Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

October 19, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity Is a Worthy Sequel to Children of Men

by Edwin Turner

The final sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men offers an example of film-making at its finest. Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, frantically guides refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her newborn through a hellish internment camp to an ostensible escape by sea. Kee, her name symbolically overdetermined, is the first person on earth to become pregnant after a generation of sterility.

Children of Men is set against the backdrop of militarized dystopia (Slavoj Žižek has suggested that this background is the essence of the film), a vile, clamorous police state that its hero Theo mutes with alcohol. Theo has yet to come to terms with the grief of losing his son, a plot conceit that mirrors the infinite loss figured in humanity’s sterility (and looming extinction). The film’s thrilling final third sees Theo convert his paralysis into radical action, as he ushers Kee and her newborn through the dystopic background, a violent blur the ideological details of which the audience is free to ignore.

Cuarón strips meaning down to raw, simple, archetypal impulses—Theo is a stand-in for any parent, Kee and her daughter emblematic of genetic futurity.  The film sublimates its underlying existential discourse into a gripping narrative fueled by its audience’s own anxieties. The drama culminates in a final sequence in which Cuarón amplifies and extends the existential anxiety by refusing to cut his shots for minutes at a time. The audience finds a surrogate in both Theo and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who moves us physically through violence and disaster.

While directors like Chris Nolan and Michael Bay produce anxiety in their films through frenetic editing and rapid jump cuts, Cuarón’s long takes force the viewer to engage the drama directly. The payoff is that rare creature: A film with an ending stronger than its beginning—a film that goes, that moves, that grips its audience right up until the credits.

Gravity-1

Cuarón’s newest film Gravity follows this same template. For ninety minutes, Cuarón—again working with cinematographer Lubezki—forces the audience into a propulsive and sustained anxiety trip. Gravity features astronauts as its heroes, but its technological milieu (space stations, shuttles, astronaut suits) belies its radical simplicity. This is a film about survival that questions why there is indeed a human impulse to survive.

Like Theo of Children of Men, the hero of Gravity Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has also lost a child. She too has yet to come to terms with her grief. While Children of Men used a dystopic, politicized backdrop to highlight its character’s grief—and, significantly, the specter of infinite infanticideGravity offers up an existential void. The film’s near-perfection is that it refuses any other plot elements, giving us only Ryan’s literal attempt to save herself paired with the film’s overdetermined but singular metaphor: outer space as a beautiful, nihilistic abyss.

Gravity has been out for a few weeks now and has done gangbusters at the box office. I take this as a positive sign. This is the kind of blockbuster we need more of, a personal spectacle, a huge film in a minimalist mode. I could pick on a few things, maybe—the score is heavy-handed and obtrusive (and could probably be dispensed with entirely) and some of the dialogue falls clumsily—but I think that Cuarón has made the film he intended to, a sequel of sorts to Children of Men, and one worthy of that film’s climax.

I can’t end here though without addressing Richard Brody’s negative review of Gravity in The New Yorker. Brody is admittedly hard to take seriously after his opening claim that the film is simultaneously “viscerally thrilling and…deadly boring,” a statement that immediately highlights Brody’s biggest critical failure: He wants the film to be something that it is not trying to be.

Brody at length:

Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue.

I’ve included the hyperlink in that last phrase to a confused essay in which Brody decries what he perceives as the failure of contemporary directors to address the imaginative capacity of their characters. For Brody, Gravity has to be a failure—by design, it is a thoroughly concrete transmission of events, a causal chain of consequences. Brody wants flashbacks, moments of introspection; he explicitly calls for the “moral forthrightness of a foregrounded speaker bearing witness.” In Gravity, Bullock’s Ryan is agent and surrogate for the audience, who process and bear witness to her choices and changes. The film’s minimalism strips her choices down to an extended but focused exploration of the problem Hamlet voiced centuries earlier: “To be or not to be.” And Cuarón has offered a moral forthrightness and a clear point of view, even if Brody is uncomfortable with the mechanisms through which Cuarón would have us access it: Gravity chooses To be.

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October 14, 2013

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Third Riff: Stories of 1961)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss400

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

IN THIS RIFF:

Stories published in 1961:

“Studio 5, The Stars”

“Deep End”

“The Overloaded Man”

“Mr. F Is Mr. F”

“Billennium”

“The Gentle Assassin”

1. “Studio 5, The Stars” (1961)

“Studio 5, The Stars” takes poetry as its subject and is the first story in The Complete Short Stories to focus on writing. Ballard’s tales usually concern some aspect of art, but up until now he’s been mainly concerned with music (and to a lesser extent visual art).

“Studio 5, The Stars” is the third tale in the collection set in “the crazy season at Vermilion Sands.” Our narrator is the editor of “Wave IX, an avant–garde poetry review.” Ballard constructs his story around the conceit that writing poetry has become (quite literally) a soulless, mechanical activity. Our narrator explains to his interlocutor:

I used to write a fair amount myself years ago, but the impulse faded as soon as I could afford a VT set. In the old days a poet had to sacrifice himself in order to master his medium. Now that technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there’s no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile –

Our narrator’s interlocutor is Aurora Day, a femme fatale who either is or believes she is “Melander,” an archetypal muse of poetry (invented  by Ballard, of course). Aurora is distraught over the state of poetry. And no wonder. Verse is now composed on a “VT set”:

‘Hold on,’ I told him. I was pasting down one of the Xero’s satirical pastiches of Rupert Brooke and was six lines short. I handed Tony the master tape and he played it into the IBM, set the metre, rhyme scheme, verbal pairs, and then switched on, waited for the tape to chunter out of the delivery head, tore off six lines and passed them back to me. I didn’t even need to read them.

The story can perhaps be condensed into this wonderful line:

Fifty years ago a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the whole process.

In his introduction to the collection, Ballard insisted that he “was interested in the real future” he saw coming, not an invented one. The notion of machines recording art that no one will bother to read seems particularly resonant today. Reading “Studio 5, The Stars,” I was reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent “art” project/stunt of printing the internet. There’s also something in the VT that recalls Slavoj Žižek’s riff on VCRs, machines recording and storing films that the viewer will never actually watch.

“Studio 5, The Stars” takes aim at a commercial culture that pays lip service to the high ideals of “culture” while simultaneously insuring that “culture” can be consumed at no sacrifice—no work—on the part of the consumer.

2. “Deep End” (1961)

Humanity migrates to Mars after sucking all the resources from the Earth. “Deep End” is a brief tale (and another in the collection to feature one of Ballard’s signature images, the drained swimming pool). An ecological dystopia, “Deep End” feels like a sketch for something bigger—but it gains power from its brevity, and Ballard is content to focus his energies on just a few characters and one core idea here. The restraint pays off in the story’s nihilistic punchline, which I won’t spoil here.

The Overloaded Man

3. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)

“Faulkner was slowly going insane” is an excellent way to begin a story, and Ballard delivers on his promise. Faulkner can no longer stand his cookie-cutter life in a cookie-cutter house. To alleviate his alienation from modern living, Faulkner builds a strange defense mechanism—he learns that he can dissociate himself from objective reality:

Steadily, object by object, he began to switch off the world around him. The houses opposite went first. The white masses of the roofs and balconies he resolved quickly into flat rectangles, the lines of windows into small squares of colour like the grids in a Mondrian abstract. The sky was a blank field of blue. In the distance an aircraft moved across it, engines hammering. Carefully Faulkner repressed the identity of the image, then watched the slim silver dart move slowly away like a vanishing fragment from a cartoon dream.

How to overcome alienation in a Ballardian world? Even more radical alienation. While “The Overloaded Man” points to a nihilism even bleaker than that in “Deep End,” it also demonstrates a marked improvement in Ballard’s writing from the earlier stories in the collection. We see Ballard controlling metaphor and imagery with a much stronger command than in the first half-dozen stories of his career. He sets out his poor hero’s mechanized domestic milieu in one savage line:

Her kiss was quick and functional, like the automatic peck of some huge bottle–topping machine.

There’s perhaps a slight streak of misogyny in “The Overloaded Man,” which at its core might be described as a story of a man whose nagging wife depresses him. Any ambivalence or fear of the female body that we’ve seen so far in the collection—in the dull, bothersome wives of “The Overloaded Man” or “Escapement,” or the powerful femme fatales of “Prima Belladonna,” “Venus Smiles,” or “Studio 5, The Stars”—any such hint burns vividly in the next story in the collection.

4. “Mr. F Is Mr. F” (1961)

“Mr. F Is Mr. F” tells the story of Charles Freeman and his pregnant wife, a woman presented with an almost-bovine simplicity that quickly escalates into horror. Charles Freeman grows younger and younger until he’s eventually absorbed into the maternal body.

The story is so nakedly Freudian that even its narrator has no problem spelling out the subtext for readers slow on the uptake:

He was forty when he married Elizabeth, two or three years her junior, and had assumed unconsciously that he was too old to become a parent, particularly as he had deliberately selected Elizabeth as an ideal mother–substitute, and saw himself as her child rather than as her parental partner.

“Mr. F Is Mr. F” is, by my count, the first Ballard story that explicitly takes the human body as its major object of study. Time, of course, is the ever-present grand theme of Ballard’s work, but up until now he’s concentrated his attention on time’s impact on geology, psychology, and culture—but not the human body. The story doesn’t so much analyze a fear of the maternal body so much as it uses that trope to generate fear and abject disgust.

There’s a teleological neatness to “Mr. F Is Mr. F” that  one senses Ballard was trying to pull off in some of his stories of the late 1950s, but couldn’t quite achieve. His chops are stronger here, and, paradoxically perhaps, less slavishly beholden to Edgar Allen Poe, he actually turns in a tale worthy of his hero.

