8/31/14

Emily Homes Coleman portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world




Emily Homes Coleman, Shutter of Snow. Penguin Books; Reprint edition, 1986.

In a prose form as startling as its content, The Shutter of Snow portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Snake Pit.
Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, The Shutter of Snow retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.


There were two voices that were louder than the others. At night when the red light was out in the hall and there was someone sitting in a chair in front of the door clearing her throat at intervals there would be the voices far down the hall mingling with sobs and shouts and the drones of those who were beginning to sleep. It was cold and she shivered under the blankets. She cried out that she was cold and the woman came in and took a blanket out and warmed it for her. Then she would be wrapped in the hot blanket very tightly and the covers tucked in over that. My feet are cold. Her throat was always hot, like old bread in the sun. Her lips stood out and were cracked and there was water gushing on the other side of the wall. There was chicken wire up over her door.
The window was closed and the bars went up and down on the outside. She could hear the wind sliding the snow off the roof. An avalanche of snow gathered and fell and buried the sun beneath. There were six bars to the back of her bed.
The voices were carrying stones from one field to another. They dropped the stones and other voices picked them up and threw them into a loose-planked wagon. One of them came from the other side of her bed, the other side of that wall. There was nothing in the room but the bed and the chicken wire and high up on the wall the iron grating where she threw the plates. There was no light in the room. Only  a dull red light in the hall. Someone was walking back and forth back and forth passing her door a captive. The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone. It never stopped all night. It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind. The rest of the voices were not so distinct. It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.
(Emily Holmes Coleman: the Shutter of Snow)
 

Front Cover

Rough Draft: The Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman, 1929-1937

read it at Google Books 

Rough Draft: The Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman, 1929-1937 is an edited selection, published here for the first time, of the diaries kept by American poet and novelist Coleman during her years as an expatriate in the modernist hubs of France and England. During her time abroad, Coleman developed as a surrealist writer, publishing a novel, The Shutter of Snow, and poems in little magazines like transition. She also began her life s work, her diary, which was sustained for over four decades. This portion of the diary is set against the cultural, social, and political milieu of the early twentieth century in the throes of industrialization, commercialization, and modernization. It showcases Coleman s often larger-than-life, intense personality as she interacted with a multitude of literary, artistic, and intellectual figures of the period like Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim, Antonia White, John Holms, George Barker, Edwin Muir, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Waley, Humphrey Jennings, Dylan Thomas, and T.S. Eliot. The book offers Coleman s lively, raw, and often iconoclastic account of her complex social network. The personal and professional encouragements, jealousies, and ambitions of her friends unfolded within a world of limitless sexual longing, supplies of alcohol, and aesthetic discussions. The diary documents the disparate ways Coleman celebrated, just as she consistently struggled to reconcile, her multiple identities as an artistic, intellectual, maternal, sexual, and spiritual woman. Rough Draft contributes to the growing modernist canon of life writings of both female and male participants whose autobiographies, memoirs, and diaries offer diverse accounts of the period, like Ernest Hemingway s A Moveable Feast, Gertrude Stein s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach s Shakespeare and Company, and Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle s Being Geniuses Together.

8/29/14

Burnt Tongues - a collection of transgressive stories. Transgressive fiction authors write stories some are afraid to tell. Stories with taboo subjects, unique voices, shocking images—nothing safe or dry



Burnt Tongues, Edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, Dennis Widmyer. Medallion Press, 2014.




Transgressive fiction authors write stories some are afraid to tell. Stories with taboo subjects, unique voices, shocking images—nothing safe or dry.
Burnt Tongues is a collection of transgressive stories selected by a rigorous nomination and vetting process and hand-selected by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, as the best of The Cult workshop.
These stories run the gamut from horrific and fantastic to humorous and touching, but each leaves a lasting impression.
Some may say even a scar.



Authors: Daniel Broallt, Keith Buie, Chris Lewis Carter, Michael De Vito, Jr., Terence James Eeles, Matt Egan, Jason M. Fylan, Amanda Gowin, Bryan Howie, Tyler Jones, Phil Jourdan, Neil Krolicki, Richard Lemmer, Tony Liebhard, Gus Moreno, Brien Piechos, Adam Skorupskas, Brandon Tietz, Gayle Towell, Fred Venturini


Despite its little-heralded status in literary circles, the counterculture genre known as transgressive fiction, wherein the author and/or protagonist bucks social conventions by violating one or more taboos, actually has a rather illustrious history. Classic novels such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, featuring the murderous Raskolnikov, for instance, can be categorized as transgressive fiction. In this collection of 20 contemporary short stories, lead editor Palahniuk makes certain each piece qualifies as an example of both first-rate craftsmanship and something that pushes the envelope of social acceptability. In Neil Krolicki’s opening tale, Live This Down, three humiliated high-school girls plot their suicides using a poison-gas recipe gleaned from the Internet. An animal-shelter technician in Chris Lewis Carter’s Charlie recognizes the tortured cat someone drops off as one he himself abused when it was a kitten. Matt Egan’s A Vodka Kind of Girl recounts the sad fate of a calorie-counting, bulimic woman. Anyone looking for boundary-breaking tales that also pack a haunting, powerful punch will find hours of entertainment here. --Carl Hays
 
“This is a book of spores. These stories, you breathe onto the page and they float up into your mucous membranes, their spiky edges lodging characters and voices in your head that shudder to life when you least expect it. Just when you think you’ve closed the book, it opens up all over again, inside you.”—Stephen Graham Jones
 
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, who is said to have made audiences faint after reading from his own short story Guts, is plotting the release of a collection of "transgressive" short stories on "taboo" subjects by budding writers.
The novelist, who is currently penning a graphic novel sequel to Fight Club, also mentors writers online as part of what his publisher called his "mission to bring people back to books". His students are encouraged to use "a minimal writing style like Palahniuk's", said Titan Books, and now the best of their work – as chosen by Palahniuk – is being combined to create the anthology Burnt Tongues, out this autumn.
"Transgressive fiction authors write stories some are afraid to tell. Stories with taboo subjects, unique voices, shocking images – nothing safe or dry," says its publisher. "These stories run the gamut from horrific and fantastic to humorous and touching, but each leaves a lasting impression. Some may say even a scar."
Palahniuk's own story, Guts, which features disturbing scenes of masturbation, is reported to have made listeners faint. "The publicist who watched all three events said the people fell the moment I read the words 'corn and peanuts'. It was that detail that made seated people go limp," Palahniuk has written. "Standing people, according to my translator in Italy, they just dropped, disappearing in the crowd. In Bologna, where an actor read Guts in Italian, the listening crowd was riddled with holes, empty spaces where people and fallen and lay on the stone floor. 'Do you know,' the translator said, 'this awful story is being read in a cathedral?'"
Burnt Tongues' 20 stories "are as eclectic as the authors themselves", said Titan Books, which has just acquired the book in the UK, with titles ranging from Zombie Whorehouse to Mind and Soldier. Heather Musick at its US publisher Medallion Press called Burnt Tongues a "remarkable collection of transgressive short stories by talented authors whose work captivates and leaves an indelible mark".  - Alison Flood



Liam Sprod reinvigorates art, literature and philosophy through the unlikely alliance of hauntology and the Italian futurists. Tracing the paradoxes of the possibilities of total nuclear destruction reveals the terminal condition of culture in the time of ends, where the logic of the apocalyptic without apocalypse holds sway


Liam Sprod, Nuclear Futurism: The work of art in the age of remainderless destruction. Zero Books, 2012)

read it at Google Books

Starting from the end of history, the end of art and the failure of the future set out by such ends, Nuclear Futurism reinvigorates art, literature and philosophy through the unlikely alliance of hauntology and the Italian futurists. Tracing the paradoxes of the possibilities of total nuclear destruction reveals the terminal condition of culture in the time of ends, where the logic of the apocalyptic without apocalypse holds sway. These paradoxes also open the path for a new vision of the future in the form of experimental art and literature. By re-examining the thought of both Derrida and Heidegger with regards to the history of art, the art of history and their responses to the most dangerous technology of nuclear weapons the future is exposed as a progressive event, rather than the atrophied and apocalyptic to-come of the present world. It is happening now, opening up through the force of art and literature and charting a new path for a futural philosophy.

The central thesis of the book, that this hauntological futurity is applicable to a study of Italian Futurism, remains an interesting topic, and my only criticism would be that I would have preferred a longer study which pays greater attention to Futurist works of art themselves, as well as the famous manifestos. The care and attention paid to the construction and qualification of the arguments in Nuclear Futurism is both admirable but also the reason why you wouldn’t exactly pick this book up unless you had a specific interest in doing so. It is most definitely ‘difficult theory’, not because it is particularly difficult per se, or lacking in clarity, rather, the arguments are so dense and well qualified that any clumsy turns of thought are banished, and what remains is 120 pages of taut and challenging philosophical investigation. The book doesn’t let up until the endnotes, so anyone spying its slim spine and considering a quick theory fix should be warned off - this is hardcore. - Callam Green

