Deepening the Conversation: On John Domini

The Sea-God's Herb coverBy Jeff Bursey

In Canada, we lack published collections of essays, reviews and articles by garlanded fiction writers like Wayne Johnson or Anne-Marie MacDonald on the work of their peers and the state of writing generally. The occasional critical remarks are often confined to media interviews, enthusiastic outpourings on the backs of books, and blogs. There is no one explanation for this awkward silence in the national conversation; rather, there are as many as there are prospective writers. When writers don’t assess at length what they and their colleagues do, then there is a loss of sustained and, hopefully, intelligent commentary on the abilities of their fellow practitioners, and the startling self-revelations that can come from a sincere engagement with others’ works.

Partly for those reasons I was drawn to John Domini’s newest book, and additional ones can be summed up quickly: his reviews in American Book Review are admirable for their concision and insightful, idiosyncratic analysis; his introduction of writers unknown before (to me); and because the table of contents of The Sea-God’s Herb reveals interests that overlap partially with mine when it comes to postmodern US fiction. In addition, there are reviews of select figures from other countries. The canvas is broad. Someone might ask: Does this selection of reviews cohere? Do they tell us something about the books and about Domini, too?

Aware of such questions, he addresses them in the opening essay, “The Sea-God’s Herb: News About Narrative, 1975-2014.” After bringing in examples of previous fiction writers who were also critics, Domini indicates that he wants to “honor my elders,” and that it’s “the idea of ‘help,’ you see, that drives the critic and essayist in me… It keeps yanking me to the desk: a brief on behalf of the most modern and post-modern. Such work has been so badly misunderstood that I feel I can be useful.” What he calls help may be termed the desire to incite others to read books that would otherwise be missed or ignored, when not damned by a Dale Peck for their distinction from most fare.

At the risk of putting a word in Domini’s mouth, I suggest that some literary critics surprise themselves by assuming the role of pamphleteer for a movement or a subset of authors. There are dangers for creative writers (Domini is a poet and novelist) in being an advocate as they “often grumble about how higher impulses get diffused when they have to generate the low-level noise of a book review,” and there is, too, the fact that “any honest writer has to recognize how his or her arguments can become glib, a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” Yet Domini persists, and his book “as a whole amounts to a defense of artists taking chances.” This is, simultaneously, also a celebration of those who take risks in imagining and publishing books that are not in the mainstream. Domini does this without pretension and without submitting his likes and dislikes to a critical ideology.

“Against the ‘Impossible to Explain:’ The Postmodern Novel & Society,” the second essay in the collection, expresses his motivations clearly.

Here’s the problem. You decide to try some reading outside the ordinary, a novel that doesn’t have the usual earmarks, and it proves interesting, satisfying, but you don’t entirely understand why, and when you look for help, an illuminating review or something, you can’t find any.

What this indicates is that in “the millennial US, for those who venture an unconventional approach to book-length fiction, criticism just hasn’t been doing its job.” The impulse rises to contribute, in however small a way, in whatever discussion is going on about a book or writer, but it’s not always easy to be heard when one must fight an inculcated resistance to postmodernism present in “the major review outlets [where] the write-up will be vicious.” Domini moves from Carole Maso and William Gass to Richard Powers, Michael Martone and Steve Erickson as he relates how their worth has been overlooked in their homeland. This essay exposes the fondness, laziness and cowardice (my words) exhibited by many critics as they choose to review the same books by the same people every year while ignoring new names and small presses. (That same mentality is behind the surprise, often disguising a mixture of annoyance and incomprehension, one hears when X or Y doesn’t appear on award long- or shortlists.) The sharpness of tone is appreciated.

Domini divides the nearly 40 reviews into seven sections: “Early Tide,” “Second Tide,” “Distant Moons,” “Fresh Tide,” “Other Gravities,” “Coming Tide” and “Galactic Pole.” A belief that that leaps out of an early review—a consideration, from 1979, of Guy Davenport’s short story collection, Da Vinci’s Bicycle—is that fiction can have “an impact in the nervous system as well as the centers of cognition,” and one sees this conjoined response endure through to the latest review, a sign that Domini has neither become wrapped up in his own work and unable to recognize the importance of what others create, nor is he jaundiced or depressed when reading the works of others (unlike, for example, novelist Tim Parks, resident English sourpuss of the New York Review of Books, who seems despairing of literature). Both new methods of presentation and old favourites appeal to him.

Scattered among the shorter pieces are longer appreciations. Donald Barthelme is the subject of “The Modernist Uprising,” and this is preceded by an equally long and even finer appreciation of John Barth’s novel LETTERS (both were teachers of Domini; their works, like those of Italo Calvino and Dante, are touchstones in this collection), the second allowing the chance for comparison of a postmodernist master with Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann. Works by John Hawkes and Robert Coover are considered in tandem, resulting in this conclusion: “If these two books wear their ideas on their sleeves more than a popular novel would, it’s because they don’t want the smug voyeuristic distance a popular novelist maintains, rather pursuing the wholehearted commitment of senses and mind a real artist must have.” That sentence illustrates discrimination with a swinging rhythm. Domini can be blunt about writers one would guess he’d approve of; he advises readers to pick up Thomas Pynchon’s disappointing Vineland nevertheless “for the occasional winning passages and conflagrations, the few grapes that aren’t sour.”

