September 06, 2007


Steven Augustine

Re: Garth's essay:

Well-written, and deeply just about the magnitude of DeLillo’s accomplishment.

Two quibbles…first one, minor: Garth writes, "The retired teacher Albert Bronzini reflects on the Challenger disaster and finds that 'he could never completely dismiss the suspicions of the paranoid elite...that the whole thing had been staged on a ranch outside Las Vegas.'" The "suspicions" Bronzini reflects on have to do with the moon walk, not the Challenger disaster. Pedantic, I know, but nothing is "too anal" if you’re up against James Wood.

Second quibble: in a way, though, doesn't Hallberg fall into Wood’s trap, defending "Underworld" not as an artwork of such aesthetic accomplishment that it dictates the terms by which we properly engage it (see "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" ), but with a functionalist prejudice, justifying the work in terms of how it works for us?

Further, Hallberg writes, "To summarize: our avant-garde strategies (and others, like the 'starved aestheticism of the sentence' or the blurring of fiction and nonfiction) have ceased to signify a critical position toward the culture."

I’d say we are losing the facility to *perceive* the avant-garde, as we are stuck with an essentially 19th century notion of it, leading us to a point in the cycle very much like the point at which the term (or movement) was first introduced. It's no longer about eyeballs meeting straight-razors, or twelve-tone tone poems...and DeLillo, in largely plain language, via mainstream publishing, dropped an avant-garde depth charge near the end of the 20th century that cultural conservatives like Mr. Wood (shades of the visceral reaction to The Rite of Spring) took great exception to, quite clearly angry about it before they’d even had much time to think.

Follow the anger...it will lead you to the heart of a contemporary avant-garde.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."