Top Reads 2009: Fiction

To culminate the 2009 retrospective, let's count-down my favorite fiction reads Letterman style, in reverse order. So here, without further adieu, are the five works of fiction that will continue to stick with me into the new year:

5. Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I remember first reading Wells Tower back in March 2005, in a hilarious article for Harper's, "Bird-dogging the Bush Vote." That put him on my radar as a journalist. But then I started seeing his stories and was equally impressed. In fact, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is one of the very few books I have ever pre-ordered, waitng for it to appear. I was not disappointed (indeed, I'm puzzled that this book hasn't gotten more attention in the glut of literary look-backs at year end). While the settings range from the contemporary Florida Keys to Viking-ravaged northern England (I'm not kidding), Tower's literary eye is trained on relationships of all sorts and stripes, particularly the awkward strains of family. And I found him refreshingly devoid of the "cleverness" that besets the McSweeney's crowd. Masterful, realistic dialogue; a literary style that's not indulgent; and a sense of humor that's not to be missed.

4. Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story. This one had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, unread. When the shock of Updike's death hit me (why did it affect me so?), I pulled this down from the shelf that night and devoured it. As with much of Baker's work, akin to Julian Barnes, classing it as "fiction" is not straightforwardly simple. (Indeed, while reading this I kept thinking of Barnes' chronicle of a literary obsession in Flaubert's Parrot.) But I find reading Baker sheer (guilty) pleasure.

3. Robertson Davies, The Fifth Business. This was a late 2009 read for me, finishing it just before Christmas. And I shouldn't have been reading it. While the rest of the family was Christmas shopping, I wandered into the $1 section of our local "Bargain Books" and found this volume. Still waiting for the family on the bench in the mall, I dove in and was immediately hooked. Davies, one of the great Canadian men of letters, is someone I should have read years ago, but never did. Fifth Business, the first volume of his Deptford Trilogy, is a wonderful way into Davies' strange blend of realism and mythology (a mythologized reality? realized mythology?). But I should confess that my relationship to the book is a bit strange since it narrates the life of a guilt-ridden boy born to Scots-Canadian Presbyterians in a small village in southwestern Ontario, so I'm a bit prone to over-identification. But Davies is a hard-nosed psychologist and a disciplined stylist. I'm looking forward to finishing the trilogy.

2. Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist. Any new book by Nicholson Baker would be on my must-read list. But a Nicholson Baker book whose protagonist is a poet? And who's regularly pontificating about theory? Sign me up! It's hard for me to communicate the pleasure I feel when reading Baker (this all began with The Mezzanine). It's as if reading "literary" fiction shouldn't be this fun, this delightful. Part of this probably stems from a kind of obnoxious insiderness, the winks and nods of allusions and references that are the inside jokes of literary culture. But I think it's more because Baker's writing is an exercise in attention--a sort of hallowing of the mundane (which, for Baker, always includes the fruits of our pop culture). Such attention is also at the heart of good poetry, which is why The Anthologist is just brilliant.

Tracking the charming neuroses of Paul Chowder, a middling poet unable to write the Introduction to his long overdue anthology, Only Rhyme. Chowder is a throwback and a romantic, devoted to rhyme and armed with an idiosyncratic account of meter. (It was hilarious to see Charles Simic, taking the bait, get sucked into a debate with the fictional Chowder in his NYRB review of The Anthologist!) But woven throughout is also a low-grade love story (Chowder's live-in girlfriend has finally given up on the relationship) drenched in beautiful longing. Even here he hallows the mundane. In fact, I can't resist putting two passages side-by-side:

What if sometime Roz let me hold her breasts again? Wouldn't that be incredible? Those soft familiar palm-loads of vulnberability--and I get to hold them? That's simply insane. Inconceivable. (p. 178)

And then later:

One time when Roz was still with me I came home late from a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, and she was already asleep, and so was the dog. I kicked Smacko in the head by mistake in the dark, not too hard, but he made a little growly yelp, and I said I was sorry to him, and that woke Roz. I got in bed, and she smelled so smilingly sleepy that soon I had my hand on her hip and I said, "Baby, that is one big sexy hip."

She stirred and said, "Yikes, what's going on here?"

I said, "I don't know, what's going on with you?"

She turned and unbuttoned her pajama top over me, and I could see one of her breasts outlined in the orange light coming from the street. Her breasts didn't have to rhyme, but in fact they did rhyme (pp. 203-204).

Did you catch that--"she smelled so smilingy sleepy that soon..."? The beauty of The Anthologist is that it retrospectively helps us appreciate what we should have seen all along: Baker's prose is positively poetic.

1. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel. Some books are so significant for me I'm too intimidated to write about them. (I don't think I've ever written about Jean Giraudoux's Choice of the Elect, which might be the most significant novel I've ever read.) Wolfe's gargantuan (662 pages!) Bildungsroman is still seeping into and out of the joints of my imagination. I spent the summer with it, including a week in Asheville, NC (the setting of the book, where I visited Wolfe's boyhood home in pilgrimage). Without any direct influence, I think it is a profoundly Augustinian meditation on selfhood and identity in terms of "exile" and "home." At times Wolfe's modernism is Joycean in its stream-of-consciousness peeks into the rattled mind of E.O. Gant. But it is the characters of this family that endure most (something like the characters of The Sound and the Fury). This book will be "with" me for a long time and I hope someday I'll be able to approach it more reflectively and critically.

Honorable mention: Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer. My first Roth, read in a little season spent with Jewish writers (including Bellow's Ravelstein and stories from The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel). While these are often meditations on exile and outsiderness, I find myself feeling most "outside" the literary world when I read Jewish-American writers--a sensation which has its own strange pleasures and temptations.


