A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial note: I’d been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while, and when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the second part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. We discuss the book’s conclusion, including what some people might think of as “spoilers.”

Read part one of our discussion of  Flee.

The tl;dr version of all of this: Both Ryan and I loved Flee, a 2013 novel about the citizens of a New England town who, uh, flee, for reasons never made entirely clear I claim that “Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08.” Ryan called it a book “for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.” And I agree with him. — ET]

Ryan Chang: Right–Flee doesn’t prescribe a future, or at least an alternative future. “841” testifies to this. The A-burgian upstakers are no different from the new settlers, rejoicing in the bargains to be had in the town. Carol and Marcus quietly disappear (Spoiler alert). Flee is overall hesitant to prescribe, I think. In my previous e-mail, I was thinking out loud a bit, trying to see if something in the book was pointing to these spaces of the “nonidentical” as Adorno calls it; that Flee as an aesthetic object figures, in exactly what isn’t said, the suffocating presence that squeezes the life out of A-burg, could figure a moment of possibility in absence. Some kind of fracture that, even if it is a failure (as A-burg is, I think), is a temporary moment of reprieve from the administered life.

I’m not sure what the forms of Kimball’s “radical forgiveness” and “hospitality” would be, if he points to them — especially of the former. And is it only that the literary artists get to have all the fun of democracy? Exactly where does democratic critique happen off the page? I’m wondering because it seems that the form of popular critique — save from public protest and other distortions of space — are infected with exploitative capital, with ideology, unwittingly going along with the system that saves the banks before humanity. Additionally: to whom–or what–is forgiveness granted? Hospitality seems more tangible to me, but the phrases Yes? Who’s There? imply exclusion rather than inclusion to me. As if at the door of democracy, the speaker hesitates. Should not a radical affirmation continually say yes rather than no at the door? The questioning yes is skeptical. I wonder if a self-consciousness and -becoming out of administration is required. The molectular make-up of the present absence that suffocates A-Burg and, implicitly, whatever other small town, would have to be transposed, if you like, into another key. To mention Lerner again (briefly) — do you remember that scene in the book, with the first hurricane, the (eventually fictional) threat of Irene destroying the infrastructure as a moment when disparate communities — who would otherwise keep to themselves, much like the voices in Flee – begin convening? That was just a way of getting to the epigraph of the book: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

Or have I misread the Kimball?

For Horkheimer & Adorno, it rests in this nigh-messianic shift of perception of our past and our future that glimpse, momentarily, a humanity (as it stood, for them, there was no humanity. Only administration). I am reading a chapter from Ulrich Plass’ Language and History in Theodor W. Adorno’s ‘Notes to Literature’ for another class right now. Here is Plass, on a theme in Adorno’s essay “The Essay as Form”:

​…[One] can scarely fail to hear an echo of one of the most persistent themes of Adorno’s essay, namely, the theme of the universal realization of homelessness beginning–mythologically–with Odysseus, and fulfilled–negatively–with the destruction and displacement brought about by administratively organized terror and destruction.

​Indeed we commence in homelessness, and the appropriation of Enlightenment ideals by capital gave us another myth — that of progress; in the American key, that of suburbia, of the family, that of the home — that was always tenuous, contingent to the illusion of stability produced from unceasing economic growth. This is the narrative momentum in Flee. Here, perhaps, Kimball is helpful, because I was about to type: “Adorno’s catastrophe isn’t immediately ours,” but that is a problematic sentence because it is immediately ours. It is humanity’s destruction writ as large as no one could imagine. I am all for radical affirmation, but does Kimball’s democracy have a border? Is it the door? Is it the Yes? Who’s There? And if Flee is such a critique–I agree with you–does it also achieve a kind of shifted consciousness, does it see democracy differently?

Perhaps “X” could be such a moment. It is a dark, dark chapter. It’s cruel and all-too-real. The way Dara reels us in with Marcus. The hope and then the gradual subsumption into the market, that his affective attachments know no other way except participation in the very system that destroyed whatever sense of home A-burg produced. And the shims — stand-ins for that sense of home, but really showing in staggering, violent relief that there is no home. Only–wait for it–fungible units of potential profit. If I can interpret out of Chapter “X” what Dara is trying to figure: a failure. Marcus, though we’re sympathizing with him, isn’t that much different from the rest of the squanderers, right? He’s one of the few left with a job, but it isn’t clear exactly why he keeps working. The infrastructure has stopped — didn’t the municipality shut down the gas lines or something? Who’s coming to check the lights? But he works, in some vain hope of a redemption, which is the myth that Americans are sold. Even in the face of nigh-complete abandonment, Marcus is still plugging away. There’s a moment earlier in the book when a voice is waxing off about the ritual of ritual — what’s needed of Marcus is not to start a new collective within the system — especially in the language and forms that avail itself to usurpation by City Hall (ie., “Hire Ground”) — but to fail. I have been trying, parallel to our conversation (or perhaps inside the conversation; I’m not sure, I’m putting this here in case we have to edit this whole sentence out) to think of “841” as the punctuation mark of the Too-Big-To-Fail allegory, perhaps in Benjamin’s sense (the death’s head allegory, that it is the trace evidence of catastrophe). The promise in the negativity of “X” is that it is wholly different from the A-Burg we know for the whole book. As the town repopulates — the chance is lost for the circumstances that blows away the suffocating present-absence in the town. Radical affirmation and inclusivity could have presented themselves as the only option for the re-build of a home. I’m going off of this because of its temporal setting — had the banks failed, who could’ve known what the future would’ve been? The new future, in the absence of administration? No one, which is frightening, but it is at exactly that edge that could’ve also promised something better.

So: that Flee doesn’t prescribe, but virtualizes (especially in “X”), is a good thing: it points elsewhere, outside of the book, beyond our experience of time. To the possibility of a possibility, maybe? But the Kimball is apt: critique must be incessant, and literature is its strongest force.

What did you think of “X”?

Edwin Turner: Well I loved “X.” It’s almost like a perfect little sci-fi short story—almost like a Twilight Zone episode minus the pulp. I wonder how reading it first—or even on its own—would change the reading experience.

You’re right that Dara reels us in with Marcus, who’s been there at the peripheries of the novel. He becomes the protagonist that the Hire Ground crew simply couldn’t become. Marcus’s failure is fascinating. He tries to practice a kind of radical gratitude, but there’s a sense—especially at the end of “X”—that his gratitude is solipsistic, narcissistic—masturbatory even. We learn early in the chapter that he jerks off to mental images of Laura Linney, who later turns up in one of the gratitude mantras he recites before falling asleep. His gratitude prayer is really a form of consolation—hedonistic consolation at that.

And of course he fails at the end of “X” to perform—I’ll go back to Kimball via Derrida here—radical hospitality to Carol. He can’t affirm her existence—can’t ask her, “Yes?” When he does sort of have a breakdown and realizes his failure, it’s kind of too late, I think. He transmits his gratitude through a medium. Like the neighbor whom he shares music with, or the lights that he watches dance at night, there’s a lack of real human connection here. Marcus’s experience of gratitude is wholly internalized. He wants to share but can’t. When he does actually have an opportunity to talk to someone (outside the old record store), he’s belligerent. He can’t turn his imaginative conception of gratitude into action.

