Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Disconnect

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“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent).  Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of  “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:

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But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.

Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself:  “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”

Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.

Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:

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This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:

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The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:

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And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):

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Three Notes on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Correction (Plot, Prose, and a Riff)

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? — ConcreteThe Loser, or Yes?

I Review City of Glass, A Comic Book Doppelgänger of Paul Auster’s Postmodern Detective Novel

Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass explores doubling, shadowing, and what it means to wear another person’s skin, so it’s fitting that the book has its own doppelgänger in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (maestro Art Spiegelman served as catalyst and counselor). I should admit upfront that although I’ve read a few of Auster’s books, I haven’t read City of Glass, considered by many to be his masterpiece. I have read Mazzucchelli’s excellent novel Asterios Polyp (and plenty of stuff by overseer Spiegelman), so the adaptation intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass in one brisk sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s it about?

Okay, so there’s this novelist, Quinn (“rhymes with twin”), who, after the death of his wife and son, takes up writing boilerplate detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. Late in the book, Quinn (if he’s still Quinn at that point, which I’ll get to) identifies the pseudonym with the “real” name of NY Mets center fielder (and future coach) Mookie Wilson—but savvy readers will also recognize “William Wilson” as the name of an Edgar Allan Poe story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger of himself to the point that he goes insane. In the Poe story, Wilson and his doppelgänger (whose name is, of course, William Wilson as well) share the same birthday, January 19th, which also happens to be E.A. Poe’s birthday (and my brother’s too, although that is not germane to this review). Auster is clearly working from Poe’s story, although he never announces this explicitly (at least not in the comic-bookization). Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, wrote an exhaustive biography of Poe (published in 1941). Crossing from the real to the fictional, from authorial to character, Auster inserts himself into the story from its outset. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Quinn gets a mysterious call, like something out of the noir novels he writes:

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Bored, or perhaps ventriloquized by a force he doesn’t understand, Quinn takes up the identity of detective Paul Auster and agrees to take on a case for Peter Stillman, a man who, as a boy, suffered feralization at the hands of his insane father, who hoped to discover the Ur-language of god through the boy. Stillman’s monologue is one of the highlights of the book, showcasing the malleability of language—and also, significantly, the malleability of speakers:

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Stillman hires Quinn/Auster to track his father, also named Peter Stillman (Peter is also the name of Quinn’s dead son). Actually, it’s Stillman the Younger”s wife/speech pathologist who hires Quinn/Auster; she’s certain that Stillman the Elder, freshly released from a mental asylum, will return to harm his son.

Quinn/Auster slides into the role of Max Work, his noir novel protagonist—or, perhaps more accurately, William Wilson’s noir protagonist—and begins tracking Stillman the Elder (or a version of Stillman the Elder—I won’t spoil the novel’s strangest, most maddening metaphysical gambit here). And, predictably, as Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work  shadows Stillman Sr., he morphs into yet another doppelgänger:

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Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work eventually confronts Stillman, and the pair have a series of fascinating conversations about language, Milton, Humpty Dumpty, and the Tower of Babel. The motifs and themes are telegraphed fairly straightforward here, but also communicated through a lens of madness that comes to dominate the book’s third act—an act that initiates in a meeting between Q/A/W/W and the “real” Paul Auster, a writer who’s working on an essay about the authorship of Don Quixote. The Don Quixote conversation is perhaps too overt, the sort of postmodern cleverness that I increasingly find a big turnoff, but it’s not clumsy or awkward. Still, there’s something mildly irritating about an author tipping his hand and then showing you how he’s tipping his hand.

The third act of City of Glass feels compressed, rushed even, and will definitely disappoint readers who wandered in for a detective stories, hoping for concrete answers and a neat and tidy plot. However, the book’s themes of fantasy and reality, play and work, sanity and madness, and character and author are rich if frustrating in their circuitousness. Mazzucchelli’s art is evocative and fitting, recalling at times the rough-hewn pop art of Raymond Pettibon and the traditional prowess of masters like Kirby and Eisner. (I’ll bring up Spiegelman again too, who introduces the volume. A friend of Auster’s, he brokered the project and oversaw its development, and his work as a creative director here is evident in the book’s cohesion). I imagine fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first book, will be interested in checking this one out. Having come first to the graphic novel, I now look forward to reading its doppelgänger, Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Good stuff.

Derrida Speaks About Animals

“Diagetic, dialogic, hegemonic” — David Markson Weighs in on Contemporary Literary Criticism

Diagetic, dialogic, hegemonic. Privilege, as a verb. Foreground, as a verb. Valorize. Praxis, Simulacra. Metafiction. Logocentrism. Phallocentrism. Discourse. Signifier/signified.

