Reviews and riffs of June and July, 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

The second part of my (long) interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. Chock full of all sorts of riffage: sincerity, authenticity, Vollmann’s visual art, etc. Special bonus: slightly frazzled Franzen pic.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in June/July. First time I’d read the whole thing since 2001. I wrote about reading the first 299 pages. I was also reading some of the essays in William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I riffed at some length on Wallace contra Gass, masscult entertainment, etc. From that riff:

…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?

I also wrote a brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest, and included a list of motifs, which (the list) may or may not be helpful.

Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper is fucking incredible.

Loved loved loved J.G. Ballard’s degenerate debauched depraved novel High-Rise

—but his later novel Millennium People, despite a great concept and some fascinating ideas, really isn’t so good.

Here’s that owl—with a special guest no less!

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A review of Millennium People, J.G. Ballard’s novel of middle-class boredom and meaningless violence

Act of Violence, Rene Magritte

Early in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, our narrator David Markham remarks that “A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.” The sentence delivers three of the novel’s key terms: boredommeaningless, and violence. These words (or iterations of these words) repeat so often in Millennium People that any connotative spark they might bear becomes dulled. Even the violence becomes boring.

The violence in the novel resonates from its central plot about a middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina, an “enclave of middle-class decorum.” Corporate psychologist David Markham is drawn into this revolution after his ex-wife dies in an apparently-meaningless bombing at Heathrow Airport. (She dies at the baggage carousel—symbolically-overloaded and thoroughly-Ballardian). Initially, Markham’s goal is to infiltrate the group as a kind of unwitting police spy. However, he soon takes part in acts of terrorism and meaningless violence, led in large part by Kay Churchill, an ex-film studies professor who rails against the evils of Hollywood and travel. Soon, Kay ventriloquizes Markham:

…I could hear her voice inside my head: bullying, pleading, sensible and utterly mad. The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.

Kay eventually leads Markham to Millennium People’s would-be heart of darkness, demented pediatrician Dr. Richard Gould. Kay and Markham:

‘Richard says that people who find the world meaningless find meaning in pointless violence.’

‘Richard? Dr Richard Gould?’

‘You’ll meet him again, when he’s ready. He’s the leader of our middle-class rebellion. His mind is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way, he’s one of them.’

Kay is a far more interesting character than Gould. Unfortunately, Ballard teases out Gould as the Big Bad, occasionally having him show up to dialogue with Markham on finding big-em Meaning in all the meaninglessness of the world. God as a Void, the evils of the 20th century infecting the new millennium, etc. These ideas repeat and repeat and repeat, bumping along a muddled plot. Indeed, much of the plot and many of the themes of Millennium People might be condensed into this conversation between Markham and his one-time colleague/boring-assed doppelgänger Henry the psychologist. Markham speaks first in this exchange, explaining the revolution to Henry (I’ve added bold-faced emphasis if you’re in a hurry):

‘Middle-class pique. We sense we’re being exploited. All those liberal values and humane concern for the less fortunate. Our role is to keep the lower orders in check, but in fact we’re policing ourselves.’

Henry watched me tolerantly over his whisky. ‘Do you believe all that?’

‘Who knows? The important thing is that the people at Chelsea Marina believe it. It’s amateurish and childish, but the middle classes are amateurish, and they’ve never left their childhoods behind. But there’s something much more important going on. Something that ought to worry your friends at the Home Office.”

“And that is?’

‘Decent and level-headed people are hungry for violence.’

‘Grim, if true.’ Henry put down his whisky. ‘Directed at what?’

‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong – you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.

While Ballard’s diagnosis of the end of the 20th century is both perceptive and prescient, the novel’s repetitions build to very little. Ballard puts his interlocutors into fascinating territory, but then squirms away. Here’s Gould holding forth to Markham:

We’re living in a soft-regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates. Somehow we’ve got to break free. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point.

Markham then immediately turns the conversation to the Heathrow bombing that killed his ex-wife. The potential for a shocking exchange simply veers back to the novel’s central thesis.

