The Cranky Brilliance of Dwight Macdonald | Masscult and Midcult Reviewed

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Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
 (NYRB) collects ten pieces by cultural critic Dwight Macdonald. First published between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the essays here feature varied subjects, always attacked through the same critical lens. Whether he’s excoriating late-period Hemingway, deriding structural linguistics, lamenting the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or chewing up a now-forgotten bestseller, Macdonald centers the brunt of his attack on the creeping “impostures and vulgarizations” of what he called Masscult and Midcult.

In “Masscult and Midcult,” the longest and perhaps most effective essay in the collection, Macdonald defines, illustrates, and analyzes his neologisms against the historical backdrop of a rising commercial culture. “Masscult is bad in a new way,” he tells us,” it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good . . . It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” He continues:

Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand effort. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is “totally subjected to the spectator. And it gives nothing.

Macdonald views Masscult as the unfortunate inevitability of capitalism and the burgeoning middle class—or, more appropriately, Middlebrow class. Macdonald is deeply concerned with the location of brows, referring to himself as Highbrow throughout the collection (even once casually dropping We highbrows, a little bone to the reader, perhaps). He repeatedly points out that the virtue of Lowbrowness is that the Lowbrow know where their brows are in relation to higher brows. Folk art is not just acceptable, it’s good stuff, important in its hierarchical relationship to High Art. It’s those damn Middlebrows that cause confusion. For Macdonald, Midcult is thus the real threat:

…the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them. 

Macdonald uses case samples from Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Stephen Vincent Benet to demonstrate the creeping vulgarity of Midcult posing as High Art.  

Indeed, Macdonald almost always focuses on negative examples, perhaps taking for granted that his audience will be guided to a better understanding of High Culture through…I don’t know? Osmosis? He clearly shows a strong affection for the Modernists (up through Faulkner, with a special love for Joyce and Picasso), but the essays in the collection rarely explore in detail exactly why the good stuff is so good. He comes closest in “Updating the Bible” when he points out that the Revised Standard Version strips too much of the King James Version’s poetic strangeness, poetic strangeness that startles, engages, and demands the attention—the work—of the reader. Elsewhere, he connects the avant-garde of the Modernists to an aesthetic tradition going back to the Renaissance (and Periclean Greece before it), and while these moments are satisfying, they are hardly explored with the same vigor Macdonald applies to pulling away Midcult’s figleaf.

Neither does Macdonald prescribe medicine to go along with his devastating diagnoses. To a reader who felt his criticism should be more constructive, Dwight Macdonald replies: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” A succinct summary of the entire book, that.

Something of the force of Macdonald’s personality evinces in that reply, a combative, cranky, brilliant personality that asserts the nuances of its own subjectivity as if they were Aesthetic Law. And Macdonald is so, so, so perceptive, building each case thoroughly on textual grounds—citation, history, context—that make me blush here for not attempting his thoroughness in kind. But that would take more space and time than We Postmoderns should like to allot, no? (Maybe this review would gain more rhetorical force were I to simply make it a list of cat gifs).

Macdonald’s diagnoses remain prescient. His 1958 annihilation of James Gould Cozzens’s novel By Loved Possessed takes to task not just the author, but also the Masscult audience that made the book a best seller and the Midcult critics who sanctified the book’s artistic merits. With a few simple substitutions, the essay might be updated to critique Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In “The String Untuned,” ostensibly a review of the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Macdonald complains that the influence of structuralism, whatever merits it may have, has crumbled the authority of lexicography to the point that they “have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up” previous authorities. Essays like “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club” and “The Triumph of Fact” critique the increasing American tendency to look only for self-improvement in Art—to look for not just the digested form, but the predigested form. A footnote to “Masscult and Midcult” puts it plainly: “the Midcult audience always wants to be Told.” Ours is a time of explainer sites, listicles, speed-reading apps, and “curators” who boil entire works of philosophy down to feel-good quotes aimed at the reader’s desire for self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

Some gaps and miscalculations mar Masscult and Midcult. There’s no reckoning with the approach of postmodernism—or if there is, such a reckoning only evinces in the denial that an artful synthesis of the High and Low might be possible. (It’s worth noting here that Macdonald views Ulysses as a critique of vulgar culture, not a synthesis of vulgar culture. What would he make of Pynchon?). And while Macdonald beats up on poor Norman Rockwell, there’s nothing in the collection that deals with the nascent Pop Art movement. (Perhaps Warhol was too Midcult to merit mention; perhaps Macdonald did write about Pop Art somewhere else). His hatred for rock and roll feels purely reactionary, and his insistence that rock’s superior jazz is a folk art (and not a High Art) is just plain wrong. Also, Macdonald, for all his talk of the avant-garde and challenging comfortable conventions, writes exclusively about white men. There are few mentions of persons of color or women in the collection. I wonder what Macdonald thought of Flannery O’Connor, say, who succinctly echoed his own views when she wrote: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

At the core of these essays though is a cranky brilliance, a burning, engaging intelligence that seeks to upend simple, comfortable assumptions about how we view, interact with, and think about art. Are we to be mere consumers—and not just consumers, but infantilized consumers, baby birds gulping down material that’s already been predigested for us? Or are we willing to put in the work, to dare strong strangeness—to be confused, to not know, to feel discomfort, alienation, newnessMasscult and Midcult doesn’t just evoke these questions, it formally answers them by challenging and provoking, offering a critical rubric for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or, to use Macdonald’s metaphor, escaping “not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” For all the apparent bitterness, there’s something nourishing here. Macdonald’s essays retain a critical power that transcends their ostensible subjects, a power that rips the poseur’s figleaf away. Great stuff.    