5. “Billennium” (1961)

“Billennium” sees Ballard returning to the themes of overpopulation and overcrowding that he began exploring in 1957′s “The Concentration City.” The world Ballard imagines is horrifying—moreso because his representation of it is in some ways so terribly banal:

As for the streets, traffic had long since ceased to move about them. Apart from a few hours before dawn when only the sidewalks were crowded, every thoroughfare was always packed with a shuffling mob of pedestrians, perforce ignoring the countless ‘Keep Left’ signs suspended over their heads, wrestling past each other on their way to home and office, their clothes dusty and shapeless. Often ‘locks’ would occur when a huge crowd at a street junction became immovably jammed. Sometimes these locks would last for days. Two years earlier Ward had been caught in one outside the stadium, for over forty–eight hours was trapped in a gigantic pedestrian jam containing over 20,000 people, fed by the crowds leaving the stadium on one side and those approaching it on the other. An entire square mile of the local neighbourhood had been paralysed, and he vividly remembered the nightmare of swaying helplessly on his feet as the jam shifted and heaved, terrified of losing his balance and being trampled underfoot. When the police had finally sealed off the stadium and dispersed the jam he had gone back to his cubicle and slept for a week, his body blue with bruises.

“Billennium,” like many of the stories of 1961, benefits from Ballard’s increasing restraint. While “The Concentration City” is overfreighted with too many ideas to succeed as a perfect short story, Ballard maintains a focus in “Billennium” that pays off. And if the story is predictable—and predictably nihilistic—it nevertheless offers a chilling vision of the future that could very likely come to pass.

6. “The Gentle Assassin” (1961)

“The Gentle Assassin” is basically Ballard’s mechanism to discuss the so-called “Grandfather Paradox,” a time-travel conundrum of causality and intent. The tale is as neat and tidy as “Mr. F,” but it also showcases a patience and restraint; Ballard slowly builds an ominous, ironic atmosphere before executing his narrative trick. “The Gentle Assassin” isn’t particularly memorable, and there are dozens and dozens of versions of it to be found throughout sci-fi. Still, we see here–and in the other stories of 1961—that Ballard is more confident and able in his prose and plotting.

7. On the horizon:

We’re still a long way out from the formal experimentation of “1966′s The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” or 1968′s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but Ballard’s pulp fiction gets tighter—and weirder—as we go.

October 6, 2013

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Second Riff: Stories of 1960)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss400 PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

IN THIS RIFF:

Stories published in 1960:

“The Sound-Sweep”

“Zone of Terror”

“Chronopolis”

“The Voices of Time”

“The Last World of Mr. Goddard”

1. “The Sound-Sweep” (1960)

Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.

As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:

Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.

To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).

“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:

But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.

2. “Zone of Terror” (1960)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, each with much stronger results).

chronopolis

3. “Chronopolis” (1960)

“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:

‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’

But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will  explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

4.  “The Voices of Time” (1960)

“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:

…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …

… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…

I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.

Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

5. “The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)

More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.

6. On the horizon:

Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”

October 2, 2013

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (First Riff: Introductions + Stories 1956-1959)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss400

IN THIS RIFF:

Introductions

Stories published between 1956 and 1959:

“Prima Belladonna”

“Escapement”

“The Concentration City”

“Venus Smiles”

“Manhole 69″

“Track 12″

“The Waiting Grounds”

“Now: Zero”

1. Introduction

I first read J.G. Ballard in high school. I found his work, somehow, after reading Burgess, Burroughs, and Vonnegut. I devoured many of his novels over the next few years, as well as several short story collections. One of these, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard was particularly important to me. That collection—which I loaned to a friend who thought enough of it to never give it back—offers a concise overview of Ballard’s development as a writer, from the pulp sci-fi of his earliest days (“Chronopolis”) to his later evocations of ecological disaster and dystopia (“Billenium,” “The Terminal Beach”) to his more experimental work from The Atrocity Exhibition, stories that pointed toward one of his most famous books, Crash.

I hadn’t returned to Ballard since reading Super-Cannes when it came out a decade ago; at the time I recall being disappointed in the novel and filing it away with William Gibson’s recent efforts, which I found dull.

I’d been reading Donald Barthelme’s wonderful and strange short stories, and, rereading “Glass Mountain,” a story composed in a list, I remembered Ballard’s brilliant story “Answers to a Questionnaire” (from 1990′s War Fever). I tracked the story down in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, read it, read a few more at random, and then decided to start at the beginning.

I’ll be reading and riffing on all 98 stories in the collection over the next few months—giving myself breaks for other stuff, of course (although Ballard’s stuff, especially the early stuff is really easy to read).

2. Another introduction

Martin Amis writes the introduction to the 2009 edition and of course manages to bring up his father Kingsley almost immediately. He talks about the times he (Martin) got to spend with Ballard. He points out that Ballard possessed “a revealingly weak ear for dialogue.” He suggests that Ballard could have been the love child of Saki and Jorge Luis Borges. He describes Ballard as “somehow uniquely unique.” He reminds me of why I usually skip introductions.

3. And Ballard’s introduction, from the 2001 first edition of the book

He situates his hero, his contemporary, and his forbear in the first paragraph:

Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.

He also tells us,

Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.

I agree, except for the adverb there.

Did Ballard’s sensibilities gel with the sci-fi fans who read the pulp mags his early stories were published in?

I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred.

In the final lines of his introduction he describes his oeuvre and addresses criticisms that there’s so much damn analog tech in his stuff:

Vermilion Sands isn’t set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present – a description that fits the stories in this book and almost everything else I have written. But oh for a steam-powered computer and a wind-driven television set. Now, there’s an idea for a short story.

Vermilion Sands, the strange resort town where Ballard set over a half-dozen of his tales, is the setting of the first and fourth tales in the collection.

4. “Prima Belladonna” (1956) / “Venus Smiles” (1957)

Ballard already had a distinct setting in mind to play out his future-nowisms. That early stories “Prima Belladonna” and “Venus Smiles” are both in set in Vermilion Sands is maybe the most interesting thing about them. “Prima Belladonna” is never better than its first line:

I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.

Ballard has the good sense to leave that cryptic reference to “the Recess” unexplained, or at least underexplained throughout the story—exposition is usually the worst aspect of pulp sci-fi. Still, the story is hardly one of his best. I’m guessing Roger Corman must have read it though, as his film Little Shop of Horrors (1960) seems to owe it a certain debt.

vermilion_sands

“Venus Smiles” is also set in Vermilion Sands, and it also takes music—sound—as its major motif (several of Ballard’s early stories do). Ballard strives to do too much in the story—he wants to criticize public attitudes about art, sculpture, music, etc., and also name drop John Cage to bolster his avant garde bona fides. Both stories drag, weighed down by Ballard’s clunky similes and bad dialogue (dear lord I’m agreeing with Amis here!). What’s most frustrating is knowing that Ballard is just a decade away from finding a rhetorical style to match the content of his ideas.

5. “Escapement” (1956)

The story of a man who realizes he is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same actions, “Escapement” is particularly frustrating. The stakes are incredibly low—the domestic scene of a married couple watching TV on a couch begs for darker treatment—and the reader figures out what’s going on way before the narrator. Time is clearly a major motif for Ballard, but his earliest published treatment of it is not especially inspiring. (I realize writing this what an ass I sound like: look, I know this is early work, pulp fiction—my frustration is that I want it to be better—or at least more abbreviated.

6. “The Concentration City” (1957)

“The Concentration City” finally sees Ballard in stronger territory, here exploring one of his favorite dystopic tropes—overpopulation—via one of his favorite conceits—the intrepid and intellectually curious young man. “The Concentration City” also showcases some early experimental touches in its opening paragraphs:

Noon talk on Millionth Street:

‘Sorry, these are the West Millions. You want 9775335th East.’

‘Dollar five a cubic foot? Sell!’

‘Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal. Carry on south from there and you’ll find it between 568th Avenue and 422nd Street.’

‘There’s a cave–in down at KEN County! Fifty blocks by twenty by thirty levels.’

‘Listen to this – “PYROMANIACS STAGE MASS BREAKOUT! FIRE POLICE CORDON BAY COUNTY!”

‘It’s a beautiful counter. Detects up to .005 per cent monoxide. Cost me three hundred dollars.’

‘Have you seen those new intercity sleepers? They take only ten minutes to go up 3,000 levels!’

‘Ninety cents a foot? Buy!’

The story follows up on these early notes, using the initially-estranging material to tell the story of a seemingly-infinite city; our young hero of course wants to bust out. Ballard also gives us an early prototype of what will be one of his major conventions: the green-zone/danger-zone split:

‘City Authority are starting to seal it off,’ the man told him. ‘Huge blocks. It’s the only thing they can do. What happens to the people inside I hate to think.’ He chewed on a sandwich. ‘Strange, but there are a lot of these black areas. You don’t hear about them, but they’re growing. Starts in a back street in some ordinary dollar neighbourhood; a bottleneck in the sewage disposal system, not enough ash cans, and before you know it a million cubic miles have gone back to jungle. They try a relief scheme, pump in a little cyanide, and then – brick it up. Once they do that they’re closed for good.’

No exit!

7. “Manhole 69″ (1957)

Despite its unfortunate name, “Manhole 69″ is perfect early Ballard. The story follows three men in an experimental group who have undergone a surgery that eliminates their ability to sleep. The story is precise and concise; Ballard seems comfortable here (“comfortable” is not a very Ballardian word, but hey…)—he sets up his experiment and then lets his principals carry it out. The story’s heavy Jungian vibe resurfaces a few years later in Ballard’s early novel The Drowned World

“Manhole 69″ is the first of the 98 stories here I’d put in a collection I’ll tentatively call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

8. “Track 12″ (1958)

While “Track 12″ is hardly perfect, its concision and focus do it many favors. Again, we find Ballard playing with sound—particularly something called “microsonics”:

Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart – how did you put it? – a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones. Now there you have a perfect illustration of how microsonics can reveal the distinction between the animal and plant kingdoms.

