The Art of the Literary Fake–Now Online

My essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)” is now online at the New Haven Review’s website. At over 9,000 words it’s my longest essay since I wrote about Angela Carter almost 20 years ago. I’m appreciative of the opportunity, courtesy of Brian Slattery, and I hope you enjoy the results. The essay references everything from mad penguin researchers to capybaras, bizarre crayfish dictionaries to Nabokov.

Excerpt:

“Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.”

Notable New Books: Beyond Binary, Lauriat, The Moment of Change, and Yesterday’s Hero


(The cool cover art for Lauriat)

I’m a little behind on blogging about some interesting books that’ve come my way. So here are thumbnails on four of them, all of which you should consider picking up…

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Charles Tan. “Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.” Written up in Publishers Weekly and on io9.com. I’m still delving into it and finding it very entertaining.

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Summer Road Trip Book Haul: More Than You Might Think…

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(An anthology of Bruno Schulz-inspired fiction ffrom Ex Occidente and the latest from Wendy Walker–check out Wendy Walker’s back catalogue.)

I never intend to buy books on trips, and I especially didn’t intend to on this latest one, where from July 10 through August 5, I went from the Stonecoast MFA program to ReaderCon to the Shared Worlds teen SF/F camp. But, as usual, no matter what I plan, books accrete to me without conscious thought…So here’s the run-down on what I acquired, or was gifted to me.

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Essay in the New Haven Review: The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)

The New Haven Review’s issue #10 (summer) is now out, and it includes my 9,000-word essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin),” which is an exploration of literary fakes. It focuses on a book entitled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but also explores strange facts, an odd book of crayfish names, an eccentric penguin researcher tome, and much more. Here’s the opening of the essay, which is the longest piece of nonfiction I’ve written since my essay on Angela Carter back about 20 years ago. Other contributors to this issue include Nick Mamatas. You can order the journal here. Thanks to Brian Slattery for commissioning the piece.

***

This sentence is a fake.
This sentence is the original.
This sentence is an animal, not a series of words.

Michal Ajvaz’s short story “Quintus Erectus” provides an instructional metaphor with regard to literary fakes, a form with which readers and reviewers have a long yet uneasy history. “Quintus Erectus” describes a capybara-like South American mammal that, when it stands on its hindquarters, “presses its hands closely to the body, turns its head to the attacker and remains motionless…two vertical strips of dark hair…evoke an impression of human hands with fingers,” while coloration on the head “depicts the human face.” At a distance of three meters “we can easily mistake the animal for a man; from a distance of five meters the animal is indistinguishable from a man.” In the story, this unsettling illusion creates a feeling of wrongness and nausea in many observers. Are they seeing an animal or a human being? Is the text itself really a story or is it a disturbing something other, pretending to be a story?

The story of Quintus Erectus in some ways mimics the reaction in certain quarters to the literary fake—a piece of fiction that pretends in some way to be true. Is it fact or fiction? Is it good fun or something more disturbing? By operating under the auspices of traditionally nonfictional modes to tell its story, the literary fake chooses to bring the reader to suspension of disbelief through means that include extreme guile—and, in cases where the reader recognizes the trick, continues to amuse, entertain, and say something interesting about the human condition regardless. As such, it destabilizes our view of reality, which can be uncomfortable, sometimes unforgiveable, especially if we think someone is laughing at us. We don’t always appreciate things that look like other things, even if there’s a purpose to the mimicry; perhaps this is a vestige of an ancient evolutionary trait that allowed us to discern between the harmless and the harmful.

Nor do some readers, apparently, like to think they are being made to believe something false against their will. Fakes are especially divisive at two essential moments in time: when they successfully slip past the reader’s defenses and when the reader discovers the deception. Whether this latter point occurs soon after picking up the book or halfway through it, a literary fake eventually forces the reader to decide whether to be sympathetic or hostile toward the fakery.

Fakes may also be viewed with suspicion as artificial constructs, identified as stories in which the skeleton appears to exist on the outside of the body. Fiction is meant to be an uninterrupted dream or movie for the reader, we are often told, and those struts and supporting walls should always be inside the house of the narrative; only in nonfiction do we expect to see the architecture.

The irony of this view of fakes as an unnatural form is that most examples are forged by that most liberated state of mind: ecstatic imaginative play, poured into the constraint and thus given shape and structure. However, and here irony piles up upon irony, imaginative play (and, in some cases, results that exist purely as an offering on the altar of Play) creates another issue. Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.

Recently Reviewed in The Guardian and Los Angeles Times: Graham Joyce and Kim Stanley Robinson

Just a quick note that you can find reviews of mine online this week at the Guardian and the LA Times.

I read Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale for The Guardian, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed parts of it, but for once Joyce’s agility at craft seemed exposed—a few too many wires and gears showing.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, on the other hand, I thought was wonderful—and featured one of the great love stories in science fiction.

