I’ve been a fan of Vintage Contemporaries for years. I’m pretty sure the first one I ever picked up was Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. I recall being vaguely dismayed about the cover and trying to find another used edition, but thrift won out. This was in the early or mid nineties, and book design was trending toward a more minimal, conceptual style.
In contrast to a tasteful, minimalist cover, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Cathedral is garishly literal. Ditto the cover for Denis Johnson’s Angels: sure, there’s a symbolic touch in those storm clouds, and a surreal tweak in the laser lights, but there’s something ghastly about the whole design.
Even the cover for Jerzy Kosinski’s twisted horrorshow-in-vignettes Steps is remarkably literal—sure, the image seems surreal, but it’s straight out of Kosinski’s text. (It’s also one of my favorite covers in the line).
Anyway, in the past few years I’ve kept an eye out for certain titles from the Vintage Contemporaries line, even if I already own the book in another edition—DeLillo, for instance, or Cormac McCarthy. I was thrilled to find this edition of Suttree earlier this year. (And I’d love to get another copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows; I gave mine away to a friend).
I’d been wanting to write about the Vintage Contemporaries series for a while now, and had even gone so far as to write to a few artists and designers I know to see if they could put me in touch with a source of info. A few weeks ago, Mahendra Singh was kind enough to point out a thorough, in-depth essay on Vintage Contemporaries over at Talking Covers. Plenty of history, photos, and even interviews. It’s the mother-lode, the post I wished I could’ve mustered. (And if I seem a bit jealous, I can console myself in the knowledge that they used my first pic of Suttree. So there’s that). I encourage you to check it out.
Nice article at Slate on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, touching on how “all the way to galley proof in 1984, McCarthy whittled Blood Meridian down into the lean nightmare we now know. He cut whole characters and became more and more sparing of his description of the ones that remained. This was nowhere more pronounced than with the character of the kid, the nameless ruffian and pseudo-protagonist of the tale.” Good stuff. (Thanks to Garrett for alerting me to it).
A self-contained episode from late in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; this little vignette captures the book’s strange mix of menace and humor:
Noon he was red-eyed and reeking before the alcalde’s door demanding the release of his companions. The alcalde vacated out the back of the premises and shortly there arrived an American corporal and two soldiers who warned him away. An hour later he was at the farriery. Standing warily in the doorway peering into the gloom until he could make out the shape of things within.
The farrier was at his bench and Brown entered and laid before him a polished mahogany case with a brass nameplatebradded to the lid. He unsnapped the catches and opened the case and raised from their recess within a pair of shotgun barrels and he took up the stock with the other hand. He hooked the barrels into the patent breech and stood the shotgun on the bench and pushed the fitted pin home to secure the forearm. He cocked the hammers with his thumbs and let them fall again. The shotgun was English made and had damascus barrels and engraved locks and the stock was burl mahogany. He looked up. The farrier was watching him.
You work on guns? said Brown.
I do some.
I need these barrels cut down.
The man took the gun and held it in his hands. There was a raised center rib between the barrels and inlaid in gold the maker’s name, London. There were two platinum bands in the patent breech and the locks and the hammers were chased with scrollwork cut deeply in the steel and there were partridges engraved at either end of the maker’s name there. The purple barrels were welded up from triple skelps and the hammered iron and steel bore a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent, rare and beautiful and lethal, and the wood was figured with a deep red feather grain at the butt and held a small springloaded silver capbox in the toe.
The farrier turned the gun in his hands and looked at Brown. He looked down at the case. It was lined with green baize and there were little fitted compartments that held a wadcutter, a pewter powderflask, cleaning jags, a patent pewter capper.
You need what? he said.
Cut the barrels down. Long about in here. He held a finger across the piece.
I cant do that.
Brown looked at him. You cant do it?
No sir. He looked around the shop. Well, he said. I’d of thought any damn fool could saw the barrels off a shotgun.
There’s something wrong with you. Why would anybody want to cut the barrels off a gun like this?
What did you say? said Brown.
The man tendered the gun nervously. I just meant that I dont see why anybody would want to ruin a good gun like this here. What would you take for it?
It aint for sale. You think there’s something wrong with me?
No I dont. I didnt mean it that way.
Are you goin to cut them barrels down or aint ye?
I cant do that.
Cant or wont?
You pick the one that best suits you.
Brown took the shotgun and laid it on the bench. What would you have to have to do it? he said.
I aint doin it.
If a man wanted it done what would be a fair price?
I dont know. A dollar.
Brown reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of coins. He laid a two and a half dollar gold piece on the bench. Now, he said. I’m payin you two and a half dollars.
The farrier looked at the coin nervously. I dont need your money, he said. You cant pay me to butcher that there gun.
You done been paid.
No I aint.
Yonder it lays. Now you can either get to sawin or you can default. In the case of which I aim to take it out of your ass.
The farrier didnt take his eyes off Brown. He began to back away from the bench and then he turned and ran.
When the sergeant of the guard arrived Brown had the shotgun chucked up in the benchvise and was working at the barrels with a hacksaw. The sergeant walked around to where he could see his face. What do you want, said Brown.