As is often the case, Ballard has an idea that fascinates him (“microsonics,” here) and simply constructs a story to deliver that idea. Or, rather, rips off a story—and Ballard has the good sense to steal from the best. “Track 12″ is a fairly straightforward Edgar Allan Poe ripoff, a revenge tale recalling “The Cask of Amontillado,” and if the reader seems to guess where everything is going before the victim, well, it works here.

9. “The Waiting Grounds” (1959)

Ballard is better at inner space than outer space. “The Waiting Grounds” seems like a bait and switch, or at least I imagine many meat and potatoes SF fans might have felt that way. Ballard has his hero head to some distant planet, only to spend most of that trip in his own mind. And oh what a trip! The story’s central set piece anticipates the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as Ballard sends his hero through “deep time”:

Deep Time: 10,000,000,000 mega–years. The ideation–field has now swallowed the cosmos, substituted its own dynamic, its own spatial and temporal dimensions. All primary time and energy fields have been engulfed. Seeking the final extension of itself within its own bounds the mantle has reduced its time period to an almost infinitesimal 0.00000000… n of its previous interval. Time has virtually ceased to exist, the ideation–field is nearly stationary, infinitely slow eddies of sentience undulating outward across its mantles.

The frame Ballard builds to deliver his idea is clunky, but I suppose in those days one could make a sort of living writing stories for magazines, and maybe more words meant more moolah. Again, this story points to the Jungian themes that Ballard would explore in greater depth in The Drowned World.

10. “Now: Zero” (1959)

Here is the first paragraph of “Now: Zero,” the last story of Ballard’s to be published in the 1950s:

You ask: how did I discover this insane and fantastic power? Like Dr Faust, was it bestowed upon me by the Devil himself, in exchange for the deed to my soul? Did I, perhaps, acquire it with some strange talismanic object – idol’s eyepiece or monkey’s paw – unearthed in an ancient chest or bequeathed by a dying mariner? Or, again, did I stumble upon it myself while researching into the obscenities of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Black Mass, suddenly perceiving its full horror and magnitude through clouds of sulphurous smoke and incense?

No doubt, dear reader, you immediately detect Edgar Allan Poe all over this piece, and you’re not wrong. The story is mostly interesting as a style exercise—namely, Ballard doing Poe—but its cheesiness and predictability drowns out any humor. But again, these are the complete short stories—not just the perfect exercises.

11. On the horizon:

The early 1960s! “Chronopolis”! “The Overloaded Man”! “Billenium”! You are encouraged to play along.

September 23, 2013

RIP Álvaro Mutis

by Biblioklept

Alvaro-Mutis-600x300

RIP Álvaro Mutis, 1923 – 2013

Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died in Mexico City today. He was ninety.

Mutis is likely most famous in the English-speaking world for his excellent series of picaresque novellas focusing on the Gaviero, which have been collected as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I first learned of the book through a friend who reviewed it on this blog; his review made me pick it up and read and riff on it myself. I don’t know if I can overstate how wonderful these novellas are. I’ve mixed them into my readings over the past year, breaking up the space between new novels by taking a trip with the Gaviero. They are something beyond palate-cleansers; they are the kind of adventure narratives that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. I feel strangely fortunate that there are two more I have yet to read.

Here’s John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.

And: a 2001 interview with Mutis by Francisco Goldman. From that interview:

FG: If you could travel with Maqroll to any period, which would it be?

AM: The 18th century. Casanova and I would have been friends. I would have been friends with the Prince de Ligne and I would have lived in Paris and Venice. I’d take the elegant life, the brilliant prose, like Voltaire—each time you read him you realize that he’s the real thing. And that is where my interest in the 18th century ends; once they get to the French Revolution and the horror and saving of mankind, that’s where I exit.

And a few last scraps from Un Bel Morir:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.

A crack of wood waking him in the humble hotel on the Rue de Rempart and, in the middle of the night, leaving him on that shore where only God is aware of other people.

The eyelid twitching with the autonomous speed of one who knows he is in the hands of death. The eyelid of the man he had to kill, with repugnance, with no anger, to save the life of a woman whom he now found unbearable. 

All his waiting. All the emptiness of that nameless time used up in the foolishness of negotiations, proceedings, journeys, blank days, mistaken itineraries. All that life, from which he now begs, as he slips through the wounded dark toward death, some of the leftover scraps he thinks he has a right to. 

August 19, 2013

Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard’s Philosophical Novel of Abject Madness

by Edwin Turner

In its English translation, Thomas Bernhard’s 1967 breakthrough novel Verstörung received the title GargoylesVerstörung translates to something like distress or disturbance, while Gargoyles (obviously) evokes Gothic monsters. Considered together, both titles communicate this philosophical novel’s themes of abjection, decay, and madness.

Bernhard explores these themes by dividing the novel into two sections that occur over the span of the same day. In the first section, “First Page,” a country doctor takes his son on his daily rounds in rural Stryia, “a relatively large and ‘difficult’ district.” The son, a mining engineer student and aspiring scientist, is ostensibly the narrator of Gargoyles. He tells us that his father “was taking me with him for the sake of my studies.” Their journey culminates in a visit to Hochgobernitz, the gloomy castle of Prince Saurau, an insane, suicidal aristocrat who mourns his own son’s self-exile to England, where he has gone to study. While the doctor’s son remains the narrator of the book in “The Prince,” the second part of Gargoyles, Prince Saurau overwhelms the novel with the force of his monologue, a tirade that gobbles up all that comes before it. His monologue ventriloquizes the narrator’s consciousness, echoing in the young man’s skull long after he’s left the castle.

The prince’s monologue is a prototypical Bernhardian rant that will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Loser or Correction (and undoubtedly other Bernhard novels I haven’t read yet). Unlike those novels, Gargoyles offers its first section “First Page” as a point of contrast to the monologue that will come later. These episodes are short and digestible, and while hardly conventional, they are far easier to handle than the sustained intensity of the prince’s monologue. The grotesque cavalcade that the doctor and son trek through in “First Page” allows Bernhard to set out his themes — not neatly or precisely, but clearly — before the prince commences to swallow and then vomit them.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

On the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o’clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hüllberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.

He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Köflach, the mother a servant in a butcher’s household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother’s sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. “I can say for a certainty that it won’t last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now,” he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words.

The specter of infanticide and the doctor’s resistance to it haunts the novel. We can also sense a cerebral chilliness in the narrator, who is “struck” by his father’s empathy. The doctor’s empathy repeats throughout the novel; we next see it clearly when he’s brought to attend an innkeeper’s wife assaulted in the early morning “without the slightest provocation” by one of the drunken miners who frequented her inn. Unconscious for hours before police or doctor are even called for, the woman dies. But—

It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained.

As the day unfolds, the “natural brutality” that the doctor is up against evinces again and again in the various gargoyles he attends to. The rumor of the innkeeper’s wife’s murder floats in the background as a reminder of violence and brutality that bizarrely unites this community of outsiders.

Those outsiders: a bedridden, dying woman with a feeble-minded son and a murderer for a brother; a retired industrialist, living “like man and wife” with his half-sister, who devotes “himself to a literary work over which he agonized, even as it kept his mind off his inner agony”; the school teacher whose death initiates the novel; mill workers murdering exotic birds with the help of a young bewildered Turk; an insane and deformed man, the son’s age, attended to and cared for by his sister. And the prince. But I’ve rushed through so much here, so much force of language, so much terror, so much horror.

These gargoyles live, if it can be called that, in abject, isolated otherness. The doctor diagnoses it for his son:

. . . no human being could continue to exist in such total isolation without doing severe damage to his intellect and psyche. It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsession. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves. The process always goes slowly at first.

There is something of a warning here for the doctor’s son, who tells us at one point: “Every day I completely built myself up, and completely destroyed myself.” Like Roithamer of Correction, the son is something of a control freak (“Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature”), and, like Roithamer and so many other Bernhardian figures, he has a frail (perhaps suicidal) sister who could perhaps fall prey to his idealism—who might indeed be the “creature who has entered the dungeon” with him.

There’s also the risk, one which the doctor perhaps did not account for when he set out to help his son with his “studies,” that the son might fall into the prince’s dungeon. But perhaps I’m making too much of the doctor’s empathy, of his resistance to brutality and his commitment to caring for those who repel all others. His own philosophy seems coded in misanthropy and failure. “All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together,” he says at one point. But also: “Communication is impossible.”

The resistance to abjection is paradoxical—as the doctor points out, the “philosophically oriented” and “imaginative scientific obsession[s]” often lead people deeper into the abyss—as the prince’s monologue will illustrate. Each of the gargoyles presented in the text offers a rare and special talent—art, music, philosophy, etc. Sussing out the novel’s treatment of the philosophies it invokes is beyond my ken, but I can’t resist lazily dropping a few names: Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Pascal, Diederot (all on the doctor’s reading list), and Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of the will surely informs the text more than I can manage here. (From the prince’s father’s suicide note: “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me”). And while I’m lazily dropping names: Edgar Allan Poe, King Lear, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, and Francisco Goya—especially his Los caprichos, a few of which accompany this review . (And although he came after, I can’t help but read Roberto Bolaño in some of the more grotesque, horrific passages).

The levels of ventriloquizing and the layers of madness set against the novel’s depiction of radical repression lead to an abyssal paradox, perhaps best figured not in the philosophers Bernhard invokes but in the novel’s backdrop: a dark, enveloping gorge, the yawning chasm that surrounds the high walls of the castle the prince walks with his auditors. These walls are the stage from which the prince performs his monologue; their visceral dramatic emphasis derives from the abyss below. In an ironic note at the beginning of “The Prince,” the son remarks, “From here, I thought, you probably had the finest view of the entire country.”

Upon this stage, Bernhard’s main characters function as asymmetrical parallels (forgive the purposeful absurdity of this oxymoron). The father and his son the narrator are set against the prince and his absent son. In a particularly bizarre episode, the prince recounts a dream:

“But my son,” he said, “will destroy Hochgobernitz as soon as he receives it into his hands.”

