Is anyone writing as sharply and accessibly on fiction right now, with so little fanfare, as Max Watman? When one of his refreshingly direct Fiction Chronicles pops up in the New Criterion, I can’t click through fast enough. He covers the most gabbed-about books; he knows exactly what he thinks; and unlike many book critics, he is intensely reader-focused. There’s an attention to the visceral experience of reading in his reviews that I greatly appreciate and don’t find much of elsewhere, at least not in combination with such sound literary judgment and good writing (when I do, it is more likely to be on a favorite lit blog than in print). Watman seems to place a premium on conveying what it feels like to read a book while one is reading it, with results that are always helpful and frequently revelatory. Here, for example, is the beginning of his take on Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown:
Early in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown I felt a sense of awe. It wasn’t specific. It wasn’t tied to a single scene or a particular descriptive. It was as if the entire thing, the rhythm of the book, the pulse of the language was bigger than what I’d been reading. It was a change, there was more here. I felt as if I were a much younger man, or perhaps a child, flushed with the intensity of imagination in literature, cracking open Anna Karenina for the first time and being swept away. For now, we who read constantly find most of our pleasures in smaller ways, rereading a short shelf, or finding relatively small accomplishments in literature we like. Nothing seems comparable to the bedrock of one’s literary education, and it is a very rare reading experience that is remotely reminiscent of the Great Books of your private canon.
Rushdie is so sure of himself, such a strong man of letters, that his language can capture that feeling of fullness. I don’t think it is only in comparison to the dithering and hedging of our constantly self-effacing, self-deprecating contemporaries that Rushdie’s hand feels steady pushing the story forward.
I felt as if I were on my way to something good. And as soon as I felt it, it began to disintegrate.
I read and reviewed that book. I was ultimately easier on it than Watman, partly because, in my experience, the feeling he nicely describes here survived the encroachments of the novel’s faults. But the interesting thing is that while I felt just this sense of the novel’s force, it never occurred to me to simply describe that. Instead I spent a lot of words trying to pinpoint what was producing it. That’s a necessary and usually productive exercise, but it’s also nice to find a reviewer simply reporting the impression. It’s all too easy to skip over that step in the throes of analysis.
In fact, I’ve been skipping over it throughout this post, so let me back up, take a hint from Mr. Watman, and simply say: when I read his work, I feel a sense of delight and engagement. There. I feel I’ve grown as a critic today.
Also covered in Watman’s piece are the following titles:
– E.L. Doctorow, The March: “In the wake of poetry will come realism, efforts to re-assert the actuality of the thing, to bring back a focus on the true costs of war. Over time hell can be polished, and then someone comes along to put the hell back in. That’s what E. L. Doctorow has attempted in The March….Doctorow’s characters are as flat as photographs, and a book made of snapshots is nothing. War is not just a scrapbook of atrocities and bad luck. It is not a series of alarming photographs. War is hell because it happens to people, and unfortunately there are no people in Doctorow’s book.”
– Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park: “The whole book swirls, surreally, pushing the limits of tolerable confusion while sending up laughably familiar horror story shticks. For a while, it looks as if nothing will be resolved. It works precisely because it is a ghost story, replete with eviscerated livestock, freshly dug graves, and messages written in ash–and because everything, ultimately, is resolved.”
– Rick Moody, The Diviners: “Why would anyone even bother to type the words ‘imaginary pistachio trees, with their delights’?”
– Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision, in a moment of reviewing the reviewers: “I may be unable to get out of my own postmodern/ironic way, but it seems that everyone has mistaken Kunkel for the character of his own creation. And while that doesn’t make his creation any more palatable, it is the best tribute to a first-person novel I can think of.”