Top Reads 2009: Poetry

My poetry reading was varied and haphazard this year, but I would highlight the following five collections and poets for 2009:
  • While it seems like it must have been ages ago, my reading log notes that I devoured Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters on January 1-2, 2009 (a Faber edition I recall buying in York). They are haunted by the suicide of their addressee (Sylvia Plath), and now also by allegations of Hughes' abuse and callousness in the relationship. But I guess I'm still enough of a New Critic to not let that detract from the poetry, like the eerie earthiness of "Karlsbad Caverns."
  • Charles Wright's latest collection, Sestets, gathers his work that has been trickling out in magazines and literary quarterlies over the past few years, including one of my all-time favorites, "Cowboy Up." This is an almost 'metaphysical' collection about which I hope to write in more detail soon.
  • For something completely different, I was deeply marked by a week with Carl Sandburg, Selected Poems (in a LOA edition edited by Paul Berman). This was a treasured purchase from the celebrated Malaprop's bookstore in Asheville, NC and was a source of meditation while we stayed in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. During our time there, we also visited Sandburg's home near Flat Rock, NC. His gritty homage to Chicago is still a paen to the underside of glitzy America, and his honesty about the "working class" still rings true. His was an America that still made stuff, before all that was solid melted into thin air.
  • 2009 will also be the year that I kept bumping into Albert Goldbarth in various places--like his poem, "Sentimental," which I recently noted. But it took me a while to connect this to a poem I highlighted back in 2008, a recent New Yorker poem, "The Way." He's now at the top of my "to-read" poetry list for 2010, along with Sherman Alexie and Anne Carson.
  • Honorable mention: Keith Taylor, If the World Becomes So Bright. A collection of "Michigan" poems by a Michigan poet; a regional treat. And I love how the last lines capture our inbuilt semiotic proclivities to "read" the world: "I would like to be cold and clearheaded about / these events, but it is hard not to take them as signs."


Top Reads 2009: Nonfiction & Memoir

Julia Child, My Life in France

I bought this for my wife a couple of years ago, and then decided to cram it before going to see Julie & Julia. What a delightful surprise! Part travelogue, part cookbook (in a way), the book is an homage to a "simple" way of life that also relishes and revels in "the good things" of life. And it is a beautiful memoir of a marriage well-lived, without idealization or idolization.

Madeleine L'Engle, Two-Part Invention: The Story of Marriage

This is an oldie Deanna picked up at a thrift shop. After she devoured it, it was put on my must-read list. (I find this to be a delightful part of the friendship that is marriage: reading books together.) In the same spirit at My Life in France, L'Engle sketches the story of a kind of bohemian marriage, but this one is constrained by Christian commitments, and also beset by suffering.

Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, with an Introduction by Michael Pollan

An timely, accessible, and representative collection of Berry's writings on food production, farming, and husbandry, including some fiction selections that picture mealtimes and practices of eating. The selections span his entire writing career (and the early selections show how prescient he was/is). An excellent introduction to, and compendium of, Berry's thought.

David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

Not sure where to place this in terms of genre, but DFW's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College appeared as a book last spring. Part of me was cynical about stretching this into a little hardcover--accomplished by publishing it with one sentence per page. On the other hand, this makes reading it a sort of meditative exercise--which is fitting. I see Wallace trying to redeem cliche in this piece (something he was already doing in Infinite Jest), and in doing so, he hits upon the centrality of worship. I assigned this as required reading in my Intro to Philosophy class (right after we finished Augustine's Confessions and watched American Beauty).

Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem

With Eagleton's typical verve, and post-theory rancor, this book is a philosophically-astute account of poetry, and specifically reading poetry, that isn't afraid to actually appreciate poetry.

Honorable Mention: Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creating Writing. Playing on, and somewhat extending, Kenner's The Pound Era, McGurl considers the formative role of ever-expanding MFA programs on American post-war fiction up to the present. Having been sometimes tempted to enroll, this book birthed in me a principled resistance. (See also Louis Menand's review and discussion in the New Yorker.)


Top Reads 2009: Short Stories

It's that time of year again--time for retrospective lists of all sorts, and bibliophiles seem to be particularly prone to the temptation. I'll be continuing the tradition of my 2008, 2007, and 2005 reflections, with a new twist: an installment on short stories read in the past year, and maybe an installment on poets/poems.

Rather than a comprehensive list, let me begin by highlighting five short stories I read in 2009 (not necessarily published in 2009--though the selections will be New Yorker heavy). I don't pretend to make any claims about these being the "best" stories of the year; instead, these are the stories that, for various reasons, stuck with me, made an impact on me, or otherwise made a dent in my consciousness that, even now, still lingers.

  • Jonathan Franzen, "Good Neighbors," New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2009. Fabulous flaying of Volvo-driving urban-gentrifying liberals (i.e., us, minus the Volvo).
  • William Styron, "Rat Beach," New Yorker, July 20, 2009. A war story in the spirit of Sassoon that includes this unctuous account of snails: "I couldn’t shake the memory of one ambulance that stalled, then jerked back and forth, jostling its poor passenger until the voice from within screamed “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” again and again. Poetry was no remedy for such a sound, and so I’d close the book and lie there in a trance, trying to shut out all thought of past or future, and focus on the tent’s plywood deck, where there was usually at least one huge brown snail, with a shell the size of a Ping-Pong ball, propelling itself laboriously forward and trailing a wake of mucilaginous slime with the hue and consistency of semen. Giant African snails, they were called, and they slid all over the island, numberless, like a second landing force; they woke us up at night and we actually heard them sibilantly dragging their tracks across the flooring and colliding, with a tiny report like the cracking open of walnuts."
  • Alice Munro, "Save the Reaper," in The Love of a Good Woman. Set in my old haunts near Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario, this is Munro at her Southern (Ontario) Gothic best.
  • Sherman Alexie, "War Dances," New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009. Explores the dynamics of Native American displacement in the Pacific Northwest, with charming (Adn knowing) references to country music, and an undercurrent of deep longing.
  • Honorable mention: Jonatham Lethem, "Procedure in Plain Air," New Yorker October 26, 2009. This is a supercharged story on several different levels, exploring the dynamics of complicity with a kind of realistic surrealism (that is, the kind you experience when something real is happening, and you say to a friend, "This is surreal.") It also regularly tempts the reader to read it as an allegory (say, of Gitmo). In these ways, it reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin's, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."