It is reasonably safe to say that ‘end-times’ have been an obsession of every culture-producing civilisation throughout human history. The English language itself is terrified of non-ending, the sentence without a full stop signifies the boundless potentiality for language; how can a sentence mean anything when it isn’t formally ended? And ellipses? Their terror is slightly more palatable but only in the paradoxical sense of its formal signification of ending where there is plenty left unspoken. Ends exist so that we can cope with everything that occurs prior to that end with all of that unknown terror pushed out of sight, beyond punctuation. So what happens when that terrifying unknown future rears up on the horizon again? We simply write a bit more of the story and the end-point is hurled onwards by this constant narrative.
The publication of Nuclear Futurism, in the final months of 2012, coincided with the rising media interest in the forthcoming conclusion of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar. Although much ridiculed as a logical end to human civilisation, the ‘Mayan apocalypse’, and to a lesser extent 2011’s ‘Rapture’, caught public attention - which I would argue was exactly the point of them in the first place. If we are preoccupied by fictional finality our own inevitable destruction remains unthought-of. In fact, theories of the apocalypse seem to have proliferated in the 20th and 21st centuries despite their general scientific impossibility. There is a very definite spike from the beginning of the 1960s—where the first notions of total nuclear war appear with the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This, specifically nuclear apocalypse, is the starting point for Liam Sprod’s investigation, perhaps because it is the first 'worlds-end' narrative that cannot be dismissed as simply fantastic. Like any other end-narrative, total nuclear war would be catastrophic for humankind; however, unlike any of the other narratives this outcome would rely solely on human action, rather than divine intervention. Thus the nuclear age destroyed the parabolic ends-narrative because of its scientific inscrutability; the question with nuclear annihilation was when, rather than how. Sprod’s achievement in Nuclear Futurism is to deftly align this very modern type of end-of-world narrative with other ends, specifically the end of art and the end of history. In making this leap a space is opened up for an investigation into the workings of futurity as a progressive present rather than a distant time ahead.
By focusing on one of Jacques Derrida’s minor texts, ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’, and the forgotten school of ‘nuclear criticism’, Sprod finds a niche in which Derrida's and Heidegger’s work can be explored in an original manner which is in itself an achievement considering the extent to which these totemic figures of the twentieth century have been focused on over recent decades. The crowning achievement of Nuclear Futurism is some very adroit close reading of these two philosophers, and it is clear that this is the author’s strong point; he handles their oeuvres in such a way that their larger bodies of work play a part in the construction of his critique without the thrust of the argument becoming lost, and this is achieved through some clever and very necessary qualification.
The hinge of the main argument in Nuclear Futurism is that Heidegger’s ‘mine-ness’ of death and Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ are methods by which the narrativisation of the future can be examined. What is in reality quite a simple argument - that the future is written in the present and thus the future exists in the present and not some inaccessible potential history - is handled with great adeptness. The aporetic nature of hauntology is negotiated in such a way that the paradox of being and non-being becomes a three dimensional and active philosophical concept, rather than lapsing into reductive or simplistic messianism.
The central thesis of the book, that this hauntological futurity is applicable to a study of Italian Futurism, remains an interesting topic, and my only criticism would be that I would have preferred a longer study which pays greater attention to Futurist works of art themselves, as well as the famous manifestos. The care and attention paid to the construction and qualification of the arguments in Nuclear Futurism is both admirable but also the reason why you wouldn’t exactly pick this book up unless you had a specific interest in doing so. It is most definitely ‘difficult theory’, not because it is particularly difficult per se, or lacking in clarity, rather, the arguments are so dense and well qualified that any clumsy turns of thought are banished, and what remains is 120 pages of taut and challenging philosophical investigation. The book doesn’t let up until the endnotes, so anyone spying its slim spine and considering a quick theory fix should be warned off - this is hardcore. - Callam Green

Giuseppe Pontiggia - a university professor's attempt to discover the true identity of the author who sends him a string of threatening letters. Eventually, he comes to see that the "invisible player" is not merely behind his back, but within his soul

Cover of: The invisible player by Giuseppe Pontiggia

Giuseppe Pontiggia, The Invisible Player. Trans. by Anna Cancogni. Eridanos Press, 1989.

A novel, winner of Italy's Campiello Prize, that describes the gradual breakdown of a modern intellectual in the face of the inexplicable. It portrays a university professor's attempt to discover the true identity of the author who sends him a string of threatening letters. Eventually, he comes to see that the "invisible player" is not merely behind his back, but within his soul.


The Invisible Player has an academic setting. The central character is a professor of philology, the action set in motion by an anonymous letter to the editor in the journal, The Voice of Antiquity, attacking him. The professor takes it very personally, and becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind it -- and, though he tries to be discreet in his hunt, his reaction only makes him more of a subject for gossip. (Early on he berates his curious assistant: "Why look for the author ? Then the whole thing will snowball, assume gigantic dimensions" -- but he can't take his own advice.)
       The professor is married to a younger -- and very attractive -- woman, and he's also concerned about what she might be doing behind his back. Her relationship with Daverio -- a former rival for her affections -- certainly seems a bit close for comfort ..... The professor nevertheless also has his own extramarital ambitions -- though his ruthless criticism of one aspiring poet's work probably don't help his long-term plans with her.
       The professor can't keep himself from confronting those he suspects of being behind the letter. he tries to approach them in a roundabout way, but he's pretty transparent (and most admit that they're candidates). Desperation leads him to even break into the offices of the journal and rifle through the letters to the editor - but finding a name and address only gets him so far: the person behind the letter has done a good job of covering his tracks.
       The professor is also a chess player, and the book is also a chess game, a clever back and forth of attacks and feints and sacrifices. Much of the book is made up of the head-to-head confrontations (though they almost all appear very civil) between pairs of characters (few scenes find more than two people together); dialogue-heavy, there is occasionally a sense of artifice here, but generally Pontiggia presents these confrontations and exchanges -- these games -- very nicely.
       The book turns fairly quickly in its resolution, the professor's world falling apart a bit faster than he can keep track of. Elegantly tied together, the end has that double-edged satisfaction of real life, where victories can come at great cost, a petty battle won at the cost of something much greater and what appears, for a moment, to be clear is quickly obscured.
       Pontiggia has a nice touch and paints an affectionate picture of a tortured academic world, with characters like Liveranti who roams "through the bare rooms" of the immense apartment he bought but could not afford to furnish, or various specialists, obsessed with the limited part of the world that they are experts in. Some of the conversations and encounters drag on a bit, and some seem superfluous, but the larger game Pontiggia is playing is well-concealed, his presentation much more subtle and elegant than one usually finds in such Borgesian fictions.
       The Invisible Player is perhaps a bit slow and too deliberate for some, but it's a nice piece of work. - www.complete-review.com/reviews/italia/pontig1.htm

This academic thriller is the Italian Pontiggia's first to appear in English: part psychological investigation, part scathing satire of academia, it's fun but limited in interest, intended for an erudite audience. A Professor, attacked anonymously in a letter published in The Voice of Antiquity, a magazine, spends the entire book trying to track down the culprit. At times, the plot seems more like an elaborate joke stretched into a novel (replete with numerous allusions to chess) than like a credible story, but satirical set-pieces and the development of a psychological love-triangle save it. The Professor's wife chose him over Daverio, another former teacher, and Daverio has never gotten over her ("" 'Please, Lord, make her love me back,' he prayed. . .""). He speaks to her often but never gets anywhere; finally, he descends into a nervous breakdown that will lead to suicide. The Professor's wife then leaves her husband, but not for Daverio. And the Professor's investigation takes him throughout academia and its publishing world, where backbiting and pettiness run rampant. The investigation, that is, leads him to understand how little he knows about himself or others. The set-pieces include satires of the Professor, his colleagues and students, mostly pompous bureaucrats or bad but ambitious writers; of Martelli, editor-in-chief of New Narrative, who ""used to screen the manuscripts he received with a rigor as intense as the secret confusion he felt every time he came across some unknown author""; of the ex-writer Cattaneo. The Professor, with Cattaneo's help, composes a response to the letter, but finally fails to solve anything, especially the enigma of his own personality. ""You mean to tell me that you still believe in language?"" one colleague sums up. Post-modern game-playing--at times, clever and fascinating (and even moving, with Daverio's suicide); at other times, passÉ--Pontiggia is chewing over more than he's bitten off.  - Kirkus Reviews

Born Twice by Giuseppe Pontiggia

Giuseppe Pontiggia, Born Twice. Vintage, 2003.

When a breach birth leaves Paulo severely disabled, his father, the articulate, unsentimental Professor Frigerio, struggles to come to terms with his son’s condition. Face to face with his own limitations, Frigerio confronts the strange way society around him handles Paolo’s handicaps and observes his surprising gifts. In spare, deeply affecting episodes, the professor of language explores the nuanced boundaries between “normal” and “disabled” worlds.
A remarkable memoir of fathering, winner of the 2001 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary honor, Born Twice is noted Italian author Guiseppe Pontiggia’s American debut. Sometimes meditative, often humorous, and always probing, Pontiggia’s haunting characters linger and resound long after the book is done.

Veteran Italian writer Pontiggia illuminates "the distance that exists between the disabled and us" in this compassionate, deeply moral novel, his first to appear in English. When high school teacher Frigerio's son Paolo is born, a physician's ineptitude leaves the boy with permanent disabilities. Frigerio and his wife, Franca, are informed by a therapist that Paolo suffers from a neurological disorder that slows his learning and permanently hinders his motor skills, though he is quite lucid and intelligent. The novel comprises brief vignettes over Paolo's first 30 years, in which Frigerio offers wry observations about his complicated relationship with the boy and about the way others react to him. Frigerio parses doctors' examinations for hidden meanings, noting that conversations are conducted so that "no one ever has to say the truth." Franca provides a thorny counterpoint kind to Paolo and justifiably impatient with Frigerio but she is perhaps less realistic about the child's condition. Frigerio muses on the many ways people most notably an odious, manipulative principal who uses a bad leg as a psychological weapon exploit their own disabilities. Franca and their other son, Alfredo, have only bit parts; even Paolo often seems like a cipher hovering in the background. But Frigerio dogged, intelligent and self-aware will win readers over with an array of casual yet profound insights into the human condition ("Why not test for stupidity as a planetary epidemic?") and his fierce dedication to his son. - Publishers Weekly   
 
This taciturn, extremely intelligent novel won Italy's Strega Prize. When Professor Frigerio's son Paolo is born, he sustains cerebral lesions as the result of an inept delivery; his mind isn't impaired, it turns out, but he lurches when he walks and has difficulty speaking. There's very little railing at Fate here (and there's a profoundly un-American lack of interest in litigation); rather, Frigerio's wry, fugue-like series of meditations on what Paolo's disabilities mean, over time, to him, to Paolo's intent, impassioned mother, Franca, and to Paolo himself turns into a subtle, unsentimental primer not only on the nature of disability but on the pitfalls we encounter when we try to turn a child into someone
 © 2005 The New Yorker

Tom Sparrow seeks to defamiliarize Levinas through a series of powerful readings, each foregrounding the strange, unsettling and liminal aspects of his philosophy: the centrality of the body, materiality, the night, the body in its materiality; the irreducibility of aesthetic experience; the transcendental function of sensation; the ecological aspect of sensibility; the horror of existence.