 

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Horn! — Kevin Thomas’s Collected Reviews (Book Acquired, 6.14.2014)

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Kevin Thomas has been doing illustrated reviews of contemporary books for The Rumpus for a few years now. Now, the good people of OR Books have published the reviews in one volume—HORN! The Collected Reviews.

I’d read a few of Thomas’s reviews in the past and always been a bit jealous at his control of his medium—of his ability to go past or through or beyond the language under discussion to provoke with a sequence of images. Reviews is maybe not the right term—commentaries seems more fitting. Take his review of George Saunders’s Tenth of December for example, which manages to condense an overview of the collection’s themes along with a viewpoint on those themes into nine small panels. (I needed over 2000 words for my own review of the Saunders book).

Thomas’s technique works especially well with novels that are very difficult to write about/after, like one of my favorite recent titles, Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous. I stammered and hiccuped through my essay; Thomas explicates, illustrates, and piques reader interest—again, in just nine panels.

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I’ve been trying to limit myself to just a few strips a day from the collection, but more often than not I’ve failed, curious to see Thomas’s takes on Levin’s The Instructions (a novel I couldn’t finish), Peter Hook’s memoir, Renata Adler’s Speedboat (yes!) and more. Great stuff.

“Go to hell, Roberto” | Roberto Bolaño’s The Unknown University

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño’s poetry collection—his complete poems, a bilingual edition, lovely, beautiful, over 800 pages—has been shifted all over my messy house this past month, wedged into ad hoc shelves, even conspicuously, for a time, fatly weighing down another Bolaño text, The Insufferable Gaucho (which I’ve been reading in tandem with/against The Unknown University), swollen and warped with saltwater from the gray Atlantic ocean.

I pecked at The Unknown University discursively, avoiding end notes, taking the rest of the Bolañoverse as my guide or frame or map or background for these poems. I read randomly, trying one poem at a time in no special order, taking crude stabs at the Spanish text on the left hand pages, clumsily matching them against Laura Healy’s fine translation, a poetics that matches the tone and rhythm and cadence and vibe of Bolaño’s other translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews.

Then last night, a tale from The Insufferable Gaucho compelled me to read from The Unknown University straightwise, linear, 1-2-3, non-discursively, to take a stab at an orderly trajectory, reading it like a novel in fragments, perhaps.

The book is divided into three parts, each comprised of their own chapters or individual books. Last night I read, or reread, the first half of the first part: The Snow-NovelGuirat de BornelhStreets of BarcelonaIn the Reading Room of Hell.

The examples and citations in this riff come from those books, but I’d suggest that the images, motifs, and themes of these early poems—switchblades, hell, abysses, poets, girls, detectives, assassins, hunchbacks, genitals, sex, madness, blood—resonate throughout the entire volume (and throughout Bolaño’s oeuvre).

Perhaps the most central theme is Bolaño himself; The Unknown University often reads like a diffuse autobiography, with Bolaño’s concern for his own place in literature at the fore.

We see that anxiety in the first poem shared by the editors, a piece from 1990 included in the book’s intro:

Even a decade earlier, Bolaño prophesied that he would be carried to hell, a primal setting of the Bolañoverse. Bolaño’s romantic ancestor Jorge Luis Borges famously imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Bolaño inverts that image:

20140609-152831-55711939.jpgIn another poem, Bolaño seems to obliquely address Borges again (“Dear, this isn’t Paradise”), while also name-checking the heroes of that “club / for science-fiction fans” (including some perhaps-unlikely figures):

20140609-152831-55711467.jpg“A long, slow University.” Yes.

But how could Bolaño leave his hero Edgar Allan Poe from the curriculum? Oh, never mind. Here he is: 

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The vase—Pandora’s box, Keats’s urn?—is a central image in these early poems. Dark, beautiful, and transformative, Bolaño seems to posit the vase—an object rendered somewhat mundane in its traditional place as an aesthetic object—as a portal to the abyss:

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Elsewhere our poet warns/invites us: “The nightmare begins over there, right there. / Further up, down, everything’s part of the / nightmare. Don’t stick your hand in that urn. Don’t / stick your hand in that hellish vase.” Reading the poem forces us to stick our hand in the vase.

If Bolaño seems occasionally melodramatic in his poems, a thrall to Baudelaire, he’s also keenly aware of it, even this early in his career. A twinning of irony and earnestness characterizes Bolaño’s writing, a savage self-reflexive humor that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on first reading. When he begins a poem about a lost love, “Go to hell, Roberto, and remember you’ll never stick it in again,” the sentiment is simultaneously tragic and comic, the kind of personal confession that connects to the reader’s own experiences. “To be honest I don’t remember much now,” our narrator confides near the end, before the devastating conclusion, “She loved me forever / She crushed me.”

For Bolaño though, what’s perhaps most crushing is the loss of literature:

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And yet Bolaño sticks his arm into the vase, walks out over the chasm, dares for his poems to perhaps earn the right to be one of those “loose sentences, traces . . . fragments” that may survive.

In the very early poem “Work,” Bolaño romanticizes his own literary posterity:

Poetry that might champion my shadow in days to come

when I’ll be just a name not the man who wandered

with empty pockets, worked in slaughterhouses

on the old and on the new continent.

I seek credibility not durability for the ballads

I composed in honor of very real girls.

And mercy for my years before 26.

Seems like a reasonable request.

I don’t know if these poems are good or bad or excellent or what. I do know that I loved reading them and that they are of a piece with everything else I’ve read by Bolaño. The best moments recall his best writing, that strange mix of plain, even understated language, set against romantic violence and terrible madness. The poems here don’t distill the best of Bolaño into burning kernels of visceral realism; rather, they feel like the liquid filament of the Bolañoverse. Fantastic.

