7/30/15

Luc Lang encapsulates the brutality of everyday life. Each tale is an admixture of tragedy, comedy, ridicule, and pain. Compassion lurks somewhere, perhaps, but pity is conspicuous by its absence.


Luc Lang, Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor, Trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
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In sixteen ferocious short stories, French author Luc Lang encapsulates the brutality of everyday life. Each tale is an admixture of tragedy, comedy, ridicule, and pain. Compassion lurks somewhere, perhaps, but pity is conspicuous by its absence.
Lang’s curt, agitated prose disassembles daily life with a swift, unflinching hand and examines it with a sharp, analytic eye. Skinning quotidian moments to bare, raw impulses, confusions, and the agonies underneath, the stories in Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor show the mundane grind of the everyday forces that are fueled by cruel calculation and amoral happenstance and shot through with bizarre surprise. The results are at once coldly comic and powerfully tragic.
Interpreting human interactions as a series of precise jabs and desperate flailings, Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor tells truths about the darker sides of our potential and our well-meaning urges dimmed by chance.

An extraordinary fabulist of subterranean aggression.”—Christine Ferniot
 
“Like Francis Bacon, Luc Lang sets out ‘to paint not the horror but the scream.’”—Jean-Claude Lebrun

“[Luc Lang] works with enormous talent on ellipsis and on the unsaid. . . . His electrifying writing presents events in all the banality of their ugliness or sadness: the firing of a good worker injured on the job, the foiled attempts of a superior to wrest sexual favors from a subordinate, the failing memory of an old man. . . . Lang shows the cruelty of the world without ever pronouncing the word ‘cruelty.’”—Les Inrockuptibles                                       
 
From the author: “One day in the early 1990s I heard a news report on the radio. There, in the incandescence of the facts, was a model for fictional narrative. . . . A woman pulls up in the fast lane of a highway and begins to change a wheel, as though on the hard shoulder. Just as she is removing the wheel with the blow-out, she is struck by a fast-moving automobile and killed, borne aloft along with her wheel, her jack, and her car's rear fender—bone, flesh and metal exploding on the hood of the other vehicle. Was she stupid? Was her psychological makeup to blame? Her mental state at that particular moment? Her age? Sex? Family history? Her psycho-socio-historico blah-blah-blah background? Who cares? Only the act matters, in all its madness, all its intensity. . . . The act in itself reveals and illuminates our whole world.”—Luc Lang

Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor collects sixteen stories in a hundred pages; a nice touch, given the title, is that the numbered chapters pass over '13', the way elevators skip over that floor (number), jumping from 12 to 14. Only two of the tales clock in at ten pages or longer; for the most part Lang's stories cut quickly to the quick. And they certainly live up to their billing as 'cruel tales'.
       Even where there's a darkness or outright sense of menace right from the start, Lang can surprise with the dark turn he takes. 'Private Life' is one of the longer tales, the narrator, Laetitia -- whose husband has left her for a twenty-two-year-old -- working hard in order to make a good impression and to make the provisional contract she's currently on a permanent one with her employer. Her sleazy boss has designs on her, and she tries to string him along until her permanent contract comes through -- but he makes it clear what's required of her for that to happen. Laetitia is resourceful, Laetitia has a plan -- and yet even as it goes exactly like she hoped Lang doesn't spare her one last cruel turn in the resolution.
       Several of Lang's characters cause harm to others -- there are quite a few spattered bodies (and he really does have a penchant for the high-impact splatter), along with a few more minor injuries --; often they do so indirectly but rarely inadvertently. Several practically stage the circumstances so as to be witness more than participant, and able to walk (or drive) away without concern. Others are more directly accountable. Regardless, these are largely stories of also voyeuristic thrill, "the windshield a 70-mm screen", for example -- or, in 'Face ?' an actual film the horrific record of what happened.
       Aside from their cruel turns, Lang also employs a distinctive style in his story-telling, with run-on sentences that are intentionally not smooth but shift abruptly, grabbing hold and not letting go. The beginning of 'Escalation' is as typical as any passage:
And she slapped him with all her might: answer ! admit it ! react ! --- she slapped him again -- he got up, the Bulgarian-style yogurt in his left hand, and threw it in her face -- she reciprocated immediately -- the two of them now with face, hair, chest streaked with yogurt, she closed her fist, and bonk ! punched him in the nose, broke his glasses, a splinter lodging in his left eyebrow -- he slapped her in turn with the fury of a condemned man -- they were both bleeding, blood running over their lips, dripping from their chins like strawberry milk -- 
       And on, and on, for another whole page. The sentences and scenes don't always go on at such length without more breaks, but it's his fundamental technique. It's effective, too, and translator Nicholson-Smith maintains it well in his English translation.
       Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor is dark stuff, the ugly side of people and of fate. There's a lot of gusto too, a love of life, and death, and the power one can have in one's hands, which gives many of the tales an even creepier feel. It's all quite impressively done, making for a strong but very dark collection. - M.A.Orthofer

7/28/15

Sándor Tar - thirty-one stories centered on the inhabitants of Crooked Street, the tail end of a small village in southern Hungary bounded at one end by a down-and-out bar where most of the characters find their consolation in alcohol, banter, sex, yearning for love, and recounting far-flung tales. Each story of Our Street reflects on and extends the next, whereby a gallery of memorable characters emerge to reveal even more, an incisive portrait of a society in disintegration


Sándor Tar, Our Street, Trans. by Judith Sollosy, Contra Mundum Press, 2015.
excerpt  and here and here (pdf)

Our Street, Sándor Tar's fifth book, is comprised of thirty-one stories centered on the inhabitants of Crooked Street, the tail end of a small village in southern Hungary bounded at one end by a down-and-out bar where most of the characters find their consolation in alcohol, banter, sex, yearning for love, and recounting far-flung tales. Each story of Our Street reflects on and extends the next, whereby a gallery of memorable characters emerge to reveal even more, an incisive portrait of a society in disintegration. Honing in on each character's struggle to salvage their self-respect after the demise of communism and the 1989 regime change, Tar dramatizes the difficulties of survival as the people of Crooked Street face the loss of their jobs, the soil from under their feet, and their hopes. This gallery of distinctive characters includes Uncle Vida, an old man who grows vegetables he cannot sell, the always proud Mancika, who is found lying on the tracks waiting for a speeding train, and the reverend Márton Végső, who tends to the needs of the villagers with an equanimity that springs from resignation rather than moral or spiritual resolve. Through these and other figures, one is drawn into a world both captivating and harrowing. Yet the stories are told with such humor, understanding, and sympathy that the book reaffirms the characters' humanity and endows them with dignity. Our Street takes us into terrain that most would not have known were it not for Sándor Tar. As the first translation into English of one of Tar's books, Anglophone readers will at last come to understand why many contemporary Hungarian authors have expressed unreserved admiration for his writing.

Each story zeroes in on the life of a man or woman trying to survive in this confined space as best they can, which each finding his own answer to the question of survival, and most of whom, left them without jobs or sustenance, find their strength and consolation in alcohol. As Tar’s contemporary Ádám Bodor said, "Sándor Tar chose to remain where the other writers have left. He has not forgotten what brings a sudden silence to a pub." Yet the intertwining stories of the people on Our Street are told with such absurdity, pain, understanding and humour that paradoxically, the book reaffirms their humanity and gives each of the characters the gift of dignity. Accordingly, he manages the seemingly impossible and, paradoxically, Our Street makes for a pleasant read. It most certainly makes for a haunting one.
"Our Street appears 'anachronistic' not by virtue of its realism (this is a variety of realism that is more sophisticated than one would think at first glance), but by virtue of its humanism. We have got unused to this word. If one chooses to write about people who live a life of indolence, the upper crust (the beautiful and the rich) is always an easier topic than the unemployed (the ugly ones, etc.). What can an honest prose writer do with dazzling and boring people but look for the animal in them? And what can a writer who undertakes to write about the habitual customers of a down-and-out pub find but human beings?... The cathartic summary of Sándor Tar’s masterpiece is as follows: vegetating is beautiful."  - István Kemény

Sándor Tar: Slow Freight

Lorand Gaspar - The breadth and scope of his poetics is evident in the text's diversity, too, a complex synthesis of science, ancient history, medicine, geology, religion, archeology, linguistics, botany and more


Earth Absolute & Other Texts
Lorand Gaspar, Earth Absolute & Other Texts, Trans. by Mary Ann Caws and Nancy Kline. Contra Mundum Press, 2015.
Lorand Gaspar: The Autobiographical Introductory Essay
Lorand Gaspar: Approach of the Word
Two Poems from Earth Absolute and Other Texts

Born in 1925 in Transylvania into a Hungarian family, Lorand Gaspar grew up speaking Hungarian, Romanian, German, and also French, which would become the language in which he wrote. Endowed with many gifts, all of which he grandly used, Gaspar is a surgeon, a poet, and a writer of scientific and lyric prose in addition to a translator of Spinoza, Rilke, Seferis and others. Sol absolu et autres textes, edited and translated by Mary Ann Caws and Nancy Kline, contains abundant evidence of Gaspar's gifts: an autobiographical essay, a reflection on scientific and medical matters, and poems from diverse periods and places. Earth Absolute, the book's central text, is Gaspar's long love poem to "the naked song of the Judean mountains," which, he tells us, revealed itself to his "thirst on the pathways of Rock-strewn Arabia, desolate and blessed." The breadth and scope of his poetics is evident in the text's diversity, too, a complex synthesis of science, ancient history, medicine, geology, religion, archeology, linguistics, botany and more. This erudition is spatialized through Gaspar's lineation, making the poems almost vibrate on the page, resonating with his sensitivity to the vibration of the lands of which he writes. Also included herein is Gaspar's Fourth State of Matter, which received the Prix Guillaume Apollinaire in 1967, and sections from Approach of the Word, the writer's reflection on poetics. Gaspar is the recipient of numerous honors including the Grand prix de poésie de la Ville de Paris (1987), the Prix Mallarmé (1993), the Grand prix national de Poésie (1995), and the Prix Goncourt de la poésie (1998). Translated for the first time into English along with brief commentaries by the editors and translators, Lorand Gaspar's Earth Absolute & Other Texts conveys the scientific and lyrical mind and expression of one of France's genuinely nomadic poets.

Matthew Beaumont - A captivating literary portrait of the writers who explore the city at night, and the people they met. Part literary criticism, part social history, part polemic, this is a haunting addition to the canon of psychogeography

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Matthew Beaumont, Night Walking, Verso, 2015.

“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. Before the age of electricity, the nighttime city was a very different place to the one we know today – home to the lost, the vagrant and the noctambulant. Matthew Beaumont recounts an alternative history of London by focusing on those of its denizens who surface on the streets when the sun’s down. If nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the metropolis after dark, then nightwalkers represent some of the most suggestive and revealing guides to the neglected and forgotten aspects of the city.
In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Beaumont shines a light on the shadowy perambulations of poets, novelists and thinkers: Chaucer and Shakespeare; William Blake and his ecstatic peregrinations and the feverish ramblings of opium addict Thomas De Quincey; and, among the lamp-lit literary throng, the supreme nightwalker Charles Dickens. We discover how the nocturnal city has inspired some and served as a balm or narcotic to others. In each case, the city is revealed as a place divided between work and pleasure, the affluent and the indigent, where the entitled and the desperate jostle in the streets.
With a foreword and afterword by Will Self, Nightwalking is a captivating literary portrait of the writers who explore the city at night and the people they meet.

“One of the most brilliant of the younger generation of English critics.”– Terry Eagleton

“Nothing less than a grand unifying theory of the counter-enlightenment.”– Will Self

Throughout its history, London has been two places: the daytime city of business and work the nighttime palace of dark desires, crime, and vagrancy. This place has attracted writers, lawyers, poets, and politicians who have all attempted to chart and control the nocturnal flows of the capital. In the medieval city, nightwalking was a punishable crime; by the Victorian era, Charles Dickens was forced to wander the streets by night in order to becalm his disturbed mind. Why has the city shrouded in darkness been such a compelling subject over the centuries? Before the age of the gas lamp, the city at night was a different place, home to the lost, the licentious, and the insomniac. In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Matthew Beaumont shines a light on the dark perambulations of poets, novelists, and thinkers from Shakespeare, to the ecstatic strolls of William Blake, the feverish urges of opium addict De Quincey, as well as the master nightwalker, Charles Dickens.