Tom Sparrow, Levinas Unhinged, Zero Books, 2013.

plasticbodies.wordpress.com/

Through six heterodox essays this book extracts a materialist account of subjectivity and aesthetics from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. More than a work of academic commentary that would leave many of Levinas’s pious commentators aghast, Sparrow exhibits an aspect of Levinas which is darker, yet no less fundamental, than his ethical and theological guises. This darkened Levinas provides answers to problems in aesthetics, speculative philosophy, ecology, ethics, and philosophy of race, problems which not only trouble scholars, but which haunt anyone who insists that the material of existence is the beginning and end of existence itself.

  • Admitting from the off that his aim is not to ‘get Levinas right’, [Sparrow] seeks to defamiliarize Levinas through a series of powerful readings, each foregrounding the strange, unsettling and liminal aspects of his philosophy: the centrality of the body, materiality, the night. The result is impressive. Sparrow presents a Levinas who is both haunted and haunting — and, a Levinas primed for an engagement with the turn towards the weird and visceral that we see in recent speculative philosophy. ~ Will Rees
  • Most 'defenders' of Levinas have undercut his genius by presenting him either as a pious old finger-wagging grandpa or as Jacques Derrida's halfhearted apprentice. In this book Tom Sparrow gives us the true Levinas: a formidable metaphysician who did more than anyone else to sensualize and concretize the work of Heidegger. Levinas is not in our rearview mirror, but remains in our motorcade today. He will still have much to teach us. Sparrow lucidly reminds us why. ~ Graham Harman
  • Levinas Unhinged shows us another side of Levinas that is often ignored or overlooked. Sparrow's Levinas is foremost a philosopher of the night, attuned to the shadowy underbelly of appearances. Removed from his role as the high priest of ethics, Levinas appears in a new way. Now, the terms horror, indifference, and facelessness all come to the foreground as central to an understanding of Levinasian philosophy. This provocative reading is thus not only a challenge to Levinas scholarship, it is also a challenge to materialist ontology more broadly. The result is a worthy contribution to current debates in speculative realism and phenomenology. ~ Dylan Trigg
  •  
  • Tom Sparrow’s book Levinas Unhinged is an act of vandalism. Sparrow de-faces Levinas’s philosophy, bringing out those dark aspects of his work which are often ignored in the moralizing interpretations of his more pious readers, whose focus rarely veers far from Totality and Infinity’s descriptions of the ethical transcendence of the face. At best such readers relegate these unsettling moments to the status of curios in their master’s intellectual history — they are simply early stop-offs on the journey towards ethical metaphysics; if one doesn’t want to, one needn’t even look out the window, let alone get off the train. They are interesting, but not important.
    From this narrative Sparrow deliberately and decisively dissents. Admitting from the off that his aim is not to ‘get Levinas right’, he seeks to defamiliarize Levinas through a series of powerful readings, each foregrounding the strange, unsettling and liminal aspects of his philosophy: the centrality of the body, materiality, the night. The result is impressive. Sparrow presents a Levinas who is both haunted and haunting — and, a Levinas primed for an engagement with the turn towards the weird and visceral that we see in recent speculative philosophy.
    Chapter 1 focusses on Levinas’s critique of the tradition as the privileging of light. Sparrow’s main reference point here is Existence and Existents (1947) — an incredibly terse and powerful work whose strange kernel was written while Levinas was still imprisoned in the Stalag. (A quirk of history: a Jew in French uniform, fighting for the Resistance, Levinas belonged to a ‘fortunate’ category of prisoners who were spared the death camps for fear of reprisals should the Nazis break the Geneva Convention. Instead, he lived out his five years of internment in a prisoner of war camp, working in the forest with the other Jewish prisoners by day, and reading Hegel and writing by night.) Sparrow turns to that strangest of Levinasian ‘concepts’, the ‘there is’ (il y a); the anonymous existence devoid of any existent that Levinas calls the ‘night itself’ and which pursues the subject, manifesting indirectly in moments of pain, horror and — most of all — insomnia. This is the thick and impenetrable materiality that underlies the lightness of appearances; a darkness that is not the simple absence of light, but, in Sparrow’s excellent turn of phrase, a ‘tangible darkness’.
    Sparrow rightly questions the relationship between imagination and experience when it comes to the il y a; if one cannot directly experience it, is it only accessible through the faculty of the imagination? And if this is the case, is Levinas still doing phenomenology? Perhaps, in a longer work, Sparrow would connect these questions with Levinas’s later innovation: the trace. It is with this thought that we can make better sense of that which does not show itself — that which is by definition allergic to light and conceptualization — and yet that which still pursues and threatens us.
    Chapter 2 focusses on the attention Levinas pays to the role of sensation, especially in his aesthetics. Sidestepping the ethical transcendence for which he is famous, Sparrow brings out the aspects of Levinas’s early work which bring him into dialogue with such unlikely bedfellows as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière.
    Chapter 3 is perhaps the book’s most significant chapter — and probably its most provocative. It is here that Sparrow engages most directly in the ongoing debate that has emerged since the publication of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, and the speculative turn it has provoked. Again, Sparrow emphasizes the role of sensation in Levinas’s philosophy, this time bringing him into contact with Kant and Merleau-Ponty. Towards the end of the chapter, he writes:
    Phenomenology, for all its promise, has trouble handling the non-phenomenal and the non-intentional. This is precisely because phenomenality and intentionality are the fundamental elements of its understanding of experience. . . . As if despite their allegiance to the phenomenological principles Levinas and Merleau-Ponty make valuable contributions to the rehabiliatation of sensation as a concept. But these contributions oftentimes seem in tension with the first-person perspective of phenomenology. . . . Such speculation is without question required for a complete understanding of corporeal identity. Without it we are left only with description.
    Sparrow’s critique of phenomenology rests on his decisively narrow conceptualization of it. It is as though the only form possible were a rigorous commitment to a reductive method that doesn’t depart from presence and perception. This, of course, is misleading. Or at the very least, would require further argument. He continues:
    It is true that this subject is seen as embedded and situated in a concrete environment, but this concreteness is always informed by the teleological practice of the subject . . . the phenomenologist’s picture of embodiment will accommodate the body as lived, existential project, but it will do so at the neglect of the material basis of aesthetic identity.
    The problem is this: how do we approach the nonphenomenal nonhuman substrate of existence, without rendering it human by bending and distorting it through the colours and shapes of our experiences and concepts? Sparrow is right to want to answer this question, and he is right that phenomenology has often failed to do so. But he is wrong to suggest that phenomenology’s ‘anthropocentric perspective’ cannot but fail in this task. To my mind it remains the most suitable method. And Levinas would seem to agree. Through a simultaneous appropriation and subversion of the phenomenological method, Levinas questions the unity of the lifeworld, while remaining committed to an altered phenomenology that points to the nonphenomenal from within the lifeworld. Thus he turns toward those moments of rupture that rightly fascinate Sparrow: nausea, pain, effort, indolence, insomnia and horror. Through painstaking phenomenological descriptions of these experiences that simultaneously occur within, and call into question, the human world, the ‘dark realm of sensuous materiality’ forces itself upon us. Where the unity of experience breaks up, the monstrous indirectly rears its head. Certainly this entails a certain move beyond phenomenology, or a pushing of phenomenology beyond its limits and itself, but it is through the work of descriptive phenomenology that we arrive here. Sparrow’s claim that ‘it is not necessary to return to the phenomenologists to advance the concept’ of aesthetic identity is, to my mind, false. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see why Sparrow thinks that Levinas, while a trenchant critic of phenomenology throughout, nonetheless remains committed to it in some form, such that as late as 1984 he could still lay claim to ‘another phenomenology’.
    Chapter 4 is a fascinating attempt to put Levinas into dialogue with certain strands of contemporary ecology. Sparrow rightly rejects all attempts to extend the ethical experience of the face of the other person to the natural environment; an approach that is inescapably anthropomorphic. The natural environment resists all attempts to be rendered human. I think here of Wallace Stevens:
    The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
    Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
    It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

    In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
    Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
    Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