And that thesis becomes muddied. Markham, Gould, Kay, and other revolutionaries make bold, radical declarations, but often append them in a sentimentality at odds with their revolutionary claims. Ballard’s characters let us know that they think murder is wrong. The contradiction between the impulse for meaningless violence and the core (and very middle-class) values that often restrains the impulse remains unexplored. This unresolved contradiction might have been a purposeful tactic meant to highlight the limits of our narrator’s desire for real revolution, but there’s little to lead a reader to this conclusion beyond his own hopeful imagination. Ballard seems as uncommitted as the characters.

A lack of force and shock—that’s the problem of Millennium People, I suppose. It’s unfair and unproductive to expect Ballard to rewrite Crash or High-Rise here, even though he’s playing with many of the same themes and motifs. And yet those novels exist. Dr. Richard Gould is a pale answer to Crash’s Dr. Robert Vaughan (or Richard Wilder of High-Rise or Strangman of The Drowned World or Dr. Barbara of Rushing to Paradise…). Ballard’s satire suffers from a lack of full commitment. The hyperbole peters out; the tonal inconsistencies, far from clashing, become dull.

Still, there’s much to commend in Millennium People even if it falls short of Ballard’s finest work. The novel’s larded with little riffs and satirical observations: “America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up,” Kay remarks. Markham observes in a riot “the outrage of professional men and women who had never known pain and whose soft bodies had been pummelled only by their lovers and osteopaths.” We’re informed that “From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act.” (I would love to read the notebook where Ballard recorded these phrases, if such a treasure exists).

Millennium People’s prescience—like most of Ballard’s previous work—only comes into sharper relief over time. The erosion of the middle class, the spike in income inequality, the inability of regular working people to live in places like London or New York City anymore—Ballard’s mapped it all out here. The contemporary world Ballard satirizes in Millennium People—published just a few years before his death in 2009—is already thoroughly Ballardian. The millennium caught up to the man.

A review of Nell Zink’s extraordinary novel The Wallcreeper

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The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”

But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:

Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.

(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:

It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.

And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:

After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.

It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.

Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:

Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink

The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean wittysmartintelligent, devastatingconfounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).

Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—

Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).

A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.

The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:

We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.

Beautiful!

But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.

The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (a book I’ve always loved)I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

Dwarves.

The Hobbit stinks.

It is just so boreing.

“DEATH TO HOBBITS!”

This is such a horrible book.

Gandalf the wizard is a bogus

Swoar, lil’ fools wack for REALL.

And what’s this thing about hairy feet?

Crying because the story will NOT END!

my mom liked it (what’s wrong with her? )

Spend your money on Harry Potter instead.

I dought we will ever finish this horrible book.

No offense, but the suspense was not at all amusing

I know for a fact that there are several of Hobbit fans.

Bilbo is a Hobbit who seems not to do much in the story.

it was as if a ten year old coul’ve made up these characters.

forget about all the other reviews. they just think bilbo the bimbo is hot.

This is a dangerous book and is an extremely bad influence on adolescents.

Not only that, it is also more boring than having tea with nan and the relatives.

There is no action and Bilbo Baggins is the biggest a$$ in a fantasy novel ever.

This is a prime example of what happens when Star Trek and Star Wars dorks pick up a book.

No originality whatsoever is involved and the pages make me wish I was not even in existence.

After reading literary masterpieces by Robert Jordan, and Aurther C. Clark, books like these seem pointless.

The book is about a young hobit that goes on an adventurer to get rid of a ring that if you w where it you turn e ebook

One more things on the dwarves. They are useless characters and this story makes me want to vomit.

This book is a story of your everyday savior (supposedly Bilbo) having adventures and slaying a dragon.

The ending of the story is horrible and it seems that Tolkien wasted his POOR and SENSELESS usage of his brain.

They also don’t fit the spirit of dwarves, but then again after time they evolved into the grumpy alchoholics fantasy tends to portray them as.

I sit there reading every single word of it, but I think about something else. I read “Bilbo blah blah blah,” but think “Oh what am I gonna do today after school?”

Bilbo is not exactly the character which you would find addicted to. He stammers and is basically a coward.

This yogurt tastes awful! This is the worst yogurt I have ever tasted!

And like all stories, there are monsters and strange happenings.

What was I drinking when I decided to read this piece of junk?

:-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo!:-(

I despise and loathe this series tremendously.

I’m just glad this guy’s dead. :)

Bilbo reminds me of a pig.

“DIE HOBBITS, DIE!”

