A memoirist’s risky performance draws praise & provokes rage.

[sic]: A Memoir by Joshua Cody. Norton, 259 pp.

The first two times I opened [sic]: A Memoir, I was impressed by Joshua Cody’s sentences—cool, syntactically complex, allusive. But I didn’t keep reading it because I was working on my own book and sensed immediately that his high-flying persona was at odds with my attempt at a sincere one.

Alabama Farmer

Late in 2013 I made it through [sic] and admired it, so refreshingly different from my own writing—or almost anyone’s. I wouldn’t try such a performance and couldn’t sustain one for long if I did. A possible cost of Cody’s approach is that I always felt distanced from him. How much “knowing” and liking a memoirist matters to you is intensely personal, but partly because of this, at times reading [sic] my mind wandered. Cody’s memoir showcases not only the rewards but the risks of a flamboyant (some would say egoistic) persona.

American reviewers generally raved [sic] (see the appreciative review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review), while it got a cooler reception in Europe—the Guardian’s review’s headline: “Joshua Cody’s postmodern memoir of terminal illness is too busy being clever to engage the reader’s feelings.” Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum called Cody “too cool for school” and said, “Part of the essential vanity of this publication is that Cody has been horribly overindulged, and allowed to lard his manuscript with illustrative material. [sic] is a book about sickness that should have been sent to the script doctor. It’s a mess; worse, it’s a pretentious mess. Descended from that great Victorian exhibitionist, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, it’s almost as if he’s genetically programmed to perform to the crowd.”

But the pervasive gut-level response of Amazon’s crowd of readers was rage.

It’s hard to pick one thing to show why. Early in the book, there’s a long scene of Cody, in new and dire diagnosis, having sex with a breast-cancer survivor. Before her breasts were removed, she’d had them cast in plaster, and this wall mount above her bed is what Cody gazes upon while they pleasure each other below, as it were, in the ruins.

So Carmilla wasn’t irritated by my admiration. On the contrary, she was flattered. In this way, her breasts still belonged to her. In this way, she was giving them, with so much else, to me. Although my hands had a problem: where should they go? The hollow of her chest. Her dear chest, and my dear hands, meeting there. And I would never tell her this, but I felt as if my hands were gripping the eyestones of a skull. And meanwhile.

But that was why she had her clitoris pierced: such a simple thing, to refocus one’s erogenous zones.

And then, at some point, which would be impossible to determine on the curve of a parabola, or on a map, we were, for the moment, finished: both satiated and done, done with the adolescent anxiety before death—she, seemingly, forever; me temporarily, vicariously, through her.

And she was finished with treatment—she’d refused that well before this point. After the loss of her breasts, enough was enough. People in white jackets had been removing parts of her body for years. And at a certain tipping point she simply said no. She’d just had a scan that clearly showed recurrence.

You’re refusing treatment? I yelled. Cleaning up. She was putting on some music.

“I know I can do it alone. It’s just the mind. More treatment will kill me. I’m treating myself: good food, sex, vodka and cigarettes. And like I was saying before—who cares? If I go this second I’ll be fine. What’s the big deal about death?”

It’s what we’d been talking about before. I’d been worried about death at the restaurant, leaving the restaurant, her hand grabbing mine, entering her apartment. Now I was again.

I don’t want to die, I said.

“Why not?”

After castigating him for wanting to survive to accomplish something, like write a book—“It’s the moment. There are no projects”—she describes the nature of her separate peace that she urges upon him:

“The superb freedom I have—and you will have—is that of a being who’s already died. And it’s so sad, that you died. I can see the sadness in your face. I know that face so well: you’re dead. But in a good way! I mean, it’s sad. But along with this sadness is this great freedom: you can do absolutely anything, there are no consequences, it’s exactly like a lucid dream, except you never wake up.”

Alabama wife

As elsewhere, I admire Cody’s courage here in portraying his inner subjectivity, plus his free and fearless use of colons. But I recoiled when his paramour seems callous toward Cody’s newbie-patient fear. He hasn’t died, doesn’t want to, and in fact doesn’t. I didn’t believe her, either: her tough response struck me as a false stance. And the two of them together reminded me of any of Hemingway’s fakey, sentimental couples. Yet here I am in bed with them, or at least with Cody, for 259 pages.