    In place of the face of the other, Sparrow advances Timothy Morton’s concept of the ‘strange stranger’. He writes: ‘A strange stranger is a beinghuman, animal, other—that is simultaneously intimate with and foreign to me. The more you look at and learn about this intimacy, the more foreign the strange stranger seems.’ Thus he starts to develop an uncanny ecology based on the blank facelessness of the natural world that surpasses and encompasses us, that ‘holds us hostage at the same time as it asks for our help.’ Towards the end, he writes:
    It is particularly disarming to acknowledge that it is precisely this strangeness that commands us ethically, that calls for our humility and caution. The strange stranger is the face(lessness) of infinity, the specter of a responsibility that exceeds us.
    Without an account of transcendence — the positive infinity that gives Levinas so much grief from Derrida — the ethical command Sparrow aims for is going to be difficult to justify. Clearly it rests on his appeal to spectrality, although in this chapter it is not quite clear how. This is a truly fascinating idea, but it deserves a book.
    Chapter 5 sketches and subverts Levinas’s most famous proposition, defacing without effacing the central chapters of Totality and Infinity with the help of Alphonso Lingis. Locating the tension between the empirical and transcendental readings of the face, Sparrow seeks to bring back to the fore the brute, strange and dark materiality that must inform all of our encounters with the other’s face. While the exegetical work will be a little too simplistic for many readers already familiar with Totality and Infinity, the original contributions towards the end of the chapter are well worth wading through some slightly sketchy formulations for. For example:
    Our trust answers to a dare, not an obligation. It rides on the contingency of responsibility. We catch on to the other’s voice and allow its unmistakable appeal to solicit our effortless interlocution. Because the laughter or tears of another are contagious, the other becomes a magnet for us or reflects in their eyes our own mortality. This is the kind of non-allergic contact which Levinas desires, but it is not a contact which can be prescribed. We can always flee the scene and head home.
    This is a beautiful passage. So is this: ‘Responsibility is much less a somber obligation than it is an exhilarating risk.’ That said, it is not clear to me that Levinas — at least in Otherwise Than Being — would exactly dispute this. For example, it is here that he writes: ‘A face as a trace . . . does not signify an indeterminate phenomenon; its ambiguity is . . . but an invitation to the fine risk of approach qua approach, to the exposure of one to the other, to the exposure of this exposedness, the expression of exposure, saying.’ And: ‘Communication with the other can be transcendent only as a dangerous life, a fine risk to be run.’ Of course for Levinas the terms would not be opposed: the exhilarating risk would be precisely that which ups the graveness of the obligation. It is here that Sparrow might want to take issue, though I wonder if he would, or if he should; to do so would weaken the impact of his point.
    The implication, towards the end of the chapter, that Levinas’s reluctance to focus on the fleshiness of the face (which is in any case disputable in light of Otherwise Than Being) results from some form of expedience seems dubious. And talk of ‘the prime violence of Levinas’s metaphysical system’ will likely make some readers wince. Among such fiercely polemical and probably unfair claims however, there are some genuinely beautiful and perceptive insights. An example:
    There is enough in the contours of the face, the hue of the skin, and the sparkle of the eyes to interrupt violence without having to appeal to divine command. The mundane is excessive enough to dislocate totality. Levinas knows as much; the defense of materiality that makes up his critique of transcendental egoism betrays this knowledge.
    The ethical minimalism for which Sparrow aims — infinitely liable to evaporate and based on chance, risk, trust; on the brute facticity of the body — is both strangely compelling and compellingly strange.
    In Chapter 6 Sparrow turns away from Levinas, devoting an essay to his most eccentric and original translator and reader, Alphonso Lingis. Sparrow brilliantly captures Lingis’s work: it reads as though ‘William James and Levinas were coopted to author all of the guide books in the Lonely Planet series’. ‘The time’, he writes incontestably, ‘is ripe for Lingis studies to be extended.’ Lingis is the itinerant philosopher, the Levinas that Levinas sometimes — but all too rarely — seems to be; an evil twin, a deviant Levinas, a Levinas perverted by spending too much time with Nietzsche and Bataille. His appeal for Sparrow is obvious; perhaps more than anyone he has reinvigorated the concept of sensation for phenomenology.
    ‘Is it possible to reconcile the phenomenological account of subjectivity, along with the critique of sensationalism carried out by James and Merleau-Ponty, with a realism of sensation?’ This is the question that traverses the essay, and, indeed, the entire book. How would phenomenology approach sensation, without either denying its existence (with a perceptual foundationalism) or making it a purely formal abstraction? The answer is to be found in descriptions of those moments of excess, in which it becomes clear that to ‘live is to be affected by the material imposition of existence, to feel ourselves engulfed in the plenitude of the world’s flesh, which is nothing other than our own fleshy substance.’ This is a nuanced point (and is, I think, at odds with Sparrow’s more reductive critique of phenomenology that we saw in Chapter 3). Throughout this chapter Sparrow shows himself to be a great reader of Lingis, and when his work eventually receives the attention it deserves (and it will) Sparrow’s voice is likely to be an important one.
    Occasionally in the book we get the sense that Sparrow is unwilling to fully try to understand the nuances of some of Levinas’s ideas, most significantly his commitment to a form of theism. Sparrow rather briskly dismisses the more theological aspects of Levinas’s work — probably rightly — but without really trying to understand them. Levinas’s, after all, is not a theism which can stand in simple opposition with atheism; his is an absent God, a God ‘transcendent to the point of absence, to the point of a possible confusion with the stirring of the there is.’ Sometimes Sparrow writes as though Levinas defers authority to God to justify his philosophy in a way akin to Descartes — and this is hardly true or fair. Of course, as we are well warned, Sparrow is not seeking ‘to get Levinas right’, and this goes some way — perhaps all the way — to mitigating the concern. Still, it would be interesting to find out what Sparrow makes of quotes such as the above, which problematize the distinctions which he has to make in Levinas’s thought in order pick and choose, as he does.
    Minor gripes. Levinas Unhinged is a slim volume and it does exactly what it sets out to do. And while it is hardly the first work to focus on the darker aspects of Levinas’s philosophy, it nonetheless appraises them from an original perspective. Its effect is reinvigorating. It shows that we are not yet done with Levinas, and, more importantly, that Levinas is not yet done with us. It is a valuable contribution to the scholarship, and another great example of the success of Zero’s ethos. It will undoubtedly increase dialogue between those working on Levinas and those working within the new strands of post-Meillassouxian philosophy; the results will be interesting. As a provocation it is successful, and the majority of its shortcomings come from its shortness; they could be overcome were Sparrow to write a book as large as his ambition. Let’s hope that he does. - Will Rees

    In his fine new book Levinas Unhinged, Tom Sparrow writes about how Alphonso Lingis both radicalizes Levinas in the direction of materiality, and goes beyond the accpunt of perception elaborated by Merleau-Ponty. Lingis insists upon the radicality of sensation, something that orthodox phenomenology excludes. For Merleau-Ponty,Sparrow says, “our most elementary experiences are always already meaning-laden, figural, given to us as a thing that we can get our hands around.”
    Now, as far as I can tell, Merleau-Ponty is basically saying the same thing that Wilfrid Sellars is saying, when he denounces the “myth of the Given” and insists that all our experiences are always already conceptualized or theory-laden. These two philosophers come from very different traditions, and their terminology is correspondingly different. (Thus Sellars denounces the idea of what he calls “givennnes,” but Merleau-Ponty uses this very same term to refer to the way that, for him just as for Sellars, what we experience is already conceptualized and meaningful).
    The parallel between Merleau-Ponty and Sellars is that they both descend ultimately from Kant; they are both affirming the Kantian principle that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” And doubtless, Kant, Sellars, and Merleau-Ponty are all correct in rejecting what we might call the illusion of simple presence.
    Nonetheless, as Sparrow points out, sensation for Lingis is a point at which the Kantian/phenomenologica/Sellarsian structures break down. Lingis, in contrast to all theseearlier figures, “reminds us that ‘to sense something is to be sensitive to something, to feel a contact with it, to be affected by it’.” (Sparrow quoting Lingis). Sparrow also (rightly, I think) aligns this affirmation of sensation with a moment in Levinas where Levinas is asserting the priority of the aesthetic, rather than (as he usually does) the ethical. It is true that we should beware (as Kant, Merleau-Ponty, & Sellars all tell us) to simply hypostasize non-conceptual (or non-categorical) aesthetic sensation as a higher or more pure form of presence. But it is equally true that we need to avoid the error of thinking that what does not fit into our conceptual categories does not exist at all. Sparrow finds this latter concern in Levinas and in Lingis. I find it, initially, in Kant himself, in the discussion of aesthetics in the Third Critique, where we have “intuitions” (sensory impressions) that cannot be contained within any concept. I find traces of this also in Deleuze (with his aesthetics of sensation), in Laruelle (with his insistence on the radical immanence of the photograph), and also in Erin Manning’s account of autistic thought.
    The larger point is that both cognitivists and phenomenologists affirm the Kantian idea of subordinating sensation or affect to cognition, or conceptualization, or meaning; and yet both cognitivism and phenomenology offer us margins, or moments, where we still encounter a radical, non-categorizable aestheticism. (These margins can be found, for instance, in Metzinger’s discussions of “Raffman qualia”, and in some of Merleau-Ponty’s more speculative gestures, including those where he is writing under the influence of Whitehead — for which see this book). I think that David Roden’s recent discussion of “dark phenomenology” fits here too (although I don’t agree with Roden’s conclusion that this might be accessed via third-person naturalism).
    Both in the book I am finishing now (on speculative realism) and in the two that I hope to write next (one on theories of mind in science fiction, and the other on post-continuity in contemporary film and video) I am pursuing these aesthetic margins. - Steven Shaviro



    Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

    In the 20th century, phenomenology promised a method that would get philosophy "back to the things themselves". But phenomenology has always been haunted by the spectre of an anthropocentric antirealism.
    Tom Sparrow shows how, in the 21st century, speculative realism aims to do what phenomenology could not: provide a philosophical method that disengages the human-centred approach to metaphysics in order to chronicle the complex realm of nonhuman reality.
    Through a focused reading of the methodological statements and metaphysical commitments of key phenomenologists and speculative realists, Sparrow shows how speculative realism is replacing phenomenology as the beacon of realism in contemporary Continental philosophy.



    A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu. Ed. by Tom Sparrow and Adam Hutchinson.  Lexington Books, 2013.