Last night, the prince said, he had had a dream. “In this dream,” he said, “I was able to look at a sheet of paper moving slowly from far below to high up, paper on which my own son had written the following. I see every word that my son is writing on that sheet of paper,” the prince said. “It is my son’s hand writing it. My son writes: As one who has taken refuge in scientific allegories I seemed to have cured myself of my father for good, as one cures oneself of a contagious disease. But today I see that this disease is an elemental, shattering fatal illness of which everyone without exception dies. Eight months after my father’s suicide—note that, Doctor, after his father’s suicide, after my suicide; my son writes about my suicide!—eight months after my father’s suicide everything is already ruined, and I can say that I have ruined it. I can say that I have ruined Hochgobernitz, my son writes, and he writes: I have ruined this flourishing economy! This tremendous, anachronistic agricultural and forest economy. I suddenly see, my son writes,” the prince said, “that by liquidating the business even though or precisely because it is the best, I am for the first time implementing my theory, my son writes!” the prince said.

Note the strange layers of narration and creation here. The prince’s son, a creation of the prince, exists in the prince’s dream (another creation) where he creates a manuscript. All this creation though points to destruction—of the father, of the ancestral estate. The prince’s impulses signal self-erasure, suicide as a kind of radical return of the repressed (here, Austria’s inability to speak about, reconcile, admit its complicity in the horrors of World War 2).

The doctor contrasts with the prince, perhaps representing an order, health, and sanity that serve to sharpen and darken the abject decay of the crazed aristocrat. “My father goes to see the prince only to treat him for his insomnia,” observes the narrator, “without doing anything about his real illness . . . his madness.” But can the doctor really treat the prince’s illness?

Both fathers in their respective philosophies signal the possible paths that might be inherited by their sons (and, if you like, by allegorical extension the sons could represent Austria, or perhaps even Western Europe). How to live against the promise of suicide, against the perils of infanticide, against the kind of “natural brutality” that leads to murder, insanity, the abyss?

This problem is encoded into Bernhard’s rhetorical technique. The prince’s devastating monologue consumes the narrative, reader and narrator alike. By the end of the novel, he’s infiltrated (and perhaps infected) the narrator’s consciousness, highlighting the dramatic stakes here—of being ventriloquized, possessed by the diseases of history and authority—an illness that trends to self-destruction. It’s worth sharing a passage at some length; the following section highlights and perhaps even condenses what I take to be the core themes of Gargoyles:

“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.

Such searing nihilism here—the prince angrily mourns the grotesqueness of the world, the lack of agency of people to control their own fate, to be but players, dummies mumbling someone else’s script. And it all leads to death. For the prince, dialogue is impossible in the face of this death: “All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.” But the prince, notably, is his own interlocutor; he pushes himself into abysses of his own contrivance.

Neither is love a solution for the prince:

“We face questions like an open grave about to be filled. It is also absurd, you know, for me to be talking of the absurdity,” he said. “My character can justly be called thoroughly unloving. But with equal justice I call the world utterly unloving. Love is an absurdity for which there is no place in nature.

And community?

We see in a person frailties which at once make us see the frailties of the community in which we live, the frailties of all communities, the state; we feel them, we see through them, we catastrophize them.

But is this necessarily the essential view of the novel? I don’t think it plausible to argue that the prince’s monologue be read entirely ironically, but it’s worth bearing in mind that both his auditors understand him to be mentally ill and terribly isolated. The guy is histrionic, a drama fiend holding forth on his stage. And while his acerbic misanthropy and nihilism may scorch, it’s also very, very funny. I chuckled a lot reading Gargoyles.

But yes—the prince is sincere in his pain. “We assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” he declares near the end of the novel. He’s a a prisoner in his own gloomy castle, the dungeon he refuses to leave. He resents his son’s self-exile to London, but also longs—literally dreams for—his son to return to destroy that dungeon.

Of his family: “But probably all these creatures deserve ruthlessness more than pity.” I think that But is important here. The doctor, like the prince, also situates everyone on an axis of ruthlessness and pity. The doctor is full of cruel observations about the gargoyles he encounters. But: But he gets up, goes out, does his rounds, tries in some way to mitigate some of the “natural brutality” of the world. And he tries to show this world—and this method—to his son this as well, for his son’s “studies.” In the room of the lonely, dying woman, the son remarks of his father: “I noticed that he made an effort to stretch out the call, for all his eagerness to leave.” The son, in thrall to the prince’s monologue, perhaps fails to notice that his father also stretches out his time on the castle wall despite an eagerness to leave the prince.

By the end of the novel, we see the prince’s consciousness inhabiting the son’s thoughts:

In bed I thought: What did the prince say? “Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me, an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes. The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed. 

The pessimism and sheer despair here erupts into black comedy with that last line, one echoed in Bernhard’s later novel Correction: “Waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.” If to simply get out of bed (which, of course, is where the son is as he work’s through the prince’s ideas) is to invoke and invite disaster and despair, it’s worth noting that this simple action—getting out of bed—is what the doctor performs each day, even if it means he wakes to a dead teacher, a boiled infant, a murdered wife. While hardly a beacon of optimism or hope, the doctor nonetheless figures an alternative to the prince’s abject madness. If we “assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” the doctor understands that it’s important to leave those walls, to not seek out dungeons—and drag others into dungeons with us.

Gargoyles is by turns bleak and nihilistic. It’s also energetic, profound, and at times very, very funny. Its opening section will likely provide an accessible introduction to readers interested in Bernhard, with the prince’s monologue offering the full Bernhardian experience. Dark, cruel, and taxing, Gargoyles isn’t particularly fun reading—except when it is. Highly recommended.

August 2, 2013

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

by Edwin Turner

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

“No.”

“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

July 31, 2013

Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini’s Poetic Examination of Criminal Brutality

by Edwin Turner

Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.

Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as  it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.

Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.

In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.

I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this review in January of 2010]

 

July 30, 2013

Suttree, Cormac McCarthy’s Grand Synthesis of American Literature

by Edwin Turner

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s fourth novel, 1979′s Suttree is such a book, a masterful synthesis of the great literature — particularly American literature — that came before it. And like any masterful synthesis, Suttree points to something new, even as it borrows, lifts, and outright steals from the past. But before we plumb its allusions and tropes and patterns, perhaps we should overview the plot, no?

The novel rambles over several years in the life of Cornelius Suttree. It is the early 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Suttree ekes out a mean existence on the Tennessee River as a fisherman, living in a ramshackle houseboat on the edge of a shantytown. This indigent life is in fact a choice: Suttree is the college-educated son of an established, wealthy family. His choice is a choice for freedom and self-reliance, those virtues we like to think of, in our prejudicial manner, as wholly and intrinsically American. Suttree then is both Emersonian and Huck Finnian, a reflective and insightful man who finds his soul via a claim to agency over his own individuality, an individuality poised in quiet, defiant rebellion against the conforming forces of civilization. These forces manifest most pointedly in the Knoxville police, a brutal, racist organization, but we also see social constraint in the form of familial duty. One thinks of the final lines of Huckleberry Finn: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Like Huck, Suttree aims to resist all forces that would “sivilize” him. His time on the river and in the low haunts of Tennessee (particularly the vice-ridden borough of McAnally) brings him into close contact with plenty of other outcasts, but also his conscience, which routinely mulls over its place in the world. Suttree is punctuated by–perhaps even organized by–several scenes of hallucination. Some of these psychotrips result from drunkeness, one comes from accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of mushrooms (or, the right kind, if that’s your thing), and the final one, late in the novel, sets in as Suttree suffers from a terrible illness. In his fever dream, a small nun–surely a manifestation of the guilt that would civilize us–accuses him–

Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.

The passage is a marvelous example of McCarthy’s stream-of-consciousness technique in Suttree, moving through the various voices that would ventriloquize Suttree, into the edges of madness, strangeness, and the sublimity of language. The tone moves from somber and portentous into bizarre imagery that blends humor and pathos. This is the tone of Suttree, a language that gives voice to transients and miscreants, affirming the dignity of their humanity even as it details the squalor of their circumstance.

It is among these criminals and whores, transvestites and gamblers that Suttree affirms his own freedom and humanity, a process aided by his comic foil, Gene Harrogate. Suttree meets Harrogate on a work farm; the young hillbilly is sent there for screwing watermelons. After his release, Harrogate moves to a shantytown in Knoxville. He’s the country mouse determined to become the city rat, the would-be Tom Sawyer to Suttree’s older and wiser Huck Finn. Through Harrogate’s endless get-rich-quick schemes, McCarthy parodies that most-American of tales, the Horatio Alger story. Simply put, the boy is doomed, on his  “way up to the penitentiary” as Suttree constantly admonishes. In one episode, Harrogate tries to buy arsenic from “a grayhaired and avuncular apothecary” to poison bats he hopes to sell to a hospital (don’t ask)–

May I help you? said the scientist, his hands holding each other.

I need me some strychnine, said Harrogate.

You need some what?

Strychnine. You know what it is dont ye?

Yes, said the chemist.

I need me about a good cupful I reckon.

Are you going to drink it here or take it with you?

Shit fire I aint goin to drink it. It’s poisoner’n hell.

It’s for your grandmother.

