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Poor Miss Finch (Collins)—book review

I re-read this recently ahead of moderating a panel at NAVSA2016, so I thought it might be worth reviewing here.




Neo-Vic-Lit: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

I’m not quite sure how or when Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ended up on my Kindle app, but when searching for something to read on my long commutes, it seemed the perfect thing. Despite being a Victorianist, I don’t read a huge amount of neo-Victorian fiction, as much of it feels flimsy to me. However, this is the best example of the genre that I’ve read since Jane Harris’ The Observations (which is excellent, and definitely worth a read!).


A question of machines

I’m doing some wider reading this week now that I’m in the final stages of revising my PhD, and I started reading through some of Steven Connor’s talks and speeches on machines. I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed his writing. Try out How to Do Things with Writing Machines!

Stories about stories

After a long work week, I’m having a day reading fiction for pleasure before I go back to reading drafts of thesis chapters again. My justification for reading popular fiction is usually that it is in a second language, so I’m reading José Carlos Somoza‘s La caverna de las ideas (published in English as The Athenian Murders). It’s a crime story set in Classical Greece, intertwined with a meta-narrative of a literary critic’s translation and interpretation of the story, and it has me thinking about why we find stories about stories so compelling.

There are lots of examples of this narrative nesting across popular fiction, as well as in TV and film (like Inception or Synecdoche, New York). It tends to be literature that is most involved with stories of literary interpretation, though, just as Synecdoche, New York is involved with filmmaking. Novels like The Marlowe PapersThe Tragedy of Arthur, or the ergodic S invite us into the world of reading and interpreting texts. La Caverna is particularly interesting because it invents a rhetorical figure around which the meta-narrative of literary interpretation centres: eidesis (which has its own—French—Wikipedia article). 

At one point, the footnotes through which our translator communicates include a narrated rant to a colleague about the frustrations of diverging literary interpretations. What he sees as eidesis, others see as merely extended metaphor. It is the presentation of the contingency of meaning that I find so interesting in this novel. Many novels leave reader with frustrating ambiguities, but few stage such explicitly the problems at the heart of apparently successful interpretation by a critic who cannot persuade others of their reading.

I think what fascinates readers in stories about stories is the way in which our own actions are mimicked. ‘Relatable’ characters are one thing, but a shared reading experience is compelling precisely because it is so hard to come by. Unlike watching film or TV, reading is inherently solitary. Even book groups do not involve simultaneous, shared immersive experiences. Stories about reading and interpreting stories are the closest we get to sharing those experiences. Novels like La Caverna or S not only tempt us into feeling this connection, but also invite us to care more deeply about the narrative than we might otherwise by showing us the fascination of others. Somoza’s narrator becomes obsessed with the possibilities of the text, with extracting its meaning. In calling our attention to certain details with their footnotes, we are invited to engage critically, rather than passively, to challenge or agree with narratorial interpretations as well as enjoying the simple content of the narrative.

I haven’t finished the book yet, although I have a certain suspicion as to how it will end for Somoza’s narrator! I am finding the illustration of a too-absorbed, too-earnest, too-meaning-starved literary critic fascinating to read for its romanticised academicism!

The secret art of life-curation: book review

The title here is not strictly the book’s title, but I think it ought to be. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is, at its heart, about the prioritising and ordering of things in life that bring joy. The book is a bestseller, and Kondo can be seen in YouTube videos helping people implement her eponymous method (#konmari). 
Tidying, along with decluttering, is en vogue. So en vogue that here is also something of a backlash, exemplified in Dominique Browning’s New York Times article ‘Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter’. However, the Konmari approach to tidying need not be anti-‘clutter’ in the sense of being utilitarian, as at the heart of the exercise is joy. We can have all the ‘clutter’ in the world if we like, as long as it brings us joy and each item has a place in our home. 
Konmari offers a set of instructions that are, apparently, failsafe or relapse-proof. She advocates tidying one’s home thoroughly, all in one go, and tackling clothes first, before addressing books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items like stationary and DVDs), and finally sentimental items. The purpose of the ordering is to help you hone your ability to make decisions about what items to keep, based solely on whether they bring you joy. This is why I think Konmari can be best thought of not as tidying, but as life-curation.

