Archive for ‘Reviews’

April 23, 2014

Riff on William Shakespeare

by Edwin Turner

1. William Shakespeare, the Greatest Living American Author, turns 450 today.

2. (There may be some, uh, factual, problems with the preceding sentence, but I’ll let it stand).

3. (After all, to write after Shakespeare requires some gall, a bit of fakery, maybe an outright lie or two).

4. 450! (Could I even hit a 450 points on a riff?)

5. “Shakespeare invented us,” Harold Bloom repeatedly insists in his big fat book The Western Canon.

6. (I might be misquoting; the prospect of putting the effort of fact checking into this riff horrifies me).

7. “Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying,” F. Scott Fitzgerald jotted down in his notebook.

8. We don’t actually have a record of Shakespeare’s birth, although we do know he was baptized on 26 April 1564.

9. And died 23 April 1616.

10. It’s likely that Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564.

11. Or, perhaps: There’s something symmetrical, neat, poetic about Shakespeare dying on his birthday.

12. Ingrid Bergman died on her birthday.

13. As did Thomas Browne.

14. As did Yasujrio Ozu.

15. And, according to tradition: Moses, David, Mohammad.

16. So why not Shakespeare, born on his deathday?

17. We want a teleological neatness with Shakespeare: We want his last play to be The Tempest, a tragicomedy that somehow synthesizes all before it; we can claim Prospero a commanding stand-in for Shakespeare.

18. (These claims overlooking of course that Shakespeare’s last work was likely a forgettable collaboration with John Fletcher,  The Two Noble Kinsmen).

19. The Two Noble Kinsmen was based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.

20. (Shakespeare of course “based” his works on other works; the man was not one for original plotting (thank goodness)).

21. “Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare,” claimed Ezra Pound.

22. “Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so,” he truculently added.

23. To Coleridge though Shakespeare was “myriad-minded Shakespeare” – Our myriad-minded Shakespeare.

24. Dryden credited him with “the largest and most comprehensive soul.”

25. Suggesting also that, “Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be.”

26. I’m not sure about that.

27. How many versions of Hamlet have been attempted?

28. Were not some of these Hamlets magical—magical enough, at least?

29. Ulysses?

30. Infinite Jest?

31. The Lion King?

32. Oedipus Rex?

33. David Markson points out somewhere—forgive me for not rising from my fat ass to go verify—that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have read Sophocles’ Oedipus as there was no English translation yet available.

34. And how many books did Shakespeare read?

35. (Chaucer, often credited with a library of sixty).

36. Speculation, speculation!

37. Shakespeare Truthers.

38. Or Anti-Stratfordians—whatever you want to call them.

38. Walt Whitman was a Shakespeare Truther.

39. Believing no commoner could write the plays, but “only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.”

40. Amazing that, that Walt Whitman, who could so bombastically conceive himself every man, woman, child, a cosmos, etc.—that he couldn’t credit a commoner with the depth of imagination to produce the plays that Whitman called “greater than anything else in recorded literature.”

41. David Markson: “Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man.  Or a lawyer.  Or closely associated with royalty.  Or even a Jew. To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.”

42. For some Shakespeare Truthers, evidence of his lack of authorship is to be found in the different ways he supposedly signed his name!

43. Willm Shakp.

44. William Shakspēr.

45. Wm Shakspē.

46. William Shakspere.

47. Willm Shakspere.

48. William Shakspeare.

49. The last of these from his 1616 will, in which he famously bequeathed his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway.

50. “He was a rich country gentleman, Stephen said, with a coat of arms and landed estate at Stratford and a house in Ireland yard, a capitalist shareholder, a bill promoter, a tithefarmer. Why did he not leave her his best bed if he wished her to snore away the rest of her nights in peace?”

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April 21, 2014

Laurent Binet’s HHhH Is a Thrilling Intertextual Adventure Story

by Edwin Turner

View of Prague — Oskar Kokoschka

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

–Cormac McCarthy, interview in The New York Times, 1992.

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

–David Markson, The Last Novel, 2007

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

–Laurent Binet, HHhH, 2010 / English trans. by Sam Taylor, 2012.

. . . it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.

From the current (18 April 2014) Wikipedia entry for Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH:

HHhH is the debut novel of French author Laurent Binet. It recounts Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. It was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.

The novel follows the history of the operation and the life of its protagonists – Heydrich and his assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. But it is also interlaced with the author’s account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel.

The title is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), a quip about Heydrich said to have circulated in Nazi Germany.

If I were the narrator of HHhH—which is to say, if I were a version of Binet, a version that I might describe (and am describing, I guess) as Binet-the-writer-performing-Binet-the-author-performing-Binet-the-author-as-narrator-narrating-the-author-trying-to-write-HHhH (awful description)—if I were the narrator of HHhH I’d probably now dole out a droll little chapter about how the gesture I’ve just committed (lazily using Wikipedia to summarize the novel and prefacing that lazy summary with a few citations that might make cribbing from Wikipedia seem, I dunno, clever (which I do not think said cribbing is))—If I were the narrator of HHhH I might riff on how what I just did  is the result of some kind of 21st-century paralysis induced by an overload of information combined with a deep sincere genuine honest-to-gawd love for my subject.

Or maybe I’d just claim to be writing an infrareview.

Has this been a bad start?

I think HHhH gets off to a bad start, but I could be wrong.

Maybe you should judge for yourself, dear reader. Here is its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

Actually, rereading it now, this seems like a perfect start, although I’ll admit it stalled me on the first few attempts. I mean, that’s a bit alienating, yes? Names, dates, places—and then a shift to Kundera, the immediate assault on fiction? But it fits, in retrospect. Maybe this is another way of saying that HHhH, despite a difficult first few chapters (What is the book aboutWhat is the book?) quickly becomes thrilling, engrossing, a cerebral spy novel, a study in power and terror, a love letter to Prague, a moody bit of flanerie, at times—and mostly an intertextual adventure yarn that shouldn’t work but does, that succeeds wildly.

In chapters that are often short, punchy, and precise, Binet spends much of the first part of the novel building the character of Reinhard Heydrich, “‘the Hangman,’ ‘the Butcher,’ ‘the Blond Beast.” Binet’s Heydrich is fascinating but never sympathetic, a psychological portrait that Binet draws in spite of himself. The author’s radical ambivalence is evident in two early consecutive chapters, which are worth sharing in full, I think, as they illustrate both Binet’s prose as well as his program. Chapter 16:

Little Heydrich—cute, blond, studious, hardworking, loved by his parents. Violinist, pianist, junior chemist. A boy with a shrill voice which earns him a nickname, the first in a long list: at school, they call him “the Goat.” At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death. But it is during this delicate period of childhood that one learns resentment.

And Chapter 17:

In Death Is My Trade, Robert Merle creates a novelized biography of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, based on firsthand accounts and on notes that Höss himself wrote in prison before being hanged in 1947. The whole of the first part is given over to his childhood and his unbelievably deadening upbringing at the hands of an ultraconservative and emotionally crippled father. It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

This is not my intention—I say intention, not ambition—with regard to Heydrich. I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution because his schoolmates called him “the Goat” when he was ten years old. Nor do I think that the ragging he took because they thought he was a Jew should necessarily explain anything. I mention these facts only for the ironic coloring they give to his destiny: “the Goat” will grow up to be the man called, at the height of his power, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” And the Jew, Süss, will become the Great Architect of the Holocaust. Who could have guessed such a thing?

Throughout HHhH, Binet-the-narrator repeatedly voices his concerns for spending so much time on Heydrich; these anxieties are frequently tethered to other texts (as we see both in the first paragraph of the novel, and in the first line of Chapter 17). It’s not just that the Nazis in particular were such fastidious record-keepers (“The Nazis love burning books, but not files”); it’s also that WWII has arguably produced more literature—narrative entertainment!—than anyone could hope to wade through.

