Notebook

By  |  January 23, 2015

Lately we've been reading what has to be one of the most singular books in recent memory. In Against the Country, a comic jeremiad attacking the malignancy of rural life in the improbable but all-too-real Virginia county of Goochland, Ben Metcalf has written a fictional memoir in which most of the significant action takes place in the unexpected arcs of his magnificent sentences. Readers should set aside their expectations of what a novel is supposed to be or do and give themselves up to a rhetoric that draws upon the deepest sources of American literature. It's not that Metcalf simply wants to subvert novelistic conventions or deny his readers the satisfactions of storytelling—that in itself would be conventional, academic, even mundane. Metcalf's ironies are much darker, not to say twisted, and far more hilarious.

Another recent novel that defies traditional expectations is Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Each short chapter is a collection of fragments or snippets, sometimes only obscurely related, and the prose looks sparse on the page. We've been dipping into it at night before bed. The action, when it happens, concerns an unnamed narrator's good times, disappointments, and moments in between. The novel brims with emotional heft and images that linger. Early on, the narrator tells us: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” But then she does get married, and readers will be moved by what happens next.

"Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy” by Greg Jackson, in VQR's fall issue, was nominated last week for a National Magazine Award in the fiction category. No big surprise there: the story is excellent. “It was an odd moment in my life," muses Daniel, who has come to France with his girlfriend Vicky. They are staying with an old friend, Marion, and her husband, Léon Descoteaux. "I no longer felt young," Daniel continues, "but I didn’t feel exactly old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the normal model." Men of certain age often suffer such longueurs. Vicky wasn't a perfect fit, but Daniel had scaled back his expectations of romance, and perhaps Vicky had as well. Or perhaps not. Pair with the Australian Open and Roger Federer's advancing age.

From the editors of the Oxford American.