"Review of László Sári B.’s I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth: A Sketch of American Minimalist Prose" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács
Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:
I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth: A Sketch of American Minimalist Prose
László Sári B.
Debrecen: Debrecen University Press, 2014.
Orbis Litterarum Series, edited by Tamás Bényei.
As the title indicates, the book surveys contemporary American Minimalist prose, but the term ’Minimalist prose’ refers to something different here than what it first evokes for Hungarian ears. In the Hungarian academic context, since the publication of Zoltán Abádi-Nagy’s American Minimalist Prose in 1994, the term ’Minimalist prose’ has referred to a group of authors from the 1970s and 80s that includes Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jay McInerney, and Bret Easton Ellis. In Sári B.’s book, however, ’Minimalist prose’ refers to a way of writing. I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth offers a perspective on this way of writing from the 1990s, and the authors whose work is connected to the term are different, too: Bret Easton Ellis since the 1990s, Chuck Palahniuk, Craig Clevenger, and Matthew Stokoe. The book surveys this ’Minimalist prose:’ this way of writing, called the second wave of Minimalism, has been practiced since the 1990s. Sári B. also calls it transgressive fiction.
I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth uses a culturally-oriented critical perspective to study the transgressive aspect of minimalist fiction. Simply put, it views contemporary US fiction as a segment of US cultural production. It studies what kinds of texts it has been possible to produce with this mode of writing since the 90s and looks into the social, political, ideological, and cultural contexts of these texts. The main thesis of the book runs as follows: transgressive prose is transgressive in the sense that these novels reject the possibility of resistance because they represent the position that there is no position outside the cultural field. However, on the level of formal structures, they are able to construct an internal critical position the book calls the ‘politics of form.’
I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth explores the ways in which the politics of form is practiced in ‘Minimalist prose.’ The first area of the politics of form concerns the institutional practice of creative writing. Within this, the question is how authors of the second wave of Minimalism use the techniques of those of the first wave, techniques that, back in the 80s, equaled those of institutional creative writing. Contemporary transgressive authors possess all the technical skill one can learn at an MFS course. They can achieve a critical position by using the Jamesian principle of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ in that they show social, political or ideological problems but they do not openly criticize these. The second area of the politics of form is intermediality, the presence of a visual frame of reference in these texts. Visual references are usually made to the iconography of contemporary popular culture and posit an ambiguous relationship between the original context of the reference and its new appropriation. The third area of the politics of form is literary transgression per se and its possibilities before and after 9/11. Through the tenet of ‘Show, don’t tell’ and the use of intermedial references and allusions, transgressive prose is able to represent taboo topics that subvert institutional norms of literary representation. The process of this subversion can be traced in the story of adaptations, censure, critique and reader reactions. During the conservative turn of the war against terror, transgressive prose was compelled to withdraw into generic prose (like the detective story) due to the heightened intolerance of the literary establishment. Authors often invested their cultural capital into other media.
Identity politics constitutes the fourth area of the politics of form. Within identity politics the question is how to position ‘minimalist prose’ on the map of identity politics. Sári B. argues that each transgressive text reveals something about exclusion: about political power and the social processes that make exclusion happen. He claims that transgressive texts comment on these mechanisms through their formal techniques even if the texts, ‘because of their mode of representation,’ become complicit in the act of representation. In transgressive texts the theme is not the privileged position of lower middle class white males within the literary establishment but rather the disappearance of such a privileged position for them, the dramatization of how a position like that falls into pieces. Sári B. concludes that the second wave of Minimalism, i. e. transgressive prose, provides an allegory of the crisis of identity that characterizes lower middle class heterosexual white men in the US today.
The book will be a useful resource for academics and students alike. The chapters can be read separately as essays on key issues of contemporary prose or consecutively as parts of a longer survey of various texts and tendencies. The apparatus offers the latest readings on the subject. The text is written in an accessible style despite its heavy critical load. However, there is a basic problem with the book: it is in Hungarian, which excludes it from transnational academic discourse on contemporary versions of neorealism in ‘American’ prose. To put it another way, the book would appeal to a much wider academic audience had it been published in English. In its present form, it is unlikely to stir an avalanche of academic reactions because of the size of the Hungarian academic marketplace. Yet, I am certain there will be some articles in English as a spinoff to this venture.
Having said that, one can consider what is at stake in this endeavor from a different perspective as well. This is a survey of a current phenomenon of the US cultural industry that relies on an up-to-date academic methodology, and is written in Hungarian with an eye not only to the academic audience but to the wider reading public as well. – For the sake of non-Hungarian readers I need to add that Minimalist prose has traditionally been very popular in Hungarian translation and the latest books are published as soon as they appear in the US. – If one considers this from the perspective of the impact the book is likely to have among Hungarian readers of ’Minimalist prose, ’ one can surely predict that Sári B.’s text will be the Hungarian reference book on the subject for decades. This makes me wonder if similar Hungarian monographs on important transnational US literature-related phenomena like Post 9/11 Fiction, Black Atlantic Narratives, Chicano/a Writing, or Transethnic Identity Narratives (just to propose some arbitrary titles) are likely to be written by other Hungarian academics as well. The way I imagine it, they would constitute a series of popular reference books in Hungarian libraries.
As a parting thought, let me focus on the title, just in case somebody was wondering about it. ’Joe’s grinding teeth’ is a direct reference to Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), where the unnamed narrator identifies himself as Joe’s grinding teeth. This is a reference to a reaction to a feeling the narrator is experiencing. In other words, instead of saying I am frustrated, the nameless narrator says, “I am Joe’s grinding teeth.” Instead of a name, he identifies himself with a reference to an emotional and bodily reaction. The reference works according to the well-known tenet of Minimalist writing ’Show, don’t tell.’ In addition, the narrator in Fight Club goes on with similar metonymic substitutions for a name and an emotion: here is a list of some: “I am Joe’s Raging Bile Duct, I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth, I am Joe’s Inflamed Flaming Nostrils, I am Joe’s White Knuckles, I am Joe’s Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection” (Listography). So, on the title page, this minimalist trick of creative writing is appropriated as a reference to, I suppose, a reaction to a feeling its narrator is experiencing in relation to the subject.
- Abádi Nagy Zoltán. Az amerikai minimlista próza. Budapest: Argumentum, 1984.
- Listography. Chuck Palahniuk. Web: http://listography.com/words/chuck_palahniuk/fight_club__i_am_joes. Access: July 8, 2016.