The Chums of Chance Reading List (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

hgdTitles of The Chums of Chance books mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day:

  • The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
  • The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna
  • The Chums of Chance and the Ice Pirates
  • The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin
  • The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama
  • The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang
  • The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa
  • The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
  • The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico
  • The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
  • The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth

The Chums of Chance bits have been some of my favorites in Pynchon’s Against the Day, and have given me more than one occasion to riff. There’s something wonderfully generative (and even generous) about these pulpy, romantic titles—an invitation to daydream, to fly with the boys a bit.

The painting of the airship at the top is by Harry Grant Dart, whose comic strip The Explorigator undoubtedly influenced Pynchon’s vision of The Chums of Chance. You can perhaps glean some of that inspiration in this 1908 broadside:

Explorigator19080503Intro

 

 

Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard’s Philosophical Novel of Abject Madness

In its English translation, Thomas Bernhard’s 1967 breakthrough novel Verstörung received the title GargoylesVerstörung translates to something like distress or disturbance, while Gargoyles (obviously) evokes Gothic monsters. Considered together, both titles communicate this philosophical novel’s themes of abjection, decay, and madness.

Bernhard explores these themes by dividing the novel into two sections that occur over the span of the same day. In the first section, “First Page,” a country doctor takes his son on his daily rounds in rural Stryia, “a relatively large and ‘difficult’ district.” The son, a mining engineer student and aspiring scientist, is ostensibly the narrator of Gargoyles. He tells us that his father “was taking me with him for the sake of my studies.” Their journey culminates in a visit to Hochgobernitz, the gloomy castle of Prince Saurau, an insane, suicidal aristocrat who mourns his own son’s self-exile to England, where he has gone to study. While the doctor’s son remains the narrator of the book in “The Prince,” the second part of Gargoyles, Prince Saurau overwhelms the novel with the force of his monologue, a tirade that gobbles up all that comes before it. His monologue ventriloquizes the narrator’s consciousness, echoing in the young man’s skull long after he’s left the castle.

The prince’s monologue is a prototypical Bernhardian rant that will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Loser or Correction (and undoubtedly other Bernhard novels I haven’t read yet). Unlike those novels, Gargoyles offers its first section “First Page” as a point of contrast to the monologue that will come later. These episodes are short and digestible, and while hardly conventional, they are far easier to handle than the sustained intensity of the prince’s monologue. The grotesque cavalcade that the doctor and son trek through in “First Page” allows Bernhard to set out his themes — not neatly or precisely, but clearly — before the prince commences to swallow and then vomit them.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

On the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o’clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hüllberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.

He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Köflach, the mother a servant in a butcher’s household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother’s sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. “I can say for a certainty that it won’t last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now,” he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words.

The specter of infanticide and the doctor’s resistance to it haunts the novel. We can also sense a cerebral chilliness in the narrator, who is “struck” by his father’s empathy. The doctor’s empathy repeats throughout the novel; we next see it clearly when he’s brought to attend an innkeeper’s wife assaulted in the early morning “without the slightest provocation” by one of the drunken miners who frequented her inn. Unconscious for hours before police or doctor are even called for, the woman dies. But—

It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained.

As the day unfolds, the “natural brutality” that the doctor is up against evinces again and again in the various gargoyles he attends to. The rumor of the innkeeper’s wife’s murder floats in the background as a reminder of violence and brutality that bizarrely unites this community of outsiders.

Those outsiders: a bedridden, dying woman with a feeble-minded son and a murderer for a brother; a retired industrialist, living “like man and wife” with his half-sister, who devotes “himself to a literary work over which he agonized, even as it kept his mind off his inner agony”; the school teacher whose death initiates the novel; mill workers murdering exotic birds with the help of a young bewildered Turk; an insane and deformed man, the son’s age, attended to and cared for by his sister. And the prince. But I’ve rushed through so much here, so much force of language, so much terror, so much horror.

These gargoyles live, if it can be called that, in abject, isolated otherness. The doctor diagnoses it for his son:

. . . no human being could continue to exist in such total isolation without doing severe damage to his intellect and psyche. It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsession. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves. The process always goes slowly at first.