But Binet-narrator assures us he’s waded, especially into territories where Heyrdrich might show his yellow head. Blazoning an often truculent anxiety of influence, the narrator of HHhH reflects and opines on numerous Nazi narratives, from Kenneth Brannagh’s role as Heydrich in Conspiracy to Rutger Hauer in Twilight of the Eagles (adapted from a Robert Harris novel, it sounds like a ripoff of PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Binet also lards the novel with historical documents, like journal entries, newspaper records, excerpts from speeches, etc., along with rumor and speculation. He often crams a story or an anecdote into HHhH that he claims has no business there, like the (apocryphal?) tale of a soccer match between occupied Ukraine and the Nazis:

. . . none of the main characters of Operation Anthropoid is involved, so theoretically it has no place in my novel. But one of the great advantages of the genre is the almost unlimited freedom it gives the author.

This kind of bait and switch is characteristic of HHhH, and it should be annoying as hell. But for some reason it isn’t—just the right amount of restraint? Just the right note of ironic dissonance? I’m not sure. Binet’s earnest pleas that he wishes to do justice to the reality of his characters can become overbearing at times, but the earnestness is tempered in a kind of postmodern distance. But maybe I brought that with me. (Although of course the reader bears some responsibility, especially in such an intertextual reading).

Binet-as-narrator pleads at the gaps in history:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

But of course the rhetoric here, the language itself, is a contrivance, a making, a bit of artifice—a decision. And, near the end of HHhH, exhausted from witnessing, from channeling that witnessing:

Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.

Binet-as-narrator overestimates his powers if he thinks that he allowed those anonymous deaths. But his creation does not stink of hubris.

No, what happens here—and gosh darn, I’ve really failed to describe it adequatley—what HHhH ultimately offers is the very thing it sets out to deconstruct: A ripping, gripping adventure yarn. The final sequence—I really want to just lay it all out here, now, but c’mon, spoilers! You should read this book!—the final sequence deserves more than the review-hack cliches I’ll rest on here: Breathtaking, spellbinding, engrossing, thrilling, etc. Just wonderful, and Binet knows it, stretches it out, repeatedly gnashes and wails that he doesn’t want it to end, and for good reason—it’s really damn good.

I listened to Audible’s unabridged version of HHhH, narrated by John Lee (and then reread sections at night on my Kindle). Lee’s been a dealbreaker for me in the past (I barely made it through his narration of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and gave up on his take on China Miéville’s Kraken), but his evocation of the narrator’s voice here is perfect—intelligent, slightly ironic. Perhaps it helps that Binet is unequivocal about his characters’ voices (which are rare in the novel)—he’s always pointing out, Hey, look hereI’m the ventriloquist! I looked forward to the narrative in my commute and often lingered over chores to listen longer. Great stuff.

Is HHhH an infranovel? I don’t know because I don’t know really what Binet means by “infranovel.” It is an entertaining and smart take on a worn-out genre though, which is more than enough. Recommended.

April 6, 2014

“Nothing but Trouble” | Gordon Lish’s New Collection Goings Plays with the Problems of Language

by Edwin Turner

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Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?

Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.

In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:

Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.

In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:

I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”

Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.

At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.

“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):

Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?

I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.

Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?

“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.

Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”).  There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.

This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.

Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.

But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:

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Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.

March 30, 2014

Riff on Not Writing

by Edwin Turner

1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.

3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).

4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.

5. (And so I’ve done this before).

6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed  up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.

7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).

8. These books are:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

Middle C by William H. Gass

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish

Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark

The majority of Donald Barthelme.

9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).

10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.

March 19, 2014

I Review (Version #10786 of) Nanni Balestrini’s Novel Tristano

by Edwin Turner

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Let’s start with some facts:

Nanni Balestrini originally composed Tristano in the 1960s with the aid of an algorithm supplied to an IBM computer.

There are ten chapters in the novel.

Each chapter is comprised of twenty paragraphs.

Balestrini’s algorithm shuffles fifteen of those paragraphs within each chapter.

There are thus 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions of Tristano.

Tristano was published in 1966 by the Italian press Feltrinelli, but in only one of those 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions.

Now, Verso Books has published 4,000 different versions of Tristano in English.

They sent me #10786 to review.

Maybe a few more facts, and then some opinions—and citations from the novel—no?

Umberto Eco spends the first five pages of his six page introduction to Tristano situating Balestrini’s project in its proper literary-historical context. (He names some names: Pascal, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Christopher Clavius, Pierre Guldin, Mersenne, Leibniz, Borges, Queneau, Mallarmé, Manzoni, Joyce. There is no mention of Cortázar’s Hopscotch or Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series).

Mike Harakis translated Tristano into English.

Harakis preserves Balestrini’s spare (and often confusing) style of punctuation.

The book is exactly 120 pages.

In his contemporary “Note on the Text” of Tristano, Balestrini says that the book is “an ironic homage to the archetype of the love story.”

The title of course alludes to the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

In his note, Balestrini uses the term “experiment” at least three times, suggesting that “to experiment with a new way of conceiving literature and novels” can make it more “possible to represent effectively the complexities and unpredictability of contemporary reality.”

Balestrini’s 2004 novel Sandokan is in my estimation one of the finest books of the past decade: A poetic examination of criminal brutality told in a bold voice, its syntactical experiments not experiments at all, but rather the base of a strong, strange tone that perfectly synthesizes plot and voice.

Okay. Opinions and citations:

In chapter 2 of my edition of Tristano—on page 19 of version #10786—we get a paragraph that begins: “To be one-sided means not to look at problems all-sidedly.”

Does Tristano, through its formal, discursive, algorithmic structure seek to approach an all-sided perspective? Significantly, we can’t be sure who says the line. There are two characters, male and female, both named C (an algebraic variable?).

There seems to be an argument here, an investigation. A crime, a love affair. But Tristano is a dialectic without synthesis. Or maybe that failure is mine. Maybe I’ve failed as the reader. Neglected my part. “Treat life as if it were a game,” we’re told in the aforementioned paragraph (page 19 of version #10786, if you’re keeping score). Or maybe we’re not told. Maybe C is telling C to treat life as a game (and not just telling the reader), but the context is not (cannot) be clear.

But again, that’s probably maybe almost certainly but okay maybe not quite the point of Tristano. From paragraph 18 of chapter 6 (page 71 of version #10786): “First of all one must have a fairly clear idea of the content of the text.” And a few lines down: “Her story weaves and unweaves like the tapestry she was working on.” And: “It’s the unconditional loss of language that starts.” And: “It might never have an end.” Freeing these lines from the sentences around them ironically stabilizes them.

Tristano isn’t just line after line of Postmodernism 101 though. There is actual imagery here, content. In fairness, let me share entire paragraph (from page 69  of version #10786):

In the internal part of the cave along with an abundance of Pleistocene fauna a human Neanderthaloid tooth was recovered. You’ve already told me this story. The cave is divided into two levels one upper and one lower that host a subterranean lake which can be visited by boat. It might even be another story. They had warned him it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Inside you can go down into a great cavern in the centre of which there is a rock surmounted by a giant stalagmite. We’ll stay and look for another thirty seconds then we’ll leave. All the stories are different one from the other. On returning he found that C had bought herself a new blue silk dress. C remained standing while he explained to her how it had gone. She ran a finger over his lips to wipe the lipstick off them. I have to go. It’s still early. I’ll be away all day perhaps tomorrow too. He gave her a long kiss on the lips.

This paragraph is maybe almost kind of sort of a synecdoche of the entire book—sentences that seem to belong to other paragraphs, story threads that seem part of another tapestry. Let us pull a thread from another paragraph, another chapter (chapter 9, paragaph 8, page 102 of  of version #10786):

All imaginable pathways of the line that represents a direct connexion to the objective are equally impracticable and no adjustment of the shape of the body to the spatial forms of the surrounding objects can allow the objective to be reached.

Do you believe that? Did Balestrini? Or did it just allow him a neat little piece of rhetoric to gel with the concept of his experiment? The verbal force, dexterity, and dare I claim truth of Sandokan, composed a few decades later, suggests that yes, language can be shaped to mean.

