Posts tagged ‘Literature’

January 20, 2014

“Notes on the Movements of Young Children” — Robert Louis Stevenson

by Biblioklept

“Notes on the Movements of Young Children” — Robert Louis Stevenson

I wish to direct the reader’s attention to a certain quality in the movements of children when young, which is somehow lovable in them, although it would be even unpleasant in any grown person. Their movements are not graceful, but they fall short of grace by something so sweetly humorous that we only admire them the more. The imperfection is so pretty and pathetic, and it gives so great a promise of something different in the future, that it attracts us more than many forms of beauty. They have something of the merit of a rough sketch by a master, in which we pardon what is wanting or excessive for the sake of the very bluntness and directness of the thing. It gives us pleasure to see the beginning of gracious impulses and the springs of harmonious movement laid bare to us with innocent simplicity.

One night some ladies formed a sort of impromptu dancing-school in the drawing-room of an hotel in France. One of the ladies led the ring, and I can recall her as a model of accomplished, cultured movement. Two little girls, about eight years old, were the pupils; that is an age of great interest in girls, when natural grace comes to its consummation of justice and purity, with little admixture of that other grace of forethought and discipline that will shortly supersede it altogether. In these two, particularly, the rhythm was sometimes broken by an excess of energy, as though the pleasure of the music in their light bodies could endure no longer the restraint of regulated dance. So that, between these and the lady, there was not only some beginning of the very contrast I wish to insist upon, but matter enough to set one thinking a long while on the beauty of motion. I do not know that, here in England, we have any good opportunity of seeing what that is; the generation of British dancing men and women are certainly more remarkable for other qualities than for grace: they are, many of them, very conscientious artists, and give quite a serious regard to the technical parts of their performance; but the spectacle, somehow, is not often beautiful, and strikes no note of pleasure. If I had seen no more, therefore, this evening might have remained in my memory as a rare experience. But the best part of it was yet to come. For after the others had desisted, the musician still continued to play, and a little button between two and three years old came out into the cleared space and began to figure before us as the music prompted. I had an opportunity of seeing her, not on this night only, but on many subsequent nights; and the wonder and comical admiration she inspired was only deepened as time went on. She had an admirable musical ear; and each new melody, as it struck in her a new humour, suggested wonderful combinations and variations of movement. Now it would be a dance with which she would suit the music, now rather an appropriate pantomime, and now a mere string of disconnected attitudes. But whatever she did, she did it with the same verve and gusto. The spirit of the air seemed to have entered into her, and to possess her like a passion; and you could see her struggling to find expression for the beauty that was in her against the inefficacy of the dull, half-informed body. Though her footing was uneven, and her gestures often ludicrously helpless, still the spectacle was not merely amusing; and though subtle inspirations of movement miscarried in tottering travesty, you could still see that they had been inspirations; you could still see that she had set her heart on realising something just and beautiful, and that, by the discipline of these abortive efforts, she was making for herself in the future a quick, supple, and obedient body. It was grace in the making. She was not to be daunted by any merriment of people looking on critically; the music said something to her, and her whole spirit was intent on what the music said: she must carry out its suggestions, she must do her best to translate its language into that other dialect of the modulated body into which it can be translated most easily and fully.

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January 19, 2014

Jessica Hollander’s Collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place Reviewed

by Edwin Turner

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Every story in Jessica Hollander’s début collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place feels thoroughly real, deeply authentic, and if we already know the contours of these plots—perhaps having lived some of them ourselves—Hollander makes us experience them anew with her bristling, strange sentences. Hollander writes here of families on the brink and families broken, families fragmenting and families forgetting. She conjures domestic spaces limned with ghosts and memories, children and parents who aren’t quite sure how to be a family, but who nevertheless try—even if trying is really just imagining.

