Saturday, December 04, 2021
If you'd told me that the novel I was about to read contained over 60 pages of Powerpoint slides using some of the standard insert graphics you get, I think I'd change my mind and pick something else. Haven't we all had enough of Powerpoint? Surprisingly though, Jennifer Egan makes this device work so well in A Visit from the Goon Squad that I actually found myself really enjoying it. It's one of the many small triumphs in this Pulitzer Prize winner - a work that is packed full of insights and intrigues. I'd missed it when it won in 2011, but came to it late through the first chapter, Found Objects, which appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. It could be argued that the freestanding piece Found Objects has the edge. After all, it's tightly written and only hints at the broader landscape of events. In that sense it's more open for the reader. You can speculate all you like about Sasha, the focal character, about what is lost, found or stolen in her life and the fragmented dialogue with her therapist works very well in prompting this sort of perspective. I like the economy of the short story form for some of these reasons. I think George Saunders writes about making every word count in a short story - and that's why Found Objects works. Egan's stand alone tale raises all sorts of questions most of which are answered in the novel, so I suppose if you're the sort who hopes for some sort of closure in fiction you'd prefer A Visit from the Goon Squad; but both are very good. After several unsuccessful attempts to surf the wave of enthusiasm for Richard Powers, Egan has re-established my flagging confidence in American fiction.
Saturday, October 02, 2021
Colin and Michele once described it as a 'wunderkammer' in their typology of blogs, but it long since changed direction. Gradually it became more performative. I tried to capture where I'd been, what I was reading and what was getting published. In other words it surfed the breaking wave of self-promoting academic identity performance (yuk!). Even quite recent posts - up to and including this one - seem to draw attention to what I've been up to in my professional life (such as this!). But I've also tried to stay faithful to the notion of capturing the main gist of what I'm thinking about, what inspires me. And it perhaps goes without saying, writing in one way or another always seems to come to the top of the pile. Producing it, consuming it, the two inextricably woven together. Everyday notes, graffiti, literature, sky-writing, logos, subtitles, digital, non-digital - the lot. That has to be the next (the last?) major project, translating that fascination into something that is both insightful and readable. Will I get round to it? I think so, although my current fascination with the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero might be trying to tell me something. His short book Empty Words and the bible-sized tome The Luminous Novel are masterpieces in exploring the many ways you can avoid writing what you really want to write - or, how that avoidance can itself become a thing of fascination. Following that model I should probably post regularly about how I'm not getting round to starting work on that substantive topic. But I don't want to make a promise that I don't think I could keep.
Friday, June 25, 2021
bulletin and this contribution to a UKLA symposium. At the same time I've been working for the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy on our pro-Black initiative and wanted to show my appreciation to the wonderful Susi Long who has been convening an important group. One of the most significant aspects of this discussion for me is the idea that returning to normal is not a viable option if normal involves perpetuating old injustices and inequalities. Bettina Love is an uncompromising and forthright campaigner for this perspective, and of course she's right. I'm not yet sure how my writing intersects with this - that too is work in progress. In the mean time I'm helping to bring an old project to print, a project that operationalises the stacking stories idea that Cathy and I have been working on for a number of years. There's a lovely bit in this collaborative work that evokes rich memories for anyone who has ever taught. 'Most teachers can relate to the experience of arriving in a classroom, perhaps at the start of a school year - four walls, a cupboard if you're lucky, and a collection of desks and chairs - of rooting around in store rooms and drawers, sifting though resources of variable age and quality, shunting furniture about to create pleasant spaces or groupings, and playing with texture and colour for a less institutional feel.' Some of the resources you find in dusty cupboards and dingy stock rooms have their own histories. In the second school I taught in I found a class set of books called 'An Introduction to the King's English'. Which king, I wondered? Could that be George V? The book was published in 1932! This certainly wasn't work in progress; it was a museum piece. As a seasonal gesture, one of the book's colour plates is shown above. It's entitled 'At the Seaside' and it shows an English holiday scene - an idealised portrait of family life between the wars. Dad reads a broadsheet and smokes a pipe whilst mum keeps an eye on the children making a sandcastle. The page opposite informs us that dad is Mr Jackson, mum is Mrs Jackson and the children are Tom and Kate. Students of the King's English practice sentences rehearsing words like 'father', 'mother', 'sister' and 'children'. It perhaps goes without saying that not all families looked like that in Hyson Green in the 1970s.
Friday, April 30, 2021
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
The Good Soldier' or the pathological one that tells us all about 'Lolita'. Stefan Zweig is a master of this art of separation. In his short stories and novellas he taps into psychological revelations by creating a series of layers of narration. Sometimes in this hall of mirrors we wonder who is who. In 'Fantastic Night', for instance, the narrator opens a sealed packet that contains the story of a Baron who has just died. The Baron's tale is something of an epiphany, but the way in which it is told allows for a forensic exploration of the self. Initially, or so it seems, the Baron is as hesitant about his writing abilities as he is about himself - but, of course, this is all beautifully written by Zweig. Take this, for example, 'But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word.' Who is it that is really experiencing this ambiguity we wonder? Is it our Narrator, the Baron, or the author himself? The reader is destabilised. And a couple of sentences later, this sense of separation is extended further 'I have just written "I" and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June 1913. But the word itself is not really straightforward....'. Well, no, it certainly isn't - however you think about it! He goes on '...I am by no means still the "I" of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former "I" and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand'. All this is elegantly crafted - but we can't help but think of Zweig himself, sitting at his desk in Vienna, or wherever he was in 1922, writing about pretending to be a man who has opened a package containing the story of someone who has experienced a dramatic shift in his sense of self. Our attention is drawn to what writing is and what writing can do, at that same time as asking us who we really are. In this sense I can see parallels with Foucault's extended commentary on Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'. Zweig's 'Fantastic Night' disrupts our certainties about the world as well as being an excellent storyteller.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Thursday, January 21, 2021
blogpost about the project, there are several journal publications out there and some examples of the postcards and discussions can be seen here. But just like all of the projects and initiatives that I've been involved in, there's so much more to that work that can't easily be told. I notice the same phenomenon with many doctoral students I work with - it's often as if the pulse that animates the work has grown faint, or it's essence has somehow evaporated. The skill in getting a successful outcome is rather like an alchemical process of bringing something meaningful into existence even as it threatens to disappear. Educational projects are nearly always greater than the sum of their parts. And like good teaching you can never be entirely sure about what has really happened. Of course you can have plans and objectives, you can predict some outcomes, and even measure them, but then there's always the particular atmosphere and the sense of being there. Those restless modulations and mutations of affect resist clear verbal description. The complexity and heterogeneity of entangled experience baffles us, and the unanticipated, unpredictable and sometimes unknowable effects slip through our fingers. When we try to include these in our writing what was always messy, as John Law observes, seems to become even messier - and quite a number of us have fallen into that particular trap! Despite these pitfalls I think it's still worth the effort of producing accounts that acknowledge the missing elements, of trying to capture the things that get lost, and of saying the unsayable - or at least gesturing towards it. After all it's very often those very things that should be returned to, and not necessarily the detail that gets written up (although that might be important in other ways, too).