Aporia.

Late capitalism. Gynophobia.

Text.

None of the above.

From David Markson’s novel Reader’s Block.

William Gaddis’s Self-Portrait

Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

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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.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

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.

A Review of David Markson’s The Last Novel (Composed Mostly in Citations from Said Novel)

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Unsure of how to “review” David Marson’s last novel The Last Novel, I here provide a series of citations from said novel with my own brief comments. The citations are organized not by theme or idea, but rather simply by the order in which they appear in the book, from first to last. My intention is to provide a clear picture of Markson’s method with some brief commentary on his themes.

By way of recommendation: The Last Novel engrossed and obsessed me, commanding most of my attention for four days, during which time I read it twice and then picked at again and again, as one might return to the generous leftovers of a Thanksgiving meal.

I hope I have not strained the limits of copyright law with my citations of Markson’s citations. To wit, from the colophon:

Copyright © 2007 by David Markson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Markson, David.

The last novel / David Markson.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-1-59376-143-1

ISBN-10: 1-59376-143-0

1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Fiction—Authorship—Fiction.

3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

Is The Last Novel fiction? Does this question matter? “Fiction–Authorship–Fiction” — this seems like a fair descriptor.

Our author, by way of summary, announces his themes, his name, and his prophetic conclusion:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write.

And now his method, followed by two examples of said method:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.

Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.

Said Joyce.

And a comment on that method, and Novelist’s textual place in it:

A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.

And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.

On the first theme announced, “Old”:

Rereading a Raymond Chandler novel in which Philip Marlowe stops in for a ten-cent cup of coffee.

Old enough to remember when the coffee would have cost half that.

A citation that seems to hold all the themes, but especially “Sick” and “Broke”—-and then a Renard citation that fits Markson (or “Novelist,” if you prefer) into a grand tradition of starving artists:

The bleak image Novelist is granted of himself as he asks a question of a local pharmacist — and becomes aware of the woman contemplating the conspicuously threadbare and even ragged ends of his coat sleeves.

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.

Said Jules Renard.

On aging:

Moments in which Novelist does something like leaving his desk to retrieve a book from across the room — and finding himself staring vacantly into the refrigerator.

Or tossing his keys into a drawer — without having opened the drawer

Markson instructs us how to read his work, and at the same time makes a grand grab at glory; he then moves to reflect on death, and perhaps a fear of going unread, before pointing out the sublime powers of art :

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

Wondering why one is surprised to realize that Thoreau was dead at forty-five.

A lament of Schopenhauer’s:

Over how frequently the mere purchase of a book is mistaken for the appropriation of its contents.

Two pages of The Mill on the Floss are enough to start me crying.

Said Proust.

The intersection of commerce and art and madness (or, really, I just like this citation):

Because bookshops are among the very few places where one can spend time without spending any money, George Orwell noted, any number of practically certifiable lunatics are guaranteed to be regularly found in most of them.

My least favorite reading experience of all time is Clarissa:

The endless commentary, and analysis, and even retelling, in Clarissa. Anyone reading it just for the story would hang himself, Johnson said.

A good definition, but also a sideways description of entering The Last Novel:

Thinking with someone else’s brain.

Schopenhauer called reading.

Markson is fond of the dependent clause as a stand-alone thought. He often lets the reader complete the sentence, or, as below, responds perhaps obliquely with another citation—his synthesis is subtle but always in play:

Reviewers who have accused Novelist of inventing some of his anecdotes and/or quotations — without the elemental responsibility to do the checking that would verify every one of them.

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.

Said John Osborne.

The Last Novel is in part a work of canon-formation, one that situates Markson’s place in arts and letters; it is often angry or bitter, as he tries to situate being “Alone” and “Broke” into a historical tradition of suffering writers:

Another of Novelist’s economic-status epiphanies:

Walking four or five blocks out of his way, and back, to save little more than nickels on some common household item.

While needing to stop to rest at least two or three times en route.

Writers are the beggars of Western society.

Said Octavio Paz.

There is no way of being a creative writer in America without being a loser.

Said Nelson Algren.

Markson repeatedly reveals his anxiety of influence: Where and how will he be remembered when he dies?:

Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.

Occasionally in The Last Novel, because he doesn’t always attribute his citations, it’s unclear to me if a string of sentences are original to Markson or not. Markson describes his method again:

A seminonfictional semifiction.

And with its interspersed unattributed quotations at roughest count adding up to a hundred or more.

A note on book theft, germane to (the original mission of) this website:

Please return this book. I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.

Read Walter Scott’s bookplate.

A dependent clause:

Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.

Again, the intersection of economics, art, and how we honor and remember genius (with the implicit underlying anxiety over Markson’s own fate):

Before the Euro, the portrait of Yeats on Ireland’s twenty-pound note.