    From bookshelves overflowing with self-help books to scholarly treatises on neurobiology to late-night infomercials that promise to make you happier, healthier, and smarter with the acquisition of just a few simple practices, the discourse of habit is a staple of contemporary culture high and low. Discussion of habit, however, tends to neglect the most fundamental questions: What is habit? Habits, we say, are hard to break. But what does it mean to break a habit? Where and how do habits take root in us? Do only humans acquire habits? What accounts for the strength or weakness of a habit? Are habits something possessed or something that possesses? We spend a lot of time thinking about our habits, but rarely do we think deeply about the nature of habit itself.
    Aristotle and the ancient Greeks recognized the importance of habit for the constitution of character, while readers of David Hume or American pragmatists like C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey know that habit is a central component in the conceptual framework of many key figures in the history of philosophy. Less familiar are the disparate discussions of habit found in the Roman Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, Gilles Deleuze, French phenomenology, and contemporary Anglo-American philosophies of embodiment, race, and gender, among many others.
    The essays gathered in this book demonstrate that the philosophy of habit is not confined to the work of just a handful of thinkers, but traverses the entire history of Western philosophy and continues to thrive in contemporary theory. A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu
    is the first of its kind to document the richness and diversity of this history. It demonstrates the breadth, flexibility, and explanatory power of the concept of habit as well as its enduring significance. It makes the case for habit’s perennial attraction for philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists.
    The duality of habit—that which frees us and binds us—has fascinated philosophers for a long time. With historical breadth, interdisciplinary scope, and philosophical depth—tackling habit from the Greeks to the present, bringing psychology and sociology together with philosophy, and probing issues from the metaphysical to the practical—this is an excellent contribution to a perennially important topic. - John Protevi

    Habit really does have a history, as this book shows, but of course in disconcertingly chaotic lives such as ours, habits are principles of continuity or consistency. Here, the contributions of a remarkable range of scholars from across traditions and disciplines elucidate the matter of habit in a manner itself both varied and continuous. - Crispin Sartwell

    This volume is a welcomed addition to the recently revived interest in the significance of habit for understanding human action—an interest lost in much contemporary social science and philosophy. As this collection of papers amply attests, the concept of habit has a rich intellectual history full of explanatory power and contradictory evaluations from the classics to our modern period, from Aristotle to Bourdieu. This book challenges us to overcome the intellectual habit of neglecting the central place of habit in shaping human thought and action. - David Swartz
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    Itinerant Philosophy: On Alphonso Lingis. Ed. by Bobby George and Tom Sparrow. Punctum Books, 2014.

    download

    Bodies in Transit: The Plastic Subject of Alphonso Lingis

    Alphonso Lingis is the author of fourteen books and many essays. He is emeritus professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. While many know him only as an eccentric ex-professor or as the translator of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Klossowski, he is arguably the most distinctive voice in American continental philosophy. This is no doubt due to the perpetual travel that fuels his arresting written prose and unorthodox public readings. Lingis’s lifelong itinerary includes visits — some brief, others extended or recurring — to 109 countries. Along the way he has photographed innumerable strangers whose faces adorn the pages of his books. Photography is as essential to Lingis’s multidisciplinary philosophical perspective as is his knowledge of phenomenology, anthropology, or psychoanalysis. Some of his photographs have been recently collected and published in the book Contact. Unlike most career academics, Lingis has made a name for himself collecting exotic birds and other creatures, staging performance readings at professional conferences, keeping up a diligent correspondence with friends at home and abroad, and splicing together high theory with intimate autobiography. Those who know him speak of his warmth, sincerity, and noncombative style of argumentation — rare traits among university scholars. Itinerant Philosophy: On Alphonso Lingis gathers a diverse collection of texts on Lingis’s life and philosophy, including poetry, original interviews, essays, book reviews, and a photo essay. It also includes an unpublished piece by Lingis, “Doubles,” along with copies of several of his letters to a friend.

    TABLE OF CONTENTS
    Note to the Reader — Bobby George and Tom Sparrow
    Dorothea Lasky — Love Poem: After Alphonso Lingis
    Bobby George and Tom Sparrow — Interview with Lingis
    Jeff Barbeau — Early Notes Towards an Ontology of Fetishes
    Timothy Morton — Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
    Alphonso Lingis — Doubles
    John Protevi — Alterity and Life in the Thought of Lingis
    David Karnos — Personal Correspondences
    Jeffrey Nealon — On The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common
    Dorothea Olkowski – What is an Imperative?
    Joff Peter Norman Bradley – Becoming-Troglodyte
    Jonas Skackauskas – Interview with Lingis
    Graham Harman – On Violence and Splendor

    Joe Ashby Porter's narrative style is vaguely cubist, with words often turned at slight angles to one another. But what the occasional sentence loses in textbook syntax it gains in color and sheer playfulness.


    Joe Ashby Porter, All Aboard, Turtle Point Press, 2008.

    On Joe Ashby Porter  Brian Evenson

    In a Nutshell Joe Ashby Porter

    With All Aboard, acclaimed fiction writer Joe Ashby Porter ventures into new, sometimes unprecedented territory, from the luxe restraint of “Merrymount,” through the stops-out eroticism of “Pending,” to the distilled heebie-jeebies of “Dream On.” Here, reading, travel, and sexual orientation (and disorientation) loom larger than before in Porter, and the dialogue gives new play for what Harry Mathews has called Porter’s “golden ear.” The whole collection unfolds as does each component, laying track just ahead of the speeding train of thought.


    Beyond disregarding literary fashion, Joe Ashby Porter seems to inhabit his own world, producing compelling short fiction exclusively on his own terms. His latest collection contains six valuable and unique studies of connection and detachment as mediated by age, sexuality, and proximity. Though more grounded in the familiar than his previous collection, Touch Wood, an initial strangeness, both of content and style, still threatens to alienate the casual reader. Consideration, however, is rewarded.
    One must first cope with Porter’s tendency for distancing the reader from the text. A dominant third-person style serves as the first barrier. Even in the two brief first-person stories, the transparency and ambiguity of the narrator resist familiarity. Further complicating things, acts and events tend to be referred to before they have been introduced, making first readings somewhat bewildering. The most significant and striking distancing technique in Porter’s arsenal, though, is his restless use of language. It sometimes seems as if he has chosen fiction as a repository for rare words and uncommon definitions of common words. Far from being rigid or formal, though, accurate rarities like “matutinal” share the page with modern truncations like “diff.” Words like “amatory” and “philately” used in casual conversation between unscholarly characters further obstruct the reader. All of these techniques -- perspective, withholding of information, and conspicuous language -- serve a style that could be judged playful or jarring with equal facility. Upon consideration, though, one can detect two functions of this initially repellent reading experience. First of all, these stories, through their inaccessibility, invite rereading, and indeed, the prose does become transparent with subsequent readings. Second, Porter’s resistance to easy immersion serves to draw attention to the pervasive theme of distance within the fictions.
    Distance manifests most generally in a fondness for travel and locale, a consistent presence in Porter’s fiction; settings range from Florida to Arizona to western Africa. More important to this collection, however, are location and physical orientation and how they draw attention to separateness. Sometimes he accomplishes this formally as in “Solstice” in which two itinerant characters wander simultaneous paths throughout the American west as they find work in local theater circuits. The reader follows the characters in alternating, chronological segments bookended by the eventual intersection of their paths. On a smaller scale, the story “Dream On” is structured as an interrogation taking place amidst a vague beach resort. By setting the scene amidst people having fun by the water, Porter creates a more poignant sense of separation than would have been achieved in a cement room with just the two interrogators. On a psychological level, Porter sometimes gives access to the thoughts of characters in proximity to other characters, drawing attention to the doubt, suspicion, and disingenuousness that make connection between individuals so elusive. The result of all of this focus on simultaneity and separation is a very quiet tone. Though characters do converse, exclaim, laugh, and come into physical contact, these more conventional types of interaction are often superficial, a means of exploring separation.
    Another persistent element of connection and disconnection is sexuality, a constant concern and indispensible element of human experience in this collection. Homosexuality, for instance, is a casually accepted reality, one that is recognized and dealt with by many of the characters in these stories. While the accompanying pain and confusion are occasionally acknowledged by Porter, they are not his focus. The presence of sexuality via libido and performance is more important. Lack of the former seems to push one character in “Solstice” towards ambivalence and detachment, while lack of the latter is a constant anxiety for the main character of “Pending.” Sometimes sex is fodder for conversations or encounters. In “Merrymount,” several workers discuss tactics for getting laid. In “Forgotten Coast,” a man uses the discovery of his late wife’s infidelity as an excuse to visit his estranged daughter’s family. While these stories are far from sexy, sex is a constant interest, manifesting in many interesting ways.
    Ultimately, these six stories are challenging but rewarding. Despite Porter’s extremely subtle wit, their value does not lie exclusively in the momentary state caused by their being read. Read once, straight through, they prove remarkable but unmemorable. Fortunately, these stories withstand scrutiny and tighten with each reading. This reiterative satisfaction is the mark of a veteran fiction writer. While not for casual readers, this collection will satisfy and engage the serious pursuer of short fiction. - D. Richard Scannell

