Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall | The Rumpus

Steven Hall’s first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, falls into a fuzzily defined genre known as slipstream. This term, coined by sci-fi author Bruce Sterling in 1989, never really caught on partly because its parameters are imprecise, but every few years a writer like Hall publishes a new book and the term rears its head again, like some kind of literary cicada. For Sterling, slipstream described what resulted when literary novelists appropriated sci-fi and fantasy tropes, including novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Sterling also included metafictional experiments like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and dark, Gothic tales like Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, in which nothing fantastical occurs but an unsettling and off-kilter atmosphere dominates. These kinds of works have been described as postmodern (Pynchon, Barthelme), magical realist (Morrison), or hysterical realist (Rushdie, Pynchon again, Zadie Smith), but none of those terms quite contains them all. If we reached back further, we’ll stumble onto terms like historiographic metafiction and satire and modernist and picaresque. More recent writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Téa Obreht, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ali Smith, Karen Thompson Walker, and Marlon James would, presumably, also exist under this enormous umbrella. Employing one single term for these disparate styles and approaches seems like an overreach, but devising an endless list of terms seems just as ineffective. Slipstream may as well be what we call our bewilderment. Continue reading…


screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-16-59-pmRethinking the Novel | Read It Forward

It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little, the number of amendments to the original statement are so great and their permissibility so near total that, hell, the damn definition itself could be considered a novel. How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a hand-written novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, e.g., How do we sell this book? The answer to this, as everyone knows, is nevernuance. It’s short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. So something like “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism”? Nobody’s gonna get that, let alone remember it. As these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more and more distinct and less forgiving to cross, and like all fences they keep out just as much as they keep in, and soon the gaps have grown so vast that certain writers who seem able to nimbly and indiscriminately hop over them are viewed with as much perplexity as esteem. And so well if it’s not the page it’s printed on or its length, and if it’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if it’s the seeming pervasiveness of an understood definition is merely the result of repeated and successful branding on the part of publishers, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.

GenoaGenoa (1965) by Paul Metcalf | Northwest Review
We as a nation would do well to follow the lead of Paul Metcalf, an experimental writer who died in 1999. His 1965 novel Genoa, reissued by Coffee House Press to celebrate its 50th anniversary, contends with exactly these kinds of forces. The present action of the novel is pretty bare bones: Michael Mills, a man with a medical degree but who can’t bring himself to practice, sifts through the detritus of his attic while his children watch television downstairs. That’s really it. Throughout, Michael quotes Melville and Christopher Columbus for various reasons and in various ways; a good chunk of the book is made up of quotations. But the novel is really about the convergence of three threads: 1. Paul Metcalf’s relation to Herman Melville (he was Metcalf’s great-grandfather), 2. Columbus’s relation to America, and 3. the character Michael’s relation to his brother Carl, who was executed for murder. These three notions intertwine and correspond in complex ways throughout the novel.