And this, I think, is the big failure of Tristano—it’s a text afraid to mean, to even take a shot at meaning. Content to be simply an experiment, its sections adding up to nothing more than the suggestion that its sections could never add up to anything, Tristano offers little beyond its concept and a few observations on storytelling that dwell on paralysis instead of freedom. The whole experiment strikes me as the set up for a joke played on the reader: Look at all this possibility, look at all these iterations—and what’s at the core? Nothing.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I’m thankful that Verso published Tristano, which I think shows courage as well as a commitment to literature that you just aren’t going to see from a corporate house.  I’m thankful that I got to read (version #10786 of) Tristano, and I plan to order his novel The Unseen via my local bookstore. The expectations that I brought to the book were huge: Loved the concept, loved the last book I’d read by the author—and I want to read more by the author. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that failed Tristano’s experiment. But I would’ve been happier to learn something or feel something from that failure other than disappointment.

March 16, 2014

The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

by Edwin Turner

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I. “Manhole 69″ (1957)

II. “Chronopolis” (1960)

III.  “The Voices of Time” (1960)

IV. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)

V. “Billennium” (1961)

VI. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

VII. “The Subliminal Man” (1963)

VIII. “End-Game” (1963)

IX. “Time of Passage” (1964)

X. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

XI. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)

XII. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)

XIII. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

XIV.  “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

XV. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

XVI. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976)

XVII. “The Index” (1977)

XVIII. “The Dead Time” (1977)

XIX. “News from the Sun” (1981)

XX. “Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

XXI. “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

XXII. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

XXIII. “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

At 1200 pages and just under 100 stories, The Complete Short Stories is frankly too complete—but I read them all anyway. The list above is my suggestion for a volume I’d call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Each selection on the list is linked to a riff I wrote; in several cases, links to the full text of the story can be found at the riff.

March 6, 2014

True Detective, Bolaño’s 2666, Werewolves, Etc.

by Edwin Turner

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1. A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty long essay about rereading Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a dark, compelling, violent, mysterious book that I’ve reread in full three times now, a book that I frequently return to, a book that seems to leer from the shelf too often, Hey, you’re not done with me, you know that, right? 

2. Anyway, this long essay about rereading 2666 was also about another book: Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 folklore-horror hybrid, The Book of Were-Wolves (download it here). I argued that

What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.

—and suggested that

Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.

3. (What I want to say is that any speculation I might offer about the forthcoming conclusion of season one of True Detective I have already offered, at some length, in an essay (about two other texts) which I composed a few years before True Detective aired).

4. Well so and anyway: “After You’ve Gone,” the penultimate episode of True Detective.

In some ways the most straightforward episode to date, even disappointingly so, a bit of a police procedural, serving mostly to realign Cohle and Hart, demonstrating that despite their fight and their differences, they are also very similar. But you already know that, you know what happened in the episode, right? The obsession then is for an answer: Where does this all go? Who did the crimes? Who is The King in Yellow? How does it end?

5. I now lazily link to an article that rounds up some of the conjecture — the “theories” — about how the show will end. You’ve read some of these, right?

6. This kind of conjecture is fun, or maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—maybe what I want to say instead is:

True Detective compels many of its viewers to obsessively hunt down clues in each frame. There’s a thickness to the show’s repetition of key images and phrases—spirals, stars, sets of five figures, antlers, crowns, crosses that dissolve into targets, etc.—a seeming preciseness that invites us to impose our own order, our own narrative.

(This is the kind of conjecture that Hart repeatedly warns Cohle not to indulge in).

7. I’m reminded here of Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas’s prologue to Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman:

What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death.

True Detective, like True Policeman—and, like Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666—all invite the active participation of the reader. But also the woe.

8. There is no supernatural solution to the mysteries of True Detective. From the outset, True Detective has posited (the illusion of) human consciousness as a part of nature that seeks to define itself against naturethe real.

In True Detective, the supernatural is the product of terror and fantasy. It is imaginary. (And of course therefore no less real than the natural, the real, thanks to human consciousness).

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9. From the beginning of Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves:

It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.

This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.

The emphasis is mine.

10. In the sixth episode of True Detective, Cohle says to Hart: “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.” The indictment is broad, dark, and perhaps paranoid, but it serves to highlight the series’s keen attenuation to infanticide, to the infinite loss and dramatic mourning that underpins begetting.

11. Cohle has lost his daughter, and her death at such a young age, he says, spared him “the sin of fatherhood.”

Hart has essentially lost his daughters, ruined his life, ruined his (illusion of the) status as a family man. The thing that mattered—his family—was “right under his nose” the whole time.

On the job, both Cohle and Hart—separately—witness the awful deaths of infants; in both cases, the men snap, disconnect, quit.

12. (At this time, the reader is invited to sift through his or her own recollections of True Detective (if he or she so desires) and set aside examples of infanticidal violence).

13. Many fans of the show have speculated that Martin Hart is the King in Yellow, a notion fueled by the show’s stores of symbolic images, as well as Hart’s own actions.

The theory is intriguing, but I seriously doubt that Hart will be revealed as a perpetrator in the crimes of the Tuttle case. However, he is capable of slipping into werewolf mode: Threatening his lover Lisa’s new beau with horrific violence and then declaring, “I’m not a psycho–I wouldn’t have done those things” (the past perfect tense there is so strange); slipping on gloves to assault the boys who had consensual sex with his daughter Audrey; etc. etc. etc.

Hart’s actions are the strange double bind of the patriarchal lawman who sets to rule with sanctioned order—and, specifically, to rule and control the sexualized female body, which is oh-so-important to begettingDoes he serve and protect? Does he terrorize and menace? Both and at the same time.

But I’d argue that Hart is illusioned, that his identity is constituted in maintaining an illusion, an illusion that Cohle is too keenly aware of (“…you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute”).

14. There’s a heap of corpses at the core of Bolaño’s 2666—women who are raped, murdered, discarded. Bolaño sends various detectives—many of them good detectives, true policeman—to find the killers, but there’s no satisfying answer: Just plenty of killers, plenty of werewolves. As the novel reaches its (non)end, we await the promise of a Giant (The Tall Man), a Big Answer. But the answer is inadequate, incomplete.

15. The capacity to transform into a killer, a werewolf is always there. Just put on some gloves. Just slip on a mask.

Or maybe take your mask off.

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March 2, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eleventh Riff: The Nineties)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

The eighties

IN THIS RIFF:

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

“A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” (1992)

“Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992)

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

“The Dying Fall” (1996)

1. “Dream Cargoes” (1990)

By the 1990s Ballard had written essentially the same stories over and over—with diminishing returns. Some of the weakness in the later entries in the Complete Short Stories can be attributed to Ballard’s prescience. The world caught up to him at some point, blunting his satire into something goofier, more cartoonish, but also sharpening the reactionary streak that always glowed under the surface of his writing. At his peak, Ballard used his stories to provoke readers into looking at their culture in a new way, and the best of those stories still retain a futurist power. However, many of the late period stories blazon their moral outrage in a wearisome didactic streak.

1990′s “Dream Cargoes” is paint-by-numbers Ballard: Themes of time, sleep, mutation, ecological disaster, birds, etc. The plot anticipates one of Ballard’s weaker novels, Rushing to Paradise (1994), a day-glo nightmare about misguided attempts to steward the forces of nature. And like Rushing to Paradise, the prose here is weak—Ballard relies on the stock phrases that litter his earliest stories.

2. “The Message from Mars” (1992) / “Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992) / “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” anticipates public disinterest in astronomy (and science in general), the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, and China’s emerging dominance as a world power with space flight capability. So there you go. (It also posits the horror of a President Quayle!). Ballard sends a group of astronauts on a Mars mission, refuses to share their findings with us, and then leaves them, once they land, in their space shuttle, where they live on for decades, silent, incommunicado, alienated from humanity in their self-imposed exile. Ballard’s cynicism is balanced by his refusal to overstate any kind of moral here—the story succeeds in its evocation of mystery.

