Alexander Crompton

📚 23 - April

I've been thinking about form lately. All three books I finished reading this month were composed of shorter works, and within each book the shorter texts bore strong family resemblances with each other.

It's one thing to have discrete authorial obsessions. But when an author employs similar beats in their stories, or tells the same story three times in different ways, something stronger seems to emerge within the oeuvre. A personal (or shared) genre takes shape.

John Stewart Carter (1965). Full Fathom Five.

Full Fathom Five is three interconnected stories/novellas that coalesce around the narrator's orientation toward and relationship with his father. Extremely rich prose, an avalanche of locales and characters: an enormous, filthy-rich, downwardly-mobile family. I saw traces in this work of trends I see in contemporary fiction (or the "contemporary fiction" of twenty years ago). A maximalism in the writing style, but hitting the emotional beats I associate with minimalist texts ("minimalism" of the MFA short story of the 1980s)—for example, a trend to have the second-to-last-scene be some sexual or scatological humiliation, followed by a soaring bittersweet ending.

Kwak, Stadler, Grabner (Eds.) (2006). Mission Butterfly, Pioneers Behind the Iron Curtain.

A collection of a couple dozen testimonies from first-generation Unificationists (mostly Austrians) who in the ~1980s found ways to enter communist states (Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, etc) in order to do covert missionary work.

Of course the Unificationist testimony is a genre of its own, with its mixture of open-hearted sincerity and careful choice of framing. I felt a sense of recognition and at-homeness with these stories, many of which had fascinating insights or funny tidbits—the life of a Romanian medical student, rushing from class to get in their one warm shower for the week, or the missionary who claimed to be constantly looking for something on the floor to explain away their prayer to their landlady.

As I've said before, these types of testimonies are so precious. I do wonder what an outsider would think reading them.

Jean Toomer (1923). Cane.

Toomer led a fascinating life—worth a look on Wikipedia (student of Gurdjieff, later a Quaker, who for portions of his life apparently passed for white). I'd heard about Cane (not a novel but a collection of vignettes, stories, poems) here and there, but knew nothing about it.

My favorite stories—and there were a number that followed this pattern—were these electric vignettes about men and women sharing a romantic or sexual dynamism that falls apart because one or the other cannot act on it. Many of the short works almost seem like songs, with returns to refrains that gain meaning as the stories progress.