The Sea-God’s Herb: Reviews and Essays, 1975 – 2014
by John Domini
(Dzanc Books, 2014)
A review of a book of reviews probably can’t avoid exhibiting, in the end, the weird quality that years ago used to get called po-mo or meta—which means, sort of, that it is destined to become a review about reviews, a review about itself. This is particularly true when the reviewer under review, John Domini, a novelist whose critical work has appeared in as wide a range of venues as it is possible to imagine, has for many years been an ardent defender of the postmodern, though even he might agree that po-mo and meta are not terms that get used much anymore, perhaps because the whole world has finally become pretty self-referential. This, actually, is well illustrated by a simple comment from the essay that starts The Sea-God’s Herb: “Most postmodern novels render experience in ways not unlike a good session on the web.”
That may or may not be the case—but regardless, if I am destined, in reviewing Domini’s often charming and ultimately important book of reviews and criticism, to become postmodern myself, then I intend to do so by first indulging in the critic’s prerogative to stage a pit fight between the author under review, splayed helpless beneath the critical microscope, and another critic whom he may or may not have even read.
To wit: Domini prefatorily suggests this of his own reviews:
“Remarks aren’t literature, no matter how sharp the quip might look in a magazine. Remarks fall away and good work emerges […] the commentary disappears into general appreciation.”
By way of contrast, Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, said the following in the prologue to her recent book, Why I Read:
“A work of commentary or criticism is not necessarily a work of literature, but it can aspire to that condition and be the better for it. I aspire […] toward the qualities I have admired in novels and poetry, including the compression, the indirection, the inherent connections, the organic shape.”
Domini and Lesser have a great deal in common—neither is a literary critic in the traditional, academic sense—but they do appear to disagree on whether criticism can or should be literature itself. On the one hand, Domini cites Gilbert Sorrentino and John Updike to support his claim, and these two luminaries’ wildly differing literary philosophies would appear to grant the appeal of breadth to Domini’s thesis. On the other hand, while Lesser doesn’t feel the need to defend her assertion, one might easily observe that Nicholson Baker’s U and I faults Updike’s own criticism for lacking the ecstasy that Updike himself said characterized good prose. And from there one could go on to cite D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, and a good many others who would, on the suggestion that remarks aren’t literature, make a great audible thunk! as each and every one turned a quick somersault in their graves.
Don’t get me wrong: The Sea-God’s Herb’s series of overviews of 20th-century careers, touching on greats such as Gass, Pynchon, Calvino, and DeLillo, as well as lesser lights like Can Xue, Jaimy Gordon, and Lance Olsen, reveals not only the breadth of the century’s experimental literature, but also the magnitude of one of our most provocative and well-read commentators. And beyond being a simple collection of essays, these works, strung together—focused for the most part on careers not destined for direct limelight—amount to an expression of concern about the ultimate role of writing about literature: “Too many critics follow the money, uncritically; that’s not my whole argument, but that’s a lot of it.”
At another juncture Domini claims, “The most thoughtful review or essay will have an ameliorative impact, correcting misapprehension and enlarging the perception of beauty.” It’s hard to argue with that (though it doesn’t quite explain why Domini included several take-down reviews that it would be a trick to defend as ameliorative) but it’s easy to argue that Domini’s own “remarks” sometimes rise to the condition of literature:
“For what is lifeless, what dry-as-dust, about seeking Truth? His characters continue … continue as these three dots continue while ending … they sift through the documents of their lives, getting stung whenever they bang up against the hard facts of nature, and so with their bruises multiplying and changing color, with their crumpled heap of discarded lies growing larger around them, they produce unknowing a new image for the face of God.”
This comes at the end of a lengthy essay on John Barth, but I don’t think you need to know that to recognize that this is a passage that aspires, in Lesser’s sense of the word. It’s lyric, and a bit postmodern itself, and it’s so gorgeous, as a sentence, that I can’t help the desperate hope that Domini is wrong—all wrong!—about commentaries disappearing into “general appreciation.”
That’s not the only case of that sort of thing, either. I don’t want to get all drippy here, but Domini’s essay on W.G. Sebald is a thing of beauty, worth in itself the book’s price of admission, and reading it, as a reviewer, I recalled 16th-century author Johann Skoot’s most famous couplet:
The best a reviewer can ever say:
I would have read it anyway.
(Okay, that’s not actually famous. And there is no Johann Skoot. I just wrote the couplet myself—but it applies!)
To begin to sum up: Domini suggests that “no honest assessment of what this book’s about can ignore the vagaries of my DNA.” From there, he wonders what readers will think of him in 2095 A.D., and not long after that he reminds us that literary genres, like it or not, go extinct. When I put all these together in my mind, here is what I conclude: John Domini is a bit of a dinosaur in the sense that the stars of many of the writers he writes about rose and set a while ago—he helped rise them, surely—and in the sense that his star too, like all our stars eventually, has begun to set. But he’s also a dinosaur in the sense that what he does in these essays doesn’t get done a whole lot anymore, even though it’s pretty cool. The real literary critic, these days, is an endangered species. Or worse, a real critic is something like a plesiosaur paddling around in the deeps of some remote loch, one of those cryptozoological monsters that you sort of hope exist, but probably don’t and maybe never did.
That being the case, I finished The Sea-God’s Herb with an unusual wish. Jurassic dangers aside, I wanted someone to come along and extract Domini’s DNA from the hard amber of an essay or two, and then clone him, such that we might live long enough to bear witness to a world of John Dominis, whole herds of him, a fertile plateau teeming with Dominisaurus Rex. Imagine all those beasts, bellowing out their arguments and gobbling up as many books as they can. If they’re lucky they’ll stumble on a few tomes like The Sea God’s Herb, sure to prove as satisfying as any postmodern novel.
ContributorJ. C. Hallman
J.C. HALLMAN's most recent book is B & ME: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a work of "creative criticism." He sort of lives in New York City.