In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights, London seems an alien city, especially if you are walking through it alone.
In the more sequestered streets – once the pubs are closed, and at a distance from the 24-hour convenience stores – the sodium gleam of the street lamps, or the flickering striplight from a sleepy minicab stand, offers little consolation. There are alleys and street corners and shop entrances where the darkness appears to collect in a solid mass. There are secluded squares where, to take a haunting line from a poem by Shelley, night makes “a weird sound of its own stillness”. There are buildings, monuments and statues that, at a distance, and in the absence of people, pulsate mysteriously in the sepulchral light. There are foxes that slope and trot across the road as you interrupt their attempts to pillage scraps from upended bins.
And, from time to time, there are the faintly sinister silhouettes of other solitary individuals – as threatened by your presence, no doubt, as you are by theirs. “However efficiently artificial light annihilates the difference between night and day,” Al Alvarez has remarked, “it never wholly eliminates the primitive suspicion that night people are up to no good.”
It is easy to feel disoriented in the city at the dead of night, especially if you are tired from roaming its distances, dreamily or desperately somnambulant. For in the darkness, above all perhaps in familiar or routine places, everything acquires a subtly different form or volume.
Ford Madox Ford, in The Soul of London, lamented a century ago that, “little by little, the Londoner comes to forget that his London is built upon real earth: he forgets that under the pavements there are hills, forgotten water courses, springs, and marshlands”. It is not quite the same at night. At 2am, in the empty streets, no longer fighting against the traffic of cars and commuters, the solitary pedestrian’s feet begin to recall the “real earth”. In the abstracted, monochromatic conditions of the nighttime, it becomes more apparent that a sloping road curves over the sleeping form of a hill and tracks the course of an underground stream. The city is at its most earthly and unearthly at night.
A prehistoric landscape comes to seem more palpable beneath the pavements of the city. And in this half-familiar environment it is difficult to eliminate entirely the archaic conviction that, as for our ancestors, the night itself remains ominous, threatening. Residues of a primal fear of the dark begin to trouble you.
The nighttime city is another city. Rhapsodising the public parks of the French metropolis in Paris Peasant (1926), the surrealist Louis Aragon commented that “night gives these absurd places a sense of not knowing their own identity”. It is a point that applies to all aspects of the city’s architecture or terrain. The nighttime self, moreover, is another self. It too is less certain of its own identity.
Who walks alone in the streets at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles. The night has always been the time for daylight’s dispossessed – the dissident, the different. Walking alone at night in the city by both men and women has, since time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.
Solitary women, because of a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression, have been especially susceptible to this sort of suspicion. If women appear on the streets of the city at night alone they are commonly portrayed as either predators, in the form of prostitutes, or predatees – the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night.
The historian Joachim Schlör has pointed out that, in terms of the freedom to inhabit the nocturnal city, “women’s needs and wishes are not fundamentally different from men’s”, since for both it is a case of entering it and circulating inside it freely and independently – “through the whole city, during the whole night, and not just in certain spatial and temporal reserves”. But he has rightly insisted that, historically, “men’s freedom of movement has [had] a real restrictive effect on that of women”.
If solitary men on the streets at night have exercised a right to the city denied to solitary women, then they too have often been identified or represented as pariahs. People who walk about at night with no obvious reason to do so, whether male or female, have attracted suspicion, opprobrium and legal recrimination from patriarchs, politicians, priests and others in authority, including the police, for thousands of years. In 1285, Edward I introduced a specific “nightwalker statute” in order to police the movement of plebeian people – especially migrants, vagrants and prostitutes – after the 9pm curfew. But long after this statute became impossible to implement, because of the rise of “nightlife”, the authorities continued to construe nightwalking as deviant.
Today, more than ever, solitary walking at night in the streets of the city does not necessarily mean deviant movement. It may well be perfectly legitimate, purposeful. Contemporary capitalist society requires what Jonathan Crary has identified as the despoliation of sleep in the interests of maximising the individual’s potential – both as a producer and a consumer – for generating profit. The political economy of the night, in this dispensation, means that plenty of people have to commute after dark, sometimes on foot, sometimes across considerable distances.
This is the daily, or nightly, reality of post-circadian capitalism, as it might be called. For the city’s army of nocturnal workers, many of whom are recent immigrants forced to perform the least popular forms of labour, travelling at night is in effect travailing at night. Sex workers and the police (or its precursors) have, for their part, always had to patrol pavements at night for professional reasons. So have street-cleaners and others employed to collect and dispose of the city’s waste.
Not all walking at night, then, is nightwalking. But most forms of solitary walking at night are nonetheless tainted, sometimes faintly with dubious moral or social associations. Indeed, even apparently purposeful walking in the city at night is not exempt from the assumption that it is suspicious. To be alone in the streets, even if one walks rapidly, determinedly, is to invite the impression that one is on the run, either from oneself or from another.
The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño alludes to these conditions of being in the night – those of the haunted and the hunted – in a reference to the life, or half-life, of the city “at an hour when the only people out walking [are] two opposite types: those running out of time and those with time to burn”. In fact, these types are not really opposite: many people who are running out of time or resources, paradoxically, have time to burn. This contradictory state, of idling and hastening at once, is a comparatively common experience. It is even more potent on the streets at night.
To use a Dickensian phrase, nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the city after dark. Dickens is the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the 19th century. In 1860, in the guise of the Uncommercial Traveller, he made a crucial distinction between two kinds of walking: one that is “straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace”; another that is “objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond”. If the point of the first kind of walking is to travel from one point to another, the point of the second is that there is no point at all. Its purpose is its purposelessness. Nightwalking, according to this logic, is pointless. It is uncommercial.
In an economy in which time, including nighttime, is money, wandering the streets after dark – when most people are sleeping in order to prepare themselves for the next day’s labour – is in symbolic terms subversive. In the aberrant and deviant form celebrated by Dickens in the 19th century, and surreptitiously practised by innumerable others before and since, nightwalking is quintessentially objectless, loitering and vagabond. -

London at night is another place entirely to its daytime incarnation, with different rules and different inhabitants. If this remains true of today's 24-hour, 21st-century metropolis, in which commuters setting out for work rub shoulders on the Tube platform with clubbers coming home, how much more so was it of the past versions of the city that lie buried beneath its streets?
In this magisterial, perambulatory survey Matthew Beaumont excavates strata upon strata of literary sources to help us find the answer. In the process he both explores the night side of some of English literature's greatest writers and resurrects many unjustly forgotten voices, who in their turn give flickering life to the denizens of London's darkness: the vagrant, the fallen, the alienated and the dispossessed. Above all, he releases an ancient, urban miasma that rises from the page, untroubled by electric illumination, allowing us to inhale what Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Dekker called "that thick tobacco-breath which the rheumaticke night throws abroad".
In the 13th century, cities were far from the connected, open spaces they are today. At sunset all fires and lights were extinguished. Great peals of bells heralded the closing of the gates in the city wall until dawn. Night air was known to be unhealthy. Those who walked in it were, at best, eavesdroppers at neighbours' windows; at worst they might be intending to "walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people under walls", like the serial murderer Barnabus in Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta.
The night watch patrolled the streets for 500 years before the first Peelers were recruited. Given authority to arrest "strangers", such watchmen were unarmed, corrupt, often pimps or fences of stolen goods and subject to ridicule and attack. By 1283 Cornhill boasted a prison, The Tunn, purpose-built to accommodate "Night-Walkers and other suspicious persons" so they could be held until morning to be brought before a judge. Indigents born a century or two later might find themselves incarcerated in a Bridewell, or workhouse.
Yet still there were those who refused to stay abed or, more often, had no bed to stay in. Beaumont's night-walkers are divided, just like the diurnal world, by class and gender. "Throughout London's history", he writes, "the homeless and the bohemian, the socially and the spiritually disenfranchised, have coexisted in its obscurest spaces." Differences between them were coded in language. Aristocrats on drunken revels, accompanied by servants with torches, were noctambulants, noctambulists or noctambules, while the lumpenproletariat, walking merely to keep warm and with no place to go, were noctivagants or noctivagators.
Navigating between these parallel worlds stalked those authors who have haunted the streets of London at night, in search of sleep, subject matter or themselves and who populate the pages of Beaumont's book with anecdote and quotation. The insomniac and "violent" night-walker Charles Dickens is here of course, fleeing his wife and his relentlessly demanding fictional characters, but so is Ned Ward, the first issue of whose periodical The London Spy of 1698 boldly declared its intention to report on the urban night with the words "A fig for St Augustine and his doctrines, a fart for Virgil and his elegance, and a turd for Descartes and his philosophy", before embarking on a picaresque journey ending in a delicious-sounding "smoky boozing-ken" of a pub.
Charles Lamb rejects Words-worth's invitation to Cumberland, a place he associates with "dead nature", while the "motley Strand" at night makes him "shed tears... from fullness of joy at so much life". But perhaps it is William Blake who best ventriloquises his native city, revealing the spiritual darkness at its heart. In Blake's epic poem Jerusalem, Jesus calls those "taken to prison & judgement, starved in the streets" to follow him and "walk through all the cities", a ghostly procession of noctivagants calling the brightly lit Enlightenment itself into question. - James Attlee

The dust-jacket biography of Nightwalking’s author concludes: “He lives and walks in London.” Such is the urban energy of this prodigious book that the verbs seem mysteriously valorised by their connection to the city. Note that “work” (as in the more usual formulation, “lives and works in London”) has become “walk”, as though working and walking are synonymous. It is almost as though the author “lives and walks for London”, or “as part of the animism of London”. There is, infusing Matthew Beaumont’s prose, the same kind of unabashed enthusiasm for the city as can be found in the popular biographies of Peter Ackroyd. Even the sentimentality of Will Self’s metro-centric afterword is, in this context, forgivable: “as the sun rose London was made anew – and so, perhaps, were we”.
While Nottingham lays claim to D. H. Lawrence and Hull to Philip Larkin, and even Nuneaton has George Eliot, London hardly need bother to boast of its riches: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Blake, Dickens. Beaumont not only documents the kinds of inspiration that London offers each of these literary giants, but he also does so in a way that places the city at the very heart of their artistic achievements. As Dickens says in a letter to John Forster, “It seems as if [London] supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose…a day in London sets me up again.”
But this is a very particular kind of London biography. As Beaumont argues in the case of Dickens, “nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing”. Beaumont’s specific interest in the city is on its crepuscular activities, its night-time vitality, and thus his focus is on writers’ nocturnal ambulations. Such night life is not always (nor even often) salubrious or innocent: “Strolling at night in the city by both men and women has, from time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.” As Beaumont astutely notes, Milton has Eve, in Paradise Lost, “rehearse the Fall with a nightwalk”.
Beaumont’s key assertion is that nightwalking is a form of dissidence or subversion: the nightwalker “represents an intrinsic challenge to the diurnal regime on which, from the end of the Middle Ages, Protestant ideology and the political economy of capitalism partly depended”. So Blake’s poem London is read as an articulation of political resistance: “To wander…is to uncharter. Consciously or unconsciously, houseless wandering constitutes a refusal of the chartered city.” Such rambling is the opposite of busy-ness, with its intimations of business, a meandering defiance of ideological order: “The act of walking, for the Romantics, inscribed a coded rebellion against the culture of agrarian and industrial capitalism.” Gay, Goldsmith, Johnson and Clare, he says, are all “militant pedestrians”.
The latter half of the book is its best. There are astute accounts of the Romantics, and Beaumont is especially good on Dickens, whose fiction “is soaked in the semiotics of walking”. Nightwalking is less certain in the earlier period when the argument is not always as conspicuous as the extensive and sometimes random range of examples that aim to service it. In addition, the plenitude of intrusive subtitles throughout tends to fragment the discussion. This is an important and lively book, but it deserved more judicious editing, which might have prevented its own occasional wanderings. - Peter J. Smith