Prodigal Critics

In his Chronicle Review essay, "Prodigal Critics," Jeffrey Williams provides a very nice little history of shifts in criticism in the last century--specifically the rise of New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks [who, I have to confess, are secret favorites of mine, lining the shelves here at home] who in turn gave birth to their own critics, like Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Stephen Greenblatt. Williams' brief is that "theory" in the US was more home-grown than a foreign (i.e., French) import. Worth reading--there's an education crammed into this little essay.

Locating Religion: On "Faith and Place"

Mark Wynn's Faith & Place: An Essay in Embodied Religious Epistemology (Oxford, 2009) is one of the most interesting books in philosophy of religion I've read this year. As he notes in the opening, philosophical theologians tend to be concerned with place only to transcend it, focusing on God's omni-presence which relativizes differences in place. And yet religious practice is always placed, local, often in very intentional spaces--what he calls "the place-relative character of religious belief and practice." So Wynn sets for himself the task of articulating "the differentiated religous significance of place."

Wynn is primarily interested in knowledge of place as an analogue for knowledge of God. Drawing on figures such as Bachelard [an old favorite of mine], LeFebvre, and Bourdieu, he contests the paradigms of “knowing” in contemporary philosophy of religion (Swinburne and Alston are recurring examples throughout the book). The way we “know” a place, Wynn argues, points to a kind of embodied, affective, tacit knowing which gets little attention in philosophy of religion because of the regnant epistemology assumed in the field. So knowledge “of” place is a kind of limit case, pointing to a different kind of knowing, which then primes us to consider knowledge of God in similar terms. This alternative account of knowing is most fully developed in chapter 8, on the “aesthetic” dimension of knowing. (Throughout the book Wynn regularly builds bridges to poetry by autobiographically exploring his friendship with poet Edmund Cusick--and the way their friendship was tied to places.)

However, while this is the core argument of the book, Wynn is also attentive to the religious significance of place—how places are charged “sites” of knowledge (e.g., in a chapter on pilgrimage). Thus he is concerned both with knowledge of place and the “placed” nature of knowledge. An excellent book and an encouraging sign of alternative trajectories in philosophy of religion.


Boersma on Nouvelle Theologie's "Sacramental Ontology"

Contemporary debates in “postmodern” theology often return to ground covered by a mid-twentieth century Catholic theological “sensibility” described as la nouvelle théologie (particularly questions of nature and grace, immanence and transcendence). A movement of ressourcement, these nouvelle theologians looked to the ancient fathers as a resource for engaging contemporary culture. And it is just this sort of constructive retrieval that characterizes much of the best work now being done in theology, which is why Hans Boersma's new book, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford UP, 2009) is such a gift. Boersma’s comprehensive, carefully-researched monograph will now stand as a classic study of this movement. Immersed in the primary documents, but with one eye on contemporary debates, Boersma especially shows that what was at stake in nouvelle théologie was a comprehensive vision of culture. These were not just intramural debates in ecclesiology or liturgical theology; nouvelle théologie was concerned with nothing short of a sacramental ontology—a theological account of the nature of reality per se. It is this ontology that unifies a coherent theological “sensibility” associated with a diverse array of theologians. Boersma also provides a reading which sees the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as extensions of the ressourcement vision rather than a derailing of it. Indispensible.


The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury, 2009) chronicles the sort of post-apocalyptic world familiar to readers of Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road--worlds devastated by those supposedly civilizing animals we call humans.

In Atwood's world, the corporation has trumped the state, the suburbs have fallen into ruin, the artificial has replaced the natural, and murderous violence has become commonplace in the sandlots where kids continue to play out their make-believe games. And yet, somehow, Atwood's world isn't nearly as haunting as McCarthy's wending, minimalist Road. But it sure ain't Mayberry, either.

Our focus is drawn to a band of resistance centred in "The Gardeners," a green cult, living out a consistently vegan discipline rooted in an interesting combination of biblical metaphors and an unblinkered appreciation for natural selection, articulated in a rich set of practices including their own liturgical calendar of Feast Days and Saints Days (including some Canadians like Saint David Suzuki and Saint Terry Fox!), as well as their own hymnbook. (Indeed, I'm starting to think that knowledge of theology is a handicap while reading this novel because one could so easily get sucked into the minituae of Gardener theology, and be tempted to draw all sorts of parallels and analogies with Christian theology. It would be an interesting read for Christians concerned with creation care--but I'd worry that this would be instrumentalizing the story Atwood wants to tell.) The Gardeners are a remnant, squatting on what corners and ruins of former suburbia they can find, led by a cadre of Adams and Eves who are responsible for catechesis, education, and government--but regularly haunted by CorpSeCorp, the privatized industry that has assumed responsibility for what used to pass for "the common good."

While the world as described seems bad enough, things get worse when a plague ("the Waterless Flood") is unleashed--"a plague that infects no Species but our own" (p. 424), thus giving Creation a chance to try again without us.

So not unlike The Road, this is a relationship-as-the-means-of-survival story. We follow a small band of acquaintances whose relationships are bound by a kind of love, though they might not think so. In particular, the book is organized around Toby (a Gardeners convert who becomes an Eve) and Ren (a child in the Gardeners commune). The book is spliced in two parallel tracks: the "Toby" track is narrated in the third person (just who is that?), while the "Ren" track is told in the first person. We regularly jump from Year 25, "The Year of the Flood," back through the years leading up to Year 25, back as far as Year 10. Eventually, these two tracks intersect in the final chapters. (It is also significant that time in the book is organized according to the liturgical calendar of the Gardeners.)

