12/11/20 — This Week’s Reading Review

I finished As I Lay Dying this week. For about five years, I’ve been living anxiously in the shadow of a quote from 2666. It comes when Amalfitano asks the “bookish young pharmacist” what books he likes. The answer is that he enjoys Kafka, Flaubert, Melville, and Dickens. The catch is that he names their shorter works rather than more significant, longer novels. The result is this admonition: “What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” (Of course, Bolaño, who wrote many shorter, sparring works and only two imperfect torrents, is mainly trying to justify his late-life ambitions.)

That quote is why I hesitate to call As I Lay Dying a superior work to The Sound and the Fury. The former is a carefully measured, linearly organized, experimental at the edges work that perfectly balances comedy and tragedy. The latter is a bold attempt to grasp Southern consciousness’s central paradoxes; it is experimental from the outset and only becomes straightforward once the halfway mark is reached. But at the same time…As I Lay Dying is clearly superior in its construction and execution. The ambition of The Sound and the Fury is out of step with Faulkner’s mastery of his form and style. In As I Lay Dying, ambition and skill meet: Faulkner tells his story in tones nad form proper to his characters and theme. It is an excellent work of American fiction, even if it isn’t groundbreaking.

I also finished John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark this week. It is his book-length analysis of Finnegans Wake. I’m torn on this book. I admire Bishop’s dedication to Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s Book of the Dark is clearly the product of years of research into not only Joyce’s biography, personal correspondence, and notebooks, but also into the books he read and the milieu in which he was embedded. In addition to these, it’s clear that Bishop has also tried his best to understand the nature of sleep and dreams. Most of all, though, what shines through is Bishop’s dedication to the text of the Wake itself. There hardly exists a paragraph here that is not itself a suture of Bishop’s exegesis and Joyce’s novel. The result is that Joyce’s Book of the Dark carries some of the gnostic weight that the Wake itself possesses — Bishop has created his own aesthetic experience here.

The issue here is that this argument by suture is not only dubious, but it’s also highly misleading. Bishop’s book is a prolonged act of recontextualization, but one taken to such an extreme degree that the reader would be forgiven if they came away thinking that the Wake’s if they put enough time and effort into it, they could rewrite the Wake is a linear, rational fashion. To Bishop’s credit, he anticipates this criticism in Chapter Ten. However, he dodges the criticism and uses the method in question to try to prove the validity of his method. Nevertheless, the issue is that such a thesis would require a line-by-line explication-interpretation-structurally-comprehensive-explanation. In this sense, his book stands on unstable pillars. Moreover, Bishop also fails to contend with the central fact that Finnegans Wake is not really an accurate representation of what dreams are like.

Additionally, “Chapter Eight: Meoptics” and “Chapter Nine: Earwickerworks” are truly dreadful chapters, absolute slogs through Bishop’s already dense method crossbred with the offspring of half-learned scientific information and half-baked psychoanalysis. He opens up many avenues for interpretation through his bodily reading, but the body in sleep is not really the sewed up anti-world that Bishop’s extremist view makes it out to be. I ended Bishop’s book with mixed feelings.

Finally, I’ve been making my way through Lucy Ellmann’s excellent 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport. This is a remarkable book. Most of it takes the form of a woman’s interior monologue as she bakes a series of pastries and desserts to sell to a local shop. It is organized as an endless sequence of “facts” that cross her mind: she remembers facts about America, its culture, the environment, her past, her present, her family, and so on. The construction of the novel is highly repetitive, yet it never feels so. The repeated use of “the fact that…” provides a sense of rhythm to her scattered thoughts; meanwhile, those scattered thoughts allow us to get a sense of the narrator: her personality permeates the “facts” at every level. This also means that Ducks, Newburyport is a novel of social commentary while cleaving incredibly close to the character, her personality, and her life’s story. It’s a rather ingenious solution to the problem of writing a political novel about a familiar regime. The commentary is naturally included in the narration as it is in all of our interior narrations. I look forward to reading and writing more on this book.

Until next Thursday,

Michael Ducker

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