Fiction and Deconstruction Considered as Chairs

From a work in progress. Professor Neil Cross of Swivens College, Heideggerian and deconstructionist, was exiled in 1992 to a writers’ colony in remote Alaska, where he was ordered by his department chairman to produce a novel. Sitting in a cold, cramped cabin, he contemplated his surroundings and wrote the following:

The chair I am sitting in is a wooden folding contraption without arms. It seems sturdy enough to support me, but it wobbles and creaks the instant I shift my weight.

How different from the reading chair back in my office at Swivens! Designed by a small artisans’ collective on the Left Bank who took their inspiration from the ball turrets in World War II bombers, that chair lets me swivel, pitch, and roll in any direction. Its frame, with its gently swooping arms and wire mesh backing, is made of brushed alloy of stainless steel prized for both obdurateness and flexibility, while its compact metal base—which appears at a glance to be an conventional assembly of connecting rods and gears with braces extending out to the wheels—conceals a complex system of balances, gyroscopes, and swinging counterweights that enable this improbably small structure to support great displacements of weight. For I can lean back in that chair until my head is grazing the floor; I can tilt sideways, reading a book and sipping coffee, with my torso parallel to the ground, startling colleagues and eliciting the occasional shriek; I can pitch in any direction at all with the complete reassurance that my bottom will never leave the chair’s comfortably padded seat. (When the chair was new, I made use of a thin black harness, which I fastened discreetly about my waist, but after a few days of practice, I came to dispense with this precaution entirely.)

Reading in this chair, one learns to float as comfortably as a truant schoolboy swinging in a tree; one feels the giddy glee of a skull rushing through the empyrean, awash in a mad swirl of colors and sensations: blue sky, green grass, this text, that reference, sudden abyss. Lost in the vertigo of reading, one intuits a secret communion with junior astronauts encountering weightlessness for the first time in jets that rise and plunge above the clouds. To release one’s hands from the wall’s metal braces requires both courage and carelessness; the instructions one has read over and over become a sting of meaningless symbols, themselves hovering, and then one realizes that one is hovering like them—from this lapse of pedestrian cognition, a letting go, and a few seconds of weightlessness. Within days, one is floating freely about the cabin like a sated amphibian, pushing off from one wall and propelling oneself to the other, spinning, somersaulting, joking with one’s friends and slapping their backs as they pass—merry tumblers in a void. Such is the feeling of freedom and weightlessness I get from my reading chair. I can pass the entire day in it, poring over texts and penning new criticism without ever occupying the same position twice.

How earthbound, how single-track, this fiction-writing chair seems by comparison! It is fit only for country schoolteachers and librarians. Simple and plain, it will do for the instruction of grammar, for the locating of Grant’s Tomb on a colorful map, for a pious recitation of the Gettysburg Address, and then, in the calm of the evening hours, for the crafting a simple memoir replete with “true feelings.” Its one trick is to fold up and disappear.

And this is my chair for now, my position in the world!

A St. Patrick’s Day Miscellany

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, the 5th century missionary who cleared the Emerald Isle of snakes and kept it clear until the hedge fund managers arrived in the 90’s.

On this day, children across America are taught about shamrocks, leprechauns, rainbows, and the color green. In other words, they’re taught about nothing of any importance when it comes to Ireland, Irish culture, or the contributions of Irish-Americans. Which is a shame.

I don’t so much mind all the attention that’s paid to leprechauns, so long as when it comes to discussing German culture, the teacher spends most of her time talking about poltergeists.

But enough about figments. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s a fine occasion to savor deeper things. Guinness is fine, as is cranking “The Pogues” or “Flogging Molly” on your stereo, or getting together with your sensitive guitar-playing friend to croon Yeats’ “Sallie Gardens,” but if you’re interested in exploring other areas of Irish culture, here are a few suggestions.


Tommy PeoplesI’m a big fan of Irish fiddle music. A couple of my favorite fiddlers are Tommy Peoples (try his album, Waiting for a Call) and Martin Hayes (try Martin Hayes/Dennis Cahill Live in Seattle). If you’d like to explore the history of Irish fiddle music further, track down a two-CD set called Michael Gorman: The Sligo Champion. Gorman was an important fiddler and composer, and you can hear some traditional fiddling and singing from the first half of the 20th century before non-traditional techniques like vibrato became so prevalent.