In the strong opener “You Are a Good Girl I Love You,” our narrator Gertrude, about to graduate high school, imagines her future as a kind of do-over, one without interference from her overprotective father, inert mother, and wild child sister:

Of course Pete and I would attend the same school, live in the same dorm, plan classes to start and end together so we would be only briefly apart. We had a dependable timeline mapped out behind the child’s armoire in his room involving dates: graduations, wedding, first jobs, first house, babies raised by smiling parents. Some evenings we practiced smiling thinking the more one does it the more natural it feels.

Many of the stories that follow respond to—and complicate—Gertrude’s dream of an ideal happy family. There’s “girlfriend,” the otherwise-unnamed hero of “This Kind of Happiness,” who imagines alternate titles she might assume: “Single Mother. Pregnant Bride. Gun-toting Madwoman.” In “The Good Luck Doll,” Claudia feigns a pregnancy to keep her boyfriend deluded but happy (if only for a time). She’s happy to imagine the pregnancy along with him. “March On,” like several of the stories here, follows the aftermath of a failed marriage. What happens when a family ceases to take the same form? Are the old appendages, the in-laws now essentially dead to their ex-family members? Waiting outside her father’s mother’s door after having knocked and yelled for Grandma to open, narrator Raimy reflects on these changes:

Then, briefly, I decided she was dead. I imagined her pale on the floor and me making all this noise, and I felt even more disruptive. I stared at the quiet street, thinking about us all dead in some ways: the distance between people and the everyday separation, and maybe we constantly grieved each other and our old lives. The only comfort we had was thinking maybe it was like this for everyone, maybe there was a connection in that.

The connection that Raimy imagines and takes solace in runs through In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place. We find it in one of the strongest stories in the collection, “What Became of What She Had Made,” as mother Lynette grieves her estrangement from her adult daughter Christine. She enlists her other daughter Olivia, “a lush,” to come along on the mission. They head from Michigan to Ohio by taxi, fortifying themselves with morning doses of schnapps. By the time we finally meet Christine, we see why she might want her family to simply pretend she’s dead. Hollander’s restraint pays off, her precise sentences revealing just enough detail for us to fill in the dark gaps.

Sometimes Hollander achieves a near archetypal mode, but one tempered in specificity. Consider how much she packs in to just one paragraph form “I Now Pronounce You”:

In the husband and wife’s third year of marriage, a woman—not the wife—pushed the no-longer-new husband from a third-story window after she’d slightly burnt some chicken and he’d refused to eat it. And also he had refused to leave hi no-longer-new wife for the other woman because he’d realized the other woman was crazy. Besides, it was nice with the wife, who didn’t complain when he watched sports in the morning and who stayed home and became a better cook and took care of their small son, whom he didn’t much like but planned to increasingly as the son came to resemble more a small man than a wild animal.

Hollander’s rhetorical force is perhaps most evident in the title story, which undertakes to describe a divorce from several perspectives. Written as three lists, each one perhaps a year removed from the next, “In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place” merges form and content, its broken, discontinuous structure mirroring the broken, discontinuous family at its non-center. That breaking up also figures in the daughter’s favorite pastime:

The girl spent a Saturday morning cutting snowflakes from a pile of paper she’d found on her mother’s desk. The snowflakes were peppered with sliced negotiations, diamond-pierced words like child and property and alimony, and when the girl finished she strung the flakes together and hung them from her window so they trailed to the berry bush and flapped in the stirred summer wind.

Attempting to mediate (if not ameliorate) the daughter’s trauma is the babysitter:

 “A sad situation,” the babysitter told friends lounging at night on her parents’ screened-in porch. She planned years from now to marry the boy holding her hand, though he’d quit his job and all summer hung around his mother’s pool smoking cigarettes with his mother. Dark ahead; behind them bright inside with television and bills, an electric piano and screwed-together projects. The babysitter said, “Stay together for the child,” and one friend said, “Yes,” and another said, “No,” and another said, “Life is life,” and the boyfriend said nothing.

The babysitter might have stepped out of one of the other stories in this collection. Maybe she’s older in one of those stories. Maybe she’s Gertrude or Olivia or Raimy or girlfriend or wife. She dreams, she imagines, and we know enough—Hollander shows us enough—to see that her imagining the future is not enough.

