Read an excerpt from Denis Johnson’s forthcoming novel, The Laughing Monsters

In Arua we took rooms at The White Nile Palace Hotel. Here was the palace, but we’d crossed the Nile twenty kilometers ago. We arrived at night and formed no impression of the surrounding neighborhood except by its sounds—goats and cattle, arguments and celebrations. Surveying the parking area and later the tables in the café, I judged we’d come among missionaries and relief workers—Médecins sans Frontières sorts of people with good, big SUVs and clean hiking shoes. The grounds were well-kept and our quarters were comfortable. I hadn’t quite expected that.

 

At dinner Michael was nowhere in evidence. Davidia and I shared a table with an elderly, exhausted French woman of Arab descent who told us she studied torture. “And once upon a time before this, I spent years on a study of the Atlantic slave trade. Angola. Now it’s an analysis of the practices of torture under Idi Amin. Slavery. Torture. Don’t call me morbid. Is it morbid to study a disease? That’s how we find the cure for it. What is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph—before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn’t take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction.” The woman’s taut, quivering neck, her mouth opening and closing . . . Halfway through her dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce, without a word, she got up and left the table.

Read the rest of the excerpt at FS&G’s blog Work in Progress.

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Young Girl Reading — Magnus Enckell

Enckell, Magnus - Jeune fille lisant, 1921-22

Into the Night

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Flappers — Alfred Henry Maurer

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Allegorical Portrait of Dante – Agnolo Bronzino

Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull Reviewed

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Sugar Skull concludes the trilogy that Charles Burns began four years ago with X’ed Out (I reviewed it here) and its 2012 follow-up The Hive (I reviewed it here).

In X’ed Out, Burns introduces us to his protagonist Doug, a would-be art-punk poet whose Burroughsesque sound-collage performances are misunderstood by everyone but Sarah, a troubled artist whose photographs and installations reverberate with menacing violence. We first find Doug in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma involving Sarah and her tyrannical boyfriend—a trauma that Sugar Skull must and does answer to. The trauma transports Doug from his dead father’s office, where he’s been hiding and popping pills, into a fever-dreamscape reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this world, Doug becomes Nitnit, his own features transmuted to the Tintin mask he wears when performing his cut-ups.

The Hive takes Doug/Nitnit even deeper into Interzone, into its subterranean caverns, gaping like tumorous wombs, while simultaneously moving the “real” Doug forward and backward in time, through his doomed relationship with Sarah and into the fallout of their split, where Doug short circuits.

Sugar Skull completes this circuit, offering readers the complete picture—and an exit out of Interzone—even as it dooms Doug/Nitnit to repeat the past. We find here the traumatic violence of love, death, begetting, and denial.

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The trilogy’s development evinces in Burns’s rich cover art. X’ed Out shows us young, skinny Doug, his head bandaged, his haircut an echo of Tintin’s cowlick. Wrapped in his dead father’s purple robe and set against utter wreckage, young Doug regards a massive egg, itself a visual echo of Tintin cover. The cover of The Hive shows us an older, heavier Doug, lost and confused in the abject uterine labyrinth of the Hive. In the lower-right corner—the same space the egg occupies on the cover of X’ed Out—lurks one of Interzone’s mutable mutants. This figure repeats in the trilogy, an amorphous being who shifts from Nitnit’s aide and familiar, to a dog stranded in a flood, to a piglet in a jar, to a massive breed-sow, to, perhaps, Doug’s father—and then Doug himself.

The figure opposite an older, fatter Doug on the cover of Sugar Skull condenses these roles into the emblem of death: it is at once the skeleton of the mutant, but also the frame of Doug’s dead father and the emblem of the symbolic infanticide at the core of the trilogy. And so we get the natural progression of life—from egg and embryo to a pink bundle of mobile cells to skeletal remains—set against an uncanny, chaotic backdrop.