And yet I don’t think Dara is condemning him, or satirizing his efforts. Marcus is an idealist, even though his will to self-improvement eclipses his wish to do unto others, to help others (and save the town, too). Marcus’s epiphany is entirely secular, it seems to me, despite his wishes for transcendence. The big-G he latches onto is Gratitude, not God, although I think he’d like the G to name both, to be the name of the name. Indeed, Dara elides references to churches in A-burg—he shows us only stores, commerce, and government. Notations of the spirit, when they appear, are othered, non-Western—the Tibetan prayer wheel, for example, which gives people access to “the ritual of the ritual” (the spirit of the spirit—an abyssal structure, to use another Derridean term). Later, Marcus invokes Sumerian cosmology, gamelan music, and the “Indonesian creed that God is found in dissonance.” In the next line, the narrator—finely tuned into Marcus’s reeling consciousness—tells us that our hero’s “G-energy is becoming limitless.” I read the line ironically. Marcus’s will is to transcend, to find a gratitude that says, Yes yes yes, Thanks thanks thanks, outside of a human economy (time and place)—but this is impossible. He wants to be radically open to a transcendence-to-come, but fails when it arrives at his door. He closes, he rejects. His gratitude is ultimately limited to/by his imagination and his memory.

The most interesting moment of “841” for me—and I agree with you that it punctuates the book, returns the narrative to a kind of normalized continuum—are the notations about the families from Sierra Leone. What do you make of that?

RC: I didn’t catch the Linney connection, which is brilliant; I totally agree with your reading of “X.” There are a lot of ways to think about how “X” juxtaposes itself with the rest of the chapters. It names itself as a literary artifact/time stamp with the Roman numeral but also separates itself from that narrative because it doesn’t fit perfectly in the novel’s structure, both linguistically and architecturally. You’re right that Marcus becomes the protagonist that Hire Ground couldn’t be. It’s interesting to think of Hire Ground against Marcus vis. their narrative function, because their plot lines are about how they can’t practice hospitality, or don’t have the tools in which to practice it. They’re failed forms of coupling, of the base minimum unit of collectivity in A-Burg. Hire Ground figures this failed family unit. Carol and Rick are a couple of convenience, of [produced] necessity, wonderfully noted in Dara’s choice to have Carol always say “man,” like they’re bros, after sex. They attempt to practice a radical hospitality by accepting Ian, no questions asked, but HG falls apart for two reasons. Firstly, that Marcus & Rick’s hospitality is almost masturbatory; they’re self-preserving via the HG scheme, taking advantage of a bad situation and turning it into a profit for themselves; it’s why John from City Hall eagerly wants to contract them into municipal work. Secondly, Ian is a kind of orphan, his own fleeing confirms that he was never interested in rebuilding the town. Of practicing hospitality. So too: Rick. HG isn’t making him money, so he skips town for an academic job. All this as if to say that the family can’t work in the way that neoliberalism sells it as. They’re being sold a form of the family through the vocabulary of business, but it can’t work, because it’s grounded in self-preserving narcissism.

It’s a similar trajectory for Marcus, but something is much more sinister about “X.” You’re right that Dara isn’t condemning him; I think the narrative sympathizes with him. Pities him. Because his mode of practicing hospitality is too embedded, like HG, in idioms of neoliberalism. It is a (western) secular realization, for sure; the book never explicitly mentions a western theological system or God or Jesus or anything like that. The pairing of hospitality vs. “Eastern” traditions; Bertrand Russell; Omnilectics. It’s as if the book is trying to constellate, a la Benjamin, a different history for Marcus so he can make a future that is radically inclusive. But it ultimately fails.

For one, I think the difference in language between “X” and the rest of the novel is indicative. “X” and the interpellated Carol/Rick/Ian sequences are not afraid to name. To say, to express, whereas the rest of the chapters can’t. They categorically can’t define, can’t definitively say this is the bad thing, and that is the solution. How they’re unified is in the emdash, the hesitation-interruption; it is a negative marker of collectivity, all in the not-said. “X” and the HG sequences, in their ease of expression, show that there’s something else that’s limiting them. I’ll try to connect this to the line you cite about G-Energy. I agree, it should be read ironically, because the irony is that once that force that’s beyond space & time (Kimball’s transcendental future) is named, it is no longer transcendent. It’s a name, and it’s syntax is something that might be found for a private Yoga studio or on the bottle of a Dr. Bronner’s competitor. Language can’t communicate, it’s a limit, yes yes yes… So becoming attuned to that “presence of presence,” the trace of the graffiti’s “we was here,” to its transcendental possibility of “we is everything,” means a kind of true communication. But what is that? I think that answer is in Kimball…Kimball’s theses seem to imply that a democracy — which is resonating with Whitman and Adorno, I think — is always a not yet. And Dara’s resonating frequency here is flickering in and out of it; literature as a virtualizing structure can’t even do this. But it can approach it. It has to asymptotically approach it (eg., “X”), and necessarily fail. Because language is a limit, will always be a limit.

It’s funny; it seems that both “X” and “841” both fall in step to a kind of weird correspondence. “841” is the 11th chapter, and this: “And, well, with so many people filing for Chapter 11 here, there were some very fine oppor–“. Filing for Chapter 11, an admission of bankruptcy–both financially and perhaps morally/spiritually–reproduces the momentum. There could be a reading that says that the Sierra Leone families are the patsies in a kind of commodified hospitality on the part of the government, that it’s another form of economic colonialism. A forced hospitality rebranded as hospitality, a “government program.” It’s also interesting that one of the voices says “…the British had to go in and get out all the foreigners” (234).

What do you think?

ET: I can’t believe I didn’t see that “X” was Ch. 10 and “841” was Ch. 11—yes, the bankruptcy thing, yes, totally—Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08. (He writes, having only read a few others—in fact, Auster’s somewhat forgettable Sunset Park  is all I can summon this minute).  I kept reading the title “X” as a kind of algebraic variable, an indefinite article set against the other chapters’ (seemingly solidly) referential titles.

And on referentiality/indefiniteness—-

I like that you’ve brought up the graffiti here—which, tellingly, Marcus mocks. The second graffito communicates—in the absence of its sender—and, as you rightly state, points to a transcendental wish in three perfect parts: the “we” (who?), an “is” that seems to transcend copular status, and then that oh-so-indefinite pronoun everything. Marcus fails to read through its possibilities: We is everything; We is everything; We is everything—etc. But why should Marcus try on different readings? He’s human.

Your note that the families from Sierra Leone might represent a “forced hospitality rebranded as hospitality” reminds me that the etymological root of “host” is “ghostis,” meaning stranger. This root also give us hostility, hospital, hostage….and it encapsulates the strange relationship between host and the hosted (as Derrida has written about in Of Hospitality and elsewhere). “Pure,” open, absolute–indefinite—hospitality is never fully possible—it requires always a dominance, an enforcing of boundaries on the part of the host—an imposing of definitions. The Sierra Leoneons help, perhaps, to define the “new” A-burgians (the “A,” its own algebraic variable) as the “rightful” (dominant) hosts. The hegemonic culture reifies itself in this way, through the specter of the other—here is “the reproduction of the momentum,” perhaps.

At the same time there’s a kind of sympathy there that some of the “new” A-burgians evoke towards the families from SL—but, yes, a sympathy doubled in the power of the host to be sympathetic, a sympathy that is not radical openness to any kind of future (any kind of we, or democracy, or whatever). Again, I’m not sure if this is condemnation as much as it is description. “841” returns us to the emdash, a technique that “unifies” (to use your term) the otherwise (supposedly) heteroglossic/polyphonic voices of Flee. The emdash is “hesitation-interruption,” but it also links,unifies (maybe). There are two sides to its pole, and if they push the words apart they can also link the words together.

Final thoughts of Flee? Good book? Who’s it for?