Tolstoy gave us that famous opener: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappy families of Hollander’s collection are unhappy in their own, personal, distinct and distinctly unhappy ways—but our author, by focusing on the capacities of her characters to imagine ways of being happy, also shows us that in many ways unhappy families are all alike. Recommended.

In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place is newish from University of North Texas Press.

January 18, 2014

Your Favorite Author as a Cute Little Doll

by Biblioklept

 Debbie Ritter makes and sells charming dolls of writers (and artists and actors and characters).

January 16, 2014

“An Anarchist” — Joseph Conrad

by Biblioklept

“An Anarchist”

by Joseph Conrad

That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates—in fact, on the principal cattle estate—of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.

B.O.S. Bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness—perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B. O. S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen—even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.

Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.

In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B. O. S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B. O. S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.

I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale, when in the course of my travels I reached Cayenne. I believe the story to be in the main true. It is the sort of story that no man, I think, would ever invent about himself, for it is neither grandiose nor flattering, nor yet funny enough to gratify a perverted vanity.

January 15, 2014

“There’s a purity of intent and a lack of self-consciousness that I wish I could achieve when I was experiencing pleasure” (David Foster Wallace)

by Biblioklept

Let’s put it this way. Say you’ve got really serious art, and it takes really hard work, whether it’s painting or music or literature. That stuff’s not fun in the way commercial entertainment is fun. I mean fun — like eating a Twinkie. It’s like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day. It’s an escape. It’s a relaxation. And that’s fine, and that’s entirely appropriate. The danger comes when the escape becomes the overriding purpose. And one of the ways it seems that television has affected me is that my expectation for the amount of fun and pleasure to work — that ratio is very different than they are for my parents. I think my pain threshold is lower. My expectations are higher. My level of resentment at having to do anything I don’t particularly want to do that isn’t pleasurable is higher. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that for six hours a day I receive certain messages — you know, ‘relax, we’re going to give to you, you don’t have to give anything back, all you need to do is every so often go and buy this product.’ But animals have fun. My dogs play. And watching them play — there’s a purity of intent and a lack of self-consciousness that I wish I could achieve when I was experiencing pleasure. But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably 70 percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.

From a 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace by David Wiley, originally published in The Minnesota Daily, and archived here.

January 14, 2014

William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover’s eyes, afternoon light in window (Photo by Ginsberg)

by Biblioklept

January 13, 2014

An Interview with Jason Schwartz

by Edwin Turner

Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it “a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I  wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”

Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.

SchwartzBiblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?

Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed.  Why dwell upon unpleasant things?

Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.

JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too.  I seem to recall something about a war.  A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid.  Remember Little Wars?  I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids.  Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage.  That seems more likely.  But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark.  I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera.  A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist.  Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade.  But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was.  I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies.  So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.

Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?

JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives.  They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling.  The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie.  The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases.  The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods.  Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.

Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?

jtpJS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so.  The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.”  The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.”  Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.”  There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously.  “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence.  I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.

Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?

JS: As to the second question: it varies.  No set method.  And as to the first:  I’m not really editing in that direction, no.  I see this more as a simple matter of description.  So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes.  A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine.  I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters.  And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door.  She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion.  “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.”  And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

JS: Sure.  Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say.  The book was The Deer Park.  I was three, I believe, or four, or five.  I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer.  I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort.  I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display.  It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red.  Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child.  Anyway, my grandmother gave chase.  She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me.  And then?  I was caught, of course.

January 13, 2014

Portrait of James Joyce — Eduardo Arroyo

by Biblioklept

January 12, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eighth Riff: Closing Out the Sixties)

by Edwin Turner

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PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

IN THIS RIFF:

“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967)

“The Recognition” (1967)

“The Cloud–Sculptors of Coral D” (1967)

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

“The Dead Astronaut” (1968)

“The Comsat Angels” (1968)

“The Killing Ground” (1969)

“A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

“Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

1. “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967) / “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) / “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories, collected and published together (under the title Vermilion Sands in 1971), are generally my least favorite selections in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The stories, composed over a decade, share a unified tone and a consistent (first-person) point of view to match their unified setting, and that setting is interesting enough—Ballardian enough—but each story is essentially just a delivery mechanism for a Cool Idea that Ballard has about art.