There is something of a warning here for the doctor’s son, who tells us at one point: “Every day I completely built myself up, and completely destroyed myself.” Like Roithamer of Correction, the son is something of a control freak (“Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature”), and, like Roithamer and so many other Bernhardian figures, he has a frail (perhaps suicidal) sister who could perhaps fall prey to his idealism—who might indeed be the “creature who has entered the dungeon” with him.

There’s also the risk, one which the doctor perhaps did not account for when he set out to help his son with his “studies,” that the son might fall into the prince’s dungeon. But perhaps I’m making too much of the doctor’s empathy, of his resistance to brutality and his commitment to caring for those who repel all others. His own philosophy seems coded in misanthropy and failure. “All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together,” he says at one point. But also: “Communication is impossible.”

The resistance to abjection is paradoxical—as the doctor points out, the “philosophically oriented” and “imaginative scientific obsession[s]” often lead people deeper into the abyss—as the prince’s monologue will illustrate. Each of the gargoyles presented in the text offers a rare and special talent—art, music, philosophy, etc. Sussing out the novel’s treatment of the philosophies it invokes is beyond my ken, but I can’t resist lazily dropping a few names: Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Pascal, Diederot (all on the doctor’s reading list), and Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of the will surely informs the text more than I can manage here. (From the prince’s father’s suicide note: “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me”). And while I’m lazily dropping names: Edgar Allan Poe, King Lear, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, and Francisco Goya—especially his Los caprichos, a few of which accompany this review . (And although he came after, I can’t help but read Roberto Bolaño in some of the more grotesque, horrific passages).

The levels of ventriloquizing and the layers of madness set against the novel’s depiction of radical repression lead to an abyssal paradox, perhaps best figured not in the philosophers Bernhard invokes but in the novel’s backdrop: a dark, enveloping gorge, the yawning chasm that surrounds the high walls of the castle the prince walks with his auditors. These walls are the stage from which the prince performs his monologue; their visceral dramatic emphasis derives from the abyss below. In an ironic note at the beginning of “The Prince,” the son remarks, “From here, I thought, you probably had the finest view of the entire country.”

Upon this stage, Bernhard’s main characters function as asymmetrical parallels (forgive the purposeful absurdity of this oxymoron). The father and his son the narrator are set against the prince and his absent son. In a particularly bizarre episode, the prince recounts a dream:

“But my son,” he said, “will destroy Hochgobernitz as soon as he receives it into his hands.”

Last night, the prince said, he had had a dream. “In this dream,” he said, “I was able to look at a sheet of paper moving slowly from far below to high up, paper on which my own son had written the following. I see every word that my son is writing on that sheet of paper,” the prince said. “It is my son’s hand writing it. My son writes: As one who has taken refuge in scientific allegories I seemed to have cured myself of my father for good, as one cures oneself of a contagious disease. But today I see that this disease is an elemental, shattering fatal illness of which everyone without exception dies. Eight months after my father’s suicide—note that, Doctor, after his father’s suicide, after my suicide; my son writes about my suicide!—eight months after my father’s suicide everything is already ruined, and I can say that I have ruined it. I can say that I have ruined Hochgobernitz, my son writes, and he writes: I have ruined this flourishing economy! This tremendous, anachronistic agricultural and forest economy. I suddenly see, my son writes,” the prince said, “that by liquidating the business even though or precisely because it is the best, I am for the first time implementing my theory, my son writes!” the prince said.

Note the strange layers of narration and creation here. The prince’s son, a creation of the prince, exists in the prince’s dream (another creation) where he creates a manuscript. All this creation though points to destruction—of the father, of the ancestral estate. The prince’s impulses signal self-erasure, suicide as a kind of radical return of the repressed (here, Austria’s inability to speak about, reconcile, admit its complicity in the horrors of World War 2).

