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.
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.
At the bookstore today with my youngest child, I couldn’t resist yet another copy of Moby-Dick, despite the many several editions already in our home.
Just love Hieronimus Fromm’s vivid illustrations here.
Earlier this month, my good friend sent me Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a book-length interview between Oldham and musician Alan Licht. In the book, Oldham parses his identity from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the character he’s been performing (in different versions) for over a decade now. The book is fascinating stuff and strangely personal/weird for me—reading his oral history is bizarre, I guess, because I remember it all happening. Like, I remember buying the 7″s he talks about making; I remember puzzling over the early Palace LPs, trying to glean meaning from the covers, the personnel. Palace—Oldham—B”P”B—soundtracked so much of my high school and college days that I inevitably had a falling out with him/them/it—or maybe that’s not the right word…what is the term for the emotional intensity we feel toward certain albums, certain records imprinted in the back of our souls? (I used a line from “For the Mekons et al” for my Senior yearbook quote but the fucking yearbook staff fucked it up. But fuck a yearbook anyway). Ease Down the Road was the last Oldham record that I let get to me; intellectually, I realize that the stuff he did after is somehow superior—tighter, richer even—but it couldn’t sink in, I wouldn’t let it sink in, too many too-good memories already there, I don’t know. I saw him on the Superwolf tour; he deepthroated the mic during an R. Kelly cover, and after the show my wife remarked that he would never be welcome as a guest in our home. I thought that seemed harsh. I tried—years later, reading this book—to explain that it was just a character. No dice.
Teju Cole’s Open City is one of my favorite novels of recent years, so I was psyched when Every Day Is for the Thief (which is kinda sorta his latest—it was published nearly a decade ago in Nigeria) showed up in the mail earlier this week. I read the first fifty pages yesterday (about a third of this short book). Thief reads like a memoir-essay, its reportorial style engaged and critical but at times obliquely distant. Our unnamed narrator (surely an iteration of Cole himself) returns “home” to Lagos after fifteen years in New York. Interspersed are Cole’s black and white photographs (echoes of Sebald). Full review to come; for now, publisher Random Houses’ blurb:
A young Nigerian living in New York City goes home to Lagos for a short visit, finding a city both familiar and strange. In a city dense with story, the unnamed narrator moves through a mosaic of life, hoping to find inspiration for his own. He witnesses the “yahoo yahoo” diligently perpetrating email frauds from an Internet café, longs after a mysterious woman reading on a public bus who disembarks and disappears into a bookless crowd, and recalls the tragic fate of an eleven-year-old boy accused of stealing at a local market.
Along the way, the man reconnects with old friends, a former girlfriend, and extended family, taps into the energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent, ambiguous—and slowly begins to reconcile the profound changes that have taken place in his country and the truth about himself.
In spare, precise prose that sees humanity everywhere, interwoven with original photos by the author, Every Day Is for the Thief—originally published in Nigeria in 2007—is a wholly original work of fiction. This revised and updated edition is the first version of this unique book to be made available outside Africa. You’ve never read a book like Every Day Is for the Thief because no one writes like Teju Cole.
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 I failed Tristano’s experiment. But I would’ve been happier to learn something or feel something from that failure other than disappointment.