More to come.

The Unknown University is available now from New Directions.

William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central | A Short Riff on a Long Book

Kilian Eng

Kilian Eng

1. William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central,  811 pages in my Penguin trade paperback edition (including end notes), is a virtuoso attempt to describe or measure or assess or explain or analyze the Eastern front of WWII, a part of the war that in my American ignorance I know, or knew (no, know) so little about.

2. The book covers 1914-1975, most of the composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich’s life. If Europe Central has a hero, it is Shostakovich.

From the book’s last end note, “An Imaginary Love Triangle: Shostakovich, Karmen, Konstantinovaskya”:

When I think of Shostakovich, and when I listen to his music, I imagine a person consumed by fear and regret, a person who (like Kurt Gerstein) did what little he could to uphold the good—in this case, freedom of artistic creation, and the mitigation of other people’s emergencies. He became progressively more beaten down, and certainly experienced difficulty saying no—a character trait which may well have kept him alive in the Stalinist years. In spite of the fact that he joined the Party near the end, to me he is a great hero—a tragic hero, naturally.

That’s Vollmann’s own authorial voice, of course, and there we have perhaps the most concise condensation of Europe Central.

3. Maybe a clarification though: Europe Central is not (just) a fictional biography of Shostakovich: There are many, many other characters that Vollmann uses to power his beast: the Soviet director Roman Karmen and the translator Elena Konstantinovskaya, those other points in the book’s central love triangle; German artist Käthe Kollwitz; Samizdat poet Anna Akhmatova; Generals Paulus (German) and Vlasov (Soviet)—similarly disgraced; SS man Kurt Gerstein, who oversees death camps; there’s Lenin, there’s Stalin. There’s “the Sleepwalker,” one Adolf Hitler. And many, many more.

4. Is Europe Central too big?

No. I don’t think so.

5. I lazily suggested that the book uses Shostakovich as an organizing principle. We could also argue for Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s disastrous invasion of the USSR) as the book’s main thrust. Or, we might say that the book reframes Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Or that it somehow restages Shostakovich’s Opus 40 and Opus 110. (Back to Shostakovich!).

6. Or the telephone! Yes, that totem of modernity, communication, power—the telephone!—the telephone is the central image of Europe Central. Indeed, it initiates the novel: “A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps…” That octopus, those tendrils, those lines of communication snake throughout Europe Central.

7. Another description of Europe Central, perhaps, from one of its earliest chapters—

Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood. Well-crafted protagonists come to life, pornography causes orgasms, and the pretense that life is what we want it to be may conceivably bring about the desired condition. Hence religious parables, socialist realism, Nazi propaganda. And if this story likewise crawls with reactionary supernaturalism, that might be because its author longs to see letters scuttling across ceilings, cautiously beginning to reify themselves into angels. For if they could only do that, then why not us?

8. Was that enough of Vollmann’s language for this short riff?

No?

I shared various citations from Europe Central on Biblioklept as I read it, even riffing a bit now and then. Check out some of Vollmann’s strange, wonderful prose—it’s far more convincing than anything I can write about his book.

So:

On parables and their value

On Käthe Kollwitz, who kept painting poor people.

On the assurance of a sleepwalker.

On the musicality of a weeping son.

On the more-than-real reality of representations of reality.

On monarchs, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts, etc.

On abjection.

On lending books as one of the purest expressions of love.

10. I left off from the list above one of the finest passages in the book, a section where the unnamed “I” narrator of some of the Soviet sections of Europe Central shifts into Shostakovich’s consciousness, and then, perhaps, into Vollmann’s own authorial voice—and then back. The narratological dimensions here are too big to suss out in my lazy riff, but I find the passage’s main thrust one of the most compelling issues of modern art (or Modern Art, if you prefer): Can art use irony to conceal its true feelings? Can love be self-ironic? And if so, how does this complicate the truth of the expression?

I think this matters because Vollmann thinks this matters—put another way, Vollmann believes in Art and Truth and, significantly, in Love, and the power of love against the backdrop of totalitarianism, despotism, murder, privation, starvation, rape, maiming, gas chambers, mass graves, infanticide, total war…

11. What Vollmann achieves in Europe Central, through the reality and fictionality (and reality of the fictionality of the reality) of his characters, is a language of love. Vollmann posits love, or the possibility of love, or the possibility of imagining the possibility of love, as a response to despair.

12. Point 11 is maybe a way of saying that Europe Central is about so much more than central Europe during WWII—but if you’re at all familiar with Vollmann, gentle reader, of course you’d expect that. Still, I learned a lot about a subject which I thought I knew something about.

Whether or not Vollmann is a generous writer depends on your perspective—you’re swimming in the deep end here, and many of the connections between the different sections don’t cohere until you’ve got the hang of the book. But once you get the hang of it—once you learn to read it—Vollmann’s generosity is almost overbearing in its profundity. How did he research it, do all the reading that went into it, and still make all the voices sing? How? 

13. Europe Central is probably not the best starting place for Vollmann, but I think it will appeal to fans of certain giant polyglossic postmodern novels. I’ll admit to a predilection for WWII metafictions, too, but I can’t really anticipate how readers of historical fiction might regard what Vollmann does here. Can I end by writing Highly recommended? I don’t know. I’m not sure who this book is for… but I loved it.

The Beautiful Weirdness of Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June

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Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June continues theNewerYork Press’s dedication to beautiful weirdness. They’ve billed The Inevitable June as “words and art,” which is truth in advertising, yes, but is also a way of avoiding putting a label on this strange little book.

Is it a comic? A novella? A thought experiment? A prose-poem? A flip-book? Something entirely new? Yes.

