Sep 24, 2011

On William Michaelian's A Listening Thing

New from Cosmopsis Books

I wanted to say a word about a quietly wonderful novel I just finished reading, by my cyber-friend, William Michaelian. I’ve never met William in the flesh, but have become a fan over the past few years, especially of his poetry. The fact is I don’t read much fiction; all too often fiction, being prose, wastes too many words on stage direction—“Jack began climbing the beanstalk, his soft leather booties slipping now and then on the dewy leaves,” etc.—while the humanity of the story goes missing.

If I were limited to one statement about William Michaelian’s novel A Listening Thing, it would be: “This is a novel that investigates and celebrates our common humanity from beginning to end.” For example, the book offers:
  • A poor, depressed, directionless hero (Stephen Monroe) who we find ourselves cheering on in his struggle to change the drift that characterizes his life.
  • A wry view of one of those indispensable but unremunerative occupations—the job of typesetter—that is ever at the mercy of thoughtless clients and technological change.*
  • A profound vision of the inner life—you know, the life that cannot be defined by demographics, economic status, and political affiliation, or measured by “Culturomics”.
  • Some of the most resonant accounts of dreams in recent literature.**
  • Some of the funniest, most acerbic rants about American society and values in recent literature.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book. It isn’t what one would call “plot driven,” but there is a good deal of “action” at the psychic level, and leaving out even a minor turn in that action would be a shame. Because the book, it seems to me, is essentially a meditation on loneliness, it is profoundly American. The overwhelming otherness of everything in our culture that we are told to value is what makes us all feel isolated. Small wonder that our children can be driven to suicide via Facebook (where all their “friends” reside), or that Twitter can be paralyzed by Justin Bieber cutting his hair, or that Tea Party numbskulls can boo a gay soldier during a GOP debate—as long as he is safely presented in a video and not armed and uniformed within touching distance. Of course, A Listening Thing takes place before all these technological enhancements of our isolation took root in American culture—but the currents were there. Stephen Monroe suffers from them, and in suffering along with him—for we’re all just as adrift, however we might pretend otherwise—is a healing experience.

I can’t end this post without noting that there is a strangely apropos presence who broods over Michaelian’s book: Samuel Beckett. Specifically, Stephen Monroe spends the entire book attempting to read Beckett’s short novel The Unnamable. It’s not clear if he ever completes it, but the psychic dilemma of Beckett’s narrator—“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving.”—is Stephen Monroe’s. But Monroe has three saving graces in his life—an ex-wife, a son, and a mother who all love him. The Self that is so vitiated and reduced in Beckett is redeemed, in the person of Stephen Monroe, by those uplifting connections. Stephen Monroe is also redeemed by language, which Beckett found so inadequate to the task of self-expression. This is why Michaelian’s book is so compellingly humane: we never doubt that narrator is telling us the truth. In a society awash every day in public lies, it’s refreshing to realize that honest expression is still possible.

* Things have gotten considerably worse for typesetters since the late 1990s, the time period in which the novel’s action takes place. Not only has computer software placed a vast array of typefaces at everyone’s fingertips, the ease of applying them has made every yahoo with a keyboard think he or she can design a readable page.
** I believe it was Robert Bly who observed that so many American novels begin with the main character waking up because Americans write so poorly about dreams. Well, not William Michaelian.


  1. "CULTUROMICS" I like that: as it appears "a quantitive
    analysis of culture"

    which at one time was KULCHUR

    so that I CAN via this newest Quantitative Analysis Culture & via feeding into this literality of Nussing Bomb's Theorem 15 million digitized book & push a Virtual Button
    provoke simultaneously hundreds-of-millions of vectors at
    onet ? JEEZE E PEEEZIE, and faster than the speed of light & unconditionally literate !

    now it is necessary to Belly-up to my newest tool:
    My N-gram Viewer

    first thing to "punch up" is in those 15 million digitized books

    just how many comma-seperated phrases there are in this
    Known Universe !
    Now, however, back to your thots on Bill's book...

    and into his "meditation on loneliness" & "the overwhelming otherness of everything"

    Bill Michaelin via his blog and his other "stuff" is a Breath of Fresh Air...

    et ceteras

  2. I don't know if I can match the intensity of Ed's comment but I too think that it's significant that Stephen Monroe is trying to get through a novel written by Samuel Beckett in that it seems like Stephen is trying to get thru a life written by Samuel Beckett.

    I'll have more to say about "A Listening Thing" after I finish it. (I never pick up much less finish novels these days but I'll be finishing "ATL.")


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