At dead of night London can radiate an air of forlornness, if not forsakenness. A fox slopes across a street but all human vitality has gone. Anyone seen walking alone between 2am and 4am — the darkest and most silent hours — is reckoned to be up to no good. 
Since the dawn of time nightwalking has been synonymous with crime, Matthew Beaumont argues in this magnificent history of nocturnal London. Those who noctambulate in the city were thought to be morally “benighted” or mentally unhinged. In 1841 the rural poet John Clare walked over 80 miles from an asylum in Essex to his Northamptonshire birthplace. Sleeping rough, he passed along the north-west edge of London in a trudge that was at once harebrained and, in the eyes of the law, delinquent.
Beaumont, a lecturer at University College London, chronicles night-time in the city from William the Conqueror’s day to the 19th century, and does so with a lively scholarship. Until modern times, Beaumont says, laws were promulgated relentlessly against footloose trampers, card-sharps, bone-grubbers and other “noctavigants” who scraped a pittance after-hours to get by.
The Victorian upper classes remained ignorant of London’s nocturnal streets until they read about them in Charles Dickens, that matchless chronicler of the capital’s underclass and, says Beamont, the “great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century”. In three fascinating chapters, Beaumont considers how walking served as a tonic for Dickens’s insomnia; his great 1860 essay Night Walks is, among other things, a hosanna to the therapeutic travail of noctambulation.
The bodily and mental labour involved in traversing the city by night enabled Dickens to understand better the lives of chimney-sweeps, mendicants, strolling actors and, dreadfully, child prostitutes. In Beaumont’s view, the novelist’s empathy for the urban underclass mitigated against Victorian laws designed to exert political and social control over them.
Along the way, Beaumont dilates entertainingly on Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and other Elizabethan dramatists who conjured the London night in all its abomination and glory. Life was cheap (as well as, often, alcoholic) for Dekker’s low-lifers: nightwatchmen treated them harshly. “The law is not the same at morning and at night,” wrote the Anglican priest-poet George Herbert.
Before the advent of electricity, London was a “pitchy darkness” of backstreets and prostitute-haunted passageways. The opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey and the poets William Blake and John Keats (the “cockney” son of a Moorfields horse stableman) were all attuned to the magic of benighted London and its edge of danger. Edgar Allan Poe was another who divined a mystique of darkness and vagabondage in the city. In 1817, aged seven, he was sent from America to a boarding school in Stoke Newington; his doppelgänger story William Wilson evoked a north London eerie with church bells and a dream-like, moony ghostliness. 
Overall, Beaumont’s is a wonderful book, that has many fascinating things to say about the night-time life of our capital down the ages. Rarely has a book on the subject of darkness been so illuminating; all insomniacs should read it. - Ian Thomson

“In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights and the remnants of nightlife, London is an alien city, especially if you are strolling through its lanes and thoroughfares alone,” writes Matthew Beaumont in the introduction to his Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, out now from Verso Books. Well, do you know your city at night? And, if not: do you know it at all?
Chaucer and Shakespeare, Johnson and Blake, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Dickens — all were nighttwalkers. And the joy of Beaumont’s book is the way it illuminates both literature and urban politics through the splendors and panics of their nighttime journeys. It’s a story that paradoxically meanders with a purpose, like a walk to nowhere in particular, from “the Middle Ages to the height of the gaslight era in the mid-nineteenth century.”
In the below excerpt, we learn about Charles Dickens’ maniacal nighttwalks through London and Paris, and the effect it likely had on his novels.

Ancient Secrets
In his delightful and profoundly insightful monograph on Dickens, [G.K.] Chesterton argued that the novelist’s originality and genius resided in the fact that he possessed, ‘in the most sacred and serious sense of the term, the key of the street’:
Few of us understand the street. Even when we step into it, as into a house or a room of strangers. Few of us see through the shining riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong to the street only — the street-walker or the street-Arab, the nomads who, generation after generation, have kept their ancient secrets in the full blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of us know even less. The street at night is a great house locked up. But Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street. He could open the inmost door of his house – the door that leads into that secret passage which is lined with houses and roofed with stars.
Chesterton’s emphasis on the importance to Dickens of the street at night was perceptive. Dickens was quite as interested in the nomads that occupied the nocturnal city – the streetwalkers and the nightwalkers – as in those who occupied the diurnal one. He wanted to understand those who kept their ancient secrets beneath the cold light of the moon as well as the full blaze of the sun. Indeed, he was himself – in an ‘amateur way’, to use a characteristic formulation – one of these nomadic people. It was in the streets at night, and among its strange folk, that he sought the solution not only to the riddle of the modern city but to his own inscrutable, often secretive, existence.
It was probably in the late 1830s and early 1840s that Dickens first regularly walked at night in London. These were the years, so the historian Joachim Schlör claims, when night in the European metropolis first came to represent a distinctive challenge both for those who policed it and for the bourgeois imagination itself. From roughly 1840, faced with fears that emerged as a result of the rise of the so-called dangerous classes, ‘the complete city-dweller [had] to learn to master the night’. Schlör’s claim that, after this time, ‘night is more than simply a darker version of the day’, seems exaggerated.23 In the city, night had for centuries been socially, psychologically and even ontologically different to the day, as the career of the common nightwalker and his or her descendants indicated. But he is nonetheless right to emphasize a shift at this time, on the grounds that the night became a pressing social problem in the increasingly conflicted and contradictory centres of industrial capitalism.
As a young man, Dickens regularly strolled in the streets at night for purely companionable or sociable purposes. In his biography of Dickens, Fred Kaplan observes that in the late 1830s Dickens often socialized with Forster and their friend Daniel Maclise, and that together they frequently amused themselves with ‘dinners and drinks in city and county inns, rapid overnight trips to Kent, late-night walks through London streets, cigars, brandy, and conversation’. In this guise, exchanging ‘elaborate badinage, jokes about women, about eccentricities, about escapades’, they are not unlike Tom, Jerry and Logic in Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) This is Dickens the genial roisterer, who inhabited the populous, glittering streets of central London – illuminated in the hours after dusk by the innumerable gaslights that flared from shop windows – as if they were a comfortable, albeit brilliant, interior.
But Dickens was also beginning to roam at night with a darker, more solipsistic sense of purpose at this point – or, with a compulsive sense of purposelessness. It appears likely, for example, that at the start of the 1840s he first returned at night to the site of Warren’s, the blacking factory where he had laboured as a twelve-year-old child, labelling bottles, while his father served his prison sentence for debt. In the autobiographical fragment that Dickens wrote for Forster in 1847, he confirmed that, ‘in my walks at night I have walked there often, since then, and by degrees I have come to write this’. As in his subsequent recollections of loitering outside Maria Winter’s house, the activities of nightwalking and reconstructing decisive or even traumatic events from his past were curiously, elaborately intertwined (in this respect, as in others, he was like De Quincey). ‘I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man’, Dickens wrote of the inexorable pull of the blacking factory, ‘and wander desolately back to that time of my life’. Both dreaming and nightwalking involved ‘wandering desolately back’ into the past.
Black Streets
Increasingly, too, nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing, itself a compulsive activity for Dickens. It provided release – sometimes instantaneous, sometimes not – from the uncontainable sense of excitement or frustration he often felt during the composition of his fiction, the serial production of which exerted peculiarly intense demands on his psyche. On 2 January 1844, for example, Dickens wrote to his friend Cornelius Felton, Professor of Greek at Harvard University, informing him that he had sent a package to him by steamship containing a copy of A Christmas Carol (1843): ‘Over which Christmas Carol’, the novelist writes in the third person, ‘Charles Dickens wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition; and thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.’ It is as if, but for the freedom to roam through the ‘black streets of London’, the back streets of the city at night, he might have burst – like the boiler of the steamship that throbbed across the Atlantic with the book he had sent to Felton.
On the occasions when for one reason or another, during the composition of a book, Dickens could not pace freely about the metropolis at night, the absence of the ‘black streets’ crippled him. ‘Put me down on Waterloo-bridge at eight o’clock in the evening, with leave to roam about as long as I like, and I would come home, as you know, panting to go on’, he wrote to his confidant Forster from Genoa in 1844, when he was labouring on The Chimes (1844); ‘I am sadly strange as it is, and can’t settle.’ ‘He so missed his long night-walks before beginning anything’, commented Forster, ‘that he seemed, as he said, dumbfounded without them.’
Two years later, on the continent once again, Dickens’s ‘craving for streets’ became even more acute. At the end of August 1846, living with his family in Lausanne, where he was writing Dombey and Son (1848), he complained to Forster of ‘the absence of streets and numbers of figures’:
I can’t express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or a fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), and a day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!! … I only mention it as a curious fact, which I have never had an opportunity of finding out before. My figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them. I wrote very little in Genoa (only the Chimes), and fancied myself conscious of some such influence there – but Lord! I had two miles of streets at least, lighted at night, to walk about in; and a great theatre to repair to, every night.
No one in the nineteenth century can have needed London quite as much as Dickens did. It was an addiction.
Dickens sickened when he did not have access to the phantasmagoric effects of the city – especially at night, when it was most like a magic lantern. In October 1846 he informed Forster of his delight at moving from Lausanne to Geneva, though he admitted that in the latter too he suffered from ‘occasional giddiness and headache’, which he confidently attributed ‘to the absence of streets’. Dickens subsisted on the lifeblood of the metropolitan city like a vampire, thriving on its streets and ‘figures’ as their energies ebbed after nightfall. Even in substantial, sociable urban centres such as Geneva and Genoa, which were extensively lighted at night, he felt claustrophobic because he did not have the same freedom to roam across considerable distances.
Paris, like London, offered Dickens relief from this sense of inhibition that seemed to paralyse both him and his characters. In another slightly desperate letter sent to Forster from Lausanne, this time in September 1846, at a time when he was deeply, painfully embroiled in the composition of Dombey and Son, he consoled himself with thoughts of the Parisian streets at night:
The absence of any accessible streets continues to worry me, now that I have so much to do, in a most singular manner. It is quite a little mental phenomenon. I should not walk in them in the day time, if they were here, I dare say: but at night I want them beyond description. I don’t seem to be able to get rid of my spectres unless I can lose them in crowds. However, as you say, there are streets in Paris, and good suggestive streets too; and trips to London will be nothing then.
On the night of his arrival in Paris, shortly after he sent this letter, Dickens escaped from the rest of the family, which had decamped to a small house in the Rue de Courcelles. As Forster reports, invoking Dickens’s adjective, he proceeded to take a ‘“colossal” walk about the city, of which the brilliancy and brightness almost frightened him’. Nightwalking was a territorial habit, one that enabled Dickens to orientate himself in the city, to realign the relationship between the metropolis and mental life. But it also offered a release from uncontainable emotions. In January 1847, he ‘slaughtered’ Paul Dombey, to use his term. ‘Then he walked through the streets of Paris until dawn’, as Peter Ackroyd reports. Thus he attempted to rid himself of one of his spectres. No doubt his nightwalk conjured up other ghosts — in the form of memories or fantasies — which he could not so easily escape or suppress. -