America’s Whitman twenty-dollar bill, when?

The Melville ten?

I think the Melville ten is a grand idea. I’d put Hawthorne on the twenty and Emerson on the penny.

On death-dialing:

A quirky new impulse of Novelist’s, at news of several recent deaths — Dialing the deceased, in the likelihood that no one would have yet disconnected their answering machines — and contemplating their voices one eerie final time.

The voice of an agitated colleague? Friend? Student? Is the quote a composite of complaints? Is it verbatim?:

Listen, I bought your latest book. But I quit after about six pages. That’s all there is, those little things?

Many of us have wondered:

Why did Harper Lee never write another novel?

It is possible she never wrote that first one.

Again, money and writers:

America’s Emily Dickinson dime?

We could put Thoreau on the nickel and Poe on the fifty.

Conclusions as a kind of interception; the author offstage, off scene, ob skena — obscene:

Novelist’s personal genre. In which part of the experiment is to continue keeping him offstage to the greatest extent possible — while compelling the attentive reader to perhaps catch his breath when things achieve an ending nonetheless.

Conclusions are the weak point of most authors.

George Eliot said.

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t get intercepted.

Said Johnny Unitas.

I feel like I’ve skated over the book, failed to plumb it at all: But I also protest that the book is a work of autocriticism, a work that decenters its themes, bats them around, analyzes them, tosses them back to the reader, sometimes bitter, sometimes melancholy, always erudite and engaging.

I cite from the end now. Can the end be spoiled? Markson tells us this is his last, that he will die (“Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.”). He dies a few years after the publication of The Last Novel. (He dies on the day my son is born, or, rather, his body is found on the day my son is born. He is very much alone. The New York Times publishes his obituary on my birthday). The novel ends with a series of citations that mull on death:

Dispraised, infirm, unfriended age.

Sophocles calls it.

Unregarded age in corners thrown.

Shakespeare echoes.

And what it means to be an artist, a writer, a critic, to write in and on and through others’ books:

The worn copy of Donne’s verses, inked throughout with notes in Coleridge’s handwriting. And at the rear:

I shall die soon, my dear Charles Lamb, and then you will not be sorry that I bescribbled your book.

Life as pain, death as transcendence:

Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty,Youth’s a stuff will not endure. Be patient now, my soul, thou hast endured worse than this.

Odysseus once says.

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? Is it true then, what they say — that we become stars in the sky when we die?

Asks someone in Aristophanes.

Banal signage or access to ascension?:

Access to Roof for Emergency Only.

Alarm Will Sound if Door Opened.

To reiterate and move on:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

The old man who will not laugh is a fool.

Als ick kan.

I Riff on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel J R (From About Half Way Through)

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 RHow 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.

Moe Szyslak Defines “Postmodernism” for Homer and the Boys (The Simpsons)

Thrones, Kings, Swords — I Review the First Three Books of George R. R. Martin’s Postmodern Saga, A Song of Ice and Fire

Last month, I listened to audiobook versions of the first three novels in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire SeriesA Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. These are long audiobooks, thirty or forty hours each, and they engrossed me, held me hostage even. Martin’s plot is a page turner, a beautiful balance of cliffhangers, mystery, intrigue, and action telegraphed in bristling, energetic prose. Actor Roy Dotrice turns in an amazing performance here, differentiating dozens of characters and communicating the emotional depth of Martin’s novel. If you’ve had a passing interest in Martin’s ASOIAF and you like audiobooks, you might be interested in checking these out.

So what are these books about?

I’ve read and heard Martin’s works offhandedly compared to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and it’s true that there are similarities, both superficial and structural : Both engage an epic scope; both are very long, comprising multiple volumes; both employ multiple character perspectives; both share a love for music, philology, and history; both are about war; both are very well written. Perhaps the central comparison is that both ASOIAF and LOTR are works of world invention, which is to say that these books are set in respective worlds that are not our world, worlds that have been, for better or worse, ghettoized as “fantasy” worlds. Another way of comparing these series is to point out then that one is more likely to find them in the “Fantasy” section than in, say, “Literary Fiction.”

It’s true that both LOTR and ASOIAF contain the signifying tropes of fantasy fiction: thrones, kings, swords. Magic. Dragons and shit.

In LOTR, magic is still very much alive in Middle Earth. Indeed, the plot of the book revolves around destroying a magical ring to defeat a foe of pure evil and restore the true king to his true throne; a wizard orchestrates these events (dying and being reborn in the process). At the end of the trilogy, the elves leave Middle Earth, sailing off into the sunset to live happily ever after, perhaps taking much of the world’s magic with them, leaving the humans to perhaps evolve as the dominant beings of that world. There’s a teleological neatness here, a reassurance of ideal order.

