"A phenomenal and fundamental book"

A comprehensive study of ephemera in twentieth-century literature—and its relevance to the twenty-first centuryOn Thursday, November 19, 2020, Dan Sinykin and Sarah Wasserman met on Zoom to discuss their new monographs before a virtual audience as part of ASAP’s Books in Conversation series.

Sarah’s brilliance is to make monuments of literature’s documents only to reveal the transience and finitude of monumentality—and our attendant human grief. The movement compressed in the previous sentence is delicate and difficult to pull off, but Sarah does it again and again: walking with E. L. Doctorow’s young Edgar through the fading New York World’s Fair in 1940 in the shadow of coming war; with the Invisible Man, elevating the curbside belongings of an evicted Harlem couple, belongings that “mediate between abstract, external forces—history, environment, politics—and the subject’s interior life”; with Marilynne Robinson’s Sylvie, cultivating transience within the typically settled space of a home; with billboard saints and rare stamps. Reading with Sarah, we see, suddenly, how novels contain, have contained all along, a reckoning with what it means to be human living after generations of humans who have created and died in the sweep of time that is not easily flat and linear by mutable and devastating.

This is why I say that Sarah’s book itself is a monument to the humanities. She unlocks unseen truths in the canonical works she assesses, yes; she gives us stunning readings of Doctorow, Ellison, Pynchon, Robinson; (in a book full of dazzling readings, hers of Housekeeping, which diverts through the materiality of Emily Dickinson’s poeisis, is astonishing); but more, she does the fundamental work of showing us why and how such readings matter. Novels showcase how, through our attachment, things emerge from the cascade of documents to become our monuments; they are monuments of attachment, lingering, care; they present “a catalog of fleeting objects and insist on their aesthetic value.” They capture, like nothing else, the strange temporality of perseverance and loss. And the ultimate logic of all of this, which is to say of the humanities, is transience.

Full review at ASAP/Journal.

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