But entirely new is wrong too, because, as the billing states, what we’ve got here are those ancient raw elements of storytelling, words and pictures, resynthesized into something that, in its strangeness, evokes newness and surpasses novelty. 

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An initial simplicity of form, both in written and drawn line, allows the reader’s consciousness to slip into the strangeness of June. We begin with a simple black-on-white square (emblem of a page or a screen? (or hey man it’s just a square?)) which turns into a cube, or a box rather, one side open (a door; a window) its interior obscured. Should the reader stick his head in? Yes. The book seems to take place in this box, an imaginative dream-machine that we might recall from a childhood or two. 

What follows is an almanac of tragicomic weirdness, each entry logging the events of a new morning in an eternal June.

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The clarity and concreteness of Schofield’s prose jars against its symantic expression, evoking a dream-nightmare world of continual creation and destruction. Every morning the world begins—and ends—anew, complete with new metaphors which crumble or dissolve or give way under the strain of the next morning’s creation.

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The Inevitable June echoes with images of oceans and fires, glass airplanes and invisible pilots, octopuses and yetis, angels and demons. Its transmutations both challenge and invite the reader to play a game where the rules have not been, cannot be, verbalized. 

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Is the game consciousness?

A version of consciousness anyway, a metaphor for consciousness—a collection of words and art, black and white lines, inky abysses and blank fields of possibility. If The Inevitable June attests that imaginative power can transform, it also underscores the costs and conditions of that transformation—the edges, the borders, the limits—the constraints of time, the days on a calendar. Interposed, our protagonist travels, falls, rises, dreams, and performs his various identities.   

I read Schofield’s  book a few times (it’s short) in different formats—on a laptop, a tablet, and then the physical book. Oh, and on my iPhone. I reread that thing on an iPhone waiting in my car to pick up my son from school. It was a different read each time, offering new strangenesses, new pathways, pratfalls, and pitfalls. The Inevitable June is not for all readers, obviously, but it gave me some joy in its puzzles and prose. Recommended.

Curation and Creation in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s Vampire Film

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Jim Jarmusch’s latest film Only Lovers Left Alive is excellent. 

Moody, sometimes funny, always gorgeous, and largely plotless, the film centers on two vampires—Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton—who fill their long lives with music, literature, and love. At its core, the film is an elegiac love song to aesthetic originary creation in the age of the curator.

As Mike D’Angelo points out in his smart review

What really interests Jarmusch is immortality, or at least longevity. How would we behave if we lived for centuries, and were free to do pretty much anything we wanted? What sort of aesthetes and collectors might we become? … In this world, the vampire’s primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted; they’re much more like curators than monsters.

 

Eve’s curatorial powers are enviable—she merely has to touch an object to know its age (and quality). She touches Adam’s beloved Gibson guitar, declaring “1905.” As she packs her suitcase full of books (Don QuixoteInfinite Jest, and Kafka all make the cut), she scrolls her fingers through pages briskly but lovingly, seeming to absorb each one instantly.

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Adam’s curatorial impulses manifest in his collection of antique musical and electronic equipment, his claustrophobic crumbling mansion a mad scientist’s lab of sight and sound. Adam creates plodding dirges, death songs, elegies for the end of romance. Reclusive cult hero, he hides in the outskirts of Detroit from his growing fanbase who demand to know who made this music. Like Wyatt, the masterful forger of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, Adam wonders what people want from the person that they couldn’t get from the work of art. Still, as he mournfully complains to Eve, Adam wants a reflection, something to echo back to him. His fans—the “zombies”—are not enough.

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Eve’s library and Adam’s studio allow Jarmusch to perform his own curatorial impulses. On one wall in a room of Adam’s mansion hang the portraits of dozens of writers and musicians, including Blake, Poe, Twain, and Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe it turns out is a vampire—and the real author of Shakespeare to boot. 

It might be tempting to accuse Jarmusch of merely providing fan service for hipsters, but there’s more going on here than simple name-checking. Adam’s wall isn’t simply a shrine for hero-worship. Instead, it feels like a gallery of family portraits. 

Some viewers may find Adam and Eve’s aesthetic obsessions insufferable. As if in anticipation of this criticism—and as a sort of counter argument—Jarmusch plants an internal critique of his lovers in the film in the form of Eve’s kid sis Ava, an impulsive, strangely immature, and ultimately tacky vampire. In her acrimonious parting with Adam and Eve, Ava curses the pair as “condescending snobs.” She is, of course, absolutely correct.only-lovers-left-alive02

Adam and Eve are snobs, but perhaps living through eons will do that to a body, so what should we expect? Adam, black-haired, always dressed in black, veers along a desperate, suicidal spectrum, writing dirges for the end of the world. Eve, golden-haired, clothed in white, must constantly remind Adam of eternal recurrence, a motif figured in Jarmusch’s repeated shots of spinning 45rpm records. Adam mourns the death of Detroit, but Eve tells him that it will bloom again when the “cities of the South are burning.”

Only Lovers Left Alive is peppered with these notes of apocalypse, but Eve tempers them with a kind of weary optimism: She and her lover will survive, and they will preserve what is worth preserving, worth loving. Not only will they curate, they will also create. As the film rushes to its ending in Tangier (my biggest criticism is that we could use another half hour)—oh, and that word “ending”: yeah, look out, fair warning, some spoilers ahead—as the film rushes to its ending, Adam and Eve experience intense blood withdrawal.  Read More

“His romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death” | Bolaño and Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”

Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.

Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town, 

Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.

Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa). 

And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.

