Willam H. Gass’s definition of “a character”

A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.

 

Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page

From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

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Four paintings (Georges Perec)

There are four paintings on the walls.

The first is a still life that despite its modern manner is strongly reminiscent of those compositions constructed on the theme of the five senses which were so common throughout Europe from the end of the Renaissance to the eighteenth century: on a table, there is an ashtray with a lighted Havana, a book of which the title and subtitle can be seen – The Unfinished Symphony: A Novel – though the name of the author is hidden, a bottle of rum, a cup-and-ball, and, in a shallow bowl, a pile of dried fruit, walnuts, almonds, apricot halves, prunes, etc.

The second depicts a street on the edge of a city, at night, alongside wasteland. To the right, a metal pylon with crossbars supporting at each point of intersection a large, lighted electric lamp. To the left, a constellation of stars reproduces precisely the inverse image of the pylon (base in the sky, apex towards the ground). The sky is covered in a flower pattern (dark blue on a lighter background) identical to the shapes made by frost on glass.

The third is of a legendary beast, the tarand, first described by Gelon the Sarmatian:

A tarand is an animal as big as a bullock, having a head like a stag, or a little bigger, two stately horns with large branches, cloven feet, hair long like that of a furred Muscovite, I mean a bear, and a skin almost as hard as steel armour. The Scythian said that there are but few tarands to be found in Scythia, because it varieth its colour according to the diversity of the places where it grazes and abides, and represents the colour of the grass, plants, trees, shrubs, flowers, meadows, rocks, and generally of all things near which it comes. It hath this in common with the sea-pulp, or polypus, with the thoes, with the wolves of India, and with the chameleon; which is a kind of lizard so wonderful, that Democritus hath written a whole book of its figure, and anatomy, as also of its virtue”“and property in magic. This I can confirm, that I have seen it change its colour, not only at the approach of things that have a colour, but by its own voluntary impulse, according to its fear or other affections: as for example, upon a green carpet, I have certainly seen it become green; but having remained there some time, it turned yellow, blue, tanned and purple, in course, in the same manner as you sec a turkey-cock’s comb change colour according to its passions. But what we find most surprising in this tarand is, that not only its face and skin, but also its hair could take whatever colour was about it.

The fourth picture is a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Forbes called A Rat Behind the Arras. This painting was inspired by a true story which took place at Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the winter of 1858.

From Georges Perec’s novel Life A User’s Manual. English translation by David Bellos.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. (See also: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

There were too many details

no plot, lousy tales, and distant characters.

Gnerally, I am extremely open-minded about other cultures,

Don’t buy this unless you need it for some reason out of your control.

DOES THIS GUY EVEN KNOW WHAT THE FUDGE HE IS TALKING ABOUT!

I read two chapters and quit It was horrible, and I say BAH!!!!!!!!!BAH!!!!!!!and a BOOOOOOOO!!!!!

This is one of those “politically correct” books they force you to read in school, in hope of “broadening our horizons” and “opening our minds.”

The main character had a lot of mental problems, including violence, chauvinism, and overambition to become the ‘model citizen’ of his tribe. I had no sympathy for him, neither should you.

Throught the book the auther keeps bringing in new charecters that have almost the identicle spelling of another and it gets very confusing

While Chinua Achebe claims to be an African freedom activist, her(? I can never figure out these new-fangled names) style of writing is stereotypical of the reactionary Brench and their quest to retain Africa.

The author seems to have some sort of infatuation with yams, because the entire book revolves around idiotic descriptions of yams and characters struggling with their declining yam output.

I found this story went no where, there were no real accomplishments done by the main character, his could have check in to an asylum for a year, dealt with his tribal issues, what he missed out on as a kid, came back to his tribe and really made a difference with his people. Instead, we just see some ones life that just gets worse.

This story could have been told in about 20 pages, but streches out into a full book that finally makes a point in the very last pages. Achebe’s work needs some fine tuning.

Why coudln’t they just at least change the names you could at least pronoucne it, ne ways if you plan on reading it, your want lots of time, so u can understand it.

“THINGS FALL APART” IS LIKE ABOUT A GUY WHO GROWS YAMS AND BEATS HIS FAMILY, AND IT JUST TALKS ABOUT THAT THE WHOLE TIME ITS A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE BOOK!

Almost nothing happens for the first 100 pages except we find out that he has three wives and he beats his kids. GREAT, That took 100 pages to say!!

If your looking for a good novel about African people by an African writer, it’s not here. Try Toni Morrison.

Anyone with sense would be rooting for the imperialists by the end of this book.

the writer is only famous because he is a minority.

the story have no point at all.

It draged on and on.

It was like reading a quick obituary.

the names are way too hard to pronounce.

All you never wanted to know about yams… and other such things

This book is way too confusing for the average reader (I am an honors student) and even the more advanced reader would find difficulty reading this book.

Better by far to have young atudents enjoy ayn rand tom woods and john allison milton friedman and peter schiff adn be poastive free neterpirse and successful.

the only thing you’ll enjoy is saying Okwonko over and over again

This makes Africa look worse, not better….

No one cared about Okonkwo’s yams!

