Jeffrey DeShell, The Trouble With Being Born
Some people object to the term "experimental fiction," finding it either overly general or awkwardly clinical, conjuring up images of the novelist in a lab coat. I find the term problematic only in that I think all fiction should be experimental: no fiction writer should rest satisfied that prose fiction has settled into its final and most appropriate form such that only reiterations of the form with fresh "content" is needed. However, to the extent that "experimental fiction" denotes the effort explicitly to push at the limits previous practice has seemingly imposed on the possibilities of fiction as a literary form, I am comfortable enough with the label and see no reason to abandon it altogether.
At the same time, "experimental" does cover a very broad range of strategies and effects, and some distinctions between different kinds of literary experiment and between works manifesting experiment to different degrees could certainly be made. Just to consider "experiment" in fiction at the most general level of adherence to convention--convention understood as a definable feature that has come to make fiction recognizable to most readers as fiction--it is possible to distinguish between works that set out to transform our conceptions of the nature of fiction in toto, and those that focus in a more limited way on producing innovative changes on specific conventions. The former might be called "transgressive" experiments that overrun the extant boundaries observed by most readers, critics, and other writers, while the latter might be regarded as "local" experiments that challenge "normal" practice but do so from within the boundary that otherwise marks off the still-familiar from the disconcertingly new.
Novels like Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable or Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew would be good examples of the former, while Jeffrey DeShell's The Trouble With Being Born (FC2) is more appropriately considered as a local experiment. Readers of The Trouble With Being Born would probably find it accessible enough, a family chronicle that traces the lives of a husband and wife from their youth to their extreme old age. Its autobiographical roots are explicitly exposed, as the family is the DeShell family and the couple's only child is named Jeff, but the book's most provocative feature is undoubtedly the way in which the couple's story is related. The husband and wife tell their own stories in alternating first-person narratives, but while Mrs. DeShell's story is presented in reverse order, beginning with her affliction by dementia in old age and proceeding backwards into her childhood, Mr. DeShell's story proceeds in the opposite direction, from childhood to lonely old age. The two stories meet at numerous junctures, and the overall effect is to provide a convincing account of a mostly dysfunctional marriage.
The novel's twinned first-person narration spares us the kind of tedious psychologizing to which we would potentially be subjected through the use of a third-person narrator "going inside" the characters' heads in order to understand them, but it does pose a problem shared by other first-person narratives that do not make clear their source in a plausible narrative situation--the narrator committing his/her story to the page directly (albeit in any number of possible forms of notation), or speaking it directly to some identifiable audience. Both Mr. and Mrs. DeShell tell their stories in seemingly disembodied voices that represent neither their attempts to reckon directly through writing with the direction their lives have taken nor the recitation of their experiences before at least a potential audience. It is understandable that the author wished to explore these characters' sense of themselves through ventriloquizing their voices, but such an unmotivated mode of narration occasionally calls attention to itself in a way DeShell probably doesn't intend:
My fiftieth birthday. I don't look fifty. I'm driving Jewell's Firebird with her to meet Tommy the Rock at Mr. Z's, a nightclub in the Springs. Tommy the Rock will be sure to have some broads with him. Too bad Dominic is sick. I told Frances that I was going down to the Knights of Columbus, but I don't think she believed me. Screw her. She doesn't know fun. If she hadn't gotten so fat, maybe I'd be with her more often. She can watch the fireworks at home with Jeff. The two of them deserve each other. My wedding ring is in my pocket.
In a passage like this, DeShell is forced to use his narrator to present information so transparently and so implausibly (no one really says such things to oneself) that narrative continuity is broken. Since it seems to me that DeShell is ultimately attempting to maintain the illusion of realism in character and narrative voice, and is not indulging in postmodern tricks by calling attention to narrative artifice, this storytelling strategy can make suspension of disbelief difficult to grant.
Perhaps it was necessary to employ this style of narration in order to allow the characters' voices their necessary role both in the unfolding of their separate stories and in the larger story those stories together create. Both perspectives must be provided. And despite the awkwardness occasioned by the choice of point of view (and by the consistency of its application), the novel's aesthetic strategy essentially does succeed in making The Trouble With Being Born a compelling read and in chronicling the fortunes of what is probably an all-too-common American family. It succeeds in turning our notions of chronology and contiguity against themselves to create a locally satisfying narrative experiment, even if in the final analysis narrative itself as the central focus of interest in fiction is not challenged and the protocols of point of view are actually reinforced. Such a book won't revolutionize the art of fiction, but its does perhaps help remind readers that the requirements for creating this art are not fixed in place.
