The Sea-God’s Herb, by John Domini. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books. 360 pages. $15.95, paper.
College lit crit courses. Perhaps that’s the best purpose for John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb. His compendium of essays and criticism from 1975 through this year is a rather heavy-handed version of literary (and other) criticism and reminds me of a great deal of material read in my grad school writing classes—in other words, it borders on academic and is usually meta-critical, talking critically about criticism.
Domini hints in his essay, “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain:’ The Postmodern Novel and Society,” at why he thinks his book is necessary at this particular time in literature: “In the millennial US, for those who venture an unconventional approach to book-length fiction, criticism just hasn’t been doing its job.” In that essay, for example, he takes a regular Times Book Review contributor to task for this fact. “‘It’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this … novel,'” the regular contributor, Liesl Schillinger, wrote in her review of Steve Erickson’s novel Zeroville. What’s so bad about this and other contemporary reviews, Domini suggests, is that the critic seems not to be able to accept novels that “violate the norms”—that is, the norms of structure and length—of millennial fiction.
To back up the fact he indeed can review fiction that isn’t a linear narrative, Domini reviews Blake Butler’s novella, Ever, and refers to David Foster Wallace’s work, and his reviews do appear in contemporary outlets for lit crit such as Bookslut.com and Ploughshares.
Yet because most all of his essays contain at least one reference to Beckett or Dante, which begins to sound a bit obsessive, the connection to millennial fiction doesn’t really stand. In fact, Domini takes the book’s title from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
“Transformation would be another word for it, a word that gives me my title. The source is Dante, the first Canto of Paradiso, which begins a lot like Coover on Beckett,” he writes in his preface essay, “The Sea-God’s Herb: News about Narrative, 1975-2014.” “It begins in doubt, as the Poet frets that he can never get across the wonders he’s seen … Yet his guide Beatrice helps him achieve this (transhumanized) state …
Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming
what Glaucus had become tasting the herb
that made him like the other sea-gods there.”
And so on and so on in a manner that never quite arrests me, rarely interests me for more than a moment.
Let’s consider the essay, “Chessboard and Cornucopia: 40 Years of Invisible Cities.” This one snags me, pulls me back and sends me forth again to imbibe a few more juicy paragraphs in which Domini contemplates which genre Calvino belongs to. Beginning with his book-cum-war novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (published in 1947), his corpus exhibited surrealism and fabulism. The more he wrote the more difficult it became for publishers and critics to do what they often do best—oversimplify a book’s contents and shove the work of art into a small narrow box called a genre. As Domini alluded to in his opening essay, he himself is often at a loss to describe a book without categorizing it, an innate part of publishing and literary criticism. Though he doesn’t eschew it. In fact in the essay, “Fresh-Hatched Freaks: Blake Butler’s Ever and Matt Bell’s The Collectors,” he discusses the two writers’ venturing off beyond the normative structure and other characteristics typical of literary fiction.
Domini references William Gass’ encomium of Calvino, which also “struggles to place the book in some alternative genre” and “settles for ‘one of the purer works of the imagination.’” “Even Infinite Jest … at once reveal (its) debt to classics of form.”
Calvino’s works might be called novels, but they often lack the linear structures preferred by American readers (such as if on a winter’s night a traveler), or the character development (such as Invisible Cities), or the grounded realism (such as Cosmicomics). Instead Calvino’s work plays with language and realms of possibility and even cosmic locations, though to reduce it to one or another genre fiction categories, Domini intimates, would be to deny the fact that his corpus belongs to the pantheon of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and V.S. Naipaul. As for me I also consider him mind-blowing, mesmerizing as perhaps Herodotus’s contemporaries found him. And I’m thankful that critics/writers such as Domini are still putting the great Calvino out there, almost thirty years after his passing.
Domini’s other critical essays step out from the meta-literary. Among the book’s forty essays are “Dinosaur in the Train Station: Four Years into the Sopranos Phenomenon,” in which he discusses—and perpetuates, if just by generating more public words on it—claims of anti-defamation of Italians against that infamous family of cable.
Next he gives both kudos to and a thumbs-down to the multi-faceted exhibit of Italian culture in “Trouble and Bedazzlement: ‘The Italian Metamorphosis’ at the Guggenheim, 1994-95.” He discusses how Italian design is linked to that country’s bumpy political history over the past century. (However, I take umbrage at a peccadillo. He claims that the heyday of the Italian Futurists was in the 1920s. But, as a fan of the Futurists, and having visited the Venice Guggenheim, read early-twentieth century New York Times art articles, and gone back to the Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla book, Futurism, on my bookshelf, I’d claim the movement lost most of its steam during the Great War; its heyday was in the teens of the twentieth century.)
Overall, The Sea-God’s Herb isn’t an everyday read, except perhaps for professors and other academics. Writers and editors who read Heavy Feather Review might find the day more enjoyable to continue with their own work rather than indulge in meta-criticism that dates back to the 1970s.
Nichole L. Reber is a nonfiction writer whose work has received a gold Traveler’s Tales Solas Award. She’s been published in Recess, EastLit, and The Font.