The style of this review is probably a bad idea.
In fact, it’s such a bad idea that it’s probable someone has already done it. Or considered doing it but had the good sense to refrain.
From Old Notebooks as the presentation of a subject through his daily jotting downs.
To clarify: All block quotes—like the one above—belong to Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.
Which I read twice last month.
And am writing about here.
From Old Notebooks: A Novel: An Essay.
From Old Notebooks: An Essay: A Novel.
From Old Notebooks blazons its anxiety of influence: Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Shakespeare.
References, critiques, ideas about Joyce, DFW, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche repeatedly evince in From Old Notebooks—and yet David Markson, whose format E L-S so clearly borrows, is evoked only thrice—and not until page 74 (this in a book of 201 pages):
I count David Markson’s literary-anecdote books among the few things I want to read over and over again, yet I have no idea whether they are actually any good. They’re like porn for English majors.
And then again on page 104:
If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book?
(I should point out that the page numbers I cite are from Dzanc Book’s first edition of From Old Notebooks; Dzanc’s 2012 printing puts the book back in print).
Like Markson’s anti-novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel), E L-S’s F.O.N. is constantly describing itself.
There may be some question as to F.O.N.’s status as fiction, poetry, philosophy, nonfiction, etc., but hopefully there will be no question about its status as a book.
Is E L-S’s book postmodern? Post-postmodern?
Perhaps there is nothing quintessentially postmodern about the self-reflexivity, fragmentation and pastiche of F.O.N., if only because all of it follows from form.
From Old Notebooks as a document constantly performing its self-critique:
If there were a Viking Portable Lavender-Smith containing an abridgment of F.O.N., I would be very interested to read it, because there’s no reason that the total value of the book wouldn’t be gained, through editorial happenstance, with much greater efficiency.
From Old Notebooks as a document of authorial anxiety.
A reader could make a case that there are a number of elided texts within or suggested by From Old Notebooks, including the one that gives the author the authority to write such a book.
F.O.N. is also a generative text, bustling with ideas for short stories, novels, plays, films, pamphlets, somethings—it is E L-S’s notebook after all (maybe). Just one very short example—
Novel about a haunted cryonics storage facility.
F.O.N.’s story ideas reminded me of my favorite Fitzgerald text, his Notebooks.
Reading From Old Notebooks is a pleasurable experience.
Personal anecdote on the reading experience:
Reading the book in my living room, my daughter and wife enter and begin doing some kind of mother-daughter yoga. My wife asks if they are distracting me from reading. I suggest that the book doesn’t work that way. The book performs its own discursions.
I shared the tiniest morsel here of my family; E L-S shares everything about his family in F.O.N.:
I know that the reconciliation of my writing life and my family life is one of the things that F.O.N. is finally about, but I can’t actually see it in the book; I don’t imagine I could point to an entry and say, Here is an example of that.
It would be impossible for me not to relate to the character of the author or novelist or narrator of F.O.N. (let me call him E L-S as a simple placeholder): We’re about the same age, we both have a son and a daughter (again of similar ages); we both teach composition. Similar literary obsessions. Etc. After reading through F.O.N. the first time I realized how weird it was that I didn’t feel contempt and jealousy for what E L-S pulls off in F.O.N.—that I didn’t hate him for it. That I felt proud of him (why?) and liked him.
There are moments where our obsessions diverge; the E L-S of F.O.N. is preoccupied with death to an extent that I simply don’t connect to. He:
1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about death.
1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about sex.
But generally I get and feel and empathize with his descriptions of his son and daughter and wife.
And his work. Big time:
Getting up the motivation to grade student essays is like trying to pass a piece of shit through the eye of a needle.
I have perfected my lecture after giving it for the third time, but my fourth class never gets to realize it because my voice is hoarse and I’m so tired from giving the same lecture four times in one day, so their experience of my perfect lecture at 8-9:40 PM is of approximately equal value to that of my students receiving my imperfect lecture at 8-9:40 AM, as well as my students at 2:30-3:55 and 5:30-7:10—and it all evens out to uniform mediocrity in the end.
The novel is not jaded or cynical or death-obsessed though (except when it is).