If you are a certain type of person, Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London will strike you as exactly the book you’ve been waiting for. (If not, you’ll enjoy it anyway.) Nightwalking ticks a number of intriguing boxes: its main subjects are pedestrianism and London after dark; it is filled with amusing anecdotes drawn from English history and literature across several centuries; it drops in a lot of sexy Marxist theory; it is bookended with a foreword and afterword by renowned walker and talker Will Self; and it has a nice heft and an attractive cover. It appears to be the culmination – or at least the latest example – of a recent revival of walking as a spiritual and political act, particularly in London. Thanks to inspiring leading lights like Self, Iain Sinclair, and several authors published by Verso (including Beaumont in London, Rebecca Solnit in San Francisco, and Frédéric Gros in Paris), post-Situationist psychogeography and street-level social history are experiencing a boom. Beaumont is not a newcomer to this field, either: a Senior Lecturer at University College London and co-director of UCL’s Urban Lab, Beaumont co-edited the Restless Cities collection (Verso, 2010) among other urban walking related projects, and is himself a habitual nightwalker.
So how does Nightwalking live up to this wealth of promise? I was at first disappointed to find that the book ends where my own familiarity with urban walking more or less begins – the Victorian era. I was looking forward to reading about aesthetes walking their jewel-encrusted tortoises down Picadilly, Situationists drifting their way through the upheaval of the sixties, and on up to Sebald, Solnit, Sinclair, and the psychogeographers of the present day. Obviously the author skips a lot of rich material by ending at Dickens. But I soon realized that this was a way for Beaumont – who admits he originally intended to write the more predictable history from Dickens to the present – to strike out across new terrain.
Narrated in something analogous to the pleasant murmur of Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights, Nightwalking is a meticulously researched yet eminently readable and entertaining guide to London at night and on foot – with a radical heart. It is also a sweeping history of London, from the Middle Ages to the late-Victorian period, with Self’s commentaries bringing us through the twentieth century and up to the present. Along the way it tells the story of the rise of modern capitalism and consumer society, gentrification, and the twin obsessions of security and surveillance. In other words, it packs a lot into one sturdily bound, beautifully printed edition (I’ve been walking all over town with it under my arm these past two weeks and it shows hardly any sign of wear).
“Who walks alone in the streets at night?” Beaumont asks in the introduction. “The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.” Nightwalking is about these people: the act of nightwalking itself has long been regarded as “deviant.” Those who walked at night tended to be “beggars, prostitutes, and foreigners.” As Beaumont explains in the opening section covering the Middle Ages to the Elizabethans, nightwalking was once considered an actual crime, with curfews strictly enforced to protect property and regulate labour. It was also dangerous, not least for women: Beaumont reminds us early on that women have always been, and continue to be, “denied a right to the city at night.” Men’s freedom to roam the city at night has often impinged on women’s freedom to safely enjoy the same basic right.
There were, in fact, many good reasons to stay in at night during the Middle Ages and the early-modern period aside from strict curfew laws. One problem was the “stinking mud”; another was the supposed presence of “noxious vapours” in the harmful night air. Then there were the marauding gangs of drunken aristos: “brutal, over-bred upper-class oafs” who were “the seventeenth century equivalent of members of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club.” As if that wasn’t enough, there were also working-class apprentice gangs to worry about, who especially targeted foreigners, prostitutes, and servants they considered too servile to their masters. The night watchmen were yet another danger, even for law-abiding citizens, as they were grossly underpaid and often corrupt. Surveillance London, Beaumont makes clear, began centuries ago, with nightwalkers carefully monitored and closely policed – but without street lighting or reliable night watchmen, you took your chances.
One of the many pleasures afforded by the book is the author’s contagious enthusiasm for archaisms, etymologies, and colourful language of all kinds. There are “noctivagants” and “noctambulants,” for example, as well as “noctivagation,” and the “houseless” are carefully distinguished from the “homeless,” as they should be. I learned that the opposite of illuminating is “obnubilating,” and that Samuel Johnson himself described a diary of “what passes at night” as a “noctuary.” There are wonderful examples of slang through the ages, and several pages echo with the scatological insults of Billingsgate fishwives.
With Beaumont as your guide you stroll through Elizabethan London, stopping to examine Macbeth and texts like John Fletcher’s The Night-Walker, before passing on into the Enlightenment. In each section the reader is treated to a social, intellectual, and cultural history of London through the figure of the nightwalker. The Enlightenment saw a huge change – literal enlightenment – as streets were lit across Europe. (London was illumined from 1684 onwards as part of a general renovation plan, including pavements and shop fronts, following the Great Fire of 1666.) Despite this illumination, the night continued to represent unreason and chaos against the rational and well-ordered daytime. Night was filled with gin and debauchery, as the idea of “nightlife” developed around this time.
But at the same time there was the “gentrification of the night,” which took place as streets were lit and the bourgeoisie ventured out to theatres and other kinds of evening entertainment, including shopping. Promenading became customary, and with it the rise of respectable idleness – strolling at night, consuming for pleasure. The new art of the promenade actually required a code of conduct: “staring too directly at other people was rude; peering closely through the windows of private houses was unacceptable,” and so on. In this way, the city itself became a kind of theatre, a giant spectacle. The night was made safe, domesticated, commodified – and sold to an emerging consumer class.
For many workers, meanwhile, this “bright new world” simply meant more work, as the nightshift became first possible and then commonplace. Many poorer areas of London remained in the dark until well into the nineteenth century. The plight of the city’s prostitutes, recognized by Samuel Johnson and others, was as desperate as ever. “Like enlightenment, illumination was the privilege of the middle and upper classes,” Beaumont tells us. The literature of the period was filled with meandering, raucous tales of midnight rambling and “low life.” These stories usually tried to have it both ways, tacking a moral on at the end for form’s sake, but the moral was in most cases “gloriously irrelevant.” Each sub-chapter in the Enlightenment section takes the reader through another of the author’s favourite texts, such as the anonymous nocturnal picaresque Low-Life; or, One Half of the World, Knows Not How the Other Half Live (1749).
One theme that comes up repeatedly in Nightwalking is walking as a political act. The Grub Street authors, for example, like the Romantics who came after them, “asserted the subversive political potential of pedestrianism” – identifying “with the poor, the itinerant, the vagrant.” But then again these authors, including Samuel Johnson and his notorious mentor Richard Savage, often experienced poverty and destitution first hand. “Like the prostitutes to whom they were often compared, albeit with misogynistic insensitivity,” Beaumont states, “these drudges of the pen manufactured and sold their products piecemeal, and led lives of quiet desperation.”
Some things never change. Or perhaps they do: Beaumont claims the Grub Street authors felt “a deep sense of injustice and resentment against those with power and wealth” – especially “booksellers and publishers.” It is hard to imagine a bookseller or publisher these days with either power or wealth. And at the time a lucky few could apparently strike it rich selling their poems: the example is given of Charles Churchill, a “priest and schoolmaster,” who “was forced to become a professional poet” to pay off his debts. The money he earned from his popular satirical poem The Rosciad (1761), in fact, not only covered his debts but also “enabled him to lead a decadent and dandified life in London.” Those were the days. Unless of course you ended up in a garret, freezing your extremities off with the other hacks.
Another theme, which Beaumont finds expressed in the writings of the Irish author and Grub Street denizen Oliver Goldsmith, is that night reveals the truth about a city. Night is when the “repressed content of its inhabitants’ abject and miserable lives irrupts” – and you see the city as it really is, in all its desperation. The “degraded, feral people who are invisible during the day” come out to haunt the city at night. At the time, poets were joining the ranks of the marginalized in solidarity. One of my favourite anecdotes in Nightwalking is the description of Goldsmith, a “militant pedestrian,” doing a version of the Grand Tour on foot, paying his way “by tutoring, gambling and playing the flute.” Where he went, the Romantics would soon follow.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, pedestrianism and faux vagrancy rose thoroughly into fashion. Beaumont quotes Solnit, who characterizes the shift as “away from art and aristocracy toward nature and democracy.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau was now the master, and he inspired disciples like William Wordsworth to feats of extreme pedestrianism, wandering lonely as a cloud up hill and down dale while penning verses. Occasionally the book strays from nightwalking in particular to pedestrianism in general, but this deviation is harmless enough, and before long we are back on the main path.
Beaumont identifies particular turning points in the history of walking. For example, there is “the improvement in national transport links, and the extension of the Enclosure Acts” in the mid-eighteenth century, which gave a boost to the Romantic revolution in nature walking. The Enclosure Acts radically cut down the number of public footpaths, but they had the positive effect of encouraging people to use and thus “unenclose” public paths – because use itself creates right of way under English common law. Then as now, the rule is: use it or lose it.
It is impossible to talk here about all aspects of this wide-ranging book. Blake features importantly, for example, as another “compulsive walker,” and his Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion receives an insightful reading. Blake’s principal memory of childhood was of walking – how many of the present generation of English or North American children will be able to say the same? De Quincey’s hallucinatory night walks, spurred on by the “mania and insomnia of his addiction” to laudanum, appear in these pages. A letter from Charles Lamb to Wordsworth containing an “ecstatic hymn to urban night” is beautifully apt: “The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about [London’s] crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.” Also present are the layers of London’s history that contemporary psychogeography loves to uncover – that Cromwell’s bones might “still lie beneath Marble Arch,” where the famous gallows known as Tyburn Tree once stood, although no memorial to Cromwell exists in that spot.
In the 1820s the “occult magic” of gaslighting reached London, and shortly thereafter Dickens – “the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century” – arrived on the scene. Why make Dickens the culmination of this book? He was by all accounts a maniacal walker, by night and otherwise: proudly averaging four miles an hour over long distances, and getting up in the middle of the night to walk from his Bloomsbury residence to his country house in Kent. His walking seems to have been propelled by demons: especially from the 1850s onward, after the death of his father and as his marriage to Catherine deteriorated, Beaumont argues that Dickens “wanted to tire himself out.” Night walks also gave the celebrity novelist the anonymity he craved. All this fervid activity despite having what Beaumont suspects was gout – and no air-cushioned trainers, either.
That’s the biographical aspect – then there is Dickens’s fiction itself, “which is soaked in the semiotics of walking.” Beaumont takes us through the highlights of pedestrianism in Dickens’s novels, before returning in the end to the main reason for nightwalking – the “extinction of the city and the self”: “freed from his connections to a functioning civilization, Dickens’s encounter with the non-being of the night entails the liberation of the self as well as its obliteration.” What is left, Beaumont tells us with a nod to Hegel, is “pure Self.”
The figure of the flâneur makes an appearance at the end of the book, accompanied by an attentive reading of Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd”. The story, which is a focus of Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1940), depicts an even more exaggerated form of Dickens’s “irresistible compulsion” for walking, as well as the cat-and-mouse interplay between “nightwalker and nightstalker.” (It’s a brilliant story – I recommend reading or re-reading it even before you tackle Beaumont’s book.) But the reason Beaumont ends with Poe’s story in his conclusion is that it restates the central social message of the book: it is “an allegory of the criminalization of those who inhabit the nocturnal city.” Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” is, at last, “simply the repository of popular suspicions about solitary individuals who occupy the metropolitan streets at night” – individuals whose plight Beaumont, himself a nightwalker, seems to want above all to illuminate. - Julian Hanna

An aural education to London after dark



Matthew Beaumont, Utopia, Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900, Historical Materialism, 2009.

This book uncovers the historical preconditions for the explosive revival of utopian literature at the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, and excavates its ideological content. It marks a contribution not only to the literary and cultural history of the late-Victorian period, and to the expanding field of utopian studies, but to the development of a Marxist critique of utopianism. The book is particularly concerned with three kinds of political utopia or anti-utopia, those of 'state socialism', feminism, and anti-communism (the characteristic expression of this last example being the cacotopia). After an extensive contextual account of the politics of utopia in late-nineteenth century England, it devotes a chapter to each of these topics before developing an original reinterpretation of William Morris's seminal Marxist utopia, News from Nowhere.

Utopia Ltd. is remarkable for its detailed historical grasp of the late-nineteenth century. Beaumont operates at a high conceptual level, demonstrating a sophisitcated understanding of Marxist cultural theory, which is most effectively put to use as an explanatory framework. There is much impressvely original work here, both in terms of ideas and in the bringing to light of hitherto little-discussed texts. There is also a good balance between original research on the one hand, and, on the other, a fresh approach to more canonical works such as Morris's News from Nowhere. The book is full of illuminating insights, lucidly and coherently argued.' - Terry Eagleton

'This is a very convincing, often original, and lucidly written reading of late-nineteenth century utopian literature that makes a fine contribution to the ever-growing field of fin-de-siècle studies.' -  
Sally Ledger

'Utopia Ltd. presents us with a new constellation of the field under inquiry, or — as one of Beaumont's masters of thought, Benjamin, would say — with a dialectical image which on the one hand makes some common features of late-nineteenth century utopian literature stand out, and on the other does not neglect the single stars. I recommend it warmly.' - Darko Suvin

'What I find particularly valuable about this book is the way in which it provides a new framework for understanding well-known texts such as Bellamy's Looking Backward, and especially Morris's News from Nowhere, by situating them in relation to the large output of utopian and "cacatopian" literature produced in the late nineteenth century. This phenomenon is an ideological episode worthy of attention in its own right, as a symptom of the widely-perceived crisis of bourgeois culture around the fin de siècle, and Beaumont does a convincing job of explaining it, thereby making it interesting to the reader. But I suspect that many on the left will be drawn to this study by the way it helps us towards a fuller understanding of Morris's News from Nowhere and issues around Marxist utopianism.' - Andrew Hemingway

Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, eds., Restless Cities,  Verso Books, 2010.

The metropolis is a site of endless making and unmaking. From the attempt to imagine a ‘city-symphony’ to the cinematic tradition that runs from Walter Ruttmann to Terence Davies, Restless Cities traces the idiosyncratic character of the metropolitan city from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first-century megalopolis. With explorations of phenomena including nightwalking, urbicide, property, commuting and recycling, this wide-ranging new book identifies and traces the patterns that have defined everyday life in the modern city and its effect on us as individuals. Bringing together some of the most significant cultural writers of our time, Restless Cities is an illuminating, revelatory journey to the heart of our metropolitan world.                            

7/23/15

Étienne Pivert de Senancour - I WISH I had a trade: it would animate my arms and tranquillize my head. A talent would not do this; yet if I knew how to paint, I think I should be less unquiet. I have long been in a stupor; I am sorry to have waked. I was in a depression more tranquil than actual depression






Étienne Pivert de Senancour, Obermann,  Selections from Letters to a Friend. [1804.]
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The philosophical, descriptive, familiar and, since it must be admitted, sentimental letters which, under the title of Obermann, have won for themselves a permanent, if not perhaps a higher place in the classical literature of France, and are not unknown in England, were first published in the early years of the 19th century and are the chief, though not the sole title to distinction of the author.




