In Defense of Difficulty

The Four Types of Literary Difficulty, Characters In Extremis, William Wilson, Eugène Atget, The Eye, Self-Contradicting Protagonists, Fractured Time Sequences, Montaigne, Francophilia, Time Measured in Chores, The New York Trilogy, Endearing Romanticism, Genre, Ambiguity, The Comfort of Pastries, Character Improvisation, Joseph K., Walter Benjamin, Luck, A Book to Settle In With

In Defense of Difficulty

Mark Kamine
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Poor difficulty. Even literary writers now want to keep their distance. Steven Car­ter, in compiling his re­cent online list of instructions on how to write a first novel, while encouraging you to read Moby-Dick, would also like you to “Admit to yourself and others that, even though you’re wild about Joyce’s early work, and you admire the chances the guy took, you just find Ulysses boring. Feel the freedom that brings.” Dale Peck concurs and then some, slipping into his New Republic review (July 2002) of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil a quick scouring of Modernist fiction and its heirs, “A tradition that began with the diarrhetic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.” And if you open your paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection, How to Be Alone (2002), you’ll find, added in like a bonus track on a CD rerelease, an essay about Wil­liam Gaddis called “Mr. Difficult,” in which Franzen rejects Gaddis’s entire literary career after The Recognitions (1955), Gaddis’s first novel, as a kind of wrong turn, a turn into “literary difficulty.”

Structurally fragmented novels crammed with syntactically convoluted sentences don’t read as easily as those in the mainstream tradition. The heady, ironic, jigsaw-puzzle novels of a writer like Nabokov will never sit well with proponents of social realism. It seems premature, however, to dismiss such productions as last century’s aber­rations. After all, Tristram Shandy, that model of dif­ficulty, has been around almost as long as Tom Jones.1


The Impossibly (2001), Laird Hunt’s first novel, is a difficult book. Not in the way Ulysses or The Recognitions is. It doesn’t flaunt its author’s literary or art-historical erudition. Its diction—somewhat formal in its de­scriptive passages, appropriately col­loquial in its dialogue—is never artificially elevated. Its syntax eschews contortion. It borrows its framework from genre fiction—a bit of detective noir, a bit of James Bond, a kind of sci-fi fantasy setting, a ghost story conclusion. It’s short (205 pages). Its difficulty stems from an unfamiliarity that leads you off the paved, striped roadway of conventional fiction.2 The buildings are not quite like ours. The social structures are off—laws and jobs and even interpersonal relations don’t quite jibe with norms. There’s an abstraction to the narration and an absence of comforting detail (no brand names, very few proper names at all) that cause the reader to withhold imagining the world of The Impossibly. Hunt’s novel has more in common with science fiction in this respect: as one reads, one attends to the establishment of a world: one is never certain how it will differ from ours: do the cars fly? do people eat our kind of food? As it happens, in The Impossibly cars don’t fly and people do eat our kind of food. Nevertheless it is a baffling world to enter, a frighteningly violent and mercurial one.

Before The Impossibly, Hunt published a chapbook (Dear Sweetheart, 1999) and a book of prose poetry called The Paris Stories (2000), which incorporated parts of the chapbook. The pre-Impossibly work evidences a good ear for every­day speech, a fondness for re­petition and slight variation at the word-to-word and sentence-to-sentence level, and a willingness to compose prose poems that circle or cut suddenly off rather than unfold, creating moods rather than completing thoughts. Here is one from The Paris Stories:

Absolutely not, agreed the man. In fact that might almost, said the woman, as they were leaving the theater and heading off now, slowly hurrying off now, along one of the dark cobbled streets, into a low breeze, so that a pleasant or pleasing sense of friction, etc., I completely, said one or the other of them, as they walked and walked, and the eyes, the eyes of the occasional people they pas­sed.

Also in The Paris Stories are historical or pseudohistorical anecdotes, artfully retold, and a playlet that treads at times on surreal territory (as do some of the other pieces). On the whole it’s a pleasant, witty exercise. Quotations from Montaigne and Gertrude Stein and allusions to Joyce and Melville and to Lautréamont’s Maldoror provide clues to Hunt’s literary origins and interests. If not exactly predictive of The Impossibly, The Paris Stories forms a natural enough jumping-off point for the novel.


