Certain novels not only cry out for what we call “critical interpretations” but actually try to help direct them . . . Books I tend to associate with this INTERPRET-ME phenomenon include stuff like Candide, Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger. These five are works of genius of a particular kind: they shout their genius. Mr. Markson, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, tends rather to whisper, but his w.o.g.’s no less successful . . . Clearly the book was/is in some way “about” Wittgenstein, given the title. This is one of the ways an INTERPRET-ME fiction clues the critical reader in about what the book’s to be seen as on a tertiary level “about”: the title: Ulysses’s title, its structure as Odyssean/Telemachean map (succeeds); Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem (really terrible); Cortázar’s Hopscotch (succeeds exactly to the extent that one ignores the invitation to hop around in it); Burroughs’s Queer and Junkie (fail successfully (?)).
From David Foster Wallace’s essay “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” which is collected in Both Flesh and Not.
Italo Calvino on one of my favorite books, Voltaire’s Candide (these are the first few paragraphs of the essay “Candide, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity,” from Calvino’s indispensable collection Why Read the Classics?):
Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.
What most delights us today in Candide is not the ‘conte philosophique’, nor its satire, nor the gradual emergence of a morality and vision of the world: instead it is its rhythm. With rapidity and lightness, a succession of mishaps, punishments and massacres races over the page, leaps from chapter to chapter, and ramifies and multiplies without evoking in the reader’s emotions anything other than a feeling of an exhilarating and primitive vitality. In the bare three pages of Chapter 8 Cunégonde recounts how having had her father, mother and brother hacked to pieces by invaders, she is then raped and disembowelled, then cured and reduced to living as a washerwoman, bartered and sold in Holland and Portugal, torn between two different protectors of different faiths on alternate days, and in this condition happens to witness the auto da fé whose victims are Pangloss and Candide himself whom she then rejoins. Even less than two pages of Chapter 9 are enough for Candide to find himself with two corpses at his feet and for Cunégonde to be able to exclaim: ‘How did you who were born so mild ever manage to kill in the space of two minutes a Jew and a prelate?’ And when the old woman has to explain why she has only one buttock, she starts by telling the story of her life from the moment when as the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Pope, she had experienced in the space of three months poverty, enslavement, and almost daily rape, before having to endure famine and war and nearly dying of the plague in Algiers: and all this before she can get to her tale of the siege of Azov and of the unusual nutrition that the starving Janissaries discover in female buttocks . . . well, here things are rather more leisurely, two whole chapters are required, something like six and a half pages.
The great discovery of Voltaire the humorist is a technique that will become one of the most reliable gags in comic films: the piling up of disaster on disaster at relentless speed. There are also the sudden increases in rhythm which carry the sense of the absurd almost to the point of paroxysm: as when the series of misfortunes already swiftly narrated in the detailed account is then repeated in a breakneck-speed summary. What Voltaire projects in his lightning-speed photograms is really a worldwide cinema, a kind of ‘around the world in eighty pages’, which takes Candide from his native Westphalia to Holland, Portugal, South America, France, England, Venice and Turkey, and this tour then splits in turn into supplementary whirlwind world tours by fellow protagonists, male and especially female, who are easy prey for pirates and slavers operating between Gibraltar and the Bosphorus. A huge cinema of contemporary world events most of all: villages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War between the Prussians and the French (the ‘Bulgars’ and the ‘Abars’), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the auto da fés organised by the Inquisition, the Jesuits of Paraguay who reject Spanish and Portuguese rule, the legendary gold of the Incas, and the odd snapshot of Protestantism in Holland, of the spread of syphilis, Mediterranean and Adantic piracy, internecine wars in Morocco, the exploitation of black slaves in Guyana, but always leaving a certain space for literary news, allusions to Parisian high life, interviews with the many dethroned kings of the time, who all gather at the Venice carnival.
What a wonderful present: a 1930 Grosset & Dunlap edition Candide (read our review of Candide). Received it last week, but I’ve been to busy to photograph it. Has a nice slipcase (above), and the cover sports a tactile cameo of Gutenberg in profile—
Illustrations are by Mahlon Blaine, and inevitably involve sex and/or violence—like this one below—
There a number of handsome full page illustrations as well. Just lovely.
I liked pretty much all of the assigned reading in high school (okay, I hated every page of Tess of the D’Ubervilles). Some of the books I left behind, metaphorically at least (Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye), and some books bewildered me, but I returned to them later, perhaps better equipped (Billy Budd; Leaves of Grass). No book stuck with me quite as much as Candide, Voltaire’s scathing satire of the Enlightenment.