ONE work of Senancour’s has lived. The others—moral and philosophical treatises, and one feeble novel, ‘Isabelle,’ written in his old age as a sequel to his famous ‘Obermann’—are now forgotten. “But ‘Obermann,’” says Matthew Arnold, “has qualities which make it permanently valuable to kindred minds.” Arnold himself, while suffering the spiritual isolation there portrayed, did not go off alone to suffer; but did a great and practical work in the world of men. Other noble minds have sympathized with Obermann, among them George Sand and Sainte-Beuve; but for most people, such writing, however noble and eloquent, must needs be somewhat futile. It must after all be healthy instinct which guides men as well as children to turn from abstractions to accounts of positive achievement. Heroic action is far more thrilling than even its prompting impulse, unfulfilled. It is so much more satisfactory to receive some practical lesson in living, some stimulus to richer sensation, than to be disheartened by the wailings of failure.
  1
  Senancour early showed a want of adaptability to existing social conditions. He was born at Paris in November 1770, of a noble family, to whom the Revolution brought ruin. Sickly from childhood, he was destined to the Church. Obliged by his father to enter St. Sulpice, he rebelled against the monastic constraint, and aided by his mother, escaped to Switzerland. There he married, and lived till toward the end of the century; when, after his wife’s death, he returned to Paris.  2
  ‘Obermann’ appeared in 1804. It is a treatise on disillusion and hopelessness, lacking in vitality; and although noble in tone, has not been widely appreciated. It is less a novel than an exposition, in a series of letters, of Senancour’s own point of view. Obermann, the hero, is Senancour in very slight disguise. He is “a man who does not know what he is, what he likes, what he wants; who sighs without cause; who desires without object; and who sees nothing except that he is not in his place: in short, who drags himself through empty space and in an infinite tumult of vexations.”  3
  ‘Obermann’ is valuable and interesting as a pathological study; as a reflection of the spirit of revolt and discouragement which swept over Europe, and spurred on Rousseau, Byron, and many others. Senancour strongly felt himself a product of his time. Voltairean cynicism struggled in him with Rousseauesque sensibility,—the latter augmenting a longing to believe, while the former made faith impossible. He had the terrible controlling self-consciousness which prevented a moment’s escape from his own unsatisfied desires. He was too noble, too much of an idealist, to enjoy what was petty and possible; but there are envious tones in Obermann, who sometimes seems half to despise himself that he cannot do and feel like other men.  4
  The strong note of Senancour’s character was an uncompromising need of sincerity. He detested hypocrisy in himself and others. He sought truth at the price of all pleasant illusion. His work evidences Rousseau’s influence; but unlike Rousseau, he never posed. His confidences are genuinely unreserved. His constant unhappiness—as George Sand pointed out in an appreciation which prefaces the later editions of ‘Obermann’—was caused by want of proportion between his power of conception and his capacity to perform. He had a lifelong realization of failure. He was akin to Amiel, but less scholarly; more emotional and less intellectual.  5
  In love of nature he found perhaps his keenest satisfaction. He is eloquent in description of the Alpine summits with their fair cold austerity, and the pleasant valleys, the mountain streams, and the green pastures, upon which he loved to look down.  6
  Senancour was always oppressed by poverty. Forced to write for his living for half a century, and unable to win favor, he fell into want in his old age. His friends’ efforts, especially those of Thiers and Villemain, obtained for him a small pension from Louis Philippe which rendered him comfortable until his death at St. Cloud in 1846.


- www.bartleby.com/library/prose/4627.html




LETTER XXX
PARIS, March 7 (III). It was cloudy and somewhat cold; I was in a dejected frame of mind, and wandered on through incapacity for doing anything else. I passed a few flowers growing on a wall over which I could just lean, and among them there was a jonquil in bloom. It is the strongest expression of desire, the year's first fragrance. I apprehended all the happiness destined for man. That unspeakable harmony of existences, the phantom of the ideal world, was present in its fulness within me. Never had I experienced anything more grand or so instantaneous. I was baffled in discovering what form, what analogy, what secret correspondence caused me to discern in this flower an illimitable beauty, the expression, the elegance, the mien of a happy and unsophisticated woman in all the grace and splendour of the season of love. Never shall I grasp that power; that vastness which eludes all expression; that form which nothing can contain; that conception of a better world, which is felt by us and Nature has not made; that heavenly ray, which we think to seize, which we long for, which wraps us away, and is yet only an indiscernible, wandering phantom, lost in the abyss of darkness. But this shadow, this image beautified in the vagueness, strong with all the fascination of the unknown, become indispensable amidst our miseries, grown native to our overcharged hearts—what man is there who, once privileged to behold it, can forget it forever? When the resistance, the inertia of a dead, rude, depraved power, ensnares, enwinds, oppresses and plunges us in uncertainties, disgust, frivolities and cruel or senseless excesses; when we know and possess nothing; when all things marshal before us like the grotesque images of an odious or absurd dream, who shall repress in our hearts the need of another order and another nature? And must this light be nothing but a fantastic gleam? It allures, it persuades in the universal night. It enthralls us and we pursue it; if it misdirects, at least it enlightens and enkindles us. We picture in our hearts and seem indeed to behold on earth a land of peace, of order, of unison, of justice, where Nature's finer feelings reign in all, where all desire and enjoy with the delicacy which originates, and the simplicity which multiplies pleasures. When we have thus conceived unalterable and permanent delights, when we have imaged all the frankness of true pleasure, how vain and miserable are the cares, the yearnings, the delights of the visible world! All is cold, all empty; we vegetate in a place of exile, and from the depth of our loathing we fix hearts overcharged with weariness on our imagined fatherland. All which engrosses them here, all which impedes, is henceforward as an enslaving chain; we should smile in our pity if we were not overwhelmed in our sorrow. And when imagination wings its flight once more towards those higher spheres, and compares a reasonable world with this wherein all fatigues and all wearies, we can no longer feel assured whether the sublime conception is only a blissful dream which leads us astray from realities, or whether social life is not itself one long aberration.

Alpine Scenery
Conditions of Happiness
Obermann’s Isolation



New American Stories - Collected here are practitioners of deep realism, mind-blowing experimentalism, and every hybrid in between. Luminaries and cult authors stand side by side with the most compelling new literary voices. Nothing less than the American short story renaissance distilled down to its most relevant, daring, and unforgettable works,

New American Stories by

New American Stories, Ed. by Ben Marcus. Penguin Random, 2015.

read it at Google Books

In New American Stories, the beautiful, the strange, the melancholy, and the sublime all comingle to show the vast range of the American short story . In this remarkable anthology, Ben Marcus has corralled a vital and artistically singular crowd of contemporary fiction writers. Collected here are practitioners of deep realism, mind-blowing experimentalism, and every hybrid in between. Luminaries and cult authors stand side by side with the most compelling new literary voices. Nothing less than the American short story renaissance distilled down to its most relevant, daring, and unforgettable works, New American Stories puts on wide display the true art of an American idiom.

If a nationwide literary ration were instituted tomorrow and you were told you could have only one single, solitary book of contemporary short stories, you should spend your allotment on The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, a 2004 anthology edited by Ben Marcus. It’s the only book whose cover I’ve worn off from over-reading, a kaleidoscopic collection that wonderfully encapsulated the variety and power of American short fiction, its range of voices and styles, the cross-pollination of genres and the boundless forms, both shocking and classic.
If the ration is increased to two, however, you should head straight for New American Stories, a decade-later spiritual sequel to Marcus’s earlier anthology. It’s a treasury and a who’s who of literary fiction, ideal company for any lover of the form. The breadth of subjects and moods includes DeLillo writing presciently about the Eurozone and Greece in crisis to the wry humor and desperate narrators of Joy Williams and Rivka Galchen to unusual, exciting stories by several less well-known authors. The result is a bird’s-eye view into the state of American short fiction over the last decade, the concerns of our authors, and—through contrast with Marcus’s last edited collection—an intriguing look at how the field may be changing.
Only a handful of the authors are repeats from the 2004 anthology. The Anchor Book introduced many readers to George Saunders, who’s gone on to become a critical darling with his collection Tenth of December; that collection contributes a gutpunch of a story, “Home,” to the offerings here. Christine Schutt and Anthony Doerr appear again, too—since The Anchor Book, the former was nominated for a Pulitzer and the latter won one. Marcus is himself a compelling argument in favor of content curation, spotting authors like these and helping to canonize masters like Lydia Davis and David Foster Wallace. His track record and the sheer quality of this newer batch of fiction means that you’re sure to hear names like Charles Yu, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Kelly Link more and more often, and that Donald Antrim and Deborah Eisenberg, among others, have been anointed modern masters.
Throughout New American Stories there’s a level of political and social awareness often absent from the 2004 anthology. Mary Gaitskill, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Zadie Smith all deal with our changed relationship with war, the security state, and nationalism; they describe strained and porous divisions between civilian and military life, and the bizarreness of normalcy in a world where armed violence doesn’t cease so much as move from place to place. Many of the stories share a heightened anxiety about the ramifications of rapid technological change as well. Characters are deposited in versions of China, England, or Los Angeles with shades of the dystopian, seeming to borrow from popular fiction and film a notion that near-future science fiction settings offer a compromise between realism and the fantastic. A greater socio-political awareness seems to affect the book on a macro editorial level, too: more than half of the stories—seventeen of thirty-two—are by women (Hello, VIDA!) and there are several more writers of color present than there were in The Anchor Book.
The stories in this newest collection are generally more narrative driven and accessible; fewer are ultra short, with stories averaging about twenty-three pages to The Anchor Book’s sixteen. One of the starkest differences in the stories is seen in the handful of experimental pieces. While the innovations of the last collection focused on language—Gary Lutz’s convolutions of grammar, the poetic turns of Anne Carson, Joe Wenderoth, and Dawn Raffel—the most innovative stories here play with frames and scale. There’s Rachel Glaser’s “Pee on Water,” which careens back and forth at high speed between magnified images of the personal or domestic and a kind of scattershot history of humankind. In Robert Coover’s spectacular “Going for a Beer,” the whole of a man’s life slips past him over the course of a few pages, almost unnoticed. There is a heaping helping of the unnerving, too, in the anatomy-class violence of Kyle Coma-Thompson’s, “The Lucky Body” or Mathias Svalina’s descriptions of imagined, frightening children’s games, not to mention Jesse Ball’s, “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” with its combination of violence, surrealism, confusion, and Kafka-like inevitability.
Some of the excellent voice-driven work in New American Stories, like Saunder’s real-feeling, earnest idiots or Tao Lin’s deadpan millenialisms, feels less shockingly experimental today than it might have a decade ago, no doubt by virtue of its success. If this new collection is lacking anything, though, it may be a few short, swift pieces from a poetic background. Lyrical, roomy, poignant pieces by Carson and Wenderoth allowed The Anchor Book to breathe; the absence of something similar this time around may reflect changing aesthetic ideals.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the experimental stories that seem most different from those collected a decade ago—why wouldn’t fiction at its innovative margins be more volatile? But Marcus himself would prefer that the word experimental wasn’t used. He’s been called the “vanguard” of experimental fiction and its “unabashed apologist,” thanks to his own challenging, inventive early fiction and to his “spirited defense of experimental fiction,” as the New York Times put it, in a 2005 Harper’s essay combatively titled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it.” But Marcus has done his best to keep the label “experimental” at arm’s length. In his introduction to New American Stories he explicitly says that he is against genre labels: “[R]ealist and experimentalist… [are]… minor labels that… scar our writers… someone else’s nicknames… lie[s].”
This is only the latest volley in a battle Marcus has been fighting for some time. In that Harper’s essay on experimental fiction he abandoned the term as a slur while embracing authors who had been so labeled. “Calling a writer experimental,” he wrote, “is now the equivalent of saying his work does not matter, is not readable, is aggressively masturbatory…. [A] writer with ambition now is called ‘postmodern’ or ‘experimental,’ and not without condescension.” Where he used the word experimental Marcus often preceded it with “so-called.” And when an interviewer at HTMLGIANT brought the word up a few years back, Marcus reacted sharply, “This issue… is hollow to me. I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be. I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself. Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone?”
Perhaps that’s a reasonable response for someone who’s been sidelined—or witnessed his favorite writers being sidelined—by a genre label. There’s even a history of conflict over the term in literature and criticism. Marguerite Young responded to being labeled an experimental writer by sarcastically asking, “[Is] it experimental to be influenced by the bible? By Saint Augustine?” Gertrude Stein rejected the label wholeheartedly too. “Artists do not experiment,” she said, “Experiment is what scientists do; they initiate an operation of unknown factors to be instructed by its results. An artist puts down what he knows.” Stein’s opinion, however, is not necessarily a dominant one: “I write to discover what I know,” wrote Flannery O’Connor; “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” wrote Joan Didion; “I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest,” said Michel Foucault.
Is there any reason to call fiction experimental? Perhaps the comparison to questing into the unknown, the implication that experiments can fail or turn up surprising results, could be found attractive. Actually, many authors have found it attractive. George Saunders, for instance, is on record saying he aims for his stories to have “as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core.” According to Saunders, his former teacher Tobias Wolff said, “All good writing is experimental by definition. If it’s not experimental, it’s just a museum piece.” Kathy Acker described her own writing as “experiments” wherein she imposed arbitrary restrictions to see where they would take her.
John Hawkes has said, “Of course I think of myself as an experimental writer.” When David Markson’s editor suggested he ditch a blurb from David Foster Wallace that called Markson “the high point of [American] experimental literature,” Markson is reported to have told his editor, “As an obvious experimental writer, and with this being an obviously experimental book, I think you’re wrong to shy away from the word.”
When Marcus—who has written, edited, and curated fiction called experimental—recoils from the word, calling it a nickname instead of a genre, there’s a strong resonance with his own fiction, in which names function as tricks and weapons. In his first book he defined Marcus as a “false map” in a glossary entry definition, and later lent his name to the pathetic narrator of Notable American Women, a balding child who is molested by a beloved dog and experimented on by his mother. The narrator’s sister is experimented on, too, by being periodically renamed. When she is called “Carla” it causes bloating, while “Susan” makes her act like a stranger, “Father” transforms her into a violent domestic tyrant, and “Mary” weakens and ultimately kills her. Then there are Marcus’s many fictionalized references, which play with and undermine the authority of names. His first book opens with an epigraph ascribed to Emerson that reads, “Every word was once an animal”: Emerson never wrote that. Elsewhere Marcus provides quotes ascribed to Thoreau, Montaigne, Blake, Pasteur, Teresa of Avila, Luther, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Nietzsche, Picasso, Ovid, Hippocrates, and the bible, to name a few. Just a few pages into the novel The Flame Alphabet, Marcus’s narrator blames names themselves for a plague seemingly borne by language, saying, “The sickness rode in on my name.” On the same page, attributed to Revelations: “Beware your name, for it is the first venom.”
This is a writer deeply concerned with how language affixes the world, how it is haunted by names, filtered through names, distorted by them. The wrong names cause pain, and even less-wrong ones shape our perceptions of the world. But the way he uses names in his fiction, mixing and severing words and meanings, cutting and pasting, gives a template for how the word experimental might be redeemed through redefinition. Neither Marcus nor any of the writers he likes and collects has to suffer by virtue of being called experimental: if the word is a lie, it might nonetheless be bent toward beneficial service, if authors desired it. The word might not be a death knell, anyway. Just seven years ago Marcus bemoaned the fact that experimental fiction, “is not appearing in The New Yorker. It is not being published by mainstream presses. When published, by a small press, it is mostly not being reviewed by the New York Times, let alone any number of other newspapers or review outlets.” In the intervening seven years, in spite of his strong association with experimental fiction, Marcus has done each of those things himself: the boxes are checked, and checked, and checked.
We can’t wish genre away. It’s a way of categorizing, of recognizing difference, elemental to how we think. But we might be able to escape suffering by it. There’s a brain hack I found a while back, one that reroutes the wires of your brain ever so slightly. It’s just this: works of art don’t “belong” to any genre, but rather “participate” in genres—plural. If you let that sink in, you can avoid getting headaches from our culture’s endless arguments about categories. In the case of New American Stories, you could go through all thirty-two stellar pieces of fiction and consider each as participating in various genres to greater or lesser degrees: there’s a little more sci-fi dystopianism in the Zadie Smith and Charles Yu, a little more prose poetry in Schutt and Davis. There is a little more of the experimental in the Rachel Glaser, the Robert Coover, and maybe a little less with Eisenberg or Antrim.
If we’re able to think this way, to accept a plurality of overlapping genre clouds instead of placing our stories like pills into labeled boxes, we might gain a more nuanced understanding of genre, and we might be liberated from what feels like our powerlessness against the ghettoization of ostensibly low, unseemly, or marginal genres. We might see genres as similar to geotags, or even hashtags: as a way to find, or to be found. “There are only realists,” Donald Barthelme once said. We should say as well that there are only experiments. - Joel Breuklander 