What E L-S is trying to do is to remove as much of the barrier between author and reader as possible:
Contemporary authors who construct a thick barrier between themselves and their readers such that authorial vulnerability is revealed negatively, i.e., via the construction of the barrier.
Perhaps my suggestion that E L-S tries to remove the barrier is wrong. Maybe instead: E L-S’s F.O.N. maps the barrier, points to the barrier’s structure, does not try to deny the barrier, but also tries to usher readers over it, under it, through its gaps—-and in this way channels a visceral reality that so much of contemporary fiction fails to achieve.
I really, really liked this book and will read it again.
. . . Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty — a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.
And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots’ centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially — consciously — a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there’s finally no difference — that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges’s is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It’s also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
—From “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
“Election Day,” William Carlos Williams:
Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits
in the doorway of
a broken house—
boards for windows
from between the stones
and strokes the head
of a spotted dog
1. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction is nominally the story of an unnamed narrator who leaves England after a severe illness to return to his native Austria to “sift and sort” the writings of his childhood friend Roithamer.
Roithamer, a brilliant but insane scientist, is the self-exiled son of an old, wealthy family. He uses an unexpected inheritance to fund an idealistic project: the building of a perfect Cone in the isolated heart of the Kobernausser forest. Roithamer envisions this Cone as the perfect home for his sister to live in (although he doesn’t bother to actually, y’know, talk to her about it). Roithamer’s sister dies almost immediately after taking up residence in the Cone. Roithamer then commits suicide.
Correction is divided into two sections, each a single, long, dense paragraph with no text break for the reader to rest upon. Bernhard’s sentences wind and unwind and rewind, sometimes snaking out for pages at a time; like Samuel Beckett, to whom he is often compared, Bernhard is a master of the comma splice. The effect is exhausting.
The first section of Correction is “Hoeller’s Garret,” named after the novel’s primary physical setting. Hoeller is a taxidermist who has built his own house in the Aurach gorge as a sort of dare to nature itself. Hoeller’s house inspires Roithamer’s Cone, and Hoeller’s garret becomes Roithamer’s work space—which is to say thinking space—for planning and executing his idealistic project.
Following Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator too moves into Hoeller’s garret, one of many formal repetitions in Correction (these formalizing plot repetitions are echoed in Bernhard’s syntactic repetitions).
In “Hoeller’s Garret” we learn about the childhood friendship between the narrator, Hoeller, and Roithamer. The paragraph (or chapter, if you will) includes details about Roithamer’s troubled family as well as an early horrific encounter with death, themes that will repeat throughout the novel.
The second section, “Sifting and Sorting,” finds the narrator working though Roithamer’s (mostly autobiographical) papers. The narrator appends a simple tag like “thus, Roithamer” or “so Roithamer” as attribution to Roithamer’s first-person statements, but this device pops up less and less as the book progresses, and it becomes clear that Roithamer has ventriloquized the narrative.
“Sifting and Sorting” focuses on Roithamer’s unhappy childhood, his endless fights with his mother, and his wish to perfect an idealization (namely, his Cone). The narrator channels Roithamer who channels the voices of his mother and father (and occasionally his detested brothers)—and of course, the reader channels all. The narrator slowly gives over to Roithamer’s voice as the novel’s final pages rush out in a series of diary entries, and Bernhard’s taxing syntax performs a mesmerist act on the reader, who, stunned, must return to the text in yet another repetition.
2. I’ve thus far failed to illustrate any of the above claims with an example of Bernhard’s prose.
It’s possible to plunder Correction for tight phrases, sharp, dark aphorisms, and other little bits of strange wisdom, but that doesn’t really convey the effect of what it’s like to read Bernhard’s sentences.
Better then to offer an example. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:
The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful to him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible.
If you’re interested, that’s 722 words (I wrote about 500 words before Bernhard’s sentence, if you need a point of contrast).
The repetition is easy to note even by absently gazing over the passage. The repeated phrase “Hoeller’s garret” stands out in particular, introducing the reader to the novel’s primary setting and establishing this “ideal place” in context against Altensam (the hated aristocratic home), England (self-imposed exile of a sort), and the Cone (the ideal ideal place).
