[Rain Mountain Press; 2022]
In a recent essay, Mary Gaitskill expressed anxiety that today’s fiction readers are so preoccupied by plot as a device for political messaging that they are deaf or indifferent to the importance of style. A writer’s style, for Gaitskill, is the lifeblood of serious fiction, the inner force that enables a higher imagination. Without style, why even indulge in narratives that aren’t literally true? Gaitskill fears that perhaps we’ve reached an inflection point, where fiction has become a pale replica of journalism. The culture has moved on.
To which, I suspect, Vincent Czyz would respond: Not so fast! Although he probably shares many of Gaitskill’s concerns, his latest book, The Secret Adventures of Order, offers a spirited defense of the ongoing importance of style, both in his appreciations of other writers and as embodied in his own prose. A collection of literary essays, creative nonfiction, and even biblical exegesis, this volume’s sensibility is made explicit in Czyz’s response to the writing of Guy Davenport:
I gravitate toward work that’s been praised for the strength of its language, for its striking imagery and lyricism, while generally being chided for its weak storyline. But why should poets have exclusive rights to make insight, observation, and beautifully arranged words the strength of their pieces?
Czyz argues in favor of “plotting against plot” and, echoing William Gass, believes that “story is what you do to clean up life and make God into a good burgher who manages the world like a business.” The opening essay, “Prose, Thinly Disguised as an IKEA Superstore . . .” refers variously to Sylvia Plath, ancient Greek pottery, and Mehmet the Conqueror to raise questions about the construction of a big box store in New Rochelle, New York. Czyz shows how the idiosyncrasies of a neighborhood and its inhabitants could be sacrificed for a sleekly efficient commercial center. He asserts, “the poetry lost wouldn’t be worth the prose gained.”
As the above example makes clear, Czyz does not limit his purview to texts. He writes engagingly of growing up in tough neighborhoods in New Jersey, time spent in Turkey, and friendships. Moreover, some of his more astringent observations are actually reserved for literary stylists who lose themselves in preciousness.
In “A Brief Reply to Gary Lutz’s The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” he takes Lutz to task for reductive and imprecise descriptions of prose prosody. For Lutz, the sounds of letters can take precedence over image or even meaning, and he is, according to Czyz, “mistaking a few floral dabs of icing for the cake.” Czyz demonstrates how Lutz’s allusions to Gordon Lish’s “consecution” rely on arbitrary phonetics. The author underlines that “The practice is neither new (it’s not even modern), nor does it have much to do with Lish.”
Czyz remains on guard against prose writers whose search for the poetic slides into squashy self-indulgence, like someone picking up a karaoke microphone with a mistaken confidence that they really can sing. He argues that rigor cannot be replaced by pseudo-intellectual posturing.
Skepticism of a different kind of posturing characterizes his response to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Czyz shares David Foster Wallace’s sentiment that irony has been used to the point of exhaustion by fiction writers, expressed in his description of Atocha as “another novel that dodges sincerity as though one bite would begin the zombie apocalypse.” Note the emphasis on sincerity, which for Czyz is akin to “our subjectivity—quaintly dubbed ‘soul’ or ‘heart’ depending on the spin you prefer.” Subjectivity originates in style, and the allusion to “soul” or “heart” makes it clear that style means more than the ability to turn a felicitous phrase.
Czyz praises writers like Basho, John Berger, John Ash, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and the novelist Sabahattin Ali. An international perspective is palpable in these essays. He describes a visit to the elderly Ash in his apartment in Istanbul, contrasting the writer’s spare style to his “multiphasic” personality: “Depending on the day, he could be irascible, understanding, condescending, generous, abrasive, compassionate, savagely belittling, surprisingly gentle, pointlessly combative—and I don’t think that exhausts the spectrum.” In “No Bones to Venerate,” he writes of Ali’s mistreatment and incarceration in Sinope Prison, which now lugubriously hosts a museum shrine to the writer. Ali died at the hands of the state, which now enjoys a “new income stream” from “dark tourism.”
A separate section of The Secret Adventures of Order includes creative nonfiction of an autobiographical nature. These essays offer glimpses of the individual behind the critic. “The Cold War”—perhaps the standout piece of this collection—recounts Czyz’s troubled relationship with his physically abusive father. Highly sensitive subject matter is artfully presented and nuanced. “My father hit all of us,” Czyz writes, while patiently dissecting how his understanding of the experience evolved over time. “Flat out hating him would have been a lot easier. Unfortunately, my father had a lot to admire in him.” One could imagine this story being expanded to a book-length memoir, but here, the conclusion of the short form essay is pitch-perfect and very powerful.
Other autobiographical pieces describe Czyz’s experimentation with ayahuasca to deal with his psychological rages, or in “Paluccaville,” a travel narrative provides a tribute to his literary mentor and friend, Stevie Palucca. Now deceased, Palucca was a man who, by conventional measures, might be considered a lost soul, but in Czyz’s affectionate depiction, he emerges as a great soul.
The collection ends with a section of biblical exegesis. At first glance, it might seem incongruous; it is, in any event, curious, from a writer who describes himself as an atheist. But here, the volume comes full circle by suggesting that stylistic considerations in foundational texts, even for seemingly recondite subjects, such as Hellenistic influence in the Gospel of Mark or misunderstandings of Lucifer, can affect contemporary political interpretations or even public policy. We are not so far from Gaitskill’s concern about contemporary fiction’s dumbed-down political messaging.
For example, Czyz refers to the literalist readings of the Bible that remain commonplace in the United States, where leaders like Reagan and the younger Bush have used millennialist rhetoric. At high levels, it has been respectable discourse to refer to the “end times” preceding Armageddon, or to justify the torture of terrorist suspects because such tactics would be permissible, in the words of Bush’s biographer Jean Edward Smith, against “agents of the Devil.”
I lack the specialist knowledge to say how much Czyz’s readings align with contemporary biblical scholarship. (His allusions to the Victorian speculations of Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough give me pause.) But he is surely correct to underline the pitfalls of Americans’ attachment to literalist messaging and ahistorical readings of ancient texts, as well as a perversely willful ignorance of questions of translation, intertextuality, and yes, style. A writer’s style is not an ornament or luxury: It matters fundamentally when a very real Armageddon, of the nuclear sort, remains a risk.
Overall, The Secret Adventures of Order is serious work, consistently entertaining, and sometimes very personal. Czyz is opinionated, but he makes actual arguments and does not settle for snark. These pieces, though disparate, reveal a coherent and persuasive sensibility.
Charles Holdefer is an American writer based in Brussels. His next novel, Don’t Look At Me, about Emily Dickinson, basketball, and the persistence of literature in a post-literary age, will be published in October 2022. Visit Charles at www.charlesholdefer.com.
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