In “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”, Ballard’s Cool Idea is a light-responsive painting technique:

Like all paintings produced at Vermilion Sands at that time, it would not actually need the exercise of the painter’s hand. Once the pigments had been selected, the photosensitive paint would produce an image of whatever still life or landscape it was exposed to. Although a lengthy process, requiring an exposure of at least four or five days, it had the immense advantage that there was no need for the subject’s continuous presence. Given a few hours each day, the photosensitive pigments would anneal themselves into the contours of a likeness.

This discontinuity was responsible for the entire charm and magic of these paintings. Instead of a mere photographic replica, the movements of the sitter produced a series of multiple projections, perhaps with the analytic forms of cubism, or, less severely, a pleasant impressionistic blurring.

The idea is interesting in and of itself, calling back to the central conceit of another VS story, “Studio 5, The Stars.” In that tale, poetry is the automated product of programmed machines. The concept of programmed art is fascinating, and clearly Ballard’s fiction tracks a predictive curve, but like most Vermilion Sands stories, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” is clumsily executed pulp fiction. “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” is no different (the Cool Idea is cloud-sculpting, which allows Ballard to riff on one of his central motifs, airplanes). “Say Goodbye to the Wind” features living, responsive clothing. It also features another stereotypical Ballardian (pseudo)ingénue (the man really had a difficult time coming up with complex female characters). However, with its notes on “the teenage cult” and its obsession with plastic surgery, the story points to the more compelling territory Ballard was exploring.

2. “The Recognition” (1967)

A doomed circus, another (pseudo)ingénue, another dwarf, another morality fable, another stab at magical realism—far less successful than “The Drowned Giant” though.

3. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

This is one you might as well just read: I mean, an attempt to describe it here will fail. But I’ll fail anyway.

“Reagan” was first published when the former actor and then-Governor of California was positioned as a write-in candidate for the ’68 election—the Gipper was the conservative alternative to Nixon. Written in the style of an academic psychology paper, the piece isn’t so much satire as something else entirely. I’m not sure exactly what that “something else” is, but it’s probably best signaled in Ballard’s own prose:

Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth–parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear–exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child–victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self–induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.

According to a number of sources, including Ballard himself, the story was disseminated at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. VICE reports:

. . . a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard’s Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, “Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey,” and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.

“Reagan” is one of only three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition collected in The Complete Stories. It also clearly belongs in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, an ideal collection that does not yet exist.

4. “The Dead Astronaut”

Betrayal, unfaithful wives, the fall-out of the space race against the backdrop of the Cold War, paranoia, radiation, etc.

5. “The Comsat Angels”

Ballard’s best stories, like “The Index,” “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Beach Murders,” or “Answers to a Questionnaire” all succeed because their form is indivisible from their content—the idea that Ballard delivers is inseparable from the method of delivery. Most of Ballard’s stories are beholden to genre conventions though, and while Ballard’s treatment of these conventions are often excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent), against the backdrop of his best stuff, the conventional exercises are always a little disappointing, or at least frustrating. Often clunky and heavy-handed, his stories for sci-fi mags are often the worst offenders.

However, when Ballard works through the conventions of detective fiction, he usually has stronger results. Edgar Allan Poe is surely Ballard’s foremost literary ancestor, a comparison that finds illustration in “The Comsat Angels,” a detective piece with a nimble streak of sci-fi running through it for flavor. Cloning, conspiracy, and paranoia done right. Great stuff.

6. “The Killing Ground” (1969) / “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

These stories are basically thought exercises where Ballard takes on the Vietnam War and its simultaneous culture war. “The Killing Ground” foregrounds the Vietnam War, but still displaces it, extrapolating a future where “Thirty years after the original conflict in south–east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam,” with Imperial America dominating the globe with its war machine. (Thank goodness nothing like that really happened!).  “A Place and a Time to Die” is more oblique, a tale of fear of invading otherness. “A Place and a Time to Die” could resonate just as strongly today in contemporary America, with its exurbs and gated communities and Stand Your Ground laws.