We can also track a subtle shift in the final third of the sentence, as Roithamer’s voice ventriloquizes the narrator’s. Note how in the first third of the sentence, the narrator employs the first-person pronoun “I” which soon disappears in the middle third to be replaced by “he” (referring to Roithamer), until finally transforming into an “I” again in the final third—only this “I” is Roithamer’s “I.” This sentence demonstrates not only the demanding sentence structure that characterizes Correction as a whole, but also its narrative program of ventriloquism.
3. Okay. So I’ve offered plot summary, a lump of text, and a few comments on Bernhard’s prose—but I’ve hardly made a go of untangling the knotty density of Correction. (Although is that really what I came here to do? I don’t know. I hope not). Here are some stray, loose thoughts on Correction, offered here with little support (and the vague promise that I’ll write more about Correction in the future—shorter, more focused posts that hopefully expand on these ideas):
Correction shows how idealism, and specifically the will to create and perfect the ideal, leads to breakdown, death, insanity, suicide.
The Cone is a massive idealized phallus that reduces the agency of Roithamer’s sister, isolates her, and becomes her tomb.
Roithamer is part of a long tradition in literature of strange sister-lovers, dudes who dote on—and idealize—their sisters too much.
Roithamer seems to suffer from a sort-of reverse Oedipus complex, where he identifies with the strength of his father and hates his mother, who he sees as a cultural philistine, lower class, anti-intellectual. This complex leads to chauvinism against women in general, and possibly prevents him from better understanding his sister, who he essentially imprisons.
Correction reminded me often of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Correction reminded me often of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, although Correction obviously came first, and Sebald clearly cited Bernhard as an influence.
At some of its rantier points, Correction reminded me of Notes from Underground.
Correction took me forever to read, mostly because every time I picked it back up I had to twist my way into its circular, repetitive rhythms anew. Lots of rereading.
My auditory imagination: In time, it was Werner Herzog’s voice that read Correction to me.
Correction performs its own deconstruction.
Correction is often so scathing and harsh in its treatment of humanity as to be difficult to swallow. One has to step back repeatedly and remind oneself that Roithamer is not sane.
Correction is also very, very funny at times—astonishingly so, even. Its humor is truly absurd, the absurdity of a parent’s funeral, or the absurdity of simply having to go on. I can’t help but cite a favorite line here—”waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.”
The other side of “waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence” is of course death in general, or suicide in particular. Correction posits suicide as the ultimate correction, the final clearing gesture. The ideal.
And, not a thought on Correction, but a question for readers: What next? – Concrete, The Loser, or Yes?
I’ve been digging Stephen Eric Bronner’s tight synthesis of modernism, Modernism at the Barricades, which traces the historical rise of expressionism, futurism, surrealism and more against the political, social, and historical backdrop of the emerging 20th century. Bronner’s book is a sharp but concise primer of sorts, using examples like the correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky and the paintings of Emil Nolde to illuminate the big concepts and cultural aims of different modernist movements. Photographs, prints, and posters (like the proclamation below) help to illustrate Bronner’s chapters as well.
Bronner’s book would make a handy starting point to any student beginning a study of modernism. It doesn’t try to exhaustively account for each and every modernist, but neither does it forsake specificity in favor of a broad overview. Best of all, Bronner is clear and concise, an attribute which unfortunately is all too rare in academic writing. There’s a lucid sensibility that seems to govern the book, which we can see from its earliest chapter. Here Bronner delineates modernism’s cultural project and at the same time points out some of modernism’s own shortsightedness:
Modernism would call into question every aspect of modern life, from the architecture through which our apartments are designed, to the furniture in which we sit, to the comic books our children read, to the films we watch and the museums we visit, to the experience of time and individual possibility that mark our lives. Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”
They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst.
Good stuff. Modernism at the Barricades is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.
Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.
I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.
To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:
We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).
Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”
Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.
And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:
Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.
It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.
But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).
Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.
Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.
So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.
The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.
I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:
This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.
O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.
The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.
When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:
‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’
‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.
The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:
. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’
This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.
And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.
This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:
I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.
Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.
Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .
But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.
But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.
1. I finished reading William Gaddis’s enormous opus The Recognitions a few days ago. I made a decent first attempt at the book in the summer of 2009, but wound up distracted not quite half way through, and eventually abandoned the book. I did, however, write about its first third. I will plunder occasionally from that write-up in this riff. Like here:
In William Gaddis‘s massive first novel, The Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon forges paintings by master artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. To be more accurate, Wyatt creates new paintings that perfectly replicate not just the style of the old masters, but also the spirit. After aging the pictures, he forges the artist’s signature, and at that point, the painting is no longer an original by Wyatt, but a “new” old original by a long-dead genius. The paintings of the particular artists that Wyatt counterfeits are instructive in understanding, or at least in hoping to understand how The Recognitions works. The paintings of Bosch, Memling, or Dierick Bouts function as highly-allusive tableaux, semiotic constructions that wed religion and mythology to art, genius, and a certain spectacular horror, and, as such, resist any hope of a complete and thorough analysis. Can you imagine, for example, trying to catalog and explain all of the discrete images in Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights? And then, after creating such a catalog, explaining the intricate relationships between the different parts? You couldn’t, and Gaddis’s novel is the same way.
I still feel the anxiety dripping from that lede, the sense that The Recognitions might be a dare beyond my ken. Mellower now, I’m content to riff.
2. I read this citation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Part II the other night, mentally noting, “cf. Gaddis”:
188. The Muses as Liars. —“We know how to tell many lies,” so sang the Muses once, when they revealed themselves to Hesiod.—The conception of the artist as deceiver, once grasped, leads to important discoveries.
3. The Recognitions: crammed with poseurs and fakers, forgers and con-men, artists and would-be artists.
4. To recognize: To see and know again. Recognition entails time, experience, certitude, authenticity.
5. Who would not dogear or underline or highlight this passage?:
That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original . . .
6. In many ways The Recognitions, or rather the characters in The Recognitions whom we might identify with genuine talent, genius, or spirit (to be clear, I’m thinking of Wyatt/Stephan, Basil Valentine, Stanley, Anselm, maybe, and Frank Sinisterra) are conservative, reactionary even; this is somewhat ironic considering Gaddis’s estimable literary innovations.
7. Esme: A focus for the novel’s masculine gaze, or a critique of such gazes?
8. The central problem of The Recognitions (perhaps): What confers meaning in a desacralized world?
Late in the novel, in one of its many party scenes, Stanley underlines the problem, working in part from Voltaire’s (in)famous quote that, “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him”:
. . . even Voltaire could see that some transcendent judgments is necessary, because nothing is self-sufficient, even art, and when art isn’t an expression of something higher, when it isn’t invested you might even say, it breaks up into fragments that don’t have any meaning . . .
Here we think of Wyatt: Wyatt who rejects the ministry, contemporary art, contemporary society, sanity . . .
9. Wyatt’s quest: To find truth, meaning, authenticity in a modern world where the sacred does not, cannot exist, is smothered by commerce, noise, fakery . . .
10. The Recognitions conveys a range of tones, but I like it best when it focuses its energies on comic irony and dark absurdity to detail the juxtapositions and ironies between meaning and noise, authenticity and forgery.
11. (I like The Recognitions least when its bile flares up too much in its throat, when its black humor tips over into a screed of despair. A more mature Gaddis handles bitterness far better in JR, I think—but I parenthesize this note, as it seems minor even in a list of minor digressions).
12. Probably my favorite chapter of the book — after the very first chapter, which I believe can stand on its own — is Chapter V of Part II. This is the chapter where Frank Sinisterra reemerges, setting into motion a failed plan to disseminate his counterfeit money (“the queer,” as his accomplice calls it). We also meet Otto’s father, Mr. Pivner, a truly pathetic figure (in all senses of the word). This chapter probably contains more immediate or apparent action than any other in The Recognitions, which largely relies on implication (or suspended reference).
13. More on Part II, Chapter V: Here we find a savagely satirical and very funny discussion of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that seems to stand as an emblem (one of many in The Recognitions) of the degraded commercial world that Gaddis repeatedly attacks. The entire discussion of Carnegie’s book is priceless — it begins on page 497 of my Penguin edition and unfurls over roughly 10 pages—and the book is alluded to enough in The Recognitions to become a motif.