What I mean to say:

Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Read More

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. Yes, I've done this a few times before (see also: George Orwell's 1984, Melville's Moby-Dick, Joyce's Ulysses and Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress) and to be clear, I think some of the one-star reviews of Gravity's Rainbow make some interesting points--although most of the reviewers seem to be upset over the book's reputation/status, and attack that (and by extension, postmodernism) instead of attempting to analyze what Pynchon was actually, y'know, trying to do. I've preserved the reviewers' unique styles of punctuation and spelling].

Who put it into Pynchon’s head that he could write?

After reading over one hundred fifty pages, all I could believe was the story set during WWII, but I wasn’t sure.

This is not literature. 

After I finished reading this book twenty years ago, I left it in my apartment building’s laundry room for whomever might be interested in it. The book sat there for months and nobody was interested in it enough to take it home. Finally, it was ruined when a water pipe burst and, I presume, it is now landfill in Staten Island.

Tedious. 

There is not an ounce of humanity in this book.  I finally threw it against a wall in disgust.

Pynchon writes liberal, paranoid diatribes against any and all institutions, especially conservative ones 

I felt empty and used.

I’ve been told the nominating committee (made up mostly of book reviewers) nominated this for the Pulitzer Prize as best fiction. The awards committee (mostly book editors) rejected it as an unreadable piece of crap. I agree with the editors.

This book’s failings are in part a function of it’s time — the early 70’s – when culture was naively experimental, half-baked, vulgar, and exhibitionist.

When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.

I honestly preferred J.G. Ballard’s Crash to this book.

It seems to me it’s very easy to be “a literary master” in this way. It’s much more difficult to write something very clear and simple that people can easily understand (and yet still be profound and say something new).

Woody Allen used to be funny. Monty Python was occasionally funny. 

Any author who uses “further” for “farther” (as Pynchon does, among many other errors) should never make anyone’s “best novelist” list.

To this reader, Pynchon sounds like the unabomber with a better thesaurus. 

One of those books that professors are constantly forcing students to read because the novelist can’t attract a following on his own merits and ability to entertain. 

I only finished it beacuse I was on jury duty. 

I thought this novel was a complete waste of my time and it amazes me to hear so many praise what I think was paranoid and resembles silly cult literature. My father had a book back in the fifties sponsored by an extreme right wing group that was equally paranoid and absurd.

Pynchon couldn’t write anything funny if his life depended upon it.

Pynchon is like a high school football bully who says “Okay, I’m gonna trow da ball as hard as I can–you see if you can catch it”. No thanks Spike.

I mean, even the first page of this book offends my sensibilities.

An entire novel centered on the unrealistic, flimsy idea that a man getting erections will attract missiles? Some missiles may be heat seaking but the temperature of blood found in the groin during erections is no longer near the degree it takes to attract heat seaking weaponry. Get your facts right, Pynchon. A scientist you ain’t.

Reminds me of John Coltrane’s Ascension album, which for the entire album sounds like the band is warming up but never gets to play, but the elitist snobs just adore it.

A good argument for a good old fashioned book burning. 

The majority of this book consists of sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph that don’t have any apparent correlation to each other.

wow, all the hard work that this man put in just to bore me! the effort alone is worth a star. gallant attempt mr pynchon.

This is one of those “university novels” (as opposed to “popular” novels that people actually read and love) that “you have to work hard at to appreciate”. 

It’s like viewing a `painting’ of a blank canvas titled Untitled. 

I lived in Germany a few years ago and found this book in a train station. Someone had just walked off and left it. After about ten pages, realizing that Pynchon was an intellectual rip-off artist, I secured it a trash can where no one could find it. I like to think I protect the public from pollution.

Maybe it’s entertaining if you take huge quantities of lsd, otherwise it’s a nightmare. 

It is terrible.

I cannot summarize the story, because I couldnt find one.

obviously written by some self-loving, over-indulged, hippie.

I tend to lump this book in with the rest of the general malaise surrounding the innate nihilism of Postmodernism. 

This book makes me a little sad, because I think that Pynchon, had he not gone over to the dark side, could have been a brilliant prose stylist, if not anything else.

feels like being flayed alive by words alone. I wanted to stab myself in the head just to relieve the pain.

This is like Ulysses. 

Add a star if you enjoy constant reference to penises and vulva and all kinds of deviant sex acts.

I should sue the author for migraine.

To sum it up: it is too much work to read this book.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH Is a Thrilling Intertextual Adventure Story

View of Prague — Oskar Kokoschka

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

–Cormac McCarthy, interview in The New York Times, 1992.

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

–David Markson, The Last Novel, 2007

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

–Laurent Binet, HHhH, 2010 / English trans. by Sam Taylor, 2012.

. . . it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.

From the current (18 April 2014) Wikipedia entry for Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH:

HHhH is the debut novel of French author Laurent Binet. It recounts Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. It was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.

The novel follows the history of the operation and the life of its protagonists – Heydrich and his assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. But it is also interlaced with the author’s account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel.

The title is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), a quip about Heydrich said to have circulated in Nazi Germany.

If I were the narrator of HHhH—which is to say, if I were a version of Binet, a version that I might describe (and am describing, I guess) as Binet-the-writer-performing-Binet-the-author-performing-Binet-the-author-as-narrator-narrating-the-author-trying-to-write-HHhH (awful description)—if I were the narrator of HHhH I’d probably now dole out a droll little chapter about how the gesture I’ve just committed (lazily using Wikipedia to summarize the novel and prefacing that lazy summary with a few citations that might make cribbing from Wikipedia seem, I dunno, clever (which I do not think said cribbing is))—If I were the narrator of HHhH I might riff on how what I just did  is the result of some kind of 21st-century paralysis induced by an overload of information combined with a deep sincere genuine honest-to-gawd love for my subject.

