Aesthetic Book-Length Works
– Oct. 29, 2014; cross posted to the Poetry Dialy Critique blog.
If you are at all like me, you scour sites and reviews and bookstore 'we recommend' lists
to find those book-length works that stands out from great mass of the generic and banal, those works where
author is striving to do more than simply tell a tale as it were (however 'cleverly' told), and
create something out of words. In service to us people, I'll start a list.
The list has three parts: above, those works which I have read (in whole or part) or are familiar
with enough to place them fully on the list; below that, those titles that I have not yet read, but which
I have gathered from other sources offering the same. Finally, a short list of works that are trumpeted
being experimental, which I have read (whole or in part) and which I have found to be less than
meritorious. Note that I am not playing only to the extremes: some of these works are obviously much more
adventuresome than others; some more subtle. But all show a fierce attentiveness on the part of the
author on the medium of literature.
Now, I call this a list of "book-length" works so I don't have to get into any of the messiness
of deciding if it is aesthetic prose or aesthetic poetry or what between. There are most definitely
book-length poems in the list. I leave it to the comments to make clarifications.
Finally, I will be
more than happy to make modifications based on the very well argued
recommendations of others. (Perhaps a fourth list?)
Beckett, Samuel. Watt; Molloy; Mallone Dies; The Unnamable.
OK, I admit. I haven't actually read Watt yet. It is generally considered a lead-in to what
absolutely is a trilogy with the other three. (Though, trilogy in idea rather than plot or story.)
They are absolutely Beckett, and amazing works. There is much to be gained in his language
here -- and it is not merely duplication of the langauge of his drama; they are very much books.
Since I read the three in sequence, I have always wondered what reading The Unnamable without
the other two would be like: I am not sure if you could successfully do it -- at least not
nearly to its fuller depths.
Broch, Hermann. Death of Virgil
This one leans more to the book-length poem side of things. Brilliant (in the British sense of the term.)
But higher effort than you might realize at the start. Be aware of that. I have the idea of
comparing Death to the long poems of Robinson Jeffers -- at first they might seem to different, but
both (I argue) solve the issue of a narrative poem that rises out of banal narrative, if in
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch
Burroughs, William S. The Nova Trilogy: The Soft Machine; Nova Express; The Ticket That Exploded.
The works from the cut up period. Could not be more highly recommended for their aesthetic success. Everyone
knows Naked Lunch, but fewer have ventured the trilogy -- which I think venture deeper into
the aesthetic experiment. (And I argue you need to read all three of Nova books, for the style
to a whole ih the third. Also, I would love to do a class on these books exploring how 'meaning'
functions within the organic whole. Fascinating experiments, and wonderful experiences. (I have not yet
read Interzone.) An interesting debate: are these more book length poems than prose?
Burroughs, William S. The Red City Trilogy: Cities of the Red Night; The Place of Dead Roads;
The Western Lands.
An intended trilogy, but looser so than the Nova books. They have the feel that Burroughs developed
an aesthetic method out of the cut-and-paste books that no longer requires actual cut-and-paste. As such,
there is similarity in feel, but a marked difference. Still fascinating. (Cities is my favorite of
Carson, Ciaran. Shamrock Tea.
The only of his prose that I have read. This lies heavily to the pure prose side of the spectrum. Wonderful,
intriguing, little book. Though, I will admit, I thought it started to stray (or maybe I should say
loose some of its energy) near the end. It's been a while, so I can't speak more to it than that. It might
be that I've become rather dis-enchanted with books about children, so there was a hill to climb
from the beginning.
Genet, Jean. Funeral Rites
A defining – and describing – moment within the text: "Althought the novelist can deal with any subject, can speak of any character in precise detail, and can achieve variety, the poet is subject to the demands of his heart, which attract to him all human beings who have been marked obliquely by evil and misfortune, and the characters in my books all resemble each other." (97; trans. Frechtman, Grove Press:1969) Indeed, in this book, it can be said that all the characters are the same character.
Gide, André. The Immoralist
I think I would leave this off this list as being most straight – if with ambiguity – narrative, except for the appearance of Ménalque, who arrives within the narrative like an archetype out of a fairy tale. His presence wholly throws the text into the symbolic. Not a complex text; but it is not necessary for an aesthetic text to be complex.