No, said Harrogate, craning his neck suspectly. She’s done dead

Suttree, unwilling father-figure, eventually buys the arsenic for the boy against his better judgment. The scene plays out as a wonderful comic inversion of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” from which it is so transparently lifted. McCarthy borrows liberally from Faulkner here, of course, most notably in the language and style of the novel, but also in scenes like this one, or a later episode that plays off Faulkner’s comic-romantic story of a man and a woman navigating the aftermath of a flood, “Old Man.” Unpacking the allusions in Suttree surpasses my literary knowledge or skill, but McCarthy is generous, if oblique, with his breadcrumb trail. Take, for example, the following sentence: “Suttree with his miles to go kept his eyes to the ground, maudlin and muttersome in the bitter chill, under the lonely lamplight.” The forced phrase “miles to go” does not immediately present itself as a reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem, yet the direction of the sentence retreats into the history of American poetry; with its dense alliteration and haunted vowels, it leads us into Edgar Allan Poe territory. Only a few dozen pages later, McCarthy boldly begins a chapter with theft: “In just spring the goatman came over the bridge . . .” The reference to e.e. cummings explicitly signifies McCarthy’s intentions to play with literature. Later in the book, while tripping on mushrooms in the mountains, Suttree is haunted by “elves,” the would-be culprits in Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The callback is purposeful, but tellingly, McCarthy’s allusions are not nearly as fanciful as their surface rhetoric might suggest: the goatman does not belong in Knoxville–he’s an archaic relic, forced out of town by the police; the elves are not playful spirits but dark manifestations of a tortured psyche.

Once one spots the line-lifting in Suttree it’s hard to not see it. What’s marvelous is McCarthy’s power to convert these lines, these riffs, these stories, into his own tragicomic beast. An early brawl at a roadhouse recalls the “Golden Day” episode of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; a rape victim’s plight echoes Hubert Selby’s “Tralala”; we find the comic hobos of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–we even get the road-crossing turtle from The Grapes of Wrath. A later roadhouse chapter replays the “Circe/Nighttown” nightmare in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses is an easy point of comparison for Suttree, which does for Knoxville what Joyce did for Dublin. Suttree echoes Ulysses’s language, both in its musicality and appropriation of varied voices, as well as its ambulatory structure, its stream-of-consciousness technique, its rude earthiness, and its size (nearly 600 pages). But, as I argued earlier, there’s something uniquely American about Suttree, and its literary appropriations tend to reflect that. Hence, we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Making a laundry list of writers is weak criticism though, and these sources–all guilty of their own proud plagiarisms–are mentioned only as a means to an end, to an argument that what McCarthy does in Suttree is to synthesize the American literary tradition with grace and humor, while never glossing over its inherent dangers and violence. So, while it appropriates and plays with the tropes of the past, Suttree is still pure McCarthy. Consider the following passage, which arrives at the end of a drunken, awful spree, Suttree locked up for the night–

He closed his eyes. The gray water that dripped from him was rank with caustic. By the side of a dark dream road he’d seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent, black grots his eyeholes and bloody mouth gaped tonguless. The traveler had seized his fingers in his jaws, but it was not alone this horror that he cried. Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I.

Suttree’s dark vision points directly toward the language of McCarthy’s next novel, 1985′s Blood Meridian, roundly considered his masterpiece. Critics who disagree tend to point to Suttree as the pinnacle of McCarthy’s writing. I have no interest at this time in weighing the books against each other, nor do I think that doing so would be especially enlightening. For all of their sameness, they are very different animals: Suttree provides us intense access to its hero’s consciousness, where Blood Meridian always keeps the reader on the outside of its principals’ souls (if those grotesques could be said to have souls). And while Blood Meridian does display some humor, it is the blackest and driest humor I’ve ever read. Suttree is broader and more compassionate; it even has a fart joke. Blood Meridian, at least in my estimation (and many critics will contend this notion) has no flawed episodes; much of this results from the book’s own internal program–it resists love, compassion, and even human dignity. In contrast, Suttree is punctuated by two deaths the audience is meant to read as tragic, yet I found it impossible to do so. The first is the death of Suttree’s child, whom he has abandoned, along with its mother. As such, he is not permitted to take part in the funeral, observing the process rather from its edges. The second tragedy is the death of Suttree’s young lover in a landslide. The book begs us to empathize with Suttree, just as he often empathizes with the marginal figures in the novel, but ultimately these tragedies are a failed ploy. They underwrite a sublime encounter with death for Suttree, an encounter that deepens and enriches his character while paradoxically freeing him from the burdens of social duty and familial order. McCarthy is hardly alone in such a move; indeed, it seems like the signature trope of American masculine literature to me. It’s the move that Huck Finn wishes to make when he promises to light out for the Territory to escape the civilizing body of Aunt Sally; it’s the ending that Hemingway was compelled to give to Frederic Henry at the end of A Farewell to Arms; it’s all of Faulkner, with his mortification of fatherhood and the dramatic responsibility fatherhood entails. It is a cost analysis that neglects any potential benefits.

But these are small criticisms of a large, beautiful, benevolent novel, a book that begs to be reread, a rambling picaresque of comic and tragic proportions. “I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only,” our hero realizes, but this epiphany is set against a larger claim. Near the end of the novel, Suttree goes to check on an old ragman who he keeps a watchful eye on. He finds the man dead, his shack robbed, his body looted. Despairing over the spectacle’s abject lack of humanity, Suttree cries, “You have no right to represent people this way,” for “A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness.” Here, Suttree’s painful epiphany is real and true, an Emersonian insight coded in the darkest of Whitman’s language. If there is one Suttree and one Suttree only, he is still beholden to all men; to be anti-social or an outcast is not to be anti-human. Self-hood is ultimately conditional on others and otherness. To experience the other’s wretchedness is harrowing; to understand the other’s wretchedness and thus convert it to dignity is life-affirming and glorious. Suttree is a brilliant, bold, marvelous book. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note---Biblioklept originally published a version of this review on November 27, 2010].

 

July 29, 2013

Airships, Barry Hannah’s Cult Classic of Violent Humor

by Edwin Turner

In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011]

July 25, 2013

Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous Is a Dark, Disarming Novella

by Edwin Turner

Knife and Glass, Richard Diebenkorn

The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.

What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements). 

So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.

Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:

The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.

Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.

A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.

Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.

Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.

Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that

The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.

Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”

Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.

At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—”grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.

Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:

The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means strangervillainenemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.

The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?

I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.

The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.

Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei – “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):

In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.

I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.

The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.

There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.

I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.

John the Posthumous is new in trade paperback and e-book from OR Books on August 6th, 2013.

July 22, 2013

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Novel The Master and Margarita Reviewed

by Edwin Turner

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In his introduction to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, Richard Pevear (who translated the book with Larissa Volokhonsky) notes

the qualities of the novel itself — its formal originality, its devastating satire of Soviet life, and of Soviet literary life in particular, its ‘theatrical’ rendering of the Great Terror of the thirties, the audacity of its portrayal of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, not to mention Satan.

Pevear also offers a concise (if mechanical) summary:

The novel in its definitive version is composed of two distinct but interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem (called Yershalaim). Its central characters are Woland (Satan) and his retinue, the poet Ivan Homeless, Pontius Pilate, an unnamed writer known as ‘the master’, and Margarita. The Pilate story is condensed into four chapters and focused on four or five large-scale figures. The Moscow story includes a whole array of minor characters. The Pilate story, which passes through a succession of narrators, finally joins the Moscow story at the end, when the fates of Pilate and the master are simultaneously decided.

As you might gather from its translator’s descriptions, there’s a lot going on in The Master and Margarita. 

Bulgakov satirizes early Soviet life, particularly focusing on the phonies and fops who populate Moscow’s art scene. This aspect of the narrative is full of disappearances; characters are taken away forever by the secret police. Bulgakov elides the secret police from the reader, a brilliant rhetorical move that heightens the book’s paranoia. The paranoid comedy edges quickly into horror though as the reality of living in such confined spaces and under such controlled surveillance bleeds into Bulgakov’s fantasy.

Indeed, the realities of life in the Soviet police state (“No papers, no person”) come across as far scarier than the supernatural characters of The Master and Margarita. Woland’s retinue, in particular his cat Behemoth (who seems to grace—can that be the right verb?—the covers of most editions of the novel), imbue the novel with a compelling manic energy. The most memorable sequences for most readers will likely involve Woland’s troupe’s antics, including their wild performance at the Variety Theatre, which climaxes in this bit of comic violence before culminating in a rush of greed and gratuitous nudity:

And an unheard-of thing occurred. The fur bristled on the cat’s back, and he gave a rending miaow. Then he compressed himself into a ball and shot like a panther straight at Bengalsky’s chest, and from there on to his head. Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into the skimpy chevelure of the master of ceremonies and in two twists tore the head from the thick neck with a savage howl.

The two and a half thousand people in the theatre cried out as one. Blood spurted in fountains from the torn neck arteries and poured over the shirt-front and tailcoat. The headless body paddled its feet somehow absurdly and sat down on the floor. Hysterical women’s cries came from the audience. The cat handed the head to Fagott, who lifted it up by the hair and showed it to the audience, and the head cried desperately for all the theatre to hear:

‘A doctor!’

(Don’t worry, Bengalsky gets his head back. Sort of).

Another highlight of the book is the Walpurgis Night episode—Chapter 23, “The Great Ball at Satan’s”—which I’d argue can stand on its own, free of context, as a lovely, dark, bizarre short story. Margarita plays hostess to a seemingly-endless parade of “kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallowsbirds, procuresses, prison guards and sharpers, executioners, informers, traitors, madmen, sleuths, seducers,” who arrive via fireplace, their corpses reanimated to take part in the grand dance. Bulgakov cribs freely from history, populating the episode with condemned persons obscure and infamous alike.

The Walpurgisknacht episode highlights The Master and Margaritastrong Easter/Faust theme, which plays out for several characters who are reborn (figuratively or otherwise). The least interesting of these by far is the master himself. But perhaps this is unfair. It’s entirely plausible that the master is the storyteller of The Master and Margarita. In any case, his unnamed novel (within the text) depicts an alternate version of Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion, and it’s here that we find what I take to be The Master and Margarita’s most interesting and complex character, “the fifth procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” The episodes with Pilate (who employs his own secret police, a wonderful parallel to the Soviet setting) offer a kind of moral ballast to the supernatural sequences, which fluctuate between manic-comic anxiety and big-R Romanticism. Of all the souls in turmoil in The Master and Margarita’s, I found the depiction of Pilate’s troubles the most profound.

