Spring 2018: The Dogged Chase of the Actual After the Ideal

Confronting the most immediate limits on human experience while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market.

On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.

The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede.

At the issue’s core is Robert Walser’s “Circle Dance,” a brief, sly composition whose publication was timed to commemorate what would have been the Swiss author’s 140th birthday. “Suddenly, before all the others even know it, someone has been made big and important,” the story begins. “No one in the group is quite sure afterward who it was who declared that someone so. Such a surplus of thrilling, inflaming imprecisions life and the game of life seems to rest on, and we all know that it is not exactly crowned with careful deliberation.” Our wishes and desires, Walser’s narrator suggests, ultimately calibrate to our abilities, “and not a year goes by before a person can sense what he is capable of, more or less.” The very next passage, however, winks at a series of ironic archetypes that undermine this notion of a natural harmony between desire and ability: there are those who fiend after power but whose outward appearance disqualifies them (at first blush) from ever wielding it; those who want nothing more than to be looked after but are themselves doomed to do the looking after; lovers incapable of mutual respect; and dynamic collaborators able to succeed in spite of mutual loathing. “It’s a strange game, life,” Walser’s narrator shrugs. How much easier it might be if we all proved capable of calibrating our desires to our abilities; how much we might achieve if we would quit fooling ourselves and more readily detect the tension between them.

In the criticism section, contributing editor Dylan Suher reviews Eileen Chang’s posthumous roman à clef Little Reunions. “Chang was open about her history,” he explains of the Shanghai luminary. “But she described it with a calculating, heartbreakingly jaundiced distance, and there were certain topics she wouldn’t touch.” Paramount among them was her toxic relationship with an older, married official of the Nationalist government, which despite its brevity “made her aesthetically and politically suspect for the rest of her career,” and was at least part of the impetus that drove her abroad to Los Angeles. Little Reunions is an unfinished, fictionalized portrait of that relationship. The novel casts Chang’s lover as a glib misogynist who soon abandons her for another affair. (It’s hard to feel the full gravity of that loss when Chang likens his performance in the sheets to “rhythmic pounding on an earthenware jug,” one of many “terrifically unromantic descriptions of intercourse” in the novel, as Suher puts it). Little Reunions—even for a specialist like Suher—is tough to follow, byzantine and overwrought, revealing little about the mystery that it was ostensibly going to resolve: namely, what drew Chang into this pivotal relationship in the first place and why she was so haunted by it. Suher’s take? “Chang was brilliant, talented, even worldly, and yet she fell in love with the first man who ever said anything nice about her. If that were the truth, how could someone so gifted bear the shame of revealing the sincere stupidity of it? Chang spent a lifetime writing around it, again and again, swaddling her own bare pain and putting as much space as she could between it and the image she presented to the world.” Even for a figure as singular as Chang, the lingering memory of a personal rupture, colluding with sexist pressures to carry herself a particular way, foreclosed certain possibilities in her writing.

If Chang’s central trauma was one of personal relationship, Croatian novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugrešić’s is one of political reckoning. Displaced from her native Croatia by the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and, like Chang, relegated to a period of American exile, Ugrešić’s cheerily titled essay “Unhappiness is Other People” puts the “reality show” of the post-Yugoslav Balkan order in its crosshairs. With dark comic intensity and an acid wit, she grapples with the question of whenshe has experienced moments of pure joy. The prompt disarms her, so few and slow to resurface are the memories it conjures. Only two come to mind with any sort of immediacy, both aquatic encounters of solitude: the first with a school of fish, the second with a dolphin. “Yes, I know,” she quips, “it’s difficult to feel respect for a person whose moments of pure happiness are all about marine life.”Ugrešić then imagines how her recounting of these joyful moments might be received by the Croatian press. Skewered, no doubt, for espousing the Communist ideal of equality among all organisms. Labeled a renegade traitor sympathetic even to Bulgarian, maybe even Serbian, schools of fish. She wastes no time in registering how little tolerance she has for nationalist fools. “All this ‘glorious’ struggle of the ex-Yugoslav peoples and nationalities for independence, freedom, statehood, national identity and so forth spreads out before my eyes like a reality television show: a dynamic landscape of depravity, murder, the theft and expropriation of big and little houses, native soil and whole hillsides, gold ducats and ready cash, checking and savings accounts, pots of gold and barrels of wine, factories and franchises, gas stations and hotels, villas and estates, seats in parliament and ambassadorial posts.”  Her patience for the absurdity of documenting and processing this landscape wears thin as she wonders how to situate herself as a writer within such an empire. “What about the rest of us who have wasted a good portion of our lives describing the reality show, high entertainment that it is, of others, as our own deeply humiliating reality? What about all of us? For we, in one way or another, have all been and remain hostages of stupidity.”

jan2018cover6Ottilie Mulzet’s poignant essay on Hungarian poet and novelist Gábor Schein evokes a parallel sense of burnout from post-totalitarian, post-Berlin Wall Central Europe. Her primary concern is the duplicity of narrative, its capacity for redemption and its vulnerability to contamination. Mulzet teases out this theme through an abridged history of a particularly Hungarian genre —the “father-novel”—and a close reading of two exemplar texts authored by Schein. The scope of these “father-novels” encompasses individual father-son relationships, the patriarchal nature of Hungary’s last Communist government, and the postwar era more generally. Mulzet gives the most extensive treatment to Schein’s The Book of Mordechai, which interweaves the biblical tale of Esther and Mordechai with the narration of a young Hungarian boy whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. “The biblical narrative of Esther’s attempt to save her own people from destruction runs alongside fragments of twentieth-century memory, randomly placed like stones on a Jewish grave,” Mulzet writes, “or even more disturbingly, fragments of prose-stone on the grave of a family narrative beyond reconstruction.” Schein’s novel is equally an act of narrative excavation and a cautionary gesture at the asymptote of collective memory and historical narrative.

