This morning I stumbled upon an interesting essay that functions as a kind of history of the “office novel”—starting with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and then moving forward to contemporary books by Joshua Ferris, Ed Parks and even Ben Lerner. It’s a solid essay that raises several questions about some of the typical elements of the form, as well as how these novels have evolved over time in line with changes in the American and international corporate landscape. You can read the essay here.
Something occurred to me as I was reading, however, and this was that all the books mentioned and discussed (save one, I think) are by men. I’m not going to pick on the author (Nikil Saval) about this, at least not at first, only because I am having trouble thinking of any by women. And so I can’t help but wonder if there is a body of “office lit” by women or maybe with more of a focus on women. Does this even exist? I assume that it does, and that I just don’t know about it.
I can think of a review we ran at Necessary Fiction for Radio Iris, by Anne-Marie Kinney, and this book would fit that category. (In his review of that title, Steve Himmer mentions two others: Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life and Stacey Levine’s Dra—). But what about historically? Was there a female equivalent to Melville’s Bartleby? And I don’t want to make things so simple – I know that the world of the office was almost exclusively male territory for a very long time, but it isn’t anymore, so I’d love to see that evolution as well, and how women writers have dealt with it. Especially when we so often talk about the “meaninglessness” of corporate work, and yet for many women, being able to be educated and work outside the home is a source of incredible meaning.
Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (1977) would definitely fit into this genre in some way. So would Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942). Delphine di Vegan’s novel, Les Heures Souterraines (2009) as well. Perhaps Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000) might be considered a very odd take on “office lit”—that is maybe debatable, but I’ll let it stand for now. Anyway, I’ve gone through my reading lists, and I’d love to see if there are more. Is there an author who takes this subject on again and again? I’ve just read Muriel Spark for the first time (her A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988) and she strikes me as someone who could have done this, but I don’t know if her books ever take this on directly.
(Quick update – Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed, whose taste in books I trust without question, has just written some thoughts on Alice Furse’s novel Everybody Knows this is NOWHERE. Adding this to the list!)
I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:
Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.
Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.
There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.
A bit late on linking to these reviews, but I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two very interesting books in May and June.
The first was All My Friends, a short-story collection by French author Marie NDiaye. (You may know of her from her Goncourt-winning novel Three Powerful Women.) The collection came out in May with Two Lines Press, a new translation-only imprint (hooray – we need more of these!) and it is a really great read.
The five stories that make up All My Friends, a small collection by Frenchwoman (and Prix Goncourt winner) Marie NDiaye, are stories of breakdown. This breakdown is not necessarily the kind of single-character unraveling we expect from good psychological fiction, although there are certainly echoes of that more familiar and intimate falling apart in several of these pieces; instead, NDiaye seems more interested in setting her characters up to hover and worry over the self-disconnecting questions of reality perception and personal narrative—are my world and my person what I perceive them to be? Do others understand my reality, my history, and my memories as I do? The often frustrated desire to answer these questions (either by the character or the reader) is what drives these stories forward, and contained within that unsettling narrative movement is the foreshadowing of imminent collapse.
As I mention in my review, she is exactly the kind of non-English language writer that should have already been translated in full. Her work is stylistically complex and varies thematically – she is not easily placed into any category, and she has a long and steady publishing career already.
Read the entire review at The Rumpus here.
The second book was Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s Spark. This is another novel from Engine Books – a still-relatively-new independent press that is publishing consistently good work and well worth supporting. (I wrote about another of their books, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, and Susan Jupp, one of Necessary Fiction’s regular reviewers also gave a lot of praise to Into This World by Sybil Baker.)
The initial premise of Spark has to do with the return home of a law-breaking brother and the awkwardness and anger that his presence creates in the life of his sister and her live-in boyfriend, but the book is really about the blurry line that runs between desire and obsession.
About Spark, I wrote:
Where Spark becomes gently provocative is that it sets itself up inside a framework of easily understandable psychology—the institutionalized language of “impulse-control disorder,” the built-in guilt of a sister for her wayward brother, the lingering effects of a damaged childhood—but as the story progresses, and as Andrea allows herself to experience and explore this notion of desire, Mauk reminds the reader that desire is as much about satisfaction as it is about control, and that there is nothing so false as the notion of easy psychology. People are messy, humans will do the unexpected. At this point, the narrative itself begins to blur around the edges. Scenes become a little more impressionistic. Andrea’s self-awareness (and therefore her clarity as our narrator) begins to softly break down. It is a wonderful narrative transformation, both surprising and extremely compelling, and it makes the book much more complicated than it first appears to be.