Annie DunneAnnie Dunne by Sebastian Barry is a haunting and lyrical book about an old woman living with her cousin in a cottage in the Irish countryside. Her children come to visit her. Has their father committed an unspeakable crime? Barry tells us, but he’s sly, and you might miss the clue if you don’t read carefully.

The GatheringAnother family, another shameful secret from the past, and another very good book. Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering, her story of a woman who uncovers the hidden story of her family. Her brother Liam has drowned himself, her mother is fading into dementia. The writing is vivid without being purple:

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kittle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.
   My mother looks at this strange scene, as if it reminds her of something. Then she starts forward to where her tablets are pooled in a saucer, on the near counter. She takes them, one after the other, with the flaccid absent-mindedness of the tongue. She lifts her chin and swallows them dry while I rub my wet arm with my hand, and then run my damp hand through my hair.

What an admixture of senses: the daughter’s damp hand, the mother’s dry throat, the pills pooled in a saucer. Notice how Enright uses commas more to pace the action than to convey logical connections. She’s a musical writer. It’s a moving, beautifully written book.


The Quick of ItI heard Eamon Grennan read his poems at a local boarding school several years ago, and I’ve been a fan of his writing ever since. I particularly like his book, The Quick of It, which contains poems that catch the essence of what they’re describing in only 10 lines. Here’s a sample:

While you’re gazing in the mirror all the names change.

It will be all right, you’ve said, when push comes to shove
And the snow’s sheer mortal diamond will have left us
Its legacy of watergallop and what-have-you: it will be, then,
A question of reflection, not this heartlessness of lightbreak,
Horrid jag-edge of show.
        Take, for instance, this morning:
Beneath the ice-clamp of Casperkill Creek you saw clear water
Run into its own life against the odds, making (the way things
Will) a fresh start—just as a raucous, high-minded, truth-telling
Matter-of-fact congregation of crows comes tumbling.


Finally, a suggestion for quenching your thirst, because if you’re reading by a fire, or in an overheated bus, or under heavy bedcovers, or in a dusty room, or a drafty hallway, or on a weekday evening after a long day’s work, or on your day off, you might get thirsty. Tonight all sorts of people are sampling Guinness or Jameson’s or Bushmills, and that’s fine. But my suggestion? A light, grassy Irish single malt called Knappogue Castle. I learned of it several years ago from a review Eric Asimov wrote of Irish single malts for the New York Times. If you enjoy single malts, but want to stay away from anything heavy or peaty, Knappogue Castle is an excellent choice.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


One more suggestion. If you’re looking for a good survey of Irish literature, check out Ireland: A Traveler’s Literary Companion from Whereabouts Press. It features short stories from all over Ireland. There’s also an introduction by the editor, James McElroy of UC Davis.

Unreliable Narrator

He was an unreliable narrator.

He started showing up late for chapters. Scenes would lurch into action without any preamble. Gorgeous or bleak scenery out the window went unremarked. Situations, histories, rivalries, marriages went unexplained.

The characters, missing his cue, became reticent, unsure of when to begin or how, but eventually, out of necessity, they learned to start without him and then, once started, to carry on, completing things a different way. (A few hardy souls came to prefer this newfound freedom. They discovered the confused magic of improvisation.)

Other times he showed up right on time but he made little mistakes. He might repeat information, for example, gumming things up and slowing the pace. Or he changed the names of characters. The characters themselves didn’t seem to notice, greetings were exchanged as usual, plotlines flowed as expected, but now Lily was Lola, and two chapters later the Frenchman Pierre was an Englishman named Peter.

Very late in the book, the unreliable narrator disappeared altogether.

“It’s bad enough having no God,” purred one of the women, a jaded woman who had earned a Ph.D. studying literature and philosophy, “but no God-like point-of-view, even someone omniscient enough to know how all this ends? Who knows what to pay attention to?”

Where was this guy? Moonlighting? Working two books? Three? Seven? Hundreds?

To answer that question would require a narrator for the narrator. “It’s turtles all the way down,” one of the characters remarked.

The woman with the Ph.D. nodded and set down her drink. Damn, she wanted a smoke. She stared hard at Peter, or was it Pierre, and wondered if he had a cigarette.