Later this month, Vintage Contemporaries will publish New American Stories, a richly variegated anthology of American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The collection, which Marcus put together more as a playlist or mixtape than a “museum piece,” is a stirring arrangement that presents a strong case for the American short story as a vital, living thing. And, like unmediated life, it is uncategorizable.
With its recent fictions by American masters (Don DeLillo and Joy Williams), contemporary favorites (Zadie Smith and Rivka Galchen), so-called writer’s writers, and relative unknowns, New American Stories is refreshing in the way it rejects easy emotion in favor of a derangement of the senses. In other words, as Marcus notes in his introduction, these stories form “a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that…are no longer optional.” We spoke to Marcus about the contemporary short story and the idiosyncratic art of putting together a literary anthology.
Flavorwire: I was just considering how daunting a task it must have been to put together such a robust anthology of new American fiction. What was that process like?
Ben Marcus: Part of what allowed it to happen was my feeling that there could have been six volumes of this thing, that this was meant in no way to be some definitive text or the last word on stories that matter. Really, I thought of it more as a playlist or a mixtape, something that could hopefully draw you further in — to explore more and branch out. What made it possible was taking some pressure off of myself. Instead I had more fun just looking at the stories I could love over a long period of time, the stories that grew and became more complicated and richer when I read them, re-read them.
In one way, doing an anthology becomes a great excuse for reading everything that you can get your hands on. We’re so busy doing tons of other things, trying to get our own work done — I also read a lot of student work. So years go by, and all of these writers I want to read go unread. I have these piles and piles and shelves of books. It occurred to me that there was so much terrific work happening, that I was falling behind. Doing the book became an amazing excuse to take this vacation completely structured by intense reading. To be honest, the most fun part of it was just sitting with stacks of books, just having no real set of principles or rules other than reading and reading and reading, making smaller piles. Just getting to the bottom of something.
On the other hand, there are all of these agonies. There are writers I know are masters that I can’t get my own traction with as a reader. I know I’m surrounded by people who love and worship these writers. Then I try my best to get that feeling, and then I can’t. Then I feel guilty, like there is something amiss with my own reading apparatus. In the end, I can’t read as anyone other than myself, and I hope no one gets their feelings hurt if they’re left out, or if they feel that there is something, again, that is supposed to be definitive about this book.
So you actively avoided a prescriptivist, “this is the American story” approach?
When I was growing up, we had anthologies — like the Norton anthology — that were really trying to be definitive. I suppose I kept telling myself while working on this that other people should do their own versions. I wish other people would collect thirty-two stories and present them to me. We’d just swap anthologies. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but I think that helped me realize that I just had to read as myself, and not some type of figure trying to present to a culture the stories that matter.
I guess the title isn’t The New American Story. You have some room to work…
We went through a bunch of different titles, by the way.
In the introduction you call the short story the “ideal deranger,” and you liken it to a drug, or maybe you suggest that stories actually are drugs in the form of language. One great thing about this approach is that it cuts a path away from both comfort and alienation, realism and vanguardism. I guess what I mean is that derangement is neither easy satisfaction nor a lack of pleasure — it’s something else. How did you come to this idea?
I feel a little self-conscious that I’ve exhausted that metaphor, but I know that — no matter what else is going on in my life — when I get captured by a story, when I get up at the end of it, I’m different. I do feel like I’ve just gotten viciously baked. Then I get to go back out into the world with this filter over my perspective. Or at least a different level of adrenaline.
It may seem like a stretch to see reading these stories as essentially chemical, but I also like it because it takes me away from genre distinctions. When I first started compulsively reading short stories, I was not aware of genre. Or I was not aware of what is seen as a sort of battle between the realist story and the postmodernist story. Though I do remember reading these two anthologies. One, a really great one, called Matters of Life and Death — it’s just tremendously good. But even by [Tobias Wolff’s] own admission in the intro, it concerns only a certain kind of story. Then there was a different anthology that was much less good — but still occasionally explosive — called Anti-Story. It was sort of declaring itself in opposition to the realist story. So I understand why people become entrenched and want to defend a certain way of doing things. On the other hand — and this might be connected to teaching, or being with younger writers when they’re first thinking of writing themselves — you begin to notice that when you leave out these polarities, readers and writers can be a little bit more liberated, a little more engaged. Possibilities open up when you don’t present these things as sides of a battle.
Maybe, in retreating from these critical categories, I felt most comfortable talking about the physical experience of reading stories because they do fuck me up. They do really get inside me. It’s not something you can shake.
Your introduction also works as a story of sorts, and it avoids becoming a boring critical or theoretical summation of the state of the American story. Was this something you wanted to avoid?
There is an awful set of questions around the short story and its accepted irrelevance (against the novel) and its commercial inferiority. I just fucking hate it all. I hate that it’s even a conversation. It’s as if people are just asking the questions they think they’re supposed to ask, but it’s such a strange way of looking a story. You’re really just making an arrangement of language, and the length of it starts to seem — imagine trying to justify a song. If you think about a shorter poem versus a longer poem, it just seems so irrelevant. I suppose after enough time spent trying to justify a story to someone you just want to walk away. Maybe it’s not really for them.
Then there is just the problem of: “What the hell do you put into the introduction of an anthology?” I wasn’t going to itemize the stories. People just want to kill themselves when they read that sort of thing. Nor am I really a critic. I can’t write an introduction that is going to situate everything, that is going to clarify the trajectory of these writers. I’m not the kind of writer to do that. So the intro just becomes this problem I have to solve. Like any piece of writing it had to feel honest. That’s easier said than done after a while. Probably in the end all that I was left with was how it feels to read a story. That’s what I tried to do.
One unavoidable requirement of the anthology’s title is that these stories must be somehow American. I didn’t think much of this until I read the first story, Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia,” which is set in an America at war. Is there something to be said about what’s happening to the “American” short story? How did you negotiate that requirement?
Well, from my perspective it’s sort of expanding and dilating at once. I knew that what I could do was show the range and slipperiness of the work being written in this country. For instance, Zadie Smith has lived and worked in New York for quite a while. On one hand, I sort of consider someone looking at that and saying, “What the fuck? That’s bullshit! She was born in England.” In a way, I just don’t want to be so hung up on that. Encouraging a sense of flexibility around the “American” requirement was something I wanted to do. Did I look at the content of [Sayrafiezadeh’s] story and hope it would trigger thoughts about American identity? — definitely, definitely not. Frankly, there were four of his stories that I was trying to choose from. I’m really enamored by his work. I knew that I wanted his work — I just didn’t know which story. But I didn’t consciously choose it because it dealt with American things.
What about the “new” requirement? If I remember correctly, one of these stories dates back to 2004. Some are from last year…
I edited an anthology about ten or eleven years ago, and I think that the rule there was stories from the last ten years. I had a vague idea of doing that with this one. In some sense it’s arbitrary. In fact, there is a story in here that — I found out when the manuscript was being copyedited — came out in 1995, and I thought: “Wow, that’s actually kind of great.” Another case was Joy Williams. I knew I wanted something by her, and I was reading some of the stories in a book she has coming out called The Visiting Privilege. I gathered some of the stories that were going into that, and there was one that blew me away. We were going to the next step before I found out it had been written in 1969.
So there was no singularity, no specific point where you felt the American story had changed?
Well, that story of [Williams’] struck me as so contemporary in its idiom, its rhetoric, its tonal structure, everything. But of course it’s not. It’s a necessary and humbling thing to encounter. To feel as though you have some connection to what’s happening to the story right now, then to find all of these tendencies, strains, and techniques going way back to these little errant pockets of literature — for me that’s always a reminder that I just actually haven’t read enough. Everyone right now is making this documentary, technical, dry, detached stuff, but it’s also not true that there is anything particularly new about it. If you read enough, you’ll find a precedent for everything. As much as we’d like to think that we’re onto different stuff.
So I don’t know if I was trying to do anything other than present a range of things that feel vital, that feel vibrant, that feel complex. Maybe then it’s for other to notice, with a critical language, what those things are. Frankly, when you read a lot of short fiction in limited amount of time, it’s interesting to see the overlaps and redundancies, the modes that lots of people use. I would find ten stories by ten different writers that started to seem really similar to me in the way they were put together. And I would have a hard time including all of those stories. In the end, I wanted a range of approaches. So if a story was not playing in the same sandbox as 90 percent of the stories out there, I was more alert to it. I worked hard to read a lot of stuff that was quite unusual, that was formally adventurous, strange, difficult — whatever you want to call it. A lot of it I would get excited about, but halfway through it would just fall apart. There would be tremendous paragraphs followed by plodding dullness. I saw a lot of stuff that delighted me, but when I read and re-read and kept it on my desk for a month, by the end, because I could see through it, I was less disposed to it, if that makes sense. But there were those pieces that were beautifully constructed from the first word to the last.