7. On the horizon:

Some of Ballard’s best, including “The Index” and another (oblique) Vietnam story, “Theatre of War.” I’ll also riff on Ballard’s pseudo-but-not-so-pseudo-autobiographical story, “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”

January 9, 2014

RIP Amiri Baraka

by Biblioklept

RIP Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014

January 9, 2014

“An archeological slice. Not much glitter.” (Donald Barthelme)

by Biblioklept

INTERVIEWER

Which reminds me: Some of your detractors say that you’re merely fashionable.

BARTHELME

Well, the mere has always been a useful category.

INTERVIEWER

That you’re a jackdaw, and your principle of selection is whatever glitters most.

BARTHELME

I weep and tear my hair. And disagree.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s look at a specific jackdaw’s nest, the barricade in “The Indian Uprising.”

BARTHELME

I don’t see anything particularly fashionable. The table made from a hollow-core door may be a 1960s reference but aren’t people still making them?

INTERVIEWER

But your barricade is not intended as straightforward realism; these things are artifacts of a certain culture.

BARTHELME

An archeological slice. Not much glitter.

INTERVIEWER

Won’t it require scholarly annotation in the future?

BARTHELME

I’d say no. If you read The Swiss Family Robinson and you’re reading about what they unpack from the pinnace as they shuttle from ship to shore you don’t need any footnotes, even though there may be four hundred pounds of tallow in the cargo. You have a vague recollection that it’s used to make candles.

Actually I think the jackdaw business is a function of appearing in the New Yorker with some frequency. People read the fiction with after images of Rolls Royces and Rolexes still sizzling in their eyes. Rare is the reviewer who can resist mentioning the magazine’s ads when talking about the fiction. One is gilded by association.

INTERVIEWER

Suppose we turn things around. Suppose I say that when I read that story I’m not at all concerned about whether people made tables from hollow-core doors in the 1960s. Rather, I’m interested in the speaker, who in the metaphorical context of the story is besieged by Comanches.

BARTHELME

Is besieged by very much more than Comanches, but also by Comanches. He’s not meant to be a walking-around person so much as a target, a butt. The arrows of the Comanches but also sensory insult, political insult, there are references to the war there, to race, to torture, jingoism . . . But none of the references in the story were picked at random, and none are used simply as decor. If they seem random it’s probably because the range of reference is rather wide for a short piece—you have Patton and Frank Wedekind and the seventh cavalry coexisting on the same plane—but the crowding is part of the design, is the design.

From Donald Barthelme’s The Paris Review interview.

January 8, 2014

“Breakfast” — Gertrude Stein

by Biblioklept

“Breakfast” by Gertrude Stein

From Tender Buttons

BREAKFAST.

A change, a final change includes potatoes. This is no authority for the abuse of cheese. What language can instruct any fellow.

A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.

A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.

An imitation, more imitation, imitation succeed imitations.

Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.

What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious. Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday. Beer is neglected and cocoanut is famous. Coffee all coffee and a sample of soup all soup these are the choice of a baker. A white cup means a wedding. A wet cup means a vacation. A strong cup means an especial regulation. A single cup means a capital arrangement between the drawer and the place that is open.

Price a price is not in language, it is not in custom, it is not in praise.

A colored loss, why is there no leisure. If the persecution is so outrageous that nothing is solemn is there any occasion for persuasion.

A grey turn to a top and bottom, a silent pocketful of much heating, all the pliable succession of surrendering makes an ingenious joy.

A breeze in a jar and even then silence, a special anticipation in a rack, a gurgle a whole gurgle and more cheese than almost anything, is this an astonishment, does this incline more than the original division between a tray and a talking arrangement and even then a calling into another room gently with some chicken in any way.