The doctor contrasts with the prince, perhaps representing an order, health, and sanity that serve to sharpen and darken the abject decay of the crazed aristocrat. “My father goes to see the prince only to treat him for his insomnia,” observes the narrator, “without doing anything about his real illness . . . his madness.” But can the doctor really treat the prince’s illness?

Both fathers in their respective philosophies signal the possible paths that might be inherited by their sons (and, if you like, by allegorical extension the sons could represent Austria, or perhaps even Western Europe). How to live against the promise of suicide, against the perils of infanticide, against the kind of “natural brutality” that leads to murder, insanity, the abyss?

This problem is encoded into Bernhard’s rhetorical technique. The prince’s devastating monologue consumes the narrative, reader and narrator alike. By the end of the novel, he’s infiltrated (and perhaps infected) the narrator’s consciousness, highlighting the dramatic stakes here—of being ventriloquized, possessed by the diseases of history and authority—an illness that trends to self-destruction. It’s worth sharing a passage at some length; the following section highlights and perhaps even condenses what I take to be the core themes of Gargoyles:

“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.

Such searing nihilism here—the prince angrily mourns the grotesqueness of the world, the lack of agency of people to control their own fate, to be but players, dummies mumbling someone else’s script. And it all leads to death. For the prince, dialogue is impossible in the face of this death: “All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.” But the prince, notably, is his own interlocutor; he pushes himself into abysses of his own contrivance.

Neither is love a solution for the prince:

“We face questions like an open grave about to be filled. It is also absurd, you know, for me to be talking of the absurdity,” he said. “My character can justly be called thoroughly unloving. But with equal justice I call the world utterly unloving. Love is an absurdity for which there is no place in nature.

And community?

We see in a person frailties which at once make us see the frailties of the community in which we live, the frailties of all communities, the state; we feel them, we see through them, we catastrophize them.

But is this necessarily the essential view of the novel? I don’t think it plausible to argue that the prince’s monologue be read entirely ironically, but it’s worth bearing in mind that both his auditors understand him to be mentally ill and terribly isolated. The guy is histrionic, a drama fiend holding forth on his stage. And while his acerbic misanthropy and nihilism may scorch, it’s also very, very funny. I chuckled a lot reading Gargoyles.

But yes—the prince is sincere in his pain. “We assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” he declares near the end of the novel. He’s a a prisoner in his own gloomy castle, the dungeon he refuses to leave. He resents his son’s self-exile to London, but also longs—literally dreams for—his son to return to destroy that dungeon.

Of his family: “But probably all these creatures deserve ruthlessness more than pity.” I think that But is important here. The doctor, like the prince, also situates everyone on an axis of ruthlessness and pity. The doctor is full of cruel observations about the gargoyles he encounters. But: But he gets up, goes out, does his rounds, tries in some way to mitigate some of the “natural brutality” of the world. And he tries to show this world—and this method—to his son this as well, for his son’s “studies.” In the room of the lonely, dying woman, the son remarks of his father: “I noticed that he made an effort to stretch out the call, for all his eagerness to leave.” The son, in thrall to the prince’s monologue, perhaps fails to notice that his father also stretches out his time on the castle wall despite an eagerness to leave the prince.

By the end of the novel, we see the prince’s consciousness inhabiting the son’s thoughts:

In bed I thought: What did the prince say? “Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me, an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes. The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed. 

The pessimism and sheer despair here erupts into black comedy with that last line, one echoed in Bernhard’s later novel Correction: “Waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.” If to simply get out of bed (which, of course, is where the son is as he work’s through the prince’s ideas) is to invoke and invite disaster and despair, it’s worth noting that this simple action—getting out of bed—is what the doctor performs each day, even if it means he wakes to a dead teacher, a boiled infant, a murdered wife. While hardly a beacon of optimism or hope, the doctor nonetheless figures an alternative to the prince’s abject madness. If we “assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” the doctor understands that it’s important to leave those walls, to not seek out dungeons—and drag others into dungeons with us.