This may sound strange, but while reading the anthology I was reminded of something the filmmaker Pedro Costa told me, that contemporary cinema “doesn’t contain any death.” He also explained it in terms of failure, that cinema is now afraid to fail. It seems like these stories contain plenty of death, in that sense, and failure. I’m thinking most of all of Robert Coover’s amazing “Going for a Beer.”
That’s interesting. I’m sure in some sense that is going on. I’ve been reading [Coover’s] stories my entire adult life. He was a teacher of mine long ago in school, and I’ve always loved and appreciated his adventurous approach to writing. What was interesting to me about his story is that, yes, it has this formal playfulness, but it scratches into this deeply human place. This is something he usually resists. He’s more comfortable in an antic, satiric mode. I thought he sort of did it all in that story. I’ve talked a lot with him about when he was first writing, when there was a conscious resistance to move away from the Richard Yates variety of domestic realism. He came up feeling that was the king to dethrone. You can feel that animating a lot of his work — an anti-psychological, certainly anti-sentimental mode. But that story felt like such an amazing mixture — it has something that I feel is quite tender. That’s why it was such a shoo-in for me.
There are stories here that could be “accused” of straightforward realism, but there are also stories that could be seen as “experimental.” Though I guess they aren’t experimental in the sense that William Gaddis rejected the term — they aren’t “experimental” because they aren’t experimenting. The authors know exactly what they are doing.
I would totally agree with that.
Do you think both readers and writers are now rejecting the idea of the experimental short story?
I thought that. And in one interview I sort of said it. I think I asked, “Does anyone really identify with being an experimental writer?” I caught all kinds of shit for it. Of course, I just don’t feel legislative about those things at all. Writers should just do exactly what they like. To me that term is often used in a derogatory way. I guess I just don’t really think about it that much anymore, and I’m not sure there is a lot to be gained from head-scratching about it.
I wanted to make an anthology that tries to ignore most of this, one that just wonders what could happen if we make bedfellows out of all of these approaches. The world of the short story is already just so small. The audience is pretty small. So the fact of creating a whole subset of softball teams — it starts to seem so pointless to me. It’s as if you like painting but you only like Cubism. I guess I’m imagining a reader who is not indoctrinated by this stuff. Obviously there are going to be pieces that people love and dislike — I learned that with the last anthology I did. People would say, “That’s not even a story!” But what kept me interested was putting all of these stories in conversation with each other, and, in some kind of cheesy way, imagining myself at a certain age. What book would I make? I’m the only reader I am, that I have access to. I’m creating this thing, a book for myself, that I would have wanted to read and do want to read and re-read. You just hope that you’re not alone in this set of responses you have to the stories. -

Editor’s note: the following is the introduction to New American Stories, an anthology of contemporary American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The anthology will be published by Vintage on July 21st.] 

There is a game I play with my young son. He shuts his eyes while I sneak to the shadows with my weapon. On the dark side of a bookcase, concealed by a doorway, I stand and wait. I stifle my breathing, and the game begins.
My son does his best to avoid capture, even though he circles my hideout, risking the worst. He cannot yet play this game silently. He advertises his location with badly muffled squeals. He sprints through rooms, taking the corners too fast. He’ll stumble, wipe out, right himself, and charge again. I always hear him coming. Maybe he wants to be captured just as much as he dreads it, but you can hear the conflict thumping inside him. He produces frightening sounds, a pure bullet of feeling. How does one body hold so much? What will I do when he grows up and learns to conceal this feeling, or, worse, when the feeling stops rising up so strongly in the first place?
My son can’t be sure where or when the ambush is coming. But it always does. When he tears past me I roar from his blind spot, ensnaring him in a blanket. Down he goes, kicking and laughing, a thrashing little figure under cloth. I close the bundle, cinch it in my fist, and drag it from room to room.
My son is five now, as easy to lift as a pillow. I hoist him over my head, teeter on one leg for suspense, then plunge him onto the couch. He bounces high, still tucked inside the blanket. I hold on tight and swing until we’re spinning. His little voice drifts up from far away. Inside his trap he is in heaven, or so it sounds. I swing him and drag him and toss him until I’m ready to collapse. When I let him go he is red and sweaty and wild. Usually he glares at me. Why did I stop? What is wrong with me? He begs, begs, for us to play again. It’s all he wants to do. He promises not to peek, and I steal off to hide again.
My son would not put it this way, because he knows better than to try to dissect his own pleasure. But he is asking to be amazed and afraid in this situation we’ve contrived. He cannot really come to harm—the boy is so small that it is child’s play to keep him safe—but by surrendering control, submitting himself to the darkness, to the fast passage inside a careening world, he can take himself to the bursting point. He is looking to suddenly feel a great many things, and to feel them intensely, inside this fictional crisis. And I can’t blame him, because, more and more, I would like that very same thing.
When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world, and tossed aloft until I cannot stand it, until everything is at stake and life feels almost unbearably vivid, I do something simple. I read short stories. When I was young I read fiction because nothing much happened to me. As a reader I could fight a war, lose a father, be pushed from a bridge with a noose over my neck. I could grow up and grow old, turn angry and sad. I could love and hate and harm and get away with it. In stories I had children of my own, got divorced, worried, wondered, rode shotgun inside intellects far swifter than mine. My earliest reading was not just a romance with what was possible, but a romance with what was not. If something was never likely to happen in real life, I was doubly committed to live it in fiction. I think back to when I have had the most intense feelings, and most often those moments resulted not from cruising through a so-called real world of bodies and things, collecting actual experiences. Those feelings arose out of something invisible yet strangely more powerful: the language of others. Language has made some of the most durable feeling this world has seen. Not the functional kind of language we bleat at each other out in the world when we want something, or need to declare or deny something. Not the quotidian language that showers down everywhere around us to block us from our true thoughts. I’m thinking of the much more unusual and spell-like language of fiction, which generally does not occur out loud: razored, miraculously placed, set like stones into staggeringly complex patterns so that, somehow, life, or something more distilled and intense, more consistently moving, gets made.
I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. Our skin is never pierced and yet stories break the barrier and infect us regardless. We study these marks, move our finger along them, and they transmit worlds. If we could paint what happens between the page and our face, the signal channel saturated with color and shape, the imagery would be so tangled that the picture would blacken into pure noise, a dark architecture of everything that matters.
A story is simply a sequence of language that produces a chemical reaction in our bodies. When it’s done well, it causes sorrow, elation, awe, fascination. It makes us believe in what’s not there, but it also pours color over what is, so that we can feel and see the world anew. It fashions people, makes us care for them, then ladles them with conflict and disappointment. It erects towns, then razes them. A story switches on some unfathomably sophisticated machine inside us and we see, gloriously, what is not possible.
And yet language is a prickly delivery system. It requires attention, effort. It does not produce reliable results across the population. The same text that makes one person weep makes another blink with indifference or spit with contempt. By reading more, and more variously, we decimate our immunity, increase our vulnerability to this substance, but our private wiring does something profoundly subjective to this material that would seem unique from body to body. Language turns out to be the most unruly of medicines, the most unknowable, and yet, provided we collaborate with it, still among the most powerful.
Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked. You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled as a cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man. You have to stare down a story until it wobbles, yields, then catapults into your face. And yet, as squirrely as they are to capture, stories are the ideal deranger. If they are well made, and you submit to them, they go in clean. Stories deliver their chemical disruption without the ashy hangover, the blacking out, the poison. They trigger pleasure, fear, fascination, love, confusion, desire, repulsion. Drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife. While working on this book, I started to think of a it as a medicine chest, filled with beguiling, volatile material, designed by the most gifted technicians. The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.
Imagine trying to assert the importance of water. Food. Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why. To this list of crucial things, without which we might perish, I would add stories. A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.
In high school I made mix tapes for girls. The term for this now would be playlist. You can create one with a few clicks, and no one much cares. Back then a mix tape was an act of love, a plea, a Hail Mary, an aphrodisiac. In other words, it was an anthology, published in a limited edition of one copy. Then it was surrendered to an audience of one, a girl not even guaranteed to listen to it, because sometimes it must have seemed like it was made by a stalker, a creep, a card-carrying freak. To make a mix tape, before computers, you needed a mule cart, a bag of hair, and a padded suit. It seemed to take a whole year to produce, and I wasn’t even one of those kids who decorated the case with snakeskin and neon markers. I just dumped songs from one tape to another, pulling from the vast catalog of seventeen albums and twenty-four cassettes that I owned. And when I handed it off to some poor girl, she might regard it as a grim example of my biology, dropping it like medical waste into her bag. The tape needed to perform the charm and seduction that, with my own body and words, I could not. Not that I didn’t try. I wrote plenty of poetry in a literary tradition that never took off: the wrong words in the wrong order. And even though I hoped some handcrafted poems would reveal me as a person worth shucking one’s clothing for, my verse was embarrassing, far too easy to understand. I had yet to realize how easy it is to dismiss what comes to us with no thought, no struggle. If there is nothing left to think about, we stop thinking. I did not understand that my poetry needed to at least seem eligible for further reflection. It had no time-release feature, as do the stories in this anthology, to crack open in the body days later, bleeding out inside us until we start to glow. Obviousness was a clear turnoff. My poetry shut people down, maybe invited death into the home. I’m sure my fondness for rhyme didn’t help, either.
I also made a classic mistake. I confused the description of feelings with the creation of them. I wanted to cause feeling in others, but all I did was assert, somewhat grandiosely, that I had feelings myself. This is an unpleasant thing to announce. I had a lot to learn.
So I retreated from creation to curation. As with the stories in this anthology, I chose music that somehow, in ways I could not understand, came spring-loaded with insights about me, a youth from nowhere who knew no one, who had said and done precisely nothing that mattered. The songs I liked already intuited what I thought and felt, deep within my well-guarded interior. No doubt this wasn’t particularly difficult, because I had not thought and felt all that much yet. But this feeling—of being known, understood, seen, accounted for—seemed in urgent need of passing along. The songs, as fiction would later, worked a kind of excavation, breaking down resistance to reveal a territory that I otherwise did not have access to, fears and desires and mixed or half- formed feelings that had been hidden. When a song surfaced this stuff, I felt destroyed and remade, gifted with a new body, a weapon, a helmet. We don’t just have our feelings. Our feelings have us, and change us, and the endorphins triggered by this kind of change became compulsory. If a piece of noise, or later a string of words, could perform this kind of archaeology, I hoped to undergo such surgery as often as I could, and I looked for others who could enter the very same operating room. Life without it no longer seemed like life. To listen was to grow one’s inner self, to become more of a person, to see and feel more possibility. A sweet medication for solitude? Sounds as ointment for some impossible sorrow? Maybe, but those were the minor spoils up against the feeling of purifying one’s oxygen and sharpening the very air so that all I saw and felt leapt to a nearly unbearable resolution. It’s one reason we read, listen, and look at things made with exquisite skill. I’m sure I also thought that I would somehow get credit for these stirring songs—the sad and introspective ones, the punchy and danceable ones, the oddball ones that came out of nowhere with beeps and glitches and clicks. Certainly I thought that I’d be seen differently after the girl had listened to the tape. If she liked these songs, and if she felt similarly discovered by them, she would, if not disrobe, at least see I was no caveman. Or, more likely, she’d copy the tape and pass it on to whomever she wanted to impress, whoever was, for her, someone she wanted to show her true self to.
This anthology aims to present the range of what American short-story writers have been capable of in the last ten years or so, not as a museum piece but as a sampler of behaviors and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading. A sourcebook of required emotions. For months I collected books, stories, links, and names. I asked writers, readers, editors, friends, and strangers to alert me to strong stories, favorite writers. Who should I read? Who am I missing out on? What is the most memorable story you’ve read in the last ten years? What story has shaken you?
The range of work I encountered was staggering. I have sometimes wished for a bookstore organized not by genre but by feeling. You could shop by mood, by emotional complexity, by the amount of energy and attention that might be required. There’d be a special section for the kind of literature that holds your face to the fire. Until there is such a bookstore, we have anthologies.
Had I worked strictly from my passions, collecting the most intense and beautiful and memorable work I could find, stories exhibiting the highest degree of artistic mastery, this book would have grown so huge that you would have needed to carry it in a wagon.
I sought stylistic and formal variety in the stories not to be fair, but because there seem to be endless ways, in fiction, to make the world come alive, to reckon with our time, to fearlessly reveal what’s in front of us. To look to the past, to posit the future. To lean on language and bend and try to break it. To preserve and refine tradition, or to struggle otherwise. If writers can’t genuinely make it new, they probably can’t convincingly make it old, either. They are helpless but to make it now. But who we are now is impossible to fix, and impossible to generalize about. The minor labels that would scar our writers—realist and experimentalist would be the obvious ones—seem like someone else’s nicknames, sounds we use to call off a dog. We say these words out loud and we feel the instant shame of having told a lie in a language we hardly even speak.
The idea was to put together a book that shows just what the short story can do. Had I chosen thirty-two stories that showcase the exact same methods and make love to the same traditions, that would be too many hammer blows to the face, when a single one will do. Each story here is a different weapon, built to custom specifications. Let’s get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways.
Inside this book you’ll find language smooth and seamless, jagged and mean. The kind of language you use and hear every day, and the kind you never thought possible. If these stories were paintings, one might depict the human figure in angry detail while another might puncture the figure until it spills over its frame, leaking color down the wall.
Therefore there are stories of the past. Stories of the future. Stories set in some gummy mixture of the two. Stories rocketing inside a character’s head. Stories casting out into the world. Stories that burn out inside a few seconds. Stories that blanket a lifetime. Stories set here, stories set abroad. Stories set in some unsettling elsewhere. Speaking of which: stories that could happen, stories that couldn’t, stories that did, stories that didn’t. Stories that confirm our beliefs or assault them. Stories that hurt the mind. Stories that ate a poem. Stories that refute the dictionary. Stories pretty, strange, or plain. Stories so monstrously intimate I was often scared to reread them.
What resulted started to feel like a kind of Whole Earth Catalog. Not of things and goods, but of the strategies, in language, to attack our tendency—my own, anyway—to feel too little. I wanted to bring together stories I would not care to live without, a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that, to me, are no longer optional. The names of the moods and states and spirits these stories provoke, like the names of animals, or the names of people, are woefully inadequate.
When I could not shake a story, was kept up at night by it, and days or weeks later began to confuse the story with my own life, there was a sign that the story had taken seed. As I read, the stories I sided with were the ones that began to own me. They won’t relax their hold, and the more I read them the more this arrangement seems secure. I kept the stories that won’t unhand me. If I could forget a story then I suppose I did. And yet even then, the stories I forgot formed their own pile, where I revisited them each at least once, believing the defect to be mine.
In my reading I found stories that make us forget our troubles, and stories that rub our faces in them. The first kind of story relieves us of the burden of some basic truths: We are made of flesh, it often hurts to be alive, and we are in a constant state of decay. If we lived in relentless contemplation of these facts, we would burst. Some of us already have. Pleasure arises when we forget our fears. Relief, an illusory break from time. A break from ourselves. Such stories provided entertainment but left no residue. When I examined myself for evidence of them days or weeks later, I could find none. A respite from some basic emotional reality—the central predicament of being a finite, feeling thing—came to seem too much like a vacation I hadn’t earned. And didn’t really want.
A deeper pleasure arguably comes when our fears are admitted, revealed in full color, enlarged and even strengthened, in the world of language. It was this kind of story I favored, a story not in flight from something elemental and inescapable—we are going away soon. Meanwhile, what is worth noticing, what is crucial to feel and think before we do? Why is it pleasurable, deeply so, to read sorrowful, dark, often difficult stories? What need is being satisfied? It’s challenging to answer this without sounding like a glutton for end-times entertainment. When a story achieves a degree of moral honesty, not in its specific plot or its claims, not in its subject matter, necessarily, but in some of its deeper materials, its methods, language, style, and mood, in the emotional space it carves out within us, the result is eerily comforting, like being wrapped in a blanket and hurtled through space. In the end it is far more disturbing when our entertainment denies our fears, our mounting suspicions, estranging us with a version of the world that is too safe and easy to be real. A story seemed to find its place here when it did not look away from what was coming. - electricliterature.com/language-is-a-drug-ben-marcuss-paean-to-the-contemporary-american-short-story/


