I often get frustrated when I want to look deeper into a book than I was able to do myself and am not able to find much that does so. I sometimes find a lot of reviews that tell me a little, but not much more than I can dig out myself. Good or bad just doesn’t cut it . . . or tell me very much. Believe me, as intelligent as I sometimes manage to con people into thinking I am, there are frequently times when I know I miss a great deal of what a book has to offer and desire to pick through the thoughts of someone who saw things differently.
That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to see John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb coming out. I know what kind of writer he is from his fiction, and I’ve experienced the kind of analysis he can bring to the table in his last AWP lecture, so I knew I was going to get something more in this collection of essays and criticism.
I like to review myself, and like to think that I do a good job, but I’m awed to the level that Domini takes criticism. He brings a multifaceted approach to this kind of work that demonstrates him apparently as equally skilled in literary theory (being well versed enough to place a work both within the larger context of an author’s body of work and within various literary streams as well as analyzing more technical forms and functions), history, artistic aesthetic, culture, and more (this example from Jaimy Gordon: Taking Feminism to “Fantasticoes”):
From the doomy brooding of Kate Chopin’s Awakening (1899) through the sexed-up capering of Erica Jong, and from there on to the vengeful ferocity of Marge Piercy and the more complex cross-cultural materials of Louise Erdrich and others, fiction about a woman’s place in the world has tended to omit the spiritual, the Unknowable. Instead such narratives emphasize social issues: political, economic, or otherwise. Erdrich’s work provides the closest thing to an exception, and the best correlative for Gordon’s. Granted, a novel as violent and admonitory as Love Medicine (1984) could never be called a comedy. Still, in that book and others, while Erdrick never ignores class or money or Realpolitik, nor more than Gordon does, nonetheless she leavens their oppressiveness with magic and miracle, sometimes Christian, more often Lakota. In the process, the also risks formal experiments, at the level of both sentence and structure.
He never gives up and just says that a work cannot be explained, always finding a way in (this example from Dancing on the Head of a Pin: Dawn Raffel & Further Adventures in the Restless Universe):
A critic’s conundrum: the book that’s easy to praise but hard to describe. Consider, for instance, Dawn Raffel’s new collection of stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. I can say confidently that it’s difficult to imagine this sort of thing done better—indeed, two or three of the pieces strike me as nothing short of masterful—but to put a name to what she’s doing remains a desperate work….The emphasis here must be on Raffel’s new contribution, worth celebrating whatever its category.
And, even better, he can manage to explain it all to me in a way that is engaging and comprehensible. I’d quote to demonstrate this, but I think this point is already evident from the quotes above.
One essay that amused me in particular, as well as educated me, was The Humanist Model: William Gass & The World Within. Aside from what was actually intended in this essay, I found a great amount of amusement in the fact it is criticism of the criticism of William Gass. I mean, literary criticism is already writing about writing (though some of the pieces in this collection cover art, television, and film as well as literary works). In this essay we have writing about writing on writing. Infinite regression achieved, and interestingly so. We’ll ignore the fact that I’m reviewing his criticism of the critical works of Gass before my head explodes.
But, as I mentioned before, Domini’s essays aren’t just restricted to examining literary works. One (Dinosaur in the Train Station: Four Years into the Sopranos Phenomenon) even examined The Sopranos:
Chase’s essential dilemma is that, like Stephen Dedalus, like the best artists in any medium, he wishes to forge the conscience of his race. Thus he cannot avoid what it has always meant to create a moving and honest portrayal of a worlds; he cannot work without addressing the misfits and pariahs. Jennifer Melfi’s story, though it has its triumphs and failures, would be that of any determined professional of any ethnicity. The same can be said for the membership of the National Italian-American Foundation, surely. But an artist who looks beyond the individual to larger shaping forces where comfortable assumptions give way. To choose just one recent correlative case, consider the novels of Toni Morrison. In the best of this minority American’s work, in Sula especially, communities of color set their own mainstream, oppressed by the larger society, against their own still-more-isolated pariahs.
I’m not sure I could ever get my criticism on the kind of level that Domini achieves, or be as interesting about it, but I wish more people could . . . or would. Containing critical work covering nearly forty years, analyzing the work of such diverse creators such as John Barth, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Roy Kesey, Italo Calvino, and Thomas Pynchon, Dante Alighieri, and more, this book is full of the sort of elaboration and contemplation I need to be able to engage intriguing works more closely.
Frankly, without conversation and analysis of this type, we’re all just reading alone and communicating nothing more than a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ Our lives would all be poorer in that kind of world.