Sunday, April 1, 2012

no one way to account for everything

Signs of prosperity change over time: a tallow candle would still have you prosperous today but only because we can see you have money to waste on stumps of efflorescent fat; your eyes love the drips, that black draft is romancing your pocket. Some signs of prosperity do not change; when Olga Masters's Amy can move out of her aunt's spare bedroom she is richer than she was when she couldn't, and that same state of affairs pertains today I swear, even among the Irish flag people and the one dressed as Saint Patrick, although for most of the day I thought he was the Pope. Wuthering Expectations has been thinking about the classics, a canon that has been kneaded to the point where, says a poster at Jillian's Classics Club challenge, the word classic can be applied to Harry Potter if you want, and who am I, asks the poster, to argue otherwise? Who am I? Mr Spitzer in Miss MacIntosh asks the same question and he is actually his brother. "There is no unshakeable law of mental life," wrote Marguerite Young in her profile of Marianne Moore. "There is no one way to account for everything," she says, accounting for Marianne Moore in a single way which is hers.

So the Classics Club challenge is not to read a static thing called classic but to read a book that can be described as a classic in words that convince others and maybe yourself. Your job is persuasion. This is democratic and magical. I argue that Amy's Children is a classic of Australian kitchen sink literature, or books published in the 1980s, or books by journalists born in New South Wales, or books about single mothers in Sydney, whatever suits me; I argue that Harry Potter is a classic of modern children's literature, or books set in boarding schools, or serial fiction, or international entertainment phenomenons, take your pick; I argue that Fumiko Enchi's Masks (thinking of this book because I took it off my shelf last night and it had been rubbed with jam) is a classic among Japanese books with words in their titles that can be translated into English as mask, and so is Yukio Mishima's Confessions of Mask. There may be other classics in that genre.

The libraries of the world are full of classics, anything is a classic, we have enriched ourselves, here is one way in which the changing conditions of our understanding have encouraged the production of certain things and discouraged the production of others, namely, books that could never be called classics of anything, lost books, lost by the lack of imagination in their owners, who can't think of a reason why this book, whatever it is, could be called a classic of something, when, I swear, there is a category small enough to fit anything, a category small as a blue hair ribbon -- look at St Patrick's Day -- a day represented by the colour green -- which allows it to amass any concrete object in the world. No romantic extrapolation is denied. I can walk the streets in a jade cape and people will understand. I can wear a bowler hat with a shamrock in the band. The shamrock can be covered with glitter. It can be six feet tall. The hat can have a drawbridge. I can wear a frog costume and on the stomach of the frog I have sewn the outline of a marijuana plant. Lovely comprehension sweeps through the crowd because it is the seventeenth of March. A category is a thing that can amass. A book is a category: it can amass. Amy's ability to amass is limited; she doesn't have a lot of money and she doesn't show an interest in things that can be amassed without money; she is not like the old woman I noticed in the dumpster behind the block of flats this afternoon holding one arm over her head with the wrist cocked and the hand held flat like the head of a shower. I don't know what she was collecting but it was free. Spring is coming. The largest category on earth is light although blind cave fishes stay evasive; alternatively dark.


  1. I think you should have been a librarian. We spend inordinate amounts of time talking about classifying and categories. One can justify pretty much anything.

    Are you enjoying Amy? I read it but it's nowhere near as vivid in my mind as Loving daughters.

  2. I wouldn't mind being a librarian, although the ones at the local library spend half their time looking tired behind a desk while they explain that yes, the cards are, in fact, free but no, you can't have a computer right now because they're all taken for the next two hours and then booked for the next hour after that, and sorry sir, but you can't reserve one without a card anyway. If they could limit it to shelving books all day, I'd be stunning.

    I like Amy in retrospect more than I did while I was reading. Masters links the different parts of a scene together adamantly and I want to buck against that tightness. There's a lot of action in her sentences and not a lot of breathing space: for example: the paragraph I quoted at the end of that other post, one character feeling compelled to look at another character so that the author can give us a rundown of the other character's clothes, and then she springs Character A's cynical conclusion on us quickly, then she moves on to the next thing. I think Masters' efficiency serves her more than it serves the environment she's trying to put together in the book. These forceful words like "compelled" (the character's got no chance against a word as strong as "compelled:" the author is grabbing her hard by the nose and yanking her head into position) make them seem less than human, which wouldn't matter so much if expansive human reality didn't seem to be what she's aiming for.

  3. I did that very thing as a youngster, shelving books, not all day but for two hours a day after school.

    "Your job is persuasion" is a motto to pinch.

  4. I've been doing some volunteer shelving and desk-minding in the library's secondhand bookshop. B and C are the two letters people go to when they want to put the books out of order. R barely moves, T shifts a little bit, the Koontzes in K sometimes go walkabout, but B and C spend all week turning entropic.

  5. WG: ... but she has a great ear for dialogue. I wasn't always convinced when her people behaved but I was convinced when they talked. There's a moment in A Long Time Dying, in the title story, when Mrs Rawson tries to get a rise out of Harry by pointing out that one of his adult children might have abandoned him forever -- "Nothing on the other one though," she says -- and Harry's reply is spot-on, it's got his whole character in it: he shifts some bits of wood and says, "I'm not greedy."