Monday, October 19, 2009

John D'Agata's Guided Tours of Unlikely Places

The Essay section in the bookstore being more usually populated with books of a traditionally modest size and length, the appearance on those shelves of so Brobdingnagian a book as John D'Agata's The Lost Origin of the Essay is something of a freak. Just shy of 700 pages, and nearly as thick as a Norton Anthology, D'Agata's second miscellany of a projected trilogy is of course meant to be nothing like those venerable surveys. Rather this is a willfully eccentric, alternate history of the form, with the editor impishly beginning, as it were, at the beginning, with the birth of the written word in Sumerian cuneiform, and then skipping down the centuries, picking the occasional quintessential, but more often gathering such curiosities, curios and anomalies as seemingly catch his fancy. At first glance, D'Agata would seem to simply have a preference for the exotic, but better say, he has a plan. As in his first anthology, The Next American Essay, published in 2002, this is an exercise in anti-canonical mischief, from the title on, and one either enjoys the editor's romping -- hopefully appreciating some, if not all of his often unlikely, if not just as often downright perverse selections, and the wittily reductive heresies, historical and literary, in his brief introductions, -- or not.

D'Agata is such a charming writer, so full of fine things, japes, surprises and genuinely clever misreadings of the established order, and the historical record, it is impossible not to like him. Reviewing his work to date, I found myself delighting not only in this latest effort, but also in his earlier collection, and his own book of essays, aphorisms and various noodlings, Halls of Fame. He is a very clever fellow. As an anthologist, he is a completely original and utterly unconvincing critic, but what of that? Doesn't mean he can't be enjoyed as an artist, though clearly he's not to be trusted as a librarian.

Arguing from an entirely false, in fact ludicrous, premise that insists the personal and philosophic essay has traditionally precluded, or at least restricted formal and personal idiosyncrasy, the "impulsive exploration," or what he comically insists on calling the "lyric" element in prose -- his highest abstract and ill-defined value -- he nimbly sidesteps any example from the canon that might show how silly his idea of the rigidity of the accepted essay is. He makes straw-men out of everyone from Bacon, bizarrely represented here not by one of his more famous essays, but by a list, to Addison, Steele, Johnson and Dickens, none anywhere present to speak for themselves*. The editor insists that this last disparate collection of names "regularly proffered the commerce of prose's usual conventions," as if Addison & Steele had never invented Sir Roger, Johnson hadn't argued himself into and out of doubt time and again, and, presumably in his "Uncommercial Traveler" or his journalism, Dickens somehow claimed a place among the essayists he didn't deserve. Skipping right over Lamb and Hazlitt to get to De Quicey in 1849, I suppose a more congenial spirit to his thesis, though I can't quite see in what way beyond his addiction to opium, and then bustling off after a truly obscure, and suitably purple, though doubtless worthy, Belgian previously unknown to me, named Aloysius Betrand, D'Agata shakes the dust of England from his sneakers and doesn't set foot again in English until 1941, when Virginia Woolf brings him briefly back from translations, poetry and other excerpted matter. Such is his globetrotting, and his careful avoidance of any history or chronology but his own, the casual reader of D'Agata would be left with an astonishingly scant understanding of just what it is he is arguing against.

What he is arguing for only really becomes clear when the reader, after being led a very merry chase indeed, finally arrives with him in the the latter end of the last century and is finally introduced to the modern, and post-modern practitioners on whom D'Agata has most clearly modeled his own style. Turns out, the essay he has been arguing for is no more an essay as such than the essayists he has been arguing so amusingly against are really guilty of the sins against lyricism he has insisted they committed, to a man. It is that word, "essay," D'Agata wants, but without all that annoying history attached. Having tried elsewhere to make it his own with just "lyric" applied as a modifier, he must not have been satisfied with the response he received for his efforts, though I certainly don't grudge him his curious griffins, or see why or where anyone else has either. Clearly quite erudite, in his own fun and funny way, he has insisted now on recasting the past to suit himself, and done a dazzling job of it, insofar as entertainment, if not actual scholarship, goes. (His selective history reminds me very much of Will Cuppy, an older comedian in the genre.) And again, why not?

It's all a bit precious, but it isn't as if he's likely to do much damage to anyone other than his students at the University of Iowa, and he might do them good, for all I know or much care. They're presumably young and can see for and to themselves. As for me, I'm looking forward to his next collection of oddments and I do not doubt it will be just as entertaining as his others. I can skip the bits that disagree with me. Why not? John D'Agata seems to, and it hasn't done him a bit of harm.

*As aren't, to make a quick list just from memory: Cowley, Pope, Leigh Hunt, Carlyle, Thackeray, Arnold, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Chesterton, Orwell, Hubert Butler, E, M. Cioran, Edward Hoagland, Wendell Berry, Gore Vidal... Such lists being pretty pointless here, as traditional anthologies, like traditional essays, are of course generally what are being dismissed, or ignored, as well beside the point.

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