After considering progenitors of postmodernism Domini looks at the next generation, in this case, among others, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Gilbert Sorrentino and Stephen Dixon. When considering foreign writers in “Distant Moons,” among the unsurprising names (Calvino, W.G. Sebald) for someone with his tastes is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. We disagree on the value of Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho, but he has me intrigued by Paul Ableman, whose novel I Hear Voices “stands as another example of the wild freedoms embraced by European fiction since 1945, freedoms still only fitfully understood on this side of the Atlantic.”

In the section “Fresh Tide” Jay Cantor receives compliments for his novel The Death of Che Guevara, and how he “has so thoroughly assimilated the Latin American ambiance that he’s taken on its music: hyperbolic and exclamatory, free with metaphor and repetition, always ready to snap off an epigram…” Like Morrison and Maso, Jaimy Gordon is regarded highly in an essay from 2012, while Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames brings out this reaction: “I’ve rarely experienced so deep a chill in reading that sets such a formal challenge.” This remark alerts a reader to an exciting voice and underlines how emotion and impetus to thought continue to fuel Domini’s critical fire.

The third-last category, “Other Gravities,” deals with an Italian comic book, an art installation at the Guggenheim of Italian designs, The Sopranos, and the work of poet and essayist W.S. Di Piero.

Concentrating on recent works by mostly younger novelists, the next section, “Coming Tide,” opens with an intriguing review of Brian Evenson’s Open Curtain that contains advice on the novelist’s desire to be “‘respectful.’ Respectful: the word worries me. A talent like this should take on realism with the same savagery as he’s attacked other modes.” Asking an author to write differently than he or she does is fraught with condescension or insensitivity, but I think what Domini is getting at is that he senses capacities in Evenson that deserve encouragement. Zachery Mason is presented as a successor to Calvino with his novel Lost Books, and the works of that Italian Oulipian (among other things) re-appear, as a negative image, in the next essay on Sorrentino’s terrific last novels, which receive praise for “their reassertion of emotional content, even in constructs that have no truck with convention.”

Dawn Raffel’s Further Adventures in the Restless Universe contains some short stories that are “nothing short of masterful.” Catholic in taste, Domini can admire a work of such brevity while also believing that Roy Kesey’s Pacazo, a 500-plus page take on Don Quixote,  “generates a fresh and powerful reminder of what fiction can accomplish at full length.” Reviews of books by Blake Butler (Ever) and Matt Bell (The Collectors) once more bring out the enthusiast in Domini, as when he says that these “very-small-press books afforded me some of my most cleaning and enjoyable reading, recently—a terrific experience…”

The final category, “Galactic Pole,” comprises one essay from 2009, “Tower, Tree, Candle: Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Triumph of the Fragile.” New translations of Dante’s central work have come out recently, as well as critical books on it (such as Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw). There may be the understandable motive on Domini’s part to join in speaking about a poet whose work appeals to him deeply. A canto from “Paradiso” provides the title of this collection, and Dante is invoked throughout. Over several pages Domini examines how Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings reveals “the Comedy’s contemporary penetration into image and meaning,” and he gives sufficient evidence to make this notion worth considering.

By the end of The Sea-God’s Herb we have encountered an abundance of new novels, short stories and poetry from the US, and seen certain features that recurs: Domini is attracted to the mythic, the intellectually alive, and, to use a word from his last essay, the “freefall” effect caused in readers by fiction that refuses to provide final answers. Pithy judgments and one-liners, negative appraisals and genuine endorsements, are presented with verve and personality. However, as Daniel Green asked in his review of the book posted at Open Letters Monthly, “…can reviews contribute to literary discussion something more lasting than a fleeing judgment based on ‘taste’ or inherently subjective standards?” Supplying an answer, he continues: “Domini’s reviews demonstrate what would be lost if conscientious criticism disappeared.”

To which I’d add that his critical work deepens the conversation about literature (therefore, about culture, society, religion, politics), and that it does have importance or permanence. We get a good view of what his mind looks at and is jolted by when surveying the output of writers with an assortment of approaches. But the main thrust, as Domini states on the first page, is “an argument on behalf of latter-day non-traditional storytelling.”

His persistence, and success, in promoting what might be called experimental or offbeat works depends, in large part, on the ability to reach back or out to some antecedent work or literary ancestor to shore up his case. The learning is worn lightly. Another sizeable part of Domini’s appeal rests on style. While often plainspoken, there are the occasional fireworks and the intense involvement in the text under discussion. This earned him a reprimand from a reviewer in Publishers Weekly: “Domini waxes poetic and philosophical… daring readers to find fault with his deep thoughts and complex tangents, and occasionally seeming a little too fond of his own voice when he attempts to turn even a simple review into an intellectual razzle-dazzle. He nevertheless upholds and defends his role as a reviewer and critic…” Such dimness isn’t surprising, and it’s what we’re often handed by criticasters—that writers shouldn’t express themselves in a way that’s fizzy and personable, they should submit competent, colourless reviews. And to top off Domini’s sins, he actually “defends his role.” Earlier I mentioned the pamphleteering aspect when it comes to wanting a book and its author to get noticed. Now it might be required to do the same for those critics who don’t regurgitate the plot summary from the back of a book, slip in a half-baked criticism, and call it a day.

On finishing The Sea-God’s Herb we might recall what Domini said at the beginning: “The more important point is that every critic gets his smart mouth smashed, sooner or later, by core quality. Remarks aren’t literature, no matter how sharp the quip might look in a magazine. Remarks fall away and good work emerges…” That’s an awareness any writer might want to keep in mind as a positive lesson, among many, from this worthwhile collection.

The Sea-God’s Herb: Essays & Criticism, 1975-2014, by John Domini | Dzanc Books | 360 pages |  $17.50 | paper | ISBN #978-1938103780

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