This man says you threatened his life.
This man. The sergeant nodded toward the door of the shed.
Brown continued to saw. You call that a man? he said.
I never give him no leave to come in here and use my tools neither, said the farrier.
How about it? said the sergeant.
How about what?
How do you answer to this man’s charges?
He’s a liar.
You never threatened him?
The hell he never.
I dont threaten people. I told him I’d whip his ass and that’s as good as notarized.
You dont call that a threat?
Brown looked up. It was not no threat. It was a promise. He bent to the work again and another few passes with the saw and the barrels dropped to the dirt. He laid down the saw and backed off the jaws of the vise and lifted out the shotgun and unpinned the barrels from the stock and fitted the pieces into the case and shut the lid and latched it.
What was the argument about? said the sergeant.
Wasnt no argument that I know of.
You better ask him where he got that gun he’s just ruined. He’s stole that somewheres, you can wager on it.
Where’d you get the shotgun? said the sergeant.
Brown bent down and picked up the severed barrels. They were about eighteen inches long and he had them by the small end. He came around the bench and walked past the sergeant. He put the guncase under his arm. At the door he turned. The farrier was nowhere in sight. He looked at the sergeant.
I believe that man has done withdrawed his charges, he said. Like as not he was drunk.
Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.
1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)
Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.
2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)
Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.
3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)
While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.
4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)
Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.
5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.
With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.” I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.
The opening lines hooked me:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.
The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.
Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:
Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.
Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.
Book shelves series #22, twenty-second Sunday of 2012: Tolkien, Faulkner, McCarthy
As always, sorry for the glare. Shooting this case head on is almost impossible because of the windows on the other side of the room. Anyway.
I’ve read everything by Cormac McCarthy with the exception of his screenplay for The Gardener’s Son, which I found a week or two and picked it up. I don’t own a copy of No Country for Old Men because I haven’t found one that isn’t a movie tie-in.
This copy of The Lord of the Rings—my first—was a kind gift from some friends we were staying with in Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida).
I’ve read it at least four times; I have other copies of LoTR and have read them too. It’s probably the book I’ve read the most, although I haven’t read it since 2002. This copy is kindly inscribed:
There’s a slim space on the shelf that currently holds a few books that I’ve been meaning to read:
I ordered David Markson’s Reader’s Block from my local book shop, and intended to get it—and only it—this Saturday. Somehow I took a detour through the film section and picked up the Žižek and didn’t put it back; in the same section I also picked up McCarthy’s screenplay The Gardener’s Son, which is the only thing I haven’t read by him to date, so I picked it up too. So there you go.
Each of the twenty-six short pieces that comprise Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby offers a different take on family life after the apocalypse. The opening paragraphs of “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom”—the first tale in the collection—offers an overview of Cataclysm Baby’s program:
The smoldered cigar, last of a box of twenty, bought to celebrate happier times, now smoked to keep away the smell of our unwashed skin, of our slipping flesh, of our baby grown in my wife’s belly, the submerged sign of a prophecy burning, stretching taut her hard bulge: All hair, just like the others, gone wrong again.
Fists of black hail fall from the cloudless sky and spatter the house, streak the skin of our walls, break windows above broken beds. The birth-room fills with air the texture of mud, with black birds forgetting how to fly, these crows and vultures waiting to make a nest of our child, and still I I focus, keep my eyes on shattered glass, on my wife’s pelvis tilting toward sunlight, toward sun turned the color of baby’s first stool, then the color blood.
We see here the vestiges of civilization, emblematic in the narrator’s cigar smoking down to ash; we see the mutated child, another hirsute monster “just like the others, gone wrong again”; we see the backdrop of ecological disaster, of carrion birds that can no longer fly yet nevertheless maintain a brutal Darwinian competition with humanity; we see a deathly world that seems to all but occlude birth. These motifs—the end of social order, the species-transformation of new children, the utter collapse of ecological norms—run throughout Cataclysm Baby, telegraphed in Bell’s precise, concrete style.
These short fables are also united by the alphabet: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” gives way to “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise,” and so on until “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.” However, Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Even in these collapses, Bell hints at some sense of social order, suggesting the occasional dystopia, as in “Fawn, Fiona, Fjola,” where forced breeders exchange their child for a basement with an oxygen supply and the occasional shower, or “Grayson, Griffin, Guillermo,” where the narrator-father’s awful offspring dooms the rest of the town:
How many babies are born before we realize that all their children are boys? That our town’s women are the past, thanks to my one-note issue, to their deadly sperm making deathly pregnancies, taking each of their partners the way of their own mother: the blood-wet, breath-gasped, split-wombed, at best to linger, never to recover from the makings of their children?
Elsewhere, there’s pure horror, like in “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana,” a riff on parenting-as-grave-digging, or “Prescott, Presley, Preston,” where precognitive children sound out their own infanticidal doom. Horror generally pervades Bell’s language, as in the opening paragraph of “Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael”:
Even at birth they were already damaged, their brittle bones opened and crushed, powdered by their mother’s powerful organs, her pressing canal: All those thin ribs snapped and splintered upon the stainless steel of the operating room. All those skulls crooked and cracked, all those twisted greenstick limbs. We lifted each child out from the mother’s body and into surgeries of its own, did our best to splint and screw our prides together.
Despite its horrors, there are occasional moments of (very) dark humor in Cataclysm Baby, absurd comic eruptions, like these lines from “Domina, Doreen, Dorma”:
A chrysalis? I ask my wife. A cocoon?
What’s the difference, she says, when it’s your child inside, when it’s your caterpillar?
I’m tempted to offer more examples, but I fear that I’m approaching over-paraphrasing here when much of the pleasure (is this the right noun?) of Cataclysm Baby comes from its strange familiarity, its uncanny contours, its ugly surprises. Bell’s cryptic details—shaved heads, missing mothers, night soot—allow the reader’s imagination do much of the work. This trust pays off; Bell is aware of the tradition he taps into and equally aware of reader awareness.
The apocalyptic tradition evinces in the two epigraphs Cataclysm Baby bears. The first, from the King James bible version of Noah’s apocalypse, notes “the creeping thing” — a bizarre expression, frightening, frustrating, and intriguing in its vivid vagueness. (Bell appropriates the expression later in one of his narratives). The other epigraph comes fromThe Road, Cormac McCarthy’s sad apocalypse story about a father and son who are “carrying the fire.” There’s little room for other characters in The Road and in a sense, Cataclysm Baby offers variations on the characters who might lurk in the margins of McCarthy’s story, or the edges of the other end-of-the-world stories we know. These parents simultaneously fear and fear for their children, harbingers of a world they will not survive. Recommended.
Cataclysm Baby is new from Mud Luscious Press.
Picked up these four yesterday afternoon during my weekly visit to the bookshop (can’t help said visit; I live too close). Spent the afternoon reading Neal Stephenson’s introduction to David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More and a few of the pieces in All Ears, a collection of essays and interviews by Dennis Cooper. I read the interviews with Stephen Malkmus and Leonardo diCaprio. There’s something so nineties about the book.
A nice afternoon of reading with a few homebrews.
Everything and More, DFW’s history of infinity, is one of the only books I haven’t read by him (I even got to read a big chunk of his rare early work Signifying Rappers years ago because a friend found it in a library book sale). Anyway, to the point: None of the DFW editions I owned, up to this point were posthumous (they were, uh humous (?))—so it was a little weird to see this on the back of the book:
Finally: No, I didn’t need another copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (let me plug my review), but I’m a huge fan of these awful 1980s Vintage Contemporaries editions, so when I found a first ed. of Suttree, I couldn’t pass it up (I’m pretty sure this is the same edition DFW owned):
In his essay “The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills argues
. . . there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?
Mills’s convincing textual evidence draws on over thirty authors, but declares Cormac McCarthy “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage.” Some proof:
4. Decapitation by irate opera singer. Cormac McCarthy, who far surpasses even Faulkner in the mayhem he visits upon literary mules (see #s 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15), includes in his recent novel The Crossing (1994) the following dialogue about a mule whose recalcitrance proves insufferable to the artistic temperament of a singer assigned to tend him in a road company:
What was it he done to the mule?
He tried to cut off the head with a machete. . . .
I wouldn’t have thought you could cut off a mule’s head with a machete.
Of course not. Only a drunken fool would attempt such a feat. When the hacking availed not he began to saw. . . .
What happened to the mule?
The mule? The mule died. Of course
5. Drowning. This is Faulkner’s most commonly employed means of dispatch for the mules in his works. In the flood scenes he renders so effectively, we inevitably find drowned mules floating down river. As opposed to the train-struck animals in “Mule in the Yard” (see # 3), which are instrumental in developing motive and plot, Faulkner’s drowned mules tend to fall into the decorative or ornamental category, employed chiefly for drama, mood, and atmosphere. In As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, Darl recreates a wagon disaster in the surging stream: “Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth”. In the “Old Man” sections of The Wild Palms (1939), the flood throws forth its “charging welter of dead cows and mules and outhouses and cabins and hencoops,” and Faulkner’s prose strikes an elegiac note as the convict’s skiff rides “even upon the backs of the mules as though even in death they were not to escape that burden-bearing doom with which their eunuch race was cursed”. Before the ordeal ends, the accumulation of mule carcasses reaches almost cosmic proportions as the stranded convict remembers “that other wave, the second wall of water full of houses and dead mules building up behind him in the swamp”.
Robert Morgan’s story “Poinsett’s Bridge” (1989) picks up the drowned mule topos in distinctly Faulknerian terms: “The body of a mule shot by in the current, and then a chicken coop”; but Cormac McCarthy (see #s 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15) varies it in Blood Meridian (1985) by having a mule drowned intentionally: “The Yumas were swimming the few sorry mules . . . across the river. . . . Downriver they’d drowned one of the animals and towed it ashore to be butchered”. (On recurrent uses of mules as culinary items see # 14.)
That the image of the drowned mule also occupies a subliterary folk status in the South is perhaps attested by a common simile in which a wealthy person is said to have “enough money to burn up a wet mule.”
6. Falls from cliffs. The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment”. (See also #s 4, 5, 7, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
7. Fall into subterranean cavity. Near the conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), “Arthur Ogle was plowing an upland field one evening when the plow was snatched from his hands. He looked in time to see his span of mules disappear into the earth taking the plow with them” (195). These doomed mules qualify as highly functional in the story, since a search for their bodies leads to the discovery of a number of human corpses stored in the caves underground for sexual use by the necrophiliac Lester Ballard. (See also #s 4, 5, 6, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
9. Gunshot wounds. The high quotient of gunplay in southern fiction quite naturally extends to some of the mules that grace its pages. . . .
Mules absorb lead throughout much of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), one providing a shield against incoming fire: “He . . . crouched under the ribs of a dead mule and recharged the pistol”.
. . .
14. Stab wounds. . . .
But mules are consumed readily by man, beast, and fowl in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985), and a character in Bernice Kelly Harris’s Purslane (1939) finds the practice a perfectly acceptable topic for mealtime conversation: “Uncle Millard near the foot of the table was telling about the Christmas dinner he ate in the pesthouse years ago, declaring it was fried dog and mouse stew with a slice of boiled mule”.
15. Thirst. Alkali flats in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985) yield no shortage of “the black and desiccated shapes of horses and mules. . . . These parched beasts had died with their necks stretched in agony in the sand”
. . .
18. Submersion in domestic metaphor. Once again, Cormac McCarthy creates an exclusive category (see # 4) with a scene in Cities of the Plain (1998):
When he turned around Billy [Parham] was standing in the doorway watching him [John Grady Cole].
This the honeymoon suite? he said.
You’re lookin at it.
He leaned in the doorframe and took his cigarettes from his shirtpocket and shucked one out and lit it.
The only thing you ain’t got here is a dead mule in the floor.
[Our West Coast correspondent A King at Night weighs in on the books he read—and didn’t read—in 2011. Where they fit, I’ve linked book titles to my own reviews, or Noquar’s, our Brooklyn correspondent. –Ed.]
All of the books I did read in 2011:
1. The Recognitions – William Gaddis
If more people were able/interested in surmounting this 960 page giant I think it would be roundly considered possibly the best American novel. But as it is Gaddis sabotaged himself by writing a book that is almost literally too good.
2. City of Glass – Paul Auster
I think this one was my favorite of the New York Trilogy, except that I didn’t think of separating them until I made this list. So really I read three books as three parts of the same novel. One which I loved and adored fully. It was my first Auster and a the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
3. Ghosts – Paul Auster
4. The Locked Room – Paul Auster
5. Bright Lights Big City – Jay McInerny
Not sure why I read this one. I think I just had it sitting around and it read fast enough to keep me engaged. I’m also not sure why this was as apparently popular as it was upon release. I know he was friends with Bret Ellis, but it just seems like Ellis but kind of declawed. So maybe that’s a good thing for some people. The use of second person narration was cool, I guess you don’t see that very often.
There is almost literally nothing I can say about this that will have any value. I should mention that it fully lived up to the years and years of personal hype I had built up for it.
7. Powr Mastrs vol. 2, 3 – C.F.
This is a weird comic book series a friend introduced me to. Apparently it is ongoing and I think I would like to continue reading it.
This was my first attempt at DeLillo and I’m pretty sure I chose it because of its minuscule length and awesome cover art. I was totally enthralled and blown away. So much so in fact that Point Omega gets the distinction of the being, so far, the first and only book I have actually read twice in a row. As in I finished it and then flipped back to page one and read it a second time and it was brilliant again.
9. In The Country of Last Things – Paul Auster
I didn’t fully love this as much as I did the NY Trilogy, but I think that is due to a certain lack of detectives and the New York setting. This book kind of reminds me of a big, sad Terry Gilliam movie. Auster is in my opinion the unquestioned master of that meta-text device where what you are reading is actually being written by the character in the book. (I’m sure there is a name for that, but I don’t know it).
I’ll try and cut the hyperbole on this one. I don’t care what any people are saying about this book or the man who wrote it. My enjoyment of this and other DFW books is entirely a personal experience. He may in fact be the smartest novelist who ever lived or whatever but I’m not going to browbeat you into believing me, and somehow trying to make myself look good by extension. This book did things for me that no book (including Infinite Jest) has ever done and for that I am grateful. I’ll say no more.
11. Day of The Locust – Nathaniel West
What a weird, dark, little book this is. And why have I never been told that the name Homer Simpson is used prominently throughout? The end of this book was basically jaw-dropping and could be the best sequence Fellini never filmed. I hear there was a movie made based on this, but I think it supposedly wasn’t very good.
12. The Time Machine Did It – John Swartzwelder
This is the first book in a series written following Detective Frank Burly. And the ONLY reason I haven’t immediately read each and every one of them is because they are self-published by the author and therefore impossible to find used. And since I almost never buy books new it would be a huge price adjustment for me. So I’ll take them slow, but if the rest are as fun as this is I predict I will love all of them.
13. Ubik – Phillip K. Dick
Very enjoyable, packed full of ideas (as usual for Dick) and with a pretty engaging plot to tie it all together.
14. Carpenter’s Gothic – William Gaddis
Last time I was home visiting my family I discovered that a copy of this book in my mom’s bathroom. Apparently she had seen me post about Gaddis on Facebook and decided to take my word for it. She was about a third of the way through this relatively slim book but confessed to having a hard time reading it. She asked what about it appealed to me so much and I told her that I view Gaddis as maybe the greatest American writer who ever lived, but that of the three books I’ve read of his Carpenter’s Gothic is the weakest, (or the least amazing, maybe) but that, you know, good luck telling anyone to read a 700 page book written entirely in unattributed dialogue (JR) or a 960 pager about classical art. So yeah CG is more of a little experiment in storytelling (the goal was to tell a massive sociopolitical epic, but done entirely in one location, a house in the country outside new york) than it is an essential work. But if you want to wet yr feet in regards to Gaddis but won’t/can’t commit to his larger, better books, then this is a decent starting point.
Totally awesome. I started reading it late at night after finishing the previous book and ended up sitting on the couch until 4:30am and did the whole thing in one sitting. That doesn’t happen too often with me and I can’t really account for why it happened this time . . . but yeah this is the most readable McCarthy I’ve read since The Road.
This is the (sort of) conclusion to PKD’s VALIS trilogy, which I started reading last year. It was the last book he wrote and is I think a pretty wonderful swan song for a guy as freakishly imaginative as him. It isn’t even really sci-fi even, but more like “spi-fi” (the term I just made up for Spiritual Fiction) which is sort of what all of his latter work was I guess, and is a thing that really resonates with me personally.
17. Leviathan – Paul Auster
My fifth Auster of the year: I picked this up because it had a cool cover and I read it mostly on flights to and from a wedding I attended in Wisconsin. This is totally wonderful and probably my second favorite Auster novel (behind NY3). I think if I were to write a longer piece on PA I would probably use this book to talk about his interest in choosing protagonists who are frequently less interesting than a supporting character whom they idolize. And also his interesting views on marriage and adultery. It’s worth noting that the book is dedicated to Don DeLillo and upon seeing that I was inspired to pick up some more of his books and finally some of the others that were piling up on my shelf.
18. White Noise – Don DeLillo
I’ve had a copy for this for like ten years and somehow could never make it past the first two pages, even though they are a really good two pages. Honestly in this case I think it was the edition. I had one of those scholarly ones with all the annotation and stuff that make the book look twice as long and 10x more boring. And then I found the newly printed Penguin paperback and burned through it in like a week. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read and was really a gateway drug into a binge of DeLillo that was incredibly fulfilling.
19. Running Dog – Don DeLillo
This was probably the least mind-blowing (and the earliest) of the DeLillo I read this year. But still a good time, slightly Pynchonian (Pynchonesque?) probably as a result of DD still finding his own voice at that point. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already pretty well-into DeLillo but for fans of his I think it would be a good read.
20. Libra – Don DeLillo
Two things in life constantly threaten to destroy me: The Zodiac Killer and JFK. There is always this looming sense that if I were to ever really, fully commit to researching either case I would be entering rabbit-hole I’d never find my way out of. This book was simultaneously the most tempting experience but also the most satisfying. Because even if DD had to invent some of this he still presents a version of the story that is totally plausible. So maybe it’s a placebo but at least I can sleep at night.
It was all a rehearsal for this one though. This big guy had been taking up space on my night stand for months and I’d had a number of friends basically begging me to read it for years. When I finally got around to reading it I was pleased to discover that it is NOT difficult at all, it’s just long. There is a sort of genre of these “big, complex, post-modern(?)” type of books. It’s a thing that I have a weakness for: Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against The Day, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, JR, Infinite Jest, etc. And I mean while Underworld has some things in common with these books I would actually characterize it as almost more like a Norman Mailer book or something. Yeah, I’d put it somewhere between a more-sober Thomas Pynchon and a less-horny Norman Mailer. Does that make sense at all?
22. The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy
I was hoping for a repeat of my Child of God experience with this one. And while that didn’t quite happen I still enjoyed this book a lot. Major props to McCarthy for mentioning Melungeons in the first chapter, being descended from that obscure ethnic group myself, with my dad’s family from east Tennessee, I can tell you that that is exactly the type of super-esoteric, colloquial reference that he later got a lot of praise for utilizing in his more-celebrated western novels. I guess it’s just neat to see that as a part of his style so early and is further proof that he is not in fact a writer of westerns at all, but just possibly the best writer of any region, just wherever he decides to dedicate his interest.
23. Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
I love Denis Johnson so much. I don’t usually buy hardback books but when I saw this cute little book I knew I had to have it. It reads super fast and is really just a great little character piece, telling basically the whole life of this one particular guy. Johnson could write two dozen of these things and I would read every one of them. But he won’t because he’s busy doing whatever other random thing he decides to write brilliantly—-
—-Like this little crime novel he wrote. I don’t think anyone who was around when his first few books would ever have thought he would end up trying to write a pulp novel. I certainly wouldn’t have. But boy am I glad he did. This book was so totally fun to read, with some of the most enjoyable dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. It isn’t as tightly plotted as any of the Coen bros. movies that it reminds me of, but for sentence-by-sentence writing it was one of the best things I read all year.
25. Wild at Heart – Barry Gifford
I had seen the movie a few times and knew I wanted t try the book. I heard that Lynch wrote the script in six days and having read it now I can say that I completely believe that is true. It’s probably one of the closest adaptations I’ve ever seen and really I’m just stunned by how Lychian Gifford’s book already was. It makes so much sense that these two collaborated on Lost Highway and my only wish is that they would work together again sometime.
26. Travels in The Scriptorium – Paul Auster
So I guess with this one Auster officially beat DeLillo for the most-read author of the year prize. I wasn’t even intending to buy another one until I saw the cover of this and instantly knew I had to. Anything that is this visually reminiscent of Twin Peaks has to be good right? It ended up being a great, easy read, which I am learning is typical of PA.
27. The Bailbondsman – Stanley Elkin
This is the first novella is book of three called Searches and Seizures that I just bought the other day. I was sold when I saw that William Gass had a blurb on the back cover saying something like “the three books contained in this volume are among the greatest in our literature” to which I mentally responded “well jeez Bill, I guess we’re going for the hard sell today, fine, I’ll buy it, say no more.” So I’m not ready to agree or disagree with Gass on this one, but I can see why he would like Elkin’s style, which sort of reminds me of a funnier more playful version of what Gass does.
28. The Making of Ashenden – Stanley Elkin
The second novella in Searches and Seizures is shorter and packs a bigger punch than the first. It’s one of these things where if I told you what happens in the story you would probably want to read it, but knowing what happens would reduce the impact when it does happen, so just trust me and read it. The writing is just terrific and it’s really funny. Humor isn’t really a quality that I value in visual entertainment as much, but when someone can write literary fiction that actually has me laughing out loud I tend to think it’ s worth mentioning.
29. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July
So I was fully ready to finish the third novella in that Elkin collection until I found myself at a friend’s apartment cat-sitting on Christmas Eve and this book was sitting on the shelf. So in keeping with the name of this blog I just went ahead and stole it. I proceeded to read it very quickly and I laughed out loud more than I expected to (remember when I mentioned literary fiction that elicits laughter? This was like that too). I confess that I don’t read a ton of short stories, (a truth this list will generally attest to) but I found this whole collection just wonderful. It might also be that this is the only book written by a woman that I read all year. In the past few years I have generally been on a strict diet of books that fit loosely to the idea of “American Post-Modern Novels” but generally means “Books published after the 60s by white guys mostly from new york.” And while I am proud of the big reading accomplishments this focus has helped me attain, (how else does one read Gaddis if not through sheer force of will?) this slight, sad, funny, collection of contemporary short fiction written by a young-ish female writer has shown me that I definitely need to broaden my palate.
Some of the books I did not read in 2011:
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah blah blah blah blah blah blah glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses smug smug smug smug smug smug smug. I think I’ll let this one age a bit more before I attempt to read it. Granted his short “Breakup Stories” may literally be my favorite piece of fiction to appear in the new yorker in the past ten or twenty years… but, I have read the first page of The Corrections on three separate occasions (in three different sized editions, so now I know the physical copy is in fact NOT the problem) and each time I woke up in the spring, without having read the book. If I ever did decide to crack this one it would probably be in audio form, and maybe as part of a long road trip alone, specifically without a cell phone or cigarettes so that I would have nothing else I could possibly do.
I’m sorry Ed. I really am. It will happen, I swear it. But every time I pick this book up I am baraged by random four-part spanish sounding names that are indistinguishable for me, sample sentence: “What Jaun-Carlos Hernandez Jr. admired most about the poetry of Jullio Valdez-Herrara was the tactility of words. They leapt off the page with such precision and style that Jaun-Carlos was transported from the dusty villa where he sat to candlelit hut with a thatched roof, where revolutions are planned. He tried in vain to explain the power of the work to his professor Guillermo-Carlos Nunez but he scoffed at the work of Veldez-Herrara, calling it unworthy of the literary crown of the great Gabriell Marco San Flores.”
After all the other McCarthy I read this year, I kind of thought I might just push on through with this one. I’ve been told by a number of people that it is one of his best. But the first page just stopped me dead in my tracks and I instantly knew it wasn’t the right time. No big deal, I’ll get around to it and then the border trilogy afterward.
Yes another year busy not-reading Ulysses. I feel I’m in good company on this though so oh well. It can’t really be that difficult can it? I enjoyed both Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest so my hope is that when I finally do get around to this big guy it will somehow seem quaint and easy. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration though.
5. Anything by David Mitchell
Because seriously fuck this guy. That Cloud Atlas movie adaptation is going to be a huge pile of shit too.
6. Middlesex – Jeffrey Euginides
This book has been haunting me for years, seemingly begging to be read and for some reason I am just 100% uninterested. But it has this weird habit of managing to show up on the bookshelves of people I like and trust, oftentimes sitting very close to other books I like. And sometimes these people tell me to read it. But it never seems very dire does it? No one is rapterous about this book and that makes me think that the Whatever-Prize sticker on the front is causing more people to read it than the actual urgency of the content. Somehow though last year Middlesex managed to get itself into a thrift store in the 50 cent bin, atop a pile of romance novels and pamphlets about Mormons. So now it sits on my shelf, tucked away on that hard to reach, shitty corner next to Cloud Atlas and whatever Dave Eggers books people insist I borrow but that I will never read (because: fuck that guy too). Sometimes though I hear a noise at night and when I wake up Middlesex is lying next to me on the pillow. So I’m pretty much going to have to read it at some point . . . not this year though.
7. Zodiac – Robert Greysmith
Bought it at the Farmer’s Market book stand and held it like a dark version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or some kind of box that when opened unleashes Chaos and Evil into the otherwise peaceful world. Right now I have a wife and an apartment and two cats, but I’m pretty sure I would somehow lose all of that the moment I cracked this book. Part of me is delusionally convinced that if I just dedicate my life to the cause that I could solve the Zodiac mystery. NOT reading this book has kept me from indulging that dark obsession for another year.
8. The Beckett Trilogy
Read ten pages or so and just felt like I wasn’t smart enough. Give me a few years and I’ll try it again.
9. Anything by Dennis Cooper
This dude sounds intense and disturbing, but also maybe really awesome. I heard about him first while googling interviews with the band Whitehouse and found Cooper’s blog and a massive post he did on them. Anyone who likes Whitehouse has to be okay right? Well at least I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I plan to get ahold of some of his books but I have no idea where to start, or where to find a bookstore that will give them to me in a plain brown paper bag so I don’t feel weird taking the bus home, as though by holding a Dennis Cooper book I’m sending some strange signal to all the secret sexual deviants around me every day.
10. Crime Wave – James Ellroy
Because I thought it was a novel when I bought it and since I have never read Ellroy I didn’t want to start with a collection of essays.
11. Paradise – Donald Barthelme
I am thrilled to still have a rainy day Barthelme novel left. So as much as it sounds hilarious I am going to hold off reading it for as long as I can.
12. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
Granted I read it three years ago, but every year that I don’t re-read it I get sort of sad. I live vicariously through the one friend every year who reads it for the first time, and every time I listen to them rave for an hour I get it in my head that I’ll snatch it up and give it a quick once over. But when faced with the actual commitment involved I never do it. One day, one day.
Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I have argued is the novel’s moral core).
Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–
The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.
No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.
The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.
[Ed. note — Yes, this post is recycled (regifted?) from last year].
Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy Turkey Day with Biblioklept’s menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
Another literary recipe to celebrate Thanksgiving—
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, an Indian named Michael prepares a turtle soup for Suttree. First, catch the turtle. Then, kill the turtle, making sure to discard its head–
The Indian braced his feet and swung it up dripping from the river and onto the rocks and it squatted there watching them, its baleful pig’s eyes blinking. It was tied through the lower jaw with a section of wire and the Indian took hold of the wire and tugged at it. The turtle bated and hissed, its jaws gasped. The Indian had out his pocketknife and now he opened it and he pulled the turtle’s obscene neck out taut and with a quick upward motion of the blade severed the head. Suttree involuntarily drew back. The turtle’s craggy head swung from the wire and what lay between the braced forefeet was a black and wrinkled dog’s cunt slowly pumping gouts of near black blood. The blood ran down over the stones and dripped in the water and the turtle shifted slowly on the rock and started toward the river. The Indian undid the wire and flung the head into the river . . .
Appetizing, no? Now that you’ve thrown the bloody head in the river (or your garbage can or wherever you throw turtle heads), it’s time to dress the beast–
Suttree laid the turtle on the rock and the Indian scouted about him until he came up with a goodsized stone.
Watch out, he said.
Suttree stepped back.
The Indian raised the stone and brought it down upon the turtle’s back. The shell collapsed with a pulpy buckling sound.
I never saw a turtle dressed before, said Suttree. But the Indian had knelt and was cutting away the broken plates of shell with his pocketknife and pitching them into the river. He pulled the turtle’s meat up off the plastron and gouged away the scant bowels with his thumb. He skinned out the feet. What hung headless in his grip as he raised it aloft was a wet gray foetal mass, a dim atavism limp and dripping.
Plenty of meat there, said the Indian. He laid it out on the rock and bent and swished the blade of his knife in the river.
Okay. Now that you’ve removed the shell and gouged away the scant bowels with your thumbs, it’s time to prepare the wet gray foetal mass.
Put him in a pot and cook him slow. Lots of vegetables. Lots of onions. I got my own things I put in.
Got it? Lots of onions. Slow cook that dim, limp, dripping atavism. The fact that the Indian has his “own things” that he puts in implies a call to the reader to experiment with the recipe. And how did Suttree like his turtle?
He spooned up a piece of the meat and cradled it in his mouth to cool it. He chewed it. It was succulent and rich, a flavor like no other.
We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. Hence: Seven horror novels masquerading in other genres:
In my review (link above), I called Blood Meridian “a blood-soaked, bloodthirsty bastard of a book.” The story of the Glanton gang’s insane rampage across Mexico and the American Southwest in the 1850s is pure horror. Rape, scalping, dead mules, etc. And Judge Holden. . . [shivers].
Rushing to Paradise – J.G. Ballard
On the surface, Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise seems to be a parable about the hubris of ecological extremism that would eliminate humanity from any natural equation. Dr. Barbara and her band of misfit environmentalists try to “save” the island of St. Esprit from France’s nuclear tests. The group eventually begin living in a cult-like society with Dr. Barbara as its psycho-shaman center. As Dr. Barbara’s anti-humanism comes to outweigh any other value, the island devolves into Lord of the Flies insanity. Wait, should Lord of the Flies be on this list?
Okay. I know. This book ends up on every list I write. What can I do?
While there’s humor and pathos and love and redemption in Bolaño’s masterwork, the longest section of the book, “The Part about the Crimes,” is an unrelenting catalog of vile rapes, murders, and mutilations that remain unresolved. The sinister foreboding of 2666‘s narrative heart overlaps into all of its sections (as well as other Bolaño books); part of the tension in the book–and what makes Bolaño such a gifted writer–is the visceral tension we experience when reading even the simplest incidents. In the world of 2666, a banal episode like checking into a motel or checking the answering machine becomes loaded with Lynchian dread. Great horrific stuff.
King Lear — William Shakespeare
Macbeth gets all the propers as Shakespeare’s great work of terror (and surely it deserves them). But Lear doesn’t need to dip into the stock and store of the supernatural to achieve its horror. Instead, Shakespeare crafts his terror at the familial level. What would you do if your ungrateful kids humiliated you and left you homeless on the heath? Go a little crazy, perhaps? And while Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan are pure mean evil, few characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are as crafty and conniving as Edmund, the bastard son of Glouscester. And, lest I forget to mention, Lear features shit-eating, self-mutilation, a grisly tableaux of corpses, and an eye-gouging accompanied by one of the Bard’s most enduring lines: “Out vile jelly!” Peter Brook chooses to elide the gore in his staging of that infamous scene:
The Trial — Franz Kafka
Kafka captured the essential alienation of the modern world so well that we not only awarded him his own adjective, we also tend to forget how scary his stories are, perhaps because of their absurd familiarity. None surpasses his unfinished novel The Trial, the story of hapless Josef K., a bank clerk arrested by unknown agents for an unspecified crime. While much of K.’s attempt to figure out just who is charging him for what is hilarious in its absurdity, its also deeply dark and really creepy. K. attempts to find some measure of agency in his life, but is ultimately thwarted by forces he can’t comprehend–or even see for that matter. Nowhere is this best expressed than in the famous “Before the Law” episode. If you’re too lazy to read it, check out his animation with narration by the incomparable Orson Welles:
In my original review of Sanctuary (link above), I noted that “if you’re into elliptical and confusing depictions of violence, drunken debauchery, creepy voyeurism, and post-lynching sodomy, Sanctuary just might be the book for you.” There’s also a corn-cob rape scene. The novel is about the kidnapping and debauching of Southern belle Temple Drake by the creepy gangster Popeye–and her (maybe) loving every minute of it. The book is totally gross. I got off to a slow start with Faulkner. If you take the time to read the full review above (in which I make some unkind claims) please check out my retraction. In retrospect, Sanctuary is a proto-Lynchian creepfest, and one of the few books I’ve read that has conveyed a total (and nihilistic) sense of ickiness.
Great Apes — Will Self
Speaking of ickiness…Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes made me totally sick. Nothing repulses me more than images of chimpanzees dressed as humans and Great Apes is the literary equivalent (just look at that cover). After a night of binging on coke and ecstasy, artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find himself in a world where humans and apes have switched roles. Psychoanalysis ensues. While the novel is in part a lovely satire of emerging 21st-century mores, its humor doesn’t outweigh its nightmare grotesquerie. Great Apes so deeply affected us that I haven’t read any of Self’s work since.
[Ed. note: This post is a few years old. We run it again for Halloween and will run a follow up post later today].
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper murders, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Jack the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise out of the need to cover up the knowledge of the existence of an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more–they are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.
One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder. From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel, in which Gull not only sees London at the end of the twentieth century, but also receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect. From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism (Patriot Act, anyone?).
Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure. Rereading this time, I realized there is no character he reminds me of as much as Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent now, a book that dovetails neatly with From Hell, both in its time and setting, but also in its exploration of social unrest and duplicitous authority. Both novels feature detectives fighting a complacent system, and both novels feature a working class that threatens to erupt in socialist or anarchist rebellion.
From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note: We ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in celebration of Halloween].