Jones, David. The Anathemata; In Parenthesis.
I've read The Anathemata twice, and In Parenthesis only in part (and by "in part" I mean
sitting on the floor in between the stacks at the library). The former is
a book-length poem (Auden considered it the best such in English in the 20th century), and a very
difficult work, and I know I do not have the knowledge base to do it justict. But, oh, what an
experience. And so much to learn from it. But difficult.
Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake.
The absolute in effort toward an aesthetic text, and a magnificent success. I will at some point give
a kind of "how to read
The Wake guide. Here I will only say that, by experience, 98% of people who condemn The Wake
were either (1) not up to the effort (and it does take effort); (2) not up to the task; or (3) not given
a way in by someone who had been there before.
Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I've heard good argument to both sides as to the success or failure of this experiment. I will say it
is testimony to its aesthetic value that such arguments exist, and remain viable. Worth the look,
for sure, though many will find it too outside their own creative explorations. Perhaps it is
most true to say that this is one of those works that will suddenly be of deep aesthetic interest, and then
suddenly be not; and then suddenly be and be not again later.
Joyce, James. Ulysses.
Possibly one of the most obviously experimental literary texts ever. Every chapter is a different
venture. So it should be no surprise that some work better on some readers, others on others. And
that most everyone has moments that lie flat to them. Still, everyone serious about aesthetic
literature should have read this; and everyone serious about writing aesthetic literature
given it great attention.
Kawabata, Yasunari. The Master of Go.
A deceptive little gem. A 'retelling' of actual events, so one might think it would fall into
reportage. But it rises so very far above. This is best compared to an ode, a lyric narrative
as it were. If you can understand how this little book works within the idea of eastern narrative
style (often described as starting at a point and spiraling out, rather than linearly as in the
west) and how that would inform the aesthetic experience . . . . A book I would like to be able
to read in the original Japanese.
Merrill, James. The Changing Light at Sandover.
Monster, three part poem (three books brought together). This work, more than any others, I
see tending to bump into the 'eh, I can
see it's quality, but it just didn't do it for me enough to wade through the whole of it.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Jealousy; The Labyrinth; The Erasers; etc.
- I have read these three and one more which escapes my recollection.
Note that many of Robbe-Grillet's books are variations on the same stylistic experiment very aptly
demonstrated in Jealousy and The Labyrinth (which are different in their
stylistic emphasies, and are usually in the same volume).
As such, I can see how some people would bore of his work after a couple. But not all are, and the
variations can be (and are) very wide; so don't dismiss him after only one. I will admit,
I have to be in the right mood or I don't get far. Reading Robbe-Grillet takes a great deal of attention.
But, especially for writers, I strongly urge his works on you. (Get J and T L, they are ample and apt
representatives of his work.)
Woolf, Virginia. The Waves; To the Lighthouse.
I will only speak for those books I've read, as I know style change from book to book. But,
these were very interesting books to read, very interesting
experiences. Especially, for me, Lighthouse. If you want one
thought to put in mind while reading it, something that will greatly open the ideational depths of
the book, give this a toss: while the lighthouse is, obviously, the central symbol of the book,
it is a symbol without content. (Woolf herself stated this; and, somewhere, I have written
Lispector, Clarice. The Apple in the Dark; The Passion According to G.H. and others.
I've read much about her, but have yet to read her. Apparently some of her shorter novels have
come back into publication. I have read that some of her works are more to the aesthetic bend
than others, so be alert. Apple is generally considered her masterpiece.
The Pitiful, the Failed, the Gimmicky, and the Overrated
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves.
Begins with promise of what could be. Ends with thought of what might have been. But
everything in between is little more than gimmick and drivel. It makes me think of the
the pitch for the generic Hollywood film: a fifty-words or less idea, and, well, we'll
figure the rest out later, fluff up some canned FX, and pad it out in editing. I found this
a monumentally overrated book. It's too bad, too, because there is, actually, the germ of
a very interesting idea in it. Maybe, like sometimes happens in Hollywood, someone will
d a so-much-better remake.