My own list is by no means comprehensive of the novellas I’ve read or the one’s that have impacted me the most even (For instance, there’s Guy Davenport’s novellas like Apples and Pears of which Patrick Meanor wrote: “Nothing that came before and nothing following this novella rivals its richness, diversity, and brilliance or demonstrates the enormous scope of [Davenport’s] intellectual terrain.”), but here are some that I feel I have a little something to say about.
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
An obvious choice—who doesn’t recall this bewildering, enigmatic struggle of an oversized insect, or the rotting apple lodged in its/ his carapace?— but its importance, and Kafka’s work in general, was magnified for me after wrestling with Deleuze and Guattari’s typically impenetrable ideas (all rendered in wonderfully inscrutable language) in Kafka: A Theory of Minor Literature. A “minor literature” is not to be understood as derogatory; instead, it is an act of subversion, a language created within another language, taking “flight on a line of escape.” It is wholly political, “its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating in it.” It also has collective and enunciative value. It’s a “literary machine [that] becomes the relay for a revolutionary machine-to-come, not at all for ideological reasons but because the literary machine alone is determined to fill the conditions of a collective enunciation that is lacking elsewhere in this milieu: literature is the people’s concern.” Another compelling thing about Kafka is the writers’ discarding all psychoanalytical and allegorical interpretations, or rather, reductions, of Kafka’s work. They assert that “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification.” How do you like them epistemological apples?
Milk, by Darcey Steinke
A friend of mine once told me of how inspired he was with Mother Theresa who said, “Somebody loves us, too—God Himself. We have been created to love and to be loved.” Around the same time, a loony friend with dreams of being a stand-up comic said, “If we are all god’s children, then I was abused.” Reading Darcey Steinke’s Milk feels like being cradled back and forth between the two sentiments. Mary’s profound love for her newborn and her sacrificial acts are vividly contrasted with her sense of longing, yearning, her feelings of abandonment, her perceived and actual betrayal.
Steinke’s prose at times reminds me of the flourishing coda in Joyce’s novella The Dead. Take for example, these passages from Milk’s first chapter:
After her husband changed the record, he sat on the floor by her feet. He probably didn’t want to—he never did anymore—but she had to try and so leaned down and kissed his lips. A modicum of pressure was returned, but when she moved her tongue into his mouth, his teeth were a smooth hard line and he turned his head. She looked down at the black patch of her pubic hair beyond the lavender nylon of her panties…
Mary checked on the baby, who was sleeping on his side, one tiny foot pressed against the edge of the bassinet, and then walked into the bedroom. She lay down next to her husband, who was either sleeping, which Mary doubted, or pretending to sleep, and she, very softly, gyrated her pelvis against his ass. She felt his bones through his warm skin and her own sex tighten. But he lay still so long that she got up, changed into her flannel nightgown, went into the baby’s room and lay down on the rug next to his bassinet.
It’s that melancholic yearning, those subtle misunderstandings and betrayals, as well as the euphoric, almost tubercular raving quality of the prose. Maybe another passage will illustrate it better, one in which masturbation becomes an illuminating, almost St. John the Divine revelation and reminds me also of Nabokov’s short story “The Word”:
She tensed her pelvis and a swarm of butterflies careened up her spine. The vibrations entered her like radio waves, her bones felt molten and she was a twig pitched out into the universe. And that WAS IT: Her sex twitched and she felt the lobes of her brain open like a flower and she was inside of a wave, made from torn-up flower petals. Broken petals filling her mouth as she swung open the car door and staggered away from the crash.
Steinke’s Milk is a melancholic flowering.
The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine, by Stanley Crawford
I’ve written about Crawford’s masterpiece HERE. With Ben Marcus’s afterward in the new edition, I suspect that this work will impact many, many writers who care about words, words, words, words that careen and career, words that smash and scatter, flood and drown.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom
After her books destroy you you may never be able to piece yourself back together again. You may find my review of The Daydreaming Boy and The Mirror in the Well, HERE and HERE.
Glenway Prescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story gets the full treatment by me HERE.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Garcia Marquez
Like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao it gives lie to the idea that knowing the end kills interest in a book.
The Father Costume, by Ben Marcus
Fleeing some undefined peril in a post-apocalyptic watery world, two brothers move into an outfit in which their father had clothed his own consciousness. One brother speaks a language called “Forecast.” There are wind-made songs, honey-soaked antennas, a sky sounding like waterfalls, a radio screaming like an animal was trapped inside it. In this world, there are killholes, silence baths, cloth diviners, and language traps.
“On the shoreline were long descriptions scrolling in the treeline, sentences indecipherable without the proper cloth filter. We had only so much burlap to spare and the messages did not seem crucial. We were always choosing what we needed to know yet I had trouble leaving those sentences unread. I thought they might have been placed there for us. My brother moved our costume to keep me from seeing the shore. I saw only the wake behind us, a trail of foam that produced a language of bubbles so crudely intimate I was ashamed to decipher it.”
[You can listen to Marcus reading an excerpt HERE.
The Age of Wire and String, The Father Costume, and Notable American Women may be proof that Ben Marcus may be the heir apparent lovechild of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. I can’t wait for his next book Children, Cover Your Eyes! which the Creative Capital website describes as
an experimental novel depicting a world in which human beings are allergic to language. The book centers on the story of two rival brothers who seek allergy-free language alternatives and “language prosthetics” to protect potential speakers. Marcus is anchoring Children, Cover Your Eyes! in the brothers’ dramatic narrative in order to heighten the emotional tension within his deeply conceptual novel. The result is part lament over the loss of language, part dystopian fantasy, part family tragedy. When published, Children, Cover Your Eyes! will include an accompanying website and scientific diagrams.
And then there’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street (“I would prefer not to” is a much needed slogan for these desultory times), Haroun and the Sea of Stories (A fine, somewhat allegorical, tale. Yes, it’s Rushdie-lite, but so what?), DeLillo’s The Body Artist, John Fowles’s A Separate Peace (I read this as a kid and remember it being sadly moving), The Stranger, Elie Wiesel’s Dawn and Night, Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Blindness (lots of white space here, but used in a graphically, purposeful, narrative-driven way), Renee Gladman’s Juice (this wonderful prose poem novella certainly needs more attention, as does Anne Carson’s Autobiography in Red, a refractive fable, novella-in-verse), The Martian Chronicles, Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice, Notes from Underground (helped to shape my disgust and outrage), David Almond’s lovely book Skellig, Janet Frame’s fabulist Snowman, Snowman (I intend to devour everything she’s written), Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link, The Pedersen Kid, by William H. Gass, and all of Beckett’s novellas.