Nobels For DeLillo and Irving

April 4, 2020

I am of the opinion that the next two American Nobel Literature prizewinners should be John Irving and Don DeLillo.  I’ve thought that for a while, and so I was delighted to find an essay by Gerald Howard at Bookforum.com urging on the selection of DeLillo.

The failure of the Academy to select Philip Roth before he died was a constant complaint in literary circles.  It was described as equal to their failure to recognize Nabokov, Joyce, or Borges.  However, writes Howard:

“[E]ven while Roth was alive I regarded DeLillo as the greatest living American writer, and now the matter is not remotely debatable. Roth, of course, was a highly visible public figure and a shrewd manager of his own career and reputation, while DeLillo, though by no means the Pynchonian recluse he was once mistaken for, shuns the spotlight and has no interest in the wages of fame. To the extent the matter of a DeLillo Nobel is discussed, the consensus seems to be that yeah, he probably should get it, but he won’t because, well . . . he’s too cerebral, he stays under the radar.”

But,

“By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile.”

Howard writes well of the various reasons DeLillo deserves the Prize.  He concludes by noting

“the dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. He may be the last totally free man in American literature. He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career. His public appearances at readings and panels are sparse … [But] he has in fact given enough interviews over the decades to fill an entire book of them, and in those interviews he speaks of his personal history, his intentions and obsessions as a novelist, his working habits, and, especially, the larger place of the writer in our culture with epigrammatic wit and unshowy eloquence. While his oft-repeated mantra is Joyce’s motto “Silence, exile, and cunning,” Don DeLillo has taken care to be perfectly understood.”

I agree entirely with Howard on DeLillo’s literary importance, on the power of his prose, and on his insights into post-war America.  Given DeLillo’s age, I agree too that he should be the next Nobel winner.  But once that happens, I’ll be leading the charge for John Irving.


Another Date For The Calendar

March 7, 2020

The People’s Co-op Bookstore — Canada’s oldest continuing bookstore — will host a book launch on Wednesday 11th March.  The launch is for Lisa Robertson‘s The Beaudelaire Fractal.

“Robertson, who now lives in France, was a big part of Vancouver’s poetry scene in the 1990s, when she was part of the Kootenay School of Writing collective, and for a time operated Proprioception Books. She is the author of numerous fantastic books of poetry, including The Weather, Debbie: An Epic, 3 Summers, and Cinema of the Present.”

The bookstore is at 1391 Commercial, opening time is 7:30pm, and admission is free!


Salvage The Bones

February 28, 2020

Still working through the best books of the 2010s, I just finished Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward.

Set at the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Salvage The Bones is an intense novel about a dirt-poor black family in a dirt-poor black hamlet on the Mississippi Gulf. Motherless, four kids and their abusive alcoholic father live in a shack in a wooded wasteland of endless poverty. One son hopes and prays for a basketball scholarship as his way out, the youngest just likes to play and eat, and the third son lives for his fighting dog and her puppies. The story is told in the unpretentious and honest but confused voice of the pregnant 14-year old daughter, Esch, who likes to read Greek mythology.

The father, irascible drunk or sober, is convinced that a storm brewing in the Gulf will be the big one, and he tries to cajole his family into helping him prepare; but they are busy with their own lives: Randall has important games to win that will help him get selected, Skeetah needs to look after his dog’s puppies while getting her ready for the big revenge fight with the other kids’ dogs, Esch, who has been having sex since she was twelve because it was easier than saying no, has to confront the fact that the father of her unborn child won’t acknowledge it, and Junior is too young to know any better.

The hurricane hits in the final fifty pages of the novel, slamming into the hamlet with greater fury than even the father had ever imagined; and Ward does a masterful job of describing both the lashing of the storm at his height, and the immense devastation that was left in its wake.  But the strength of this fine work is in the first 200 pages where we learn what it is like to live poor and black in southern Mississippi, where the only real safety (still tenuous) is in the closeness of the sibling bond.

This is tragedy. There is no happy ending, just real life carrying on.


A George Bowering Event

February 18, 2020

One of Canada’s foremost novelists, poet, playwright, critic, and historian, the prolific George Bowering will be in Vancouver for the launch of his newest book.

