Last Week/This Week: time for debate

by Ashley Bales 


Deadlines are the absolute worst, also essential. As someone who both imposes deadlines, in my role as instructor, and needs to abide by them, in my 27th consecutive year as a student, the worst case scenario is the co-occurrence of my student's deadlines and my student deadlines. This is the lovely position I find myself in this week. 

I wanted to write about the drama that might ensue if James Wood and Jonathan Dee sat down with Jenny Erpenbeck to discuss her novel Go, Went, Gone. I would already be breaking with convention by discussing Wood's review from two weeks ago (and not last week), and Dee's review from last month's issue of Harper's, but the disagreement is too juicy, too packed with the trappings of overblown criticism to not dive in. Wood's review is celebratory, while Dee seems to be in full-on crisis mode, using Erpenbeck as an example of all the shortcomings of the novel as a form, realism, and socially conscious art in toto.  

I, unfortunately, don't have time to discuss Dee's criticism of Erpenbeck's character driven consideration of the refugee crisis in Europe: " break a movement of millions down into a representative six or eight detailed and tragic personal narratives is not to “explain” or to “humanize” that movement but to fragment and thus diminish it."  Nor do I have time to counter his conviction that Erpenbeck is not aware of her main character's guilt of "the evil of banality," as Wood states.  And I certainly don't have time to read Erpenbeck's words myself.  I have a stack of student proposals and 30 pages of my own to polish and hand in. 

No, I don't have time to understand this horrifying quote from Wood:

Her narratives are rigorous, partial to the present tense, and untempted by the small change of contemporary realism (abundant and superfluous dialogue in quotation marks, sharply individuated characters, tellingly selected detail). 

I do recommend you, reader, whoever you are, if you exist, read and consider for yourselves. Imagine yourself a silent fourth, sipping a bourbon in a deep armchair and hearing appropriately strident voices raging at oppression while "residing among the oppressors..." (Dee), debating how to "make Germany... beautiful again" (Wood), while Erpenbeck presents her novel, full of its own voices and conversations.

This week on the blog, Mark Freeman decides not to send his kid to school in a motel, Laura Dennison explores the difficulties of writing mental illness and Daniel Johnson remembers his time as a paperboy.

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.