A bent way that is a way to declare that the best is all together, a bent way shows no result, it shows a slight restraint, it shows a necessity for retraction.

Suspect a single buttered flower, suspect it certainly, suspect it and then glide, does that not alter a counting.

A hurt mended stick, a hurt mended cup, a hurt mended article of exceptional relaxation and annoyance, a hurt mended, hurt and mended is so necessary that no mistake is intended.

What is more likely than a roast, nothing really and yet it is never disappointed singularly.

A steady cake, any steady cake is perfect and not plain, any steady cake has a mounting reason and more than that it has singular crusts. A season of more is a season that is instead. A season of many is not more a season than most.

Take no remedy lightly, take no urging intently, take no separation leniently, beware of no lake and no larder.

Burden the cracked wet soaking sack heavily, burden it so that it is an institution in fright and in climate and in the best plan that there can be.

An ordinary color, a color is that strange mixture which makes, which does make which does not make a ripe juice, which does not make a mat.

A work which is a winding a real winding of the cloaking of a relaxing rescue. This which is so cool is not dusting, it is not dirtying in smelling, it could use white water, it could use more extraordinarily and in no solitude altogether. This which is so not winsome and not widened and really not so dipped as dainty and really dainty, very dainty, ordinarily, dainty, a dainty, not in that dainty and dainty. If the time is determined, if it is determined and there is reunion there is reunion with that then outline, then there is in that a piercing shutter, all of a piercing shouter, all of a quite weather, all of a withered exterior, all of that in most violent likely.

An excuse is not dreariness, a single plate is not butter, a single weight is not excitement, a solitary crumbling is not only martial.

A mixed protection, very mixed with the same actual intentional unstrangeness and riding, a single action caused necessarily is not more a sign than a minister.

Seat a knife near a cage and very near a decision and more nearly a timely working cat and scissors. Do this temporarily and make no more mistake in standing. Spread it all and arrange the white place, does this show in the house, does it not show in the green that is not necessary for that color, does it not even show in the explanation and singularly not at all stationary.

January 6, 2014

Jack London’s Dystopian Short Story, “A Curious Fragment”

by Biblioklept

“A Curious Fragment” by Jack London

[The capitalist, or industrial oligarch, Roger Vanderwater, mentioned in the narrative, has been identified as the ninth in the line of the Vanderwaters that controlled for hundreds of years the cotton factories of the South. This Roger Vanderwater flourished in the last decades of the twenty- sixth century after Christ, which was the fifth century of the terrible industrial oligarchy that was reared upon the ruins of the early Republic. From internal evidences we are convinced that the narrative which follows was not reduced to writing till the twenty- ninth century. Not only was it unlawful to write or print such matter during that period, but the working-class was so illiterate that only in rare instances were its members able to read and write. This was the dark reign of the overman, in whose speech the great mass of the people were characterized as the "herd animals." All literacy was frowned upon and stamped out. From the statute-books of the times may be instanced that black law that made it a capital offence for any man, no matter of what class, to teach even the alphabet to a member of the working-class. Such stringent limitation of education to the ruling class was necessary if that class was to continue to rule. One result of the foregoing was the development of the professional story-tellers. These story-tellers were paid by the oligarchy, and the tales they told were legendary, mythical, romantic, and harmless. But the spirit of freedom never quite died out, and agitators, under the guise of story-tellers, preached revolt to the slave class. That the following tale was banned by the oligarchs we have proof from the records of the criminal police court of Ashbury, wherein, on January 27, 2734, one John Tourney, found guilty of telling the tale in a boozing-ken of labourers, was sentenced to five years' penal servitude in the borax mines of the Arizona Desert.—EDITOR'S NOTE.]