I’ll quote from page 499 a passage that seems to ironically situate How to Win Friends and Influence People against The Recognitions itself (this is one of the many postmodern moves of the novel):
It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.” College, the author implied, meant simply years wasted on Latin verbs and calculus. Vergil, and Harvard, were cited regularly with an uncomfortable, if off-hand, reverence for their unnecessary existences . . . In these pages, he was assured that whatever his work, knowledge of it was infinitely less important that knowing how to “deal with people.” This was what brought a price in the market place; and what else could anyone possibly want?
14. I’m not sure if Gaddis is ahead of his time or of his time in the above citation.
The Recognitions though, on the whole, feels more reactionary than does his later novel JR, which is so predictive of our contemporary society as to produce a maddening sense of the uncanny in its reader.
15. Even more on Part II, Chapter V (which I seem to be using to alleviate the anxiety of having to account for so many of the book’s threads): Here we find a delineation of (then complication of, then shuffling of) the various father-son pairings and substitutions that will play out in the text. (Namely, the series of displacements between Pivner, Otto, and Sinisterra, with the subtle foreshadowing of Wyatt’s later (failed) father-son/mentor-pupil relationship with Sinisterra).
16. Is it worth pointing out that the father-son displacements throughout the text are reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that Gaddis pointedly denied as an influence?
Ignorant of Gaddis’s deflections, I wrote the following in my review almost three years ago:
Gaddis shows a heavy debt to James Joyce‘s innovations in Ulysses here (and throughout the book, of course), although it would be a mistake to reduce the novel to a mere aping of that great work. Rather, The Recognitions seems to continue that High Modernist project, and, arguably, connect it to the (post)modern work of Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. (In it’s heavy erudition, numerous allusions, and complex voices, the novel readily recalls both W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño as far as I’m concerned).
17. But, hey, Cynthia Ozick found Joyce’s mark on The Recognitions as well (from her 1985 New York Times review of Carpenter’s Gothic):
When ”The Recognitions” arrived on the scene, it was already too late for those large acts of literary power ambition used to be good for. Joyce had come and gone. Imperially equipped for masterliness in range, language and ironic penetration, born to wrest out a modernist masterpiece but born untimely, Mr. Gaddis nonetheless took a long draught of Joyce’s advice and responded with surge after surge of virtuoso cunning.
18. We are not obligated to listen to Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence, of course. When asked in his Paris Review interview if he’d like to clarify anything about his personality and work, he paraphrases his novel:
I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this “life and personality and views” you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid.
19. And so Nietzsche again, again from Human, All Too Human, Part II:
140. Shutting One’s Mouth. —When his book opens its mouth, the author must shut his.
20. And if I’m going to quote German aphorists, here’s a Goethe citation (from Maxims and Reflections) that illustrates something of the spirit of The Recognitions:
There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.
21. And if I’m going to quote Goethe, I’ll also point out then that Gaddis began The Recognitions as a parody of Goethe’s Faust. Peter William Koenig writes in his excellent and definitive essay “Recognizing Gaddis’ Recognitions” (published in the Winter Volume Contemporary Literature, 1975):
To understand Gaddis’ relationship to his characters, and thus his philosophical motive in writing the novel, we are helped by knowing how Gaddis conceived of it originally. The Recognitions began as a much smaller and less complicated work, passing through a major evolutionary stage during the seven years Gaddis spent writing it. Gaddis says in his notes: “When I started this thing . . . it was to be a good deal shorter, and quite explicitly a parody on the FAUST story, except the artist taking the place of the learned doctor.” Gaddis later explained that Wyatt was to have all talent as Faust had all knowledge, yet not be able to find what was worth doing. This plight-of limitless talent, limited by the age in which it lives-was experienced by an actual painter of the late 1940s, Hans Van Meegeren, on whom Gaddis may have modeled Wyatt. The authorities threw Van Meegeren into jail for forging Dutch Renaissance masterpieces, but like Wyatt, his forgeries seemed so inspired and “authentic” that when he confessed, he was not believed, and had to prove that he had painted them. Like Faust and Wyatt, Van Meegeren seemed to be a man of immense talent, but no genius for finding his own salvation.