Idiotic and Irritating.

to many characters!

this is some butt

Agghhh!

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss (Book acquired and read sometime in May 2015)

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Jon Frankel’s Gaha: Babes of the Abyss is simultaneously familiar and estranging, a bizarre California crime-noir-dystopian shot through a druggy haze. It’s funny and weird, part caper, part adventure story, where everything’s just a little off (and more than a little sleazy). The easy comparison to Philip K. Dick is not unwarranted: Frankel’s satire is a dark mind-bender and a propulsive page-turner. Civil War, a genetically-altered ruling class, sex, violence, drugs, and real estate. The title is new from new indie imprint Whiskey Tit (Ms. Miette’s the honcho there, so you know it’s good stuff). Their blurb:

She was seventeen and all leg, banging the hell out of a pinball machine. I watched her play, my back to the bar. There was a cigarette going in her left hand with a cone of ash hanging off the end. The muscles in her bare thighs tensed up every time she bumped her pelvis into the coin box. As the ball shot toward her flippers she turned her feet in and banged with the right and then the left hand, knocking the ash to the floor. The red light on top of the machine started to turn and a police siren went off. It barked, “Pull off to the side of the road!” and she slapped the flipper, sending the ball up into a thousand-point hole. While the lights flashed and sirens sang she took a long drag off the cigarette.

I should have known better.

So begins Jon Frankel’s unflinching saga of Bob Martin, real estate pimp of Los Angeles in the year 2540, and his hapless, hopeless efforts to stay out of trouble in the company of 17-year-old Irmela von Dorderer and her big sister Elma.  He should have known better, indeed.

Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest

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A note on the context of the first reading, subsequent ventures, and this rereading

I bought David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in 1997 when I was a freshman in college, as required by law. I attempted reading it a few times without really getting to page 100. (I did read and reread the short stories and the essays and Wallace’s first novel in that time though. None were assigned readings. The DFW Academic Industry was not a Thing yet).

The first time I read the book the whole way through was in the weird fall of 2001, the first fall I hadn’t returned to school because I had graduated from school, the fall of 9/11, the fall I moved to Tokyo the week after 9/11, packing the book in a smallish suitcase that the airport security guy had to take everything out of with his latex-gloved hands, removing every item, all the clothes and books, because I was traveling on a one-way ticket to a foreign land. It was in that weird fall that I finally read the book, reading mostly in the very very early a.m., sometimes reading for hours, reading too late, becoming addicted.

In years since, I’ve poked at rereadings, often looking for very specific passages/sections, and always meaning to do a full reread, but there are all those other big books that need to get read (and then reread).

Well so and anyway: This reread has been prompted by back-to-back readings of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I take to be the most obvious precursor text for Infinite Jest (and likely the greatest source of Wallace’s Oedipal anxiety if we want to get all Bloomian). I thought about Infinite Jest a lot while reading GR.

So far, like any rereading of a big encyclopedic novelInfinite Jest seems much, much easier than my initial go through (although coming off GR almost anything would probably seem much, much easier). With the contours of the “big plot” in place (and the rhetorical dazzle of some of Wallace’s embedded-essays not as blinding as before), focusing on details, patterns, and motifs becomes simply more possible. (I don’t think I connected Hal’s clipping his toenails in Ch. 18 to the toenails Gately finds in Ennet House in Ch. 19 before, f’r’instance). (There are no actual chapter numbers in IJ, although there are circles separating chapters which can be counted).

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. While that scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger.  Continue reading “Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest”

Reviews and riffs of May 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

Reviews and riffs, May 2015

In which I read Playboy for the Pynchon article.

This is not a review of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t.

What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?

A review of Jim O’Rourke’s new record Simple Songs.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian reviewed.

A somewhat contrarian take on Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Men’s cynical finale.

Gravity’s Rainbow and Disney’s Fantasia.

Unrelated owl by Durer:

 

A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)

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Disney’s Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. 

At least this thought zipped into my head a few weeks back, as I watched the film with my wife and kids. I was in the middle of a second reading of the novel, an immediate rereading prompted by the first reading. It looped me back in. Everything seemed connected to the novel in some way. Or rather, the novel seemed to connect itself to everything, through its reader—me—performing a strange dialectic of paranoia/anti-paranoia.