RC: We had a lot to talk about in Flee. There’s so much else that didn’t get addressed, because it couldn’t: Marcus’ theory that goes beyond dialectical thought, that goes beyond Boethian idealism and Hegel’s dialectics, the latter a system in which most, if not all, of the understanding of western thought and history has been filtered through. Whatever Omnilectics is. Bruegel. The Bertrand Russell quote I couldn’t track down. How does that constellation of artists and thinkers function? What is Dara giving is here? Who’s Ezra? Neil?

I’m beginning to shift my reading of “X,” slightly. Upon re-reading, it seems that Marcus has always been invested in a kind of masturbation. The radical gratitude is the myth itself, not a salve against the deserted town, nor the the way I had it before. It seemed that, initially, it had been something very genuine for Marcus, hence our connection to him as a character, the devastating outcome. But that the system subsumes it because of Marcus’ no-recourse, that it is always there in front of us for the entire chapter, is even more devastating. What’s eliminated is the narrative’s pity. See here: he mentions that he’ll set up a charitable fund for the Second Congo War. That he’ll market A-Burg as a backdrop for any movie. Also note in this small paragraph the return of the emdash. It is a signal of his return of the distended voices we’ve grown accustomed to for most of the novel, and a sliver of what Marcus’ “true” motivations are…

I liked this book a lot. I haven’t read The Lost Scrapbook or The Easy Chain, but Flee was incredibly rewarding…a strong, strong book. There’s not only attention paid to the aesthetic of the novel — the rhythms of the individual sentence, the tightly woven constellation-form of the book — but to its commitment to resisting easy narrative closure, to give the audience what it wants: pure entertainment, pure release from the tension of everyday life. This is not to say its function is primarily polemical or pedagogical. This was definitely a book that sucked me in and fucked with me a bit, and at the end, it said, “Okay, but it’s not really okay. But we have books.” This book is for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.

ET: That’s a lovely description there, your last line—I feel like I should let it be the last line of the conversation, but the structure here is me replying to you, so: Yes, this is a book for people whole books to fuck with them and be their friend.

Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close Is a Tranquil Visual Poem

A few weekends ago, I spent several days primitive camping on a tiny, rocky island off Cape Canaveral. The weather was miserable and the fishing was poor, but the company and bourbon offered cheer. Still, by the time I got home I was terribly sore, thoroughly damp, and inhabited by one of those hangovers that sets up shop inside one’s soul as a kind of second-consciousness, coloring the world a dreadful surreal blue. I wanted to see my family, but they were out playing tennis. There was a small stack of packages waiting for me though—review copies for this blog—with Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close neatly nestled atop. After showering, I lay on my soft soft bed in the afternoon, read through the brief poem-novel-comic, and drifted into a gentle warm hazy nap. It was the most marvelous medicine. Sublime.

I read Birchfield Close again later that night and then every night for a week. McNaught’s work—see his longer novel Dockwood—is its own aesthetic experience: Minimal, gentle, tranquil, but also evocative and complex. Birchfield Close is (maybe) the (non-)story of two lads who climb upon a roof and spend the day observing (or not observing) their neighborhood.

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They see birds and people, dogs and snails, balloons and bikes (etc.), all rendered in gentle gradations of orange-pink and grey-blue and black-black.

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In one of my favorite little episodes, one boy reaches for a branch. His imagination transmutes the branch into a rifle, and a play-shooting spree ensues.

Birchfield Close is comprised entirely of such moments, yet none of its episodes feel discrete. Rather, each panel pushes (pushesThat’s not the right verb!) into the next, a miniature gesture that creates—that somehow is—the entire work. The effect is soothing.

I’ve read Birchfield Close a dozen times now (read? Is that the right verb?), and I’m still (happily) unsure what commentary McNaught might be making on media. The story is full of images of “entertainments” that may or may not be at odds with the neighborhood’s ambiance: a handheld video game, a banal soap opera, a pop song on the radio. In another favorite episode, we move from rooftop to an airplane flying through the sky to the actual inside of the airplane, where a passenger watches Nemo’s reunion with his overprotective father. On the next page, we are treated to the imaginative forms that the clouds might take—formations that the airplane passenger, wrapped up in viewing Finding Nemo on a tiny headrest screen, perhaps misses. But if there’s a judgment here, McNaught seems to leave it to the viewer to suss out. As we pan back down to the boys on the roof, we see that one remains watching the clouds, shaping them in his imagination (or perhaps he’s sharing an imaginative vision with the airplane passenger), while the other boy has returned to his own tiny screen to play a fighting game. He misses the sunset.

Or does he miss the sunset? Maybe it’s simply part of his own aesthetic experience with the game, a peripheral, environmental occurrence, one he enjoys as transitory and ambient, an event promised to repeat again and again. I like this second reading more, as it fits neatly with my own reading experience of Birchfield Close—the book is an ambient aesthetic experience, calming but quizzical, deeply enjoyable—physical: light, color, the touch of the fine thick paper. I’ve tried to capture some of that reading experience here but have undoubtedly failed. Better you read see think feel for yourself.

Birchfield Close and other books by Jon McNaught are available from the good people at Nobrow Press.

A rambling and possibly incoherent riff on Inherent Vice (film and novel) and The Crying of Lot 49

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A. The first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice, I was in the middle of rereading Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn’t read in fifteen years. I remembered the novel’s vibe, its milieu, but not really its details.

B. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and then immediately reread it. It seemed much stronger the second time—not nearly as silly. Darker. Oedipa Maas, precursor to Doc Sportello, trying not to lose the thread as she leaves the tower for the labyrinth, rushing dizzy into the sixties.

C. Another way of saying this: Inherent Vice is sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. Any number of details substantiate this claim (and alternately unravel it, if you wish, but let’s not travel there)—we could focus on the settings, sure, or maybe the cabals lurking in the metaphorical shadows of each narrative—is The Golden Fang another iteration of The Tristero?—but let me focus on the conclusions of both novels and then discuss the conclusion of PTA’s film.

D. A favorite line from a favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49: “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” Paranoia as a kind of sustained hope, a way to find meaning, order, a center.

E. The final pages of The Crying of Lot 49 find Oedipa trying to make sense of the labyrinth (my emphases in bold):

For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty (as Mucho now believed) or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

There is either meaning, or there is not meaning. Continue reading

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)

[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while nowand when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the first part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: So you’re reading Evan Dara’s Flee for a class, right? What’s the name of the class again? What are some of the other texts in the class?

Ryan Chang: Yeah, a class called 21st Century Fiction: What is Contemporary? We started out reading Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. We just finished reading Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (awful), and we’re moving onto Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Everything, up to Pynchon, has as its central conflict the dissolution of the subject vis. the postmodern. Perhaps because of the spatialization of time (Egan, Reed) or a steroidal fungibility of a self because of technology (Chaon). The awareness of how deeply we are disciplined by master narratives (Acker). We’ve yet to get to Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I’m looking forward to after the Chaon and Egan who, in their attempt to write novels critical of the contemporary (more so of Egan, who does nothing but neuter the very real state of late capitalism’s terror into entertainment), do not make it past the merely interesting. I liked the Egan much less than the Chaon; part of the problem is the prose style, I think — it’s characteristically white American, shaped by sentimentality and preoccupied with the syntax of conventional form. In other words, the blueberry muffin prose styles betray the experimental forms in which they’re enveloped.

ET: I always have to look up the word fungibility. Dara’s Flee seems to fit into that early theme you mention, the conflict of the dissolution of the subject, which is both the book’s formal rhetorical strategy, but also its plot program, encapsulated (maybe) on page 45: “What is the weight of we?” What do you make of Dara’s style here? Like initial impression?