    Joe Ashby Porter has a knack for finding life’s small moments, gilding them with flights of fancy, then letting them drift away. Sometimes he writes viscerally, as in this description of a body’s decomposition: “[Grandpa] Guo dwindles to a specimen cicada husk boxed and buried near Wanda below the frost line.” And sometimes he writes opaquely, as when old lovers reconsider each other: “Resumption should be a bodily karaoke, ready (even still) to be carried away, if just as happy with the slow and steady, old sobriquets welling up, thigh across thigh, tasting.” All Aboard, Porter’s fourth volume of stories, toggles between these styles. Not unlike his previous collection, Touch Wood (2002), happenstance and sexual disorientation play key roles in characters’ lives, and as he did in The Near Future (2006), his third novel, Porter puts a droll spin on aging: Two of the meatier stories, “Solstice” and “Forgotten Coast,” take place on the birthdays of middle-aged men.
    “Solstice” presents a portrait of forty-five-year-old Gooding Knowles, a “lapsed thespian and a wind farmer” living alone on his family’s Wyoming homestead. An aids survivor for twenty-four “bonus” years, Gooding has lived through the initial crisis in the ’80s, the agitations for legalizing gay marriage in the ’90s, and the hate murder of Matthew Shepard in nearby Laramie. Running parallel to his story is that of Penny St. Clair, a wayward concert-lighting specialist, whom he met in a regional theater company. When Penny shows up at Gooding’s door years later, Porter captures the strangeness of the moment as “each struggles to bridge the trembling gulf that yawns between the remembered face swathed in flattering retrospect and the naked one here lined and hollowed.” A strain of loneliness permeates this story, as it does the book as a whole, but in this instance Porter gives the reader a strong sense of a friendship lost and found, of two loners with “no obligations,” who can live together “side by side like civilized rural neighbors out here in the wind.”
    In “Forgotten Coast,” Lou Grable, a computer programmer, celebrates his fifty-fifth birthday by taking a trip to his long-lost daughter’s house in Florida, intending to confess a discovery about his dead wife “that’s stood my very existence on its head.” As it happens, Lucy is out of town, so he meets Floyd, her husband, and Walter, her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Nevertheless, he needs to talk to someone, feeling “like a reincarnation of the mariner in the old poem, driven to divulge.” Finding an eager listener in Floyd, he recounts the courtship of his wife and the shock he felt at discovering on her laptop that as “Gingerbread Girl” she had been having a long-standing affair with “Trinket,” a woman. Although Lou never talks with Lucy, he does bond with his grandson, and they banter candidly about “normals” and “Aspies.” Yet when he leaves for his flight home, nothing’s changed. As he does in “Solstice,” which closes with Gooding hang gliding, Porter depicts a loner for a short period before sending him off into the atmosphere.
    The mood in these stories is always changing: Nostalgia shifts into soft-core sex, and plainspoken language segues into dreamy lyricism. At times, the diction jaywalks brazenly, producing delicious turns of phrase (“ivy-sighing,” “a pang of roses”). Porter conveys the feel of an entire life in a tight morsel: “Penny follows a path of least resistance through school and junior college, cheerfully friendless, luckless with her business diploma, and scrapes by in a greater Oklahoma City Nehi bottling plant, three hairnets in eight years, cultivating her whittling hobby evenings and weekends.” Readers may experience these lives vividly, but the characters aren’t the sort that stick in your mind.
    At its best, Porter’s wordplay suggests Kathryn Davis’s; his descriptions of gay life could be Dennis Cooper’s with the lights turned low, more easy listening than punk. But the author’s opacity can be maddening: In “Dream On,” a transvestite and her young accomplice interrogate a man to elicit an “anecdote” (about a child being stung by a wasp)—then, it seems, murder him by chainsaw. The scary, fablelike atmosphere, which presumably represents the complicated sex lives of these characters, dissolves into mumbo jumbo: “Complicity floats free in the eye of the inquisitor. Kiki with her awkward Adam’s apple and saurian Koshal themselves could qualify, if only by virtue of this matutinal outing, the tray of pliers and drill bits that may never before have seen the light of day.” After the anecdote is revealed comes the sophomoric coda: “The moral? Must anecdotes have them? . . . Do morals have morals? When is a moral not a moral? Do chickens have lips?”
    While “Dream On” is decidedly unconventional, in “Pending” Porter relies too heavily on familiar flirtations. Fifty-nine-year-old Eric is a reference librarian with a waning libido and an extensive collection of “phalli, obsidian, teak, porcelain . . . triumphantly erect if somewhat beneath ‘life’ size.” He was once married, but now he maintains a long-distance relationship with a Japanese man. A lengthy build-up to a sauna encounter with a well-endowed stranger brings Eric’s soft-core imaginings to fruition, but the scene is clichéd, as if drawn from a Calvin Klein poster: “As Eric steals a rightward glance, moving only eyes, he sees that, while Charlie continues to gaze straight ahead as if daydreaming, his abs tighten.”
    Despite their sometimes provocative subject matter, these stories are genteel. Porter is a desultory storyteller, snatching a character’s essence, then letting it go. This Zen-like approach has its appeal, but if there are truths lurking within these tales, they aren’t to be found on the page. - Lenora Todaro


    Joe Ashby Porter, The Near Future, Turtle Point Press, 2006.

    excerpt

    "The Near Future is a little jewel of a book, a very funny novel about getting—among other things—old, and in Florida, and with less than one's entire dignity in tact. Porter's comic imagination is of the truly droll sort, and with it he homes very closely in upon the truth—alas."—Richard Ford

    Porter imagines a slightly off-kilter tomorrow in his latest novel (after Touch Wood), about a zany cast of character who shake up a dozy trailer-park retirement village in Manatee, Florida. After five decades of marriage, devoted housewife Lillian Margiotta walks out on her husband Vince, a retired Brooklyn cabby and unrepentant philanderer. Although Vince still hopes to win back Lillian, he goes on a road trip to Key West with a new lady friend, spinster Vola Byrd (a once-powerful but now-impoverished Manhattan realtor), his granddaughter Denise and her boyfriend, Tink, the latter a pair of smart-mouthed grifters hoping to strike it rich with a pyramid scheme. Meanwhile, back in Manatee, Lillian visits with Memphis transplants Brent and Gwen Runkle, who pine for the daughter they haven't seen in years and fret over an "OIDs" epidemic. Porter's intimate depictions of the betrayals and regrets of aging-particularly for women-are moving. But he clouds these flashes of humanity with overly artful prose ("Lillian...blots a fuchsia moue on lilac tissue she then lets eddy through a careless somersault into a receptacle of stiffened lace") and wacky plotting (e.g. an incident with a gun-toting Gertrude Stein at a Hemingway look-alike contest). - Publishers Weekly
    Denise and her boyfriend are on their way to Key West to put a pyramid scheme into action, but first they stop to visit her grandparents in Manatee, a Florida retirement village. Her grandfather, Vince, shows them around, and when the "Library" turns out to be a "cocoon of hologram screens," readers' suspicions that this is a speculative work are affirmed. Denise is also confronted with the unexpected: her grandparents have separated. Vince decides to join Denise and Tink on their risky quest, and brings along the delectably self-possessed Lola. The mismatched quartet finds quite a carnival in Key West, what with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein look-alikes, Deadheads, Trolls, steroid-pumped drug dealers, and the blue-spotted victims of the latest plague. As his cheerfully roguish characters speak a charmingly tough argot, and brassily navigate the dangers of a teeming, high-tech, lawless world, Porter--a mordant wit and acclaimed stylist in the mode of George Saunders and Kathryn Davis--concocts a hilarious blend of the plausible and the futuristic in a cleverly rambunctious tale of love refused and love won. - Donna Seaman
     
    SWEET and fey, Joe Ashby Porter's new novel describes a world many readers contemplating their twilight years will want to inhabit. Fictional Manatee, Fla., is a town where the weather is warm, necessities are reasonably priced and life is not only entertaining but even a little sexy. Or, in the case of the main character, Vincent Margiotta, more than a little sexy. One year shy of his 80th birthday, Vince stays in shape by, as he puts it, "consoling the random widow," his indifferent wife, Lillian, notwithstanding.
    As the title suggests, the action in "The Near Future" takes place in a brave new world of sorts, though it's not all that different from ours. This isn't hard-core science fiction, just conventional storytelling ratcheted up a notch. There are a couple of fancy gadgets that haven't been patented yet and an alarming new disease on the horizon, but nothing Porter's gaggle of spunky old-timers can't handle. Of course, there is the little matter of certain historical figures popping up unexpectedly, but what's the point of getting old if you can't enjoy the occasional surprise?
    Life in Manatee does become a bit ruffled when Vince's granddaughter, Denise, shows up with her dim-bulb boyfriend, Tink, whom she met when he tried to rob the convenience store where she worked. Abandoning violent crime — though not crime, and certainly not stupidity — Tink is now involved in a hopelessly outdated chain-letter scam. Along with Vince and one of his lady friends, a 68-year-old who sometimes does her gardening naked, the two young lovebirds set out for Key West, where, miraculously, the scheme somehow works — either because the drug traffickers are desperate to launder their money or because they simply have so much of it they can afford to take a chance on Tink's dubious promises.
    Porter's narrative style is vaguely cubist, with words often turned at slight angles to one another. But what the occasional sentence loses in textbook syntax it gains in color and sheer playfulness. Here is Vince's lady friend coming in from the garden and sitting on the edge of her bed: "Clum, sounds an empty boot on gray pine almost petrified with age, clum the other, flackle flackle the pair as Vola's naked heels hustle them under." A bit later, she hears a noise outside and looks through her window: "Pottle pottle wheeze, around Vola's gatepost and up her driveway chugs an unfamiliar coupe the very color of the flaming sky."
    If these resonances recall the bohemian phrasings of Djuna Barnes rather than the straight-ahead sentences of Ernest Hemingway, there may be a good reason. The travelers arrive in Key West during a street festival (which is a little like saying they visited the Arctic Circle when it was cold) and, of course, Hemingway impersonators abound. But there's also a Gertrude Stein impersonator, wielding a gun. (Not without cause, since some of the Papas, as the Hemingway impersonators are called, are trying to shoot her.) Masquerades being what they are, there's also a Fidel, a Winnie Mandela, an Imelda Marcos, a Tammy Faye Bakker and a Yasir Arafat, though there are hints that some of them might be the genuine article. No wonder, then, that when Tink is asked if he's real or virtual, the best he can come up with is a bewildered "Er. . . ."
    "The Near Future" is an exceedingly odd book yet also, despite the gunplay, a genuinely endearing one. And if you think things aren't going to end happily, then you don't know your Geriatric Sun Belt Sci-Fi Lite. Even Denise and Tink seem to get the message: as long as you arrive home in one piece, a little trip through time and space just makes your double-wide trailer look that much cozier. - David Kirby