LOTR is all about the restoration of true identity and the return home after the great journey. I’ve run into readers who’ve expressed frustration with the end of The Return of the King; the book’s ending seems stretched out, elongated. After epic battle, there’s something deflationary about the hobbits’ returning to the Shire. But this is one of the major points of Tolkien’s process: the heroes must return to the domestic sphere, authority conferred upon them by their dramatic encounters with the sublime. They will now put their own community back to order.

Martin’s book could not be more opposite. While LOTR is about restoring order and expunging the polluting evil (from the swarthy south and the dark east) from a pure, now stable realm, ASOIAF explores the disruption, dissolution, and fragmentation of a continent in the midst of civil war. Tolkien wrote of war too, with bitter darkness, to be sure, but his epical, heroic mode makes little room for depicting the visceral horror of war. Nor does he concern himself with the Machiavellian intrigue that harnesses and exploits the rage of war. Tolkien’s characters are motivated by pure, intrinsic, and very black-or-white ideals; characters without these ideals (like Gollum or Denethor) are presented as insane.

In contrast, Martin’s plot catalogs the constantly shifting allegiances (both intra- and inter-family), betrayals, alliances, and upstarts that repeatedly throw his characters into new roles, new stations, new names. Martin’s camera is also keenly attuned to the Darwinian struggle that underwrites all existence, a struggle that war dramatizes. Martin’s books are, quite frankly, some of the most violent stuff I’ve ever read, full of beheading, mutilation, disemboweling, rape, and murder. He also takes great pains to show the way that war impoverishes the most vulnerable of people, taking food out of their mouths and obliterating their families. Martin’s engagement with political machinations and radical violence put his books closer to Blood Meridian or Wolf Hall, in many ways, than to standard fantasy fare.

To be clear, I am in no way arguing that LOTR, one of my favorite books of all time, is “standard fantasy fare.” LOTR obviously established many of the tropes and codified the themes and archetypes for the contemporary publishing genre that we call “fantasy.” We can also all recognize that much of what comes out of this genre (Robert Jordan comes to mind) is vile, flat, affectless dreck. Reductionist attitudes and vague misconceptions still keep some readers from recognizing that LOTR is a fully-realized work of meaningful, historically and artistically important literature. Similar attitudes and misconceptions might keep readers away—unnecessarily—from ASOIAF, a work that, like LOTR before it, invents a new idiom in storytelling. ASOIAF complicates claims of narrative truth, critiques patriarchy, reconceives what constitutes family, disrupts traditional archetypes, destabilizes ideal identity, decenters moral authority, and subverts narratological expectation. In short, Martin may have given us the definitive postmodern “fantasy” novel.

Martin layers these themes through his strange (and estranged) characters, shifting between them in point of view chapters written in the free-indirect style of late modernism. LOTR codifies an allegorical good vs. evil narrative, one that rests on the destruction of a magical object and the restoration of a “true” king. The narrative of LOTR is thus direct, teleological, and closed to outside narrativization. Put another way, we’re not getting the orc’s point of view (although that has been done). Martin’s narrative rejects the notion of a stable absolute truth, authority, or even identity. A civil war drives his narrative, a bloody competition between self-proclaimed kings, whose war machines dramatize Darwinian competition; this theme doubles in the Oedipal infighting and conflicts between and within the great Houses of Westeros, Martin’s world.

There are a few “traditional” epic heroes in Martin’s work, or at least the types of characters one might expect a fantasy adventure to focus on—dashing knights, regal kings, wise old men. Instead of focusing on these people and their hopes and fears and desires, Martin trains his camera on characters marginalized, outcast, or outright threatened by the patriarchy: a dwarf, an little girl, a mother, a bastard with no rights of inheritance, a crippled boy, an exiled teenage girl who must create her new identity piecemeal . . . As a point of contrast to these characters, who find their circumstances constantly inverted and disrupted, in the first book,  A Game of Thrones, Martin allows his POV chapters to hover around the consciousness (and rigid conscience) of Lord Eddard Stark (“Ned”), arguably the closest thing the series has to an initial hero (uh, BIG SPOILER ahead; skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid it). Ned’s worldview is rigid and clear, tempered by a love and duty for both his family and the people he has sworn to protect. He is a good man, but his goodness, his love and his righteousness are not sentimental. In a key opening scene, Ned carries out the execution of a man who has broken an oath. As Lord, it is his duty to condemn the man, but Ned chooses to behead the man himself, not because he relishes bloodshed but because he finds bloodshed revolting—in short, he must remind himself at all times of life’s cost. In an ironic plot twist, Ned is beheaded himself in an act of betrayal; the moment is shocking. It signifies, on one hand, Martin severing his book’s narrative from traditional ideals of honor and  justice; narratologically, it removes its characters from the protection of ideal and honor. Ned’s death is not a death of self-sacrifice. It is not heroic, nor does it posit apotheosis or rebirth. It is simply grim, ugly, and violent. The violence of war does not follow the narratives that we might like to subscribe to.