Increasingly, we all have an instinct about life-curation. On social media, in our CVs, in reading or listening to reports of how being mindful and authentic will improve our lives, relationships, and health, we all spend time thinking about how we are in the world, and how we wish to appear to be. A healthy approach to that is to look inwards and ask what brings us joy, rather than ask what we ‘need’ to keep up with the Joneses, or are supposed to own or enjoy.

So it was with a sense of hopefulness that I endeavoured to implement Kondo’s method in my own little London one-bed. The first task was clothing. Fair enough. I was rigorous with myself. And I have done many such wardrobe exercises in the past. I was feeling like a pro, but trying to be more thoughtful about my decision-making. It took a while, but the pile of remaining clothes was notably smaller than the pile I had started with.

Having done all of the clothes, however, I ran into a difficulty: my home is too small to have all the things out all of the time. I needed to put all the clothes back. Before doing that, I had to seize the opportunity move the furniture, clean the walls, empty the other parts of the bedroom too, so that I could put things where I’d eventually want them. By the end of day one, I had just about managed to put all the clothes away again (barring shoes and handbags), and get out all of the books (see top photo). Given the number of books I own, I was starting to feel worried about the ‘all in one go’ doctrine.

I ploughed on. It was a three-day weekend, and I had started, so I had to finish. Books were also the most challenging area. I love my books. And although I respect Kondo, her feelings toward books are not mine. In discouraging people from keeping both unread and read books, she says, “‘Sometime’ means ‘never'”, and that “books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember”.

I had close to 600 books when I started the exercise. I recycled/donated about 150. But I kept both unread books, and those that I’d last read years ago. Because ‘sometime’ often does come for me, and I cannot be satisfied with her casual “even if you don’t remember”. The physical books are there to remind us. It is one of the reasons why e-books generally don’t work for me. A chance encounter with a book, a glance at its title or front cover, is about memory, and often sparks ideas for me.

More generally, ‘reliving’ memories is the way in which we construct them, bring them into a sense of order, draw them into the stream of our lives. Taking care over the things we keep, and arranging them so that we can encounter them time after time, is about establishing a space that is part of our lives, rather than just the location for them. This is what Kondo’s method brings to the fore: the care we should take in ordering the threads of our life and making them ready-at-hand for ourselves. To wit, a William Morris poster, long buried in a cardboard tube, revived as part of one of my many bookcases.

For those who want to be more mindful about the little things, there are worse places to start than with Konmari.

Library of Babel: a Borgesian black comedy made real

Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’ was one of my favourite pieces from my sophomore lit-crit tutorial, so I’m weirdly excited by the fact that someone has now devised a website that can make it a “reality”. Programmer and author, Jonathan Basile was stirred by the resonance between Borges’ description and the capabilities of modern technology and surprised to find the code not already written, so he set out to produce a digital version of the library, which re-mediates Borges’ library. Once an imagined place whose literary content could only be inferred by an imaginative reader, it is transformed into an online on-demand production of literary content abstracted from the physical sense of a library. 

On the home page, as soon as one hovers over a link, the ‘counter’ of letters begins to whirr, rendering the word one had chosen quickly gibberish, but also exactly the same (because the ‘About’ page will be the end result of a link, even when the link text itself has been transformed into ‘Abqkj’). The changing digital text oddly offers a more fixed link between the symbolic and the real than the printed text of a short story’s page might.

The LibraryofBabel.info ‘About’ page notes that the site does not, in fact, “contain” the full Library of Babel, but only a small proportion of it (all permutations of 3,200 characters, rather than 1,312,000 characters). The question becomes, however: If the necessary algorithms are already there (as in, they could be written), is the website, in fact, as complete as Borges’ textual library? The website might be said to “contain” the full Library, but render only part of it accessible, without compromising the Library’s integrity. Indeed, the website adopts this claim elsewhere, such as on the ‘Reference Hex’ page: “Borges has set the rule for the universe en abyme contained on our site” (emphasis mine). 