“Report from an Obscure Planet” is another riff on millennial anxieties, written in the perspective of a “we” condemning the human race for its shortsighted, disastrous treatment of the planet. Ballard doesn’t seem to keen on the future wonders promised by computers:

Driven by the need for a more lifelike replica of the scenes of carnage that most entertained them, the people of this unhappy world had invented an advanced and apparently interiorised version of their television screens, a virtual replica of reality in which they could act out their most deviant fantasies. These three–dimensional simulations were generated by their computers, and had reached a stage of development in the last years of the millennium in which the imitation of reality was more convincing than the original. It may even have become the new reality to the extent that their cities and highways, their fellow citizens and, ultimately, themselves seemed mere illusions by comparison with the electronically generated amusement park where they preferred to play. Here they could assume any identity, create and fulfill any desire, and explore the most deviant dreams.  

While “Report from an Obscure Planet” uses a didactic narrator and a heavy hand to telegraph its message, its companion piece “A Guide to Virtual Death” is far more fun, wicked, and shockingly accurate (if wildly hyperbolic). Sure, yes, okay—another list from Ballard, and okay, yes, sure—I tend to be keen on his lists (“The Index,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”)—but they also tend to be his strongest pieces. As usual with his list-stories, Ballard feels obligated to begin with a note:

For reasons amply documented elsewhere, intelligent life on earth became extinct in the closing hours of the 20th Century. Among the clues left to us, the following schedule of a day’s television programmes transmitted to an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere on December 23, 1999, offers its own intriguing insight into the origins of the disaster.

6.00 am Porno–Disco. Wake yourself up with his–and–her hard–core sex images played to a disco beat.

7.00 Weather Report. Today’s expected micro–climates in the city’s hotel atriums, shopping malls and office complexes. Hilton International promises an afternoon snow–shower as a Christmas appetiser.

7.15 News Round–up. What our news–makers have planned for you. Maybe a small war, a synthetic earthquake or a famine–zone! charity tie–in.

7.45 Breakfast Time. Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.

Brief but Essential. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

3. “The Dying Fall” (1996) / “The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

The American edition of Complete Stories is more complete than the British volume, including two extra stories. “The Dying Fall” (read it here if you like) is an unfortunate last entry, a weak note in a grand tome. It’s not bad; it’s simply not good, yet another revenge tale with a bad wife, etc. It feels like a frame for Ballard to riff on architecture and psychoanalysis.

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” is much stronger (you can read it here), although it was also composed at his peak and republished (“rediscovered”) after his death. The final lines would have made a fitting end for the entire collection:

When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel, and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station, he assembled a small armory of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.

But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on his lawn and on those of his former neighbors. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.

Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

4. On the horizon:

I am done! Sort of. One more post—I’ll revisit these riffs and select the tales that I would include in a collection I would call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

February 24, 2014

“Haunted Houses” | Another True Detective Riff

by Edwin Turner

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I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.

We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.

“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”

Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.

The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.

Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”

Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.

Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance. 

Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.

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February 23, 2014

Reviews Page Redesign (And a Reflection on Sexist Reviewing Habits)

by Biblioklept

So I updated Biblioklept’s Reviews page.

The page had just been a list of the reviews, riffs, and essays published on the blog, with each new entry stacking up in chronological order. For years I’ve known that this unorganized review dump was essentially useless, and I’d been meaning to turn it into an alphabetical index—and I finally did. (I kept the chronolist too, mostly for myself).

Anyway, as I went through this boring, sort-of-arduous process, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few of the habits that manifest under the surface:

The obvious: The reviews on the blog trend very heavily toward male authors. I already knew this, but counting things up makes it plain:

To date, I’ve run reviews of approximately 221 authors (approximate in the sense that I counted only once); of those reviews, only 36 were books by women. That’s about 16%. (This analysis doesn’t even begin to consider the multiple reviews of authors—for example, there are like a ton of reviews of Roberto Bolaño books, but only one review of a Clarice Lispector book). This ratio runs counter to what I’d like to believe are my principles; the number certainly contrasts with the fiction and poetry that I run on the blog (public domain stuff), which trends toward female authors. The number also contrasts with the ratio of male to female authors — roughly 1:1 — that appear on my course syllabuses.

If my tone sounds defensive, it’s because it is. The Read Women 2014 project has helped to highlight sexist reading habits—including my own. Sexism—any kind of prejudicial ism (and every ism is prejudicial) manifests as a blinding structure: Part of the structuring condition of ideological sexism is that the sexist person usually cannot see that he is sexist (he cannot see that he cannot see). I’m not offering this as a defense of my own habits: I’m not saying, Look, I’m aware of my skewed reviewing habits, and my very awareness of my inherent sexism makes me less sexist, absolves, me, etc. (But look at how I rhetorically dance around simply writing, My reviewing habits are sexist; look at how I’m still unable to simply type I’m probably a sexist, let alone I’m sexist, let me hedge, use parentheses, etc.).

Can I turn attention away from myself and onto the aesthetic critic Harold Bloom? In his Paris Review interview, he claimed:

I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.

Bloom’s statement is a perfect example of I cannot see that I cannot see. (Stephen Colbert essentially ridicules this kind of blindness on his satirical show The Colbert Report by repeatedly claiming that he is not racist because he cannot see color).

I think that (I know that) a certain male interest determines my aesthetic interest. At the same time, I understand Bloom’s resistance to the notion that aesthetics are somehow contingent on gender. Could a man have written “A Good Man Is Hard to Find?” or To the Lighthouse or Death Comes to the Archbishop or Their Eyes Were Watching God? (A man didn’t). We’d like to believe that the Great Stuff transcends the material world—that part of its timelessness is that it’s not bound to mortal gendered coils. Etc.

What about now? What about Read Women 2014? I’ve been reading more women authors, I think, but I haven’t been reviewing them. I recently reread Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, some Gertrude Stein I’d never read before (including Tender Buttons), and some short stories by Eudora Welty and Willa Cather. I’ve read far less contemporary stuff though, although I did review Jessica Hollander’s excellent collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place. In general though, I tend to read less contemporaryish fiction now than I used to—I’m reading three books now, and only one is by a living author (Ben Marcus). Of the three books I’m reading now, only one is by a woman (Zelda Fitzgerald). Of the last ten book reviews published on this site, four are of books by women.

Data and numbers are unappealing—especially when they quantify something we (and when I write we you know I mean I) don’t want to acknowledge. We’d (I’d) rather qualify than quantify. Etc.

I suppose it’s the idea of a conscious effort that so repels some of us (me). The notion that I (we?) might have to make an actual intellectual (not aesthetic, perhaps non-intuitive) effort to differentiate our reading. But that’s what it takes, right? An effort. A recognition. A looking.

February 21, 2014

A Rambling Riff on True Detective

by Edwin Turner

1. So usually after I watch the newest episode of True Detective—this week, that means episode five, “The Secret Fate of All Life”—usually I rewatch the episode and then want to write about it and feel stymied. Last week, I had to (was compelled to) rewatch “Who Goes There” immediately after the first viewing.

This is a long lead up to saying, basically, that I haven’t gotten to rewatching “The Secret Fate of All Life” yet, because this episode compelled me to go back to the beginning, to start from “The Long Bright Dark.”

2. So some quick thoughts on “Secret Fate” (with the caveat that I haven’t rewatched it, along with the caveat that these riffs are written to an audience which has already watched the show):

3. The major theme of “Secret Fate” is time. This episode argues that time is an illusion (just as earlier episodes argued that identity is an illusion)—that time is a trick of perception.