Although Martin’s books are gritty and concrete, with characters motivated by ever-shifting tendrils of intrigue, they nevertheless contain metaphysical elements. However, the magical parts of ASOIAF are slight, obscured to most of its characters who treat the idea of magic and magical beings with the same skepticism and cynicism that we find in our own world. If LOTR shows a world where magic is slowly leaving the world to make way for a new age, ASOIAF describes a world where the metaphysical detritus of the past begins to improbably thaw and return. These small but important magical eruptions are set against the the political infighting and civil war of Westeros. The great arc of A Series of Ice and Fire, which will reportedly run to seven books, seems to point to a larger conflict between the humans and a strange group of beings, significantly named The Others.

As much as I enjoyed and admire Martin’s first three books, I’m unsure if I will continue the series. I consumed Thrones, Kings, and Swords with a greedy gusto—even when he killed off characters I’d grown to care about, or otherwise disrupted my expectations. These narratives are rich, complex, and engrossing. Martin has a keen ear for Medieval dialogue, his mystery plots demand engagement, and life-or-death drama evokes adventure and invokes pathos without ever dipping into crudity or sentimentality. What’s most intriguing though is Martin’s analysis of war and politics; ASOIAF, through its many viewpoints, evaluates a world in turmoil with a precise intelligence and surprising wisdom. So, why do I say that I’m not sure if I’ll keep going?

Simply put, I started the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, and it’s just bloody awful. Could be that I just can’t stand the narration of John Lee, who seems to be channeling Christopher Lee doing Vincent Price doing Edgar Allan Poe. I hated Lee’s narration of China Miéville’s novel Kraken so much that I abandoned it. Roy Dotrice did a marvelous job bringing spirit to Martin’s novels; Lee’s sonorous sing-song is an amorphous mess. I was taken aback, to be sure, but I also wanted very much to know what the hell happened to my favorite characters after Swords. The mp3s of the book are titled after the character that they follow; a quick scan followed by some basic research revealed that this fourth book wasn’t going to pick up much about the fates of the characters I’m interested in. Scanning a few reviews of Crows, I see that it was not well-received, even by (especially by) Martin’s hardcore fans. The consensus seems to be that the book sprawls too much, splashes over the early boundaries Martin had set for himself. Teleological narratives like Lord of the Rings guarantee tidy resolution for their audiences; Martin’s post-modern narrative seems to insist, even before its half-way mark, that even an archetypal conclusion will be impossible. So I’ll follow his lead, and leave my review open-ended. I’d love to hear from any readers who have suggestions about the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire.

UPDATE (3 Jan 2013):

I ended up reading the fourth/fifth ones.

In the comments section, Jeff Schwaner offers an excellent description of Martin’s project:

 Nothing comes to an end in Martin’s book. Fortunes continue to change, that big wheel keeps turning and crushes a few more characters underfoot and, as Melville writes, “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Even the most dramatic stories sink and lose their primacy, replaced by the newest wave, which is only the shape of a thing and not a thing itself. Which is, at least I think, part of Martin’s point. Longest story short, it is definitely worth reading the rest.

Martin clearly intends to disrupt (and therefore dissatisfy) our expectations about what a narrative should do. However, there’s only so much of that that I think can stick. Once a reader figures out what Martin’s doing, the project gets rather dull (fourth book in particular)—we’re repeatedly asked to care about characters that we can expect to die at any second; Martin seems more interested in describing clothes and food and drink than getting down to the schemes and mysteries that make the first three books so engaging.

I understand the fantasy he’s disrupting in deconstructive terms: authority (its metonymy in crowns, thrones, swords, armies, dragons, etc.) is always displaced; there is no conclusive “ending,” despite what we are asked to believe (Return of the Queen; Winter Is Coming; White Walkers Are Coming; New Gods, etc.). The story started in media res and will end in media res.For me, this is engaging from a theoretical standpoint, but as a reader (and a reader who wants to read, like, *everything*) so much of ASOIAF comes across as the act of a plate-spinner, a bag of entertaining tricks that distract you from the fact that there’s nothing beyond the act itself.

But I’ll almost undoubtedly read the sixth one if he ever finishes it.

