Bruce Stone & the Art of Desire
Literary criticism & dg
The nearest art-historical analogue for Glover’s aesthetic might be Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights: surreal and freakish cavorting with apocalyptic overtones (one cadaver-hued nude plucks long-stemmed flowers from another’s rectum), all limned with an eerie clarity of form and line. Bruce Stone, 3:AM Magazine, 2019
One of the slightly surprising sequelae of being a writer is that other people start writing about you. This can be good and bad, though lately I have noticed, looking back, that I even get a kick out of the bad reviews, the more outrageous the better. One of these days, I’ll gather some of those here for your enjoyment.
Academic critics are a different breed from newspaper critics, much more given to sober and lengthy analysis than the hyperbolic slash and burn of newspaper criticism (I used to write reviews, so I know). Some writers wax dismissive of academic critics, but on the whole I have been very lucky, finding most people who write about my work to be intelligent and curious in ways that often surprise me (I find out surprising things about myself). The most prolific of these is a man named Bruce Stone who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. In the early 2000s, Stone was a student in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach. He attended my lectures and readings and, once, we had lunch together in the Dewey cafeteria. We had a mutual interest in Viktor Shklovsky, Russian Formalism, and Nabokov (who ended up being another of Stone’s critical specialties).
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The first piece Stone wrote about me was a 49-page, career-summarizing essay for the Spring 2004 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The Review of Contemporary Fiction specialized in experimental writing, the avant garde, and translated writers from abroad. It was an arm of Dalkey Archive Press, and the publication of Stone’s essay coincided with Dalkey’s publication of my story collection Bad News of the Heart (a year later Dalkey also published by book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight). That particular issue also featured an essay on the eccentric and outrageous French novelist Blaise Cendrars who, at one time, had influenced my own, well, eccentric outrageousness. So that whole experience was gratifying from the start. Stone’s essay began:
Douglas Glover's characters are a persecuted lot. They suffer from cracked skulls, diseased lungs, digital amputations (both elective and compulsory), aesthetic constipation, nymphomania, toothache, chronic masturbation, amnesia, Kierkegaardian despair, alcoholism, and are sometimes politely homicidal. Squeezed between an intolerable past and an equally intolerable future, they are driven by desire and literally driven mad by its perversions. For these characters, suffering is the primary ontological condition. As one narrator in Glover's most recent collection observes, "It seems impossible that a human being could suffer this much and live. And just when you think you can't stand any more, it gets worse and you discover new possibilities of living" (16 Categories 174). It might sound excessively bleak were it not for the fact that pain, in Glover's universe, is very often the instrument for transcendence and redemption, if only temporarily and incompletely. What's more, Glover's prose radiates a blistering irony, by turns wickedly comic and sublimely affective, which, coupled with a broader compositional mastery, further leavens the agonizing climate; in his studied pursuit of stylistic estrangement, Glover knocks edgewise, as it were, even the weightiest drama—on the battlefield or in the bedroom—transporting the reader, if not always the character, to an entirely other plane where pleasure is, in fact, the norm.
This about sums me up. You could make a bullet list from it and use it as a guide when you read my work. Though any given story or novel will lean one way or another. The comedy is perhaps not emphasized enough. I write a lot of jokes.
Stone then used this essay as the basis for a collection of essays about me, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover (Oberon Press, Ottawa, 2004). Stone’s RCF essay begins the book, retitled “A Writer’s Guide to Douglas Glover’s Fiction.” The book also includes excellent pieces by Louis K. MacKendrick, Claire Wilkshire, Lawrence Mathews, Phil Tabakow, Don Sparling, Philip Marchand, and Stephen Henighan.
MacKendrick’s essay as an earlier stab at summarizing my output up to my story book Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon (1985). He is particularly generous about my first story collection The Mad River (1981), which I have otherwise pretty much tried to keep out of the public eye. It is the only book of mine not still in print and should probably stay that way. He also took delight in my detective novel Precious, not always accorded much attention by academic critics. Claire Wilkshire’s essay is about what she calls the performance of gender difference in my New Mexico short story “Red.” That story was originally published in Playgirl, the first issue to include a fully nude male (cowboy) centerfold (you can imagine the scene when I showed this to my parents; they were very stoic). Lawrence Mathews essay concentrates on the stories “The Travesty of Sleep” (another New Mexico story) and “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes.” Phil Tabakow, an American academic, does a neat analysis of my story “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now, Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814.” This is one of my Norfolk County stories, mock heroic, written in a style borrowed from writers of the American south. Don Sparling’s essay is about The Life and Times of Captain N. as a historical novel. Philip Marchand writes about my use of the failed artist trope in my story collection 16 Categories of Desire. He is the teensiest bit curmudgeonly, being somewhat mystified by my shifting generalizations about love, of which he includes a short list (which I adore, both my words and the fact of the list).
1. "All sex, it seems to me, is the manipulation of guilt for pleasure."
2. "The subterfuges of love always end up making love impossible."
3. "Love is nothing but a mechanism for heat exchange."
4. "There is no such thing as love without betrayal."
5. "We (are) always falling in love with people we got nothing in common with except the desire to get done."
Stephen Henighan’s essay looks at my novel Elle from the perspective of Cervantes and Don Quixote (which, yes, I wrote a book about, so this makes a of sense). He’s very smart and erudite and dives deeply into the intellectual stuff behind the novel.