Not content with a digital re-mediation, the website offers helpful suggestions for how readers might engage with the website, including the use of a screen reader. The screen reader itself being programmed with grammatical rules would not offer the same content, however, but a re-mediated version distinct from the version that might result from my reading the text (to myself or to others, aloud or mentally). Engaging us in interpretative activities, LibraryofBabel.info playfully suggests, following Borges, that the website and its forums should be a place for conducting and archiving research: “We encourage those who find strange concatenations among the variations of letters to write about their discoveries in the forum, so future generations may benefit from their research.” These include searches such as “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”, which the searcher records with “Doesn’t have a ‘Hamlet'” “but it does have a ‘hrlbikst’. Good enough for me!”, or searches for ASCII art, led by Basile himself. 

The forum also contains spontaneous outpourings such as, “I think it’s incredibly important that [the site] never be taken down”, or “So incredibly happy that you brought this into being”.* It is fascinating the sort of emotional response that the promise of comprehensiveness can generate, even when what is on offer is comprehensive gibberish. Borges’ blackly comedic take offers a thought-experiment, but LibraryofBabel.info claims to offer a fully fledged product, monumentalising the Library. Whereas Borges offers an exemplar of how human interpretation might constitute reality, Basile’s website enacts human interpretation in a guided form. “Anglishise” is an option on any page, highlighting English words and drawing (suggestive but meaningless) allusions from the overlapping of words. 

* Luke Chrisinger, 14 May 2015; Christian Arthur, 17 May 2015: http://libraryofbabel.info/forum/?topic=lob.

Dorian (Will Self) — book review

I picked up Dorian as something narrative and entertaining that was tangentially PhD-related (and, thus, a guilt-free read). The novel was first published in 2002, and it offers a modern update to The Picture of Dorian Gray, resetting the action in the 1980s and ’90s with a familiar but creatively reimagined cast. Basil becomes a slightly pathetic, needy installation artist (nicknamed Baz); Henry a drug-addled fop; Dorian a homicidal sadist, using HIV as his preferred weapon; Baz’s paean to Dorian becomes a video installation comprising multiple tapes and screens; the wealthy, drug-driven gay scene replaces Wilde’s Victorian aesthetic circles.

In rewriting Wilde’s classic, Self offers allusive (and often self-referential) narrative layers that merit deeper thought than his pacy writing style would intimate. Spoilers below!

At times riotously funny, as the narrative ricochets across decades, Henry, Dorian and Baz all alternately repulse and beguile. The book’s subtitle is An Imitation, and Self recycles a surprising amount of Wilde’s original, taking not only plot, character and location, but phrases, epigrams, and dialogue directly from the source. This sense of repetition is intensified by a suite of circular images.

The new medium for Dorian’s portrait — the circular loop of the video tape, the numerous copies — draws attention to the theme of repetition and divergence, that there is nothing new on the planet. The text returns to various fixed points, such as the dualing of Dorian and the doomed Princess Diana, or the perpetually fecund garden surrounding Henry’s home. With each repetition, Self prompts the reader to construct a sense of circularity.

The metanarrative that Self layers atop Wilde’s tale calls attention to the written nature of the text, suggesting that Dorian’s story is the febrile, malicious scratchings of a dying Henry before ‘revealing’ that this metanarrative is itself a fiction conjured by Dorian in a panicked state as he is about to get his comeuppance. The conclusion suggests that the initial narrative (perhaps, or perhaps not, a fiction of Henry’s) was partially ‘true’, although the point of divergence remains elusive. Just as Wilde’s original was read as an indictment of its author, the space between the lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray scrutinised for revelatory power, the final twist of Self’s imitation invites the reader to spot the exaggeration, the slight twist or turn, that might be veiling the ‘real’ behind the fictional.