RC: I’m about ~40 pages in. I think I mentioned in the Books Acquired thing I wrote that Dara, stylistically, is hitting hard on Gaddis. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the late Gaddis — Carpenter’s Gothic. (Agape Agape, too, but this is, of course, his letter to Bernhard.) I like that both focus on voice, on streams of speech that collide or blur into each other. The Gaddis influence is more of an echo than anything.
Specifically re: Dara — the interruptions, digressions and hesitations immediately struck me as something like a Tragic Greek chorus that, having incurred some sort of its own trauma (and not acting only as the all-knowing unconscious of the play), is completely disoriented, confused of its own purpose. But amidst the cacophony–or something like a directed cacophony towards the reader–they are still unwittingly functioning as a chorus. They’re giving us the stage for Flee’s story, hinting quietly at the book’s central plot conflict. Also naming characters (Carol, Rick, Marcus, etc), which is now more intriguing to me at the passage from p.45 you mention. What’s also different in Carpenter’s Gothic is, while that whole book remains on one diegetic level (as far as I can remember, it’s been a few years) because no narrator ever announces itself, in Dara, there’s a blurring of diegetic arenas, a refusal to centralize any narrative authority. Ok, so, re: dissolution of the subject: It seems that not only are the chorus members interrupting themselves, but they’re also interrupting the narrator as well. Each left-margin emdash cuts the narrator off, in a way, if you will. That scene when they’re pitying Rick, acting as a narrator with dialogue tags. The commonly individuated voice of the narrator is subsumed into the characters’ diegetic arena; a tension between the collective and individual implicit in prose structure alone. It also seems, by “36,551,” that whatever the population is fleeing from is not collectively driven (ie., the pity for Mark’s poorly planned meetings for something, we don’t know what yet), but selfishly driven. And in the flattening power of numbers, that selfishness — a hermetic individuality — becomes collective. There is a kind of infinite distance between I and we that, perhaps, the book is trying to trace? Or its relationship in the temporality of the novel is a perpetual expanding/contracting relationship, like a rubber band?

As far as I am in the book, the interruptions and digressions also have a hysteria to them that points to something the chorus is ignoring even in the face of the beginnings of a series of rude awakenings. Each voice just bemoans this dissolution of themselves; but, especially in the scene where Rick is, like, torn apart for his idea in service of the township, each voice is just narcissistically concerned with how it’s going to inconvenience them, rather than the potential worth of Rick’s idea.

ET: I teach an introductory American lit class, and today we were talking about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which I think offers this wonderful example of a first-person plural narrator, this kind of limited chorus that is not-quite omniscient, not-quite omnipresent, and hardly omnipotent. It’s this weird we that seems able to transcend time, but not space—it can live for more than eighty years but it can’t see into Emily Grierson’s house. Its limitations are human; its limitations are the limitations of all the members of a community. I had your email in the back of my head while I was riffing on all this today—that, yes, the we is this fiction that we all subscribe to (hey look, I just used it!)—it’s our linguistic tag for culture, religion, whatever—but it requires some other—a you, I guess, that we can all point to, an Emily Grierson that’s only part of the we by paradoxically not being a part of the we, by defining the weFlee doesn’t seem to have that other, at least not in the first seven chapters anyway, although it does foreground two protagonists in Rick and Carol—something that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook does not do. The Lost Scrapbook is far more polyglossic than Flee also, which again reminds me of Faulkner’s story in its unified we-ness—Flee‘s narrative voice somehow unifies entropy, breakdown, the chaotic rumbling becomes this throbbing tone of dissolution (“There’s no here here,” page 79), where the narcissistic flight of each member of the community paradoxically underwrites the viability of a community, the possibility of a community… Continue reading

Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’s novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

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.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine. Continue reading

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Film Birdman Reviewed

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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman relies heavily on a central stylistic conceit: The film unfolds as one continuous uninterrupted shot, the camera unblinking, restlessly moving after Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who has put everything he has—financially, physically, mentally—into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The shot isn’t really continuous (any savvy viewer will spot the cuts), but the effect is powerful and engaging early on, especially when Keaton shares the lens with Edward Norton, who plays Mike, a wild foil to Keaton’s Riggan. Mike is the artist, the theater actor, the method actor, the real deal; Riggan is just a celebrity—or rather was a celebrity, the star of the Birdman franchise. The nod to Keaton’s Batman films is not even a nod, but one of several meta-crutches that Iñárritu rests all the film’s supposed “weight” on. Birdman wants to be heavy, but it feels hollow. Good thing it’s always in motion.

Birdman suffers by comparison to a handful of other films, notably Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark in particular. Sokurov’s film, also filmed in one continuous take, does a finer job plumbing the mysteries of aesthetics (and any of aesthetics’ supposed nemeses) than Birdman. Sokurov’s film also bewilders, where Birdman’s contours are fairly familiar stuff. Another film that stages (and restages) what Birdman would like to be doing with more force is Charlie Kaufman’s deeply flawed and very brilliant film Synecdoche, New York, an alienating study of art, performance, and audience.

Of course I’ve just done exactly what Keaton’s Riggan howls against late in Birdman’s second act. He confronts the theater critic who has promised to kill his play, screaming that she, as a critic, takes no risks, puts nothing on the line. Her words are just labels; all she does is make weak comparisons. Has Iñárritu built a defense into this scene? Are we to empathize with Keaton’s Riggan? Or with Norton’s Mike? Or with the other characters whom Riggan alternately alienates and draws back in, including his ex-wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his co-star, and his best friend? Or maybe we empathize with Riggan’s Birdman, the voice that haunts him, the voice that haunts itself into existence?

Anchored by fantastic performances—what a joy to see Keaton carry a movie again—great cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki , and a jazz percussion score, Birdman is an entertaining way to pass two hours, but the profundity it seeks in its final moments simply isn’t there. The film’s formal structuring device, the uninterrupted shot, would like to penetrate its hero’s consciousness, but always seems to fail, necessitating voice-over or dialogue to clumsily underline the main idea. (Should I unfairly contrast this weakness with the far more powerful long-takes in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void? No? Okay). Birdman strives to explore the tangle between art and entertainment, but at the end we’re left with yet another Hollywood satire of ego and celebrity. Birdman is amusing when it seeks to be penetrating, clever when it seeks to be profound. And it made Raymond Carver’s story look like lurid dinner theater. But these are just labels.

I review my review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice an hour before seeing PTA’s film adaptation

I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.

I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).

Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.

inherent_vice

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice

Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.

is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.

“genre exercise”…”madcap”…ugh!

Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.

Not a bad little summary, bro.

At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.

Uh…

And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,

Clichés, bro.

Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.

Uh…

If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).

At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Oh geez.

Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon—which I loved. (See also: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

What crap.

A talking dog?

I made a mistake.

Dialogue that is meaningless?

But what is the point of this story?

Pynchon is simply messing around

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Rarely have I anticipated a book so hungrily.

Lost me at the talking dog, and never recovered.

I’ve also seen Pynchon praised for his erudition.

You think a talking dog or mechanical duck is funny?

Supposedly it’s a literary adventure through the 18th century

George Washington smoking pot and getting the munchies?

I consider my myself a reader who relishes literary challenges.

I am a reader who enjoys being bluntly told what the author thinks

The only book I’ve ever read that was a complete waste of time !

just an endless series of unconnected and unrelated ramblings…

Yes, it was a different world back then, and people talked funny (to our ear).

The publisher should have left the trees to grow rather than putting this in print.