Late in The Impossibly, the narrator sums up its story as being “about the wo­man I had loved and lost and maybe, for a short while, found again.” There’s some truth to this. One is lured, early on, into what seems a love story. The nameless first-person narrator meets a wo­man in a store. Evidently they are compatriots in a foreign country, for she needs help translating the words “stapler” and “hole puncher,” translations which the narrator provides. The narrator is new to the un­named foreign city where this meeting occurs. He seems to be emotionally depressed; he is en­gaged in a number of activities, some personal, some possibly to do with his at first unspecified profession: “In those days I was in the middle of two or three things that seemed to take up unnecessarily large amounts of my time, but of course there was no getting around them. One of these things was setting in motion the acquisition of a certain item, which was proving to be very difficult to obtain. Another was the process of establishing whether or not the poorly functioning washer/dryer in my apartment was under warranty, etc.” The novel proceeds in this sidelong, de­corous fashion, the narrator establishing himself in the city, getting “involved in some business,” having a few odd interchanges with always nameless, minimally adumbrated characters (one ultimately crucial one is described as “a tall woman wearing a hat and sunglasses,” and that is about all the physical description we’ll get of her). There are instances of ominousness (“I never laid eyes on that neighbor again, although on one occasion I heard sounds”), and we know some­thing’s up when the narrator, sitting in a café on finishing an as­signment, explains: “I had done everything they had told me to and had a well-filled envelope in a bag at my feet.” Principally, this opening chapter traces the lineaments of the budding romance between the narrator and the woman: meeting at the café, walking in the city, visiting her apartment. One day a friend of the narrator’s shows up. The woman also has a friend in town. The two friends begin a romance as well. They have a party (called, in The Impossibly’s slightly off-kilter universe, an “event”). The two couples plan a trip.

The Impossibly is divided, by the letters A through D, into four sections. Section A has three chapters and traces the course of the nar­rator’s romance, which ends badly not because of any romantic trouble but because the narrator refuses to complete a work assignment and is therefore tortured and, we later learn, “disaffirmed”—a term that seems to combine forced (if temporary) retirement and severe physical harm. These chapters follow the romance more or less chronologically. The first and third have normal paragraph breaks. The second is written in one long paragraph (at the end of which is ­printed “The End,” though the book goes on for another 150 pages) and one shorter one. Section B comprises several long para­graphs (none of the novel’s dialogue is in quotes, and there’s an enjambment of dialogue and narration within given paragraphs that will be familiar to readers of even modestly experimental fiction and is in any case quickly adjusted to). In this section, the narrator, older and fatter (as he repeatedly says), encounters a woman who may or may not be his beloved and with whom he tries to strike up (rekindle?) a romance. The narrator, now back in favor with what takes more thoroughly detailed shape as the “organization” he’d worked for in section A, participates in a number of violent assignments while working part-time as a cake seller (the organization doesn’t keep him fully employed). Section C finds the narrator older still, in retirement in another city, where he begins an investigation into what seems to be a plot by members of the organization to kill him. Section D serves as the novel’s brief coda, its ghost-story conclusion, in which the narrator is subjected to an interrogation (which brought to mind the novel-long interrogation in Robert Pinget’s experimental police procedural The Inquisitory [1962]) that throws into doubt any shred of reliability the narrator previously possessed. It’s The Impossibly’s Twilight Zone moment.

This rather grim summary of The Impossibly’s four sections captures perhaps a shade of the oddness of Hunt’s novel and hints at its endearing romanticism. Hunt’s wry­ness enlivens and undercuts the abstraction and violence of the world he gives us. There’s a good dose of gallows humor in evidence, as when the narrator is blindfolded and locked in a room after an unexpected sexual en­counter with a minatory old wo­man: “my breathing had come to seem normal to me again and even, strangely, to seem quite sweet or pretty, or at any rate, kind of nice and certainly useful, and I found myself turning to thoughts of the not altogether unenjoyable interaction I had had with the woman and to otherwise diverting myself in the gloom.”

The narration has a confes­sional self-deprecation that, when combined with its strategy of indirection, makes the violence that suffuses the novel palatable in unsettling ways:

I am an awful drunk. If I am not much present at the best of times, when I am drunk I devolve into something I think it would not be unfair to characterize as vaguely reptilian. I sit and sit and occasionally my eyes move. The last time I had been drunk—I mean before I got very drunk at the event and retracted, like something that might be happiest under a heat bulb, into a corner—I had been drunk in the presence, to speak euphemistically, of someone I was supposed to have been watching. I was supposed to have been watching him in case he chose at that late stage to say anything, but instead I sat on the floor behind him and took small sips from a large bottle I had been left with and got drunk, and when he did say something, in a very small voice, I said nothing, and alerted no one, and I stared at the back of his head, and drank, and after a time announced to myself that
I no longer noticed the smell.

