Tuesday
Nov032015

Infinite Fictions

By David Winters


 

Zero Books
January 2015
978-1782798033


Reviewed by Ilana Masad


 

It must be said, first and foremost, that reviewing a book of reviews has a meta(non)fictional quality all its own. With David Winters's Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory, it is even more absurd, especially as one has to fight the urge to write an entire review using Winters's own quotes. It would be easy to do; the breadth of language used in this book is astounding, and answers a fundamental question about reviewers: how do they avoid repeating themselves? Well, David Winters never does. He may use a couple of descriptive words more than once, but he never strings a sentence together that is not original and thought-provoking.

The book, as its subtitle suggests, has two sections: one devoted to reviews of works of literature, and the other to reviewing and meditating on works of literary theory. Even the most voracious readers will probably only have heard of some the authors reviewed in the fiction section. Sam Lipsyte, Dawn Raffel, Lydia Davis, Gary Lutz, Gordon Lish—these are familiar names. Less so are Micheline Aharonian Marcom (the first writer reviewed), Ivan Vladislavić, Kjersti Skomsvold, or Andrzej Stasiuk. That Winters reviews writers in translation as well as those who write in English is commendable, as well as difficult. If there is one flaw in his reviews of translated works, and this goes for his theory sections as well, it is that he seldom addresses the nature of translation in the works, but trusts the translator to have achieved the tone and mood that the author was going for.

Another issue with the book is more serious but harder to admit. This flaw is that the book is extraordinarily intellectual and is hard to keep up with. This may be a product of the venues in which the reviews and essays first found a home, or perhaps Winters simply thinks that anyone who would choose to read his collection will know all about the Davos debate between Ernst Cassier and Martin Heidegger (Davos is a place, not the subject of the debate, as this reviewer discovered). Then again, Winters's unwillingness to talk down to his readers is also a strength; if one chooses to delve into this collection in its entirety, or even just pull it out of a college library to find quotes for an essay, then one should be willing to study further and allow Winters's intelligence to bleed into one's studious fingers that now need to flip through further books (or, to be entirely honest, Wikipedia pages).

 

One of the best quotes in the collection's first section comes at the beginning of a review of John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz:

Conventionally, a review of a novel should offer some sort of synopsis. Such a review might climb to all sorts of interpretive heights, but still, a basic part of its job is to summarize its subject's plot. At an elementary level, reviews are expected to be about what books are "about" . . . John the Posthumous reminds us as readers that plots aren't reducible to what we can describe. Instead, as with crimes or conspiracies, plots can be something we try to discover—with no certainty of success.

In this, as well as in various other sections, Winters seems to be describing his own book as well as another’s. Like Schwartz' novel, Winters's collection defies traditional explanation or interpretation. Partly, this is because a collection isn’t a novel, but it is also because Winters discusses such a great variety of ideas, plots, and theories that they cannot be crammed into one short review.

One thing that can be said about Winters that without a doubt colors the subjects he chooses to review, is that he is enraptured by Gordon Lish, a writer as well as a "legendary"—Winters's word—literary editor of what was once a standalone publisher and is now an imprint of Penguin-Random House, Alfred A. Knopf. Lish is well known for being a strict taskmaster with his writers. He edited and taught many famous American writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and several of the familiar names mentioned above. Winters rather sheepishly acknowledges this himself: "Observing my interest in what could crudely be called the 'Lish Line of fiction, an antagonist of mine once claimed that he couldn't see any 'angst' beneath the pyrotechnics; any 'existential' pressure."

But Winters sees, feels, and exposes the reader to the angst of writers often forgotten, like Hob Broun, who only lived to be thirty-seven and published three books. Winters is able to excite the reader, even one who has never heard Broun's name, in a mere sentence: "[Broun’s Odditorium is] a seedy, pulpy pinball game of botched drug deals and bungling gunplay, [and] the book's pleasure lies in its unpredictability; to read it is to watch it run off the rails." This could be read and interpreted as a kind of take down, but the energies in Winters's sentences exude the same excitement usually reserved for children first discovering the Harry Potter books. This exuberance is a rarity in both reviews and essays about literature, and it is a joy to experience.

 

When it comes to the second half of the collection, things get murkier for those who are not already experts of philosophy and lit-crit. What saves this section from itself is that Winters treats theory with as much reverence and linguistic excitement as he does his reviews of novels. In ending an essay on Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov by Martin Hägglund (one of the less obscure theoretical materials discussed in the collection), Winters writes, "Some say that literary theory is dead, out of fashion, a thing of the past. But Hägglund shows how it can and should go on living: in unflinching fidelity to how it feels to be human." In one sentence, Winters justifies this entire section of the book. So that even when trying to wrap one's mind around the concept of "anthropotechnics" (Peter Sloterdijk, The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as a Practice) one believes that there will be a reward in Winters's decision to write about it. 

Cleverly, the collection ends with a discussion of the book Elegy for Theory by D.N. Rodowick, who specializes in film studies rather than literature or philosophy, the collection’s wheelhouse. Winters finds this book relevant because it discusses the history of theory and its developments, the way its meaning changed over the years and arced across the entirety of the humanities, from literature to visual art to film. Amusingly, in this essay Winters describes how "Rodowick's own work epitomizes the metacritical spirit it describes," and that "in itself, his inspired reflection revives the stream of ideas on which it reflects; if this is only an elegy, it's one that instills its object with endless energy." The second sentence quoted is the last one of Winters's own collection. One hopes that Winters, his editor, or both had a hearty chuckle over these last lines, as they equally describe the culmination of Winters's collection's own theoretical section.