July 24, 2012

Vault: An Anti-Novel, by David Rose -- a review

I'll admit, I first bought Vault for its subtitle - "An Anti-Novel." I thought it took some gumption for the author, David Rose, to give his novel a tag like that in our current publishing climate, and I hoped that the book would make good on its promise. The splendid cover made an additional temptation; on the Acknowledgments page Rose himself even offers a disarming remark about hoping his book lives up to it. On both counts - subtitle and cover - it does.

Vault is structured in alternating chapters that give two different versions of the protagonist's life. One set of chapters tells the story of McKuen, a cycling enthusiast from the Southeast of England who becomes a sniper in WW2 and a freelance operative for the intelligence services in the Cold War. This might sound like the well-trod territory of espionage novels such as those of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton, which functioned in their day as fantasy compensations for the real decline of England's status in the world. But these chapters are intercut with their revisionist counterparts, first-person chapters in which the hero's "real-life" prototype comments on and criticizes the "legend nonsense" and "novelism" in the alternate sequence. He protests that the author's appropriations of his biography distort it in the service of false heroism and spurious glamour, and against these he offers the corrective of his own more prosaic account.

Rose's anti-novel goes beyond merely questioning conventional literary heroism, however, finally implicating both versions of its protagonist in a condition of moral ambiguity. The key might be found in the "real" main character's description of his relationship with his racing cycle, the "sensation of control" and "exhilaration of being one with a mechanically-perfect machine," so fused with it that he "no longer had to think." It is the same relationship that he has with his sniper rifle. But bicycle races can be rigged, lovers can turn into double agents, and the figure of the lone existential hero, seen from another angle, might turn out to be just a pawn - as much a mere instrument as the rifle and bicycle are to the hero. The intelligence service's deployment of McKuen against the antinuclear movement broadens the frame dizzyingly, raising the possibility that the same commitment to instrumental expertise is behind the construction of the H-bomb and the specter of nuclear annihilation.

If Vault is therefore also something of a historical novel, it has the advantage of never reading like one. It's not upholstered with boring period detail and barely-digested chunks of research; rather, it convincingly distills an atmosphere appropriate to the era in which it is set. An earlier, more convivial way of life is hinted at only by its absence; cycling as a genuine people's pastime and the "Great War" as a popular, mass mobilization have been chiseled down into grim existential choices made in the cold and dark. I've seldom read a first novel written with such economy, in which so much is suggested in such spare and unsparing prose. And while Vault refuses many of the easy consolations of more mainstream fiction, it shouldn't scare away anyone who might mistakenly believe that "anti-novel" equals willful obscurity. It's a novel about cycling, guns, and novels that suggests with great clarity that what is obscure is our fates.

Vault, an Anti-Novel, by David Rose (Salt Modern Fiction, 2011), available here, here, and here.

An article by Rose, "Dark Matter:  Modernism and the Anti-Novel," here.

An interview with the author here.

July 21, 2012

Gone Lawn 8

 The All-Seeing Eye vs. The Invisible Hand (Martha McCollough, 2012)

I had the pleasure and privilege of guest-editing the Summer 2012 issue of Gone Lawn, a webjournal of innovative fiction. That issue is now live.

The contributors include writers I reached out to because I admire their work and those who sent pieces through the regular submission process and whom I now number among writers I admire. They are:

Kristina Marie Darling, Angela Genusa, Jacob Wren, Frances Madeson, Valerie Witte, Jake Syersak, Neila Mezynski, Malcolm Sutton, Frances Kruk, j/j hastain, Derek Owens, David Hadbawnik, Stephen Hastings-King, and Dale Smith.

The issue also features cover art and a haunting video by Martha McCollough.

One thing of significance that I note among the contributors is how many of them produce work in other fields -- poetry, performance, music, digital and conceptual polyart, and criticism -- and indeed in some ways how little the generic boundaries really matter. I know I take a dim view of mainstream fiction and its insular, complacent "alt-lit" mirror-image, but the experience of reading these works (as well as others that did not make it into the issue but which I am grateful to have seen) has gone some ways towards restoring my faith that genuine literary art is still being produced, against the odds, in the Anglo-US axis. Thank you to everyone involved, with a special thanks going out to
Gone Lawn's editor, Owen Kaelin, for giving me this opportunity.

(And be sure to check out Frances Madeson's own gone lawn, here.)

July 8, 2012

The Boston Book Festival's "Transgressions"

So Boston's annual celebration of safe, middlebrow "literary" culture, now gearing up for its fourth installment, has decided to get a little freaky, hosting a "transgression"-themed reading and fundraiser.  The folks that whined about getting punked last year now promise an event jam-packed with "law-breaking, rule-bending, convention-busting, [and] paradigm shifting."  Funny, though, that the six perps in their line-up all have spotless records.  I suppose transgression in this case means cute, titillating, "edgy."  For a taboo-busting twenty-five bucks you'll be able to hear Holly LeCraw talk about the time she peed in The Swimming Pool.  

This isn't to say, however, that the Boston Book Festival and its president, Deborah Z. Porter, don't know a thing or three about real transgression. While trumpeting the word "community" in every official utterance, the festival's organizers continue to take on corporate sponsors who are known offenders of the most community-shredding sort.  Take a look at these love-tweets that the festival sent out last year to several of its corporate sponsors.

Yes, Bank of America, one of the nation's leaders in kicking families out of foreclosed homes, fattening itself on corporate welfare at the government trough, and funding mountaintop removal mining (which poisons children's drinking water in local . . . communities).  Bank of America just loves that word, "community," as well.

Here's another little bouquet:

Verizon!  In August 2011 almost 45,000 Verizon workers -- including 6000 in Massachusetts -- went out on strike for 2 weeks before having to return to work without a new contract. Verizon was trying to squeeze $1 billion in concessions out of its workforce, including cuts in health and retirement benefits, scheduled wage increases, and vacation and sick days.  This same Verizon has received over $12 billion in tax subsidies since 2008, hasn't paid a thin dime in taxes over the same period, and continues to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on their top executives.
Yet Deborah Z. Porter and the other organizers of the Boston Book Festival welcomed Verizon and its ill-gotten dollars in to the 2011 BBF with open arms, allowing the company to burnish its slimy reputation and secure a little brand loyalty among future generations by hosting a children's "StoryPlace"!

Finally, there's this gem:

Target, the company that requires their employees to watch a 13-minute anti-union film and donated $150K to the campaign of a notoriously anti-gay politician in Minnesota.  I guess "community" doesn't include unionized workers and the LGBT . . . community.

And so far it looks like all three sponsors will be back for this year's festival:

So, when it comes to the Boston Book Festival and the theme of "Transgressions," we might chuckle at their wildly misnamed reading event, but can't exactly accuse them of being hypocrites.

But when it comes to "community"?