The Master and Margarita’s lurching structure threatens narrative coherence until the novel’s final moments, when the master meets his creation. The moment is unexpectedly poignant, and does much to amend some of the novel’s ungainliness. The middle sections in particular get bogged down, as Bulgakov subjects his Muscovite extras to all sorts of fates (some more terrible than others). While some of these episodes are funny, and they certainly give the book some of its satirical power, they ultimately read as variations on a theme. I found my eyes glazing over in the novel’s epilogue when Bulgakov decides to check in on the survivors.

I’ve failed to remark on so much of The Master and Margarita, and I”m certain that much of its rich allusive texture was lost on me. (I should point out here how helpful the end notes of my edition were). Persons interested in early Soviet life who have not yet found their way to Bulgakov’s novel will wish to do so (as well as the work of Bulgakov’s contemporary Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky); the novel also makes a strange but worthy companion piece to William Gaddis’s enormous Faust tale The RecognitionsAlthough The Master and Margarita sags at times, at its finest moments—of which there are many—it is funny, dark, and engrossing.

July 20, 2013

William Gibson’s Review of Pacific Rim

by Biblioklept

William Gibson posted this review of Guillermo del Toro’s film Pacific Rim today:

A ravishing display of intelligent, often wonderfully witty visual design, every frame alive with coherent language, in the service of what is at heart a children’s story. A children’s story for a very dark time, our own, about a very dark time as children understand such things: monsters, from beneath the bed — our own or the ocean’s! It restores heroism to the realm of the humanistic, an extraordinary accomplishment given so much of the film culture of our day. The protagonists know, and demonstrate that they know, that it isn’t about them. A sweetly simple fable, for all the titanic grandeur of its cosplay (which I took to be the message of the slowly pumping wooden bellows in the kaiju-drifting machine, which became for me the sly sweet heart of it all). A demonstration of the degree of heart *and* physicality that even very big-ticket FX can convey when there’s an honest will to avoid the opposite; mega-scale FX that don’t drain either away. A baroque that doesn’t curdle, that never fetishizes itself.

July 12, 2013

Cartoon College, A Documentary Featuring Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman and Other Comics Legends

by Edwin Turner

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In the opening scene of Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s new documentary Cartoon College, aspiring cartoonist Ryland Ianelli lays out the reality that, despite all the progress the medium has made as an art form worthy of respect, comic books are still outré:  “It’s gotten easier to talk to people who are open to the idea of comics being worthwhile—but at the point you say, Yes I’m going to school for comics, they’re completely ready to dismiss you.”

Cartoonists have always been outsiders—even in art schools, a traditional gathering spot for outsiders—and it’s this feeling of alienation and displacement that undergirds the emotional platform of Cartoon College. The film is not just about the Center for Cartoon Studies (CSS), a highly-selective two year MFA program founded in 2005 in White River Junction, Vermont, or the cadre of master cartoonists who inspired the school, and, in some cases teach there. For plenty of comix nerds (like me), it’s enough to see masters like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware talk about the art, medium, and business of cartooning. But this documentary offers more. Cartoon College succeeds because it tells the genuinely moving and engaging story of its students, self-described outcasts who find a sense of community and even family in the program.

Melrod and Wray take us into the extreme demands of the CSS program. In the first year (“boot camp”), students practice fundamentals—drawing, theory, writing, history. In the second year, the students produce a thesis—a finished work of some kind—to determine if they pass the program and receive an MFA. All this work is to ensure that students “will be ready to face the uncertainty of a career in one of the most labor-intensive, drudgery inducing art forms,” as the film puts it.

The faculty (all distinguished cartoonists,  including Stephen Bissette, James Sturm, and Alec Longstreth, who are featured prominently in the film) repeatedly remind students and audience alike that most of cartooning is labor-intensive drudgery: it’s not really that fun, it requires lots of discipline, and most people can’t cut it. The CSS, like most art schools, employs a workshop technique to help students grow, get feedback—and also, implicitly, as a means of maintaining quality control. Workshop scenes and other critiques are often some of the most painful moments in the film, as they highlight the very personal stakes for the aspiring cartoonists, who quite literally put their lives into their work.

Melrod and Wray wisely compose their narrative around just a few of these students, while giving us enough scenes with others to flesh out the film. Blair Sterrett gives the film a definitive arc. He’s clearly a troubled, struggling artist, trying to channel his former experiences as a Mormon missionary into a thesis, but as the deadline approaches, it’s clear his book’s unfinished. Sterrett’s scenes (particularly an early critique) are very moving, and—a bit of a spoiler—there’s a triumphant feeling when he returns to the CSS to finish his MFA. 

We find another arc in Jen Vaughn, who has too many jobs and too many ideas. Of all the student artists, she seems the most open to the camera, and her self-assured posture by turns belies a greater vulnerability and depth. In one illuminating scene at the MoCCA Fest, Vaughn tries to pique a muted festival goer’s interest in her project Menstruation Station; when he walks away without seeming to say anything we catch a glimpse of weariness bordering on desperation.

There’s also Al Wesolowsky, who at 61 is the oldest student. An archaeologist at Boston University, Wesolowsky tries his hand at the CSS program despite his self-admitted limitations as a draftsman. In some ways he’s the soul of the film. At one point he delivers a brief monologue wherein he describes the loneliness he feels at having no family, but the pleasure he’s found in a makeshift family at CSS.

Loneliness and alienation are perhaps the bedrock themes of comix and cartooning, as anyone who’s read Spiegelman or Ware or Burns—or really any of the master cartoonists interviewed in Cartoon College—can attest. Spiegelman is the first professional to pop up in the film, after the filmmakers have already introduced us to the students, and one of the first comments he makes is that comix allows cartoonists to come into contact with “a bunch of other outcasts.” This sentiment is repeated again and again, by students, teachers, and masters alike; we learn that Ryland Ianelli was voted Prom Queen by the cruel students of his high school; student Casey Bohn tells us that everyone in his small town thought he was “gay or British”; Lynda Barry puts it plain: “Childhood seemed to me like it lasted too long.”

Of all the master cartoonists on screen, I was most captivated by Chris Ware, who comes across as reflective, cerebral, and even philosophical. He points out that cartoonists are always “sifting through generations”,” handing down tropes, skills, ideas. Ware, chronicler of loneliness, perhaps makes the strongest case for cartoonists-as-community.

The idea that the students need to foster a community is reinforced by Bissette, who tells the that they must share contacts, share ideas, and be colleagues. Bissette and the other CSS instructors repeatedly emphasize the publishing dimension of cartooning, paying special attention to the idea that these cartoonists can self-publish. Cartoon College is larded with shots of students hand-crafting their art, and Bissette likens what they are doing to Warhol and his Factory. He also points out that this new generation’s desire is not to draw Spider-Man or Batman but their own creations.

An energetic scene at the MoCCA Fest shows this cottage industry at work, as artists buy and trade for each other’s work. But the instructors and pros are very clear—or try to be clear—about the economic realities most cartoonists will face. Ware and Burns point out that commercial illustration is a necessity to feed their other projects. Juxtaposed with these moments, our students describe their dreams of a comfortable retirement and book deals, a moment undercut by Lynda Barry gleefully pointing out that she makes most of her moeny selling “shit on E-bay.” 

It might have been tempting for Melrod and Wray to cram all the footage they had of famous cartoonists like Barry, Françoise Mouly, Scott McCloud, and others into Cartoon College, but to the filmmakers’ credit they use the masters sparingly. Art Spiegelman tells us at one point that “We think in bursts of language, not in long Jamesian sentences…the number of words that might be able to fit in a speech balloon are the core of a linguistic thought.” The insight is intended for cartooning, but the filmmakers apply it to their medium, letting the camera do much of the work for them,  offering only the most essential moments (like when Charles Burns completes a sketch and the student audience breaks into applause). Cartoon College is at its best when it shows us the difficult experiences of the students intercut with commentary by the seasoned, successful professionals, who understand precisely the pain these people are undergoing. 

Before I started watching Cartoon College, I wondered who it was for. My interest in Spiegelman, Ware, Burns, et al. was enough to prod my interest (and the soundtrack featuring Archers of Loaf, Portastatic, and Tortoise didn’t hurt)—but would the film appeal to, uh, non-geeks? Ultimately, I think the documentary is about the drive toward art and self-expression, and the ways that communities and relationships can form around this drive. Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.

Website and trailer:

July 9, 2013

The Collective Dream of the Chums of Chance (A Short Pynchon Riff)

by Edwin Turner

1. This is one of the most extraordinary passages I’ve read so far in Pynchon’s Against the Day (pages 422-24 of my Penguin hardback).

It comes almost at the end of Iceland Spar, the second of the AtD’s five books, working as a surreal, dream-logic climax to the chapter.

Our heroes the Chums of Chance experience an existential identity crisis, one that makes them wonder if they themselves were mere dreamers, readers of the dime novels that chronicled their adventures, and not, y’know, actual adventurers:

Meantime, now and then in the interstices of what was after all not a perpetual midwestern holiday, the former crew of the Inconvenience became aware of doubts creeping in. What if they weren’t harmonica players? really? If it was all just some elaborate hoax they’d chosen to play on themselves, to keep distracted from a reality too frightening to receive the vast undiscriminating light of the Sky, perhaps the not-to-be-spoken-of betrayal now firmly installed at the heart of the . . . the Organization whose name curiously had begun to escape them . . . some secret deal, of an unspecified nature, with an ancient enemy . . . but they could find no entries in any of the daily Logs to help them remember. . . .

