The LRB has enriched my life, but nothing in its pages is so invigorating as Patricia Lockwood’s articles (click here for her own literary ouevre and a selection of her reviews; see also here).
Much as I learn from the LRB, some of its reviewers tend to submerge the book supposedly being considered beneath their own superior expertise, reading like “it should have been ME who wrote about this topic”. Ms Lockwood’s style is highly personal, but she manages to keep the poetry of her own fantastical world in the service of deep insights into the milieu of her subject, while drawing us into the whole craft of fiction writing. In a recent review of two story collections by George Saunders her comments illuminate, rather than obscure, the author’s message.
She reflects on the sense of failure conveyed by Saunders’ characters:
It must be, in order that he can overcome. At some point, the source of poignancy stopped being the characters, and started being the desire of the stories to rise above themselves. They wanted a little more than they had, than they could ever have. They could feel their strength, if they were just given a chance, they could be more than Daryls, Dereks, Kyles…
Commenting on his religious background, she stops herself:
Trying to trap me into writing a big Catholic thing, eh? Well, I won’t, except to say that we probably have a few of the same voices in our heads.
Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, she observes:
Short fiction is a cruel form. It is life in miniature: not enough time. Some of its best practitioners have been cruel, or doctors in an age when we took legs off with hacksaws. It is hard to keep giving readers that edge they can brace against, catch their breath, say OK, all right, you know it and I know it. It is hard, after experiencing their love, to stop yourself from showing up to rescue your readers too soon.
On Saunders’ experience as a teacher:
If you’re a normal person, the first time you set foot in a classroom you will hear a voice that says: “It is wrong to take their money”. Other claims rise up to drown out this voice—what holier thing than the study of literature; talent cannot be taught, but the fundamentals can; they are paying for a circle of protected time—and all of them are true, but the voice is loud, louder than literature, and grows louder when you see a student so full of desire for her own life that she can barely breathe, and you taking money for it. What will she do? Is there a world for her? Are you part of the cheat, have you been promoted to middle management?
As to his insights on Russian fiction:
Why is Saunders so much more interesting about Turgenev’s “The singers” than about Gogol’s “The nose”, when Gogol would seem his more natural forebear? Most memorably, A swim in a pond in the rain has a great section on Tolstoy’s “Master and man”, the story he is always writing in one form or another: one man dies to save the other, in falling snow.
There is something insoluble here. He is telling us that you cannot trust the Pulse—this is the fact that must be continually learned. Your feeling (you are, after all, doing this to feel the feeling) has nothing to do with whether it is good, just as your desire to be good cannot be worked out in fiction. But in those moments it does come to you what a guy is for, and you are covered in glory; it comes to you what it is to be a cloud of consciousness, with lives moving through you and that weird holy look on your face. The body lies far below you, in parts, the Worm Interlude—real site of your genius—passes into another phase, one you seem to remember from before you were born. “Where were you, before you came here?”
Heaven, Jeremy offers.
I want her to teach me everything. In exchange I can offer to share my experience of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi—but I’m not waiting for the phone to ring (that heavy black Bakelite contraption on the table in the hall).