Yet this is tricky. When I reread it I had to admit that hers may be a survivor’s tactic I haven’t myself earned and cannot understand. Her own attitude, she’s entitled to—not what she inflicts on him. This was surely Cody’s effort, to show her living out an active death sentence. She’s on very borrowed time; she’s late-stage, terminal. Yet I still intuited, in the way readers will, that I’d dislike her before she got sick. (And late in the memoir she shows up again and she’s fine.)

You might wonder, as I do, what this critique I’m making of a character in a memoir has to do with its author. I guess it seemed indicative to me. And it does epitomize what excites me about [sic]: its “fine” style, as opposed to “plain,” as explained by Annie Dillard in her great aesthetic analysis Living by Fiction (reviewed). Part of my review:

Fine writing is energetic, though not precise, dazzling, complex and grand, an edifice that celebrates the beauty of language; it strews metaphors and adjectives about, even adverbs, and “traffics in parallel structures and repetitions.” All modernist fine writing begins in Joyce’s collages, Dillard says. “Fine writing does indeed draw attention to a work’s surface, and in that it furthers modernist aims. But at the same time it is pleasing, emotional, engaging . . . It is literary. It is always vulnerable to the charge of sacrificing accuracy, or even integrity, to the more dubious value, beauty. For these reasons it may be, in the name of purity, jettisoned.”

Plain prose, which has carried the day, stands in stark contrast. Again, from my review of Living by Fiction:

Plain writing, like Hemingway’s and Chekhov’s, is a prose “purified by its submission to the world” and represents literature’s “new morality,” says Dillard. This “courteous,” “mature” style emerged with Flaubert, who eschewed verbal dazzle. Clean, sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding relative clauses, fancy punctuation, and metaphor, plain prose can be as taut as lyric poetry. In an extreme form of plain writing (as in Dillard’s own The Maytrees), the simple sentences themselves “become objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.” It risks the fatuous: “Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence ‘Paris is a nice town,’ ” Dillard observes. But plainness helps the writer to honor and to under-write real drama, respecting readers’ intelligence and permitting “scenes to be effective on their narrative virtues, not on the overwrought insistence of their author’s prose.

It’s the prose you’d write for a an audience of terminal patients—one of Dillard’s principles in The Writing Life (reviewed) and in her New York Times essay distilling the book, “Write Till You Drop”:

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

While struggling to make sense of Cody, I happened across images of the sad but undefeated people in Walker Evans’s photographs. Having been spared yourself, a prosperous and talented person, would you caper about for them in cleverness? For those trashed and transcendent suffering souls? But really, what do any of us have to say to them.

Cody is a composer, and one can see this in his prose/persona, see the black-clad conductor who, standing with his back to the audience, calls forth with his pointer complex sounds from a full-throated orchestra. He’s right there in the spotlight but you won’t get to know him. At some remove, he’s causing and controlling—coolly orchestrating—like any artist!—the crescendo you’re hearing.

I guess what thrilled me in [sic] was seeing someone flout the plain-prose conventions that I honor. Of course my final take on Cody’s performance comes from my plugging it into my own preexisting temperament, experience, and knowledge: “This, dear reader, is the delight and danger of experiencing anyone else’s response to art: Ah, here we have a specimen of ‘fine’ prose” . . .

You know, people can educate themselves into stupidity. And I may have done by bringing in Dillard.

One thing’s for sure and unassailable whether you like his style or not: Cody’s brilliance as an artist and writer.

Next: an interview with Thomas Larson about his new memoir of illness.

Lunchroom Crowd



  • shirleyhs says:

    Richard, your conscientious attention to fine prose has educated me into stupidity. :-)

    I suppose you’ve read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? One of my grad professors, Bill Stott, wrote Documentary Expression and Thirties America. A wonderful book that decodes this text and others.

    I obviously prefer plain style. But I always admire hard work. Especially yours. And the Annie Dillard quote is just what I needed today. Thanks!

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Shirley. Yes, I’ve read Let Us Now . . . a great book!

