The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Day—simply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)
What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:
When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.
Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.
I don’t have the verbs for this book.
But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes
I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.
Dockwood by Jon McNaught
I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.
It is in literature as in life: wherever you turn, you stumble at once upon the incorrigible mob of humanity, swarming in all directions, crowding and soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. The time, money and attention of the public, which rightfully belong to good books and their noble aims, they take for themselves: they are written for the mere purpose of making money or procuring places. So they are not only useless; they do positive mischief. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.
Let me mention a crafty and wicked trick, albeit a profitable and successful one, practised by littérateurs, hack writers, and voluminous authors. In complete disregard of good taste and the true culture of the period, they have succeeded in getting the whole of the world of fashion into leading strings, so that they are all trained to read in time, and all the same thing, viz., the newest books; and that for the purpose of getting food for conversation in the circles in which they move. This is the aim served by bad novels, produced by writers who were once celebrated, as Spindler, Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Sue. What can be more miserable than the lot of a reading public like this, always bound to peruse the latest works of extremely commonplace persons who write for money only, and who are therefore never few in number? and for this advantage they are content to know by name only the works of the few superior minds of all ages and all countries. Literary newspapers, too, are a singularly cunning device for robbing the reading public of the time which, if culture is to be attained, should be devoted to the genuine productions of literature, instead of being occupied by the daily bungling commonplace persons.
Hence, in regard to reading, it is a very important thing to be able to refrain. Skill in doing so consists in not taking into one’s hands any book merely because at the time it happens to be extensively read; such as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which make a noise, and may even attain to several editions in the first and last year of their existence. Consider, rather, that the man who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience; be careful to limit your time for reading, and devote it exclusively to the works of those great minds of all times and countries, who o’ertop the rest of humanity, those whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct. You can never read bad literature too little, nor good literature too much. Bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. Because people always read what is new instead of the best of all ages, writers remain in the narrow circle of the ideas which happen to prevail in their time; and so the period sinks deeper and deeper into its own mire
I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything ay once, so much so that I didn’t have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady, of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much as Doestoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I’ve read almost all of Henry James – from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.
From a letter by Flannery O’Connor.
The letter, dated 28 August, 1955, was addressed to a young woman who began writing O’Connor after reading her work. Their correspondence lasted until O’Connor’s early death in 1964, and, as editor Sally Fitzgerald notes in The Habit of Being (where the letter is published), the letters to this woman (identified only as “A,” as she wished to remain anonymous) are particularly rich, in that all O’Connor “had to say to this almost uniquely important friend did not go up in talk but had to be written down.”
So of course I’ve been eating up Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, a new critical study by Bolaño’s translator Chris Andrews. I’ve read the introduction and the first three chapters so far, and the study, far from being dry and academic, compels me to dig deeper.
The book really starts with the second chapter, with Andrews simply trying to situate Bolaño-as-publishing-phenomenon in the first chapter. The introduction—which you can read at publisher Columbia UP’s site—offers a clear overview of what Andrews aims to do.
Andrews writes that:
…the interconnected series of narratives that begins with Nazi Literatures in the Americas (originally published in 1996) and ends with the stories that appeared posthumously in The Secret of Evil … can be regarded as forming a single, openly structured edifice whose two sustaining pillars are The Savage Detectives and 2666, and for which Woes of the True Policeman served as a preparatory model.
Andrews’s description recalls Javier Moreno’s geometry of Bolaño’s fictions:
This model has greatly influenced my own reading of Bolaño over the years, leading to my conceptualization of Bolaño’s later work existing in a self-creating, self-deconstructing Bolañoverse.
Andrews’s description of the Bolañoverse (he doesn’t use the term):
Bolaño expanded or “exploded” his own published texts, blowing them up by adding new characters and episodes as well as circumstantial details. He also allowed characters to circulate or migrate from text to text, sometimes altering their names and properties. Within his novels and stories, he inclded representations of imagined texts and artworks, that is, metarepresentations. Finally, some of his characters and narrators are over-interpreters: they seize on details, invest them with significance, and invent stories to connect and explain them.
More to come; for now, the publisher’s blurb:
Since the publication of The Savage Detectives in 2007, the work of Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003) has achieved an acclaim rarely enjoyed by literature in translation. Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.
Andrews provides new readings and interpretations of Bolaño’s novels, including 2666, The Savage Detectives, and By Night in Chile, while at the same time examining the ideas and narrative strategies that unify his work. He begins with a consideration of the reception of Bolaño’s fiction in English translation, examining the reasons behind its popularity. Subsequent chapters explore aspects of Bolaño’s fictional universe and the political, ethical, and aesthetic values that shape it. Bolaño emerges as the inventor of a prodigiously effective “fiction-making system,” a subtle handler of suspense, a chronicler of aimlessness, a celebrator of courage, an anatomist of evil, and a proponent of youthful openness. Written in a clear and engaging style, Roberto Bolano’s Fiction offers an invaluable understanding of one of the most important authors of the last thirty years.