BLOG Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 113

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, FineRarely do books invoke a state of critical paralysis in me, but the stories in Diane Williams’ Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine have managed just that. As a consequence I offer you an uncertain and idiosyncratic response – an attempt to examine my own state of paralysis in the face of work which operates in a huge and open field of doubt.

I feel able to make certain statements with conviction. For example – ‘to read this book is to be confronted head-on with questions about the ethics of reading and writing.’ Or – ‘to read this book is to be comprehensively and devastatingly wrongfooted.’ Or – ‘to read this book is to be thrown into such a deep awareness of the reading process that one is forced to dismantle one’s own previously held readerly desires and expectations.’

I can also state with certainty that Veronica Forrest-Thomson hovered in the background as I read, and shouted things like: ‘literature, being based on language, cannot... get at the things behind language in some special way’; or, ‘there may, in fact, be nothing… more real than forms of language.’(1) But perhaps these certainties are less interesting than the uncertainties I experienced.

To illustrate my feelings I will describe a hypothetical review. The first half of this review would go something like:

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine forces a confrontation with the reader in a language wholly other than that of mainstream ‘literature’. Like Gertrude Stein, Williams is cerebral and virtually unquotable, choosing to provoke her effects via syntactical ruptures, non-sequiturs, grammatical (and ungrammatical) disruptions and repetitions.
In tiny domestic vignettes she explores the bizarre psychological demands we place against one another, achieving this using the blown-apart logic of dreams. In truth, each sentence is a story unto itself – a complete, idiomatic nugget which feels both discontinuous and part of some large, hard fable lurking in the background. These pieces are invigorating and radical – true examples of a contemporary and accessible avant-garde.
Language uses us, Williams suggests, as much as we use language, and the balance of power in these stories – specifically, the degree to which Williams concedes power to language – is discomforting on several psychic levels. The reader is goaded into action so as to meet the demands of doubt in these anti-narratives, and must carry the weight of that doubt with her into daily life.

The second half of this mythical review would run as follows:

And yet the consistent generating of uncertainty across such tiny canvases – these stories might be a couple of sentences or two and a half A5 pages – leads to an embarrassment of alienating devices; a kind of saturated estrangement. The sense that language is not really on our side leads to a suspicion that language can never, under any circumstances, be deemed either innocent or capable of anything close to affect.
Williams’ gift of power to language means that ‘voice’ becomes a series of syntactical fragments, realignments and misorderings. But this new and disruptive grammar quickly tires, and the tricks seem familiar after a short while. The glitches become a dominant mode, with each story depending on the same disruptive tactics in order to achieve its effects.
I am certainly no believer in literature’s duty to edify or entertain, but the absence of pleasure here feels conspicuous – for these are profoundly unpleasurable fictions. The best advice I can give to you is this: take them rapidly and in small doses. Because these stories are like a rich foodstuff – take too much at once and you will be sick.

But I sense unfairness in the second half of this my review; a kind of over-reaching of reproach which suggests only shame at my inability to properly judge the book. The trouble is, I feel genuinely uncomfortable with these stories – perhaps because the way in which they probe the purpose, the function of language and its uses as, or in, literature, leads ultimately to a kind of nihilism. But I cannot be sure of this.

If the purpose of a review is to offer two clear options: either persuade you of a book’s deservedness to be read, or else convince you of its un-deservedness, I feel incapable of offering a firm vote either way. All I’m left with is doubt, uncertainty and questions, questions, questions….

(1) Forrest-Thomson, V, Poetic Artifice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978)

Amy McCauley recently completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English & Creative Writing.


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