I’ll have reviews of, among others, Carlos Fuentes appearing soon in other major newspapers.

Thirty Years of the Mississippi Review

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This 850-page rock thumped down on the doorstep yesterday with an emphatic “you’d best take me seriously” look in its eye.

Thirty years of the Mississippi Review, including fiction and poetry by Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Samuel R. Delany, John Barth, Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Miranda July, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Wells Tower, and, well, about 200 other contributors, it looks like.

All taken from Frederick Barthelme’s long reign as the editor. I kinda think you can’t miss this one.

Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin

The “bolt out of the blue” for me in 2011 was reading Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin,which, along with Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, will no doubt influence me for some time to come.

Europa Editions published the English-language edition of Nothomb’s first novel in 2010; it was originally published in France in 1992. It concerns a Nobel Prize-winning misanthrope of a novelist named Pretextat Tach. Not only does Tach spout foul racist things, he also has a low opinion of women—his most bombastic and ridiculous statements concern them. At the same time, he has a sharp and penetrating mind, and as a conversationalist is a witty and disturbing match for almost anyone. When he’d diagnosed with cancer, he for the first time allows the press to visit to his home. One by one these interviewers succumb to Tach’s verbal traps and leave in disgust, horror, or tears. That is, until a female reporter visits who has done more than the usual homework on her subject. The battle of wills becomes an entire war, involving Tach’s creative output and the terrible facts of his past. Indeed, at the core of the novel is a vile act and an associated act that breaks conventions and taboos. Well, okay, so much of Decadent literature reached toward such things, but in a more modern idiom, there’s a fresh shock of the transgressive. However, the novel is also intensely, darkly funny—at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The observations about book culture and writers are, as they say, priceless.

What struck me about Hygiene and the Assassin is just simply that it takes on difficult and taboo subject matter and challenges the reader to pass moral judgment, perhaps even to toss the book across the room, and it also makes the reader uncomfortable even while you’re laughing…and then later, challenges in a much bleaker way.

It’s also a kind of demarcation point for those modern readers who, I think in part conditioned by the seeming “action” imbued by facebook and social media, which is actually not action so much as just more words…equate the actions in a book, the characters in the book, with actual real-world actions and people. Readers who think that the author is always endorsing the actions of the characters no matter what won’t like this book. Readers who think that crimes on a page are somehow roughly e-equivalent to meat-world crimes won’t like this book.

But I liked this book precisely because it was written without regard for what anyone might think. It isn’t prettied up. It isn’t given a nice wrap-up at the end to help the reader out. It just is what it is, telling the story it needs to tell. It’s sharp, incisive, mean-spirited, and often speaks the truth. You get to choose how you feel about what happens. When so many books seem so eager to please the reader, and to reaffirm what the reader already knows, Hygiene and the Assassin was refreshing. It felt like something without all the edges sanded off. Now, certainly, some might say it’s just sensationalistic, and perhaps they’d have a point. But at the moment I encountered it, the novel was an important reminder that writers need to turn their internal censors entirely off when writing to produce the best possible fiction. Nice is often just another word for mediocre.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar, from PS Publishing

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Lavie Tidhar’s fascinating and hypnotic Osama, from PS Publishing, and all kinds of things have gotten in the way, from dental surgery to sickness to deadlines. But with the holidays fast upon us, I’m blogging it now in brief at least—although it deserves better—so if you’ve missed it, you can consider buying it for yourself or for others.

Below the cut I’ve posted the publisher’s description of the novel, which is slipstreamy and sly and affecting. One thing not mentioned in reviews is how effective Tidhar handles the short chapters that comprise Osama. They’re not punchy or underwritten—they’re just right and with few words wasted. He’s also quite good in his characterization of Joe, the main character. The writing is beautiful without being fussy, cluttered, or overly lyrical.

You can buy Osama in physical or Kindle form on Amazon, or straight from the publisher. Rather think it needs a North American trade publisher.

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Lisa L. Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony: Ann VanderMeer’s Intro

I first met Lisa L. Hannett when I taught at Clarion South in 2009, and I was impressed with her originality and her prose. (She also looked like she could kick my ass, although that’s neither here nor there.)

Flash-forward just a couple of years and she has several short story sales and a collection, Bluegrass Symphonyout. The collection is just the opening salvo in what promises to be a great career. As I said in my blurb for the book, she “shows a stylistic flair and depth of story…Her fiction is smart, confident, and in her own voice.”

Publishers Weekly wrote: “Hannett’s first collection shows off her fondness for lush imagery, unsettling concepts, indirect prose, and multilayered plots…a collection for fans of weirdness, wonder, and oft-disturbing twists.” (There’s more info on the publisher’s page for the book.)

Falling roughly into the category of dark Americana fantasy/horror, the collection has a definite cohesive mood and tone. Ann VanderMeer wrote the introduction, which I’m happy to reprint here, so you can get a better sense of Bluegrass Symphony. You can also read Lisa’s blog entries about the collection here.)
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