Throughout the trilogy, Burns forces reader and Doug alike to navigate that chaos. The first two volumes in the series propelled the reader (and Doug, of course) through different times, different realities, sifting through the awful wreckage for clues, for a pattern, for an answer that might explain poor Doug’s trauma. By the beginning of Sugar Skull, our hero is finally equipped with a map to guide him through the underworld:

Page 10 from Burns_SUGAR SKULL“Why does this have to be so difficult?” our hero wonders. Because of repressed fear, anger, hurt—and failure. The real trauma, the secret trauma, of the trilogy is Doug’s radical failure. This failure keeps him up at night, both in waking sweat, but also in his Interzone, the fantasy world where the repressed returns, where his alter-ego Nitnit can play boy detective. And yet, as we see in Sugar Skull, Nitnit, dream warrior, is ultimately unequipped to right the wrongs of the past. He can only replay them in a dark, surreal space. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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X’ed Out and The Hive point repeatedly to the specter of violence and infanticide, both through implication in the dialogue as well as intense imagery. Both novels ominously arrange events that could only lead to the head wound that our hero sustains before the trilogy begins—a head wound that may or may not be a primary cause of Doug’s excursions into irreality.

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The infanticidal images that haunt the first two books pointed to a deeper mystery though, one beyond the physical violence Doug suffered. Those books hinted at abortion or miscarriage. But there are other ways to lose children.

Have I over shared the plot? Or am I hinting too vaguely? Reviewing my lines, it seems like I’ve said nothing at all, or perhaps dwelled on the first two books too much.

To simplify: Sugar Skull is sad and beautiful and strange and deeply human—this is not the tale of a doppelgänger’s adventures in wonderland, but rather the story of youth’s cowardice, of how we fail ourselves and others, how the versions of ourselves that we try to pin down—like Doug, who takes endless selfies with a Polaroid—are not nearly as stable as we might like them to be. Sugar Skull also explores how we cover over those instabilities and failures—I didn’t do those things; This isn’t happening to me.

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The final moments of Sugar Skull enact a shock to stability, to sense of self. Burns fulfills a narrative promise to his readers, and to Doug—one that, if I’m honest, was not what I had predicted at all—and then sends Doug’s altered-ego Nitnit into the desert wilds. The last few pages of Sugar Skull seem to borrow as much from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as they do from Hergés Tintin or William Burroughs.

And yet Doug passes through the wasteland to a refuge of sorts, the dream-double of two other settings that figure prominently in the trilogy, condensed into a place that is and is not. The setting mirrors Doug’s doomed double-consciousness, a consciousness condemned to repeat the same cycle, to respond again and again to the same terrifying call to nightmare-adventure.

I’ve neglected to comment on Burns’s wonderful art, mostly because I think it speaks for itself. His heavy inks and rich colors help unify the shift in styles that mark Doug’s movement between worlds. The trilogy would be worth the admission price alone just for the art, but Burns offers so much more with his storytelling. What’s perhaps most impressive is how thematically precise Burns’s images are—how panels, angles, shots, poses, gestures, and expressions repeat with difference from volume to volume. Burns uses these repeated images to subtly evoke his theme of cycles, doubles, and reiterations. In rereading we see again, recognize again—but from a different perspective.

And if Burns strands Doug/Nitnit in a loop of repetition, he also extends, perhaps, that same chance to his hero—to see again, but from a different perspective. If Sugar Skull forecloses the possibility of escape from the past, it doesn’t cut off a generative futurity. And as our protagonist awakes—again—to follow Inky into the strange wreckage of the past, many readers will feel prompted to follow the pair—again, and then again.

Sugar Skull is available now in hardback from Pantheon.

 

Bus Ride Two — Roman Muradov

(From Roman Muradov’s novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found).

“Translation is dead. Long live translation!”

After my interview with Ilan Stavans for Biblioklept (Part 1; Part 2), I began working with him on Words in Transit: The Cultures of Translation, a year-long ‘festival’ of translation taking place at Amherst College. Events include a series of talks with translators, a Translation Film Series at the nearby cinema, a performance of monologues by ELL students, theatre and music performances, and more. Throughout the year, we are maintaining a blog devoted to translation at the Amherst College website. I will be posting excerpts from the blog here. 