Shards of memory resurface elsewhere in “Scenes from a Childhood,” by the Norwegian heavyweight Jon Fosse. Toggling between first and third person, Fosse’s vignettes beautifully reclaim the revelations and deceptions of growing up, the punishments both arbitrary and well-earned, the lust for freedom expressed through the smallest transgressions and pettiest rebellions, the incompetence, the cluelessness, the joy and the pain, all of it twice-distilled in its clarity and intensity. My favorite among them witnesses Fosse’s protagonist backstage at a dance, the crowd audibly building just beyond the curtain, as he tries in vain to tune his guitar and breaks a string in the process. He changes the string, ushers the other guitarist over to play him a G, fiddles with the knob again, approaches the note, almost reaches it but veers a little too sharp, overcorrects a little too flat, drops it all the way back down, and edges it up, slowly, slowly. “Careful now, the other guitarist says. I turn it a little bit more. And I hear the string break. Fuck, I say.” He’s flush out of third strings. So is the other guitarist. “Then I guess I’ll have to play with five strings, I say. That’ll probably work, he says. People are already here, I say. That’ll work, he says.” In a passage that is physically further down the page than this sonic asymptote, but seems to precede it chronologically, Fosse’s narrator relates his first experience of reading a novel to the pleasures of music: “He really likes it, because everything that in life only moves back and forth is like music somehow in the novel, so he really likes it, but it’s not exactly the same as music, because he knows what music is but this is a kind of music where everything that goes back and forth stays quiet and nice to think about.”

In the Korean Fiction Feature edited by Lee Yew Leong, renowned filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong and Koh Jongsok find lyricism in the bleak house of orphanhood and the syncopated rhythms of unwanted adoption. Lee’s “On Destiny” traces the heartrending narrative arc of Kim Heung-nam, whose family, like so many others, is torn asunder by the splintering of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th Parallel. We follow Kim from the orphanage into a prison cell, from the redemption of marriage and a stunted reunion with his birth father into the abyss of mental illness that handicaps his own attempt at fatherhood. Koh’s “Happy Family” belies its title, the story of a bootstrapping adoptee who is at best considered inferior to her foster siblings and at worst treated like the family’s domestic servant. “That house was not my home. Those people were not my family.” Sometimes we wonder if Lee’s Kim might not have it easier. How close can one get to abusive people, blood related or otherwise, whose orbits one can never totally escape? How fully can one know oneself without any consciousness of one’s origins?

Mario Vargas Llosa considers a parallel question for literature in this issue’s feature interview: What happens to the notion of culture when it becomes unmoored from its traditional referents? “The meaning traditionally ascribed to the term is now on the point of disappearing,” he writes in the introduction to Notes on the Death of Culture, the focus of the interview. “Perhaps it has already disappeared, discreetly emptied of its content.” According to Vargas Llosa, literary culture is in crisis, undermined by mass media, consumer capitalism, and a “dominant culture, which privileges wit over intelligence, images over ideas, humor over gravity, banality over depth, and frivolity over seriousness.” For me, the central question Notes prompted was not whether culture is on the verge of extinction, but how to advance a rhetorically savvy argument for the value of literature that isn’t merely a crass relevance grab. How, in other words, does the dominance of mass media, entertainment, and consumerism change (if at all) the limits of literary viability?

Visual editor Eva Heisler’s interview with Cairo-based writer and artist Amira Hanafi provides a refreshing counterpoint to Vargas Llosa’s cultural autopsy. Hanafi’s research-intensive practice often involves collecting or mining language data, which she then systematizes in an archive that becomes the source for a series of distinct projects extracting different meanings from the dataset. These projects are best experienced through the visuals available on the issue site and their accompanying descriptions by Heisler and Hanafi. In “For Maps of the Orders of Signs” (2007), Hanafi compiled all of the words she came across while walking two different stretches of a Chicago street. “These texts told me something about who had power in what neighborhood, what services were available, who was expected there, and what limits were set for public conduct,” says Hanafi. “I thought of this language as a code through which I could read different urban forces.” In dialogue with Hanafi about her approach to reading urban space, Heisler cites Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City”: “[de Certeau] refers to the inability of pedestrians to perceive the city as a whole; he writes that the pedestrian’s knowledge of the city’s spaces is ‘as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms.’” Here she alludes to an asymptote of urban epistemology that all city residents run up against but that Hanafi has found especially clever ways to negotiate through data.

The Spring 2018 issue is among the best introductions to the magazine’s identity. Ours is a publication about confronting the most immediate limits on human experience—those of language, culture, and narrative—while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market and a predominantly male, white, European canon. Broadening the Circle Dance that Walser described is a labor of obstinacy, compromise, and love. 30 issues later, the Circle is 121 countries and counting in circumference, with choreography from 101 different languages gracing our archive. And there’s still more to come.

Henry Knight has been Interviews Editor since our October 2015 issue. Find part two of John Freeman’s interview here, and subscribe to our Fortnightly Airmails here.

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