I remember being unenthusiastic when my 10th grade English teacher assigned the book—it was the cover, I suppose (I stole the book and still have it), but the novel quickly absorbed all of my attention. I devoured it. It was (is) surreal and harsh and violent and funny, a prolonged attack on all of the bullshit that my 15 year old self seemed to perceive everywhere: baseless optimism, can-do spirit, and the guiding thesis that “all is for the best.” The novel gelled immediately with the Kurt Vonnegut books I was gobbling up, seemed to antecede the Beat lit I was flirting with. And while the tone of the book certainly held my attention, its structure, pacing, and plot enthralled me. I’d never read a book so willing to kill off major characters (repeatedly), to upset and displace its characters, to shift their fortunes so erratically and drastically. Not only did Voltaire repeatedly shake up the fortunes of Candide and his not-so-merry band—Pangloss, the ignorant philosopher; Cunegonde, Candide’s love interest and raison d’etre and her maid the Old Woman; Candide’s valet Cacambo; Martin, his cynical adviser—but the author seemed to play by Marvel Comics rules, bringing dead characters back to life willy nilly. While most of the novels I had been reading (both on my own and those assigned) relied on plot arcs, grand themes, and character development, Candide was (is) a bizarre series of one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Each chapter was its own little saga, an adventure writ in miniature, with attendant rises and falls. I loved it.
I reread Candide this weekend for no real reason in particular. I’ve read it a few times since high school, but it was never assigned again—not in college, not in grad school—which may or may not be a shame. I don’t know. In any case, the book still rings my bell; indeed, for me it’s the gold standard of picaresque novels, a genre I’ve come to dearly love. Perhaps I reread it with the bad taste of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor still in my mouth. As I worked my way through that bloated mess, I just kept thinking, “Okay, Voltaire did it 200 years earlier, much better and much shorter.”
Revisiting Candide for the first time in years, I find that the book is richer, meaner, and far more violent than I’d realized. Even as a callow youth, I couldn’t miss Voltaire’s attack on the Age of Reason, sustained over a slim 120 pages or so. Through the lens of more experience (both life and reading), I see that Voltaire’s project in Candide is not just to satirize the Enlightenment’s ideals of rationality and the promise of progress, but also to actively destabilize those ideals through the structure of the narrative itself. Voltaire offers us a genuine adventure narrative and punctures it repeatedly, allowing only the barest slivers of heroism—and those only come from his innocent (i.e. ignorant) title character. Candide is topsy-turvy, steeped in both irony and violence.
As a youth, the more surreal aspects of the violence appealed to me. (An auto-da-fé! Man on monkey murder! Earthquakes! Piracy! Cannibalizing buttocks!). The sexy illustrations in the edition I stole from my school helped intrigue me as well—
The self who read the book this weekend still loves a narrative steeped in violence—I can’t help it—Blood Meridian, 2666, the Marquis de Sade, Denis Johnson, etc.—but I realize now that, despite its occasional cartoonish distortions, Candide is achingly aware of the wars of Europe and the genocide underway in the New World. Voltaire by turns attacks rape and slavery, serfdom and warfare, always with a curdling contempt for the powers that be.
But perhaps I’ve gone too long though without quoting from this marvelous book, so here’s a passage from the last chapter that perhaps gives summary to Candide and his troupe’s rambling adventures: by way of context (and, honestly spoiling nothing), Candide and his friends find themselves eking out a living in boredom (although not despair) and finding war still raging around them (no shortage of heads on spikes); Candide’s Cunegonde is no longer fair but “growing uglier everyday” (and shrewish to boot!), Pangloss no longer believes that “it is the best of all worlds” they live in, yet he still preaches this philosophy, Martin finds little solace in the confirmation of his cynicism and misanthropy, and the Old Woman is withering away to death. The group finds their only entertainment comes from disputing abstract questions—
But when they were not arguing, their boredom became so oppressive that one day the old woman was driven to say, “I’d like to know which is worse: to be raped a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the guantlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged in an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to be a galley slave—in short, to suffer all the miseries we’ve all gone through—or stay here and do nothing.
“That’s a hard question,” said Candide.
It’s amazing that over 200 years ago Voltaire posits boredom as an existential dilemma equal to violence; indeed, as its opposite. (I should stop and give credit here to Lowell Blair’s marvelous translation, which sheds much of the finicky verbiage you might find in other editions in favor of a dry, snappy deadpan, characterized in Candide’s rejoinder above). The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and straight up evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide. Beyond that entertainment factor, Candide earns its famous conclusion: “We must cultivate our garden,” young (or not so young now) Candide avers, a simple, declarative statement, one that points to the book’s grand thesis: we must work to overcome poverty, ignorance, and, yes, boredom. I’m sure, gentle, well-read reader, that you’ve read Candide before, but I’d humbly suggest to read it again.
