Thursday, August 9, 2012

Something New in Lit Crit

Something new might be happening in literary criticism, something interesting. It started for me with House of Ulysses by Julian Rios (see my fullreview of the book on The Millions here.) As I say in my review, a ton of books have been written about Ulysses, many of which organized around providing entry into the difficult book for otherwise reluctant readers, but Rios' book isn't a guide or a work of criticism, rather it's a novel set in a book club. A summary of each episode is provided and then six different speakers expound on the book. Not to go all Jonah Lehrer on you, but as I say in the review, it's some of the best criticism I've read of Ulysses, but it has to carry a different interpretive weight for readers than other criticism, because it is not in the voice of the “critic,” but in the characters.

Next came two books by Andrei Codrescu, The Poetry Lesson (which I review here) and Whatever Gets You Through the Night (which I discuss along withThe Poetry Lesson and The Post-Human Dada Guide here). The Poetry Lesson, essentially, is a novelization of the first day in a poetry workshop, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night is an amalgamation of fiction, criticism, anthropology, sociology, cultural theory, and mythologizing inspired by Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights. As in House of Ulysses, the acts of fiction and interpretation are amalgamated into something else.

Then there's Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, in which Adam Bertocci re-writes The Big Lebowski as if it were by Shakespeare. Annotated and illustrated as editions of Shakespeare tend to be, Bertocci's story of Walter, Donald, and The Knave, while being freaking hilarious, reveals some of the primal currents in storytelling; ways of ordering events and characters that have succeeded since Shakespeare and continue to succeed today. Furthermore, as Bertocci points out, this kind of adaptation itself is very Shakespearean. The Bard “reinterpreted” all kinds of pre-existing material. As Bertocci has done here, Shakespeare took different genres, history and poetry primarily, and converted them into the genre of drama. (One of our age's creative tragedies is how copyright has been used to prevent the kind of creative interplay between old and new that lead to, say, Hamlet and Ulysses. What would be written if, say, Don DeLillo could write a Micky Mouse novel or Warren Ellis could imagine a super-hero caper featuring cartoon figures from advertising? How cool would a novel featuring a contemporary teenage character trying to figure out the world through The Catcher in Rye be? But, alas, there's no way Salinger would let it happen.) Also, because it is attempting to BE Shakespeare it is fundamentally ABOUT Shakespeare and because it is attempting to BE The Big Lebowski it is fundamentally ABOUT The Big Lebowski. (I might add the same goes for my other blog project, TheMuppets Take Ulysses, in which my partner and I imagine a Muppet movie version of Ulysses, but that would be shameless self-promotion.)

Finally, we have The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault, which is published by McSweeney's (which tells you something) and is billed as “An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems.” What does that look like? Here's how Legault “translates” 465, the poem that starts with “I heard a fly buzz when I died;” “In some ways, the Battle of Antietam shares a beauty similar to that of autumn. They both involve death spreading over an increasingly red landscape.” “Because I could not stop for Death,” becomes “I asked this guy to marry me, and it scared him off.” And here's how Legault “translates” number 1, perhaps Dickinson's longest poem; “Everything has to love something.”

The bookstore currently has this book in our humor section, because it's McSweeney's, because of the premise, because it is clever (215: “Jesus has a lot of explaining to do.”), and funny (463: “That person is asleep. Oh, actually that person is starting to decompose.”) and morbid (1100: “Last night was kind of boring, except that my friend died and we played dress-up with her dead body.”) but, maybe Dickinson is more clever and more funny than we've given her credit for. Sure, we knew she was death-obsessed, but maybe her relationship with death was more akin to that of a drinking buddy, than that of some persistent brooding specter. Because her style is so original, so enigmatic, so idiosyncratic, it seems obvious that critics should engage her work with as much originality, enigmaticy (pronounced to rhyme with “intimacy”) and idiosyncrasy as they can manage. As Legault writes in the “Translator's Note,” “Emily Dickinson is both the father of American poetry and the most infamous lesbian vampire of the nineteenth century.”

Furthermore, the “translations” have their own kind of profundity, something directly connected to Dickinson but still distinct. 432: “I cannot write people back to life. As hard as I might try. And I do. Furiously. Like a wizard. Or a grammarian.” 1189: “It was kind of rude of God to pretend to be a human, just so he could show us up at our own game.” 1609: “If you don't like Earth, you probably won't like Heaven.”

In a way, these books remind me a of Borges' writings on fictional books, in their strange inextricable combination of criticism and fiction. Something about this captures the critical act a lot better than traditional criticism does, because it reveals how important imagination is to interpretation. In short, to interpret a work is to imagine that you wrote it. To understand a work of fiction, you have to participate in the creation of its fiction. These works simply reveal a hidden process that all critics go through, and frankly, I love it. I can't say whether this will turn into some kind of movement in criticism or whether this will in anyway help push literature and interpreting literature back to the forefront of cultural consciousness, or whether this trend will lead to a new Ulysses, but I like it and I want to see more of it.

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