One of the most delightful bits of The Art of Desire for my money (in the spirit of shameless self-promotion) is the opening lines of Stone’s preface where he describes his first encounter with me at a reading I gave at Vermont College (eons ago, it seems).
I first encountered Douglas Glover's fiction at a public reading given by the Vermont College faculty, a regular component of the residency sessions for that institution's MFA program. The reading was held on the second floor of College Hall, also known as the Chapel, owing to the building's sturdy bell tower and the presence of an ornamental pipe organ in the reading-room, and to access the venue, the faithful were required to scale one of those prohibitively steep New England staircases, a creaking relic from more allegorical times. It was in this atmosphere, at once rarified and routine, that Glover took to the lectern, and with a brusque introduction, almost belying the vocal play to follow, he launched into his reading, the title story of 16 Categories of Desire.
"Mama say there ain't but one desire which is the desire for Our Lord, pure and simple," his narrator begins, and Glover's rendition conveyed all of the idiomatic charm inherent in his character's cracked English. However, as the story bore on, treating us to its excesses of comedy and brutality as well as its insistent poignancy, something perhaps even more remarkable was happening. "What are the sixteen categories of desire?" the narrator asks, and with an air of improvisation, her lover, Sister Mary Buntline, replies, "The first bad category of desire is the desire to have a baby with a man... " reaching the fifth of her categories before the thread is interrupted by her own mounting arousal. From the first iteration of this motif, this incremental catalogue of desires, surely everyone in the house had their expectations synchronized, awaiting its return, the pleasurable regularity of the pattern. The result was an oddly participatory, invitational performance, baiting us with the installments of the Sister's categories of desire and surprising us with the possibilities, linguistic and emotional, that the story discovered en route. As we listened, the story began to acquire a nearly palpable sense of shapeliness, as if something tangible were being constructed out of thin air, if you will, out of the very breath that constituted the story—something for which the best metaphor might be cosmological: a hermetic and functional literary universe that came into being somewhere between those ordinary rows of low-backed chairs and the stately heights of that decorous ceiling. In short, it was possible to sense the story's design, its compositional structure, as if we were hearing with our fingertips the stunning bas-relief of the text.
Stone has kept up with my work through the years. This wasn’t his last word. In 2013, when my collection Savage Love came out, he wrote a review essay “An Anatomy of Story: Douglas Glover’s "Savage Love" for Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s a terrific essay, though he’s the tiniest bit critical in spots (it’s more of a review than an analysis), finding some of my ebullient excesses excessive and my repetitions a tad repetitive. But he ends with an extremely astute observation about the roots of my art.
The genealogy for this aesthetic vision also traces back to Arthur Schopenhauer, as Glover points out in his essay on Bernhard, “A Scrupulous Fidelity”: he cites “Schopenhauer’s notion that art itself is the intermediary between the supra-sensory and the merely human, that in creating or correctly appreciating great art we enter an eternal realm of Platonic Ideas (Beauty, God, or even Being in Heidegger’s sense) and leave the tawdry realm of existence behind.” Again, I’m not sure that Glover would prosecute narrowly that emphasis on the “correct appreciation of art”; however, given that the title of “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night” is itself identical to the dog’s aberrant behavior, Glover does suggest that literature, like kinky sex and graphic violence (or forensic archeology or fatherhood), might also be a conduit for that experience of the other, the true, the Real. It does a reader good to think so, anyway.
And when my essay book The Erotics of Restraint was published in 2018, he wrote yet another essay, “Of Snow and Corpses: Facets of Douglas Glover’s Fiction” (3:AM Magazine), this time ranging over the whole length and breadth of what I’ve written, drawing on the essays to explicate the stories and novels, and even analyzing my newest stories (up to that point), not yet collected into a book.
Douglas Glover’s fiction deserves rapturous praise, even if the work itself equivocates, disavows its own artistry, bites the hand that reads it, then lapses into silence. His narratives are tortured and tender, incorrigibly funny, laced with pungent details (like smelling salts, they arouse consciousness) and moist with vital fluids. The textual architecture, his special genius, he frets carefully and flays, baring armatures of nested patterns, rigged to ensure his forms are felt. And however wild things get, his prose remains sleek and spare, crystalline even, or maybe just curt—when it’s not frothing, or expatiating, or lexically slumming, or off somewhere clowning around. But touting Glover’s gifts can feel a little like cheerleading for Beckett. He is schooled in the scariest branches of philosophy, rigorously and unrepentantly postmodern, about which bent he doesn’t mince words or pull punches. His fictions seem to pose the grim question, “How bad could it be?”, then proceed, with a nod and a grin, to show us.
The most righteous thing a critic can do is take the whole writer seriously, not just treat this or that single work as a stand-in for the entire output. Stone has taken the trouble to read everything. He’s also interviewed me, and we still write to each other now and then. I have been blessed with some good readers, but most of them don’t write down their thoughts much less do the work of getting them published. I am grateful to Bruce Stone for his efforts, and I admire him. He’s also a good fiction writer, frustratingly unrecognized.1 He’s on the side of the angels.
So let me end by clarifying where I began. Or rather, let me start over. Douglas Glover’s fiction deserves rapturous praise, a praise mindful of the Rapture, and uncowed.