I had to finish it – but resorted to scanning the text for references to my 7th great grandfather.

Pynchon is like strolling through a garbage dump full of meaningless, forgotten pop culture relics.

Wow, I give up on Mr. Pynchon who apparently has some intergalactic literary insights well above my head.

Regretfully, I’ll need to wait for the english language translation before properly assessing this novel’s merits.

Thomas Pynchon surely must have been smoking something more powerful than plain tobacco when he wrote this debacle…

I admit to approaching this book with a great deal of reverence, along with guilt for never having attempted either “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Mr.Pynchon may be considered one of today’s great writers by the cosmopolitan literati, but this provencial reader found his work to be a 773 page morass of archaic vernacular with no particular point.

I would like to assert, however, as one who has read quite deeply in English prose of the last 400 years, that the much-praised “18th-century English” is nothing like, being full of anachronisms and lapses of decorum.

Pynchon doesn’t descibe. He makes lists of objects, as if the acculation of things or people surrounding the characters is enough to create some semblance of reality, or alternate reality, or hyperreality or whatever.

I am in the vast minority, obviously, who “didn’t get it.” Some times I wonder if reviewers, too “didn’t get it” but were afraid to say so, because this conglomeration of words is just that – a pointless, incomprehensible waste of trees.

My Tedium never Ceases, yet have I only Dredged thru half of this Tome. My eyes grow Tir’d and my Thoughts grow more hateful towards this Author. History is barely Reveal’d and the style has Vex’d me thru and thru. Hemp smoking Franklin? Confus’d and Stupid Astronomers? Half the book not spent in the country of interest? Yet I plod on, making a use of this Fantastique tale, to knaw away at the Minutes spent in the loo. Wouldst it be quite the thing, if only the Paper t’was softer, I can then make of it a Cleansing Agent for my Posterior once Finished with each page.

It was evidently written for a limited audience–people who can actually read eighteenth century style prose and who still find jokes about “not inhaling” to be amusing.

Pynchon’s style is clotted, mannered, meretricious and UNpoetic in the extreme. Indeed, I think much of the book, in word and matter, is a stale exercise in collecting academic trivia and faddish modern-day truisms about the period.

To be sure, there is some real history reported, but there is also much nonsense and fakery–the first pizza, golems–and interminable, leaden dialogues that could never have taken place.

Really Pynchon was just showing off his “imagination” with endless derails, whimsical characters that didn’t figure into the story at all, and stupid jokes bathed in obscure jargon.

If you like rambling verbiage that not only obstructs but obliterates the point, you’ll love this author, whose neurotic word dribblings are gnosticed by critics to be visionary insights.

For all the scribblings in this book’s 800 some pages, 90% of it just feels like hot air lacking any real message or content.

One could read this book from front to back, back to front, or from the middle both ways and not be able to tell the difference..

I love sentimental literature but I couldn’t for the life of me see much connection between Pynchon’s writings and the major works of the 18th century.

I challenge any fan to give even one insight about life or the universe that they gleaned from Mason and Dixon..

Just because the gags are about the hollow earth theory does not make them any more than just gags.

The reader is presented with one choppy chapter after another, often with little or no context.

The book is a mess and sorely needed a large pair of scissors to trim out the inane chatter.

Thers’s an old phrase about good writing: show, don’t tell. Phynchon don’t show nothun’.

For years Pynchon has intrigued me as being one of the “bosses” of modern literature.

There’s no sense of place, no compelling plotline. The characterization is merely O.K.

Pynchon is all over the map willy nilly throwing out anything that diverts his attention.

In what way was this an homage, parody, or imitation of 18th century literature?

If Thomas Pynchon has a plot or a story line, he surely has hidden it very well..

To this day I do not know what the book was about and what was going on.

The overall scheme of the novel is stupid and amateurish.

Too hard to read for this master’s degree English teacher.

Hundreds of unrelated and disconnected characters too..

Some as ridiculous as a talking dog, and a robot duck…

This book is a waste of time and paper.

What is all this supposed to mean?

Honestly, this book is just annoying.

The first pizza made in England?

Clearly, the fault is mine.

Wicks Cherrycoke?

Big @#$%ing deal.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. (See also: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

There were too many details

no plot, lousy tales, and distant characters.

Gnerally, I am extremely open-minded about other cultures,

Don’t buy this unless you need it for some reason out of your control.

DOES THIS GUY EVEN KNOW WHAT THE FUDGE HE IS TALKING ABOUT!

I read two chapters and quit It was horrible, and I say BAH!!!!!!!!!BAH!!!!!!!and a BOOOOOOOO!!!!!

This is one of those “politically correct” books they force you to read in school, in hope of “broadening our horizons” and “opening our minds.”

The main character had a lot of mental problems, including violence, chauvinism, and overambition to become the ‘model citizen’ of his tribe. I had no sympathy for him, neither should you.

Throught the book the auther keeps bringing in new charecters that have almost the identicle spelling of another and it gets very confusing

While Chinua Achebe claims to be an African freedom activist, her(? I can never figure out these new-fangled names) style of writing is stereotypical of the reactionary Brench and their quest to retain Africa.

The author seems to have some sort of infatuation with yams, because the entire book revolves around idiotic descriptions of yams and characters struggling with their declining yam output.

I found this story went no where, there were no real accomplishments done by the main character, his could have check in to an asylum for a year, dealt with his tribal issues, what he missed out on as a kid, came back to his tribe and really made a difference with his people. Instead, we just see some ones life that just gets worse.

This story could have been told in about 20 pages, but streches out into a full book that finally makes a point in the very last pages. Achebe’s work needs some fine tuning.

Why coudln’t they just at least change the names you could at least pronoucne it, ne ways if you plan on reading it, your want lots of time, so u can understand it.

“THINGS FALL APART” IS LIKE ABOUT A GUY WHO GROWS YAMS AND BEATS HIS FAMILY, AND IT JUST TALKS ABOUT THAT THE WHOLE TIME ITS A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE BOOK!

Almost nothing happens for the first 100 pages except we find out that he has three wives and he beats his kids. GREAT, That took 100 pages to say!!

If your looking for a good novel about African people by an African writer, it’s not here. Try Toni Morrison.

Anyone with sense would be rooting for the imperialists by the end of this book.

the writer is only famous because he is a minority.

the story have no point at all.

It draged on and on.

It was like reading a quick obituary.

the names are way too hard to pronounce.

All you never wanted to know about yams… and other such things

This book is way too confusing for the average reader (I am an honors student) and even the more advanced reader would find difficulty reading this book.

Better by far to have young atudents enjoy ayn rand tom woods and john allison milton friedman and peter schiff adn be poastive free neterpirse and successful.

the only thing you’ll enjoy is saying Okwonko over and over again

This makes Africa look worse, not better….

No one cared about Okonkwo’s yams!

How DARE we let children read this book.

it just SUXED

In retrospect, the story lived up to it’s name.

A Very Short Review of Denis Johnson’s New Novel, The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.

Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:

Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.

Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.

More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Reviewed

I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.

I’ve tried.

I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).

want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.

Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.

9780804166744When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).

There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).

What is the book about?

Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.

Okay, but:

What is the book about?

Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:

In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.

In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.

Now in 2011’s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.

That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!

What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).

Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.

But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.

Stephen Collins’s Allegorical Fable The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil Reviewed

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Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.

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Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:

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Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.

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Poor Dave.

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The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.

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The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.

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In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.

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The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.

I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.

Phantoms and Ghosts in DFW’s Novel The Pale King (Ghost Riff 2)

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The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”

Okay.

So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?

Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.

The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.

(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).

In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”

In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.

“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”

The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:

Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.

(Thank you, narrator—who are you?!—for mediating the phantom’s speech and Dean’s misauditing of that speech). Continue reading

David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work

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David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweepingambitious, genre-skeweringkaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodernmetatextualmetacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.

Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):

The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.

“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”

“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”

“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”

“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”

“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”

Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.

“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.

See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section after young Holly’s story.

Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.

Continue reading

Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull Reviewed

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Sugar Skull concludes the trilogy that Charles Burns began four years ago with X’ed Out (I reviewed it here) and its 2012 follow-up The Hive (I reviewed it here).

In X’ed Out, Burns introduces us to his protagonist Doug, a would-be art-punk poet whose Burroughsesque sound-collage performances are misunderstood by everyone but Sarah, a troubled artist whose photographs and installations reverberate with menacing violence. We first find Doug in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma involving Sarah and her tyrannical boyfriend—a trauma that Sugar Skull must and does answer to. The trauma transports Doug from his dead father’s office, where he’s been hiding and popping pills, into a fever-dreamscape reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this world, Doug becomes Nitnit, his own features transmuted to the Tintin mask he wears when performing his cut-ups.

The Hive takes Doug/Nitnit even deeper into Interzone, into its subterranean caverns, gaping like tumorous wombs, while simultaneously moving the “real” Doug forward and backward in time, through his doomed relationship with Sarah and into the fallout of their split, where Doug short circuits.

Sugar Skull completes this circuit, offering readers the complete picture—and an exit out of Interzone—even as it dooms Doug/Nitnit to repeat the past. We find here the traumatic violence of love, death, begetting, and denial.

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The trilogy’s development evinces in Burns’s rich cover art. X’ed Out shows us young, skinny Doug, his head bandaged, his haircut an echo of Tintin’s cowlick. Wrapped in his dead father’s purple robe and set against utter wreckage, young Doug regards a massive egg, itself a visual echo of Tintin cover. The cover of The Hive shows us an older, heavier Doug, lost and confused in the abject uterine labyrinth of the Hive. In the lower-right corner—the same space the egg occupies on the cover of X’ed Out—lurks one of Interzone’s mutable mutants. This figure repeats in the trilogy, an amorphous being who shifts from Nitnit’s aide and familiar, to a dog stranded in a flood, to a piglet in a jar, to a massive breed-sow, to, perhaps, Doug’s father—and then Doug himself.

The figure opposite an older, fatter Doug on the cover of Sugar Skull condenses these roles into the emblem of death: it is at once the skeleton of the mutant, but also the frame of Doug’s dead father and the emblem of the symbolic infanticide at the core of the trilogy. And so we get the natural progression of life—from egg and embryo to a pink bundle of mobile cells to skeletal remains—set against an uncanny, chaotic backdrop.

Throughout the trilogy, Burns forces reader and Doug alike to navigate that chaos. The first two volumes in the series propelled the reader (and Doug, of course) through different times, different realities, sifting through the awful wreckage for clues, for a pattern, for an answer that might explain poor Doug’s trauma. By the beginning of Sugar Skull, our hero is finally equipped with a map to guide him through the underworld:

Page 10 from Burns_SUGAR SKULL“Why does this have to be so difficult?” our hero wonders. Because of repressed fear, anger, hurt—and failure. The real trauma, the secret trauma, of the trilogy is Doug’s radical failure. This failure keeps him up at night, both in waking sweat, but also in his Interzone, the fantasy world where the repressed returns, where his alter-ego Nitnit can play boy detective. And yet, as we see in Sugar Skull, Nitnit, dream warrior, is ultimately unequipped to right the wrongs of the past. He can only replay them in a dark, surreal space. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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X’ed Out and The Hive point repeatedly to the specter of violence and infanticide, both through implication in the dialogue as well as intense imagery. Both novels ominously arrange events that could only lead to the head wound that our hero sustains before the trilogy begins—a head wound that may or may not be a primary cause of Doug’s excursions into irreality.

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The infanticidal images that haunt the first two books pointed to a deeper mystery though, one beyond the physical violence Doug suffered. Those books hinted at abortion or miscarriage. But there are other ways to lose children.

Have I over shared the plot? Or am I hinting too vaguely? Reviewing my lines, it seems like I’ve said nothing at all, or perhaps dwelled on the first two books too much.

To simplify: Sugar Skull is sad and beautiful and strange and deeply human—this is not the tale of a doppelgänger’s adventures in wonderland, but rather the story of youth’s cowardice, of how we fail ourselves and others, how the versions of ourselves that we try to pin down—like Doug, who takes endless selfies with a Polaroid—are not nearly as stable as we might like them to be. Sugar Skull also explores how we cover over those instabilities and failures—I didn’t do those things; This isn’t happening to me.

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The final moments of Sugar Skull enact a shock to stability, to sense of self. Burns fulfills a narrative promise to his readers, and to Doug—one that, if I’m honest, was not what I had predicted at all—and then sends Doug’s altered-ego Nitnit into the desert wilds. The last few pages of Sugar Skull seem to borrow as much from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as they do from Hergés Tintin or William Burroughs.

And yet Doug passes through the wasteland to a refuge of sorts, the dream-double of two other settings that figure prominently in the trilogy, condensed into a place that is and is not. The setting mirrors Doug’s doomed double-consciousness, a consciousness condemned to repeat the same cycle, to respond again and again to the same terrifying call to nightmare-adventure.

I’ve neglected to comment on Burns’s wonderful art, mostly because I think it speaks for itself. His heavy inks and rich colors help unify the shift in styles that mark Doug’s movement between worlds. The trilogy would be worth the admission price alone just for the art, but Burns offers so much more with his storytelling. What’s perhaps most impressive is how thematically precise Burns’s images are—how panels, angles, shots, poses, gestures, and expressions repeat with difference from volume to volume. Burns uses these repeated images to subtly evoke his theme of cycles, doubles, and reiterations. In rereading we see again, recognize again—but from a different perspective.

And if Burns strands Doug/Nitnit in a loop of repetition, he also extends, perhaps, that same chance to his hero—to see again, but from a different perspective. If Sugar Skull forecloses the possibility of escape from the past, it doesn’t cut off a generative futurity. And as our protagonist awakes—again—to follow Inky into the strange wreckage of the past, many readers will feel prompted to follow the pair—again, and then again.

Sugar Skull is available now in hardback from Pantheon.

 

A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial noteThis is the second and final part of a discussion between Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and myself about Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04. You can read the first part of the discussion here, if you like—the gist of that conversation is that I am kinda sorta hating the book, while Ryan makes a strong case for my finishing it. Which I did. — ET].

Edwin Turner: Okay, Ryan, so I’m still having a hard time with the book, and I think that Hari Kunzru pins down why in his (diplomatic) review at The New York Times:

Does [the novel’s] ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.

I find the “hermetic undecidability” not so much unsettling—the proper rhetorical gambit to match the novel’s themes—but rather a dodge, an escape hatch even, to avoid adequately answering to the model that the narrator wants to find in Whitman. There’s this wonderful moment where the narrator says “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair” — and I take this to be something like the mission of the book — but the archness, the cleverness of the book, its frequent retreats away from (what I take to be) Whitman’s project (the kosmos, the roughneck with the unstopped throat) — I just don’t see much but a kind of stylized ennui (if not despair) about the “bad forms of collectivity” our narrator is forced (forces himself) to partake in.