February 19, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Tenth Riff: The Eighties)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

IN THIS RIFF:

“A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)

“News from the Sun” (1981)

“Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

“Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

“Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982)

“The Object of the Attack” (1984)

“Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

“The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)

“The Secret History of World War 3″ (1988)

“Love in a Colder Climate” (1989)

“The Enormous Space” (1989)

“The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989)

“War Fever” (1989)

1. “News from the Sun” (1981) / “Myths of the Near Future” (1982) / “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

Let me first confess how happy I am to be finished with this enormously enormous book (okay, not physically enormous on my Kindle, but still…). Let me also confess to dread at having to finish out these riffs (no, no one is forcing me, but still…). At this point, I feel like I could write my own Ballard story—a crazed astronaut here, a drained swimming pool there, a femme fatale, some psychotropic drugs, armchair psychology, a swamp, some birds (perhaps), a plane or two, time obsession, sex obsession, space obsession. Obsession obsession Anyway. Ballard arguably peaks in the early 1980s; everything after reads like a day-glow Keith Haringesque pop-approximation of his grittier seventies stuff—or (worse) scolding wrapped up in little morality plays.

But, like I said (wrote), Ballard is in his prime in the early 1980s, and “News,” “Myths,” and “Memories” are some of his finest stories (file these triplets in my quasi-fictional-but-c’mon-we-can-make-this-happen collection The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard)—they are also some of his most Ballardian, riffing on space-travel-as-cosmic-taboo, paranoid parables obsessed with time. A particularly Ballardian paragraph (from “Memories”):

He had almost ceased to breathe. Here, at the centre of the space grounds, he could feel time rapidly engorging itself. The infinite pasts and future of the forest had fused together. A long–tailed parakeet paused among the branches over his head, an electric emblem of itself more magnificent than a peacock. A jewelled snake hung from a bough, gathering to it all the embroidered skins it had once shed.

(Parenthetical aside: “Myths” and “Memories” are both set in Florida. Ballard’s depiction of Florida feels thoroughly inauthentic (I’m Floridian), but that inauthenticity also feels thoroughly appropriate).

2. “A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)

Ballard constructs this little tale around a psychoanalytic reading of Cinderella:

The entire fairy tale of Cinderella was being enacted, perhaps unconsciously, by this deranged heiress. If she herself was Cinderella, Dr Valentina Gabor was the fairy godmother, and her magic wand the hypodermic syringe she waved about so spectacularly. The role of the pumpkin was played by the ‘sacred mushroom’, the hallucinogenic fungus from which psilocybin was extracted. Under its influence even an ancient laundry van would seem like a golden coach. And as for the ‘ball’, this of course was the whole psychedelic trip.

But who then was Prince Charming? As I arrived at the great mansion at the end of its drive it occurred to me that I might be unwittingly casting myself in the role, fulfilling a fantasy demanded by this unhappy girl. . . .

For all my resistance to that pseudo–science, it occurred to me that once again a psychoanalytic explanation made complete sense of these bizarre events and the fable of Cinderella that underpinned them. I walked up the staircase past the dismembered clock. Despite the fear–crazed assault on them, the erect hands still stood upright on the midnight hour – that time when the ball ended, when the courtships and frivolities of the party were over and the serious business of a real sexual relationship began. Fearful of that male erection, Cinderella always fled at midnight.

Etc.

Ballard’s Freudian riff would be more interesting as an essay.

(The story also showcases some of his typical chauvinism: The psychiatrist is described as the “woman psychiatrist” — just as earlier a dentist is referred to as a “lady dentist,” etc. Straight through to the end of the collection. In the 1990s).

3. “Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982) / “The Enormous Space” (1989)

“Report” and “Space” both read like takes on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Soviet-era short story “Quadraturin” — both concern space, that corollary to time, and, just as Ballard repeatedly posits time as a matter of perspective, he treats space—area—the same way here. “Report” is a bit more satisfying than “Space,” which feels like a retread of so many of Ballard’s revenge stories—only with, uh, some comical cannibalism.

4. “The Object of the Attack” (1984) / “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

“Attack” and “Questionnaire” are maybe the same story—only “Questionnaire” is essentially perfect, whereas “Attack” feels like a clumsy, heavy first draft (but only because “Questionnaire” exists—do you see what I mean by this?)

Both stories showcase Ballard’s syntheses of religion (messianic; apocalyptic) and assassination (political; media-saturated). While “Attack” employs a discursive-but-still-linear approach to the theme, “Answers to a Questionnaire” gives us a discontinuous but more engaging riff in the form of (uh) exactly what its title promises.  First fifth:

1) Yes.

2) Male (?)

3) do Terminal 3, London Airport, Heathrow.

4) Twenty–seven.

5) Unknown.

6) Dr Barnardo’s Primary, Kingston–upon–Thames; HM Borstal, Send, Surrey; Brunel University Computer Sciences Department.

7) Floor cleaner, Mecca Amusement Arcades, Leicester Square.

8) If I can avoid it.

9) Systems Analyst, Sperry–Univac, 1979–83.

10) Manchester Crown Court, 1984.

11) Credit card and computer fraud.

12) Guilty.

13) Two years, HM Prison, Parkhurst.

14) Stockhausen, de Kooning, Jack Kerouac.

15) Whenever possible.

16) Twice a day.

17) NSU, Herpes, gonorrhoea.

18) Husbands.

19) My greatest ambition is to turn into a TV programme.

20) I first saw the deceased on 17 February 1986, in the chapel at London Airport. He was praying in the front pew.

Essential, natch.

5. “The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)

I should’ve wedged this passable but ultimately forgettable little tale in elsewhere. J.G. Ballard’s faux memoir of a faux astronaut. Pass.

6. “The Secret History of World War 3″ (1988)

“The Secret History of World War 3″ is Ballard’s “I told you so” sequel to one of his best stories (frankly a much better story), 1968′s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” In his unofficial sequel, Ballard imagines (the horror!) of a third Reagan term (post-Bush 1), in which the country is obsessed with the President’s (lack of) health:

…the nation’s TV screens became a scoreboard registering every detail of the President’s physical and mental functions. His brave, if tremulous, heartbeat drew its trace along the lower edge of the screen, while above it newscasters expanded on his daily physical routines, on the twenty–eight feet he had walked in the rose garden, the calorie count of his modest lunches, the results of his latest brain–scan, read–outs of his kidney, liver and lung function. In addition, there was a daunting sequence of personality and IQ tests, all designed to reassure the American public that the man at the helm of the free world was more than equal to the daunting tasks that faced him across the Oval Office desk.

The story concerns a man who—alone, always alone, despite his wife, I mean this is Ballard here, hero’s alone (and rightjustified) in his paraonoia—a man who is the only person to remember the brief outbreak of WW3, wedged, as it is, among updates of Ronnie and Nancy’s bowel movements. The story is farcical but juvenile, and if it seems surprisingly sophomoric, it’s worth noting that “TSHofWW3″ echoes not just “Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but also one of Ballard’s earliest efforts, “Escapement” (1956), where a man sits on his couch in disbelief as his wife (stand-in for the whole world) fails to perceive what he perceives.

7. “Love in a Colder Climate” (1989) / “The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989) /“War Fever” (1989)

A trio of late period lectures blazoned in the day glow approximations that anyone who live in the late eighties will not-so-fondly recall. Ballard evokes the neon apocalyptic impulses of the day, reworking his familiar themes—reproduction, civilization, war (etc.). Our baroque surrealist’s strokes are broader, not as sharp, more magnified—more Haring than Delvaux. Michel Houellebecq will pick up JGB’s torch here (with arguably better results) a decade and a half later.

8. On the horizon:

A handful of stories of the nineties: Or: Ballard returns to the same well with diminishing returns.

February 12, 2014

“A Dream About Being A Person” | Another Riff on True Detective

by Edwin Turner

1. I’ve watched each of the first four episodes of the first season of True Detective at least twice now—compelled to do so, staying up later than I should have to do so.

2. Everything that follows is full of spoilers, although I won’t be discussing the plot heavily. Fair warning, okay? Also: The video clips in this riff are NSFW.

3. I wrote about True Detective after its first episode “The Long Bright Dark” zapped me with its philosophical dialogue and heavy tone. In particular, I was taken—am taken, like most viewers of the show, I suspect—with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a nihilist who intuits the illusory structure of consciousness.