Read the entire review at Necessary Fiction here.
The narrative perspective in Widow (Michelle Latiolais, Bellevue Literary Press) is what strikes at first—a third person close which mostly functions as a kind of gentle wrapping (a shroud or veil is the image that comes to my mind) to what appears to be autobiographical writing. There is this feeling that all of these pieces are actually a first person narrative, and even more, that they are casted retellings of the author’s personal experiences, if not of distinct memories than of the emotional charge of real events but then recreated in new fictional surroundings.
Usually all that matters to me is the way the fiction works, how each piece creates its effect—but part of the effect of Widow involves this tension between fiction and memoir, involves the reader’s awareness that we’re reading an individual’s intensely interior negotiation of a series of events. That awareness is quite spellbinding.
The “event” (which remains almost completely off the page) is the unexpected death of a husband. And the stories alternate their focus between an unnamed “she” (the widow) and an unnamed “young woman” (an earlier self). As the stories connect and are juxtaposed, the collection creates a fuller portrait of a life and a marriage, of the transformation of a young woman into a widow, and what both those labels actually mean.
Most of the stories are quite short and the collection itself finishes out at around 150 pages, but the collection as a whole embodies the notion of intensity that most shorter work should—the stories do not move slowly into their crucial moments but begin at a place where the reader must work somewhat to keep up, and Latiolais’s language is rich in the sense that the vocabulary is elevated and the imagery often sophisticated.
To see what I mean, take a look at the quote I posted the other day from what is probably my favorite story in the collection, “Pink.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the collection is Latiolais’s willingness to let the reader remain unsure of meaning and message. This is where her writing reminded me of Christine Schutt, in the way that there are hints but not full resolution, in the way that the created atmosphere often informs the reader’s understanding more than a linear or plotted narrative telling. I love this kind of sideways entrance to the appreciation/understanding of story.
On the whole, this is a beautiful and unique collection. For the most part the stories work splendidly together and there is only one outlier that bears mentioning—the last piece is a first person story/essay that confirms the autobiographical nature of the collection, but it was, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary. The essay in and of itself is strong, but I suppose I preferred the hinting and the tension that the rest of the stories worked around. And the very last fiction piece in Widow is incredibly strong—a layered memory-type piece called “Burqa” about motherhood, about living alone, about letting our children go—and it would have been lovely to simply end with the last lines of this story:
Who was that solo act, that sui generis, that singular who had then hoodwinked entire civilizations with such stunning propaganda? At least she had made art, beauty, a boy’s fine limbs.
Just a quick word on Bellevue Literary Press for anyone unfamiliar with their work. This is an independent press founded by the New York University School of Medicine, and their entire mission is to publish literary fiction that deals with science and medicine in some way. They have a very good-looking fiction catalogue (which I plan on working slowly through) and it includes a novel by Michelle Latiolais called A Proper Knowledge. It also includes a former Necessary Fiction writer-in-residence as well, Tim Horvath, with his collection Understories.
Several years ago I read “Grafting,” a short story by Mariko Nagai and it has stayed with me ever since. The best kind of haunting. And so I was delighted to find that “Grafting” opened Nagai’s 2010 story collection from BkMk Press, Georgic.
“Grafting” is based on an old Japanese folktale (with likely older origins) called ubasute-yama (姥捨て山) , which literally translates to something like “the mountain where you abandon the old woman” or “the mountain where you throw away your old mother.” The folktale is about sending the old people away from the villages to fend for themselves in the forests. Nagai’s version of this story does not waver much from the original tale—a rural setting, a pressing and terrible need for a small village to reduce its number of mouths to feed.
But Nagai makes this folktale real, she makes it something that happens and could happen again. Despite the rural setting and historical feel, this is the story of every generation and how it must find a way to let their elders go. The violence in the idea of ubasute-yama isn’t made stronger in comparison to what happens in our lives here and now, it serves to remind us just how violent our “kinder” and humane abandonments really are. It may seem a very strange association but I couldn’t help thinking of Houellebecq and his obsession with the humiliation of aging, and the discussions of assisted-suicide he works into several of his books.