      • Your review is/was enlightening in several ways. Thank you for the references to Dillard. I discovered Cody’s book only yesterday on the website of a major bookseller (there are so few left — it shouldn’t be hard to guess, but I’ll avoid a free plug). After reading what this bookseller’s site disclosed about Cody’s memoir, I logged on to see if my major bookseller of choice included Sic as an option to download (I know, I know, tacky) a sample. The man, undeniably, is brilliant. His vocabulary alone shames me. His prose t Cody considers a paragraph since his sentences flow from his fingers like so many tributaries all seeking the same elusive punctuation, but, wait: I’ve committed that very act here, have I not, why, yes, yes I have, quite clearly) riveted this reader for several reasons, both good and, well, not so good, as it happens (those last three words mean absolutely nothing; as my writing mentor might offer in marginalia — blah blah blah). Should the reader be wondering at a writer’s brilliance, his vocabulary, his errant use — incorrectly — of adverbs which belie his genius? Flaunting one’s choice of words such as palimpsest again and again even as he uses the adverb differently in three clauses consecutively creates an odd juxtaposition of verbal mastery with a baffling breach of grammar — this, from a professor holding a doctorate. I remain torn between dismissing the book and paying to download the rest of it. But here’s the deal: Would I be doing so as a student of writing or as a reader who cannot wait to dive into Cody’s life on the page? And not to be a jerk here — but who the heck proofed this text and failed to pick up the misuse of something so simple as personifying air, things, and fabric. Consider this oddity:

        …how things tasted differently, how different kinds of fabric smelled differently, how even the air smelled differently…

        In his book Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark tells us to beware the adverb. Small wonder. Differently, rather than the adjective different, changes quite a bit when the writer makes such a basic error in what is and is not a transitive verb according to context, and in this case, context changes quite a lot.

        So, what to do? I remain astonished and intimidated by Cody’s vocabulary, his use of language and his ability to craft a sentences surfeit (threw that one in even as I’m hoping I used it correctly) of imagery. So, here we are: Am I a grammar snob who makes plenty of my own errors or am I someone with a valid point to make? I don’t have an answer for that one. But the publisher’s proofreader? Shame on you, darlin’.

        • I apologize for the obvious typo. I deleted almost an entire sentence which began “His prose….” It was a compliment to Cody. He is, as I have no need to point out to anyone, brilliant. Please understand (and, yes, Cody’s post to you was further evidence of his intellect, darn him — but isn’t he awfully thoughtful to have taken the time to do that? Yep…) I hate to be in the presence of such a talent and find myself pulled completely out of the writing by sloppy editing. And if I am so dense that I missed what was an intentional personification of air, things and fabric — well, color me mystified and chagrined in equal parts. I’d not be so stupid as to challenge him to a who’s brain is bigger contest, but I do wonder if the entire book is like that. See, here’s another question I’m asking myself: If I’m smart enough to be smacked down by a mistake in grammar repeated so freely, how do I reconcile that with my wondering why something with prose so challenging to parse would not be edited with more care?

        • Richard says:

          Tandy, I guess this is what I was trying to get at, how a flamboyant persona is risky. Dillard’s category is the only thing I could liken it to, maybe not the best. He is a writer good enough to use adverbs, for sure. One wonders if the errors you flag are intentional, his illuminating, poetic hyper sense of language, or whether he outran his own headlights.

          • I don’t know. I am not that smart. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. lol I do know this much — his verbals skills humble me. I’m glad he licked the cancer and stuck around to share his many talents. I hope he has children so that the beat goes on….

            • Joshua Cody says:

              Dammit, like the commentators here like writing and writing about writing far too much for me not to comment – even whilst I’m as aware as I am that I’m supposed to not respond to discussions about the author in question, surely due in part to my unique relationship to him (he’s the subject of my own experience of phenomena, just for starters).

              Not to mention it’s not only worth participating in any serious discussion of literary style right now, it could be mandated.

              (Not to mention, there’s very little I or apparently anyone can do about what just happened over there, so we might as well distract ourselves. Maybe that’s the real reason for art? That kind of shield, not that kind of mirror? In the Negev it’s 6:13 AM, Saturday, July 12, 2014. I walked there once.)

              Anyway, yes, the Tandiculpabilitipepperoni correctly surmises copyediting that book I wrote was taxing: we had to follow the text’s curved path around standard English rules of grammar, which we treated, indeed, as a fixed point in space. In other words, I had to make sure the proofreader (who was not necessarily a recent Vassar grad, not at all necessarily) corrected the “bad mistakes” and preserved the good ones, to paraphrase Thelonious Monk – a page of whose 1931 Stuyvesant grammarbook I wanted to include, for this precise reason, that is.