Book Acquired, 9.09.11 — Or, I Buy Yet Another William T. Vollmann Book Against My Better Judgment

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I like William T. Vollmann the persona probably more than I like William T. Vollmann the writer. That isn’t to say that I haven’t thought that the handful of books I’ve read by him were brilliant, strange, and engrossing—because they are—but I’ll admit that his methods, his back story, his sheer and absolute not-giving-a-fuckness is a major attraction. Voluminous Vollmann, unreadable Vollmann; smartypants Vollmann, fragile Vollmann. Vollmann, producer of travelogues, alternate histories, hagiographies for hookers; Vollmann, Ice Age chronicler; saga-slinging Vollmann. I can’t think of a writer who does more and says more and, because of his maximalist approach, will be largely unread, both for his career and for posterity—unless he concedes to edit. I think the irony is that, in wanting to give everything to his reader and wanting to preserve everything about his subjects—an act of love, compassion, empathy, what have you—in these grand, hopeless gestures, Vollmann paradoxically displays that intrinsic not-giving-a-fuckness. He needs an editor.

So, this afternoon, browsing at my favorite bookshop, a labyrinthine twisty thing, I ambled innocently past the ‘V’s of General Fiction, looking for a novel by Karel Capek in the sci-fi section, which abuts said ‘V’ aisle. Again, this was all innocence. I had no intention of picking up anything by Vollmann, despite the huge stack of his works there, used testaments to the futility of trying to read Vollmann perhaps—at least a dozen souls who said “fuck it” to Europe Central. Here are the Vollmann volumes (volmumes?) I possess—

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I’ve read Butterfly Stories, The Rifles, and The Ice-Shirt; I’ve read most of 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs. I’ve read bits of The Rainbow Stories and mostly nothing of Europe Central, which migrated out of the “to read” stack a few years ago. So, yeah, I wasn’t looking for another Vollmann. But I’m too frequent a visitor at this particular labyrinthy, somewhat famous North Florida bookshop, so I noticed a “new” Vollmann in the stack, Expelled from Eden. And I started thumbing through it. Against my better judgment. 20 minutes later I was brainstorming reasons not to pick it up, but honestly, the credit in book trade I have with the store nails most economic arguments, and really, I’m thinking this is exactly what I wanted someone to do with Vollmann: edit that shit.

Larry McCaffrey and Michael Hemmingson have excised, chopped, moved around, and pulled from all over Vollmann’s massive world, putting together a book organized around Vollmann’s grand themes—travel writing; war; violence; prostitution; literature. There are lists, drawings, photographs. There is biography. I came home and read for an hour. I’m sure I’ll be sharing some citations down the road.

As a sort of bonus—and I always love to pick up a book where something is neatly tucked away—is an entire 2005 feature from The New York Review on Vollmann, focusing on Expelled from Eden and Europe Central.

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Is American Psycho Profound, Artistic Nihilism or Stupid, Shallow Nihilism? — Bret Easton Ellis vs David Foster Wallace

Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho turns 20 this year. The folks at Vintage were kind enough to send me a copy of the book to promote the anniversary, and despite a mounding stack of review copies, I took a few hours to re-read parts of Ellis’s third novel.

I’ve only read two Ellis books and I remember the reading of them distinctly, precisely; I remember how I picked them up and where I was and what I was doing and all that jazz. The first was Ellis’s début Less Than Zero, a slim, ugly little novel that I read in one night. I was fifteen, spending a summer with my aunt and uncle, living in my cousin’s old bedroom. Less Than Zero was part of a cache of books that included Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography, some Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Kurt Vonnegut starter kit. In short, a life changing library, and most of it went home with me in my Jansport (somewhat surreptitiously, although I’m sure if I had asked I would have received). Only I didn’t take Less Than Zero, despite reading it all in one sick night, and then reading it again in pieces over the summer. The book hurt my stomach. The drugs were not the Looney Tunes business in HST’s book—they were the symptom of a blank nihilism I simply couldn’t identify with. The scene where the kids casually watch a snuff film horrified me. And the rape scene. Well. It was the first time I read something that genuinely disturbed me in a non-child, non-Grimm’s way — in a way where I felt moral outrage from an adult-psyche-type-position (whatever that means). The book genuinely concerned me; I was afraid such people existed.