The Faust parody remained uppermost in Gaddis’ mind as he traveled from New York to Mexico, Panama and through Central America in 1947, until roughly the time he reached Spain in 1948. Here Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the novel entered its second major stage. Frazer’s pioneering anthropological work demonstrates how religions spring from earlier myths, fitting perfectly with Gaddis’ idea of the modern world as a counterfeit-or possibly inspiring it. In any case, Frazer led Gaddis to discover that Goethe’s Faust originally derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a rambling third-century theological tract of unknown authorship, dealing with Clement’s life and search for salvation. Gaddis adapted the title, broadening the conception of his novel to the story of a wandering, at times misguided hero, whose search for salvation would record the multifarious borrowings and counterfeits of modern culture.
22. Is Wyatt the hero of The Recognitions? Here’s Basil Valentine (page 247 of my ed.):
. . . that is why people read novels, to identify projections of their own unconscious. The hero has to be fearfully real, to convince them of their own reality, which they rather doubt. A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme. They have to know what you think, or good heavens, how can they know that you’re going through some wild conflict, which is after all the duty of a hero.
23. If Wyatt is the hero, then what is Otto? Clearly Otto is a comedic double of some kind for Wyatt, a would-be Wyatt, a different kind of failure . . . but is he a hero?
When I first tried The Recognitions I held Otto in special contempt (from that earlier review of mine):
Otto follows Wyatt around like a puppy, writing down whatever he says, absorbing whatever he can from him, and eventually sleeping with his wife. Otto is the worst kind of poseur; he travels to Central America to finish his play only to lend the mediocre (at best) work some authenticity, or at least buzz. He fakes an injury and cultivates a wild appearance he hopes will give him artistic mystique among the Bohemian Greenwich Villagers he hopes to impress. In the fifth chapter, at an art-party, Otto, and the reader, learn quickly that no one cares about his play . . .
But a full reading of The Recognitions shows more to Otto besides the initial anxious shallowness; Gaddis allows him authentic suffering and loss. (Alternately, my late sympathies for Otto may derive from the recognition that I am more of an Otto than a Wyatt . . .).
24. The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.
I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.
I’ll finish this riff-point by quoting Gaddis from The Paris Review again:
Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for.
(By the way, Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel in lit in 1955 when The Recognitions was published).
25. Looking over this riff, I see it’s lengthy, long on outside citations and short on plot summary or recommendations. Because I don’t think I’ve made a direct appeal to readers who may be daunted by the size or reputation or scope of The Recognitions, let me be clear: While this isn’t a book for everyone, anyone who wants to read it can and should. As a kind of shorthand, it fits (“fit” is not the right verb) in that messy space between modernism and postmodernism, post-Joyce and pre-Pynchon, and Gaddis has a style and approach that anticipates David Foster Wallace. (It’s likely that if you made it this far into the riff that you already know this or, even more likely, that you realize that these literary-historical situations mean little or nothing.
26.Very highly recommended.
In JR, the sprawling novel of capitalism and art by William Gaddis, Jack Gibbs loads his pockets with crumpled newspaper clippings, racing forms, and citations for a book he’s working on. “More trash,” he mutters about this list (which appears on page 486 of my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition).
1. I want to write about William Gaddis’s novel J R, which I am about half way through now.
2. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version, read with operatic aplomb by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been rereading bits here and there in my trade paperback copy.
3. What is J R about? Money. Capitalism. Art. Education. Desperate people. America.
4. The question posed in #3 is a fair question, but probably not the right question, or at least not the right first question about J R. Instead—What is the form of J R–How is J R?
5. A simple answer is that the novel is almost entirely dialog, usually unattributed (although made clear once one learns the reading rules for J R). These episodes of dialogue are couched in brief, pristine, precise, concrete—yet poetic—descriptions of setting. Otherwise, no exposition. Reminiscent of a movie script, almost.
6. A more complex answer: J R, overstuffed with voices, characters (shadows and doubles), and motifs, is an opera, or a riff on an opera, at least.