              (I lied. I said it was for this reason, but it was really just to display his penmanship, in which there are no mistakes at all, good nor bad. His cursive belongs to American handwriting’s golden age, which ended during the early months of 1931.)

              (The reason it’s not there, by the way, is that we couldn’t track down the rights. Monk’s estate doesn’t hold them, Stuyvesant does. I emailed Jie Zhang. Never heard back.)

              On this note, note how Mr Cuppepper calls my use of adverbs “errant” and then further, incorrectly, qualifies it as “incorrectly” (ironically, Tandy incorrectly modifies “use,” a noun, with an adverb, “incorrectly,” instead of the adjective “incorrect!”). But the point is that he correctly interprets my use of adverbs as both (a) not erroneous (“errant’s” secondary meaning) but deviant; and (b) purposefully erroneous (“incorrect’s” primary meaning). These are two different ways – one semantic, the other syntactic – to follow the text’s curved path. (A favorite modern piano concerto of mine is Luciano Berio’s “Points on the Curve to Find;” it’s youtubable.) But I mean isn’t all this a little obvious? Just an expressive device we got from modernism.

              Now the thing is that I used it for a highly particular occasion: that of a narrative about the parabolic diremption between the “I” and the “me” that trauma italicizes, capitalizes, boldfaces, embosses, engraves. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, for instance, is an appropriately fluent reaction on the part of a resident of Leopoldstadt to the Bierkeller Putsch. In film, or literature, or painting, of sculpture, we correctly bestow upon this inflection of style the identifier “expressionism:” and then move on. Not so in music, a world in which the Frankfurter Schule, in a very grave error indeed, reified an aesthetic impulse into a credo of authenticity.

              Schoenberg was exaggerating rhetorical tropes as expressive devices to deal with his situation, and I guess I’m sort of hoping (well, not “sort of”) that my next couple of books will put the first book in its proper context. [sic] was an odd debut. Readers and critics who don’t know me (I have very few friends, very few people know me) would, naturally, think I just always write like that; our brains are synecdochical. Now I did send, or tried to send, a covert signal to the reader – without breaking the tissue of the narrative – that I was aware of our unwitting mental inclination to the part/whole cognitive mechanism, aware of the fact that the stylistic choices demanded by the very subject matter of the text would fall, dizzylingly, victim to it, just as its “I,” even more dizzylingly, fell victim to “part” of the unseen “whole” of the story’s principle dramatic antagonist: a mentally unbalanced woman. (That’s why I wrote about first seeing her shoe, invoking Freud, and why the phrase “the whole is apparent in the part” was articulated ironically.)

              (Also, I really did first see her shoe in real life, etc.)

              (Also, she’s only the dramatic antagonist of the story part. The real antagonist is “the inescapable” – the Greeks called this Νέμεσις – but that’s always the antagonist, it’s funner to have a femme fatale. Funny: Goddesses both.)

              Tandy’s not a grammar snob at all. Or, maybe, I am. I honestly didn’t mean to provoke readers; I was just trying to tell the story. Consider, indeed, the lobsterlike space oddity of the passage Tandy quotes.

              “…how things tasted differently, how different kinds of fabric smelled differently, how even the air smelled differently…”

              Alas, my editors and I are aware of the differences between different from, different than, and different to. We even know that adjectives modify nouns, while adverbs are different, because they modify verbs, adjectives and – oddly – other adverbs, a situation that – so far, despite the claims of the liberal media – has not deformed Major Tom’s spacetime. This is the moo cow, me talk pretty one day.

              The target was the portrayal, not invocation, of disorientation. Some hints, then, at the author’s sanity (and at the competence of the lowly editors at Norton and Bloomsbury):

              – The first order lack of parallelism between “things,” “fabric,” and “air.”

              – The second order lack of parallelism between “things,” “different kinds of fabric,” and “even the air.”

              – Adnomination (“differently” / “different” / “differently” / “differently” [!]).

              – Le dérèglement de tous les sens: “tasting things” vs “smelling fabric” vs “smelling air.”

              – Derrida fans (legion; vivons!) will recognize that the word “different” is chosen, in the first place, from his famous neologism “différance,” a French take on their verb différer which means “to defer” and “to differ.” For Derrida, existence is a unique (different) death at bay (deferred), and my book holds death at bay and differs from the disease lit I’d been reading and disliking. Of course Derrida meant more than that.