My favorite moments of the book continue to be the essay passages, the art or literary theory that he spackles in—the riff on Peggy Noonan writing Reagan’s Challenger-explosion speech, the elements of borrowed language, etc. (Again, I’m almost the same age as Lerner. I was in Young Astronauts, and our field trip to Cape Canaveral was canceled because of inclement weather, so we watched it in the cafeteria—live. I did not understand what happened, but I remember my teachers crying).

Ryan Chang: Hey man, I just skimmed the NYT review—per the excerpt you provided—because I don’t want Kunzru clouding any of my response. It’s certainly a question I too grapple with, and I think Kunzru is right insofar that the question is “undecidable” but not for the reason(s) he suggests. I agree with you that he dodges the question, whether or not from editorial pressure or a reticence to actually address “hermetic undecidability.”

For one, I’m not sure myself if The Author ever arrives at the Whitmanic model of democracy he posits. I’m also not sure if he is supposed to “arrive” in the sense that a finality is set. I guess I also want to riff a bit on how finality might be described. Is finality then something static; as in, somehow 10:04 transmits–electrocutes, reverberates–through its readership, now coeval (the when negligent, the position of the reader enmeshed in the text is the same at 10 PM here as it is at 5 AM there), the novel’s theses and everything is suddenly Whitmanic? Community successfully reimagined and cemented? That sounds too easy, too convenient, too short-sighted. Or is it a kind of arrival into an embodiment of time that exists outside of conventional literary clocks, which is also a Market-based clock — it’s my sense that the kind of democracy Whitman envisions in his work is one constantly in flux, a “reality in process” and thus in opposition to the capitalist clock? That is, we know we are supposed to “stop” working at 5, the embodiment of the currency-based clock disappears after 5, but it’s a contrasting relationship. Our time outside of the currency then absorbs a negative value (I think The Author only mentions once or twice how we are all connected by our debt, a negativity projected into the future), though the illusion of the clock is that we are “free” in our time. OK: in a literary sense, wouldn’t this be a sense of a text’s world stopping, a suspension that retroactively pauses the whole book? That 10:04 ends not only with a dissolution of prose into poetry, but also The Author into Whitman and thus recasting the first-/third-person narrator into a lyric-poet mode suggests the book’s integration into our, the reader’s, time (and also, retroactively, the entirety of the text). In that sense, for me, the issue whether or not The Author of 10:04 integrates the book fully into a Whitmanic model is not necessarily the point — it is that he, and also we hopefully through him — actively participate in remaking a “bad form of collectivity” less so. Continue reading

Roman Muradov’s Enigmatic Graphic Novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found Reviewed

If you regularly read The New York Times or The New Yorker, you’ve probably already seen Roman Muradov’s compelling illustrations. If you’re a fan, you also know about his strange and wonderful Yellow Zine comics (and if you don’t know them, check out his adaptation of Italo Calvino).

Muradov’s début graphic novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found was released recently by Nobrow Press, and it’s a beauty—rich, imaginative, playful, and rewarding. And it smells good.

(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

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Although we’re told by the narrative script that our heroine F. Premise (faulty premise?) “awoke,” the surreal world Muradov creates in Lost and Found suggests that those “troubled dreams” continue far into waking hours. The story runs on its own internal dream-logic, shifting into amorphous spaces without any kind of exposition to guide the reader who is, in a sense, as lost as the protagonist becomes at times on her Kafkaesque quest.

What is F. Premise’s mission? To regain her innocence, perhaps, although only the initial narrative script and the punning title allude to “innocence.” The characters seem unable or unwilling to name this object; each time they mention it, their speech trails off elliptically, as we see when Premise’s father (?) confronts her at the breakfast table:

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Muradov’s imagery suggests Kafka’s bug again—the father’s antennae poke over the broadsheet he’s reading (the book is larded with readers), his strange mouth sagging out under it. Even more Kafkaesque though is Muradov’s refusal to reveal the father’s face, the face of authority, who sends his daughter back up to her room where she must remain locked away.

She sneaks out of course—would there be an adventure otherwise?—and it turns out that faceless father is right: F. Premise falls (literally) under the intense gaze of the community. F. Premise is startlingly present to others now by virtue of her absent virtue.

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Muradov uses traditional nine-panel grids to tell his story, utilizing large splashes sparingly to convey the intensity of key moments in the narrative. The book brims with beautiful, weird energy, rendered in intense color and deep shadow. Muradov’s abstractions—pure shapes—cohere into representative objects only to fragment again into abstraction. (Perhaps I should switch “cohere” and “fragment” here—I may have the verbs backwards).

The art here seems as grounded in a kind of post-cubism as it does in the work of Muradov’s cartooning forebears. In the remarkable passage below, for example, our heroine moves from one world to another, her form nearly disappearing into complete abstraction by the fifth panel (an image that recalls Miró), before stabilizing again (if momentarily) in the sixth panel.

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It’s in that last panel that F. Premise returns to her adopted home (of sorts)—a bookstore, of course. Earlier, the kindly owner of the bookstore loans her a pair of old plus-fours, and all of a sudden her identity shifts—or rather, the community shifts her identity, their penetrating gaze no longer trying to screw her to a particular preconception. Identity in Lost and Found is as fluid and changeable as the objects in Muradov’s haunting illustrations.

I have probably already belabored too much of the plot. Suffice to say that our heroine’s quest takes strange turns, makes radical shifts, she descends up and down and into other worlds. Embedded in the journey is a critique of nostalgia, of the commodification of memory (or, more accurately, the memory of memory). Is our innocence what we thought it was? Can we buy it back like some mass-produced object?

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As I noted before, Lost and Found is stuffed with images of readers. There’s something almost Borgesian in the gesture, as if each background character might be on the threshold (if not right in the middle of) their own adventures.

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It’s in the book’s final moments though that we see a move from reading to writing: Our heroine F. Premise picks up the pen and claims agency, writes her own life. She is indeed the narrative voice after all, the imposing script that, like some all-knowing hand, guided us into the narrative in the first place, only to disappear until the end.

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I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. The book is probably not for everyone—readers looking for a simple comic with an expository voice that will guide them through a traditional plot should probably look elsewhere. But readers willing to engage in Muradov’s ludic text will be rewarded—and even folks left scratching their heads will have to admit that the book is gorgeous, an aesthetic experience unto itself. And it smells good. Highly recommended.

 

A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 1)

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[Context/editorial note: Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 wasn’t on my radar until Ryan Chang, who has been contributing reviews, riffs, citations, and other good stuff to this blog for the some time now, brought it up. He digs it, I don’t—but in fairness, I haven’t finished it yet. I was determined to abandon it, but Ryan’s emails kept me interested enough to continue; our conversation of the past five days is presented below. The book frustrates and rewards; at times I’ve laughed out loud and at other moments I’ve sprained my eyeballs by rolling them. More to come, because this is pretty long—but I think Ryan, who offers the bulk of the analysis here, makes a strong case for Lerner’s book. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: Got an e-galley of the Lerner book. I don’t know if it’s that I’m almost exactly the same age as Lerner/the narrator or what, but I really really hate it so far! He’s very smart and the sentences are often great, but I find myself rolling my eyes at a lot of what he’s doing—it’s probably me not him. The narrative voice strikes me as so thoroughly inauthentic that I want to grab the narrator by the lapels and shout, Quit aping Sebald, quit trying to show how clever you are, and just observe and report! Again, it’s probably me not him.

