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“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But you didn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s best reader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

The Unknown University on Roberto Bolano “There is a time for reciting poems,” Roberto Bolaño wrote in The Savage Detectives, “and a time for fists.” And now, with the appearance of his collected poetry, The Unknown University, presented in a bilingual edition translated by Laura Healy and handsomely published by New Directions, we are getting to the end of the Bolaño canon (in fact, we may be at the end), with its short stories, brief novels, and the two long masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666, as well as an enlightening volume of critical pieces, speeches and interviews entitled Between Parentheses. What remains to be written is a comprehensive biography of the man. And I suspect we will be no more the wiser. Though not as shadowy as, say, B. Traven, elusive author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who vanished into a fog of multiple identities, Bolaño’s life is in comparison a gumbo of tall tales, rumor, truth and consequence, some created by him (perhaps because we identify some of his characters—and voices—a little too closely with their creator), others encouraged by a public hungry for a romantic hero. Or, to borrow the title of a smaller collection of his poems, romantic dog.

melancholia

After passion, what is left? A jewelry box, a locket, a silver button, the silences between these objects. Each of these items sings to one another and it is this chorus that unifies Kristina Marie Darling’s haunted and haunting collection, Melancholia (Ravenna Press). Containing definitions, prose poems, footnotes, and a noctuary (a night journal), the book seeks to define, contain, and understand the aftermath of a failed courtship. In the opening fragmentary epistle, Darling establishes this with a delicacy that is maintained throughout the procedures of definition that bind this book:

portugueseThe first release from the exciting new collaborative-poetry series of Tin House and Octopus books, Brandon Shimoda’s Portuguese has its origins in a racial slur. As Shimoda explains in the epilogue: “The bus is driving itself. Floating. Out the windows the trees are thick green, with passing revelations of yellow and brown. The fourth grader makes one final attempt, though his enthusiasm, at this point, feels forced: Portugueeese. He brings his pointer fingers to the sides of his eyes, pulls the skin to make his eyes disappear, and says it once more.”

We drove across Colorado, Utah, a touch of Nevada, and Arizona. I brought several books with me to read on our road-trip to southern California—Blake Butler’s Nothing, Amelia Gray’s Threats, Anne-Marie Kinney’s Radio Iris, and Eileen Myles’s Snowflake / Different Streetsand though I was anxious for each of these new titles, for whatever reason, I started with Myles, reading Snowflake / Different Streets in the morning fog and afternoon sun of Santa Ana. From there, everything unraveled.

Evan Lavender-Smith has let us into a world of strife and angst, love and discovery in his musings found in From Old Notebooks. How does parataxis function in this narrative that makes the language found here that of every story, of every notebook—yours, mine, or all of us who are capable of scribbling down the bits and pieces of dialogue that float around in our heads? FON is as much about investigating our own mental resources for content as it is narrative structure. The author gives over all of his ideas and insecurities about the clichés of being a writer and the banal moments of his everyday as documented on paper in the pages of his old notebooks.

In 2007 Black Ocean released Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit, a poetic collection that sprawls in gasps of poetry, full of imagery and surreal landscapes, tinged with faux history and savagely tender deaths. Then in 2009, Black Ocean released his second book, Scary, No Scary, which took these surreal landscapes even farther, threading them into a pseudo-narrative of hummingbirds and trees and visions of fright, blooming in a triumphant poetic score. And now, since the excellent people at Black Ocean are either smart enough or lucky enough to continue publishing Schomburg’s work, we get Fjords.

In Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden, a world of people, events, and creatures become seen—not seen the way we see Twitter updates, but the way we see a new land for the first time.

The speaker of the title poem is a knowledgeable tour guide, a lover writing letters by hand, a mother speaking to the baby in her belly. The voice ebbs and flows between watcher/participant, mother/lover, I/We. The poem emphasizes dichotomy–us vs. them, insider/outsider, safe/endangered–only to dissolve such boundaries a moment later. The taken-for-granted becomes seen, the political becomes intimate, the intimate becomes public–and all of it swirls together like the waters of the ocean. The speaker is on a tour of the world by boat; she is of the sea–a cetacean; she is on a trip with her lover; she is Homeland Security agent; she is detainee. We the readers are also in shifting territory, observing and participating in a land both familiar and strange. The work is full of language from Homeland Security and the George W. Bush presidency. It also contains language of pregnancy and birth. Something is trying to be born. We stroll through a fantastic garden of whales, embryos, fences, labels.

One of the first poems in Megan Boyle’s debut collection selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee is called “everyone i’ve had sex with.” The last poem in the collection is called “lies i have told.” Besides the lack of capitalization, what makes Megan Boyle’s poetry fascinating is that readers will often find themselves questioning where the line between fact and fiction is to be drawn, and also whether to laugh or cry. With these poems, Megan Boyle has taken stream-of-consciousness writing to an entirely new level, and she has done so brilliantly.

Julie Carr’s new collection of poetry takes us on a journey where fragmented thoughts and abbreviated memories exist in varied form. Coffee House Press is known for publishing groundbreaking authors and championing the work of writers who have made a place for themselves in the literary landscape. This work addresses the humanity of death and contemplates what happens when faced with a life-threatening illness, the loss of our faculties, and often times, the spirit of love. These poems also illustrate the joy of new beginnings in exploring the feelings connected to giving birth and pregnancy. The 75 plus pages of poems examine the complex responses that come into play when dealing with health struggles and faded memories; a pastiche of familial responsibility. Fragments, abstracts on death, exhaustion, mothers, and unexpected scenarios are only some of the themes at play in these pages, but Carr gives her full attention to each sentiment expressed in this collection. What’s unique about the writing is the manner in which the narrator attempts to digest her reality. Poems and fragments share titles but shift in their POV. This technique seems to demonstrate the need to digest sentiments from different points of view, thus allowing for multiple perspectives on the same scenario, on the same difficulties we encounter, regardless of where we sit.