And he met her gaze—how?

We’ll never know. “I’ve been thinking about horses,” he said.

Close Reading: Thomas Mann

From time to time in this blog, I’ll comment on a line or two of prose I find particularly pleasing or intriguing.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas MannIn his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann offers us the following portrait of a painter in Munich during World War I:

Over the years, the apartment grew more beautiful still, or at least more crowded and color, for Dr. Institoris was a friend of several of those Munich artists associated with the more sober Glass Palace school (his artistic taste being rather tame despite theoretical advocacy of glittering violence), in particular of a certain Nottebohm—a native of Hamburg, a married man, gaunt-cheeked, goateed, and droll, with an amusing talent for imitating actors, animals, musical instruments, and professors; a pillar of those carnival balls that now, to be sure, were on the wane; a man adept at the social technique of ensnaring his subjects and, I may say, an inferior, all-too-smooth painter. (p. 346, John E. Woods translation)

I particularly like the order in which Mann lists Nottebohm’s imitations. We seem to be working down a sliding scale of consciousness—actors, animals, musical instruments—and then—boom!—like a kettledrum going off we get the word “professors.” It makes Nottebohm’s impression of professors seem all the more mincing and ridiculous. The line is much funnier than if Mann had begun with professors, which might have been a more logical choice. But Mann is deft. He doesn’t overlook this opportunity for a bit a carnival humor and a way to enliven his description of this all-too-smooth painter.

NYC vs. MFA: Who lost? The Post-structuralists, Perhaps

As a grad student in the Yale English department, Helen Echlin was surprised to find that her professors held literature in such low regard.

No one has mentioned enjoying a book. . . . In the lift down from the English department, I ask one professor what is on her bedside table. The answer: a bestseller about physics. “No novels?” Her reply: “I don’t read literature for pleasure any more.”

Critics are ranked first, then readers and, lastly, writers. When I try to get graduate credit for taking the novelist Robert Stone’s fiction workshop, my request is refused. After all, I am doing a PhD in literary criticism, not in creative writing. But graduate students are allowed to receive credit for taking a course in any other graduate department. I could take a course in inorganic chemistry and be awarded credit for it, but I can’t take a course in creative writing. The department supervisor, Professor Ruth Yeazell, is unpersuadable. The English department will not accept that a fine novelist such as Stone has anything to contribute to my literary education. Having Stone teach literature is, in their eyes, like having a gorilla teach zoology.

This disdain for literature wasn’t, or isn’t, limited to Yale or even to the East Coast colleges, and it began earlier than the late nineties when Echlin attended Yale. Teaching at Berkeley a decade earlier, Robert Alter, the teacher, critic, and translator, found that his fellow faculty members and their students were suspicious, if not outright contemptuous, of literature. In his book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, Alter remembers a student approaching him after class to say how surprised she was to be enjoying Moby Dick. Two other professors in the department had dismissed the book as “a bore and scarcely worth the effort of reading.” Alter rues recent trends that favored abstract theory to practical reading, and he notes that “literature faculties may be increasingly populated with scholars who don’t particularly care for literature.” At  the MLA conference in 1985, he points out, the big topic was whether or not the study of literature was finished for good.

The picture that emerges from Echlin and Alter’s accounts is pretty bleak. Our best universities are teaching a generation of students to deprecate literature. Authors, it seems, are simply happy-go-lucky simpletons who haven’t read Derrida. Outside of classwork, reading literature can be dispensed with, and creative writing itself seems like a fool’s errand. “The joy of analysis – that’s what it’s all about,” as a fellow student tells Echlin.

Somehow, though, hordes of creative writing students didn’t get this message.

As Chad Harbach points out in an essay published in the journal n+1 and available on Slate here, the number of degree-granting creative writing programs has grown more than tenfold over the past few decades. In 1975, there were 79 such programs. Today there are 854.

So while post-structuralists were grimly cataloging the way poems, stories, and novels deconstructed themselves, and while conservatives were bemoaning supposedly liberal attacks on the canon, the humanist tradition, and the loss of Western values, an ever-growing number of students were enrolling in classes to hone their skills in that craft that has continued for thousands of years: telling stories.

Such faith in story-telling. Who would have thought.