Admirable in the passage are the uses of “devolve” and “re­tracted” to introduce and advance the reptilian trope of drunkenness (the “heat bulb” is its punch line of sorts), the quaintly oppositional phrasing (“small sips from a large bottle”) that sets up the blunt “got drunk,” and the swift and always indirect progression from the narrator’s simply watching a man to his watching the man expire from torture after making some sort of con­fession. The most gruesome de­tail is offered only at paragraph’s end and still with a degree of re­straint unusual in our tabloid era: “I no longer noticed the smell.” We’re left to imagine or not just what that smell is.

Beckett set the precedent for this sort of thing—the circumspect and darkly humorous tracing of a character in extremis. Any pleasant notion slides soon enough into misery, and that misery can always be trumped by a further one, yet somehow—in part thanks to the swift, careful contradictions of the sentences—the work has great hu­mor: “A man came into the garden and walked swiftly towards me. I knew him well. Now I have no insuperable objection to a neighbor’s dropping in, on a Sunday, to pay his respects, if he feels the need, though I much prefer to see nobody. But this man was not a neighbor.” And Molloy (1950), from which the preceding quote comes, about a man in thrall to a shadowy, probably evil, possibly imaginary organization, is one possible predecessor of The Impossibly.

A more proximate one is Paul Auster’s New York ­Trilogy, a trio of literary noirs (City of Glass, 1985; Ghosts and The Locked Room, 1986), where writers play at detectives as they circulate in a New York bleached of almost all real-life color beyond oc­casional oddly specific reports on the New York Mets. These novels have in common with The Impossibly a me­ticulous formality in their narrative stance, a disregard for conventional use of names and character descriptions (in City of Glass the narrator, whose real name is Quinn, writes as “William Wilson” and uses “Paul Auster” as the name under which he conducts his investigation), and protagonists deeply involved in solving problems or carrying out as­signments with only partial knowledge of the framework within which they are operating. Noir conventions serve as an enticement. (Will Quinn prevent harm from coming to his client? Will he make love with the client’s beautiful wife?) There is no way, how­ever, to mistake what one is reading for a conventional detective story. The pleasure in the novels shuttles between the familiar one of tracking a protagonist’s efforts at solving a mystery and the more elusive one of keeping tabs on all the distancing effects in Auster’s execution. Thus one notes and, if one is in­clined, attempts to sort out the significance of Auster’s naming (or pseudonaming) a character after the hero/villain of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “William Wilson,” a story of doubling in which one William Wilson tracks and torments another.

All detective stories are, in some sense, narratives about close reading; about investigating an event, and about following a trail that can seem uncannily to parallel the trail of narrative itself, thus doubling the fictional process (the reader is always following a story about a detective following a story). Such stories seem therefore tailor-made for a kind of Hall-of-Mirrors criticism, and I’ll stop here, taking a moment to tip my hat to the deconstructionists, imagining the decentered pleasures they would have (or maybe already have had) in teasing out of Auster’s novels all the bordering, framing, and inside-outing of the given text. It’s enough, I think, without getting into a whole other realm of dif­ficulty, to note Auster’s central place in American literature for this sort of thing: the willingness to adapt genre to other (less commercial, less populist, more difficult) ends. His novels serve as one of the rare native signposts directing us to The Impossibly.

Auster and Hunt share, along with a fondness for the extragenre employment of genre forms, an ac­quaintance with French literature that reaches to more than typical depths. Before publishing the New York Trilogy, Auster edited an anthology of twentieth-century French poetry and has translated Stéphane Mallarmé, among others, from French to English. Hunt’s work is peppered with references to French literature (Villon, Marguerite Your­cenar, Montaigne, Flaubert, Lautréamont), and I found one translation of Hunt’s from the French (a biographical remembrance by Stuart Merrill of Paul Verlaine); at one point in The Paris Stories there’s a po­etic appreciation of the French capital’s resolute photographic chro­nicler, Eugène At­get. It is a leap, but a small one in Hunt’s (or Auster’s) case, to connect a writer’s Francophile tendency in lit­erature to a tendency to give ex­perimental forms a chance. The French fondness for literary experiment is well chronicled. Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle (1931), positions the French Symbolists at the genesis of the Modernist movement (as epitomized by T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Gertrude Stein) as well as of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements—all are treated as “a further development of the methods and ideals of the Symbolists.”3 It’s daunting, given how closely we seem to guard our conventions here, to look at even a partial list of French-language novelists who since 1950 have experimented formally with the novel and have achieved prominence: Michel Bu­tor, Patrick Chamoiseau, Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Na­thalie Sarraute, Claude Simon.