Listen, my brothers, and I will tell you a tale of an arm. It was the arm of Tom Dixon, and Tom Dixon was a weaver of the first class in a factory of that hell-hound and master, Roger Vanderwater. This factory was called “Hell’s Bottom”… by the slaves who toiled in it, and I guess they ought to know; and it was situated in Kingsbury, at the other end of the town from Vanderwater’s summer palace. You do not know where Kingsbury is? There are many things, my brothers, that you do not know, and it is sad. It is because you do not know that you are slaves. When I have told you this tale, I should like to form a class among you for the learning of written and printed speech. Our masters read and write and possess many books, and it is because of that that they are our masters, and live in palaces, and do not work. When the toilers learn to read and write—all of them—they will grow strong; then they will use their strength to break their bonds, and there will be no more masters and no more slaves.

Kingsbury, my brothers, is in the old State of Alabama. For three hundred years the Vanderwaters have owned Kingsbury and its slave pens and factories, and slave pens and factories in many other places and States. You have heard of the Vanderwaters—who has not?—but let me tell you things you do not know about them. The first Vanderwater was a slave, even as you and I. Have you got that? He was a slave, and that was over three hundred years ago. His father was a machinist in the slave pen of Alexander Burrell, and his mother was a washerwoman in the same slave pen. There is no doubt about this. I am telling you truth. It is history. It is printed, every word of it, in the history books of our masters, which you cannot read because your masters will not permit you to learn to read. You can understand why they will not permit you to learn to read, when there are such things in the books. They know, and they are very wise. If you did read such things, you might be wanting in respect to your masters, which would be a dangerous thing… to your masters. But I know, for I can read, and I am telling you what I have read with my own eyes in the history books of our masters.

January 4, 2014

Lydia Davis on Using Nabokov’s Marginalia in Translating Madame Bovary

by Biblioklept
January 3, 2014

We found it! (Donald Barthelme)

by Biblioklept

barthelme1

January 2, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Seventh Riff: 1966)

by Edwin Turner

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PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

IN THIS RIFF:

“The Beach Murders’”(1966)

“The Day of Forever” (1966)

“The Impossible Man” (1966)

“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

1. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.

With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:

Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.

“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

2. “The Day of Forever” (1966)

It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.

“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.

When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:

In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.

Delvaux’s The Echo

3. “The Impossible Man” (1966)

The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

4. “Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962′s “The Garden of Time.”

5. “Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967′s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.

6. “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.

Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:

Oswald was the starter.

From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.

Kennedy got off to a bad start.

There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.

The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.

If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zone series), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.

Should go without saying: Essential.

You can read “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (paired with the Jarry text)and hear an audio version here.

7. On the horizon:

I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.

December 26, 2013

Reading, rereading, trying to read

by Biblioklept

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December 23, 2013

Burning Sappho (David Markson)

by Biblioklept

dm

December 20, 2013

Portrait of Félix Fénéon — Paul Signac

by Biblioklept

December 18, 2013

New Gordon Lish

by Biblioklept

There’s a new Gordon Lish rant in this month’s issue of Harper’s. The selection, titled “The Boys on the Block,” is collected in the forthcoming Goings: In Thirteen Sittings, out early next year from O/R Books.

First paragraph:

There was a game we played. Maybe it wasn’t a game in and of itself. Is a ball a game? A ball is not a game. But you can make a game with it, can’t you? What can’t you make a game with or of? You just have to decide you’re going to do it, is all. Or not even make up your mind and go ahead and decide as such. All you have to do is take the thing and start doing something with it and then say to a boy on the block, Can you do this? and then you show the boy that you can, and then the next thing is that that particular boy has to see if he can do it too or even if he can’t, well, I ask you, is there or is there not already enough of a game going from just that much of it already? Or even better, let’s say he can’t do it, the boy, that particular boy, then even better, even better that he can’t, except who can say, maybe before you know it you’re the boy who’s sorry you started the whole thing in the first place, because maybe the boy we’re talking about, maybe he can go ahead and do it better than you can do it, and then you wish you had never even taken the reins and started the game and could instead of any of that just stop playing it, but you can’t stop playing it, because every time that particular boy on the block comes around he’s got the thing you need for the game with him and he says to you, Hey look, can you do this, can you, can you? even if all you have to do is do it as many times as he can, or do it a little farther than he can, or do it faster than he can, or, you know, more times, or do it some other way different like that.

 

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