Thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room

It is sobering to read an old blog post, one of the hazards of maintaining a blog over any length of time. Five years ago, I described Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as the ‘very best fiction’. Five years, and five hundred books-later, I no longer know what those words mean. The more I read, the less I know, and I’d now be more cautious about such an epithet. Perhaps I was more open to critical influence; after all, James Wood gushed about The Flamethrowers calling it ‘scintillatingly alive’ and praising Kushner’s storytelling.

What is true is that certain set pieces of The Flamethrowers remain inscribed into my memory. Kushner is a good storyteller, capable of evocative description and reasonably strong characterisation. Her storytelling was sufficiently memorable that I bought and read her latest novel, The Mars Room.

This latest novel, I’d argue, is better written than The Flamethrowers. Five years is a long time after all. It comes across as an honest novel, by which I mean the narrative voice is strong enough that Kushner knows the places and people she writes about. I don’t mean that this is yet another thinly veiled work of autobiographical fiction, far from it, but nor is it a deeply imaginative work that lacks depth or substance. It is grounded in the reality of working class life in a way that feels believable.

Through the eyes and voices of Kushner’s characters, for a couple of days, I sensed the hopelessness of their lives, especially the waste and senselessness of long periods–a lifetime for the main narrator–of incarceration. This is testimony to the strength of her storytelling and, yes, I would apply Woods’ ‘scintillatingly alive’ in this case too. But I offer no guarantees that I will continue to do so in five years time.

Losing Literature

D. J. Enright, literary critic, novelist, poet, with a reticence comparable to Stevie Smith, is not literally insufferable. His reluctantly autobiographical commonplace books have dressed my bedside for some years, and with good temper and a mood for his lightly worn erudition, they offer diversion from insomnious thought-spreading. Mood is all important; on another occasion he’ll bring out my deep-shrouded Ajax, desirous to purge myself of his insufferable pride, his manner of finding yet another oblique way of emphasising his scholarship. Such is the nature of insomnia.

In Injury Time he tells the story of when fellow literary critic Frank Kermode moved house a few years before his death:

“[Kermode] had boxes of books, inscribed first editions and valuable manuscripts, ready for the removal men. The three workmen to whom he showed the boxes were Cambridge dustmen called in to make a special waste clearance. Thirty boxes had been consigned to the dustcart before the mistake was realised. The dustmen declined to climb into the cart, which contained a mechanical crusher.”

James Wood, literary critic, also often insufferable, tells the same story, adding that Kermode “was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory.”

This came to mind recently as I accidentally gave away a book I learnt a few days later was very valuable. As its value was only pecuniary I was able to recover my equanimity remarkably quickly.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

In those moments when we step out of time, dissolved in a book or piece of music, where are we? First-person fiction is a form of voyeurism, surreptitious participation in a scene in which we have no presence. Reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I am invisibly present, pressed against protagonist Reno’s back as she weaves her Moto Valera motorcycle through New York traffic, almost able to observe through her eyes, almost able to think her thoughts. Almost because first-person fiction offers up this fantasy of being able to access another’s interior. This is one reason I read fiction. The very best fiction, and The Flamethrowers fits this description, promises this sort of access, with its characters, more real in many ways than those passing me on the train as I read. This is one of those stories, told so well that in years to come its scenes and characters will become part of my pool memories, hazily recollected like those parties where we observed and participated through a haze of alcohol or drugs.

My Moto Valera was vintage, a Benelli 750 Sei, an angular, ugly beast of a motorcycle. I have an urge to find one again, to ride, like Reno, across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Salt Flats

Salt Flats