READS OF THE YEAR 2014: Calum Gardner

Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Semiotext(e), 1997)

chris krausI only discovered Chris Kraus’s writing this year, when I heard her speak about Kathy Acker at a conference, although she is one of the minds behind Semiotext(e), a publisher whose books I frequently covet. I say ‘writing’ because the term ‘novel’ doesn’t do justice to Kraus’ prose works, which are as alive to hidden power-structures and the nuances of thought as critical theory, but with that awareness woven into the texture of lived experience. Joan Hawkins in her Afterword to the 2006 edition calls it “theoretical fiction,” but Kraus in the book itself advances the term “lonely girl phenomenology,” which is what she calls the genre she created as “a secret because there was nobody to tell it to.” Under these conditions, with her experiences patronised and sidelined by mainstream intellectual currents, the debates of theory become part of life. The ‘plot’ of the book, in which the narrator (also called Chris Kraus) has an affair with a masculine “cowboy intellectual” and turns her letters to him into her art, seems at times to be a mere catalyst, but the form is even more radical. Its self-theorising remakes it from the outside in and turns the phenomena it should be studying into fuel for a profound act of self-expression.

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things (Faber, 2014)

I can’t say I even particularly enjoyed the new novel from the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, but it left an enormous impression. I read it in two days, with mounting queasiness. A milquetoast English born-again Christian pastor travels to another planet to preach the gospel to aliens who are not only receptive, but eager to hear it. Meanwhile his wife lives through disaster and chaos on Earth, and the company that has commissioned him to come to the alien planet is revealed to have shadowy objectives. What makes the book worth reading is its tale of uncomfortable home truths about human civilisation, our precariousness in the face not just of random chance but our own indifference. I found myself frustratedly wondering why Peter, the preacher, is for most of the novel the only character who is interested to learn how the aliens live, since most science fiction about aliens revolves around such details. But then, for most of Western colonial history, we have been less concerned with understanding other cultures than with exploiting or eliminating them. The humans in The Book of Strange New Things don’t even do that, though; they are terrifyingly indifferent. I felt as uncomfortable with the way human characters reacted to strange new things as I do reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or any of J.G. Ballard’s near-future dystopias. You insist this is not who we are, even as you watch the all too human fear and selfishness of the characters emerge.

Anne Waldman, The Iovis Trilogy (Coffee House Press, 2011)

waldmanWaldman’s long poem is a gigantic, encyclopaedic work. It looks back over history, like Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Charles Olson’s Maximus, but it is also part of the comprehensive and ever-evolving ‘lifepoem’ genre of Ron Silliman’s Ketjak or Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts. Waldman, whether we see her as a performance poet, Beat poet, New York doyenne, or Colorado Buddhist guru, is a continuous innovator, and the scope and scale of Iovis is staggering. The book responds to the ever-present figure of Jove, the Roman father-god, but Waldman’s classicism is not elitist. Instead, she tries to draw on an omnicultural heritage, bringing a full range of human energies (conceptualised as the “karmic spectrum” in Book II, Part 7, ‘Rooms’) to bear in attempting to create a universal poetic space out of personal narrative. “Will you help me to build my Ardhanarisvara, the androgynous city?” she asks at the beginning of the volume, and the entire book may be read as the poetic manual of how to begin.

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