What to make of it? It's been a long time since I'd read any Atwood (who is the doyen of Canadian letters). Having, of late, read stuff that wears its literary flourish on its sleeve (Thomas Wolfe, John Updike, etc.), Atwood's prose is spare and simple--and yet not quite the charmed minimalism of McCarthy. But it has a remarkably cumulative effect--she is carefully drawing a character such that 300 pages in, one can look back on a rich development that seemed transparent at the time. (Is this is the sign of someone whose medium is rightly the novel rather than the short story?) While her lexicon is tight and rather puritan (I can see how the realism of Ren's first person demands this, but not sure why the third person narration of Toby's experience had to hew to the same rules--perhaps this is a sign I'm missing something about that narrator?) And in the end, there were just a few too many "coincidences" for me; or at least, it seemed to me that the world would have been bigger, and our encounters more anonymous, then the close of the story suggests.

But that said, the story also turns into a beautiful page-turner with 100 pages to go, and the glimpses of friendship, charity, and compassion are welcome respites in such an appalling world.


Still More Mortification

I'm still enjoying Mortification, one of those books that's so easy to read in snippets and small bites--and yet you just keep taking bite after bite, turning what should be a little snack into a meal. The result, of course, is that while you could have, in the same amount of time, enjoyed a meal of moroccan chicken with couscous and a little Gewurtztraminer, instead you've eaten an entire supper's worth of Combos pretzel snacks.

It's also one of those books--of which there is an entire cottage industry--which makes aspiring writers feel like they're part of some 'insider' club, listening in on the anecdotes of real writers, as if we were overhearing these stories in the corner of Nicole Krauss's Brooklyn apartment. We aspiring writers are suckers for illusion and want nothing more than to "be a writer"--indeed, if we're honest with ourselves, we spend more time wanting to "be a writer" than actually wanting to write. Alas.

As it turns out, many of the writers in this collection seem to confuse shame and mortification with being bored or not receiving a lavish red-carpet reception, such that some of the supposed scenes of "mortification" are really just episodes of a lackluster event. Don't give me your down-the-nose scoffing about the deplorable buffet at the Kalamazoo Literary Festival and Dwarf Toss. I want shame. I bought this sucker for the schadenfreude, not to hear your whining about poor train connections!

The best stories of mortification seem to involve copious amounts of alchohol, but even then the mortification is delayed until the next day (as when Michael Donaghy makes a deposit in the car-door pocket of his host the morning after: "an acid indigo porridge of red wine, Jameson's and aubergine curry").

Robin Robertson should also be credited for selecting some wonderful epigraphs for each chapter. My favorite, so far, is a proverb from Jean Cocteau:
An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.
This heads John Lanchester's contribution, which includes an honest assessment about the culture (cult?) of "public readings":
The truth is that the whole contemporary edifice of readings and tours and interviews and festivals is based on a mistake. The mistake is that we should want to meet the writers we admire, because there is something more to them in person than there is on the page, so that meeting them in the flesh somehow adds to the experience of reading their work. The idea is that the person is the real thing, whereas writing is somehow an excresence or epiphenomenon ["the metaphysics of presence!]. But that's not true. The work is the real thing, and it is that to which readers should direct their attention.
While I'm as much of an egomaniacal sucker for such opportunites as the next author, I concede a latent truth in the combination of Cocteau's maxim and Lanchester's observation. It is, I find, very hard to speak about books one has published. (Lanchester goes on to say that the writer finds it easier to speak about the book that one is in the process of writing.) The irony, of course, is that when a book appears, and if one is fortunate enough to have readers, and perhaps even a few enthusiastic readers who might invite you to an event, they want you to talk about the book. But, of course, what you wanted to say about X or Y is in the book. And you're already on to the next project, in the muck and mire of a new book-in-the-making which is filling your head and stealing your sleep, and it's difficult to go back and get excited about the book you put to bed a couple of years ago, but which is just now "appearing" for others. The trick, I think, is to find ways to put yourself in the shoes of the reader. And there's no shame in that.


Mortification: The Public Shame of Writers

Writers are no more prone to public shame than others. However, unlike others, they're likely to mine the experience for material. (And given their mistaken self-importance, they're also likely to over-amplify the significance of their mortification.) When such shamed writers have a flair for wit, the result can be quite entertaining.

I've been enjoying Robin Robertson's collection of such embarrassing tales in Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, full of bite-sized vignettes. Some of my favorite authors and poets (like Julian Barnes, Simon Armitage, John Banville, and James Wood) recount episodes of empty lecture halls, amorous (and mentally-unstable) fans, dead pets, mistaken identities, and writerly awkwardness. Judging from these anecdotes, the public reading is the prime site for writer's shame.

The writer's greatest mortification is perhaps summarized in an epigraph from Samuel Johnson:

There is nothing more dreadful to an author than neglect, compared with which, reproach, hatred and opposition are names of happiness.


Bringing It To the Table

While we were in Asheville, NC last month, we visited what has to be one of the coolest bookstores on the planet (in one of the coolest cities in the country): Malaprop's. A feast. Spent way more than we should have (but since my wife bought as many books as I did, the guilt-factor was diminished).

The one book I devoured right away was a new Wendell Berry anthology, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, with an Introduction by Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore's Dilemma). It's a wonderful collection of Berry's writings on food production, farming, and husbandry, including some fiction selections that picture mealtimes and practices of eating. The selections span his entire writing career (and the early selections show how prescient he was/is). An excellent introduction to, and compendium of, Berry's thought.


Scotland, Genre Fiction, and Literature

When I was living in York, James Kelman's experimental novel, Kieron Smith, Boy was getting a lot of attention (and it remains on my "to read" list). So I found this dust-up between Kelman and some of his Scottish confreres (Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith) of interest. Here's Alan Bissett's report from The Guardian:

There is an unspoken rule among Scottish writers that we don't slag each other off in public. The rule runs thus: coming, as we do, from a small, colonised nation, we automatically find ourselves marginalised by literary London and must fight doubly hard to gain the recognition abroad that is granted to English writers. While we may express private reservations about the work of another writer, we don't scupper their chances by saying this publicly. After all, each of us takes enough of that from critics.

That changed over the weekend. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scotland's only Man Booker prize winner, James Kelman, lambasted his country's literary establishment for praising the "mediocrity" of "writers of detective fiction or books about some upper middle-class young magician or some crap". Attention paid to the twin commercial giants of (presumably) Ian Rankin and JK Rowling had served, Kelman argued, to obscure Scotland's more radical tradition.