4. “The Long Bright Dark” is one of the best first episodes of a TV show I’ve ever seen, its slow burn pointing toward a payoff that the fourth and most recent episode has already delivered (the climax of that episode (the so fucking-climactic climax), midway through the season, must surely be balanced (imbalanced) with some other, different climax in the season’s second half). I’ll admit though to a slight—very slight—disappointment in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” which feels at times overstuffed, as the showmakers compress so many of the plot points and back story that will propel the rest of the narrative.

5. “Seeing Things,” as its title implies, examines the ways that perspective (and blindness) inform our sense of identity. After four years as an undercover narco, Cohle experiences hallucinations—but he’s keenly aware of his hallucinations—he sees that what he sees is an illusion, but he also sees that what he sees is no less real, in a sense, for all its unreality. Cohle contrasts strongly here with Hart, who sees himself as a family man, a patriarch, a good guy—but he’s a philanderer and a bully. Even when confronted with his young daughter’s interest in aberrant sexual scenarios, his impulse is to look away. Hart’s paternalistic horror at finding an underage girl working in a sylvan brothel is contrary to Cohle’s intuition that the girl’s circumstances might be improved under the care of the madame. For Cohle, identity is always destabilized, an hallucination.

6. In one of the scenes set in 2012—the interrogation scenes–

–(Have I failed to discuss this structure? I have failed. I am sorry. Look, clearly the two detectives—one a rookie, green, callow, both black—clearly this pair, an othered version of Rust and Hart, seem intent to jam Cohle up, pin the 2012 murder on him. But Cohle knows that, knew it before he walked into the room. When he cuts the top off of his empty Lone Star tallboy and uses it as an ad hoc urinal, how else am I to read this, gentle reader, other than a territorial pissing?—he knows this terrain. He marks it—both with his piss (abject essence) and the weird little totem he sculpts from the aluminum scrap. Where was I? Oh).–

7. In one of the scenes set in 2012, Cohle, asked why he wanted to move from narcotics to homicide, paraphrases 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (Significantly, Cohle suspends the ultimate referent of that body, Christ). Asked what the verse might mean, Cohle says, “I was just trying to stay part of the body.” The body here—any body, all bodies (as the verse promises)—is an abject body, figured in the body of the victim that initiates the series, which thematically doubles the body of Cohle’s dead daughter. The verse promises that an individual can, via his or her (abject) body, find an identity.

8. But staying part of the body is hard, especially when the body is so goddamn stupid. The opening scenes of episode three, “The Locked Room,” seem to respond directly to Cohle’s biblical citation:

The scene also repeats the conversation Cohle and Rust have about identity in the first episode; again, Hart rejects Cohle, who seeks to reveal “our mutual illusions.”

9. The phrase “our mutual illusions” comes in the final climactic monologue of “The Locked Room,” where Cohle, in prose that could have come straight from Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, posits human existence as wholly abject, “a jury rig of presumption and dumb will . . . it was all . . . a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person”:

10. (As I wedged a Cormac McCarthy reference into point 9, I may as well wedge another one in here: The second episode of True Detective pretty much wholesale lifts the scene in No Country where Sheriff Ed Tom and his sheriff friend lament that folks don’t say “Yes sir” and “No ma’am” anymore).

11. If “The Locked Room” slowed the pace of True Detective, returned some of the moodiness and philosophy to this police procedural, then episode four, “Who Goes There,” synthesizes everything that’s come before it into a throttling, thrilling climax.

We see Hart fall low, fall apart; for the first time, he has to recognize what he has been hitherto unwilling to recognize—namely, his own blindness, his own pride. His entire identity has been wrapped up in the idea that he is a father and a law man, but his approach to both of these roles has been dishonest—he’s a cheater, an absent father, and a bully. But flashing his badge doesn’t get him that far in “Who Goes There.”

For Cohle, identity is fluid, discontinuous, and unstable. When he goes “undercover” as “Crash,” connecting back with a motorcycle gang in the hopes of finding the suspect in the murder case, he doesn’t put on a mask so much as he simply becomes a different version of himself (which is the same version).

The end of the episode plunges into a nightworld operating on Lynchian logic; to call it dark would be an understatement, and Hart, despite all his macho posturing, is unsteady here, stumbling even. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Hart sees that he cannot see.

12. The final moments of “Who Goes There” coalesce in a strange costume drama (Cohle as Crash in biker garb; the biker gang leering and lurid in cop blues). We’ve moved from the swampy, indeterminate bayou into the concrete box of the projects. No easy exit, but the terrain is somehow just as malleable for Agent Crash Cohle, who doesn’t so much command the screen as navigate it. The last shot of the episode is an uninterrupted slow burn that boils over, seers with a volitional energy that I haven’t seen on film since Children of Men. The scene reaches its end, the partners make their getaway from the scene of the crime, and the camera—via a helicopter shot—rises above the fray, its eye the eye of god, an impossible, inhuman perspective that surveys the whole indiscriminate mess: Seeing:

February 8, 2014

The Abject Body and Spike Jonze’s Her

by Edwin Turner

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1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.”  Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.

2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).

3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a weHer attempts to represent love without abjection.

4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).

5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.

6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.

7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.

8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream ColorLike HerUpstream Color explores the possibility of how an might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).

9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.

10.  In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.

January 15, 2014

“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show

by Edwin Turner

HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.

I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.

It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):

The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.

It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.

I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.

The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.

January 12, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eighth Riff: Closing Out the Sixties)

by Edwin Turner

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PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

IN THIS RIFF:

“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967)

“The Recognition” (1967)

“The Cloud–Sculptors of Coral D” (1967)

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

“The Dead Astronaut” (1968)

“The Comsat Angels” (1968)

“The Killing Ground” (1969)

“A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

“Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

1. “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967) / “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) / “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories, collected and published together (under the title Vermilion Sands in 1971), are generally my least favorite selections in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The stories, composed over a decade, share a unified tone and a consistent (first-person) point of view to match their unified setting, and that setting is interesting enough—Ballardian enough—but each story is essentially just a delivery mechanism for a Cool Idea that Ballard has about art.

In “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”, Ballard’s Cool Idea is a light-responsive painting technique:

Like all paintings produced at Vermilion Sands at that time, it would not actually need the exercise of the painter’s hand. Once the pigments had been selected, the photosensitive paint would produce an image of whatever still life or landscape it was exposed to. Although a lengthy process, requiring an exposure of at least four or five days, it had the immense advantage that there was no need for the subject’s continuous presence. Given a few hours each day, the photosensitive pigments would anneal themselves into the contours of a likeness.

This discontinuity was responsible for the entire charm and magic of these paintings. Instead of a mere photographic replica, the movements of the sitter produced a series of multiple projections, perhaps with the analytic forms of cubism, or, less severely, a pleasant impressionistic blurring.

The idea is interesting in and of itself, calling back to the central conceit of another VS story, “Studio 5, The Stars.” In that tale, poetry is the automated product of programmed machines. The concept of programmed art is fascinating, and clearly Ballard’s fiction tracks a predictive curve, but like most Vermilion Sands stories, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” is clumsily executed pulp fiction. “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” is no different (the Cool Idea is cloud-sculpting, which allows Ballard to riff on one of his central motifs, airplanes). “Say Goodbye to the Wind” features living, responsive clothing. It also features another stereotypical Ballardian (pseudo)ingénue (the man really had a difficult time coming up with complex female characters). However, with its notes on “the teenage cult” and its obsession with plastic surgery, the story points to the more compelling territory Ballard was exploring.

2. “The Recognition” (1967)

A doomed circus, another (pseudo)ingénue, another dwarf, another morality fable, another stab at magical realism—far less successful than “The Drowned Giant” though.

3. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

This is one you might as well just read: I mean, an attempt to describe it here will fail. But I’ll fail anyway.

“Reagan” was first published when the former actor and then-Governor of California was positioned as a write-in candidate for the ’68 election—the Gipper was the conservative alternative to Nixon. Written in the style of an academic psychology paper, the piece isn’t so much satire as something else entirely. I’m not sure exactly what that “something else” is, but it’s probably best signaled in Ballard’s own prose:

Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth–parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear–exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child–victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self–induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.