So anyway, Fantasia seemed to me an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow, bearing so many of the novel’s features: technical prowess, an episodic and discontinuous form, hallucinatory dazzle, shifts between “high” and “low” culture, parodic and satirical gestures that ultimately invoke sincerity, heightened musicality, themes of magic and science, themes of automation and autonomy, depictions of splintering identity, apocalypse and genesis, cartoon elasticity, mixed modes, terror, love, the sublime, etc.

(There’s even a coded orgy in Fantasia).

But Fantasia was first released in 1940 right, when Pynchon was, what, three or four? And Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, and most of the events in that novel happen at the end of World War II, in like, 1944, 1945, right? So the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is ridiculous, right?

(Unless, perhaps, we employ those literary terms that Steven Weisenburger uses repeatedly in his Companion to Gravity’s Rainbow: analepsis and prolepsis—so, okay, so perhaps we consider Fantasia an analepsis, a flashback, of Gravity’s Rainbow, or we consider Gravity’s Rainbow a prolepsis, a flashforward, of Fantasia…no? Why not?).

Also ridiculous in the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that modifier “better,” for what other film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow exist?

(The list is long and mostly features unintentional titles, but let me lump in much of Robert Altman, The Conversation, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, that Scientology documentary Going Clear, a good bit of stuff by the Wachowksis, The Fisher King (hell, all of Terry Gilliam, why not?), the Blackadder series, which engenders all sorts of wonderful problems of analepsis and prolepsis…).

Gravity’s Rainbow is of course larded with film references, from King Kong and monster movies to German expressionism (Fritz Lang in particular), and features filmmakers and actors as characters. The novel also formulates itself as its own film adaptation, perhaps. The book’s fourth sentence tells us “…it’s all theatre.” (That phrase appears again near the novel’s conclusion, in what I take to be a key passage). And the book ends, proleptically, in “the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose,” a theater managed by Richard M. Nixon, excuse me, Zhlubb—with the rocket analeptically erupting from the past into “The screen…a dim page spread before us, white and silent.” Indeed, as so many of the book’s commentator’s have noted, Pynchon marks separations in the book’s sequences with squares reminiscent of film sprockets —  □ □ □ □ □ □ □. Continue reading “A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)”

On Mad Men’s cynical finale

In an early scene in “Person to Person,” the series finale of Mad Men, Joan Holloway tries cocaine for the first time. “I feel like someone just gave me very good news,” she beams, offering an advertising tag. The coke-sniffing detail seemed odd to me at first—perhaps it was another way for the series to signal the end of the sixties, to introduce the next drug, the next product to fuel future decades.

The final moments of “Person to Person,” however, show that the cocaine scene is an early reading rule. Joan’s testimony of the “Good News” comes from artificial inducement. Impermanent, intoxicating, and addictive, the coke here prefigures the Coke at the show’s end. Fittingly, Mad Men ends with a television commercial, the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke” Coca-Cola ad.

The ad itself is a genius piece of propaganda: Buy a Coke, become a better person. Not feeling so good? Buy some more Coke. This ad strikes me as a prototypical example of what Slavoj Žižek would critique a few decades later as “the ultimate form of consumerism,” products that allow us “to be a consumerist, without any bad conscience, because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included into the price of a commodity.”

What’s the countermeasure, the counterforce then? All those supposed-values of the 1960s, which Don plunders for his career-restoring campaign. He cribs this vision of peace, love, and understanding from the New Age hucksters who are only too happy to take what’s left of our ad man’s money.

Don’s insight comes through a (purposefully facile?) moment of catharsis. In group therapy, a man takes the empty chair that Don’s counselor would have liked Don to fill himself. Don is spared testifying; the stranger will perform in his stead. He tells a story about feeling like a product on a shelf in a fridge, isolated, alienated. The core of his little monologue is about not understanding love, not knowing how to love or be loved. In a rare moment of empathy, Don has his big important cathartic release, and hugs the man, who has reminded Don of what Don already knew, but had been ignoring: People want to feel loved.

Earlier in the season, Don shot down an ad idea that had to do with love — “Love again? We always use that,” he says (or something close to that). But here, disconnected (almost all meaningful conversations in the episode are mediated through telephones), he’s reminded that what people want is touch, the sensation or feeling of love. And he can sell them that: The feeling of the feeling of love. 