This has split the nation's literature in two. In a debate in the Sunday Herald headed 'Is Pulp Fiction Taking Over Scotland's Bookshelves?' daggers were drawn over the crime-ification of Scottish letters. The novelist Rodge Glass said that Kelman had been "very brave" in his remarks, while playwright John Byrne, spoke of "the danger of Scotland becoming known as the home of genre fiction, a factory churning out these things". And the response was ferocious. Professor Michael Schmidt of the University of Glasgow, defended the common reader against Kelman's "Stalinist" and "parochial" approach. Crime writer, Denise Mina, derided "this awful schtick about pushing the boundaries of literary technique", comparing it to "asking people to appreciate the welding on their plumbing".

As a manifestation of the old 'genre v real literature' chestnut, the debate should be just as interesting to those outside of Scotland. Kelman, committed to experimental form and language, sees genre fiction as redundant, compromised by commerciality. Mina, while still calling Kelman a "beautiful writer", regards his stance as a mere "play for status"; a failure of the writer's duty to entertain.

There is another to level to this, however, about the ways in which any country's indigenous literature – especially those of smaller or post-colonial nations – is threatened by the commercial imperative to produce page-turning, airport-friendly thrillers. A third level concerns the collusion of the literary establishment in this. It's certainly the case that the books editors of broadsheet newspapers will bemoan the fact that we're not all reading Tolstoy, while providing acres of coverage to crime writers. Genre fiction doesn't need highbrow attention in order to sell by the bucketload, yet editors must cover it precisely because it is so visible. This crowds out more risk-taking writers, for whom a single review from a perceptive critic can provide a career breakthrough.

It is galling, then, that a country like Scotland, home to an enormous, bristling, experimental tradition which includes James Hogg, Alexander Trocchi, Hugh McDiarmid, Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Ali Smith, James Robertson and Kelman himself, is marketed to tourists as the home of Rebus and Potter.

One doesn't wants to decry authors who are certainly outstanding in their field (constructing a page-turner requires narrative skill); neither does one want to sneer at the tastes of book-buyers, for whom reading at all in this age of distraction is an increasingly fought-for pleasure. And it's not as though writers such as Mina, Val McDermid or Christopher Brookmyre aren't working a left-wing agenda into their books; they are. But genre fiction is, by definition, generic. Mina's disdain, in her comments, for pushing boundaries of form is palpable. The genre writer's first responsibility is to the genre itself: they must fulfil readers' expectations for convention, or they have failed. It's easy to see how this becomes part of a capitalist enterprise, which requires market 'product' and fears innovation as a 'risky sell'. At a time when capitalism is scouring livelihoods, however, we must empower writers such as Kelman to speak out against it, and put forth new ways of expressing and thinking about ourselves. This is far from being just a Scottish issue.


Philosophy, Film, and Biblical Studies: Two New Treasures

In addition to being generally remiss in cataloguing my reading here, I've not commented on any books in philosophy or theology for a long time. That's largely because I spend most of my evenings reading poetry and literature now. I don't often find myself picking up theology or philosophy for enjoyment. However, in the course of working on a project this summer, I had occasion to read two new books from very different fields that are both provocative in different ways--but which also share some surprising resonances.

Ian W. Scott's Paul's Way of Knowing: Story, Experience, and the Spirit (Baker Academic, 2009) is a book in a bit of a growing field, exploring the epistemology of Scripture and biblical authors (cp. The Bible and Epistemology recently released from Paternoster). As the title indicates, Scott analyzes of “Paul’s way of knowing” inviting us to look to Paul as a contemporary resource for thinking about knowledge precisely because “[i]n Paul we have the opportunity to see how someone approached religious knowledge who was at one and the same time foundational in the development of Western culture and yet relatively untouched by epistemological currents which so many now suspect are bankrupt.” Scott unearths a “narrative structure to the Apostle’s knowledge,” a distinct narratival “logic” that is operative beneath his speech. In doing so, Scott brings “to the surface [Paul’s] tacit assumptions about how people in general can come to knowledge,” discerning “assumptions which the Apostle himself may never have brought to full consciousness.” In this articulation of Paul's implicit epistemology, Scott discerns a fundamentally narratival structure to Paul's understanding of what counts as "knowledge." And what's fascinating is that this is so counter-intuitive: Paul, of course, is the author of epistles, not Gospels. Yet Scott makes a convincing case that Paul thinks in story. I hope some Christian philosophers working in epistemology will venture into a dialogue with this strain of biblical studies.

On quite a different front, I've been absorbed by Carl Plantinga's new book, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience (University of California Press, 2009). (Carl is a colleague of mine at Calvin, sort of the resident philosopher in our Film Studies department.) Plantinga has long been analyzing the role of affect and emotion in film (his earlier work considered non-fiction film or documentaries; in this book he's considering "Hollywood" cinema). Here we find him contesting reductionistic paradigms in film theory that want to reduce a film to its “message.” Some film critics and scholars talk of “reading” a film, implying that “film viewing is a cool, intellectual experience.” Thus the critic decodes the film by boiling it down to the hidden meanings which can be simply articulated in propositional form. But such a paradigm of criticism assumes that films are basically just elaborate vehicles for information that is ultimately propositional and intellectual. "This way of thinking about film," he comments, "diminishes the art form by reducing it to a bare bones propositional message.” And as a result, all that is “moving” about movies is relegated to the non-essential and superfluous.

But as Plantinga rightly asks, “Are all of these affective elements of film spectatorship mere epiphenomena, the throwaway detritus of what is worthwhile about the film viewing experience?” The burden of his book is to suggest otherwise: that the affective, emotional aspects of film—precisely those aspects of movies that move us—are essential and irreducible. As he comments, “Any abstract meaning that a film might have is ancillary to the experience in which that meaning is embodied.” What a film means cannot be reduced to the proposal “message” that might be gleaned from it. This is because “[e]xperience creates its own meaning, and in some cases the meaning to be taken from the experience of the film may contradict the abstract meaning an interpreter might glean from film dialogue, for example. Affective experience and meaning are neither parallel nor separable, but firmly intertwined.”