“Writing and Reading gathers essays and criticism issuing from one of the most productive word processors in the country over the past decade or so.  All over the map in terms of content, style, and even length, a remarkably consistent perspective emerges from these thirty-one pieces, one that places reading at the centre of any writer’s practice.”

And not just in Vancouver but at our own People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial.   The launch begins at 7:30pm on Friday 21st February and admission is free.  A good one to mark in the calendar!


A George Bowering Event

February 8, 2020

One of Canada’s foremost novelists, poet, playwright, critic, and historian, the prolific George Bowering will be in Vancouver for the launch of his newest book.

“Writing and Reading gathers essays and criticism issuing from one of the most productive word processors in the country over the past decade or so.  All over the map in terms of content, style, and even length, a remarkably consistent perspective emerges from these thirty-one pieces, one that places reading at the centre of any writer’s practice.”

And not just in Vancouver but at our own People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial.   The launch begins at 7:30pm on Friday 21st February and admission is free.  A good one to mark in the calendar!


Richard Brautigan

January 30, 2020

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Today would have been the 85th birthday of Richard Brautigan.

There were entire decades during which I read and re-read the complete Brautigan canon every single year. After Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan was my most important influence.  He was especially valuable to me in giving inspiration and value to my flash fictions and poems.

I read and re-read the koans that are the stories in “Trout Fishing In America“, the utter tripiness of “In Watermelon Sugar,” the essential genre pastiches such as “The Hawkline Monster,” “Sombrero Fallout,” and “Dreaming of Babylon“, the straightforward vulnerability of “The Abortion.”  And the poetry.  Every year I read them, for decades.

He is sorely missed.


Milkman

January 28, 2020

Continuing through my reading of the Best Novels of the 2010s, I have managed to get through Milkman, by Anna Burns.  This is an extraordinarily intense work, shot through with wry black humour.

It is narrated by an 18 year old woman who lives in a nationalist “no go” area somewhere in Northern Ireland deep in the violent troubles of the late 1970s.  She is considered “beyond the pale” by some locals — and some family members — because of her habit of reading while walking, and her disdain for the 20th century, preferring instead the world of 19th century literature.  One of her brothers has been killed by the state forces and another is on the run. The narrative thrust of the piece comes from the fact that she is stalked by a much older man — the Milkman of the title — who is considered a heavyweight member of the paramilitary renouncers who control the district.

The novel is written in a style that I can only describe as being like the constant dialogues one has with one’s own thoughts.  It is like a stream of consciousness though with more clarity.  It does, however, mean that it is composed of long complex sentences, often in a shorthand, embedded within very long (sometimes pages long) paragraphs. Once you get used to it, it is a perfect form for this novel though it did  mean it took a while to digest.  It is replete with a raft of beautifully crafted minor players.

One of the shorthand forms is that there are no names in the book; characters are called what they are — “second sister”, “maybe-boyfriend”, “first-brother-in-law”, “longest friend”, “tablet girl’s sister” etc.  The warring factions are also discussed by description rather than names — “renouncers-of-the-state”, “foreign soldiers”, “from over the water”, and the troubles are known as “the border issue” or the “political problem”.

The novel tells of many things. It is the story of a slow and unwanted seduction, of an unrecognised withdrawal from the rest of the community, of family dynamics in a dangerous era, of a failing relationship,  More, it is a devastating portrait of a highly toxic masculinity and the ways in which women, both traditional and modern, deal with that.  It is also helps explain some of the deep-seated tensions that living within a Troubled environment can bring with it.  For example, residents of the neighbourhood would not call an ambulance or got to hospital if they were sick or wounded:

“Of course, she didn’t go to hospital because as with calling the police here – meaning you didn’t call them — involving yourself with medical authorities could be considered imprudent as well.  One set of authorities, pronounced the community, always brought on another set of authorities, and should it be that you were shot, or poisoned, or knifed, or damaged in any way you didn’t feel like talking about, the police … would show up from their barracks right away” and try to turn you into an informer.

Perhaps most of all, Milkman shows the fatally destructive power of gossip within a closed society.

Well worth the read.