              – Anaphora (“ tasted differently, how different kinds of fabric smelled differently, how even the air smelled differently”).

              But I mean just regard the verbs, even before considering their modifiers: things taste, kinds smell, air smells. We say these things. It makes no sense to say them, but we do. To me that’s just talking about usage; it’s not anthropomorphism in the proper sense, like my favorite Japanese manga character, Squid-girl (Shinryaku!-Ika-Musume, soon to be played by Angelina, I hope).

              Or just the “different” within the “differently”s – that’s not really a literary device, either: it should just pop out like a sort of literary cigarette burn. I always think of the intentional engineer’s “bleep” at the precise midpoint of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Beatles’ last track on Revolver. It’s an arbitrary crossrhythm that points out the difference (!) between musical and real time, an allusion to the artisanal aspect of their (anyone’s) first studio album, and a billion other things; when I say I always think of it, I think I almost literally mean that, because we’re still waiting for another revolution, but it hasn’t happened yet. Nothing new has actually happened in music since Revolver. But fifty years is almost up!

              And for us three literary types still reading, the actual thing that’s going on here is that “fabric” and “air” and “thing” are Shakespeare’s final definition of his “thing,” literature: “thin air… like the baseless fabric of this vision.” My book is a fabrication derived from a baseless, psychotic vision: I was vexed, sir, but bear with my weakness; my brain was troubled, be not disturbed with my infirmity, etc. Also that’s why I call the girl whose name in real life is not Ariel “Ariel,” that’s another little clue there. And that’s why I tried to hold all other Shakespeare plays at bay besides The Tempest, which is why I have my dad talking about that one instead of the others. Pound as the caged Caliban fits neatly in this cage.

              Also the word palimpsest – in this way, just like the word “cancer” – makes a unique appearance in the book, but I love how it seems to Tandy the word was used “again and again,” since that’s exactly how a palimpsest was used: that was in fact its purpose: this is one way, perhaps, in which a word can launch a thousand pictures’ worth of words. (A favorite modern piano concerto of mine is Iannis Xenakis’s “Palimpsest;” it’s youtubable.)

              I hope I don’t have to say that I’m just having fun looking back at the book I wrote, that whereas I probably was thinking about all these things on some level, I was just trying to have fun with words and tell a story, and, for heaven’s gate, these are not allusions wrapped tightly into the dreaded, desired Brooklyn velvet rope.

              And yet for all that – for all the sobriety of book numero deux, which nobody’s read yet; for the fact that I’m just not vexed by the reaction of some critics and readers who find the “house is too thick and the paintings a shade too oiled,” as Pound said, and as I quote him in my own book that quotes Pound worrying that his readers will find “house is too thick and the paintings a shade too oiled” (and obviously I know a book can’t apologize for its own nature any more than any other organism), I am, admittedly, a little



              What am I trying to say? I guess I mean I wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – written the thing differently even if the market realities weren’t what they are. But as a former financial phanalyst, I fully realize it’s just a happy accident that my self-realization happened to align with P/Es loudly calling “sell” on pretensions of literary realism, “hold” on postmodernism, and “buy” on Wallace’s project of impassioned plasticity which will in fact define this, our, age; and the communal act of becoming aware of that fact will again turn on another revolver.

              (Before, I’d written, “That’s why gawker, the interwebs, and Lena wrote the Patrick Wilson episode.” Sentence doesn’t seem so funny now, though. Hopefully it will later.)

              PS – Still haven’t read Wallace.

              • Richard says:

                You’re whack, Josh! Thanks for taking the time again to comment. I love how your book comes out of your readerly steep in modernism, as you allude to here, and expresses it. Which if my (somewhat hateful but human) categorization impulse may reappear: makes [sic] a rare specimen indeed, per Dillard in Living by Fiction: modernist yet fine style. To appreciate that compliment, ya gotta read Dillard!

  • “People can educate themselves into stupidity.” Well said!

  • Did Cody condescend to explain the extended significance of his title anywhere in his memoir? I’d be interested to hear it, though from what I get from you about him, I can’t see him being one of my favorites, whether fancy or plain style. There seems from what you say to be an element of exciting the reader’s shockability in him, as if he wants to scandalize.