Gargoyles is by turns bleak and nihilistic. It’s also energetic, profound, and at times very, very funny. Its opening section will likely provide an accessible introduction to readers interested in Bernhard, with the prince’s monologue offering the full Bernhardian experience. Dark, cruel, and taxing, Gargoyles isn’t particularly fun reading—except when it is. Highly recommended.

Enormous Norm Sibum Novel (Book Acquired, 6.06.2013)

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A reader copy of Norm Sibum’s enormous (like, 700 page) debut novel The Traymore Rooms arrived last week. I’d normally be wary of a 700-page debut novel but Sibum, a poet, has been publishing for years, and the blurb intrigued me. Here is publisher Biblioasis’s blurb:

A place: the Traymore Rooms, downtown Montreal, an old walk-up. Those who live there and drink at the nearby café form the heart of Traymorean society. Their number includes: Eggy, red-faced, West Virginian, a veteran of Korea; Eleanor R (not Eleanor Roosevelt); Dubois, French-Canadian, optimist; Moonface, waitress-cum-Latin-scholar and sexpot inexpert; and, most recently, our hero Calhoun. A draft dodger and poetical type.

For a time all is life-as-usual: Calhoun argues with Eggy and Dubois, eats Eleanor’s cobblers, gossips of Moonface, muses on Virgil and the Current President. With the arrival of a newcomer to Traymore, however, Calhoun’s thoughts grow fixated and dark. He comes to believe in the reality of evil. This woman breaks no laws and she inflicts no physical harm—yet for the citizens of Traymore, ex-pats and philosophers all, her presence becomes a vortex that draws them closer to the America they dread.

Intelligent and frighteningly absurd, with a voice as nimble as Gass’s and satire that pierces like Wallace’s, The Traymore Rooms is a sustained howl against libertarianism under George W. Bush.

I read the first book of the first book of this book on Saturday, in a hammock—great start. Dude can write.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt:

Now Edward Sanders, aka Fast Eddy, hatless in winter, beetle-browed and barrel-chested, shows up in the Blue Danube, the left side of his face inflamed. He is not happy; deep-set eyes accuse. Silent, he joins us at our table. A round of greetings. He raises his hand to check our effusions. He will make the most of this moment, encased in layers of sweatshirts, nylon coat, baggy denims. His pale blue eyes flirt with woe and misery. His eyes are absolutes, so complete is his revulsion for all accidents of time and space, he claiming a sparrow flew into his mug. Well, how? He was turning a corner at the back of his duplex just as a bird endeavoured to do the same, its flight path minimizing the possibilities of attack from predators. Chicago school of physics: two solid objects cannot, at one and the same time, inhabit the same space, unless one was to speak of hand-to-hand combat or acts of passion.

Eggy, old and decrepit, snorts, octogenarian bravado and envy asserting: ‘She must’ve squeezed too hard.’ Yes, there it is, what explains Fast Eddy’s wounded pride. But his love of Moonface is pure, as the girl is a noble creature, she our waitress. Eggy’s hand begins its journey to his glass. Eventually, the glass secured, wine is consumed. And the world, like Fast Eddy, might have cause to complain of what has been seemingly inadvertent, all the world gobsmacked by phantom dominion. ‘Oh well,’ says Eggy, ‘just trying to cheer you up. Effing hell.’ The old man would sow the wild oats he had failed to sow, his Ebenezer, willie, Priapus now inert. One day, perhaps, Fast Eddy may declare to Moonface his love of her, and she grant him the justice of his argument; and she reward him with some tender ministration, her smile daffy. Fast Eddy blinks, frowns and suffers. He might have to see a doctor, his left ear shiny red, grown enormous.

I have been a Traymorean for some time. Congratulations are in order, I think. It is to say I reside in the Traymore Rooms – along with Eggy, Moonface, Dubois and Eleanor R, Mrs Petrova our live-in landlady – and they have not yet turfed me into the street. What has been more spectacular than spectacular failure, than the truths that did not quite endure, than the lies that all too often succeeded? In any case, snow is falling. It settles on fur hats and tuques and caps. Wind drives it against scarved shoulders. I observe what, beyond the cold café window, has all the attributes of a dream: the afternoon commute, its sounds muffled

Carl Shuker’s Anti Lebanon Reviewed

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I’m tempted to say that Carl Shuker’s novel Anti Lebanon is full of twists, but twists isn’t the right word—it’s more like the novel’s trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.