The book is rich with concrete analyses from both the "classical" era of Hollywood film-making as well as the "New Hollywood" (the running commentary on The Royal Tenenbaums was one of my favorites). Anyone interested in film will find this is a fascinating read. Indeed, one could read it as a kind of cinematic analogue to James Wood's How Fiction Works. Plantinga shows us that movies work by moving us, not just telling us; they tap our affective centers and emotional life, not just feed information into our intellects. And the narrative force of cinema is tethered to film's visceral ability to connect with our emotions; we feel stories.


More Proof

Over at Fors Clavigera I've shared a bit about the secret joy of receiving the proofs of a book. Today, reading an interview with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux publisher, Jonathan Galassi, I was encouraged to learn that even for someone for whom books are their business, the same thrill holds. As Galassi shares:
"The second great moment is when it actually becomes a book—a physical thing. I always feel that when you put a book into proofs it gets better just by virtue of being set in print. I know a lot of writers feel that way too. It takes on a kind of permanence. And then it's even more satisfying when it becomes an actual book."

As I've said before, I'm not entirely convinced by that last claim (post-publication depression seems comon, like post-dissertation depression), but I share the sentiments about page proofs.


What I'm Listening To: Ryan Adams

I've got a 20 gig iPod that's full and yet everything was sounding flat to me. Neither Josh Ritter nor Patty Griffin nor John Coltrane seemed to bring my music to life. And then I found that, at some point (when?), one of the kids bought Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker. It was like finding buried treasure right here in the house! I'd only listened to Adams' more recent stuff (and, of course, can't forget that music video filmed on September 7, 2001, with the Twin Towers in the background). Like Josh Ritter, Adams lyrics also stand up as poetry. And the alt-country sound taps strings deep in my rural soul. Great stuff to (re)discover.


Dorothy West on Writing

"When I was seven, I said to my mother, may I close my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to close your door? And I said because I want to think. And when I was eleven, I said to my mother, may I lock my door? And she said yes, but why do you want to lock your door? And I said because I want to write."

~in Jill Krementz, The Writer's Desk (a tantalizing, moving collection of photographs of writers at their desks, with a delightful introduction by Updike), p. 39


"My Childhood," by Coleson Smith

Way back in 2005, when he was just 10 years old, I posted a short "onomatopoeia" poem by my son, Coleson. Now, four years later, I'm happy to post another by this emerging poet. In fact, we're very proud that his poem, "My Childhood," just won the Fine Arts Competition in 9th & 10th grade at Grand Rapids Christian High.

My Childhood

By Coleson Smith

My childhood was white.
White like the moving trucks that took our lives from new beginning to new beginning.
White like the paint in my apartment room in Philadelphia.
White like the sand on the beach in Los Angeles.
White like the first snow of Grand Rapids.
White like the airplane that flew me to England.
White like the salt flats in rough red Utah.
White like aunt Jesse's wedding dress.
White like the snow at the cemetery.
White like the hair of my aging family.
My childhood was white,
white like all of the things that made me who I am today.


Ending Poetry Month with Updike

Today marks the end of National Poetry Month. Treat yourself by taking the time to listen to John Updike read one of his early poems, "Seagulls" (scroll down the page a bit for the audio button).


A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes—
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.

Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.

At that hour on the beach
when flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them,
but which neither quite knows—
walk capricious paths through scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.


Michigan Poetry from Bill Hicok

The poetry night at Literary Life was a wonderful evening, not least because of Heather Sellers--writer, poet, and professor at Hope College--who served as judge for the poetry competition and also offered a reading of her own work. Sellers is not only a witty, observant writer, she's also an outstanding reader (those two things don't always happily reside in the same person). I thought this was demonstrated most powerfully by how well she could read the work of others. In particular, I'm deeply grateful that she introduced us to this wonderful poem by Bill Hicok (from the New Yorker)--and did so with a reading whose cadence and charm made the poem come to life.

A Primer

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go
to be in Michigan. The right hand of America
waving from maps or the left
pressing into clay a mold to take home
from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan
forty-three years. The state bird
is a chained factory gate. The state flower
is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical
though it is merely cold and deep as truth.
A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”
can sincerely use the word “sincere.”
In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.
When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.
There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life
goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,
which we’re not getting along with
on account of the Towers as I pass.
Then Ohio goes corn corn corn
billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.
It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat. I live now
in Virginia, which has no backup plan
but is named the same as my mother,
I live in my mother again, which is creepy
but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,
suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials
are needed. The state joy is spring.
“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”
is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,
when February hasn’t ended. February
is thirteen months long in Michigan.
We are a people who by February
want to kill the sky for being so gray
and angry at us. “What did we do?”
is the state motto. There’s a day in May
when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics
is everywhere, and daffodils are asked
by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes
with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.
In this way I have given you a primer.
Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.


Rushdie's Storied Tract: The Enchantress of Florence

I was a Rushdie virgin before recently reading The Enchantress of Florence (though Midnight's Chldren remains very high on my to-read list). But the combination of Italy and India--a commerce between East and West--was too much to resist.

You'll have to forgive the cliched pun, but the book really is quite spell-binding. Central to the tale is the power of story, and the book is layered with stories upon stories, as well as some delightful miniatures packed into the story (such as the marvelous tale about the royal painter, Dashwanth). It is also concerned with competing stories and competing story-tellers who constitute the world by their stories (and thus constitute different worlds by different stories). Story-telling is world-making. Rushdie's exploration is concerned with both the power of mythologies but also the power of the artist--the story-telling power of the prophet as well as the world-making power of the novelist.