Ryan Chang: I know what you mean; though it won’t bear any difference to your reading, I can attest personally to the diction & syntax of the narrator and Lerner himself (indeed, he does speak like that). I don’t think it’s an affectation, but I think it’s real “poet-y.” It is a criticism I forgive b/c I see that the tension between authenticity (of time) and inauthenticity (of time; especially exemplified in the Whole Foods/Instant coffee scene — which narrative context of time determines the Real, the Market (or its interpretation of Universal time) or our intuition (something like Whitmanic time, where time is experienced not on a linear, progressive plane but a circular, lateral one?)) is a crucial thread that runs throughout 10:04 and in Lerner’s other work. That said, I know  that in reviews to come of the book he’ll get slammed for that (I think the Kirkus review already did this).

A lot of my friends echo your distaste for Lerner for those exact same reasons, and I totally see why, and I’m kind of annoyed by it too. For me, the success of the book lies in the reclamation of fiction as a communal space from fetish book object/commercial futurity (author advances, agents, contracts, etc. — you already get some of this early on but there is more to come in a beautifully scathing scene of the NYC literary scene) And also, a kind of shiv to the Standard American Novelistic Form that reinforces traditional forms of American identity-making that Gass/Gaddis/Markson et al. have been doing for years and, I think, a poisonous strain of American political sentimentality that keeps most of us “depressed.” I think, too, because I’ve read it twice now, that there is an acknowledgment of his complicity in the very machines he participates in, and an inability, at least on his own, to dismantle those systems. Not sure if we should forgive him for criticizing the bourgeois Food Co-Op while being a member, albeit begrudgingly or tolerate his admission. There’s a lot of celebration of Whitmanic politics in that book, a return to a kind of Whitmanic democratic person is a return to a democratic reading is a return to a “real” democracy shared through the space of the book, of the position of the reader looking at an object and knowing that her “I” is shared amongst several. I’m not sure if you’ve gotten here yet, but he keeps intoning this phrase “bad forms of collectivity” as a better solution than nothing, than “modernist difficulty as resistance to the market.”

The Sebald comparison is apt, esp. with the form & diction & syntax, and I agree with you–Sebald is the master. There’s also something to be said, though, that this kind of fiction-making is badly needed in contemporary American letters on the Big 5 Publishing scene. I mean, I can’t read another fucking book about Brooklyn parents or mid-career Manhattan artist crises without wringing my neck. The kind of book Sebald innovated, too, is able to dismantle received ideas of art/history/writing/identity etc.;  I may be being too generous here, but I think it’s a form that will see continued adoption on this side of the pond.

ET: So your response made me return to the book, Ryan. The line that made me quit was something like, “The place was so quiet I could hear the bartender mixing our artisanal cocktails” or something like that—-I’m still not sure how to read that line as anything but a parody, but I think that the narrator, author, and writer are all sincere in trying to capture or document a particular time/feeling with the phrase. And as I continued reading, I was rewarded by the episode of the older poets/mentors, and their “daughter,” whom the narrator obsessed over—a very fine passage—humorous, reflective, a kind of parodic-but-sincere take on wanting to belong to a particular artistic scene. (What continues to unsettle me is the narrator’s assurance of his own achievement, although I could be wrong).

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What’s got into you? | Ventriloquism in Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook

In Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, Marion Portmain, a housewife neglected by her husband, resolves that she will begin to live her life with the aim of helping other people. Marion believes that this change is a major breakthrough in her life, a moment to claim agency for herself and to find her own authentic voice in a world where she has been silenced and ignored.

She asks her friend, the book’s protagonist Anna Wulf for the address of an imprisoned South African political activist:

‘Do you remember that black leader, the African man you used to know? Mathews, or something like that?’

This was not at all what Anna had expected. ‘You don’t mean Tom Mathlong?’Marion had actually taken out a notebook and was sitting with a poised pencil.

Marion has taken up her own notebook, a parallel to the colored notebooks that Anna keeps to impose some semblance of order—or at least to contain—the chaos of modernity.

Anna protests Marion’s request; she implicitly condescends Marion’s naïvety and myopic worldview:

‘But Marion…’ Anna looked at Marion, trying to make contact with the woman she had been talking to only a few minutes before. She was met by a gaze from brown eyes glazed with a guilty but happy hysteria. Anna went on, firmly: ‘It’s not a nice organized prison like Brixton or somewhere like that. It’s probably a shack in the bush, hundreds of miles from anywhere, about fifty political prisoners, and very likely they don’t even get letters. What did you think?—that they had visiting days and rights and things like that?’

And here is where the scene becomes particularly intriguing for me, as Anna begins to break down the various sources that ventriloquize Marion’s “new” consciousness: 

Marion pouted and said: ‘I think that’s an awfully negative attitude to take about the poor things.’

Anna thought: negative attitude is Tommy’s—echoes from the Communist Party; but poor things is all Marion’s—probably her mother and sisters give old clothes to charities.

For Anna, Marion’s (attempt at) a new outlook is merely the weak synthesis of the language of Marion’s stepson’s communism with the stock-phrases of her aristocratic family’s noblesse oblige. Anna does not accept Marion’s “transformation” as authentic, but rather the product of tuning in new voices. 

As Marion continues, Anna analyzes her speech, her unvoiced comments interposed in parentheses that name the news sources from which Marion has “clipped” her thoughts:

‘I mean,’ said Marion happily, ‘it’s a continent in chains, well, isn’t it?’ (Tribune, thought Anna; or possibly the Daily Worker.) ‘And measures ought to be taken immediately to restore the Africans’ faith in justice if it is not already too late.’ (The New Statesman, thought Anna.) ‘Well at least the situation ought to be thoroughly gone into in the interests of everybody.’ (The Manchester Guardian, at a time of acute crisis.) ‘But Anna, I don’t understand your attitude. Surely you’ll admit there’s evidence that something’s gone wrong?’ (The Times, editorializing a week after the news that the white administration has shot twenty Africans and imprisoned fifty more without trial.)

‘Marion, what’s got into you?

This scene responds to an earlier section of The Golden Notebook (I wrote before about it here) in which Anna’s note-book becomes pure collage: She no longer writes in her own “original” language, but rather cuts fragments from newspapers and pastes them directly into her diary. The section highlights (and rhetorically demonstrates) the novel’s theme of the disintegration of language, meaning, and order—one of the central problems of postmodernist literature.

Anna’s question to Marion at the end of the passage I’ve cited — “What’s got into you?” — is a banal commonplace, yet utterly sincere, authentic—-and all the more authentic for its underlying irony: Anna has already decided what’s “got into” Marion (The Tribune, The Daily Worker, etc.). 

Lessing’s passage here underscores just how susceptible we are to not-knowing, just at the moment when we feel most confident in our belief. Marion feels wholly authentic here, feels her way-of-seeing as rich, full, clear, alive—but it’s this very feeling of clarity that blinds her from seeing herself (seeing herself) parroting back the stock language of the sources that have infiltrated her consciousness.

Anna is far more attuned to her own self-blindness; indeed, her color-coded notebooks are a means to account for the discursive narratives that might try to give shape to the messiness of consciousness. In one extended episode, Anna attempts to write a complete narrative of a particular day, but as she repeatedly notes, her awareness of her project leads to such a heightened self-consciousness that every observation she makes about the day is placed under radical suspicion—she sees that she sees herself seeing (herself), but, intuiting her consciousness’ structure, also understands that there are ways in which she cannot see herself seeing (herself).

Can Anna’s realization of the limitations of first-person-perspective help to free her? I have not yet finished the novel, but so far, Lessing depicts the question as a deep, painful struggle. Anna grapples with a disintegrating sense of self, a self that can identify (and cut out and paste and record and document) the voices that have “got into” her, even as those voices destabilize her identity.