I read American Psycho in 2002. I was traveling through Thailand for a month, trading books at guest houses and shops as I went, and the only book I remember being more ubiquitous than American Psycho was Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, yes, I also read there). I had seen and quite enjoyed Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of American Psycho, which had the good sense to treat the whole matter as a piece of cartoonish black comedy. In Harron’s hands, the hyperbolic exploits of Patrick Bateman are considerably less ambiguous than the book’s depiction; Harron  clearly marks the narrative violence as Bateman’s internal fantasies. Of course, one of literature’s greatest tools is ambiguity, and Ellis’s American Psycho revels in it. In a sense, this is the book’s defining nihilism: its total unwillingness to make a definitive judgment about its protagonist’s violence. Instead, American Psycho’s claims to satire rely on the implicit force of the reader’s sense of humanity and morality; like Less Than Zero before it, we have a flat narrative, an utter lack of self-reflection or internal psychology. Ellis gives us only concrete contours, cocaine, hydrochloric acid, chainsaws, and a laundry list of brand names. These are novels without interiors.

American Psycho, utterly concrete, deeply ironic, and occasionally funny, is a strange beach read, but a beach read nonetheless (although all that gristle and blood (and oh the rat!) won’t go down easy for many folks). When I read it in 2002 I found it neither shocking or enlightening, just precise and ugly and grotesque, a numbing progression of concrete descriptions of clothes and restaurants punctuated by ridiculous violence. Its one-note satire would find a better home in a short story. A short short story. I’ve spent the past few days reading through its sections again, trying to reassess it against the backdrop of my current literary estimations of Bret Easton Ellis, which I hate to admit are largely informed not only by his own acerbic personality, but also by (or perhaps more accurately against) his agon with David Foster Wallace.

BEE vs. DFW is not exactly news. Ellis (b. 1964) and Wallace (b. 1962) both published their first novels in the mid-eighties. Less Than Zero made 21-year-old Ellis a star, a likely “voice of his generation.” The Broom of the System didn’t exactly go gangbusters for Wallace, but its voluminous scope, Pynchonian silliness, and its willingness to pick up the postmodern games that Ellis and the other new minimalists seemed to reject announced a major new talent who was willing to both think and feel—to go beyond the surfaces. Indeed, Wallace’s entire project might be defined as setting himself apart from the cool, detached irony that characterizes Ellis’s ethos. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery,Wallace decries fiction that devotes
“a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.” I think this is an apt criticism. American Psycho is torture porn encased in a thin veneer of social satire with no interior substance. Here’s Wallace at length—

 I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Four years before the interview—and two years before the publication of American Psycho—Wallace mocked Ellis’s void, vacuous characters in “Girl with Curious Hair,” a story about a yuppie on LSD at a Keith Jarrett concert.  With no affective life, Sick Puppy (as his low life punk rock friends call him) feels nothing. He cannot enjoy his wealth, his position—not even his acid trip. He can’t even enjoy sex unless he can burn his partner as he’s being fellated. As Marshall Boswell points out in his study Understanding David Foster Wallace, “the story eerily forecasts . . . American Psycho . . . in a grisly and hilarious pastiche of Ellis’ preposterously benumbed prose.”

Perhaps Wallace’s greatest critique of nihilism — greatest in that it escapes the confines of Ellis and his ilk’s literary purview — is Don Gately, erstwhile hero of Infinite Jest, a recovering Demerol addict and small time thief whose painful day-to-day existence figures as the existential struggle against bleak, overwhelming nothingness. Gately is the heart and spirit of IJ, a big sad throbbing heart that, to quote Wallace out of context (from above), is the writer’s way “to depict this [dark] world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

Ellis perhaps perceives a character like Gately and his illuminating possibilities as simply too affected. Last summer, at a reading in Hackney, England, Easton offered the following—

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Midwestern faux-sentimentality, and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching . . .

Then there was this cryptic tweet a few months ago—

I’m not sure what Ellis’s tweet meant, and attendees of the Hackney reading claim that he was more considered and measured in his tone than the actual words of his response seem to entail. His end of the agon with Wallace is also rife with its own set of problems—his contemporary is dead, horribly dead, a suicide, (the kind of death that makes an essay like this one, an essay that claims to find affirmation of life in DFW and empty nihilism BEE, particularly hard to swallow, I suppose)—making it all the harder to respond. I read his “too soon” remark from the Hackney reading to be in earnest.

But Ellis’s tweets are not part of his literary corpus (even though they can be entertaining), and Wallace’s suicide is not part of his text. So, I return to those texts—