    Joe Ashby Porter's intriguing, meticulously constructed realm called Manatee, a retirement village in Gulf-coast Florida, unfurls in The Near Future's opening pages to reveal a swampy, overheated milieu both familiar and strange. "Blinking lights whiz along the freeway, palm fronds and hibiscus, egrets and ruined haciendas and blue electronic jungles," Porter writes, describing a highway between Manatee and Miami. Determining exactly when the action in the novel takes place presents an interesting question.
    In The Near Future, a new sexually transmitted disease called OIDS has developed, which afflicts sufferers with blue spots and robotic speech tics, and AIDS has been vanquished. A population explosion has jammed even sleepy back alleys of south Florida. The Internet is no more, victim of a meltdown. "Virts," or virtual worlds, are available with the ease of running a living-room film projector. Libraries have been outlawed because computers and virtual worlds made hard copy obsolete, leaving them to devolve into havens for the homeless. In the future, Porter's world warns, petty crime will rise and people will travel less—a depressing result of routine car bombings.
    With a close eye for detail enlivening his narrative, Porter, who is also known as professor Joseph A. Porter in Duke's English department, offers a window into the lives of a small set of characters during a few days set in Manatee and on a road trip to Key West. Placing his characters in neat trailers on Manatee's flowering lanes, he introduces us to Gwen and Brent Runkles, whose adult daughter has abandoned them, and their friends, Vince and Lillian Margiotta, all of whom are in their seventies. Before the novel opens, though, Lillian walked out on Vince, and he's been speedily picked up by a fetching spinster named Vola Byrd. Completing the cast, Denise Passaro, the Margiottas' granddaughter, who is in her twenties, arrives from Baltimore in a sporty coupe with Tink Quinn, her boyfriend.
    Hyperreality, here, is tethered to actual events. 9/11 cost Vola a lucrative New York real-estate career; during Vince's childhood, hanging laundry air-dried in Brooklyn; Brent fought in Korea. These grandparents show sensibilities from 1950s suburbia, and their grandchildren a post-millennial insouciance; baby-boomers, interestingly, are absent. To focus on fixing Manatee at a spot in time, though, is to miss the point. The characters' relationships—between spouses, children, lovers, neighbors, strangers at a bus stop—shape its narrative arc. Each of these funny, truculent individuals seems to be seeking something, though the haphazard, comical nature of that search is foreshadowed early, when Denise (Neesy) misstates the explorer who sought Florida's fountain of youth: "Corleone," she says.
    In The Near Future, opportunism thrives. Neesy and Tink, who met when he attempted to rob a convenience store where she worked, are in Florida to launch a pyramid scheme. Vola, whose interest in Vince peaks around mealtimes because she's always strapped for cash, shoplifts cheap bracelets at a souvenir shop. Vince has damaged his marriage with affair after affair, but remains dumbfounded that the behavior would ultimately alienate his wife.
    Stymied by repeated efforts to win Lillian back, Vince travels with Neesy and Tink to Key West, and Vola rides along. Wandering around Key West, now a major drug-trade port—crack, yes, but geriatric contraband like memory drugs and hair tonics, too—the characters meet a string of odd people. Vince wanders into Hemingway's house and finds himself the target of a gonzo drug-world assassin.
    Here, the novel's storyline becomes a bit confusing—a dozy Florida sojourn turned dangerous by a criminal undercurrent. Porter writes with ruthless efficiency, paring his images to a few stark words, to lasting effect, and he applies a similar economy to his characters' dialogue, but as the action escalates, punchy banter between them sometimes blends into a glib blur. Missed connections between the characters also build tension, but it's a relief when the four Key West adventurers pile back into the car and rehash events. The most harrowing scenes for Vince happen away from the other characters, and are only described by him on their way back to Manatee.
    Florida's inherent surrealism, fast-forwarded and steeped in an irreverent retiree worldview, gives latitude to Porter's talent for fiction. Porter, the professor, also creeps in occasionally—when, for example, it's noted that scholarship on Hemingway's sexism is outdated. A tumultuous street-fair scene, with identity mix-ups and peopled by Hemingway look-alikes, also bespeaks elements of Shakespearean comedy.
    The near future, as it happens, may be only a few years away, or it may exist even now, an alternate reality, with the help of virtual electronics. "I wonder," says Lillian, "why time has to be real in a virtual world," her question perhaps a wink from the writer about fiction's very construct. Freed of the question, a reader examines the complication and pathos of growing old still enlivened by heartache and hopefulness. Lauren Porcaro

    In his novel The Near Future, Joe Ashby Porter manages to practice realism and surrealism at the same time. Sometimes he achieves this version of Empson's seventh type of ambiguity by choosing his settings carefully. From what he writes, seconded by Don Justice's gravely beautiful poems about childhood in Florida, I infer that certain neighborhoods in a Gulf coast retirement village, or Miami, or Key West exhibit brightly colored phantasmagoria and juxtapositions weird enough to satisfy the appetites of Andre Breton, and then one has only to record them. Porter is aided in this reportage by his superb eye (and ear) for detail. Sometimes he achieves the ambiguity by superposition. During the crucial middle scenes of his novel, the characters move in a landscape that is simultaneously the real world (as we like to call it) and an afterworld / underworld whose mafiosi are famous dead people. His strategy is not that of magical realism, where the uncanny emerges unremarked into a seamless reality; instead, the realms of the living and the dead occur in tense opposition, superimposed but not reconciled and ultimately not explained either. When it is all over, we don't know whether Hemingway himself presided at the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest that caps Key West's Papa Week, or how his pals Ava Gardner and Fidel Castro managed to show up there.
    I bet five dollars that Joe Ashby Porter spends a good deal of time in Florida. Either he takes lots of pictures or he has a photographic memory, for the backdrops in his tale of love lost and regained and lost again are deliciously evocative. He also does voices, and not only voices but sounds: he is probably the most onomatopoetic novelist I have ever read. The alienated and ancient lovebirds in his story are Vincent and Lillian Margiotta; we find out on the first page that Vince has been straying from the marriage for decades and that at long last, after they'd retired together from New York City to Manatee, Florida, Lillian has finally decided to leave him. The issue doesn't seem to be so much his lack of fidelity as her wish to spend some time alone, to decide what kind of pickles she likes to buy at the grocery store and where she wants to be buried. Here is a glimpse into the double-wide trailer of her erstwhile neighbors, Gwen and Brent, who distract themselves by building clocks that run backwards and mourning for their grown-up daughter who ran away from home.
    From the powder room trills a last Tyrolean woodnote. Silent in their wide bed, hands clasped under the sheet, the Runkles take heart. Across the wheat shag carpet, the blonde and pastel settee in its polyethylene slipcover, the quilted control panels, the vintage cell phone on its tasseled cushion, and across the Runkles, light increases by insensible degrees, relentlessly.
    And here is a glimpse of Key West, to which Vincent and his current flame Vola, a once successful and now ruined Manhattan real estate agent, have been carried off by Vince's granddaughter Denise and her hoodlum boyfriend Tink in search of wealthy yet shady partners for a pyramid scheme.
    In luminous shade under ficus and palms leaning over stucco walls and cactus and pink, yellow, and red hibiscus, he passes trellises and peeling gingerbread, sawgrass, yellow thryallis and allamanda, purple oleander, tangerine ixora and heliconia, stiff bird-of-paradise blooms, strings of Christmas lights, hovering dragonflies, sky-blue porch ceilings, and a wall made of bottles. He [Vincent] sees few people and hears no voices except when an infant laughs in an airy bedroom above, and when a woman sings a muffled " Comparsita" on a radio on a table in an empty garden.
    Denise and Tink talk like dyslexic Baltimore street people (though clearly Neesy is smart and deserves an education); Vincent and Lillian sound like the first-generation Italian Americans in Moonstruck; and Gwen and Brent comfort each other in the dulcet tones of born-again Christians on television. They are haunting characters,
    all so peculiar that the reader can't figure out why they are so touching and memorable. Perhaps it is because they struggle mightily with the unsolvable problems life has imposed on them, using the very limited resources they have at their disposal, and yet still manage to have a little fun. Right in the middle of the story Vincent is shot to death by a Gertrude Stein look-alike, who thinks that he and his niece and her fiance are honing in on her territory; or he isn't. The whole last half of the novel can be read on the first hypothesis, and then again on the second, and both ways (I tried them) it makes sense. Because Porter never tells you what the ontological status of his hero finally is, the counterpoint between the two readings creates very strange effects.
    The scene where Vincent is shot on a park bench in Key West illustrates nicely Porter's ability to make his scene immediate by details of sight, sound, smell, touch. In this scene, the record of " uninterpreted sense data" is dramatically apt, because the hero really doesn't know what they mean until it is too late.
    As he is about to sit, the trunk of the adjacent tree makes a loud thwock. How's that? Vince leans to read the label, " Gumbo-limbo, Bursera simaruba." Thwock, thwock, from the trunk just above his head, and a sudden fragrance of resin. Gumbo-limbo? Wait, those holes in the bark... thwoonk, at the end of a fresh track ploughed in the wood, what appears to be a bullet.
    Just afterwards, alive or dead, Vincent steals a moped, which stalls out, gasless, on a causeway through the middle of a salt marsh outside the city. As he tries to hide his transportation in a canebrake, a crowd of strangers (alive or dead?) approaches Vince and offers him half a gallon of gas. His friends are the Trolls: Fidel, Jimmy and Arafat, Winnie, Maggie, Imelda and Tammy Faye; the rival gang apparently is the Deadheads.
    ' " Deadheads?" Asks Vince.
    Fidel says, " Groupies for the Neo-dead, hermano."
    Vince smiles. " You're still drawing a blank, partner."
    " You must've heard of them," calls Jimmy from Margaritaville.
    " They've been cranking out space jam, oldies, all sorts of easy listening since before you were born."
    " Fans troop about the country after them," explains Maggie. " For decades their appearances have only been announced by jungle telegraph, so to speak."
    " Ze 'Eds crawl from woodwork," continues Jacques-Yves. " Sometime ze band make ze gig, sometime no. Ze 'Eds, zay remain mellow regardless." '
    He sounds just like Jacques Cousteau, but is he a revenant or a celebrity guest appearance? Is the Grateful Dead the rockband or a roaming band of zombies? Is Vincent near the Key West airport, or on the Other Side? The reader has to entertain both possibilities, and although by the end Porter has told us a lot about " what happened" to the characters, he never lets us in on the big secret. Here are the very last lines of The Near Future, uttered by some Manatee senior citizens: " Come to think of it, didn't old Vince set sail coupla weeks ago? Margiotta? Nahh, he'll outlive us all. You must have somebody else in mind." I don't think Empson ever imagined that his seventh type of ambiguity could be realized for the length of half a novel; it is hard enough to hold together contradictory readings for a single phrase or passage. This novel is thus a most peculiar but brilliant tour de force; it is, as Neesy would say, unique. - Emily Grosholz

    Front Cover

    Joe Ashby Porter, Touch Wood: Short Stories, Turtle Point Press, 2002.
     