    • I don’t believe he ever explained it in the book itself, though some of the reviews write about it at length, the fact that it’s both a pun and a metaphor for the deeply subjective nature of memoir.

      You know, I doubt he’s trying to shock the reader; he may have just been using what he considered good material, and not overly concerned about wooing readers with a warmer persona. I admire his exuberance and actually gave it a good star rating: four out of five. Really I think I came off as bashing the book a bit here, though, and it was just my trying to explain what excited me: seeing someone fearlessly work the far end of the stylistic continuum. I wasn’t sure I liked him but didn’t get emotional about it like some of the Amazon reviewers.

  • jc says:

    Usually don’t respond to these but, goodness, what a wonderful, touching, thoughtful review – makes me glad it was published (I didn’t want to publish it); the notion of participating in a literary discourse via a book is overwhelming. I’m in shock anyway this morning with the news of the death of my favorite conductor, from a disease with which I’m pretty familiar, so I’m feeling uncensored.

    I, too, have mixed feelings about the thing’s style, but I do like style. My favorite part of the book is the middle, which describes a morphine delusion in straightforward prose. The mundane terror expressed elsewhere provided a rationale for fancy words: a manic voice. The distancing you point out is indeed a necessary survival mechanism for a cancer patient, as well as an unnecessary one for literature, as, indeed, I point out in the book itself.

    Unlike most of my writer friends, I actually read my reviews, perhaps because I still don’t think of myself as a “writer,” and I don’t take anything personally. In the US, Norton marketed the book as a memoir, which it is not. I have the sense that the negative responses of Amazon booklovers, who are not necessarily professional critics, are a bit virulent because the readers feel as if they’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled. I completely empathize. It is a difficult book, definitely rated R for content, and if the cover and blurbs enticed a vendee suffering directly or indirectly from illness, s/he would certainly be taken aback by the language, design, allusiveness, digressions.

    It’s useful to remind ourselves that first books pose a problem for reviewers – there’s no context, particularly in my case, since I came out of nowhere (maybe the pun’s intended!): I re-read it the other day because Norton’s sending it out to a wonderful filmmaker in LA, and was struck by the brashness of the language. I’d just read Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, which mentions mine, and said to myself – wow, where did I get off? (And what is with these Freudian slips?) If a musician comes to mind, it would definitely be the early Boulez: Stravinsky was famously struck, and impressed, by its “arrogance.” (This may not be coincidental; Boulez was my teacher. Of course literary critics would not pick up on this, there’s no reason they should.)

    I think Jon Franzen hit the proverbial nail when he wrote I channeled a “manic, hyperarticulate voice:” that was, precisely, the voice purring like a motor inside my head when I was waiting in all those hospital rooms.

    The next book is a novel whose prose begins in a baroque register and settles down as the narrative becomes complex, finally ending in unadorned description. The architecture is drawn from strands of modern music that engage in simultaneous, opposing flows – by this I don’t mean the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, but two different “times” superimposed. One finds this in Carter, Ferneyhough, Thelonious Monk.

    As for my friend the breast-cancer survivor, I didn’t believe her, either, or not quite; but whether hers is a false or true stance doesn’t really matter, in the sense that such stances are ultimately unanswered, which is why I ended the chapter with the quote, unanswered.

    As for the title, whereas I hate the pun more than the shadowoperator, I do like the two title drops – they mirror each other. The first is on page 65 (Euripedes, on love), its answer on page 196 (Pound, on death): there are 259 pages in the book, so the two [sic]s fall exactly on 25 and 75, respectively, if the length were transposed to 100. The Times did get the golden section thing, but nobody’s gotten this, so far! What is curious is that the precision was intuitive – that must be my inheritance as a composer, that’s a little uncanny that they fall *exactly* on those page numbers. What if the font had been slightly different? Again, this is absolutely not written for a young woman dealing with bad news about her aunt and browsing on

    As for McCrum, Bloomsbury told me, sotto voce, that (a) the book hit him on a very personal level because of some life events he’s gone through, and (b) he used it as part of his general argument against the “indulgences” he perceives in current American writers, which is totally fair game. (And Franzen rose to the defense of the US of A, and then others chimed in, etc.) Also, doesn’t McCrum think the greatest book in the English language is “Clarissa?” So, I mean.