Wallace’s last effort, The Pale King, contrasts strongly with American Psycho. Wallace’s novel is fractured, heteroglossic, crammed with ideas, and at times purposefully taxing on its reader’s attention. American Psycho is concise (even if its plot is messy and episodic), imagistic, lacks even the pretense of allowing a controlling voice other than Bateman’s into the narrative, and, in its fetishistic, sexualized violence, is a work designed to lock its reader’s attention in a sensationalized vice grip. It’s id-bait par excellence, seductive and stylish. Its greatest achievement may be to fool some readers into believing that its violence is simply part and parcel of its intention of being a scathing satire. The book then relies heavily — too heavily — on an exterior morality system to weigh its flat, static characters, characters who face incredible trauma and yet never process it (or even attempt to process it). And I am not just speaking of Bateman. Consider the dry cleaner who repeatedly removes bloodstains, or the maid  who mops up brain bits without a single question. Then there are the faceless, indistinguishable alpha males who populate Bateman’s yuppie corporate world, and their requisite fiancées and mistresses, weak watery women the narrative repeatedly condemns. These characters lack meaning or depth; they are essentially probable replicants of Bateman, the implication being that psychopathic tendencies lurk everywhere, that the modern condition preempts empathy or human understanding or plain old common decency. The savvy reader is supposed to admire Ellis’s satire of capitalist vacuity, and admittedly, there are some very funny riffs (Bateman’s bits on popular music like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, replicated in the film version, still hold up well). But I think Wallace is correct when he asserts that the real violence is ultimately inflicted on the reader. Ellis’s violence is not the same as Flannery O’Connor’s, who used the shock of murder in her stories to explore the possibility of awe, transcendence, and revelation in a desacralized world. Wallace’s The Pale King tries to sanctify the costs of life (death and taxes and the deep existential crisis these costs entail) in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know. Ellis’s American Psycho is a cartoonish, lopsided distortion of a descralized world. Its affective power is purely externalized, generated from the reader’s moral core. It replaces feeling with violence; it replaces ideas with the illusion of ideas. Its closest claim to art is its satirical power, which is ultimately puddle-shallow (did we really need Ellis to tell us that yuppies are uncaring, shallow and materialistic?) Writers need not be morally instructive, but good books are guided by a vision. Ellis’s vision is pure, bleak nihilism, abyssal and unreflecting, asking little from its reader other than to play voyeur to murder and giving back nothing in return.

Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories — Sandra McDonald

Fantasy gets a bad rap. While science-fiction has enjoyed something of a restoration of sanctified hipness in recent years, thanks in part to the genre-bending efforts of authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, as well as a reappraisal of the works of authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, novels that find themselves classified in the fantasy genre can often be outright dismissed as having no artistic or literary merit. Amazingly, even the work of king daddy J.R.R. Tolkien still finds itself in need of critical defense from time to time. And while fantasy certainly has more than its fair share of rote genre exercises, including countless copycat cash-ins, it’s also an imaginative space buzzing with invention and the capacity for social commentary. Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories exemplifies the best kind of invention and social commentary that we might expect from post-modern fantasy.

Diana Comet collects fifteen stories connected via shared motifs, characters, and settings. McDonald crafts a world that inverts or displaces our own. This world, with its lands like New Dalli and Massasoit, is slightly decentered from our own: we find familiar iterations of our history here—there’s war and imperialism, colonialism and poverty, homophobia and racism—but the idioms are all slightly off, displaced enough be paradoxically familiar and alienating at the same time. “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy,” for instance, seems set in a 19th-century American milieu amidst a civil war (there’s even a poet named Whit Waltman), yet the transposition, articulate as it is, is also nebulous, disturbing even. McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens. Most of the stories end with enumerated discussion questions, often silly or whimsical, that serve to puncture the seriousness of the tales; they sometimes force details from our “real” world into the texts of Diana Comet in a way that’s doubly disconcerting. It’s a meta-textual gambit that pays off, however, both in belying any self-seriousness to the narrative proper as well as establishing a thin membrane between fantasy and reality—a membrane of questions that allows the reader to “play,” to disrupt that boundary through his or her own imagination.

McDonald’s world-building in Diana Comet never comes at the expense of good storytelling. With a few exceptions, most of the stories here piece together the frame of a world, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in most of the gaps. Most of the stories seem to take place in an iteration of the nineteenth century, but some to be set earlier, later, and even in a displaced future, like “Kingdom Coming,” a playful apocalypse tale. McDonald’s expositive restraint does wonders; too many writers of inventive fiction feel the need to tell the reader every single detail and nuance of their worlds. I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society. While LeGuin’s book is terrific and fully-realized, she spends a bit too much narrative energy transmitting every detail of that realization to her audience. Diana Comet is rewarding in its gaps and mysteries, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in its reader. Oh, I should probably add that McDonald can write; her prose is elegant, lively, wry, and spare.

Diana Comet is a smart, thoughtful post-modern fantasy that may appeal to the kids out there who have outgrown the narrative simplicity of Harry Potter and are looking for a challenge; it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of writers like LeGuin and Atwood, writers who know how to channel narrative traditional tropes of imaginative fiction through distortion and ambiguity and force their readers to think, even as they entertain. Recommended.