Let’s Make a Canon

At the Reading Experience, Dan Green is hoping to launch a regular feature dedicated to critical appreciations of American fiction since 1980. This excites me for all the obvious reasons—it could supplant the generally fine but intermittent “In Retrospect” series dedicated to older works, and might even prompt me to start doing more long-form criticism, now that newspaper reviewing doesn’t offer much in the way of that. (When I started doing it a few years back, the standard word count was still around 1,200 words; these days it’s closer to 400.)

I think you and I can both agree on the usual suspects that such a new canon might include—Green’s first choice, Russell BanksAffliction, being one of them. (Wouldn’t Continental Drift be better, though? Anyway.) The list of ten books below is a hasty attempt to propose a few ideas that go beyond the typical choices. In general, they’re all books of relatively recent vintage that I admire but haven’t seen much sustained critical thought about; I’ve clanged a bell for most of them before, here or elsewhere, and I’d be excited to see a smart, precocious critic tackle any one of them.

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue
Ward Just, Echo House
Sue Miller, The World Below
Adam Langer, Crossing California
JT Leroy, Sarah
Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
Carter Scholz, Radiance
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Not a very diverse list at first glance, I confess. But as I mentioned, it goes without saying that, say, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones would be on any longlist. Who else?

Back to Radiance

The Quarterly Conversation has just published a thoughful review of Radiance, a 2002 novel by Carter Scholz set in a post-Cold War research lab. The book didn’t attract the attention it deserved at the time; its study of scientists squabbling over a how to transform nuclear weapons into “dual use” initiatives (and pretty much winding up with nuclear weapons anyway) has the kind of intelligence and grim humor that any fan of Pynchon or DeLillo would admire. So Sacha Arnold‘s thoughts on the book are appreciated—at least by me, and I’m sure by others too:

Scholz shares with [Jonathan] Lethem a love of the more speculative genres, and of their antecedents (Borges, Calvino, and of course Kafka). With Richard Powers he shares an enthusiasm for building his works around scientific ideas, and with the Don DeLillo of Ratner’s Star he holds in common an irrepressible impulse to satirize the scientists responsible for them. But he departs from his contemporaries in the way he melds his observations of the descendental world of scientific practice with a reverent sense of the scientific vocation.

The result of such a melding is an alternately satirical and spiritual book. The harsh skepticism that Scholz the satirist brings to weapons science is not unlike the skepticism William Gaddis brings to business and law in his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own. Both authors begin by assuming that corruption and fraud are the rule; they then set the better natures of their characters (when present) against the evils of the field being satirized.

I don’t believe Scholz has published anything since Radiance, which is unfortunate. You can read a goodly chunk of the novel via Google Books.