Matthew Roberson, Impotent
Fiction has always shown itself capable of absorbing other texts, other forms of discourse, into its own formal repertoire. Indeed, fiction as a literary mode began in attempts to mimic history (as in Fielding's novels) or as the fictional exchange of letters, as in the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson. This ability to enlist various kinds of writing not themselves per se "literary" in the creation of literary form is part of what has allowed fiction to retain its vitality; there is no one proper "form" that a novel must take, despite the efforts of editors, creative writing programs, and many book reviewers to force it into a conventional mold combining plot, character, and setting in an identifiable formula.
Matthew Roberson's Impotent (FC2) is an example of this practice of assimilating other texts, although in this case Roberson perhaps takes it a little farther by fashioning what might be called a "formal correlative" whereby his novel's themes are mirrored in the form by which they are presented. Impotent is "about" our increasing dependence on pharmaceutical solutions to our various physical and psychological problems, and to that effect it incorporates the rhetoric to be found in drug labeling, drug advertising, and drug studies as devices in the serial narratives relating its characters' resort to prescription drugs. These devices become, in fact, the primary way we come to know the characters, as the kind of pharmaceutical intervention they require signals to us the sort of lives, usually stressful in ways they seem not to have anticipated, they find themselves maintaining.
One could say that Roberson has found a way to merge form and content, although this ends up, in my view, emphasizing the latter more than might be expected from a novel so unorthodox in its presentation. Impotent has no unifying protagonist but instead introduces a succession of characters related by their use of pharmacological helpers. (The book might plausibly called a collection of stories, but the repetitions of structure and theme encourage a holistic reading rather than one focused on individual episodes.) These characters are never given names other than identifying initials--M for male, S for spouse, C for child, etc.--and this almost inevitably accentuates the behavior in which they are engaged, behavior that both the several narratives and the text as a whole want to call into question. At best such a focus on "saying something" reduces Impotent to a kind of social satire that almost makes the novel's formal experiments seem superfluous.
A work like Impotent does, however, usefully remind us that the novel is an open-ended form limited only by writers' ability to reach outside established forms and claim modes of discourse seemingly beyond the compass of a "literary" treatment as adaptable to their purposes. Roberson's novel held my interest readily enough, and if the execution of its formal strategy ultimately seemed to me somewhat contrived, Impotent did expand my sense of what additional strategies writers of fiction might discover.
K.B. Dixon, Andrew (A to Z)
On the one hand, I don't really understand why a novel like K.B. Dixon's Andrew (A to Z) (Inkwater Press) isn't published by a larger, "mainstream" press rather than the small, essentially regional press that has published it. (Inkwater is located in Portland, Oregon, and, as far as I can tell, attention to the book has been confined mostly to the Pacific Northwest, including a review in the Oregonian, the only review the book has garnered.) It offers a reasonably engaging protagonist, who, as the novel's first-person narrator, possesses a generally lively writing style that at times can even be rather penetrating, and it is structured in a mildly unorthodox way--through alphabetically arranged entries that make the story of Andrew a kind of lexicographical guide to his life--that piques the reader's interest but surely doesn't really pose a threat to narrative coherence for most readers. It's at least as good as most of the "literary fiction" published by even the biggest New York publishers, and I have to conclude that the decisions by which this sort of fiction is published by these publishers are entirely arbitrary, at best guided by some wild guess about what might prove suitably commercial.
On the other hand, that one could imagine such a book as Andrew (A to Z) being brought out by a large commercial press suggests its most significant limitation as a putative work of "experimental" fiction, which its structured fragmentation clearly enough broadcasts it to be (and under which heading the Oregonian review introduces it). While the dictionary-entry form the novel assumes does fracture the "story" into seemingly arbitrary bits, ultimately the entries themselves still seem to have been chosen to illustrate certain pre-chosen features of Andrew's life and circumstances that eventually do add up to a fairly conventional account of a lightly-alienated, white collar employee and his elementary-school teacher wife. Fragmentation as a narrative strategy has by now been pretty thoroughly assimilated into the fiction writer's available array of structural devices, and unfortunately Andrew (A to Z) doesn't make especially provocative use of it. It presents us with the details of Andrew's experiences and obsessions in a shuffled, nonlinear fashion, but finally doesn't really encourage us to reflect very much either on the fragmented way in which we do in fact experience much of our lives or on the further variations that might be wrung out of fragmentation as a literary motif or narrative method.