But he's also exploring the dangers of stories, their enchanting spell, their seductive ability to lure us into illusions. In fact, the book performs this very quickly: one feels swept into a dizzying array of narratives with charms that steal the ground from beneath us--and yet this narratival vertigo is so enchanting, we delight in our disorientation. And yet, this only works to the extent that Rushdie is an enchanter.

I wouldn't have expected that such a ruthless secularist could create such an enchanted, magical world. The prose is blazing without being precious, and as Christopher Hitchens has recently pointed out, Rushdie is a brilliant humorist.

My only gripe is that the book at times devolves to a propaganda-like tract--a move that is death for art. (In this respect it reminded me of a similar tract posing as a novel, Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy). Here we have a descendent of Ghengis Khan with the emerging irenic, democratic sensibilities of, well, Salman Rushdie. We have women from sixteenth-century Hindustan who imagine the world like Susan Sontag. In short, at times the novel is so concerned to be an apologia for a de-religionized, "secular" and liberal world that its anachronism becomes just a bit too much to swallow. Nonetheless, the power of Rushdie's story-telling opens up worlds that repay revisiting.


For Poetry Lovers in Grand Rapids

Literary Life, my favorite bookstore in Grand Rapids, is hosting a special event this Thursday, April 9, 7pm as part of National Poetry Month. It will include a reading by Heather Sellers, poet and professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, MI. Sellers also served as judge for the 1st Annual Literary Life Poetry Contest and the winners of the contest will be announced that night as well. (I had the audacity to submit two poems but have absolutely no illusions about winning a thing.) I am looking forward to hearing Sellers and, I hope, hearing the winning poems as well.

Then on Thursday, April 16, 7pm, Literary Life's Third Thursday event will once again feature Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, Rodney Torreson. Torreson gave a reading last month and was delightful. He is wonderfully unassuming, almost timid, but his poetry sparkles. It is quintessentially "midwest" poetry--accessible, earthy, homespun, sacralizing the mundane. He finished that reading with "Don Larsen's Perfect World Series Game," from his collection, The Ripening of Pinstripes--a fantastic cresendo packed full of allusions. He is also a wonderful encourager of young poets (and even had one of his students, a freshman in high school, read five of her poems). I'm looking forward to introducing my son, Coleson (a gifted and--I hope--aspiring writer), to Torreson.

If you're in the vicinity, I'll hope to see you there!


Updike: A Month of Sundays

While on a trip last week, I took along an old paperback edition of John Updike's mid-70s novel, A Month of Sundays. Penned in the first-person, the story recounts the misadventures of Rev. Tom Marshfield who writes the memoir as part of his rehabilitation while exiled in Arizona, banished from the ministry because of his adulterous habits. A grumpy Barthian (must be a Princeton grad! ;-) with no patience for the soppy humanism of Tillich and his ilk, Marshfield is nonetheless an unabashed, unashamed, and unrepentant worshiper in the temples of lonely, middle-class suburban women. Indeed, one must be struck by the difference between Marshfield and, say, Graham Greene's adulterers: the latter at least seem to think they ought to be penitent; Marshfield doesn't ever seem bothered by such notions.

The novel is a curious little time capsule, a peek into the swirling mores of the early 70s--though generally as viewed from a WASPish distance. It's also classic Updike: page-turning, unctuous prose laced with a strange eroticism that was probably more titillating than it ought to be. In fact, as I was reading it, I was concious of how the power of the story could so quickly create its own plausibility structures, a world in which Marshfield's behavior doesn't seem reprehensible. Perhaps Updike means to make us guilty by association, but I think more likely he means to create a world where there should be no guilt associated with such behavior. It the protagonist is a professing a Barthian, the ethos of a story is nothing other than "express-yourself" liberalism.

(And it should be noted that this is just the sort of novel that is rife with material to substantiate the claim that Updike is a misogynistic objectifier of women. While I know he always bristled at the charge, and though he'd likely offload the blame onto his first-person narrator, it's very hard to come away from the book and not share a sense of taint.)

Finally, it seems to me that Updike is never willing to not be "Updike." That is, Updike is never willing to relinquish the aestheticism that is his defining voice, even when he's writing in the first person of another. So the book--like any first-person work by Updike--is beset with a problem of voice and authenticity; in short, in Updike's hands, everybody sounds like Updike.


The Man Behind the Paris Review

As Donald Hall puts it, when a young poet is 16, he wants to be the next Dante; when he's 25, he wants to be published in the New Yorker.

Well, when a young novelist is 16, he wants to be the next Proust; when he's 25, he wants to publish a story in the Paris Review. A literary quarterly of mythical status (rivaled only by Granta, I think), the PR has introduced generations to new voices that would go on to become the voices of a generation. So I was delighted to find a sort of 'biography' of George Plimpton, one of the co-founders of the Review, on the "new arrivals" shelf of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

George, Being George, edited by Nelson Aldrich, is either a brilliant experiment in biography or a half-baked substitute. The subtitle gives some indication of the book's approach: "George Plimpton's life as told, admired, deplored, and envied by 200 friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, rivals—and a few unappreciative observers." The book is a collection of vignettes from Plimpton's friends, associates, and even a few enemies--which, given his stature and charm as a "networker," pretty much amounts to a who's who in American letter and New York "Society." I have to admit, I had a hard time getting through the first chapter, but only because I have such visceral negative reactions to the lives of privileged East Coast Brahmins. And yet one can't help feeling that if you ran into Plimpton outside these contexts, you'd never guess he was heir to such privilege--that he was equally comfortable among the bohemians in post-war Paris and in the environs of the Vanderbilt mansion. Indeed, even if a few of his "detractors" are heard here, one comes away with the impression that Plimpton was just a helluva nice guy. But most interesting to me were the chapters that charted the emergence of the Paris Review in post-war Paris, after Plimpton had spent some time in Cambridge--on a shoe-string, regularly hanging of the precipice of collapse, torn between a Paris office and a New York center of gravity, but then growing into a stable, flagship quarterly.