Interestingly for American genre writers, Edmund Wilson places Edgar Allan Poe at the in­ception of this long march of experimental writing: “one of the events of prime importance in the early history of the Symbolist Mo­vement was the discovery of Poe by Baudelaire,” Wilson writes. “Poe’s critical writings provided the first scriptures of the Symbolist Mo­vement.” This, it seems, is the or­iginal Jerry Lewis moment in French culture (pace B. Kite [Be­liever 7 & 8]), for, as Wilson goes on to say, “it was in France that Poe’s literary theory, to which no one seems to have paid much attention elsewhere, was first studied and elucidated.” Poe may provide a shaky (if influential) foundation for theory. His position as one of the originators of genre writing—horror, detective, and science fiction—is more solid. Paul Auster’s works are not the only ones to bring to mind the rather interesting convergence in Poe of genre (which Poe practiced) and literary experiment (which he encouraged, intention­ally or not). Vladimir Nabokov’s The Eye (trans. 1965, originally written 1930), a noirish tale of Russian émigré life in Berlin, has Nabokov taking his own stab at Poe’s “William Wilson.” The Eye incorporates detective and ghost elements into a “dreadfully painful love story,” as Nabokov puts it in his foreword. Hunt’s The Impossibly shares, with The Eye and “William Wilson,” a finale in which a protagonist ends up stalking himself.


A handful of factors edges The Impossibly away from its genre mooring: the Auster-like abstraction in regard to place; the nameless, faceless cast of characters. Throughout, Hunt creates a heightened awareness of the fictional nature of his enterprise, sometimes with little tweaks, at other times by having the narrator contradict himself outright:


None of this is true, of course.
I mean in the sense that it is actually the case, that it occurs, or that it can be confirmed. (p. 117)


Then we paid and left and found them sometime later wearing completely different clothes.

Actually, they found us.

(pp. 37–38)


The organization that I was currently working for, by the way, was reputed to be immense and im­mensely effective, although largely staffed by part-timers like myself.

Probably not much like my­self.

Or only maybe. (p. 35)


Speaking of stupid, or of stupidly, I am put in mind of the following anecdote once told to me, or actually twice. (p. 59)


In all, we only stayed four days in the country, but it was enough, it was like a year, it was the best time of all, though not really. Never really. (pp. 42–43)


The self-consciousness in such ex­­amples seems to be occasioned not only by the narrator’s uncertainty about the organization for which he works but also by an authorial reluctance to allow the reader to be fully immersed in story. Adding to this narrative self-consciousness is the narrator’s questioning of how he has put things (“so that it seemed as if there was an extra layer of fresh paint pouring constantly across my new apartment’s walls. Or something like that”). Perhaps the most severe effect is a disjuncture in the story line wherein the narrator shifts, with a grammatically clear, if conceptually illogical, transition from one thing to another, often creating a gap in the story’s time sequence that may or may not be filled in later. Such a gap occurs soon after the narrator’s friend meets the woman’s friend at the “event” in the narrator’s apartment and a double date is arranged:

[T]he two of them made the plan that the four of us should go away somewhere, perhaps to the country.

Given the circumstances, it was a wonderful trip.

There is always this question of circumstances.

Just before she left the event, for example, we kissed, right next to the table where I had piled the food, which had, by this time, been thoroughly massacred. We kissed and kissed…

The gap in the narrative falls between the idea of a plan to go away and the idea of a completed trip. We shift, therefore, from the narration of the “event” at which the two friends meet and plan the trip, to the summary of the completed trip (“wonderful”), and back again to the event at the end of which the narrator and the woman kiss. The transitional “Given the circumstances” in the second paragraph, above, and the “for example” in the third, have no clear referents. We never know for certain what the “circumstances” are that might impinge on the wonderfulness of the trip: that the friends are sociopaths? that the organization is evil? that the narrator has turned down a job that will doom the affair? It’s not clear. And why the kiss “right next to the table” is an “example” of the “question of circumstances” is anyone’s guess. These lacunae are no hindrance—or in any case no surprise, as the disregard for strict old-fashioned storytelling be­comes, believe it or not, one of the pleasures of The Impossibly. Ambiguity—about what’s happening within the story, about how stories normally happen—is a recurring experience in the reading of the novel. Saying such ambiguity mirrors the violent and uncertain existence of the novel’s world is perhaps too schematic. Yet having once accepted the skewed ap­proach of Hunt’s narration, one accepts much of what comes along with surprising ease. For example, the names of the two friends, John and Deau (the only characters in the book given proper names), give rise to an appropriately glancing joke, as if there weren’t enough anonymity going around in The Impossibly.