Or maybe I’d just claim to be writing an infrareview.

Has this been a bad start?

I think HHhH gets off to a bad start, but I could be wrong.

Maybe you should judge for yourself, dear reader. Here is its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

Actually, rereading it now, this seems like a perfect start, although I’ll admit it stalled me on the first few attempts. I mean, that’s a bit alienating, yes? Names, dates, places—and then a shift to Kundera, the immediate assault on fiction? But it fits, in retrospect. Maybe this is another way of saying that HHhH, despite a difficult first few chapters (What is the book aboutWhat is the book?) quickly becomes thrilling, engrossing, a cerebral spy novel, a study in power and terror, a love letter to Prague, a moody bit of flanerie, at times—and mostly an intertextual adventure yarn that shouldn’t work but does, that succeeds wildly.

In chapters that are often short, punchy, and precise, Binet spends much of the first part of the novel building the character of Reinhard Heydrich, “‘the Hangman,’ ‘the Butcher,’ ‘the Blond Beast.” Binet’s Heydrich is fascinating but never sympathetic, a psychological portrait that Binet draws in spite of himself. The author’s radical ambivalence is evident in two early consecutive chapters, which are worth sharing in full, I think, as they illustrate both Binet’s prose as well as his program. Chapter 16:

Little Heydrich—cute, blond, studious, hardworking, loved by his parents. Violinist, pianist, junior chemist. A boy with a shrill voice which earns him a nickname, the first in a long list: at school, they call him “the Goat.” At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death. But it is during this delicate period of childhood that one learns resentment.

And Chapter 17:

In Death Is My Trade, Robert Merle creates a novelized biography of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, based on firsthand accounts and on notes that Höss himself wrote in prison before being hanged in 1947. The whole of the first part is given over to his childhood and his unbelievably deadening upbringing at the hands of an ultraconservative and emotionally crippled father. It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

This is not my intention—I say intention, not ambition—with regard to Heydrich. I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution because his schoolmates called him “the Goat” when he was ten years old. Nor do I think that the ragging he took because they thought he was a Jew should necessarily explain anything. I mention these facts only for the ironic coloring they give to his destiny: “the Goat” will grow up to be the man called, at the height of his power, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” And the Jew, Süss, will become the Great Architect of the Holocaust. Who could have guessed such a thing?

Throughout HHhH, Binet-the-narrator repeatedly voices his concerns for spending so much time on Heydrich; these anxieties are frequently tethered to other texts (as we see both in the first paragraph of the novel, and in the first line of Chapter 17). It’s not just that the Nazis in particular were such fastidious record-keepers (“The Nazis love burning books, but not files”); it’s also that WWII has arguably produced more literature—narrative entertainment!—than anyone could hope to wade through.

But Binet-narrator assures us he’s waded, especially into territories where Heyrdrich might show his yellow head. Blazoning an often truculent anxiety of influence, the narrator of HHhH reflects and opines on numerous Nazi narratives, from Kenneth Brannagh’s role as Heydrich in Conspiracy to Rutger Hauer in Twilight of the Eagles (adapted from a Robert Harris novel, it sounds like a ripoff of PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Binet also lards the novel with historical documents, like journal entries, newspaper records, excerpts from speeches, etc., along with rumor and speculation. He often crams a story or an anecdote into HHhH that he claims has no business there, like the (apocryphal?) tale of a soccer match between occupied Ukraine and the Nazis:

. . . none of the main characters of Operation Anthropoid is involved, so theoretically it has no place in my novel. But one of the great advantages of the genre is the almost unlimited freedom it gives the author.

This kind of bait and switch is characteristic of HHhH, and it should be annoying as hell. But for some reason it isn’t—just the right amount of restraint? Just the right note of ironic dissonance? I’m not sure. Binet’s earnest pleas that he wishes to do justice to the reality of his characters can become overbearing at times, but the earnestness is tempered in a kind of postmodern distance. But maybe I brought that with me. (Although of course the reader bears some responsibility, especially in such an intertextual reading).

Binet-as-narrator pleads at the gaps in history:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

But of course the rhetoric here, the language itself, is a contrivance, a making, a bit of artifice—a decision. And, near the end of HHhH, exhausted from witnessing, from channeling that witnessing:

Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.

Binet-as-narrator overestimates his powers if he thinks that he allowed those anonymous deaths. But his creation does not stink of hubris.

No, what happens here—and gosh darn, I’ve really failed to describe it adequatley—what HHhH ultimately offers is the very thing it sets out to deconstruct: A ripping, gripping adventure yarn. The final sequence—I really want to just lay it all out here, now, but c’mon, spoilers! You should read this book!—the final sequence deserves more than the review-hack cliches I’ll rest on here: Breathtaking, spellbinding, engrossing, thrilling, etc. Just wonderful, and Binet knows it, stretches it out, repeatedly gnashes and wails that he doesn’t want it to end, and for good reason—it’s really damn good.

I listened to Audible’s unabridged version of HHhH, narrated by John Lee (and then reread sections at night on my Kindle). Lee’s been a dealbreaker for me in the past (I barely made it through his narration of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and gave up on his take on China Miéville’s Kraken), but his evocation of the narrator’s voice here is perfect—intelligent, slightly ironic. Perhaps it helps that Binet is unequivocal about his characters’ voices (which are rare in the novel)—he’s always pointing out, Hey, look hereI’m the ventriloquist! I looked forward to the narrative in my commute and often lingered over chores to listen longer. Great stuff.

Is HHhH an infranovel? I don’t know because I don’t know really what Binet means by “infranovel.” It is an entertaining and smart take on a worn-out genre though, which is more than enough. Recommended.

