It’s been a long couple of weeks for me, slogging toward the end of my teaching semester. I’m coming to you live right now from the basement of Murray Hall, New Brunswick NJ, for probably the last time until September. It’s a nice little office, as windowless cold rooms go, but I can’t say I’ll be sorry to be apart from it all summer. Anyway. Yesterday I finished grading my students’ last homework papers, and in a half hour I give them their final, which I spend all of tonight and tomorrow grading, so I can be done by Wednesday. What does all this mean? It means that I had a bit of time this morning to actually read something that wasn’t student work. So I whipped out my copy of NOON, uncapped my Krispy Kreme coffee, settled into my window seat, and picked up where I left off.
Christine Schutt’s “Hair of the Dog” is a dark wonder. I’m a huge fan of Christine’s work in general, and reviewed her last novel, All Souls for FLAUNT a while back. Her writing is incredible, somehow stripped bare and bejeweled at once. She is a master of intimacy and absence. “Hair of the Dog” is about a young married couple traveling through England and, later, Italy, having some sexual problems–she won’t, or is it can’t?, find pleasure in the act, and he won’t (or, again, is it can’t?) accept her proposition that the best thing for him to do is stop trying. If I’m not mistaken, “Hair of the Dog” is an excerpt from something larger that Schutt is working on. Fingers crossed.
“Awful Spark” by Rob Walsh is a recursive little short-short narrated by a “we” that seems to have no reason for not being an “I,” other than that it’s I guess a little creepier/weirder that way. Or something. The story begins “It was Kim! Kim was surprised to see us, and we were surprised to see Kim.” It’s not really, in my estimation, a story at all so much as a kind of sound poem. The words “Kim” and “we” are rung over and over, like bells, and the music is not unlovely.
“Kattan, Kotton, Kattan, Kotton” by Miya Yamamoto is named for the sound a train makes gliding over track. It’s about two childhood friends reunited under less than ideal circumstances (a family illness has forced the narrator and her husband to return to Japan from Los Angeles, for an indefinite stay) but the story itself just describes a pleasant afternoon in a seaside town. I keep wanting to call it “slight,” but that isn’t correct. Deft isn’t exactly right either, though it’s much closer, and maybe is right after all. I’ll say this: I read it pretty early this morning, and didn’t think a whole lot of it one way or the other at the time, but it’s stuck with me all day and now on into the night (despite what the top of this post says about the office, it’s nearly twelve hours later and I’m now at home). I think of all the pieces I read today (not counting Christine’s, which I’d heard her read before), this one didn’t make the strongest impression, but it may well have made the most lasting one.
Strongest impression might go to “On Rape” by Rebecca Curtis. This one’s bound to divide opinions. It begins: “This morning I would like to contemplate rape, a highly underestimated phenomenon in our society. I say ‘underestimated’ not only because it happens all the time to women everywhere, sometimes to the same woman twice at once, but also because its positive effects are undervalued.” It goes from there. I missed the NOON launch party, but I heard that Curtis read her piece there and that the audience reaction was… mixed. That’s a shame, I think, though not exactly a surprise. It’s a vicious piece, and in the places where it succeeds it cuts to the bone. The problem is that with a subject this charged, the stakes are so high that even the smallest missteps glare. This isn’t a balance beam, it’s a high wire. The footnotes, for example, were a mistake. They work against the central conceit of the piece, which for me has to be a person speaking (I imagine the speaker addressing a room, possibly giving a lecture). Also, the first two aren’t very funny, and the second two could have easily been worked into the body text. I think this piece could have used another round of edits (there are a few dud lines, and in a piece like this every punch-line needs to go off like a shot in the jaw) but it is nonetheless a powerful and powerfully (rightly) offputting piece of writing. If your first reaction is a negative one, that may well be part of the point. Read it again.
“The Descent of Value” by Greg Mulcahy and “Don’t Hit Your Head” by Tao Lin, seem somewhat of a piece to me, and both in their own way fairly similar to “Awful Spark” and the Chinquee short-shorts from earlier in the issue. It’s that same rigorous minimalism, verging on flatness, and what distinguishes the writers from one another, mainly, seems to be the use to which they put the technique. Mulcahy’s an ace at fine Lish-y sentences and sequences: “First the experts. Now The Descent of Value. The expert talked about what could and could not occur in a context. That was what the expert was an expert on.” Etc. I’m not sure this story puts the method to an particularly novel use, but it’s entirely successful at being what it is.
I think this touches on something fairly important to understand about NOON, which is that even though it is a champion of some of the best and most challenging prose writing being produced today, this is not the same as saying that it is necessarily leading the charge forward for avant-garde fiction as such. Indeed, if I had to try and identify NOON’s project, I might argue that it has endeavored to create a sort of Safe Space–a nature preserve, perhaps; think of all those naturalist animals which have graced their covers, up to and including this year’s reindeer–for writers whose work does not fit comfortably elsewhere. I think this is nowhere more clear than in NOON’s abiding affection for Tao Lin’s work. Tao is of course a writer both much more traditional and much more radical than he’s given credit for, because discussions of his work are largely dominated by a vocal minority of “internet writers” who want desperately to claim him as one of their own–either as the Crown Prince of their little fiefdom or else as the Arch-Villain responsible for everything wrong with same. Reading his work in NOON–for what? the second year, or is it third year now?–offers a remarkable and refreshing context for considering him. To encounter him here–in the company of all these other writers who share his interests in purposefully muted prose and the aesthetic possibilities of flatness, but whose talents are equal to and/or surpassing his own–is to understand him as he ought to be understood: not as the Crown Prince or Arch-Villain of anything; only as a talented and interesting young writer on the cusp of entering the major leagues.
Next time on Cover to Cover, I’ll be looking at Kathryn Scanlan, Lydia Davis’s translations from the German of Peter Altenberg, and whatever else I find as I turn page after page of NOON #9. Also, fyi, the Bill Hayward Q&A is going to happen, but it’s going to be appearing on Dennis Cooper’s The Weaklings blog, as the first-ever COOP/GIANT crossover adventure, of which we are hopeful there will be many more. Look for it at some point in the not-too-distant future, and/or just wait for me to announce it here. I’ll leave you now with my favorite snatch of dialogue from “Don’t Hit Your Head.”
They stopped walking. “Don’t laugh at me,” she said.
“This is funny,” he said, grinning. “Why don’t you have a sense of humor right now?”
“It won’t be funny when you’re afraid to sleep tonight,” she said.
“I probably won’t sleep tonight,” he said.