Renata Adler, Ben Marcus and David Shields: Pushing the limits of the American novel

The "poster boy for the end of the novel" David Shields retains a list of 55 works he swears by - few of which are fiction, and fewer still contain much fictional content. But is his literary revolution on track?

Towards the end of his consistently enjoyable, occasionally convincing memoir How Literature Saved My Life (Notting Hill Editions, £12), David Shields, the one-time novelist and, more recently, “poster boy for the death of the novel” (his description), provides a list of 55 works “I swear by”. A number of fiction writers make the cut, though usually for their journals or criticism, or for writing novels with a low fiction content. Proust’s “commitment is never to the narrative”, he explains; it’s to the narrative “as a vector on the grid of his argument”. The “expository” first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five “renders moot the rest of the book and everything else he ever wrote. I live and die for the overt meditation.”

The book best equipped to make Shields’s revolution look plausible and even desirable is Speedboat, the first of two brittle fictions by the journalist Renata Adler – who is at the top of his list alphabetically and also, perhaps, in terms of preference. Shields describes the book as an oblique Bildungsroman and an anthropological autobiography, proposing a little perversely that the name of Adler’s narrator, Jen Fein, “suggests that she’s not real, that she’s Renata Adler”, much as when, celebrating his “doppelgänger of the next generation”, Ben Lerner, he calls the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station by the author’s name (“Ben won’t mind!”).

There may not be a category that adequately pegs Adler’s mixture of anecdotes, daydreams, “bons mots spliced together” (Jen’s words), newswire reports, travelogue, “prose flights” (ditto) and punchlines, though if “novel” is good enough for her, it should be good enough for her admirers.

Originally published by Knopf in 1976 and recently reissued (after a bidding skirmish) by NYRB Classics (£7.99), Speedboatunfolds in a grammar closer to channel-surfing (“So many rhythms collide,” Jen writes) than to the novels Adler wanted but failed to emulate: “thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen, and things you do not”.

Instead, she produced a book of things abstracted from the feelings they produce: “A girl of eighteen was taking the sun with great seriousness”; “We passed three men, two beating up a third . . . A crowd had gathered, interested”; “A single-story drunk told his single story.” It works by accretion. In the end we have a picture, smudged though not inscrutable, less of a scene than of a mind – nervous, not quite associative, trenchant.

Shields represents one version of the writer as reader. On encountering Speedboat, he saw it not as a beguiling one-off but as a reproach. He has identified it as one of the works that “sent me like Alice down the rabbit hole, never to emerge again on terra firma”. A novel he had been writing about “imaginary beings’ friction vis-à-vis mass culture” became, after the fall, a book about “my own ambivalence toward mass culture”, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. He has been sceptical of the “traditional novel” ever since.

In How Literature Saved My Life, he ascribes his capacity for discontent to having studied at Brown University in Rhode Island. He claims to notice “a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance” in the “artistic work of a striking number of Brown grads”. With its “flawed, tragicomic, self-conscious relation to power/ prestige/privilege”, Brown can be seen, Shields contends, “as a crucial incubatorconduit- catalyst-megaphone for the making of the postmodern American imagination”. (It was the site of the vibrant semiotics class in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.) Lerner studied at Brown, too – it’s one of the reasons for the doppelgänger claim, though Ben Marcus, another Brown graduate (and, like Shields, a bald one), is a stronger candidate. Marcus’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” was filleted in Shields’s collage of quotations, Reality Hunger, for its claim that the term “realism” should be “conferred only on work . . . that matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language”.

When he threw down that challenge, Marcus had already made a significant attempt at answering it – a collection of technical terms (“To Jennifer is to feign blindness”) and fabling “documents”, entitled The Age of Wire and String (Granta, £14.99). It has now been reissued, with illustrations by Catrin Morgan that reinforce an impression of the future society that Marcus depicts as being, in essence, autonomous, with little join-the-dots relationship to America as it existed in 1995, when the book was first published.

Like Renata Adler – to whose opening sentence “Nobody died that year” he may be alluding in the faux-historical announcement “No one died for four years” – Marcus does away with the conventional chapter and paragraph while retaining respect for the well-crafted individual sentence: “In the morning in Montana the leg was bound from the ankle to the knee with bacon or hair and then cross-gartered with thongs or strips of uncut rice.” Marcus’s theme is the arbitrariness of reference, his aim to find verbal formulations that reveal the proximity of nonsense to what we take for lucid expression.

Although he shares Marcus’s antipathies, Shields’s proposed solution is very different. Where Marcus wants the novel to operate as a space for the play of abstract ideas, bent-arrow polemic and imagination, Shields wants something essay-like in its directness and engagement. He stopped reading One Hundred Years of Solitude because “I want the writer to be trying hard to figure something out” (“García Márquez, you could argue, is doing this by implication, but to me he’s not”) and he offers as a kind of allegory a story from J Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand in which a novel shrinks from 1,000 pages to eight words: “Tiny Upstate town/Undergoes many changes/Nonetheless endures.”

Shields objects to the implicitness and the “glacial pace” with which most novels trace an arc or figure “something” out and prefers work that is oblique in a different way. Many of his 55 chosen works are mosaics and collages but, he insists, they are only “pretending” or “thought” to be a “random gathering”, or “mere notes”, or a “series of random memories”. For Shields, Speedboatprovides a vision of how such a dialectic might be accommodated by the kind of text that some are content to call a novel. But Adler’s ability – even her desire – to provide clarification through, in his words, “jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice” is a rare one.

While the collage novel may founder from a lack of suitable sensibilities, the other kind of novel that Shields desires – in essence, indistinguishable from certain kinds of personal essay – has inbuilt frailties of its own. Some of them were revealed by Sheila Heti’s documentary novel How Should a Person Be?, a book conflicted (at once allergic and craving) in its attitude towards the corrugation of “real-life” events.

So far, Shields has encouraged every effort that coincides with his general desires (as if they could all be of equal value) and his attitude to dissent has been suspiciously evasive. Though he was happy to quote J M Coetzee on the jacket of Reality Hunger saying, “I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings,” he suppressed the rest of his response, the bit after the “but”, where he communicated still-unanswerable concerns about “torrents of unmediated ‘reality’ ” and “floods of other people’s thoughts”.

“Of the well-made novel,” Coetzee concluded, “one might at least say that it imposed a formal brake on formless garrulity.” 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the New Statesman

Renata Adler, the godmother of a new generation of US postmodernists. Photograph: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photo/New York Magazine.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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