“Nothing but Trouble” | Gordon Lish’s New Collection Goings Plays with the Problems of Language

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Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?

Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.

In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:

Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.

In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:

I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”

Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.

At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.

“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):

Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?

I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.

Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?

“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.

Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”).  There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.

This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.

Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.

But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:

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Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.

Riff on Not Writing

1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.

3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).

4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.

5. (And so I’ve done this before).

6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed  up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.

7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).

8. These books are:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

Middle C by William H. Gass

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish

Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark

The majority of Donald Barthelme.

9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).

10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.

Read More

I Review (Version #10786 of) Nanni Balestrini’s Novel Tristano

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Let’s start with some facts:

Nanni Balestrini originally composed Tristano in the 1960s with the aid of an algorithm supplied to an IBM computer.

There are ten chapters in the novel.

Each chapter is comprised of twenty paragraphs.

Balestrini’s algorithm shuffles fifteen of those paragraphs within each chapter.

There are thus 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions of Tristano.

Tristano was published in 1966 by the Italian press Feltrinelli, but in only one of those 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions.

Now, Verso Books has published 4,000 different versions of Tristano in English.

They sent me #10786 to review.

Maybe a few more facts, and then some opinions—and citations from the novel—no?

Umberto Eco spends the first five pages of his six page introduction to Tristano situating Balestrini’s project in its proper literary-historical context. (He names some names: Pascal, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Christopher Clavius, Pierre Guldin, Mersenne, Leibniz, Borges, Queneau, Mallarmé, Manzoni, Joyce. There is no mention of Cortázar’s Hopscotch or Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series).

Mike Harakis translated Tristano into English.

Harakis preserves Balestrini’s spare (and often confusing) style of punctuation.

The book is exactly 120 pages.

In his contemporary “Note on the Text” of Tristano, Balestrini says that the book is “an ironic homage to the archetype of the love story.”

The title of course alludes to the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

In his note, Balestrini uses the term “experiment” at least three times, suggesting that “to experiment with a new way of conceiving literature and novels” can make it more “possible to represent effectively the complexities and unpredictability of contemporary reality.”

Balestrini’s 2004 novel Sandokan is in my estimation one of the finest books of the past decade: A poetic examination of criminal brutality told in a bold voice, its syntactical experiments not experiments at all, but rather the base of a strong, strange tone that perfectly synthesizes plot and voice.

Okay. Opinions and citations:

In chapter 2 of my edition of Tristano—on page 19 of version #10786—we get a paragraph that begins: “To be one-sided means not to look at problems all-sidedly.”

Does Tristano, through its formal, discursive, algorithmic structure seek to approach an all-sided perspective? Significantly, we can’t be sure who says the line. There are two characters, male and female, both named C (an algebraic variable?).

There seems to be an argument here, an investigation. A crime, a love affair. But Tristano is a dialectic without synthesis. Or maybe that failure is mine. Maybe I’ve failed as the reader. Neglected my part. “Treat life as if it were a game,” we’re told in the aforementioned paragraph (page 19 of version #10786, if you’re keeping score). Or maybe we’re not told. Maybe C is telling C to treat life as a game (and not just telling the reader), but the context is not (cannot) be clear.

But again, that’s probably maybe almost certainly but okay maybe not quite the point of Tristano. From paragraph 18 of chapter 6 (page 71 of version #10786): “First of all one must have a fairly clear idea of the content of the text.” And a few lines down: “Her story weaves and unweaves like the tapestry she was working on.” And: “It’s the unconditional loss of language that starts.” And: “It might never have an end.” Freeing these lines from the sentences around them ironically stabilizes them.

Tristano isn’t just line after line of Postmodernism 101 though. There is actual imagery here, content. In fairness, let me share entire paragraph (from page 69  of version #10786):

In the internal part of the cave along with an abundance of Pleistocene fauna a human Neanderthaloid tooth was recovered. You’ve already told me this story. The cave is divided into two levels one upper and one lower that host a subterranean lake which can be visited by boat. It might even be another story. They had warned him it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Inside you can go down into a great cavern in the centre of which there is a rock surmounted by a giant stalagmite. We’ll stay and look for another thirty seconds then we’ll leave. All the stories are different one from the other. On returning he found that C had bought herself a new blue silk dress. C remained standing while he explained to her how it had gone. She ran a finger over his lips to wipe the lipstick off them. I have to go. It’s still early. I’ll be away all day perhaps tomorrow too. He gave her a long kiss on the lips.

This paragraph is maybe almost kind of sort of a synecdoche of the entire book—sentences that seem to belong to other paragraphs, story threads that seem part of another tapestry. Let us pull a thread from another paragraph, another chapter (chapter 9, paragaph 8, page 102 of  of version #10786):

All imaginable pathways of the line that represents a direct connexion to the objective are equally impracticable and no adjustment of the shape of the body to the spatial forms of the surrounding objects can allow the objective to be reached.

Do you believe that? Did Balestrini? Or did it just allow him a neat little piece of rhetoric to gel with the concept of his experiment? The verbal force, dexterity, and dare I claim truth of Sandokan, composed a few decades later, suggests that yes, language can be shaped to mean.

And this, I think, is the big failure of Tristano—it’s a text afraid to mean, to even take a shot at meaning. Content to be simply an experiment, its sections adding up to nothing more than the suggestion that its sections could never add up to anything, Tristano offers little beyond its concept and a few observations on storytelling that dwell on paralysis instead of freedom. The whole experiment strikes me as the set up for a joke played on the reader: Look at all this possibility, look at all these iterations—and what’s at the core? Nothing.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I’m thankful that Verso published Tristano, which I think shows courage as well as a commitment to literature that you just aren’t going to see from a corporate house.  I’m thankful that I got to read (version #10786 of) Tristano, and I plan to order his novel The Unseen via my local bookstore. The expectations that I brought to the book were huge: Loved the concept, loved the last book I’d read by the author—and I want to read more by the author. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that failed Tristano’s experiment. But I would’ve been happier to learn something or feel something from that failure other than disappointment.