Part of the reason why the alphabetic organization of this novel doesn't finally add up to much more than a modestly entertaining exercise in controlled discontinuity is perhaps that the underlying narrative is so familiar. Not much literally happens in Andrew (A to Z), for reasons Andrew himself ponders near the end of the novel: "My aversion to conflict and the respectfulness with which I indulge that aversion makes me inherently undramatizable. There is no rising action in the story of me; nothing is set in motion by an exciting force because exciting forces are invariably neutralized by my incessant, quasi-pathological cautiousness."
This brief metafictional moment would seem to be the author's ironic comment on the fact that he has created a character who doubts "there is a place for me in fiction." Through the gradual accretion of evidence that Andrew is indeed largely "undramatizable," Dixon has dramatized Andrew's very lack of dramatic interest. He is a modern American suburban man who doesn't quite understand how he got to be such, but who accepts his status more or less passively. He's a pretty keen observer of the confusions and limitations of his life, but he can't really bring himself to do anything in particular to change it. To me, this has become an increasingly commonplace kind of character in American fiction, and an increasingly uninteresting one, and Andrew (A to Z) does little to elevate such a character to a more consequential status as a "representative" figure in American life. The best he can do is provide the character with a quietly sardonic voice and the occasional perceptive remark. Which aren't nothing. Any novel containing passages like this is still worth reading:
It's entirely possible that there are too few intravenous drug users in my life--at least that's the feeling I get from Stephen who has a life full of them. According to him, if you are not personally acquainted with someone who's in prison for murder, then you are not leading a vital, authentic life. If your girlfriend hasn't burned you with a cigarette or stabbed you in the buttocks with a penknife, then you are not living at the white-hot center of it as you should be. But then, of course, Stephen is a romantic.
Travis Nichols, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder
If it is at all possible to call a novel a "poet's novel," Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press) would seem literally to be one. Its author, Travis Nichols, is currently an editor at the Poetry Foundation, writes a poetry column for the Huffington Post, and, as far as I can tell, has prior to this book mostly if not exclusively written poetry, including a collection, Iowa, published earlier this year.
Is this, then, a poet's novel only in the narrowest, most reductively descriptive sense (he's a poet who has written a novel) or is it a novel informed by the sensibility and the assumptions about form and language more specific to poetry, and thus one to be judged according to those assumptions rather than those readers and reviewers usually themselves bring to the consideration of fiction? If the latter, should we consider Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder some kind of hybrid of poetry and fiction, a separate category of fiction (or of poetry), or should we simply look for it to bring to our reading of fiction something different, some strategy or emphasis we don't ordinarily allow for in our reading of plot- or character-driven novels?
It is the success of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder that it poses, and partially answers, these questions; it is its failure that those answers are only partial, and to some extent unsatisfying. The novel seems clearly enough written against the grain of the approach taken by most professional novelists, an approach that encourages immediate engagement with character and event, establishes context through setting and relevant background, above all eases the reader's way into and through the story with an exposition-laden prose. It really doesn't do these things, at least not quickly or directly, and doesn't ever do the last-named. However, it does in my opinion eventually accede to the essence of this approach, even as it arrives at shared ends through somewhat unorthodox means.
Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder ultimately does tell the story of a World War II pilot who, along with his grandson and his girlfriend, visits in his old age the scene of his crash-landing in the Polish countryside. The story is told to us by the grandson, at least indirectly, as the novel takes the form of a series of letters written to "Luddie," the presumed rescuer of the grandfather (the grandson calls him the "Bombardier") who may or may not be still alive (it turns out she isn't). Through the letters, we learn a little bit about the narrator's own past, about the Bombardier's life since the war, about their trip to Poland, but most of the narrative is taken up with the trio's attempts to locate Luddie, the Bombardier's crash site, the presumed target of the bombing raid that resulted in the crash. The search is complicated by the Bombardier's obviously faulty memory, but the novel concludes with the trio's discovery of the ruins of the bombed-out target, presumably validating the Bombardier's remembered experience.