Here’s the show’s last moments:

The pat montage ties an unusually neat bow on the series’ major storylines. I’d argue that it’s best read ironically, something of a send-up of our desires, our wish for the characters we “love” to experience “love.”

This ironic reading bears out in light of the notes that punctuate the conclusion. The meditation-leader promises “new lives…a new you,” words that might be used to sell almost anything, from soap to hope. A chime then initiates om meditation, and the series ends with three notes: The chime, a smile on Don’s face, and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke.” The chime recalls a ringing cash register, and Don’s smile is an epiphany of how to sell love. Matthew Weiner ends his seven season project with an ad, a cynical joke on the audience. I loved it.

Or maybe my ironic reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t a cynical joke on the audience here. Maybe the simple resolutions were the best Weiner et al could do. Maybe the show is just a really good-looking glossy prime-time soap opera (it is), and like all soap operas it was designed to sell soap.

Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed

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Fury Road film poster by John Aslarona
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road performs exactly what its intended audience demands. Essentially a cartoonish two-hour car chase brimming with violent badassery, Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Poking at the weak dialogue, cardboard characterizations, and muddled motivations would miss the point. Fury Road looks amazing. It’s thrilling. It’s violent. It does what it was made to do. It’s a spectacular entertainment. (Spectacular in the Guy Debord sense).

Those who would contend there’s more to Fury Road, that would protest I’m missing some depth here, might refer me to the film’s feminist motifs. Yes, this is a film that critiques and rebels against patriarchal authority (going so far as to spell out its message in big block letters even). Maybe there’s a Freudian or Lacanian analysis in there too: Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa (she’s the real star of the film—Tom Hardy’s Max is a bland substitute for old crazy eyes Mel), shorn of both hair and an arm (castration symbols, no?) driving an enormous phallus (one dangling a big testicle full of fuel, power, no less) across the desert wastes, plunging it violently ahead to save some concubines (their eminence derives from their non-mutant genes and marvelous cheekbones—like Zack Snyder’s 300, Fury Road always privileges ideal body types over aberrations).

Where was I? It doesn’t really matter.

Ah, yes: I claimed that the movie obviates criticism.

Fury Road is a product, a commodity that successfully camouflages its very commodification. It’s fan service for our post global id.

The film has been nearly universally praised, as a quick tour through the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes shows. I’ll lazily pull from RT’s pull quotes lazily: “This movie will melt your face off,” promises Christy Lemire. (Uh, okay). For David Edelstein, seeing the film a second time “became about digging the spectacle – not to mention the hilarious sexual politics.” (Were they really “hilarious”?) “An A-plus B-movie that at times feels almost like a tone poem to early-’80s excess,” writes Christopher Orr, who may or may not know what a tone poem is. Mark Kermode, a crank whom I generally admire, calls it “an orgy of loud and louder, leaving us alternately exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted.”

I stuff these quips in  here to show how Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Like I said up front, it does what it intends to do, and what it intends to do is show us something wholly familiar in a way that makes us think that we are not seeing something wholly familiar. But for me, anyway, Fury Road does feel familiar, like any number of movies I’ve already seen. Maybe blame it on Miller’s earlier Mad Max films. Maybe they colonized our cultural imagination so much that any strangeness in Fury Road is difficult to glean, hence the filmmaker’s central trick: Speed the damn thing up. Less character development, less bothersome talking 

I cherry-tomato-picked the Kermode quote above, but his full review is more measured and insightful than that quote alone suggests. He ends with a warning: “…at two hours it’s more of a slog, battle-fatigue teetering on the edge of burn-out and even boredom.” Reader, I’ll admit to that boredom.

The first edges of that boredom actually creep in early, when we see how little is actually at stake in the film. Miller’s gambit is to keep Max constrained for the first quarter of the film—bound, chained, even muzzled. Tied to the prow of a rumbling car like some mythic figure, Max is relentlessly imperiled by spears and bullets and an apocalyptic sandstorm. But like some mythic figure, we know he’ll never die. Like the Roadrunner cartoons it so closely resembles, Fury Road imagines a slapstick world of zany cause-and-effect non-logic, producing kinetic anxieties in its audience that are ultimately relieved (over and over again) with a belief so strong that it cannot be suspended: Max will not die. Max can never die. There must be a sequel.