    Touch Wood acknowledges the sway of chance and contingency in our lives without entailing any facile despair. The gesture indeed manifests the guarded hope underpinning even the bleakest passages of these ten variously innovative fictions from Joe Ashby Porter's past decade. Now grave, now twinkling with sly humor, the stories range across the United States from Key West to Alaska, and about the Mediterranean in Tunisia, Spain, and southern France. Only the fifth book of fiction, and only the third collection of short stories in a distinguished career reaching back a quarter century, Touch Wood presents Porter, who John Hawkes called "an American original, " at the height of his powers.


    Porter (Eelgrass; Resident Aliens) brings his distinctive style to a variety of odd situations in these 10 stories, which often end up in literary destinations far from their point of origin. The collection begins amusingly with "A Man Wanted to Buy a Cat," which features a man so smitten with a milliner's cat that he contemplates kidnapping it, even though his spouse is extremely allergic to the species. "Schrekx and Son" is a sort of sexual rite of passage, as a Parisian father passes on some rather disquieting information about marriage and dating to his son, who, at 31, is just beginning to dip his toes into the mating pool. "A Pear-Shaped Woman and a Fuddy Duddy" is a delightfully weird exercise in which protagonists Lucille and Elmer descend upon Biloxi for a "character festival" and begin arcane interrogations of the locals, until the focus shifts to an in-depth discussion of smells with other festivalgoers. In "Scrupulous Am‚d‚e," the author effectively narrates the mysterious romances and illnesses of a French lighthouse keeper, although the extended format comes close to stretching his prose tricks to the limit. Porter's tendency to deliver elliptical, down-to-earth renderings of his character's inner lives may be an acquired taste, but his agile mind and unusual take on even the most mundane elements of people's daily routines make this a challenging but constantly entertaining read. As Porter puts it in the title story: "Deep perplexity gathers to a wave. Good comes of it." - Publishers Weekly

    This third collection of stories from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Kentucky Stories offers us a mixture of realistic and fabulist fictions, all of them reflecting Porter's keen sense of the unusual and the ironic in the everyday. The title story tells of (improbable) consequences following a missed phone connection between a woman and her lover and then tells the story of that story's impact on various people, with great or unfortunate consequences, alternately. The remarkable "Bone Key" shows life in Key West through the eyes of a sidewalk hair wrapper, attuning himself to the sensibilities of assorted clients and curious "passersby covered in jangling idiosyncrasies" and reflecting on his day job at IBM and the layoffs he must make there. This character's perspective counters, perhaps at least partly, the "illusion of sightlessness" that spectators and performers alike find appealing. Porter is effective at using quite long sentences to plunge us fully into his character's worlds, at elaborating whole scenarios or background stories in a single sentence, and at ironic, fablelike endings, as in "A Man Wanted to Buy a Cat." - James O'Laughlin
    A slim but varied and accomplished third collection from a Pulitzer-nominee (The Kentucky Stories, 1983, not reviewed; Eelgrass, 1977, etc.).
    Porter’s tales here are like modern art. As often as they demand meaning they question the relevance of it. And they are never about any one thing: a story that seems to be set in a French prison might suddenly become a lecture on the predictability of waves, or a couple’s encounter with a pseudo-pirate might lead into a discussion of 1950s crooners, or a story might be entirely and literally cerebral, as in “In the Mind.” The challenge is that there’s nothing simple: “A Man Wanted to Buy a Cat” is a weird, poetic episode about a man who covets his neighbor’s cat, but it’s really about rediscovering the pleasure of family; the fast-forward feel of Native American lives in “Naufrage and Diapason” simulates the choppy, disappearing wake of the ship of opportunity where we are told, “What is life after all but a piece of stretched meat? The story ratchets along regardless.” A lengthy and moving biography of a lighthouse operator on the Tunisian island of La Galite comes in “Scrupulous Amedee,” while the occasion of a hair-wrap in Key West (“Bone Key”) becomes an explanation of that odd town’s sensibility and a portrait of its underworld. “A Pear-Shaped Woman and a Fuddy-Duddy” begins a more self-aware movement in the stories, with characters attending a “character festival” in which they search for memorable characters in Mississippi only to reveal that they themselves are memorable. And the title piece, which closes the volume, is a series of random semi-stories injected with rhetoric on the effect of modern storytelling.
    Smart, hard, and rewarding. - Kirkus Reviews

     Front Cover

    Joe Ashby Porter, Resident Aliens. New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

    In the mid-seventies four adults from beyond their national borders find themselves marooned in Jeffersonian academic Charlottesville, Virginia: the journalist Iréne and her professor husband Jean-Luc, both French; Chantal, a graduate student from Montréal; and Mouse, an Oneida Quebecoise. Set in their house in the country, Resident Aliens culminates in a festive weekend of comical blunders, shifting allegiances, and maturing love. Joe Ashby Porter continues his series of cultural core samples from the path that led here, advancing past the sixties ebullience of his Eelgrass into the truer and more concentrated edginess of the seventies.
     
    Front Cover
     
    Joe Ashby Porter, Lithuania: Short Stories. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
    The author of "Eelgrass" and "The Kentucky Stories" now offers a collection of "mysterious and beautiful" (Lee Smith) stories, "as subtle, syntactically graceful, and beautiful as any I've seen" (Toby Olson).

    In stories set in such diverse places as Tunisia, Quebec and Baltimore, Porter ( The Kentucky Stories ) conjures up quirky, gritty characters and surrounds them with evocative swatches of local color. The stories meander along, with no startling plot developments but with a delightfully wry realism. In "Basse Ville," a crusty old Canadian coot who fancies himself a painter searches for Sinbad, his missing parrot, and reflects on life, death and his wife ("What the hell, wonders of the universe probably only matter to you if you're about to kick off, so maybe it's all to the good for your wife not to bat an eye at them"). "West Baltimore" is the story of fat, semi-toothless Margaret, with her childhood memories, her present-day gossip and her fears that she will be evicted from her apartment as the neighborhood gentrifies. The only weak link in this excellent collection is "Attention, Shoppers," an overly arch riff on consumerism in the far future. But even this piece has its droll moments ("When I first slid my toots into those beauts Big Bird shoes and slid across the permaseal I felt more serene than Goethe ice-skating in the old picture") - Publishers Weekly
     


    Joe Ashby Porter, The Kentucky Stories. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

    Joe Ashby Porter, Eelgras. W. W. Norton & Co., 1977.        
     
     
     


    Born in a coal mining town in western Kentucky, Joe Ashby Porter has had a career of distinction. From his days at Harvard to the publication of his first novel, Eelgrass, and winning the prestigious Pushcart Prize for short fiction, Porter's writing has shown remarkable creative scope. His characters are refreshingly original, yet honest and human, and their stories are told in a style that is at once luminous and subdued. His latest novel, Resident Aliens, was published last September.
    Along with fiction, Porter publishes Shakespeare criticism under the pseudonym Joseph A. Porter. He offers both his talents to the Duke community, teaching creative writing and Shakespeare courses in the English department.
    Tell me about the short story you'll be reading.
    It will appear in the Kenyon Review and it's entitled Scrupulous Amédee. It's the life story of a man born on an island off of the coast of Tunisia. He spends most of his life on the island, and the story takes him all the way to his death and then a little bit after.... He has a somewhat difficult life; he's scrupulous inasmuch as he attempts to play honorably with the cards he's dealt. He's dealt a very strange hand of cards, including what he believes to be the ability to hear supernatural voices.
    In a scene in Resident Aliens (set in the mid-'70s) four undergraduates show up at a party held by the main characters, one of whom is their professor, and smoke some marijuana. Do you think that was possible back then, and could such a scene take place today?
    It's a somewhat realistic portrayal.... It's a bit exaggerated-some of the characters do a bit more exaggerated versions of things than I remember being the case back then. I don't think something like that could happen today.
    How do you balance your roles as both a scholar and writer?
    It's not easy. At the beginning, I balanced them by keeping them separate from each other. Now they stay separate without having to keep them separate.... In the beginning, I thought there might be professional difficulty. Shakespearians might think I couldn't be a serious Shakespearian; fiction readers might think I couldn't be a serious novelist because I was committed to doing Shakespeare.
    Why did you create a pseudonym for yourself?
    I published fiction before I published scholarly work. My given name is Joe Ashby Porter.... When I first published scholarly work, it seemed to me that "Joe Ashby Porter" didn't sound professional enough, so I created a pseudonym for myself: Joseph A. Porter.
    Resident Aliens is about French characters, and critics describe it as a very French novel. Would you describe yourself as a Francophile?
    I would. I have a work in progress that's a kind of memoir. Its working title is Deep France, and it's about the connection between myself and France that goes back almost as far as I can remember. Even in my youth, in a lost little town in Kentucky, I was interested in France. But my most important anchor is Yves Orvoen. He and I have lived together for 30 years.... Because of him, I go back to France very often.... So yes, I'm very Francophile.
    I can't imagine what it must have been like growing up in western Kentucky. I guess you must have been quite an anomaly.
    I was an anomaly, maybe quite an anomaly, but I also liked people. I knew how to make myself seem not so anomalous. Maybe my friends thought of me as slightly bookwormish, but in general they thought I was one of the guys.
    Resident Aliens relies on the dramatization of everyday events. How do you turn everyday life into a work of art?
    The language in which you tell ordinary events, in my view, has to be even better than if you were telling extraordinary events.... For a page to make an invitation to a reader, the writer has to have weighed every single word, every single phrase.
    Does teaching writing impact your style?
    I learn a whole lot from students' writing-a lot of it is good. I learn by watching students do things I have never thought of doing. In a way my best model for any kind of artist is Shakespeare. He was a complete sort of magpie; he would steal right and left.... I'm a shameless kind of thief from anything I read; a lot of the thievery is unconscious, though. I suppose I steal things like the tone of a student's story; I might use it without even knowing how it was created.
    Is Duke a good atmosphere for a writer?
    The Duke English department is an extremely nurturing place for fiction writers and poets.... There is no division at all between creative writers and scholars. We support each other, we understand each other. Duke is the only place that makes this kind of thing possible, and I'm very thankful to have landed here. - Jonas Blank  March 2, 2001

    Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

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