7. A few of the motifs in J R: paper, shoes, opera, T.V. equipment, entropy, chaos, novels, failure, frustration, mechanization, noise, hunting, war, music, commercials, trains, eruptions of nonconformity, advertising, the rotten shallowness of modern life . . .
8. Okay, so maybe that list of motifs dipped into themes. It’s certainly incomplete (but my reading of J R is incomplete, so . . .)
9. Well hang on so what’s it about? What happens?—This is a hard question to answer even though there are plenty of concrete answers. A little more riffage then—
10. Our eponymous hero, snot-nosed JR (of the sixth grade) amasses a paper fortune by trading cheap stocks. He does this from a payphone (that he engineers to have installed!) in school.
11. JR’s unwilling agent—his emissary into the adult world—is Edward Bast, a struggling young composer who is fired from his teaching position at JR’s school after going (quite literally) off script during a lesson.
12. Echoes of Bast: Thomas Eigen, struggling writer. Jack Gibbs, struggling
writer human. Gibbs, a frustrated, exasperated, alcoholic intellectual is perhaps the soul of the book. (Or at least my favorite character).
13. Characters in J R tend to be frustrated or oblivious. The oblivious characters tend to be rich and powerful; the frustrated tend to be artistic and intellectual.
14. Hence, satire: J R is very, very funny.
15. J R was published over 35 years ago, but its take on Wall Street, greed, the mechanization of education, the marginalization of art in society, and the increasing anti-intellectualism in America is more relevant than ever.
16. So, even when J R is funny, it’s also deeply sad.
17. Occasionally, there’s a histrionic pitch to Gaddis’s dialog: his frustrated people, in their frustrated marriages and frustrated jobs, explode. But J R is an opera, I suppose, and we might come to accept histrionics in an opera.
18. Young JR is a fascinating study, an innocent of sorts who attempts to navigate the ridiculous rules of his society. He is immature; he lacks human experience (he’s only 11, after all), and, like most young children, lacks empathy or foresight. He’s the perfect predatory capitalist.
19. All the love (whether familial or romantic or sexual) in J R (thus far, anyway) is frustrated, blocked, barred, delayed, interrupted . . .
20. I’m particularly fascinated by the scenes in JR’s school, particularly the ones involving Principal Whiteback, who, in addition to his educational duties, is also president of a local bank. Whiteback is a consummate yes man; he babbles out in an unending stammer of doubletalk; he’s a fount of delicious ironic humor. Sadly though, he’s also absolutely real, the kind of educational administrator who thinks a school should be run like a corporation.
21. The middlebrow novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has the unlikely and undeserved reputation of being a literary genius, famously called Gaddis “Mr. Difficult” (in an essay of the same name).
22. Franzen’s essay is interesting and instructive though flawed (he couldn’t make it through the second half of J R). From the essay:
“J R” is written for the active reader. You’re well advised to carry a pencil with which to flag plot points and draw flow charts on the inside back cover. The novel is a welter of dozens of interconnecting scams, deals, seductions, extortions, and betrayals. Between scenes, when the dialogue yields briefly to run-on sentences whose effect is like a blurry handheld video or a speeded-up movie, the images that flash by are of denatured, commercialized landscapes — trees being felled, fields paved over, roads widened — that recall to the modern reader how aesthetically shocking postwar automotive America must have been, how dismaying and portentous the first strip malls, the first five-acre parking lots.
23. Franzen, of course, is not heir to Gaddis. If there is one (and there doesn’t need to be, but still), it’s David Foster Wallace. Reading J R I am constantly reminded of Wallace’s work.
24. But also Joyce. J R is thoroughly Joycean, at least in its formal aspects: that friction between the deteriorated language of commerce and the high aims of art; the sense and sound and rhythms of the street. (Is there a character more frustrated in Western literature than Stephen Dedalus? Surely he finds some heirs in Gibbs, Bast, and Eigen . . .)
25. Gaddis denied (or at least deflected) a Joycean influence. Better to say then that they were both writing the 20th century, only from different ends of said century.
