“I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me.”
If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.
—From an essay that had me enthusiastically mumbling yes the whole way, “Albert Camus and the ventriloquists” by Darran Anderson. Read it.
Needing another book the same way I need another hole in the head, I nevertheless dropped by my local used bookstore to browse—the place is huge, and a day of grading term papers made me feel zapped and perhaps depressed. Anyway. Spotted a beautiful Penguin edition of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi and had to have it. Here’s a passage some soul saw fit to dogear:
I had never heard of Georg Büchner or his novella fragment Lenz, but it was shelved next to Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas and both stood out because of their odd shapes.
Here are the blurbs for Lenz, which more or less sold me:
Finally, I did not buy yet another edition of Moby-Dick, despite this midcentury Rinheart cover—but I had to snap it to share:
At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.
Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).
I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.
But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:
I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:
“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!
“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!
And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.
Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”
But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”
Or this snippet:
It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).
So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?
And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.
I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.
But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.
Book shelves series #44, forty-fourth Sunday of 2012
Not a particularly beautiful shelf—it sits between a TV and a soundbar; houses an unused Wii, an analog clock, and a picture of my kids. The books camouflage cords and wires.
You can see the whole shelf in the top pic. The big pic on the right: a Kokeshi doll set on Henry Miller volume that was a gift from a friend years ago in high school.
To the left: Bukowski, Miller, Anaïs Nin. Then, a section of stuff you can’t really see, including an extremely tattered copy of A Passage to India.
Lower right: Mass-market paperbacks that were especially important to me over the years and as a result have managed to hang around—even in cases where they were replaced by handsomer volumes. Usually obscured by the clock. Includes stuff by Borges, Carson McCullers, Hemingway, Twain, Chopin, Richard Wright . . .
Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic] showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago and despite my prejudices, I coasted through it over a few afternoons.
1) It’s a memoir.
2) There’s a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover.
3) The title [sic] is an unbearably too-clever pun (and this from a guy who loves puns).
The first thing I noticed about [sic] were the pictures : paintings, maps, charts, sketches, lists, collages, other texts, and so on interspersed throughout the text. I like pictures in books.
The way that Cody uses these illustrations at first reminded me of W.G. Sebald, who employed pictures in novels like Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in an oblique, documentary approach.
Cody is less oblique than Sebald, and perhaps flippant too. He doesn’t namecheck Sebald, at any rate, unlike David Byrne, who openly admitted to following Sebald’s path in his 2008 memoir Bicycle Diaries. (Cody does namecheck David Byrne though).
Then I edged my way into the plot, such as it is. I’ll lazily let publisher W.W. Norton summarize:
Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Facing a bone marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with beautiful Ariel, who gives him cocaine and a blow job in a Manhattan restaurant following his first treatment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed.
Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and studded with pages from his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.
As Norton’s summary suggests, Cody’s memoir is highly discursive and playful, loaded with references to art, music, and literature. Digressions on figures like David Foster Wallace, Orson Welles, or Alexander Theroux lard the book—indeed, they often seem to edge out the story Cody intends to tell, his cancer memoir. He seems reticent to fully engage his own feelings, instead layering reference upon reference. These references become insufferable at times—are we supposed to care that Cody met David Lynch and would like to be his friend, or that Cody briefly studied ancient Greek? Cody is so busy trying to impress the reader that he forgets to express meaning.
We see this reticence, this turning away from, here over two pages: Cody moves from a story about buying a facsimile copy of Pound’s original draft of The Waste Land to a lengthy footnote that manages to name drop James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Woody Allen, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller (in just two sentences!) and then into a facsimile reproduction of one of the stories his brother would write for him as a child:
The big problem with Cody’s memoir is that it never feels particularly real. I enjoy discursive referential postmodernism as much as the next fella, but [sic] often fails to cohere around a central idea, let alone an emotion. When Cody describes dating a stripper/dominatrix, it feels like a party trick, an inflated anecdote—there’s no emotional core, no contemplative connection to his illness. Other sexual episodes read like a parody of Henry Miller.
As its title suggests, [sic] is a dodge, a bait-and-switch, an evasion. Cody is clearly very clever—but a dazzling display of cleverness can’t sustain a narrative.
“Picasso at 90″ is an October, 1971 profile on the artist by Henry Miller, presented here via Google Books. In a felicitous cubist twist, the second page of the article (featuring the full portrait of Picasso and, on its back, the column of text) seems to have been cut (or ripped) and then repaired.
Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace
Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.
The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:
Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.
I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:
He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.
From Barry Hannah’s novel Hey Jack!:
I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.
I took a drink and a smoke.
Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.
Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.
This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .
I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.
I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.
I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).
I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.
Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.
Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.