A few years ago, I wrote about cult novels, and, in trying to define them, I suggested that “a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults.” Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve is a cult novel about a cult, or at least heavily features a cult. Like many cult novels, there’s an apocalyptic scope to Steve, one in this particular case (or subject, if you will), that extends from the personal to the universal.
I’ll let Lipsyte’s compressed acerbic prose spell out the book’s central conflict—
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren’t any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
The problem of death, or the problem of how to live a meaningful life against the specter of death, is of course an ancient conceit, and Lipsyte makes it the core of his book, upon which he hangs an often shaggy picaresque plot. The Subject Steve is post-modernist caustic satire in the good old vein of Candide; put another way, it’s just one damn thing happening after the next.
So, what are some of those things that happen? Steve (not his real name) is condemned to die of a disease with no name; he tries to make contact with his estranged wife and not-quite-a-genius daughter; he blows his life savings on hookers and blow; he heads upstate to a cult’s compound in the hopes of finding a cure to his unnamed (unnameable) disease; he suffers the cult’s sadistic practices; he escapes the cult’s sadistic practices; he reunites with his wife and daughter; he abandons his wife and daughter; he reunites with a new version of the cult somewhere in the Nevada desert; he becomes enslaved by the cult in the Nevada desert; he escapes the cult; &c. And he reflects on his life (and his death) repeatedly. I’ll let Steve reflect on his life at length, if for no other reason than to share more of Lipsyte’s marvelous prose—
And I was still dying, wasn’t I? Who would note? What had I ever noted? I’d taken my pleasures, of course, I’d eaten the foods of the world, drunk my wine, put this or that forbidden particulate in my nose until the room lit up like a festival town and all my friends, but just my friends, were seers. I’d seen the great cities, the great lakes, the oceans and the so-called seas, slept in soft beds and awakened to fresh juice and fluffy towels and terrific water pressure. I’d fucked in moonlight, sped through desolate interstate kingdoms of high broken beauty, met wise men, wise women, even a wise movie star. I’d lain on lawns that, cut, bore the scent of rare spice. I’d ridden dune buggies, foreign rails. I’d tasted forty-five kinds of coffee, not counting decaf.
I love this passage. In almost any other book I can think of, the final detail about coffee would puncture the passage’s inflation, serve as a comic anti-climax. In Lipsyte’s phrasing it’s both tragic and triumphant.
I don’t mean to gloss over the plot of The Subject Steve, but the book’s narrative, its sense of time, is so radically compressed (again, I think of the compression of Candide) that reading it is more like experiencing a rapid series of scenarios. I’m particularly fond of books like this, that seem to ramble and erupt in strange and unexpected moments. I think of Ellison’s Invisible Man or Woolf’s Orlando, but there’s also something of Aldous Huxley in Steve, that apocalyptic-comic axis, the satire of despair. The book is one of those pre-9/11 novels (forgive the phrase) that seems utterly prescient. Take the following observation for example—
Someday sectors of this city would make the most astonishing ruins. No pyramid or sacrificial ziggurat would compare to these insurance towers, convention domes. Unnerved, of course, or stoned enough, you always could see it, tomorrow’s ruins today, carcasses of steel teetered in a halt of death, half globes of granite buried like worlds under shards of street. Sometimes I pictured myself a futuristic sifter, some odd being bred for sexlessness, helmed in pulsing Lucite, stooping to examine an elevator panel, a perfectly preserved boutonniere.
The language here anticipates the Dead America that Lipsyte explores in his latest novel, The Ask, and reinforces a general argument I’d like to make, which is that Lipsyte is at heart a writer of dystopian fictions, fictions so contemporary that their dystopian nature becomes effaced.
These dystopian tropes coalesce in the frantic, hyperbolic ending of Steve, where our subject becomes the object of a bizarre cult’s ritual sadistic practices, all available via the panopticon of the internet. Lipsyte’s vision is of a post-human existence, a radical otherness of degradation through technological alienation. At this late moment in the book, the satire is so black that even Lipsyte’s tightest, pithiest sentences fail to elicit a laugh or a smile — indeed, I am almost certain that they are not intended to do so. Instead we are immersed in the apocalyptic horror of dehumanization (the book here reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, of all things, both in its desert location and in its gradual movement from sardonic humor to vivid terror).
Like any cult novel, or destined cult novel, The Subject Steve is Not For Everyone. Those looking for plot development and tidy endings will not find them here, and, if the tone of this review has not already made it clear, the book is extremely dark. But it’s also very, very funny, and there are few stylists working today who can match Lipsyte’s mastery of the sentence. Highly recommended.
The Subject Steve is now available in trade paperback from Picador.