According to a number of sources, including Ballard himself, the story was disseminated at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. VICE reports:

. . . a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard’s Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, “Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey,” and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.

“Reagan” is one of only three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition collected in The Complete Stories. It also clearly belongs in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, an ideal collection that does not yet exist.

4. “The Dead Astronaut”

Betrayal, unfaithful wives, the fall-out of the space race against the backdrop of the Cold War, paranoia, radiation, etc.

5. “The Comsat Angels”

Ballard’s best stories, like “The Index,” “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Beach Murders,” or “Answers to a Questionnaire” all succeed because their form is indivisible from their content—the idea that Ballard delivers is inseparable from the method of delivery. Most of Ballard’s stories are beholden to genre conventions though, and while Ballard’s treatment of these conventions are often excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent), against the backdrop of his best stuff, the conventional exercises are always a little disappointing, or at least frustrating. Often clunky and heavy-handed, his stories for sci-fi mags are often the worst offenders.

However, when Ballard works through the conventions of detective fiction, he usually has stronger results. Edgar Allan Poe is surely Ballard’s foremost literary ancestor, a comparison that finds illustration in “The Comsat Angels,” a detective piece with a nimble streak of sci-fi running through it for flavor. Cloning, conspiracy, and paranoia done right. Great stuff.

6. “The Killing Ground” (1969) / “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

These stories are basically thought exercises where Ballard takes on the Vietnam War and its simultaneous culture war. “The Killing Ground” foregrounds the Vietnam War, but still displaces it, extrapolating a future where “Thirty years after the original conflict in south–east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam,” with Imperial America dominating the globe with its war machine. (Thank goodness nothing like that really happened!).  “A Place and a Time to Die” is more oblique, a tale of fear of invading otherness. “A Place and a Time to Die” could resonate just as strongly today in contemporary America, with its exurbs and gated communities and Stand Your Ground laws.

7. On the horizon:

Some of Ballard’s best, including “The Index” and another (oblique) Vietnam story, “Theatre of War.” I’ll also riff on Ballard’s pseudo-but-not-so-pseudo-autobiographical story, “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”

January 2, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Seventh Riff: 1966)

by Edwin Turner

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PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

IN THIS RIFF:

“The Beach Murders’”(1966)

“The Day of Forever” (1966)

“The Impossible Man” (1966)

“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

1. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.

With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:

Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.

“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

2. “The Day of Forever” (1966)

It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.

“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.

When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:

In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.

Delvaux’s The Echo

3. “The Impossible Man” (1966)

The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

4. “Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962′s “The Garden of Time.”

5. “Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967′s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.

6. “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.

Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:

Oswald was the starter.

From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.

Kennedy got off to a bad start.

There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.

The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.

If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zone series), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.

Should go without saying: Essential.

You can read “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (paired with the Jarry text)and hear an audio version here.

7. On the horizon:

I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.

December 11, 2013

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Sixth Riff: 1963-1964)

by Edwin Turner

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PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

IN THIS RIFF:

“The Reptile Enclosure” (1963)

“A Question of Re-Entry” (1963)

“The Time Tombs” (1963)

“Now Wakes the Sea” (1963)

“The Venus Hunters” (1963)

“End-Game” (1963)

“Minus One” (1963)

“The Sudden Afternoon” (1963)

“The Screen Game” (1963)

“Time of Passage” (1964)

“Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964)

“The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

“The Terminal Beach” (1964)

“The Illuminated Man” (1964)

“The Delta at Sunset” (1964)

“The Drowned Giant” (1964)

“The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (1964)

“The Volcano Dances” (1964)

1.”The Reptile Enclosure” (1963) / “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963) / “The Time Tombs” (1963) / “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) / “The Venus Hunters” (1963) / “Minus One” (1963) / “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) / “The Illuminated Man” (1964) / “The Delta at Sunset” (1964) / “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” /”The Volcano Dances” (1964)

There are 98 stories in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. That’s a lot of stories. Maybe too many. Too many for me to write about in full, anyway. I’ve lumped these stories together because they are somewhat unremarkable: Ballard does his Ballardian thing way better elsewhere. Several of these stories feel like sketches (or leftovers) from Ballard’s early novels like The Drowned WorldThe Burning World, and The Crystal World. Themes of time, memory, art, and nature abound here, usually glommed on to simple adventure narratives or sci-fi pulp treadthroughs. Jungles, watches, crystals, structures, beaches. Misanthropy, paranoia, nagging wives, misunderstood heroes. Man apart from nature, but beholden to nature. Etc. The worst moments of these stories—and we can find these moments all through early Ballard, to be fair—suffer from a bad case of White Man’s Burden doubled up with a shot of misogyny. I’ve written it before in these posts, but the most disappointing aspect of early Ballard is our would-be futurist’s inability to transcend the patriarchal ideology of the post-war era. So now let’s move to the good stuff.

2. “End-Game” (1963)

I first read “End-Game” when I was sixteen or seventeen, and it’s always stuck with me. It’s the story of a former “party member” who’s been imprisoned under nebulous circumstances—only his prison isn’t that bad—a nice little villa, comfortable, with books and a chess set. He even has a housekeeper. Unfortunately, the housekeeper is also his executioner, and the date and method of the execution is forever withheld from him:

This ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non–existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed, was preserved in his present situation at the execution villa.

The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.

Ballard directly invokes Kafka, whose tale “Before the Law” comes to mind here (not to mention The Trial and The Castle); “End-Game” also feels like Ballard’s take on 1984. It’s a great little tale, and I think it helps to prove that Ballard is at his best when he sticks to a confined, limited cast and setting. Much of the force of “End-Game” comes from Ballard pitting his prisoner/protagonist against the protagonist’s mental conception of his guard/executioner. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

3. “The Sudden Afternoon” (1963) / “Time of Passage” (1964)

In “The Sudden Afternoon” and “Time of Passage,” Ballard explores how time and place—context, I suppose—constitute identity. The former story is a tale of metempsychosis with a troubling take on Indian spirituality, wherein a doctor—an Indian, of course—transplants his psyche and his wife’s psyche into the bodies of another couple (his wife is dying of a terminal disease). Ballard’s own wife died a year after the story was first published (I’m reminded of Poe here, whose wife Virginia died after the publication of “The Raven”). “The Sudden Afternoon” isn’t very good, but structurally we see Ballard beginning to employ something approaching the cut-ups/fragments he’ll move to in the next decade.

“Time of Passage” is essentially a rewrite of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s also basically a rewrite of Ballard’s own 1961 tale “Mr. F Is Mr. F” — only this time, Ballard dispenses with abject-horror-for-maternal-body in lieu of a fable-like exploration of what a life in reverse might actually look like. A lovely story. Stick it in The Essentials.

4. “The Screen Game” (1963)

Another Vermilion Sands story. More insanity. Another femme fatale. An attempt at the story of Orpheus, perhaps. I would have lumped it in with the stories in point 1, but I wanted to clarify: The Vermilion Sands stories are the worst.

15. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

This is an excellent little detective tale with mystical-magic undertones. I’m a sucker for any story of art theft, too. We all know Dan Brown ripped off Umberto Eco, but maybe Eco ripped off Ballard? Who cares. Lovely stuff. Ballard is excellent at the detective story; Poe is one of his clearest predecessors, but like Poe, he’s more famous for other stuff. Too bad. Let’s call it Essential.

6. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)

1964′s “The Terminal Beach” is such a big break through for Ballard in terms of formal elements and structuring that it probably deserves its own post, but I’ll jab at it here anyway. Up until now, Ballard’s stories have been notable almost entirely for their ideas—his prose has improved some, but ultimately, the pulp fiction he’s writing for magazine publication constrains him to a pedestrian rhetoric that simply can’t match how far out his concepts are. With “The Terminal Beach,” Ballard finally approaches a narrative structure—fractured, polyglossic, shifting through interiors to exteriors, breaking through different forms—that can match the themes of his tale. The story–clearly an Essential—points to the finest of Ballard’s future work. You can read it here in two parts, but here’s a taste that I think stands alone as a microfiction:

The Fly

(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)

DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand

TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.

TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.

TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing

YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.

TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?

YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’

TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see

YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way

TRAVEN: But, Doctor

YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!

TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.

(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)

7. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)

Another Essential, this puzzling fable readily recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Ballard rarely handles archetypes so directly as he does here. Even if the story’s theme seems almost too-plain—we lose the miracle, we cast down the old gods, we deny the sublime, etc.—its construction and telling are wonderfully achieved.

The lower jaw, typically, found its way to the museum of natural history. The remainder of the skull has disappeared, but is probably still lurking in the waste grounds or private gardens of the city – quite recently, while sailing down the river, I noticed two ribs of the giant forming a decorative arch in a waterside garden, possibly confused with the jaw–bones of a whale. A large square of tanned and tattooed skin, the size of an indian blanket, forms a backcloth to the dolls and masks in a novelty shop near the amusement park, and I have no doubt that elsewhere in the city, in the hotels or golf clubs, the mummified nose or ears of the giant hang from the wall above a fireplace. As for the immense pizzle, this ends its days in the freak museum of a circus which travels up and down the north–west. This monumental apparatus, stunning in its proportions and sometime potency, occupies a complete booth to itself. The irony is that it is wrongly identified as that of a whale, and indeed most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.

8. On the horizon:

Ballard plays with fragmentation again in “The Beach Murders” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” — and we finally get to his stories of the late sixties.

December 10, 2013

A Lazy Riff on Margaret Atwood’s Novel MaddAddam

by Edwin Turner

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1. Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, MaddAddam concludes the trilogy she began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009).

2. Both of those novels are superior to MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake is the strongest, in my estimation, although I read it almost a decade ago).

3. I audited the audiobook of MaddAddam, read by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter and Robbie Daymond. The actors do a fine job and the production is swell.

4. I am now going to rip off elements of my own 2010 review for The Year of the Flood.

5. In that review I wrote:

Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception.

I still more or less agree with that sentence, and MaddAddam is, like the two books preceding it, a satire of sorts on modern life.

6. And–

Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes.

I don’t know if it’s me or the book or just the fact that so much of what Atwood conjures in her trilogy seems more real than it was just a decade ago—but MaddAddam didn’t read quite so bold or vibrant as the first two books.

7. I also wrote:

Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed.

MaddAddam picks up right where Flood and O&C end (those novels essentially converge). In some ways—often very obvious, sometimes boring ways—MaddAddam provides a sense of resolution for the trilogy’s many threads.

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8. What is the book about?

I will lazily slap in publisher Random House’s blurb here, interspersed with my riffage :

Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from the vicious Painballers.

The opening of MaddAddam was a bit too in media res for me: I think the beginning of the book will probably read much smoother if the reader has immediately read the first two books. I had to go reread a summary of the first two books (thanks Wikipedia!) to refresh my old brain.

They [Toby/Ren/Amanda] return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake.

The Crakers are potentially the most interesting aspect of MaddAddam, but Atwood keeps them on the margins; in the book’s most disappointing moments they’re behavior is basically relegated to punchlines. (Maybe I wanted the book to be an entirely different book—never a fair position for a reviewer to take, but hell, I’ll just say it here in the protection of parentheses—I wanted the book to be about the Crakers in the new world).

Their [the Crakers'] reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb.

MaddAddam kinda sorta takes the form of an oral history (the novel is polyglossic, fragmented, decentered, blah blah blah). Toby, taking over Jimmy’s storytelling role with the Crakers, essentially invents a mythology. These are some of the best moments of the novel—little riffs on storytelling and memory and legend and myth and history and language and how meaning is made and preserved and transmitted. By the end of the novel, Toby has taught a Craker child—Blackbeard—to read and write. He becomes a translator between the MaddAddamites and the pigoons, but he also takes on the role of storyteller and scribe. He becomes Blackboard, Blackbard.

Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge.

Atwood devotes most of the novel to Zeb’s backstory, which is mildly entertaining but oh lord! exposition exposition exposition. Even when Zeb’s backstory is conveyed with action and energy, there’s often this constant state of clarification/reminder/callback going on, where the narrative voice has to remind the reader for some reason how the particular event being narrated squares against events in the previous two books.

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9. In my review for YotF I wrote

Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case).

Okay, so ditto most of that for MaddAddam, only perhaps less compelling. There’s nothing wrong with the simple adventure story that Atwood uses to move her ideas along on here, but there’s also nothing especially engaging either.

10. MaddAddam features an overlong dénouement, culminating in several deaths and births. Even though the ending seems stretched (and often predictable), it nevertheless offers the most cohesive vision in the novel: A future of hybridization and radical diversity that is still beholden to the Darwinian economy of the natural world.

11. The novel resolves by clearing out all of its major characters (sorry if this is a spoiler, but it really isn’t), freeing the imaginative space that Atwood has created—and to be clear, that’s a rich, fertile space—for new adventures, new ways of living, new creatures. I suppose I wanted more What now? explored than the novel had to offer—more exploration of what the genetically-hybridized world might look like with  humans no longer the dominant species.

12. But a review (or even a lazy riff) shouldn’t fault a novel for what it doesn’t set out to do. Perhaps leaving the post-flood world barely explored is Atwood’s parting gift to the trilogy’s readers: She offers us a chance to imagine more.

December 8, 2013

Landmarks, A Remarkable Anthology of Poetry and Prose in Translation (Book Acquired, 11.15.2013)

by Biblioklept

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Landmarks, newish from Two Lines Press, collects poetry and prose in English translation. The collection features over a dozen languages and includes a special selection on the Arab Spring. I snacked on this book over the past few weeks, reading it at random whenever a nook of free time presented itself. There are still a few selections I haven’t gotten to yet, but most of what’s collected here is superb, thanks to editors Susan Bernofsky (who you probably know from her Robert Walser translations) and Christopher Merrill.

Two Lines’ blurb:

The premiere anthology of international literature returns for its 20th anniversary with stellar new prose and poetry, headlined by a collection of writing dedicated to the Arab Spring.

Coedited by leading German translator Susan Bernofsky and celebrated poet and translator Christopher Merrill, Landmarks gives us never-before-seen work from over 20 nations. Lauded Argentine author Juan Jose Saer, widely considered the heir to Jorge Luis Borges, transforms a photo of Earth from space into a tense, alcohol-fueled meditation on emptiness. Scholastique Mukasonga’s heartbreaking story ponders how so many of her fellow Rwandans could participate in a bloody genocide. And the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms is found among the volume’s many poets, alongside Yehuda Amichai—widely considered Israel’s greatest modern bard—and the up-and-coming Brazilian Ana Martins Marques.

In a special section of vital new work from the Middle East, ten writers provide an artist’s insight into the momentous events of the 2010 Arab Spring. Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan reveals haunting, everyday images from his nation. Ali Al Jallawi, twice imprisoned for critiquing of Bahrain’s political regime, ponders his relationship to God. And in Egyptian writer Mona Elnamoury’s surrealist story, images of torture and terror give way to a spectacular dream beneath the folds of an otherworldly quilt.

A truly a global education, Landmarks continues two proud decades of exploring the riches of world literature and making connections between the abundance of amazing work being produced around the world.

Maybe the best feature of Landmarks is the rich insight it offers into translation. Each selection is prefaced with an introduction that offers context for the writer and the conditions of the writing, as well as the translation process itself.  The poems are printed in two languages as well—the original on the left, the translation on the right. (Prose selections only feature the first page of original language printed alongside the translation). Being able to see the form and contours of the poem next to its translation is fascinating. Even if the poem was composed in an alphabet utterly foreign to me, being able to see it in its original form still offers a sense of its rhythm. Great stuff.

Two from Ahmatjan Osman, translated from Uyghur by Jeffrey Yang:

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