26. And then a question for navel-gazing lit major types, a question of little import, perhaps a meaningless question (certainly a dull one for most decent folks): Is J R late modernism or postmodernism? Late-late modernism?
27. Gaddis shows a touch of the nameyphilia that we see (out of control) in Pynchon: Hence, Miss Flesch, Father Haight, the diCephalis family, Nurse Waddams, Stella Angel, Major Hyde, etc.
28. To return to the plot, or the non-plot, of J R: As I’ve said, I’m only half way through the thing, but I can’t see its shape. That sentence might need a “yet” at the end; or, J R might be so much chaos.
29. In any case, I will report again at the end, if not sooner.
William Gaddis on James Joyce (via/more):
I recall a most ingenious piece in a Wisconsin quarterly some years ago in which The Recognitions’ debt to Ulysses was established in such minute detail I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses.
(March 1972 letter to Jean [?] Howes)
I’ve about reached the end of the line on questions about what I did or didn’t read of Joyce’s 30 years ago. All I read of Ulysses was Molly Bloom at the end which was being circulated for salacious rather than literary merits; No I did not read Finnegans Wake though I think a phrase about “psychoanaloosing” one’s self from it is in The Recognitions; Yes I read some of Dubliners but don’t recall how many & remember only a story called “Counterparts”; Yes I read a play called Exiles which at the time I found highly unsuccessful; Yes I believe I read Portrait of an Artist but also think I may not have finished it; No I did not read commentary on Joyce’s work & absorb details without reading the original. I also read, & believe with a good deal more absorbtion [sic], Eliot, Dostoevski, Forster, Rolfe, Waugh, why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespear, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.
(June 1975 letter to Grace Eckley)
In the Company of Strangers — We Review Barry McCrea’s New Book About Queer Family Ties in Dickens, Joyce, and Proust
Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.
The plot of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando hangs on two key conceits: the title character transforms from male to female; the title character is immortal. Orlando has been a staple of gender studies courses since before such courses existed, and is in many ways the pioneer text (or one of the pioneer texts) of an entire genre. And that’s great and all—there are plenty of stunning passages where Woolf has her character explore what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and how power and identity and all that good stuff fits in—but what I enjoyed most about Orlando was its rambling, satirical structure.
Orlando functions like an inverted picaresque, detailing the adventures of an aristocrat who finds him- (and then her-) self flung into every sort of damn predicament: Elizabethan intrigues; ice-skating during the Great Frost; a dalliance with a Russian princess; an attempt at artistic patronage; an attempt at art; an ambassadorship in Constantinople; an encounter with the Fates (I suspect); time with a band of gypsies; time with Alexander Pope; a marriage to the great sea captain Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine; and, finally (if that adverb might apply to an apparent immortal), the publication of her great small work The Oak Tree. Sorry to laundry-list plot points, but, gosh, don’t you want to read this now—or at least listen to the audiobook, like I did?
Woolf seems to be channeling Voltaire’s Candide at all times, subtly ridiculing era after era, until Orlando finally emerges into Woolf’s (Modernist) present—it’s the fuzziest moment of the novel for our protagonist, as if she, or the author operating behind her, cannot parse out the post-industrial landscape. It’s also the moment at which Woolf’s prose becomes its most fluid and free—its most Woolfian, I suppose.
I thoroughly enjoyed Clare Higgins’s smart, confident reading of this unabridged production (BBC/Chivers). At not quite nine hours long, it’s a great way to spend a few afternoons of chores or gardening, or perhaps a week’s commute. It made me fish out Mrs. Dalloway, which I haven’t read since my undergrad days, and shove it into a “to read” stack. It also prompted me to revisit Sally Potter’s admirable 1992 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton, whose very being seems like call and cause enough for an Orlando movie. I recommend both the audiobook and the film. Great stuff.
Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.
After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.
During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, and experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.
Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—
The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.
The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.
Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.
In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.
Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!” The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?
For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.
In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.
At The Believer, you can read the entirety of “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’” by The International Necronautical Society (aka Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy (although we’re pretty sure that the essay’s authorization code TMcC010910 indicates that McCarthy is its author)). Playful and provocative stuff. A sample–
5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.