Hunt’s use of fractured time se­quence can have more than literary shock value. It takes on a quality of suspense at a few critical points, proving useful as a storytelling as well as a metafictional tool. One in­stance occurs at the opening of section B, when the narrator has come across a woman he believes to be the one he’d fallen in love with ­earlier. The narrator has been for­cibly separated from the woman, tortured, rescued, kicked out of the or­ganization, brought back in; the wo­man has disappeared. Her rediscovery would, in a conventionally plotted novel, merit full attention. Hunt employs the trick of breaking off the unfolding of the meeting a number of times, inserting, in a matter-of-fact way, wildly tangential information before circling back:

But then one morning I thought I saw her again. I was walking along a street near my apartment carrying a bag that contained three warm pastries, or, rather two and one-half warm ­pastries—I had al­ready started eating one of them. It had a light, sweet glaze that would have gone well with my steamed milk, and I was vaguely touching the tip of my tongue to the center of my upper lip and feeling very happy, thoroughly contented, perhaps even a little smug, when I saw her again, or thought I did.

And having approached her and engaged her in conversation (getting nowhere and being in some uncertainty as to whether she is indeed the woman he’d known), the narrator attempts to stop her when she walks away:

Hey, I said, and when, my interpolation having had no effect, I began to follow her, she sped up, and when I sped up, she started running, and when I started running, she ran faster than me. Never a fast runner, I had put on several pounds and had become something of a fatty at that time. This was not just a function of a regular intake of glazed pastries with pear and almond filling, it was also a function of cakes. I liked a good deal of chocolate in a cake and I could not go lightly on the butter.

Incredibly, the discussion of sweets goes on for a few more lines before we get back to the narrator’s pursuit of the woman. We begin to feel Hunt is putting us on. Yet a strategy of avoidance of emotional pain on the narrator’s part is consistent with the roundabout way he approaches all difficult matters. Nor is Hunt’s narrator alone in seeking the comfort of pastries.


Surreal elements also work against conventional ex­pectations. There’s a little comedy of doubling, worthy of “William Wilson,” wherein the narrator splits off from himself, ending up in two places at the same time: “Once, for example, as the two of us were walking down the street, I was somehow walking down the street behind us, and we got farther and farther ahead of me, so that when we turned into a store and looked at red velvet dresses and talked, she later told me, to a salesperson with an orange hat and a cracked tooth, I missed the turn and kept walking and ended up falling in a ditch.” There are many odd settings: “We left the room of the glowing fruit trees and entered a room where toys were being made. Here there were many workshops lit with colored lanterns and candles made of multicolored wax.” Behind it all is the organization for which the narrator works, an organization as shadowy and puissant as the courts in Kafka’s The Trial (1925), its agents as given to sudden appearances as the officers of The Trial’s courts. The mock-official terminology of The Im­possibly’s organization (workers are “organic assets” who are “disaffirmed” and “recuperated”) re­minds one of the legalese of Kafka’s courts, where “inquiries” are held and “first petitions” are worked on endlessly. Both The Trial’s Joseph K. and Hunt’s narrator are called on to improvise their actions. They don’t know the whole story. They never get access to people high enough in their respective organizations to see the master plan. Hunt’s first-person narration and Kafka’s close third keep us from knowing much more than our heroes. We never learn why such intrusive and overarching organizations exist. Thus the ultimate difficulty brought to bear on the protagonists in these novels, death, comes without satisfactory justification.