    Also, I actually liked McCrum’s review. I didn’t mind that he didn’t understand the book, although his blindness to the form (he wrote there is no “beginning, a middle or an end” – not sure how a three-act structure plus a coda could have been more obvious) bewildered me. When he wrote –

    “Descended from that great Victorian exhibitionist, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, it’s almost as if he’s genetically programmed to perform to the crowd”

    – I thought that was terrific. Maybe I am! What’s the matter with that? Same with “a masterclass in that well known literary-debut genre ‘Look, Mum, I’m dancing;'” I’m not sure if he’s even aware how insightful that sentence is, given that I was dying in a hospital bed in front of my mother and almost literally asking her to look to see I was dancing. If he were more cultivated, he would have linked the “debut genre” to another American exhibitionist, Orson Welles, whose name I do in fact “drop,” on purpose. The exuberance and messiness of “Kane” isn’t far off the mark at all. Both McCrum and I agree that the best section of the thing is the bridge, the morphine delusion. And his list of my “influences” is every bit as uncanny as the accuracy of my aim in terms of page numbers. Sebald, Jean-Dominique Bauby, James Frey, Wallace, Eggers – I have never read a single word.

    Another irony is the fact that I would be the last to rise to the defense of American literature. I can see how critics would think I am influenced by, or an enthusiast of, Pynchon or Wallace or Eggers; but the truth is I simply am not. My favorite writers in English are English: Mosley (that’s where I got my commas), Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, Ben Okri; but I do not like Rushdie’s opulence. Ondaatje’s pretentiousness is unbearable for me, and I don’t like the sleek professionalism of McEwan or Amis.

    I fell for the French. Houellebecq, and before him, Gide, Beckett, Barthes, Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, Genet, Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Sollers. I have never even read Wallace or Eggers or Sebald, and I cannot get through a page of Pynchon. I do like the serious, beautiful side of Gaddis, but I can’t stand the comic side. It fails for me. DeLillo just doesn’t sustain my interest. Hollinghurst I admire greatly and would much rather read him than many authors, although the “beauty” of the sentences gets a bit boring too.

    The superficiality of esteemed critics who accused me of parroting Sebald because there are images in my book was a surprise to me. In general I cannot bear German literature, except Kafka.

    I have only lived in France and the US for any amount of time, so I’m not sure how insular French literature is, but I suspect it is more insular than I suspect. French literature has affected me much more than English – why, I’m not sure. But that would be something English readers would probably miss. The few Americans I really do love – James, O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Mailer – form a collection too arbitrary for critics to notice, and I don’t see much evidence of them in my stuff (maybe James in the next book).

    In any case, thank you for such a lovely essay. It cheered me up on a very sad day, and it allowed me to reflect on my relationship to writing at a good moment (just handed in the second book). Your article is one of the best responses to the book I’ve read, and I look forward to reading your own work! I would like to repost this page somewhere – I suppose my facebook page, since I haven’t launched my blog yet. But I’ll wait in respect for Abbado (and MLK).

    Yours, Joshua

    • Richard says:

      Wow. Joshua. Thank you for such an amazing and gracious response. For the record, I really like your title! Also I admire the prose, as I said. I wonder if you could make any sense of my trying to pigeonhole your book into Dillard’s categories? By your silence on it, I presume not. Anyway, my hedge on that was trying to poke fun at myself at the end through mocking my urge to classify. But I hope you’ll read Dillard’s Living By Fiction, which I think you’d really like.

      • jc says:

        Yes, I have been putting Dillard off for two reasons: (a) I have a feeling I’ll fall in love and want to be prepared, and (b) some of her books sound precariously like the one I’m currently writing, my third, which is a creative biography about an opera singer, and also a contemporary rendering of a 1936 opera the singer turned down. It’s constrained writing: the chapter lengths are predetermined, down to the word count. The two narratives alternate by chapter. The biography portion is in the present tense, but the fictional portion is in the past tense. The real-life opera singer meets the fictional character, so this happens twice.

        So, you can understand why I’m hesitant to jump into Dillard, just as I avoided all memoirs while I was writing my first book, including Sontag, Eggers, and Mary Karr. When I wanted to read something I just read poetry. I may be superstitious; or I might be exaggerating Auden’s “anxiety of influence;” but then again, I may not be. You know that Eliot regretted having read “Ulysses” before having written “The Waste Land…”

        …on the other hand, Joyce seems to have had no regrets at all. :)

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