Anti Lebanon begins as a somewhat traditional novel focused on Leon Elias, “thirty years old, East Beiruti Greek Orthodox.” Leon has dropped out of university, leaving his degree in hydrogeology unfinished. Leon has since taken a job as the security guard of an abandoned amusement park, a symbolic stand-in for Lebanon’s tourist economy. The Arab Spring has destabilized Lebanon, leaving its Christian population in a precarious position as Hezbollah dominates the government—and the streets. After dropping out of school, Leon creates an experimental short film, In the anti Lebanon,  a film “about his family and his sister and their history” — a history of mixed cultures (Leon’s mother is Japanese) and pain (his sister, a soldier, was assassinated).

The early parts of Anti Lebanon seem to set the stage for a fairly conventional novel with strong political overtones, one that explores Leon’s guilt over his sister’s violent death and his conflicted place as a sensitive and artistic soul who’s the son an infamous warrior, all set against the backdrop of Christian Lebanon in the tumult of the Arab Spring. But then Shuker takes us other places. Lots of other places.

The crucible for this change comes after a night of drinking ends in violence and theft. I don’t want to spoil too much—this is a novel that constantly had me rereading entire passages, asking, Wait, what?—but let’s just say Leon, complicit in a crime, ends up moving a body by motorcycle. Let me share some of Shuker’s prose in a passage that reveals the novel’s major metaphysical gambit:

This time there was no crash and it probably was the alcohol but the pain of the thing’s biting was gristly and sharp and also distant and allied with the shock of the fall so he rode though it for it seemed several dozen feet— the most important thing was not to fall again. He came to a controlled halt, stopped the bike, and then over his shoulder punched the thing’s face several times, his knuckle hitting soft then hitting helmet, and it bit again and this time harder and it stung and went deeper, a popping sound or feeling in his neck that suddenly got desperately deep and he punched again and then he rolled violently and writhed in the grasp of the thing they had created and he fell over deliberately, twisting so as to topple over sideways upon and hurt and stop the thing, and he hit the ground landing on its arm and this dislodged the biting helmeted head and he pulled up its hands and wriggled away over the concrete like his sister palming herself away from her disappeared foot and he scrambled up, and the thing just lay there inert and still, wired to the scooter in a position absurd, all tied up and crooked and ruined and wrong. He stood and held his hot neck looking at the fallen boy and then knew that someone else was there.

Is Leon now a vampire? The novel answers this question clearly even as it refuses to explain or define what, exactly, being a vampire means.  Anti Lebanon at times threatens to become an allegory of Mideast politics and history, using vampirism as its major trope, but then Shuker shifts us into new, weird territory. An appropriately Borgesian chapter titled “Labyrinth” moves Leon and the reader into a propulsive engine of dream logic; we’re never quite sure exactly what is happening as Leon gives over to dark, primal violence.

Such violence inheres from history and geography and mythology. It’s worth sharing another passage at length to see how Shuker traces these contours, plunging character and reader into history’s strange tangles. Here, vampire Leon drinks a guard’s lifeblood—the beginning of an oblique spree—and tunnels into mythos, plumbing the history of his land to arrive at his sister’s murder:

Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of. Aries, Andromeda, and Perseus slowly wheeled across the dead guard’s sunglasses. Christian snipers took positions around Mar Mikhael overlooking Electricité du Liban. A secret. Leon, labyrinthine, tunneled from shadow to shadow. The criminal and the victim alike return to the scene of the crime. Would the Israelis come? The taste of blood was hot: There was juniper, vetyver, and chypres too, copper drying down to a powder, wealth and breadth of deathless rivers in endless cycle, over centuries, aeons, untouched and untouchable: Nahr al Kalb, the dog river, collecting on its rock walls the signatures of dead empires: the steles of Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon III and Caracalla, General Gouraud and The XXI British Army Corps with Le Détachement Français de Palestine et Syrie occupied Beirut and Tripoli: October 1918 AD; and Nahr Ibrahim, the blood river, which flows red: iron-rich soil rusting, seeding red anemones of the rebirth along its banks. The land still bearing the imprint of its creator, still running with the blood of Adonis in cascades; cataracts of rust. The march crossed the exact point on the Green Line where the Black Saturday ID checkpoints were erected once upon a time and to cross was to have your ID checked for religion and your throat cut in the passenger seat, watched over by Phalange HQ, past Makhlouf’s sandwich store— his weakness, his frailty. He told her about the last shot, what he alone saw: that the assassin didn’t even look as he ruined her; as he ruined him.

From here—well, let’s just say that Leon goes, and that the book moves into a picaresque rhythm, erupting with Bolañoesque moments of horror and strange shifts into the unreal (there’s a moment at the end of an episode in Israel that confounded everything I’d read so far in the book, the effect approaching alterity). It would spoil too much of Anti Lebanon to delineate all its movements; suffice to say its unsettling shifts are grounded in motifs of dogs, water, film, art, crashes, the peri, the vampire.

Shuker’s book isn’t for everyone. Those looking for a classic Gothic horror or a sexy vampire romp will likely be disappointed (and probably confused). Shuker also throws his reader into the metaphorical deep end of Mideast politics and history, offering little exposition that might help explain some of the complexity. There’s a trust in the reader there that I admire (even as I often headed to Wikipedia to learn about Lebanon’s civil wars, the Druze, its relationship to Syria, Palestine, Israel…). That trust is best returned to the author—a trust to follow him where he goes, because frankly you won’t be able to see ahead. Anti Lebanon is unpredictable, strange, and very rewarding.

Anti Lebanon is new from Counterpoint Press.

Patricio Pron Novel (Book Acquired, 5.08.2013)

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I got a review copy of My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, the first novel from Patricio Pron a few days ago and wandered into it a bit yesterday afternoon but then got distracted by something else. Anybody read this one—or anything by Pron? Curious what you think…

From a Granta interview:

Name the five writers you most admire at the moment (any period, language or genre).

David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño.

Here is publisher Knopf’s blurb for My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain:

The anticipated American debut of one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists: a daring, deeply affecting novel about the secrets buried in the past of an Argentine family.

A young writer, living abroad, makes the journey home to South America to say good-bye to his dying father. In his parents’ house, he finds a cache of documents—articles, maps, photographs—and unwittingly begins to unearth his father’s obsession with the disappearance of a local man. Suddenly he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past and with the long-hidden memories of his family’s underground resistance against an oppressive military regime. As the fragments of the narrator’s investigation fall into place—revealing not only a part of his father’s life he had tried to forget but also the legacy of an entire generation—this audacious novel tells a completely original story of corruption and responsibility, history and remembrance.

You can also read “Ideas,” a story by Pron published in The Paris Review, which I think is an excerpt from the book. First paragraph:

On April 16, 1981, at approximately three P.M., little Peter Möhlendorf, whom everyone called der schwarze Peter, “black Peter,” went home from the village school. His house was on the eastern edge of Sterberode, a town of some five thousand inhabitants outside the East German town of Magdeburg whose main economic activity is farming—asparagus, mostly. His father, who was in the basement of the house when little Möhlendorf arrived, would later say that he heard him come in and then could infer from the sounds in the kitchen, which was above the basement, what he was doing: he flung his backpack beneath the staircase landing, went to the kitchen, took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, and poured himself a glass, which he drank standing; then he put the carton back in the refrigerator and went out into the backyard. Anyway, that was what he did every day when he came home from school and it could be that his father hadn’t really heard the noises he later would say he heard but rather had heard Peter come home and from that had guessed the rest of the series of actions. However, what his father did not know, as he listened or thought he listened to the noises his son was making above his head, was that little Peter was not going to return home that night or the nights that would follow, and that something incomprehensible and frightening was going to open up before him and the rest of the townspeople, and it would swallow everything up.