At times the book's methodology felt like a punt--that this collection of reminiscences is really just the raw material that should have been the spine or skeleton of a proper biography. And yet the methodology completely sucked me in: you can read this stuff all day, and there is a certain rawness to these reflections which have an immediacy that feels almost oral. So perhaps rather than being a punt, the book hits a home run.


(Perhaps) The Saddest Poem I've Ever Read

Isn't it odd how the loss of an author all of a sudden makes his books come to life on my shelf? Over the past several days I've been dabbling and sampling from the Updike on my shelves, including a small collection of his early verse. But then today Gina Barreca's blog pointed me to an Updike poem I had never seen before, and it might just be the saddest thing I've ever read:

Dog’s Death

By John Updike
She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.


"Literary Life" in Grand Rapids

I know that I sometimes whine about how thoroughly midwestern Grand Rapids can sometimes be. Yesterday morning I was once again beset by self-pity, feeling exiled in a cultural backwater, when I discovered that neither Waltz with Bashir nor Revolutionary Road were playing in a single cinema in the Grand Rapids area. (You must read, by the way, James Wood's stunning piece of criticism on Yates in the recent New Yorker.) Having lived in Los Angeles for a few years, I got used to movies being "open in select theaters" just meaning, "open in the theater around the corner." Turns out--surprise, surprise--that Grand Rapids was not "selected."

But also as per usual, my wannabe-Manhattanite, cold snobbishness was gradually thawed through the day. While reading and working at Common Ground, I grinned to myself when I noticed a fellow patron reading Saul Bellow's Herzog. This was then capped with a wonderful evening at one of my new favorite spaces in Grand Rapids: the "Literary Life" Bookstore at the corner of Wealthy & Eastern, within walking distance from my house.

Deanna and I finally "discovered" Literary Life before Christmas. While it's been on our radar, I'm embarrassed to say I never made it inside until just last month. What a wonderful literary oasis! I immediately ended up in a back corner of the store that was loaded with books to sustain a writing life, then migrated into a rich poetry section, and only teased myself with the fiction shelves that looked so different from the chain store offerings. All of this clearly demonstrated a staff that knows what matters in the world of literature, poetry, and writing.

And last night was the beginning of a new Literary Life tradition: "Third Thursdays" will feature local artists and writers in a casual venue, enjoying coffee and LitLife's fabulous selection of teas. (The Harney & Sons "Paris" blend found tastebuds I didn't know I had before.) The opening act was the Kilpatricks, a wife/husband duo whose acoustic sound was somewhere between folk and a kind of "blues." (Great covers of Belinda Carlisle and Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley's "Broken Hallelujah." I'd love to hear Amber cover Rosie Thomas.) While listening, and afterwards, we could browse the shelves and I was once again impressed: somehow I got locked in the Ws (oh yeah, I was looking for Yates) and found a trove of David Foster Wallace and Evelyn Waugh. Hallelujah, indeed.

In short, Literary Life helps me to imagine how one might sustain a "literary life" right here in Grand Rapids.


Severance: The Problem with "Conceptual" Fiction

I take special delight in happenstance book acquisitions. For instance, this week I found myself on the campus of the University of Central Florida, in their bookshop--"book"-shop being a bit of a stretch, since the store was more like what one finds in so-called "Christian bookstores;" namely, an overwhelming amount of logo-emblazoned merchandise with a few books hidden in the corner. In any event, one doesn't come to the campus of the University of Central Florida expecting much in the way of intellectual stimulation. But passing some time, I did find a bargain bin and hit upon a wonderful little surprise: Robert Olen Butler's 2006 experiment, Severance--an irregular sized offering from Chronicle Books, in a squat edition with blackened and deckled pages (the materiality, I think, being integral to the book's experimentality).

The book could be described as a concept-driven collection of "stories" which feel more like stream-of-consciousness poems, a sort of prose haiku. And the concept that drives them is the product of a morbid mathematics. This is staged by two "epigraphs" which, it turns out, are essential to the performance of the book:

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation. -Dr. Dassy D'Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. -Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

Coupling these two "facts" or hypotheses, Olen undertakes his experiment: to narrate the last 240 words worth of consciousness of severed heads across history, from Mud, a man beheaded by a sabertooth tiger, 40,000BC to Tyler Alkins, a civilian truck driver beheaded by insurgents in Iraq, 2004. In between we hear the sentient last-moment ramblings of St. Valentine and Marie Antoinette and Nicole Brown, along with a host of "unknowns" variously decapitated by elevators, executioners, and jealous husbands, sons, and even daughters.

Like alot of movie trailers and Will Ferrell films, the idea is better than the execution. (One might even have reservations about the concept insofar as it feels like publishing the fruits of what could be an outstanding creative writing exercise, but not necessarily a book of stories.) Granted, some of the pieces are exquisite (such as the last thoughts of St. Valentine or Claude Messner, a homeless man decapitated by an Amtrak train in 2000). The stories jolt from very different contexts and take up different voices, and suffused through most is a kind of eroticism (perhaps growing from a Freudian assumption about links between sex and death). And Butler is a master of language: attention to rhythm and lexicon gives these "stories" their poetic feel.

But at the same time, the collection suffers on two counts:

First, from the very first story, I found myself perturbed by the matter of voice. (It's James Wood who taught me to ask these questions of a story.) For instance, right out of the gate there's prehistoric man, thinking his last thoughts in English, and with a pretty decent vocabulary at that. Throughout the collection, while Butler at times tries to get closer to the voice of his lolling heads, it always feels like--all of a sudden, having been severed from their bodies--all heads become poets.

Second, the stories actually shrink from the concept. In almost every case, with only a few exceptions, what we get is not the 90 seconds of consciousness after the guillotine drops, but more like the 87 seconds just before the slice, with a blip after words. And oddly, almost all of these last glimmers of consciousness turn out to offer replays of the life that has preceded them (think of Lester Burnham's final musing after the gunshot in American Beauty). But this feels like both a cliche and a cheat. One wonders whether the head in the bucket, instead of recalling glistening wheatfields in the Kansas sun, doesn't--oddly and tragically enough--worry about whether it left the stove on that morning.