Had they gone, themselves, through some mutation into imperfect replicas of who they once were? meant to revisit the scenes of unresolved conflicts, the way ghosts are said to revisit places where destinies took a wrong turn, or revisit in dreams the dreaming body of one loved more than either might have known, as if whatever happened between them could in that way be put right again? Were they now but torn and trailing afterimages of clandestine identities needed on some mission long ended, forgotten, but unwilling or unable to be released from it? Perhaps even surrogates recruited to stay behind on the ground, allowing the “real” Chums to take to the Sky and so escape some unbearable situation? None of them may really ever have been up in a skyship, ever walked the exotic streets or been charmed by the natives of any far-off duty station. They may only have once been readers of the Chums of Chance Series of boys’ books, authorized somehow to serve as volunteer decoys. Once, long ago, from soft hills, from creekside towns, from libraries that let kids lie on the floor where it’s cool and read the summer afternoons away, the Chums had needed them . . . they came.

WANTED Boys for challenging assignments, must be fit, dutiful, ready, able to play the harmonica (“At a Georgia Camp Meeting” in all keys, modest fines for wrong notes), and be willing to put in long hours of rehearsal time on the Instrument. . . Adventure guaranteed!

So that when the “real” Chums flew away, the boys were left to the uncertain sanctuary of the Harmonica Marching Band Training Academy. . . . But life on the surface kept on taking its usual fees, year by year, while the other Chums remained merrily aloft, kiting off tax-free to assignments all over the world, perhaps not even remembering their “deps” that well anymore, for there was so much to occupy the adventurous spirit, and the others— “groundhogs” in Chums parlance—had known, surely, of the risks and the costs of their surrogacy. And some would drift away from here as once, already long ago, from their wholesome heartland towns, into the smoke and confusion of urban densities unimagined when they began, to join other ensembles playing music of the newer races, arrangements of Negro blues, Polish polkas, Jewish klezmer, though others, unable to find any clear route out of the past, would return again and again to the old performance sites, to Venice, Italy, and Paris, France, and the luxury resorts of old Mexico, to play the same medleys of cakewalks and rags and patriotic airs, to sit at the same café tables, haunt the same skeins of narrow streets, gaze unhappily on Saturday evenings at the local youngsters circulating and flirting through the little plazas, unsure whether their own youth was behind them or yet to come. Waiting as always for the “true” Chums to return, longing to hear, “You were splendid, fellows. We wish we could tell you about everything that’s been going on, but it’s not over yet, it’s at such a critical stage, and the less said right now the better. But someday . . .”

“Are you going away again?”

“So soon?”

“We must. We’re just so sorry. The reunion feast was delicious and much appreciated, the harmonica recital one we shall never forget, especially the ‘coon’ material. But now . . .”

So, once again, the familiar dwindling dot in the sky.

“Don’t be blue, pal, it must’ve been important, they really wanted to stay this time, you could tell.”

“What are we going to do with all this extra food?”

“And all the beer nobody drank!”

“Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

But that was the beginning of a certain release from longing, as if they had been living in a remote valley, far from any highways, and one day noticed that just beyond one of the ridge-lines all this time there’d been a road, and down this road, as they watched, came a wagon, then a couple of riders, then a coach and another wagon, in daylight which slowly lost its stark isotropy and was flowed into by clouds and chimney smoke and even episodes of weather, until presently there was a steady stream of traffic, audible day and night, with folks beginning to venture over into their valley to visit, and offering rides to towns nearby the boys hadn’t even known existed, and next thing anybody knew, they were on the move again in a world scarcely different from the one they had left. And one day, at the edge of one of these towns, skyready, brightwork gleaming, newly painted and refitted and around the corner of a gigantic hangar, waiting for them, as if they had never been away, there was their ship the good old Inconvenience. And Pugnax with his paws up on the quarterdeck rail, tail going a mile a minute, barking with unrestrained joy.

2. Long passage, so short riff:

3. First (or third, if my enumeration is honest), let me point out that this passage recalls a similar identity transference that happened earlier in the novel to Reef Traverse when he reads a Chums of Chance novel.

4. Which, to rehash the point of the riff I linked to in point 3 above, is to say that the passage is very much about reader-identification, about the ways that we dream ourselves into the novels we read—that the places they occupy are very real.

So much of Against the Day is about doubling, about secret identities, secret powers, secret lives—the invisible (the word “invisible” pops up again and again and again in this book)—that we can lead these whole other lives in our imagination, and that books fuel these lives, etc.

5. This book of Against the Day is named for Iceland spar, a crystal with double-refraction properties. Earlier, the stage magician/minor character Luca Zombini (“Light Zombie”?) reveals that he’s actually split people into two versions of themselves (evidence of such doppelgangers are scattered throughout the novel) using the mineral in his shows.

When our Chums finally reassume the mantles of their “true identities” we’re told that “they were on the move again in a world scarcely different from the one they had left” — are these the same Chums, the same aircrew, the same adventurers? The adverb “scarcely” seems to work some strange magic here.

6. In any case, their loyal hound Pugnax identifies them as the real McCoy, his “tail going a mile a minute, barking with unrestrained joy.”

I’ll admit to feeling some of that joy myself.

July 8, 2013

“…a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets…” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

by Edwin Turner

1. Another riff on/citation from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

2. In this episode, our heroes, Chums of Chance Chick Counterfly (chief science officer) and Darby Suckling (chief horndog) have found their way to an off-brand time machine, managed and (shoddily) maintained by Dr. Zoot (whose doctorate seems unlikely). Dr. Zoot sends the boys (ostensibly) to the future for a brief glimpse:

They seemed to be in the midst of some great storm in whose low illumination, presently, they could make out, in unremitting sweep across the field of vision, inclined at the same angle as the rain, if rain it was—some material descent, gray and wind-stressed—undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses. The multitude extended farther than they could see—a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind. Bright arrays of metallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more, like stars blown through by the shock waves of the Creation. Were those voices out there crying in pain? sometimes it almost sounded like singing. Sometimes a word or two, in a language almost recognizable, came through. Thus, galloping in unceasing flow ever ahead, denied any further control over their fate, the disconsolate company were borne terribly over the edge of the visible world. . . .

The chamber shook, as in a hurricane. Ozone permeated its interior like the musk attending some mating dance of automata, and the boys found themselves more and more disoriented. Soon even the cylindrical confines they had entered seemed to have fallen away, leaving them in a space unbounded in all directions. There became audible a continuous roar as of the ocean—but it was not the ocean—and soon cries as of beasts in open country, ferally purring stridencies passing overhead, sometimes too close for the lads to be altogether comfortable with—but they were not beasts. Everywhere rose the smell of excrement and dead tissue.

Each lad was looking intently through the darkness at the other, as if about to inquire when it would be considered proper to start screaming for help.

“If this is our host’s idea of the future—” Chick began, but he was abruptly checked by the emergence, from the ominous sweep of shadow surrounding them, of a long pole with a great metal hook on the end, of the sort commonly used to remove objectionable performers from the variety stage, which, being latched firmly about Chick’s neck, had in the next instant pulled him off into regions indecipherable. Before Darby had time to shout after, the Hook reappeared to perform a similar extraction on him, and quick as that, both youngsters found themselves back in the laboratory of Dr. Zoot. The fiendish “time machine,” still in one piece, quivered in its accustomed place, as if with merriment. (403-04)

3. I think the most obvious interpretation here is that our Chums witness part of a battle of the Great War, which is where Against the Day seems to be heading.

4. What I find most fascinating, though, is the way that Pynchon moves from the physical to the metaphysical in the series of images the Chums witness.

We get an image of “undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses” seems simultaneously concrete and metaphysical, specific but also hyperbolic.

The scene continues to tread this line—we witness “a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind.”

On one hand, our disoriented Chums (to whose perspective Pynchon limits us) perceive ghosts here (almost cartoonish ghosts, I might add, of the holes-cut-out-for-eyes variety); on the other hand, the “blurred sockets” suggest gas masks and the “constantly changing” garments could perhaps be the variety of uniforms (and armor) of the soldiers.

Continuing: “Bright arrays of metallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more” — Bullets? Bayonets? Missiles? The concrete image is then likened to “stars blown through by the shock waves of the Creation.” The physical shifts into the metaphysical again as Pynchon sends “the disconsolate company . . . terribly over the edge of the visible world.”

5. Here, the Chums seem to experience the Great War as an intensely compressed allegorical sensation.

6. The second paragraph in the above citation moves the boys into “a space unbounded in all directions” where they perceive “a continuous roar as of the ocean—but it was not the ocean—and soon cries as of beasts in open country, ferally purring stridencies passing overhead, sometimes too close for the lads to be altogether comfortable with—but they were not beasts.”

The Chums have no language to describe what they hear; Pynchon has to mediate the similes available to them in negation. But we (and Darby and Chick, of course) know that this place is no bueno: “Everywhere rose the smell of excrement and dead tissue.”

7. Where have they gone? Are they still in the midst of war—are the sounds planes, bombs? World War I? WWII, site of that other giant Pynchon novel? Hiroshima? Vietnam? The WTC on 9/11? Where? When?

8. I take the second paragraph to be a brief homage to the penultimate chapter of H.G. Wells’s slim novel The Time Machine (frequently and directly invoked throughout this particular episode of AtD, btw). At the end of that novella, the time traveler, dispensing with Eloi and Morlock alike, takes his machine to the brink of time, to witness the end of the earth and our solar system: “A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me.” The Chums of Chance seem to witness a similar extinction.

9. Ah, but this is Pynchon, of course—so and how does the episode end? With a gag. In a vaudevillian twist, our players are removed from the stage via hook as the time machine, their audience, quivers “as if with merriment.”

Despite the zaniness of this exit, keep in mind that our heroes are hooked around their necks, lassoed by a noose of sorts—Pynchon saves them, but at the same time visually suggests their death, linking back to the image of mass extinction at the core of the passage.