Kinda Sorta Reading List of Novels from Ezra Pound

I have not written a good novel. I have not written a novel. I don’t expect to write any novels and shall not tell anyone else how to do it until I have.

If you want to study the novel, go, READ the best you can find. All I know about it, I have learned from reading:

Tom Jones, by Fielding.

Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey by Sterne (and I don’t recommend anyone ELSE to try to do another Tristram Shandy).

The novels of Jane Austen and Trollope.

[Note: If you compare the realism of Trollope’s novels with the realism of Robert McAlmon’s stories you will get a fair idea of what a good novelists means by ‘construction’. Trollope depicts a scene or a person, and you can clearly see how he ‘leads up to an effect’.]

 

Continuing:

The novels of Henry James, AND especially the prefaces to his collected edition; which are the one extant great treatise on novel writing in English.

In French you can form a fairly good ideogram from:

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe.

The first half of Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir and the first eighty pages of La Chartreuse de Parme.

Madame BovaryL’Education SentimentaleTrois Contes, and the unfinished Brouvard et Pecuchet of FLAUBERT, with Goncourt’s preface to Germinie Lacerteux.

 

After that you would do well to look at Madox Ford’s A Call.

When you have read Jame’s prefaces and twenty of his other novels, you would do well to read The Sacred Fount.

There for perhaps the first time since about 1300 a writer has been able to deal with a sort of content wherewith Cavalcanti has been ‘concerned’.

You can get a very brilliant cross-light via Donne. I mean the difference and nuances between psychology in Guido, abstract philosophic statement in Guido, the blend in Donne, and again psychology in Henry James, and in all of them the underlying concept of FORM, the structure of the whole work, including its parts.

This is a long way from an A B C. In fact it opens the vistas of post-graduate study.

From Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (New Directions).

 

Chris Eaton, a Biography: A Novel by Chris Eaton (Book Acquired, 4.18.2013)

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Chris Eaton’s novel Chris Eaton, A Biography showed up last week.  I haven’t made time to get into it yet—even though it looks pretty cool—mostly because I’m reading too many books right now and it’s the end of the term and all that nonsense. Anyway, this looks like a weird one. Publisher Book Thug’s blurb:

Chris Eaton, A Biography is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we’ve heard from others. Chris Eaton, A Biography constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.

 

Moby-Dick: A Short Riff on a Long Book

Green and White, Georgia O'Keeffe
Green and White, Georgia O’Keeffe

1. Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.

2. Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.

3. I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school.

As I read, I posted some of my favorite excerpts on this blog.

4. I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).

5. Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.

6. Point 5 is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.

7. Or, another way of making such a claim:

Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly:

Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.

8. So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book:

Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.

After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.

But why bring this up?

9. I don’t know.

Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.

But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.

White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky
White Figure, Wassily Kandinsky

10. If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.

11. So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.

Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.

He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.

In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).

12. “Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.

But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from  Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”

Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.

The whiteness of the whale.

The witness of the wail.

13. How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.

14. The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.

Is Ishmael a ghost?

Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali
Leviathan-Job 40-21, Salvador Dali

15. And to return to Ahab for a moment: My godwhat a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.

16. And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.

17. And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.

18. While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.

19. This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.

A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.

An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.

20. Twenty points: Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.

Ben Marcus Doing His David Markson Impression

In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.

Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.

But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.

I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.

Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.

They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.

If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.

When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.

Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.

If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it even the memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.

I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.

Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.

Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.

Do not read this, warned Plutarch.

Do not read this, warned Cicero.

Do not read this, begged Ovid.

If you value your life. Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.

No alphabet but in things, said Williams.

Correction. No alphabet at all.

The entirety of Chapter 35 of Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s a departure of style from the novel that seems to owe more than a passing nod to David Markson’s notecard novels.

 

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / I just met

Continuing kinda sorta where we left off

Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:

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I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?

The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:

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He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.

The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!

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The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.

We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.

Just as in  Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.

Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.

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“The modern novel should be largely a work of reference” (Flann O’Brien)

 

In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.

—From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).