It's precisely this validation of the memory of heroism (even if the Bombardier doesn't necessarily think of it as such) that makes me less than satisfied with this novel, although it does redeem itself as a departure from novel-writing business as usual in other ways. Most readers will note from the beginning the narrator's oblique and repetitive prose style, as almost any chapter of the book will illustrate:
Something has happened to me, but it is not what I thought would happen to me when I told you something was going to happen to me.
Something has happened to me because I left New England and came back to the Midwest, where I was born.
I should have know better than to come back to where I was born because time is not a circle.
Is it a line?
I should have known better because it's always dangerous to come back, especially if you leave from a new home to come back to where you were born. It's always dangerous because if you give where you were born a chance, it will wrap its roots around your insides and pull you down close to the ground. (Chapter 2)
The narrator's letters act neither as "chatty" correspondence nor as a narrative device that substitutes for conventional expository narration but could just as easily be replaced with some other device that gets the story told. The narrator's halting, circuitous language emphasizes its own unfolding as language, working to ensure that we are always as aware of this language as we are the story it is struggling to move along. The narrator is struggling with the story, and the manner of telling reinforces that struggle. Perhaps we could say that this method is "poetic," not so much because more often than not language is laid out on the page in a compressed way that seems "verse-like" but because it does stress so concertedly the effort to find efficacious expression of what one wants to say, to find the right means and medium.
In wondering whether time is, in fact "a line," the narrator is also announcing the novel's preoccupation with the relationship of time and memory, whether the latter always conditions the former, or whether it is possible to get an accurate sense of the former while thinking of it as a "line." The narrator moves in circles recording his own and the Bombardier's experiences, and the trio themselves essentially move in circles while trying to pin down the location of the Bombardier's crash. The novel seems to be suggesting that time--or what really happened--is inevitably lost in the attempt to recall it, or to narrate it, even, or perhaps especially, something as momentous as World War II and the experiences of the "greatest generation" that fought it. But the last-minute discovery of the "real" site, however much stumbling around is involved in the process, left me, for one, feeling disappointed that Nichols didn't fully extend this meditation on our perception of time through to the novel's conclusion. It left me thinking that despite the haze the passing years had enveloped around the events of the war, the narrative was affirming that the haze was ultimately penetrable through determination and a little patience.
Thus it seems to me that Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder winds up to some extent reinforcing the discursive conventions of fiction. Its stylistic and structural departures delay and condition the resolution of the novel into a well-shaped narrative, but they ultimately provide it nonetheless. In doing so, the novel becomes less an effort to explore the borderlands between fiction and poetry as their boundaries have currently been determined, and more an acknowledgment of those boundaries. It's a book worth reading, however, as its modest challenges to novel-writing convention still make it a more satisfying reading experience than most literary fiction.
Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur
Partisans of "experimental" fiction (I am one) frequently make unequivocal distinctions between a properly experimental and a "conventional" work: The experimental work is formally or stylistically unlike anything that has come before--satisfying Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new"--while the conventional work merely recapitulates, perhaps with modest variation, an already existing form or style.
If the goal is to identify the truly original, this distinction makes sense, however much it seems to some readers an overly rigid standard or just unnecessary--if a work of literature provides some kind of aesthetic satisfaction (if it's merely "a good read"), what difference does it make if it can be called original or not? In my opinion formal and stylistic innovation is important in maintaining the aesthetic potential of fiction. Without it, fiction becomes just a routinized "entertainment" medium that at best appeals to readers willing to settle for routine entertainment but that at worst itself implicitly denies that fiction has any potential to be "art" except through the skill required to master the moves involved in joining together the familiar elements--plot, character, setting--associated with it as an inherited form. I would not deny that this can be done more or less skillfully (and that the result can be more or less entertaining), but surely it is artistic originality that at the very least introduces a fresh perspective on what might be possible in a particular aesthetic form, and surely this is as true of fiction as of any other of the arts.
Perhaps, however, those of us who would defend experimental fiction against its frequent enough detractors (who usually either do prefer the familiar over the fresh or conveniently judge all literary experiments to be failed experiments) do, wittingly or unwittingly, too quickly discount the value of a work's capacity to "entertain," at least if "entertaining" is defined as that quality of the work that sustains attention, makes the reader feel the reading experience is worth the time spent. I have always thought the greatest experimental fiction precisely manages to both find original means of expression and make that expression entertaining, even traditionally "enjoyable." The fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, has always seemed to me wildly entertaining, even if it is dedicated first of all to discarding all the conventional ways of providing entertainment through narrative fiction. The same is true of the fiction (and the plays) of Samuel Beckett, if the reader can reconcile the at times farcical premises and occurrences with the bleak view of human existence Beckett presents.