There are ten stories in Georgic and each is as unsettling and complicated as this first one—in “drowning land” a young boy sleeps for three years and then miraculously, suddenly, saves his village; “Confession” is about the after-effects of World War II and the trials of Japanese soldiers and civilians; in “Autobiography” a mother tells and re-tells her story, fashioning an autobiography of herself and a biography for the child she sold to save herself and the child. Each of these stories touches on something much more complicated than the historical event or story it embraces on the surface.
And Nagai’s writing is extremely textured, unsettling at times, clear and direct at others. She mixes poetry with straightforward emotion, like here in “autobiography”:
If they are to see your palms, they will claim your life fortunate, unmarred by misfortunes and fickle gods. They will not see how the rivers are dry, how the streams are cut in the middle twice: one for the husband no one talks about and one for the child who may still live in another country, blaming you for her fate.
In “Confession” she plays with framework, slipping back and forth between two stories, two manifestations of the same narrator actually and two events she lived and is living, and through this Nagai teases a difficult story forward:
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope. Of salvation. Of deliverance. For my daughter. What is true in the sunlight is no longer visible, no longer visible in the darkness.
(I am done for.)
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope.
(And is this not a dream? A woman coughs, but only in a dream; another mutters a prayer, but is this really a dream?)
It is her style that carries most of this collection, in the sense that without her careful writing it would be too easy to background these stories into a too-far past, to deny them their relevance to a contemporary setting.
The stories in Georgic are not easy stories—they are deeply emotional (I had to take them very slowly, so as not to be overwhelmed), unafraid to look directly at ideas of human need and personal justification, and interested in the effects of imposed poverty, both material and spiritual. Nagai is also doing something very interesting in terms of fictionalizing history.
Nagai has a book of poetry, Histories of Bodies (Red Hen Press, 2007) and another book of fiction, Instructions for the Living (Word Palace Press, 2012) and she has a novel forthcoming in 2015 from Aqueous Press.
This is from “The Summer After Barbara Claffey,” the second story in Christine Schutt’s 1996 collection, Nightwork:
She is watching from her window the man’s approach across the lawn. “You can wave from here,” Mother says in the voice she uses with the new Jacks, and I do.
I wave and wave, even though she is not looking. I wave at my mother muscling her own weight under this Jack’s arm. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is quiet in this town.
But the neighbors must notice my mother and her Jack. Either side of us and across the street, the Dunphies, the Smiths, Barbara Claffey down the street, must press to windows startled as by birds that swoop and mate so queerly close. I sometimes draw the blinds to them—but not to Mother. I am ready for Mother and her sudden turning to see if I am watching her, to see if I am paying attention to how she stands, tottering in her shoes, ankles gagged and tense and helpless—and Mother is not helpless. My mother is brave, I think, and her upturned face is shining. I see this, and see them both, willful lovers, tilted away from the house, leaning hard into the night.
This collection is extremely hard to put down. The writing! The mood! Interestingly, much about these stories is inscrutable—what exactly is going on? what kind of situation has the narrator found herself in? The stories move forward in impressionistic little flashes and fascinating off-kilter dialogue, but the atmosphere is sharp and dark and well-defined. There is so much menace, and each story seems to function within a borderland space of taboo and transgression. The story I’ve quoted from here actually reminds me a lot of her first novel Florida–this intense mother/daughter relationship and the precariousness of the mother’s dependence on various men.
I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished…
I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a lovely book for Necessary Fiction this week. This book comes from a small press in Ashland, Oregon called Ashland Creek Press. I’ve been quite impressed with the books on their list and I really enjoyed John Colman Wood’s novel, one of their “literary fiction” titles. Here is just a teaser from the review:
On the surface, The Names of Things is a simple novel of grief. Of one man’s negotiation of the empty spiritual and physical places created after the death of his wife. That’s a story that has been told a thousand times before. But not, I can safely say, in exactly the way that Wood tells it—building a narrative out of anthropological observations, easy travel (emphasis on easy) to a situation of extreme physical and mental isolation, and the asking of questions pertinent to the story’s 21st century setting. In short, what could be just another Grief story becomes absolutely unique, even exotic.
Read the full review here.