main brides by gail scott

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the female gaze. lydia sits at a bar and describes what she sees and imagines, most often: herself, other women. (how’s that for a plot!) a book of portraits, maybe a self-portrait, or maybe a book about portraiture–the ambiguity intentional and often successful as a statement about our success in ever describing completely an identity.

this book’s project as defined by its narrator:

“Lydia (having trouble focusing) returns to her portrait: anecdotal fragments organized–but not too rigorously–with a little space around them to open possibilities” (167).

what saves the book from disintegrating into just fragmentary observations is scott’s fearless and idiosyncratic style. the writing’s syncopated and richly arch music reveals a persistent conflict between empathy and judgment, between a wish to define and a desire to stay open.

some of the best parts of the book come during a chapter whose content is the most traditional: the story of a springtime love affair. besides the quickly flaming and guttering of an april love, the chapter reveals rather strikingly the conflicts within the narrator: anecdotal versus analytical modes; english versus french (“You hate the way being with her makes you think so much in English, you lose the capacity for immediate abstraction that comes with speaking French”); a willingness to be self-critical or vulnerable versus a need to be defiant and judging.

and: the beauty of the writing. scott’s a singular, fierce and unapologetic stylist. at its most courageous it can invoke and then overcome sentimentality. here’s a passage again about that april love affair–a straightforward description of the sweet and deadly swiftness of it:

“Still April. You step outside. The sky is so blue you sense the infinity of dancing air. Around you the jonquils are laughing. Granted, this image is slightly sentimental. You can’t help it, she’s getting you so drunk with the caresses of her big hands, you feel like a giant. You rock your warm crotch against the cold cement, hoping that, with all that affection, she won’t be pressuring you for commitment.

The truth is, already you feel a little trapped. Because of that day she, sitting on the brown sofa in the living-room of that tacky hotel apartment she temporarily rented, knees up to chin, talking on the phone to her lover from Alberta, suddenly declared: ‘I’m in love, Betty.’ You didn’t intend to listen. You couldn’t believe she was putting her main relationship in jeopardy: by no means had you said anything about commitment. Yet, grudgingly, you wondered what makes these young dykes so courageous. Always taking chances. The way she kissed you in that bar, until both of you were floating. Definitely, no fear of flying” (108-9).

 find at a library or buy from small press distribution

Celebrate the launch of Waste and Fog & Car

Come help us celebrate the launch of Waste and Fog & Car on

Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 7:30PM at Freebird Books

on 123 Columbia Street in Brooklyn. Directions here.

liquidation by imre kertész

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beckett and bernhard may be the basis of “Bee,” the writer whose suicide is the vacuum at the center of this novel. as such it makes sense that under the layer of gossipy bedswapping tales by intelligentsia and almost crudely titillating descriptions of common breakdowns and various life botchings is the novel’s real content–our natural state of depravity which makes such crudeness and vacuity our continued mode of being.

the book is either great because it shows how literature redeems the banality of our evil world or because it honestly depicts how our great arts are debased and fundamentally banal. a dark choice.

the articulation of the former by the book’s sometimes narrator: “But I believe in writing–nothing else; just writing. Man may live like a worm, but he writes like a god. There was a time when that secret was known, but now it has been forgotten; the world is composed of disintegrating fragments, an incoherent dark chaos, sustained by writing alone. If you have a concept of the world, if you have not yet forgotten all that has happened, that you have a world at all, it is writing that has created that for you, and ceaselessly goes on creating it” (97).

and while the book is about the impossibility of existence after auschwitz, the parts that affected me most were strangely those about the comparably negligibly-weighted topic of the literary life. but i think that’s the truth and greatness of kertesz: to speak unsentimentally and defiantly crudely. a crudeness that is only possible due to an elemental refinement, a rare ability to look sincerely at our limits.

here’s a long passage, capturing both the pleasures of literary life as well as the self-awareness of its vanity and foolishness:

“The fact is that in my nineteenth or twentieth year…a book came into my hands… I knew about the existence of this book only from other books, in the way that an astronomer infers the existence of an unknown celestial body from the motion of other planets; yet in those days, the era of undiscoverable reasons, it was not possible to get hold of it for some undiscoverable reason. I happened to be grinding through university at the time; though I did not have much money, I staked it all on the venture, mobilizing antiquarian booksellers, denying myself meals in order to acquire an old edition. I then read the bulky volume in less than three days, sitting on a bench in the public garden of a city square, as spring was in the air outside while a constant, depressing gloom reigned within my sublet room. I recall to this day the adventures of the imagination that I lived through at the time while I read in the book that the Ninth Symphony had been withdrawn. I felt privileged, like someone who had become privy to a secret reserved for few; like someone who had been suddenly awakened in order to have the world’s irredeemable condition revealed to him, all at once, in the blinding light of a judgement.

Still, I don’t think it was that book which carried me into my fateful career. I finished reading it; then, like all the others, it gradually died down within me under the dense, soft layers of my subsequent reading matter…

[A] person becomes a literary editor, and later a publisher’s reader, our of error in the first place. In any event, literature is the trap that captures him. To be more precise, reading: reading as a narcotic which pleasantly blurs the merciless outlines of the life that holds sway over us” (38-9).

EWN’s e-panel with upstart publishers

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johannah and i participated on an e-panel with several other new presses–organized by the mightily productive dan wickett of DZANC books. participants included:

Kathleen M. Rooney and Abigail Beckel – Rose Metal Press
Aaron Burch and Elizabeth Ellen – Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a division of Hobart
Johannah Rodgers and Eugene Lim – Ellipsis Press
Aaron Petrovich and Alex Rose – Hotel St. George Press
Giancarlo Di Trapano – Tyrant Books
Victoria Blake – Underland Press
Peter Cole – Keyhole Books

i get quoted from it on the LATIMES bookblog:

Why found an independent press? And why do it now? Ellipsis Press’ Eugene Lim has an answer:

I’d like to think an indie movement is going on. Twelve years ago there was an issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, titled “The Future of Fiction,” and edited by none other than David Foster Wallace. In it, there’s a hilarious and dead-on piece by Dalkey head John O’Brien, which stated among other things that the “end of literary books in commercial publishing is a historical inevitability.” And so it has come to pass. The bigger houses will cease (have ceased!) to publish literary fiction. It is not profitable for them to market and produce a title that will sell to 5000 people (even if Rick Moody strong-arms a National Book Award for them). S’okay though. The old publishing joke goes, How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Answer: Start with a large one. And then you and your crony get to laugh bitterly together. But it’s the wrong question. A small and lively (and one hopes resurging) group of people care about the novel as art. And with the new methods of production and distribution, it’s getting easier for writers to connect with readers.

here’s the panel in its entirety: http://emergingwriters.typepad.com/emerging_writers_network/2008/09/e-panel-publish.html

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