Melih Levi, an Amherst student and Turkish translator, wrote this first blog post on the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and poet Orhan Vali Kanik. Read below or check it out here. — Ryan Mihaly

Whenever I start thinking about translation as an enterprise, José Ortega y Gasset’s words come to my mind: “Translation is dead. Long live translation!” This playful maxim outlines the problems of translation in two different ways. First and foremost, it is a farewell to the practice of translation as we know it. The modern age and the technological advancements of today challenge the traditional practice of translation where translators work their way diligently through each word in a given text. Certainly, it is impossible to categorize all forms of traditional translation as one; after all, there can never be a single attitude towards translation. But if we look at how widely and deeply the print culture is influenced by the rapid technological changes of our times, it is perhaps acceptable to say that the cultures of translation, as we know it, are swiftly changing. The old ways are almost “dead.” But does this mean that there won’t be a new culture of translation in the future? Certainly not. Even if Google Translate ends up becoming a major tool in tomorrow’s translation world, a culture will develop. This is one of the ways in which Gasset’s maxim informs translation.

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José Ortega y Gasset 

The second reading of Gasset’s words is perhaps more relevant and important. Gasset is thinking about the fate of literary works in general. That is, he is laying out his idea of what happens to a work when it goes through the process of translation. According to him, the work has to die before it can start to breathe again, in a different language or in a different medium. Thus, a translator is at once a gravedigger and a creator. Gasset poses a pivotal question: “Isn’t the act of translating necessarily a utopian task?”

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The Mystical Body Defined — David Ruhlman

3. The mystical body defined

Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony (Book Acquired, 10.02.2014)

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Anthony Burgess’s 1974 novel Napoleon Symphony gets the trade paperback reissue treatment from Norton. Their blurb:

Anthony Burgess draws on his love of music and history in this novel he called “elephantine fun” to write.

A grand and affectionate tragicomic symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte that teases and reweaves Napoleon’s life into a pattern borrowed—in liberty, equality, and fraternity—from Beethoven’s Third “Eroica” Symphony, in this rich, exciting, bawdy, and funny novel Anthony Burgess has pulled out all the stops for a virtuoso performance that is literary, historical, and musical.

“Ligeia” — Edgar Allan Poe

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“Ligeia”

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Edgar Allan Poe

(Illustration by Harry Clarke)

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.—Joseph Glanvill.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown. Yet I believe that I met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine. Of her family—I have surely heard her speak. That it is of a remotely ancient date cannot be doubted. Ligeia! Ligeia! in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone—by Ligeia—that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more. And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom. Was it a playful charge on the part of my Ligeia? or was it a test of my strength of affection, that I should institute no inquiries upon this point? or was it rather a caprice of my own—a wildly romantic offering on the shrine of the most passionate devotion? I but indistinctly recall the fact itself—what wonder that I have utterly forgotten the circumstances which originated or attended it? And, indeed, if ever she, the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.

There is one dear topic, however, on which my memory falls me not. It is the person of Ligeia. In stature she was tall, somewhat slender, and, in her latter days, even emaciated. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the quiet ease, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall. She came and departed as a shadow. I was never made aware of her entrance into my closed study save by the dear music of her low sweet voice, as she placed her marble hand upon my shoulder. In beauty of face no maiden ever equalled her. It was the radiance of an opium-dream—an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered vision about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos. Yet her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, “without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classic regularity—although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed “exquisite,” and felt that there was much of “strangeness” pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead—it was faultless—how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine!—the skin rivalling the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, “hyacinthine!” I looked at the delicate outlines of the nose—and nowhere but in the graceful medallions of the Hebrews had I beheld a similar perfection. There were the same luxurious smoothness of surface, the same scarcely perceptible tendency to the aquiline, the same harmoniously curved nostrils speaking the free spirit. I regarded the sweet mouth. Here was indeed the triumph of all things heavenly—the magnificent turn of the short upper lip—the soft, voluptuous slumber of the under—the dimples which sported, and the color which spoke—the teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray of the holy light which fell upon them in her serene and placid, yet most exultingly radiant of all smiles. I scrutinized the formation of the chin—and here, too, I found the gentleness of breadth, the softness and the majesty, the fullness and the spirituality, of the Greek—the contour which the god Apollo revealed but in a dream, to Cleomenes, the son of the Athenian. And then I peered into the large eyes of Ligeia. Read More

Riveted — Kenton Nelson

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The New Book — Harold Harvey

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George Saunders Reads Stories by Grace Paley and Barry Hannah

At The New Yorker, George Saunders reads “Love” by Grace Paley and “The Wretched Seventies” by Barry Hannah: