Purged the books pictured in the lower right-hand corner and picked up a few: Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, which has intrigued me for awhile now, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro—in the Vintage Contemporaries edition no less!—and Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story, which I somehow haven’t read yet. Hypothesis: Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson may be America’s greatest living novelists (?).
Certain books, the ones I’m always looking for and hardly ever finding—true codes of entry into other hard spiritualities—you have to read while you’re walking, say, even through a crowded airport. Such was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Those of us who’ve come out of the serious dope-and-drink world may have forgotten the strange poetry and curious religious cast of events, but Johnson hasn’t. It takes an authentic poet to catch the strange, tragic hope and cheer as well as the squalor of that life, and Johnson surely is one.
Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; from the January, 1994 issue of SPIN.
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.
1. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
2. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
3. Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
4. The Last Novel, David Markson
5. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Lydia Davis
6. Agapē Agape, William Gaddis
7. C, Tom McCarthy
8. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
9. Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini
10. Open City, Teju Cole
A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:
There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:
There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.
At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.
Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:
American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.
There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.
And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.
The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”
In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.
The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.
Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:
Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.
Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.
Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.
The novelist John Warner (The Funny Man), in an act of incredible kindness, sent me a copy of McSweeney’s #4, which he helped to put out years ago. In one of our emails, John offers the following:
It could be the best issue ever, a kind of platonic ideal of the McSweeney’s aesthetic before people started saying that things had a McSweeney’s aesthetic, a more innocent time if you will. My memory is that we were selling them at a live event at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in Chicago that we set up to help promote Neal Pollack’s book, and somehow the leftovers wound up in my trunk and I’ve been hauling them place to place ever since. . .
It’s a sort of fun artifact of the early/carefree days of McSweeney’s before Dave was DAVE, and the whole thing was still very haphazard.
It’s difficult to overstate the range of writers here: Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, a three-act play by Denis Johnson, and much, much more:
There are also many short stories, including “On the Set” by John Warner, his second published story:
It’s wonderfully absurd.
To read something hilarious and absurd and ultimately kind of touching, read John’s interview with critic Kevin Morris, who hated The Funny Man.
A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.
Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.
Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.
Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.
A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice-—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.
Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams:
Okay: This one is really cool: Object Lessons features a bunch of short stories, some you may have read, each with a short lead-in (two-five pages) by another writer. So, we get Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson, or Ben Marcus on Donald Barthelme, or Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles, or Ali Smith on Lydia Davis. You know what, let me just share the table of contents (review down the line):
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.
Nice little batch from the good folks at Picador, including Bill Loehfelm’s thriller The Devil She Knows, Mohamed ElBarardei’s The Age of Deception, an analysis of nuclear politics, and Michael Cunningham’s Land’s End, which I assume is a novelization of the clothing catalog.
Also in the batch: Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which I read in one sitting this Sunday. It’s a perfect novella, its pathos balanced with humor, its realism tempered in something of the mythic spirit of the American frontier. Full review forthcoming.
Miroslav Penkov’s collection East of the West looks pretty cool.
Here’s a description from his website:
A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov’s strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.
Donald Antrim’s debut Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World has also been reissued with a new intro by Jeffrey Eugenides. Here’s an excerpt of the novel:
It was Friday, the day of the big theriomorphism workshop Rotary luncheon out at the Holiday Inn. My wife, Meredith, and I and a crowd of red-faced Rotarians and their well-dressed wives (Rotary Anns) sat around hotel banquet tables and listened to a visiting anthropology professor at the junior college say, “Pick an animal, any animal, fish, fowl, beast. Concentrate on aspects of the animal. Is it big? Small? Cute? Does it eat other animals? What color fur? If the animal is a bird, what color are its feathers? What song does it sing?”
“This is stupid,” I whispered to Meredith.
“It’s your fault we’re here, Pete. Why don’t you give it a chance?”
The anthropologist said, “Why don’t we all think about it for a minute? Okay, everybody got one?”
“Yes,” “No,” “Wait,” people said. Meredith whispered, “What’s yours?”
“I don’t know, what’s yours?”
“The prehistoric fish?”
“I need a volunteer,” declared the professor. Meredith raised her hand, and the man at the podium said, “Yes, back there. Tell us your name and the name of the animal you’ve chosen to become today.”
“Meredith Robinson. Coelacanth. It’s a kind of fish that scientists believed extinct until one was caught off the coast of Africa.”
“Excellent. Come forward. Sit here. Would someone please dim the lights?” I watched Rotary guys watch my wife. Bill Nixon, Tom Thompson, Abraham de Leon, Dick Morton, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac—all the usuals, plus others. Jerry and his wife, Rita, sat up front. The professor soothingly said, “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell us about the coelacanth. Everybody else, let’s all breathe deeply too, and be thinking about our own animals. Go ahead, Meredith.”
“Well, it’s four feet long, deep slate blue, with bony, protruding fins and big jaws with scary teeth. It goes back seventy million years. It moves slowly, it dwells in dark water.” The professor nodded. Audience members inched forward in their seats. Meredith said, “At night it swims upside down with its head pointed to the sea bottom, bobbing along.”
“A feeding technique?”
“How’s the water?” I could see Meredith’s head settle forward as she softly answered, “Cold.”
“Feel the cold. Breathe that cold. Inhale that water. What do you feel?”
“Blue, black, indigo.”
I went to the bookstore to pick up a graduation present and then spent too much time wandering the stacks. While looking for Mat Johnson’s Pym, I found a first printing paperback of Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon and had to have it—haven’t read it yet, and it makes a nice sister for my copy of Angels—but honestly, I’m just in love with these 1980s Vintage Contemporary editions with awful, awful covers.
Malcolm Lowry’s last novel, the posthumously published October Ferry to Gabriola. Kind of a hideous cover.
I was looking for something by David Markson (no dice) when I came across The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus; I’ve been meaning to check out Marcus’s stuff, and a few minutes with the volume sold me—short vignettes, sort of like Lydia Davis or DFW or Dennis Cooper or William Burroughs (but probably not; I’m just using these as a short hand reference).