How DARE we let children read this book.

it just SUXED

In retrospect, the story lived up to it’s name.

The final novel in the series is available in the following formats: (Tom Gauld)

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“I know of two kinds of writers” — Jorge Luis Borges

I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.

From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.

“Kisses” — Robert Herrick

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Moby Dick — Ricardo Martinez

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(Via, more).

“I want to plant some object in the world” — William H. Gass

I want to plant some object in the world. Now it happens to be made of signs, which may lead people to think, because it’s made of signs, that it’s pointing somewhere. But actually I’ve gone down the road and collected all sorts of highway signs, made a piece of sculpture out of these things that says Chicago, 35,000 miles. What I hope, of course, is that people will come along, gather in front of the sculpture and take a look at it—consequently, forgetting Chicago. I want to add something to the world. Now, what kind of object? Old romantic that I am, I would like to add objects to the world worthy of love. I think that the things one loves, most particularly in other people, are quite beyond anything they communicate or merely “mean.” Planting those objects is a moral activity, I suppose. You certainly don’t want to add objects to the world that everybody will detest: “Another slug made by Bill Gass.” That’s likely to be their attitude, but you don’t hope for it. The next question is, why is it that one wants this thing loved? My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first.

From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

“Go read Jacques Derrida or the like, something to break your brain on” | Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup Recipe

Get lost for two hours. Go read Jacques Derrida or the like, something to break your brain on and convince you that mind is nothing in the comfort department compared to the things of the spirit, which is what is going on in back in the kitchen. And down’t worry about setting a timer. The fevers sailing the ethers will call you back the instant you’re wanted.

From “Not Just Any Soup,” Gordon Lish’s recipe for chicken noodle soup, published in The New York Times in 1977.

Before you can get lost in Derrida (or the like) for a few hours, you’ve got to fill an 11″ by 5″ pot with three inches of water and inch of beer. Set the heat to low and add “scrubbed carrots…chopped chive, slivered celery, sliced onion, minced garlic, ground dill, paprika, Dijon mustard, pepper, salt, a dash of cinnamon.”

How much of each? Lish is unwilling to list amounts: “Amounts is for the insurance business…The heart with good posture doesn’t stoop to check amounts.”

Add the chicken (sans fat and skin), cover, lower to a simmer, and get lost for two hours.

After you’ve read Derrida (or the like) for two hours, add the noodles — “the slenderest money can buy” — and take another hour off. To kill the time, Lish prescribes Jack Gilberts’ Views of Jeopardy — “the last poems the English language needed”).

Once that hour’s passed, stir the mixture again, thoroughly: “Lid off, the eucharist rolled over in his languid waters so that the bottom shall be the top.” Put the lid back on and wait for eight hours. Lish advises using the time to think.

Huge thanks to David Winters for sharing the recipe with me; David found the piece as part of a great big important research thing he’s doing on Lish (he also interviewed Lish for the project, so we’ll have that to look forward to—but it’s not going to be in his new book, Infinite Fictions, new from Zero this January).

“The way hope builds his house” — Emily Dickinson (Manuscript)

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Read Donald Barthelme’s short story, “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend”

 “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend”
by
Donald Barthelme

I have never visited him in his sumptuous quarters five levels below the Opera, across the dark lake.

But he has described them. Rich divans, exquisitely carved tables, amazing silk and satin draperies. The large, superbly embellished mantelpiece, on which rest two curious boxes, one containing the figure of a grasshopper, the other the figure of a scorpion…

He can, in discoursing upon his domestic arrangements, become almost merry. For example, speaking of the wine he has stolen from the private cellar of the Opera’s Board of Directors:

“A very adequate Montrachet! Four bottles! Each director accusing every other director! I tell you, it made me feel like a director myself! As if I were worth two or three millions and had a fat, ugly wife! And the trout was admirable. You know what the Poles say—fish, to taste right, must swim three times: in water, butter, and wine. All in all, a splendid evening!”

But he immediately alters the mood by making some gloomy observation. “Our behavior is mocked by the behavior of dogs.”

It is not often that the accents of joy issue from beneath that mask.

Monday. I am standing at the place I sometimes encounter him, a little door at the rear of the Opera (the building has 2, 531 doors to which there are 7, 593 keys). He always appears “suddenly”—a coup de theatre that is, to tell the truth, more annoying than anything else. We enact a little comedy of surprise.

“It’ s you!”

“Yes. “

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting. “

But today no one appears, although I wait for half an hour. I have wasted my time. Except—

Faintly, through many layers of stone, I hear organ music. The music is attenuated but unmistakable. It is his great work Don Juan Triumphant. A communication of a kind.

I rejoice in his immense, buried talent.

(Read the rest here).

All my dreams (Wilfred Owen)

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A Very Short Review of Denis Johnson’s New Novel, The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.

Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:

Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.

Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.

More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Reviewed

I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.

I’ve tried.

I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).

want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.

Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.

9780804166744When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).

There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).

What is the book about?

Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.

Okay, but:

What is the book about?

Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:

In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.

In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.

Now in 2011’s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.

That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!

What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).

Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.

But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.