MARK KAMINE

IN DEFENSE OF DIFFICULTY

LAIRD HUNT’S THE IMPOSSIBLY, INFLUENCED BY BECKETT, KAFKA, AND THE FRENCH MODERNISTS, IS BAFFLING, OBSCURE, AND PRETTY EASY TO FOLLOW.

DISCUSSED: The Four Types of Literary Difficulty, Characters In Extremis, William Wilson, Eugène Atget, The Eye, Self-Contradicting Protagonists, Fractured Time Sequences, Montaigne, Francophilia, Time Measured in Chores, The New York Trilogy, Endearing Romanticism, Genre, Ambiguity, The Comfort of Pastries, Character Improvisation, Joseph K., Walter Benjamin, Luck, A Book to Settle In With

Poor difficulty. Even literary writers now want to keep their distance. Steven Carter, in compiling his recent online list of instructions on how to write a first novel, while encouraging you to read Moby-Dick, would also like you to “Admit to yourself and others that, even though you’re wild about Joyce’s early work, and you admire the chances the guy took, you just find Ulysses boring. Feel the freedom that brings.” Dale Peck concurs and then some, slipping into his New Republic review (July 2002) of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil a quick scouring of Modernist fiction and its heirs, “A tradition that began with the diarrhetic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.” And if you open your paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection, How to Be Alone (2002), you’ll find, added in like a bonus track on a CD rerelease, an essay about William Gaddis called “Mr. Difficult,” in which Franzen rejects Gaddis’s entire literary career after The Recognitions (1955), Gaddis’s first novel, as a kind of wrong turn, a turn into “literary difficulty.”

Structurally fragmented novels crammed with syntactically convoluted sentences don’t read as easily as those in the mainstream tradition. The heady, ironic, jigsaw-puzzle novels of a writer like Nabokov will never sit well with proponents of social realism. It seems premature, however, to dismiss such productions as last century’s aberrations. After all, Tristram Shandy, that model of difficulty, has been around almost as long as Tom Jones.[1]

  1. It may be that the fortunes of difficult writers fluctuate more radically than others’—thus the opening of Cyril Connolly’s essay on Laurence Sterne: “‘Nothing odd will do long,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘Witness Tristram Shandy,’ and such is the awful finality of this judgment that one re-reads Sterne almost with a sense of guilt, though indeed no author’s reputation has so often survived its own obituary.”

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Mark Kamine has written for the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement. He is the assistant production manager of the HBO series The Sopranos. Moreover, he lives in New Jersey.


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