There is also perhaps a middle ground between "experimental" and "conventional" in fiction where writers are able to follow up on (in a sense further experiment with) strategies and techniques first introduced by previous innovative writers, in some cases precisely employing those techniques in a more obvious attempt to turn them to the purposes of familiar literary pleasures. Although some practices that were at one time more daring--fragmented narrative or the move toward "psychological realism" among modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf, for example--have inevitably become so assimilated as to no longer seem exceptional, others can still be used to credible effect by skillful writers seeking to avoid the most conventionalized assumptions about writing novels or stories. While the results couldn't be called experimental other than in this second-order sense, such works are certainly more adventurous than the great majority of what gets called literary fiction, and might even help convince some readers that more adventurous approaches to both the writing and reading of fiction could have their merits.
One such work is Arthur Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur. Describable as parody or pastiche, or a combination of the two, the novel actually avoids taking on a structure readers immediately recognize as that of a novel, instead assuming the form of an "introduction" to a putatively newly-discovered play by Shakespeare, along with the text of the play. The introduction hardly exhibits the characteristics of an ordinary scholarly introduction, itself proceeding more as the memoir of "Arthur Phillips," in whose possession the play resides, and as such often satirizes the now-ubiquitous memoir form. The structure is highly reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which Phillips has himself acknowledged, although most of the "story" occurs in the memoir itself rather than in the footnotes to the play (which do, however, add another layer of commentary on both the text and its origins.) Whereas Pale Fire works by forcing the reader to read carefully both the poem Nabokov has written and attributed to "John Shade" and the scholarly apparatus that purports to explicate it in order to extract the "real" story its narrator/editor wants to tell (which turns out to be quite an entertaining if outlandish one), The Tragedy of Arthur puts fewer burdens on the reader (at least explicitly); the fictional memoir, humorously tangential as a critical preface to Shakespeare, offers a narrative complete in itself, while the fabricated play could ostensibly also be read separately.
However lightly Phillips executes the formal manipulation, The Tragedy of Arthur is not an ordinary reading experience. It holds in balance several sources of aesthetic tension the reader must still reckon with, tensions left deliberately unresolved. Besides the obvious unresolved question (unresolved within the fictional framework) of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" is real or fraudulent Shakespeare, we are left to contemplate how much of the story of "Arthur Phillips" is autobiographical and how much invented, which Arthur's life story--pere, fils, or protagonist of the play--is characterized as "tragedy," and whether we are to consider "The Tragedy of Arthur" as "good" Shakespeare, even if it is forged.
It may finally be the aesthetic triumph of this novel that all of these questions remain unanswered, or that they must be answered by individual readers. Although it seems most likely that the con man Arthur Sr. did indeed forge the play, the possibility it is genuine (again, within the fictional framework of the novel) is not foreclosed, as it is not beyond possibility that a "lost" Shakespeare play could one day be found. (At least two plays attributed to Shakespeare are known to be lost.) Moreover, even if it is forged, what does it say about Phillips Sr., something close to a common criminal as portrayed in the novel, that he could nevertheless channel Shakespeare's spirit well enough to produce a plausible simulation? (What does it say about Shakespeare?) (What does it say about Shakespeare that the novelist Arthur Phillips could produce such a simulation? About Arthur Phillips?) That it probably is forged additionally allows us to appreciate Phillips's satire of the "expertise" we assume Shakespeareans possess: their "authentication" of the play is clearly enough part wishful thinking, part craven service to a publisher interested in the project only for the money that might be made.
Phillips invites us to consider his "memoir" authentic as well (much of the information provided seems verifiably true), but ultimately it has to be taken as at least as much a fabrication as "The Tragedy of Arthur," however much Phillips uses real names and seemingly draws on the particulars of his own life and upbringing. Like the play, the introductory memoir has a surface plausibility as "the real thing," but we would be ill-advised to accept it as more than that. It works to reinforce formally what Sam Sacks in his excellent review of the novel called its theme of "the ambiguity of fraud" and in the process reminds us that all memoir is subject to this ambiguity, when it isn't manifestly fraudulent. Fiction, of course, is by definition a "fraud," but it explicitly announces itself as such, and one could say that The Tragedy of Arthur is as much as anything else a playful challenge to our tendencies to read fiction as disguised memoir and to the recent turn to memoir as a more reliable narrative source of literal truth. Readers of fiction will have to be content with the "ambiguity" that accompanies the fraud of fiction.