In his Paris Review interview, Nicholson Baker says that “one of the questions House of Holes is trying to answer” is: is “there still a point to writing words about sex when you can see anything you want, and a lot of things you don’t want to see, on the Web?” The book answers a goofy, gooey, bright-hearted “yes” to this question, unfolding its pornographic vignettes in a surreal Ovidian holiday, a midsummer’s night sexfest that sails lusty and smiling over the borders of morality, social convention, and plain old biology. Baker creates an organic, oozing world where genitalia is swapped freely between lovers, where one might exchange an arm for a bigger dick, where old tattoos get fucked away, where a woman and a tree can make sweet, sweet love:
She looked out from her high-splayed vantage and she said, “I’m a treefucking woman!” Dappled sunlight shone and emptied itself onto her. She squeezed her Kegeling love muscle around the smooth, thickened branch within, and when the wind came up again all the leaves twittered and shook. The tree itself shuddered: It was having some kind of orgasm.
If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, citing text before outlining plot, I assure you I’m not: There really isn’t much of a plot to House of Holes. Well, if there is one, it’s something like this: Lila, a large-breasted madame runs The House of Holes, an equal-opportunity brothel/fantasy factory that can only be accessed through portals that appear in strange spaces. This pornographic Arcadia operates on slippery wet-dream logic in which strangers cheerfully and eagerly engage in all sorts of raunch. Characters of varying physical attributes screw their way through a surreal holiday. There are a few conflicts, most of which are too light to touch on (this is a light book, for sure).
Two conflicts stand out with some (slight) weight though:
First, there’s the Pornmonster, “a personification of polymorphousness unlike anything the world of human suck-fuckery has ever known.” The Pornmonster is the mutant offspring of all the bad porn slurry collected on a pornsucking mission (don’t ask). The Pornmonster is typical of Baker’s tone throughout House of Holes, and its polymorphousness embodies the book’s depictions of sexual metamorphoses. This monster is tamed through playful, loving lust, and becomes a good guy, its raw sexual energy redirected for the forces of good (i.e., good sex). This is a book full of good guys.
Second, there’s the Pearloiner, an embittered, sexually-jealous TSA agent who steals clitorises (two of our heroines are afflicted by this heinous crime). The Pearloiner is a product of post-Homeland Security draconian measures, and her inclusion is about as close to contemporary culture criticism that House of Holes approaches. Sexy fun times interest Baker more.
Like the Pornmonster, the Pearloiner finds herself redeemed at the end of the book; moral shifts of allegiance are as easy as physical transformations in House of Holes. The Pearloiner and the Pornmonster alike atone their sins with a facile simplicity that fits the ludic silliness of Baker’s book. They are invited to participate in the handjob contest that (quite literally) climaxes the book. It’s an easy, orgasmic end to an easy, orgasmic book.
In some ways, House of Holes is more remarkable for what it’s not. Most of the so-called pornographic literature (or literature of pornography, if you prefer) that I’ve read has a darker streak. (I’m thinking of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, de Sade,The Story of O, Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls, etc.). Holes shares Willliam Burroughs’s sense of surreal transmogrification and picaresque rambling and J.G. Ballard’s infatuation with the bizarre intersections of sex and technology, but it’s never sinister or cruel, or honestly, even disturbing.
“House of Holes is a fundamentally good-natured book,” suggests Baker in his Paris Review interview, also pointing out that it’s a work of “crazy joy”—and he’s absolutely right: The book is joyous, good-natured, affable even. When Baker approaches a remotely Sadean cuckold fantasy he punctures it with a politeness that’s humorous—but he also dramatically lowers any stakes that may have been in play. In short, this is a novel of pure fun, of infinite gain and no loss (quite literally—Lose an arm? Get it back. Lose a clit? Get it back). Holes is silky and slippery and light, more ephemeral than ethereal in the end.
But shame on me. I seem to be faulting the book for not doing something it never sets out to do (namely, I seem to be faulting Holes for a lack of depravity and depth and darkness, three “d’s” the book’s rubric never sets out to register). It’s pure fantasy stuff, reminiscent of the partner-swapping exercise A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I am not saying Baker is Shakespeare) or the erotic shifts in Metamorphoses (ditto: Baker is no Ovid) or the voluptuous Victorian serial The Pearl: dreamy, and perhaps (small r) romantic, but not turbulent—sure, Holes will ruffle unwitting feathers (let’s be clear, it’s pointedly sexually graphic), but it’s unlikely to damage anyone’s soul. (If you’re worried about soul-damage, check out the editorial style-sheet for Holes, which lays out Baker’s invented porn-lexicon).
Is House of Holes a novel or a flimsy pornographic riff? Baker is less interested in ideas than he is in sensations, or rather representations of sensations (which is the most literature can do anyway, I suppose). Holes is unwilling to offer any answers or explications about the deep mysteries behind human desire, but it does pose questions about those desires, and it poses those questions with shameless glee. A fun, breezy read.
(From Henry Miller on Writing, New Directions).