That promise of a sequel finds its affirmation in the film’s most clichéd final moments. (I’m going to discuss the end of the film now. Spoilers coming up—fair warning, eh?)

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Fury Road film poster by Salvador Anguiano
Continue reading “Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed”

Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs

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In the last minute of “Hotel Blue,” the fourth track on his new LP Simple Songs, Jim O’Rourke belts out his lines with an emotional directness we haven’t heard in his work before. He sings, and sings with a sincere presence and confidence perhaps previously absent from his fine work. The song builds from a few strums of acoustic guitar into a crescendo worthy of Harry Nilsson.

Like Nilsson (or Nilsson’s hero Randy Newman), O’Rourke’s work is saturated in a dark humor that’s perhaps easy to ignore because his music sounds so  pretty. Simple Song’s first track “Friends with Benefits” reveals that welcoming-repulsing impetus in its opening lines: “Nice to see you once again / Been a long time, my friend / since you’ve crossed my mind at all.”

The initial moments of “Friends with Benefits” feel like an overture, unfurling in little episodes that recall O’Rourke’s 2009 suite The Visitor. The track eventually coalesces and climaxes in Terry Riley violin strokes, reverberating, decisive guitar lines, and stomping drums.

These musical elements continue throughout the album, which is often driven by piano riffs cribbed from all your favorite ’70s groups. Standout track “Half Life Crisis” bounces along in a Steely Dan strut, punctuated by Brian May guitar squiggles. Dissonant orchestral touches creep into the song’s final moments, recalling some of O’Rourke’s more “experimental” work—but also calling back to The Beatles.

Simple Songs feels like the culmination 0f some of O’Rourke’s projects over the past decade, and it made me revisit them. The Visitor sounds almost like a sketchbook for this record,and All Kinds of People, the record of Burt Bacharach songs O’Rourke recorded with various vocalists, feels in retrospect like a practice run at a personal pop record. Simple Songs builds on O’Rourke’s previous two “pop” records (Eureka and Insignificance), and even though it’s not named after a Nic Roeg film, it completes a trilogy of sorts. (But I hope this is more than a trilogy, to be clear).

The emotional intensity promised in “Hotel Blue” returns in the album’s closing tracks. “End of the Road” sees O’Rourke singing—not just talk-singing, but really singing—over McCartney piano and strings. “If you were at sea / They’d throw you overboard,” our misanthrope suggests. And in the final rousing track “All Your Love,” O’Rourke sings, “I’m so happy now / And I blame you,” before promising that “All your love / Will never change me.”

I’m not very good at writing about music, and really, writing is no substitute for listening. You can stream the album now at NPR—just do it over a real sound system or at least with some proper headphones. It sounds too good for your laptop’s tinny little noise holes.

Simple Songs is out on vinyl, etc., from Drag City next week.

This is not a review of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t

This is the part of the not-review where I include a picture I took of the book to accompany the not-review:

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This is the part of the not-review where I briefly restage Lydia Davis’s publishing history to provide some context for readers new to her work.

This is the part of the not-review where I submit that anyone already familiar with Lydia Davis’s short fiction is likely to already hold an opinion on it that won’t (but could) be changed by Can’t and Won’t.

This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over whether or not the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.

This is the part of the not-review where I state that I don’t care if the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.

This is the part of the not-review where I explain that I have found a certain precise aesthetic pleasure in most of Can’t and Won’t that radiates from the savory contradictory poles of identification and alienation.

This is the part of the not-review where I cite an example of identification with Davis’s narrator-persona-speaker:

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This is the part of the not-review where I claim that I used scans of the text to preserve the look and feel of Lydia Davis’s prose on the page.

This is the part of the not-review where I say that some of my favorite moments in Can’t and Won’t are Davis’s expressions of frustrated boredom with literature (or do I mean publishing?), like in the longer piece “Not Interested.”

This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Davis’s speaker-narrator-persona expresses frustration with the act of writing itself:

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This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over distinctions between Davis the author and Davis the persona-speaker-narrator.

