I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It makes me think of the instability of a literary work, that it is always being understood or subverted through and by other work one has read. Where does meaning come from? The following paragraph is quoted all over the place, another jab, at one level, at the conventions of realist fiction.
“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”
The sentence clearly functions as a performative utterance, but also captures the struggle many have with contemporary narrative fiction, the sort of fiction that David Shields inveighs against in Reality Hunger. It is stuffy and confining.
Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth (clue: very little).
Curiosity about Jane Bowles compelled me to track down a selection of her letters, which I intend to read in parallel with the short stories in the Collected Works.
The first of the short stories I read was Plain Pleasures, which escalates from a subtle tale of social reserve to what appears to be a story about rape. Like Kleist’s The Marquise of O, the rape is not represented directly. Bowles suggests it with a single sentence, immediately transforming a seemingly simple tale into what becomes a barbed, disturbing story.
Bowles takes the story from that single sentence not to a dark place, but to one of emotional and possibly sexual fulfilment. It is a sly work of considerable psychological complexity that, like Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies reveals a silence at its core.
Reading Plain Pleasures immediately makes sense of Joy Williams’s comment in the preface to this collection: ‘Reading Jane Bowles is making the acquaintance not with dread but with dread’s sister, perhaps—a grave, absurd disquietude.’
In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson describes this story as a ‘quietly brutal, fourteen-page masterpiece’, a verdict to which I can only agree. Nelson adds of Bowles:
It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.