Such epistemological ambiguities—the uncertain boundaries of organizational control, the lack of knowledge of a reason for the or­ganization’s existence—give the protagonist’s struggles an exem­plary quality. Joseph K., when considering his written defense, wonders whether to include “a brief over­view of his life, and for each event of any particular importance, explain why he had acted as he did.” Walter Benjamin, in his paradigmatic reading of Kafka, captures the quasireligious impact of Kafka’s novels and stories as well as the ultimately unknowable mystery at their core: “They are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it.… In every case it is a question of how life and work are organized in hu­man society. This question increasingly occupied Kafka as it became impenetrable to him.” As the priest tells Joseph K. near The Trial’s end, “The text is immutable, and the opinions are often only an expression of despair over it.” One can follow the stories of The Trial, of the New York Trilogy, of The Impossibly. As to extracting from them a rule to live by (avoid massive and violent organizations? don’t go around pretending you’re a detective?)—good luck. Maybe difficult texts require a different approach: a privileging of method over content. “Every day
I spend time reading my authors,” Montaigne says, “not caring about their learning, looking not for
their subject matter, but how they handle it.”4


Hunt has also published Indiana, Indiana (2003), a more gently experi­mental work than The Impossibly. The new novel is set on a “farm in the center of the county in the center of Indiana in the heart of the country.” In spite of the nod to William H. Gass’s kaleidoscopic story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968), Indiana, Indiana falls fairly securely within the realm of realistic fiction. It may have come as a surprise and perhaps a disappointment to those enamored of Hunt’s earlier novel’s idiosyncratic personality. There was some groundwork, however. Corn and Indiana crop up in The Paris Stories:

W: Do you know corn? It’s a perfect plant.

M: Perfect in what way?

W: Perfect for sun perfect for rain. In Indiana you might al­most say they worship it.

And The Impossibly’s narrator re­calls at rare moments, with reticent formality, and not without a good dose of The Impossibly’s typically nightmarish undercurrent, a rural childhood: “When I was quite young, as I have mentioned previously, I lived in certain rural areas, as often as not surrounded by various domesticated animals, as well as various wild and even savage ones.” By comparison, Indiana, Indiana is well situated in familiar territory, and peopled with characters recognizable from life and from other rural fictions. The characters even have names: “Noah remembers holding Ruby’s and Virgil’s hands, swinging between the two of them on the way to church, or across the driveway, or up the front walk to the house, and he remembers touching each of them on the forehead be­fore their velvet-lined coffins were closed.” There’s something of Kent Haruf’s characters’ earthiness to Indiana, Indiana’s protagonist Noah and his father Virgil, Midwestern farmers both, loners, straight-talkers when they bother to talk at all, full of quirks and rounded out with not altogether unsurprising traits—Virgil’s classical learning, Noah’s visionary spells. Hunt’s novel has something, too, of Haruf’s scrubbed-down, direct, yet deeply felt and thereby lyrical prose style. Indiana, Indiana is a lovely novel, with more narrative oddity (stories within stories, refracted time sequence) and less plot-driven momentum than Ha­ruf’s Plainsong (1999) and The Tie That Binds (1984). Yet it feels equally true to its place and people, equally in­genuous. It has an ap­proachability The Impossibly lacks. It’s easier to peg, to get comfortable with. It’s less… difficult. Ultimately it’s less rich, too. Less distinctive. Faulkner, early and late, gave us similarly skewed personalities, similar epi­sodes of matter-of-fact rural maiming. A slew of Southern and Midwestern and Western writers have walked this ground. Itinerant hustlers, wise fools, auguries and county fairs and backwater isolation, time measured in chores and seasons.


Mostly we like to settle in with books. Sometimes it’s nice to be made to sit up. One has to search hard to place The Impossibly. Its odd insertion of familiar longings into a dys­topian world, its sparsity of de­tail, its narrator’s oddly ab­stract formulations for even the most intimate of interactions, its flouting of novelistic conventions, its conspicuous winking good hu­mor—all these make for a bracing read.

1. It may be that the fortunes of difficult writers fluctuate more radically than others’—thus the opening of Cyril Connolly’s essay on Laurence Sterne: “‘Nothing odd will do long,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘Witness Tristram Shandy,’ and such is the awful finality of this judgment that one re-reads Sterne almost with a sense of guilt, though indeed no author’s reputation has so often survived its own obituary.”
2. George Steiner proposed, in “On Difficulty” (1978), four types of literary difficulty: contingent, modal, tactical and ontological. These translate roughly into difficulty that requires you to look stuff up; difficulty figuring out a writer’s purpose; difficulty with a writer’s innovations; and a kind of mystical difficulty that surpasseth understanding. The Impossibly fits comfortably into the latter three.
3. Wilson traces the movement from Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire to, most centrally, Stéphane Mallarmé, after whom it disperses among various writers including Paul Valéry, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Jules Laforgue, and those rock stars of poetry, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.
4. On the other hand, Montaigne also says, “It is a marvelous testimony of the weakness of our judgment that it recommends things for their rarity or novelty, or even for their difficulty, even if they are neither good nor useful.”
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