This is the part of the not-review where I point out that (previous dithering and frustration-with-writing aside) writing itself is a major concern of Can’t and Won’t:

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This is the part of the not-review where I say that many of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are labeled dream, and I often found myself not really caring for these dreams (although I like the one above), but maybe I didn’t really care for the dreams because of their being tagged as dreams. (This is the part of the not-review where I point out that our eyes glaze over when anyone tells us their literal dreams).

This is the part of the not-review where I transition from stories tagged dream to stories tagged story from Flaubert, like this one:

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This is the part of the not-review where I say how much I liked the stories from Flaubert stories in Can’t and Won’t.

This is the part of the not-review where I mention Davis’s translation work, but don’t admit that I didn’t make it past the first thirty pages of her Madame Bovary. 

This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly reference my review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and point out that that collection is not so collected now.

This is the part of the not-review where I pointlessly dither over post-modernism, post-postmodernism, and Davis’s place in contemporary fiction. (This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly cram in the names of other authors, like Kafka and Walser and Bernhard and Markson and Adler and Miller &c.).

This is the part of the not-review where I claim that nothing I’ve written matters because Davis makes me laugh (this is also the part of the not-review where I use the adverb “ultimately,” a favorite crutch):

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This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Can’t and Won’t is not for everybody, but I very much enjoyed it.

This is the part of the not-review where I mention that the publisher is FS&G/Picador, and that the book is available in the usual formats.

Subtraction from reality

At The Reading Experience, Daniel Green reviews David Winters’s Infinite Fictions. From the review:

Reckoning with literary qualities is something Winters does exceptionally well. Most of the books discussed in the first section of Infinite Fictions (“On Literature”) are complex, unconventional works of fiction, and Winters is painstaking in attempting to describe the strategies the author at hand seems to be using, to account for the effect of reading the work as registered in Winters’s own experience of it. As he says in the introduction to the book, “As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. . . Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I’m less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction.” Thus Winters attends to the specificity of the reading experience itself, something academic criticism generally abjures, while also avoiding the superficial approach of the most “trivial” kind of book reviews, the kind that aim merely to “make prescriptions.”

“Subtraction” from reality perhaps seems like a version of being “immersed” in a book, but I would presume Winters means something closer to what John Dewey called “pure experience,” which Dewey believed becomes most accessible to us as aesthetic experience.  According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself.” The reader truly receptive to the kind of experience art, in this case literary art, makes available is not in some kind of mystical trance but is fully engaged in an act of what Dewey calls “recreation,” perceiving the writer’s conceptual and expressive moves thoroughly enough that the reader in effect replays those moves. Literary criticism then becomes in part the attempt to communicate the tenor of this reading experience through the most felicitous description and analytical insight the critic can muster.

Riff on the end/beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow

Well: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before [—]”

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So. Okay. So I finished Gravity’s Rainbow on Friday night, and reread the opening section (and more than the opening section) on Saturday morning, resisting a compulsion to immediately return to the beginning.

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So: Okay: Right?

The ending of Gravity’s Rainbow cycles back to the beginning (like Finnegans Wake): Blicero’s rocket, screaming across the sky—yes? no?—to invade the dreams (?) of psychic Pirate Prentice? The book: a loop, a Möbius strip, a film, its reels discombobulated, jostled, scattered

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“…it’s all theatre,” we learn on the book’s first page (page 3); the book ends in a theater—the Orpheus Theater!—where maybe scattered Slothrop is the leading man, scattered, we find ourselves in him, parts of him—where the audience demands, on the book’s last page: “Start-the-show!”

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“You’re putting response before stimulus,” Spectro shakes his head at Pointsman, early in “Beyond the Zero,” the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow—does this describe the beginning/end of the novel? (“It has happened before”).

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Or, a bit earlier even, at the seance, (page 32), Gloaming describes one kind of plot: “…we should get something like a straight line” — but then gives us another kind of plot — “…however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain —conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape … classical paranoiac—” Is this the shape of Gravity’s Rainbow?

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—but right this moment it’s that final dash that intrigues me—this in a novel full of dashes, this in a novel that name-checks Emily Dickinson, Eternal Empress of Dashes—the fragmented conclusion is full of dashes, lines obliterated by more perfect, straight lines, simultaneously connecting and disconnecting—like the novel’s final line:

“Now everybody—“

□ □ □ □ □ □ □ Continue reading “Riff on the end/beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow”

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.” Continue reading “A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)”

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