Such ambiguity (and playfulness) is carried through in the juxtaposition of Arthurs: Arthur the narrator, Arthur his father, Arthur the protagonist of the putative Shakespeare play, and Arthur Phillips, the author of The Tragedy of Arthur. Arthur the younger suffers the tragedy of a broken relationship with his father, Arthur the elder a similar tragedy in his loss of family, but also in the foreshortening of his own life's possibilities through his own mistakes, while King Arthur undergoes the tragedy that often befalls the royal heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies. The "tragedy" of the title perhaps then belongs equally to each, although one might ask whether Arthur Sr.'s forgery might actually represent a final triumph, a successful effort to breathe the same air as his hero Shakespeare, an effort strong enough it has fooled some into regarding it as genuine. The Tragedy of Arthur must represent a triumph for Arthur Phillips as well, a triumph of literary creation that, if it doesn't equal that of Shakespeare, or of Nabokov, is impressive enough and in its ingenuity subtly mocks any sense of "tragedy" involved in the novel's ostensible subject.
Thus finally the question of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" as forged by either "Arthur Phillips" or Arthur Phillips is credible as Shakespeare is mostly beside the point. Certainly it is credible enough to pass as a claimant to authorship by Shakespeare, and that it be good enough to provoke the controversy depicted is as good as it needs to be. Phillips has undeniably immersed himself in Elizabethan language and culture as rendered by Shakespeare, and part of the fun in reading the play is coming upon those kinds of constructions one always finds puzzling in Shakespeare skillfully approximated. ("When they would have your guts to stuff their pudding-bags.") In my view, what Phillips has done most adeptly with the play is to fully integrate it within the concerns and the structure of the novel as a whole, and critics who have emphasized the mere fact of its presence or who suggest it is in itself the focal point of the novel have conveyed a distorted impression of its actual achievement.
Because The Tragedy of Arthur so emphatically foregrounds form, readers are not as likely to appreciate through it what in Phillips's previous novels seemed to me his strongest talent as a novelist, his facility as a prose stylist. This is on display most conspicuously in Prague, his first novel, and The Song Is You, the novel immediately preceding The Tragedy of Arthur. Although both of these novels feature (for American fiction) somewhat unconventional situations--a group of American expatriates in central Europe, an aging director of television commercials becoming obsessed with a young pop singer--neither of them could be said to be plot-driven. Both appeal through fluency of style. This is especially true of The Song is You (although ultimately Prague is probably the better novel because it seems less hermetically caught in the consciousness of a single protagonist), which intrepidly if eloquently articulates the increasingly rejuvenated mental life of its protagonist as he both surveys his life and pursues his new interest in a beguiling singer and in music in general.
The Irish girl performed that night. The crowd was larger, challenging the bar's legal capacity, and Julian thought she had changed in the last weeks, maybe even developed. She was slightly more coherent as a performer, as a projector of an idea and an image. The previous gig, something had distracted and dislocated her, as when color newsprint is misaligned and an unholy yellow aura floats a fractioned inch above the bright red body of a funny-pages dog. It had been perhaps the bass player's mistakes, or, if the hipster snob was to be credited, the seductively whispering approach of success. No matter: she was clearer tonight, even if he could still see her strive, from one song to the next, for an array of effects: the casually ironic urban girl, the junkie on the make, the desperate Irish lass whose love was lost to the Troubles, the degenerate schoolgirl, the lover by the fire with skin as velvet succulent as rose-petal flesh. . . .
With The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips shows that as a novelist he has formidable control of both form and language. This was to an extent evident as well in The Egyptologist and in the Jamesian manipulations of point of view in Angelica, but Arthur confirms he is not an ordinary novelist rehearsing the same workshop-imposed conventions. I do not necessarily expect a new Arthur Phillips novel to revitalize the avant-garde, but I have come to expect it will exist outside the mold to which too many novels reflexively conform, formally and stylistically. His novels may lag behind Nabokov or Beckett or Sorrentino in adventurousness, but they do perhaps make some readers aware that more adventurous approaches are possible, and can even bring pleasure.