Jaimy Gordon passed through my field of vision some time in the early 1980s, having published a book with one of my favorite presses, Burning Deck (which subsequently published a chapbook of mine). And somehow I remember having the sense that there was a bit of a cult about her, but what I read puzzled rather than seduced me. Then she slipped from my view until 2010, when her novel Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award. This seemed odd enough to warrant investigation, i.e. reading. Although a half-decade has elapsed since then, five years isn’t long for a book to move from my mental to-read list to my night stand. Halfway through the book, I had to post this on Facebook: “I don’t remember being so amazed, sentence after sentence, by a piece of American novelistic prose since, maybe, [James Salter’s 1967 novel] A Sport and a Pastime. As in that case, I actually find the experience a bit scary — I keep worrying that she can’t possibly keep it up to this level and that later I will be let down. With Salter I wasn’t let down. I’ll let you know how it works out with Gordon.” I can tell you I wasn’t let down, and this despite the fact that while James Salter’s great novel is all about sex, Gordon’s is all about horse racing, a subject in which I have less interest and even less experience. Actually they’re both all about language — Salter’s austere, Gordon’s baroque. Still on Facebook, I got into an exchange with the poet Daniel Tiffany about whether Gordon’s wild vernacular was based more on mimesis or invention. Actually, this was a proxy debate with Gordon herself, given that in an online interview she stated that, in her recent work — as opposed to what I had read way back when — she was “doing realism.” Well, I’d love to live in world where people speak like this: “Young woman, it is a price on everything. Every change make some other change that you can’t see. I know some trainers here never bandaged a horse and they got horses outrun the word of God. When you run against them horses you better have your tap-dancing shoes on” — but I don’t, nor does anyone else outside an Elizabethan theater. Realism? Invention and imitation are almost synonymous. After finishing the book I went on a winter walk on Wainscott Beach on eastern Long Island and found some marvelous shells that had the appearance of being the most extraordinary trompe l’oeil depictions of shells. Reality mimics itself so perfectly that only fiction can match it.

Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (2011) is published by Vintage Contemporaries and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...