When a book presents itself like this, you can’t help but think it’s a statement of intent. The intent, in this case, is so clear that it’s plastered all over the (handsome) cover: a chunk of Ben Marcus’ introduction to the collection is superimposed on the title. This is not a mere collection of stories, this, it suggests, is a manifesto.
“Language is a drug,” begins the cover extract, “but a short story cannot be smoked.” Marcus has described the intoxicant powers of language before (his novel The Flame Alphabet imagines a world where children’s language becomes a fatal poison for adults), and conjures its incantatory qualities again here; it goes on: “You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled in a cream,” its charm and power starting to creak a little until it tells you, “You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man.” No indeed, you certainly can’t. While Marcus is to be admired for fully exploiting a powerful metaphor, this veers dangerously close to lit theory Alan Partridge.
But turn to the introduction proper and the whole thing is rather more nuanced and thoughtful than this breathless extract may seem. Marcus tells the tale of play-scaring his young son, and claims stories have the same effect on their readers: “When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world… I read short stories.” The book, on the whole, achieves this aim: the thirty-two New American Stories variously ambush and capture, create strange and vivid worlds, and – occasionally – simply baffle.
Yet if the book isn’t quite a manifesto, its cover and weight do perhaps stake a claim at making it a statement publication, a landmark in the development of the American short story. And while the introduction certainly makes no grandiose claims about representing American life (pace Richard Ford’s introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story in which he snarkily refutes the possibility of such a thing), it can be difficult not to extrapolate something State-of-the-Nation about such a portentous collection: thirty-two contemporary writers amassed to glimpse into America’s soul.
And what there is to see there isn’t entirely pretty: almost all the stories possess some sense of queasiness, something very much not quite right about the world. This is an America which is distinctly unheimlich. In Lucy Corin’s ‘Madmen’, American adolescents are required to choose a person with severe mental health issues to take home, and live with. Charles Yu’s ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ has call centre workers taking on outsourced emotional pain, while Tao Lin and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh set their stories in a land where the characters are haunted by the spectre of terrorism. Families, too, are put under the microscope and found wanting: Rebecca Curtis’ ‘The Toast’ has a brilliantly unreliable narrator composing a wedding address to her estranged sister, venting a controlled anger while her own world seems to be falling utterly to pieces around her. Don DeLillo works with his familiar themes of power, money and corruption as a jailed trader watches his teenage daughters becoming TV-star celebrity financial commentators. Christine Schutt’s ‘A Happy Rural Seat of Various View’ offers anything but its title, as a couple move into a house offering rural bliss despite their relationship already having disintegrated.
Ben Marcus
The historical is a rarity: the stories here are almost all present or near-future set, or – as Marcus himself notes – are “set in some gummy mixture of the two”. It is interesting, then, that two of the strongest stories have historical settings. Anthony Doerr’s ‘The Deep’ and Claire Vaye Watkins’ ‘The Diggings’ look at salt miners in Detroit and gold hunters in California respectively. Neither story offers comfort (an oft-levelled criticism of historically-set fiction), but glances at the barbarous, the brutal, at histories out of tilt, little known episodes of things locked away in America’s attic.
Mostly, this is an America that is defined through language itself, a culture only perceptible and intelligible through those “skeletal marks on paper or a screen”, as Marcus puts it in his introduction. In ‘This Appointment Occurs in the Past’ Sam Lipsyte writes “Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve”, a sentence so intimate with American culture it almost needs footnotes. Tao Lin describes “a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound,” hinting at advertising copy (“The 2015 terrorists are now in!”). George Saunders’ narrator goes into a shop selling plastic tags marked ‘MiiVOXMIN’ and ‘MiiVoxMAX’ and buys one without even knowing what it is. Some of the most interesting stories here are part of what Marcus isn’t crass enough to refer to as a ‘school’, but there is some recognisable DNA shared by him, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and Wells Tower, for example. These are stories intensely aware of themselves as stories (Lipsyte’s ‘This Appointment Occurs In The Past’ is not so much a nod to Chekov as a full on nut), and as language. These writers seem to be brothers from the same strange and brilliant family, entertaining and hugely talented, but reading them has the cumulative effect of being repeatedly battered around the head by an undeniably clever but somewhat irritating child. When Lydia Davis arrives with the one paragraph ‘Men,’ it’s like a soothing glass of cool water. The smartass brothers’ more intelligent and rather more modest older sister.
It is Davis, of course, who picks at the very notion of what ‘story’ is – Marcus repeatedly uses this term instead of the more specific (and market-unfriendly) ‘short story’, and never bothers (thankfully) to define quite what he means by it. It is interesting, though, that everything Marcus says about story in his introduction could certainly apply to the novel, or to the short story’s closest sibling, the poem. Some of these stories feel like novels: the Vaye Watkins story mentioned above runs to fifty pages and has separate chapters, as does Denis Johnson’s brilliant ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’, detailing the slow breakdown of an adman (a classic American tale). But they stick out notably given the remarkable consistency of Marcus’ aesthetic (many reviews even seem to be treating the book as if Marcus had written the whole thing himself).

Other than their settings and the above-mentioned hyperinflated language used by some of the writers, there is also no clear sense of why these should be American stories. (Marcus’ inclusion of Zadie Smith has raised one or two eyebrows, but if someone lives in a country and writes about it, that’s good enough for me.) Frank O’Connor said that for Americans the short story was practically “a national art form”, something that Nicholas Royle and Salt’s ongoing annual selection Best British Short Stories, now in its fifth year, would seem to give the lie to. It would be facile to contrast the supposed American quality of brashness with the British virtue of modesty, but Best British Stories 2015 does no more than it claims on its cover, has a brief grumble of an intro from Royle which then turns into a modest yet strong statement about the vitality of the form. While it is true that there isn’t the readership in the UK that there may be in the US, Royle notes with approval “the rise of the single short story publication” (citing Daunt Books and Knives Forks and Spoons Press, coyly not mentioning his own Nightjar Press who also publish excellent single-story chapbooks), and the growth of a number of small magazines (Lighthouse and Gorse, in particular). Rather than pontificating about the wider significance of the form, the introduction is a simple enticement to get on with the stories.
This is to compare like with like – as an annual event, BBSS has less pressure on it to be a statement and its continual reappearance makes it a seam, a vein of ore, rather than a monolith.
Another intriguing contrast comes from looking at the two books’ lists of contributors. Almost all of the thirty-two Americans note the college or university where they hold a teaching position; only two of the British do likewise. In a 2006 essay in n+1, ‘Short Story & Novel’, Elif Batuman bemoans this state of affairs, claiming that the short story is a zombie form, only kept alive by its use and practice in the Academy. Despite the undoubted brilliance of New American Stories, this does ring true: of course there’s no living in writing short fiction, and I don’t begrudge the NAS contributors a good job, but it would perhaps have been interesting to read stories by writers not associated with academia. Best British Short Stories, and Royle’s introduction to it, deny this state of affairs, showing that short fiction can thrive outside of MFA workshops.
The short story is an odd form, forever dying out or undergoing a revival, impossible to define, sometimes seeming to be united by being nothing more than a text which happens to occupy around thirty pages or less: novels for people who can’t be arsed reading novels. Yet the best stories in both of these books show what the form is capable of: the world reflected in a puddle, the light gleaming for an instant, fireflies. If I had to pick the best stories from each collection, I’d go for two which have much in common: Robert Coover’s ‘Going For A Beer’ and Jim Hinks’ ‘Green Boots’ Cave’ both fold entire lives into a few pages. They are both intensely focused on language and narrative, yet poke out of the page, looking at you, unsettling everything you think you know. They bring themselves into being, they aren’t even about anything other than being the thing themselves. They are hermetic: sealed, mercurial, enigmatic. Indeed, the best stories couldn’t exist in any other form: call it a prose poem or a ten page novel, if you will, it matters little. The best stories in these books hold the heritage of Kafka and Gogol more than that of Hemingway or Carver. Short stories are slippery things, and have no truck with nationality or borders, but mess with identity and time itself. - C.D. Rose


Allegorithms - Oscillating between the algorithmic & the representational, the human agent navigates its environmental niche in a way which is conducive to its further psychological, social, & biological existence

Allegorithms , ed. by Vít Bohal & Dustin  Breitling, Litteraria Pragensia, 2017. Contributors: Alexander R. Galloway, Marco Donnarumma...