veins long afterward the way The Twenty-Seventh City did –and does, to this day.

One final note, the following is quite a bit more academic-oriented than most of what appears on this blog (hysterical realism almost begs to be scrutinised in such a manner, though). The essay is quite long, but I’ve laboured to keep it readable as best I can!


A Retort to Yeats: Contra “Leda and the Swan”

“Leda and the Swan”, by WB Yeats, has inspired a poetic “retort” by a fictional character!

Pegeen Mike O’Flaherty, a character in my work-in-progress, The Death of the Author, is a famous Canadian novelist who was a feminist poet in the late 1960s, and who gives a lecture to an undergraduate class on the supposed failings of W.B. Yeats. Below you will find her poetic retort to “Leda and the Swan”, (“Leda Sings Nomans Pricksong”) published in her first collection –suitably (?) titled Penis Envy.

Click on the embedded picture below to get a much larger view:

Leda. JPGLeda and the Swan” is a masterful but disturbing sonnet about (among other things) the indifference of and masculine nature of history.  If you are new to the poem, or to Yeats, an excellent analysis can be found at aterriblebeautyisborn.com, along with discussions of a number of his poems. The epigraph to Pegeen Mike’s response poem comes from Eli Faure’s floridly written History of Art.

Finally here is another poem “by” Pegeen Mike, also dating from the late 1960s and dedicated to her alleged paramour, Leonard Cohen!


“Game Theory” —A Poem for Leonard Cohen

I’ve long had a love affair with Leonard Cohen. And while my passion has been life-long and metaphorical, Pegeen Mike O’Flaherty, a fictional character in my work-in-progress, The Death of the Author, claims to have had a much more short-term and physical relationship with the poet, for whom she wrote this poem way back when. Dedicated to Leonard, “Game Theory” is from her now out of print first collection, Penis Envy (Kassandra Press, 1968).

Click on the thumbnail below to get a larger version of the poem!

Game Theory

Poems referenced in Pegeen Mike’s response can be found in Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies (“Prayer for Messiah”) and The Spice Box of Earth (“As the Mist Leaves No Scar“), and can be previewed on Google Books.

Finally, another of Pegeen Mike’s poems — a retort to “Leda and the Swan” by WB Yeats– can be found here

 


8-Track (a short story)

Their cleaning lady rarely needed to do much to the Living Room. The Tibbs were certainly not slobs like the Mullaneys across the street, with their five half-clothed kids always mucking about and a different beater in the driveway every month. Yet neither were they as deathly fastidious as the Dobbins next door (never a light on in the place and mausoleum dustcovers atop anything that didn’t threaten to move or to breathe). No, the Tibbs family definitely kept to the Middle Way; theirs was a relaxed, inviting house, but one in which everything had—and knew—its place. The kitchen was clean and tidy, the boys’ bedrooms less so. The roles allocated to the Den, the main-floor Family Room and the basement Rec Room were self-evident, easily understood by (and accommodating to) their numerous visitors. Most dinner or overnight guests would agree, if compelled to respond to an exit poll on the subject, that the furnishings were, in the main, both comfortable and practical, neither pretentious nor vulgar, and symbolic, perhaps, of a shared—if largely unspoken—intimacy.

Such, at any rate, is what young Gerald Tibbs, 23, would later remember hearing himself telling himself. And: that though he had never felt comfortable in the Living Room, it was not something to which he had ever given much thought. Still, he warily, unconsciously kept his distance. No one else save Fluffy (the family cat, a white car-accident-Manx) ever seemed to bother or to dare to go in there. There was a badly out of tune piano upon which Gerald’s younger brother Dougie had played a singalong “Stairway to Heaven” every day for six months, but that was a few years ago now. The room, as for many of the other brown, imperturbable houses on the Crescent, was inhabited chiefly by delicate, inherited antiques, forgotten-yet-essential wedding presents and corporate gifts, such as a wall clock that Smeltco, his dad’s company, had given out at one of those innumerable rah-rah sales conventions as a promotional item. The clock was hung directly over an expensive-looking settee that Gerald could never remember having sat in, and its face depicted a dredger, whose two gigantic shovels turned out to be the hour and minute hands. Numbers had been replaced by various kinds of mineral samples, each the size of a quarter, representative but not exhaustive of the multinational’s far-reaching resource sector activities. And as the hands of the clock moved around the dial, the time piece became a perpetual depiction of “Man’s unceasing re-creation of His world, through industry” —or so the ad in last month’s Mining News went.

Opposite the clock, near the entrance to the foyer, there was a seldom-trusted mahogany-veneer weather station. The hydrometer had never worked, and the blocked thermometer’s mercury had started giving split readings years and years ago, around about the time his father won a TV for his first of several National Sales Awards and the whole family got to watch the black-and-white coverage of the first moon landing in living colour. As for the barometer, whatever its accuracy, it still functioned, and it appeared to meteorologically-obsessed Gerald as he rushed past that the gadget’s mainspring had managed to shove the corroded brass needle (overnight it must have been) from “Fair” to “Change”.

Continue reading the full story on my longreads site!