The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

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I. “Manhole 69″ (1957)

II. “Chronopolis” (1960)

III.  “The Voices of Time” (1960)

IV. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)

V. “Billennium” (1961)

VI. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

VII. “The Subliminal Man” (1963)

VIII. “End-Game” (1963)

IX. “Time of Passage” (1964)

X. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

XI. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)

XII. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)

XIII. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

XIV.  “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

XV. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

XVI. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976)

XVII. “The Index” (1977)

XVIII. “The Dead Time” (1977)

XIX. “News from the Sun” (1981)

XX. “Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

XXI. “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

XXII. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

XXIII. “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

At 1200 pages and just under 100 stories, The Complete Short Stories is frankly too complete—but I read them all anyway. The list above is my suggestion for a volume I’d call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Each selection on the list is linked to a riff I wrote; in several cases, links to the full text of the story can be found at the riff.

True Detective, Bolaño’s 2666, Werewolves, Etc.

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1. A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty long essay about rereading Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a dark, compelling, violent, mysterious book that I’ve reread in full three times now, a book that I frequently return to, a book that seems to leer from the shelf too often, Hey, you’re not done with me, you know that, right? 

2. Anyway, this long essay about rereading 2666 was also about another book: Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 folklore-horror hybrid, The Book of Were-Wolves (download it here). I argued that

What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.

—and suggested that

Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.

3. (What I want to say is that any speculation I might offer about the forthcoming conclusion of season one of True Detective I have already offered, at some length, in an essay (about two other texts) which I composed a few years before True Detective aired).

4. Well so and anyway: “After You’ve Gone,” the penultimate episode of True Detective.

In some ways the most straightforward episode to date, even disappointingly so, a bit of a police procedural, serving mostly to realign Cohle and Hart, demonstrating that despite their fight and their differences, they are also very similar. But you already know that, you know what happened in the episode, right? The obsession then is for an answer: Where does this all go? Who did the crimes? Who is The King in Yellow? How does it end?

5. I now lazily link to an article that rounds up some of the conjecture — the “theories” — about how the show will end. You’ve read some of these, right?

6. This kind of conjecture is fun, or maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—maybe what I want to say instead is:

True Detective compels many of its viewers to obsessively hunt down clues in each frame. There’s a thickness to the show’s repetition of key images and phrases—spirals, stars, sets of five figures, antlers, crowns, crosses that dissolve into targets, etc.—a seeming preciseness that invites us to impose our own order, our own narrative.

(This is the kind of conjecture that Hart repeatedly warns Cohle not to indulge in).

7. I’m reminded here of Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas’s prologue to Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman:

What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death.

True Detective, like True Policeman—and, like Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666—all invite the active participation of the reader. But also the woe.

8. There is no supernatural solution to the mysteries of True Detective. From the outset, True Detective has posited (the illusion of) human consciousness as a part of nature that seeks to define itself against naturethe real.

In True Detective, the supernatural is the product of terror and fantasy. It is imaginary. (And of course therefore no less real than the natural, the real, thanks to human consciousness).

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9. From the beginning of Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves:

It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.

This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.

The emphasis is mine.

10. In the sixth episode of True Detective, Cohle says to Hart: “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.” The indictment is broad, dark, and perhaps paranoid, but it serves to highlight the series’s keen attenuation to infanticide, to the infinite loss and dramatic mourning that underpins begetting.

11. Cohle has lost his daughter, and her death at such a young age, he says, spared him “the sin of fatherhood.”

Hart has essentially lost his daughters, ruined his life, ruined his (illusion of the) status as a family man. The thing that mattered—his family—was “right under his nose” the whole time.

On the job, both Cohle and Hart—separately—witness the awful deaths of infants; in both cases, the men snap, disconnect, quit.

12. (At this time, the reader is invited to sift through his or her own recollections of True Detective (if he or she so desires) and set aside examples of infanticidal violence).

13. Many fans of the show have speculated that Martin Hart is the King in Yellow, a notion fueled by the show’s stores of symbolic images, as well as Hart’s own actions.

The theory is intriguing, but I seriously doubt that Hart will be revealed as a perpetrator in the crimes of the Tuttle case. However, he is capable of slipping into werewolf mode: Threatening his lover Lisa’s new beau with horrific violence and then declaring, “I’m not a psycho–I wouldn’t have done those things” (the past perfect tense there is so strange); slipping on gloves to assault the boys who had consensual sex with his daughter Audrey; etc. etc. etc.

Hart’s actions are the strange double bind of the patriarchal lawman who sets to rule with sanctioned order—and, specifically, to rule and control the sexualized female body, which is oh-so-important to begettingDoes he serve and protect? Does he terrorize and menace? Both and at the same time.

But I’d argue that Hart is illusioned, that his identity is constituted in maintaining an illusion, an illusion that Cohle is too keenly aware of (“…you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute”).

14. There’s a heap of corpses at the core of Bolaño’s 2666—women who are raped, murdered, discarded. Bolaño sends various detectives—many of them good detectives, true policeman—to find the killers, but there’s no satisfying answer: Just plenty of killers, plenty of werewolves. As the novel reaches its (non)end, we await the promise of a Giant (The Tall Man), a Big Answer. But the answer is inadequate, incomplete.

15. The capacity to transform into a killer, a werewolf is always there. Just put on some gloves. Just slip on a mask.

Or maybe take your mask off.

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