10. The paintings in this riff are by the late Polish artist Zdzisław Beksińsk; like all of his work they are untitled.

June 24, 2013

Pleasure and Sorrow in Álvaro Mutis’s Novella The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call

by Edwin Turner

The Tramp Steamer — Edward Hopper

1. Biblioklept has already published a review of Álvaro Mutis’s collection of novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollI didn’t write that review—my friend Dave Cianci did—but the review prompted me to read the book—or rather, to read Maqroll: Three Novellas, which I found used, wrote about here, and passed on to a friend before getting the NYRB edition with all seven novellas.

2. So I read The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call last week. At 66 pages (in a tiny font), it’s the shortest novella in the book. It’s also the first story where we don’t really get an adventure or misadventure of Maqroll, who more or less sits this one out. Instead, an unnamed narrator—a writer of mundane tracts but also poems—tells the story. And of course, because this is Mutis, there is a second storyteller embedded in this tale, a Basque sailor, captain of the titular steamer. The shifting, labyrinthine connections between the steamer, the narrator, the Basque sailor, and a Lebanese woman named Warda frame the plot of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call.

3. Even though Maqroll the Gaviero is on the margins of this tale, the text resonates with his weary, picaresque spirit. And even though his name doesn’t even appear until the novella’s second half, we nevertheless get one of the more lucid descriptions of our anti-hero thus far in the collection:

The other man, whose name he never understood clearly but who was also called Gaviero, was treated by Bashur with unreserved familiarity and listened to with the greatest attention in matters relating to commercial shipping and the operation of freighters in the most remote corners of the world. The Basque could not determine if Gaviero was a nickname, a surname, or simply a designation left over from the time he was a lookout in his youth. A man of few words, with a rather odd, corrosive sense of humor, he was extremely attentive and sensitive in his friendships, knowledgeable about the most unexpected professions, and, while not a womanize, very conscious of, one might say dependent on, a feminine presence.

4. As fate—and fate is the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call (and maybe all of Maqroll, and maybe all of Latin American literature, and maybe all of literature, but specifically the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, which organizes itself around the interconnections between its narrator and the Basque captain)—as fate would have it, the narrator knows the Gaviero,

an old friend whose confidences and tales I have been collecting for many years, considering them of some interest to those who enjoy hearing about the unusual, contrary lives of people who do not follow the common path of gray routine in an age of mindless conformity.

(The above citation is, of course, a wonderful metatextual review of Mutis’s big book).

The narrator doesn’t reveal that he knows the Gaviero though; he doesn’t wish to pollute the Basque captain’s story.

5. Back to fate and chance for a moment: “Chance is always suspect, and much that is fraudulent imitates it.” This might be the thesis statement of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call. Maybe.

6. The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, much like the novellas that precede it, is very much a study of heterogeneity, depicting of a world of shifting identities and ever-changing motivations and outcomes. Words like labyrinthmaze, and intertwine repeat in the text, whether Mutis is describing rivers or cultures or individuals. The text is larded with blends and syntheses, but I’ll grab one simple example, one of the rare times this particular novella returns to the Gaviero. Talking to the narrator, the Basque captain says:

I realized that my own provincial and national prejudices had kept me from seeing the enormous wealth of experience and the solid, warm humanity of this man, whose nationality I never learned, as I never learned the correct pronunciation of his name, which sounded vaguely Scottish but could also have been Turkish or Iranian. I found out later that he carried a Cypriot passport. But that doesn’t mean anything, because he himself hinted I should not put too much faith in its authenticity.

7. What is most authentic in the ever-shifting world Mutis depicts? I think it’s food. I can’t think of another writer who depicts scenes of gustation with such sybaritic pleasure. Mutis never neglects to describe a meal, even on a humble tugboat:

Each tug had two cabins for passengers, who shared with the captain the food prepared by two Jamaican women whose culinary talents we never tired of celebrating. The pork in plum sauce, the rice with coconut and fried plantains, the succulent stews made of river fish, and, and indispensable and always welcome complement to the meals, the miraculously refreshing pear juice with vodka that left us splendidly disposed to enjoy the constantly changing panorama of the river and its banks; thanks to the magic of that imponderable drink, everything took place in a velvety, contented distance that we never attempted to decipher.

8. Okay, authentic might not be right word. Everything in Mutis’s novella is authentic, true even when it’s not true. I suppose I mean stable. But: Our narrator warns us that if we try to replicate the pear and vodka drink we’ll fail, like all the others who try.

9. Let me try again: What is most authentic—I realize I’ve already employed the superlative; mea culpa—what is most authentic in the world that Mutis depicts is the strange intersections of pleasure and sorrow, the way these modes intertwine the labyrinths of our lives.

The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call is a beautiful, dark, sad love story.

10. I realize that I’ve failed to summarize the plot. Do you want that—a plot summary? I don’t have it in me, and someone did it way better. I’ll close with a long excerpt from John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (in a 2003 issue of The New Yorker):

Possibly alert to the dangers of doting on his hero, Mutis next provides a tale in which Maqroll hardly appears, except as a cherished acquaintance of the principals. In “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” the shortest of the lot and one of the best, the narrator relates an experience he himself has had, in a voice close to what we know of Mutis’s own life: “I had to go to Helsinki to attend a meeting of directors of internal publications for various oil companies.” In Helsinki, he asks to be driven to the point from which he can see across the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, a shimmering sight passingly eclipsed by the transit of a decrepit tramp steamer:

The captain’s bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever.

He sees the wretched, plucky ship, which fragmentary letters on its bow identify as the Halcyon, three more times—in Costa Rica, in Jamaica, and in the delta of the Orinoco River. Its apparition invades his dreams. While on another errand for the oil company, travelling downriver to a strike-threatened seaport refinery, he occupies one of the two cabins in a small tugboat; the other is occupied by a Basque sea captain called Jon Iturri, who, it turns out, was the captain of the ghostly tramp steamer, which broke up and sank in the Orinoco. Its owner, Iturri relates, was a Lebanese woman, a younger sister of Abdul Bashur, named Warda. At their first meeting, he says, he was stunned by her “almost Hellenic” beauty:

“Her blue-black hair was as dense as honey and fell to shoulders as straight as those of the kouros in the Athens Museum. Her narrow hips, curving gently into long, somewhat full legs, recalled statues of Venus in the Vatican Museum and gave her erect body a definitive femininity that immediately dispelled a certain boyish air. Large, firm breasts completed the effect of her hips.”

As he got to know her better, his admiration intensified: “Warda, when she was naked, acquired a kind of aura that emanated from the perfection of her body, the texture of her moist, elastic skin, and that face: seen from above, when we were in bed, it took on even more of the qualities of a Delphic vision.” But the lovestruck captain was fifty, and a non-Muslim, and Warda was twenty-four and, the longer she lived in Europe, ever more approving of the conservative ways of her native Lebanon. The tramp steamer, which she inherited from an uncle, was financing her European sojourn with its hard-won profits; she flew to Iturri’s ports of call and spent rapturous days in hotels with him, but their romance could last only as long as the fragile tramp steamer did. Warda’s perfect, elastic, symmetrical beauty was one with the listing, disintegrating body of the ship as it conveyed her aging lover from port to port. The story, Mutis tells us at the outset, “has something of the eternal legends that have bewitched us over the centuries”; he ends by assuring us that “there has been only one love story since the beginning of time.” Not a happy one.

June 21, 2013

Riff on Goya’s Painting Highwaymen Attacking a Coach

by Edwin Turner

highwaymen-attacking-a-coach-1787

1. Francisco Goya’s Asalto de ladrones – Highwaymen Attacking a Coach in Ingles, 1786-87. Oil on canvas. 169 by 127 cm. Currently in some lucky soul’s private collection.

2. I love this painting.

3. It’s easy—and probably correct—to call Goya’s work dark. We can see that in his engraving series The Disasters of War and Caprichos, or his famous works Third of May 1808 or Saturn Devouring His Son. And the darkness, the heaviness, in these works, isn’t just in the subject but also on the canvas, in the grooves of the etchings. The blacks and browns blister; the acid goes to work.

4. It would be wholly wrong to suggest that Goya only painted the dark—but even his most joyful paintings, like Playing at Giants or The Swing contain a dark kernel. (Or, perhaps, maybe I find that kernel there, suggested by his oeuvre).

5. The blue skies of Playing at Giants and The Swing both pale in comparison to the top third of Highwaymen Attacking a Coach.

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That beautiful bright blue sky is somehow the darkest aspect of this very dark painting, a terrible, terrible joke, an ironic reminder of glorious nature’s inglorious indifference to misery, suffering, murder, rape.

6. Moving down—the tree: long, twisting, phallically jutting into the blue sky. It seems to crookedly shift in the wind. Softly echoed by those happy little clouds it takes us down to the vernal forest floor, where we seem to be just-off-the-beaten-path.

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7. I’ll admit to a certain fascination with the concept of highway robbery—the perils of the path, the road as a dangerous place, Barry Lyndon, Robin Hood, etc.—but what Goya gives us here is shock and horror.

8. If we continue to move our eyes down from that blue sky, we find, just off-center, a gun-wielding usurper perched on a lovely gilded carriage, its mules patiently stalled.

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9. Left to right: Murder victim number one, his jacket open, torn, his ribs and breast bloodied—he’s already a corpse, but his naked skin suggests something even more sinister.

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10. Just beside victim number one, a passenger fights for his life against a bandit brandishing a knife. Their twisted, violent grappling prefigures the threat of rape that lurks under the painting.

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11. To the right of this strange couple, another couple—aristocratic mother-father team—plead for their lives, their palms facing up to that blue sky. The man’s cloak is earth-brown, and the woman’s cape black, but between them rests—I don’t know? Some pink bundle. The hem of the woman’s dress? Something bloodied? The suggestion of infanticide?

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12. We find their guard uselessly sprawled to the right, his worthless sword neatly parallel to the gun under the grappling couple, blood trickling from under his blood-red coat. As Robert Hughes points out in his long biography of Goya, the guard’s corpse figures “the same pose that Goya would repeat several times in future drawings and paintings to indicate a dead body, so that it became part of his shorthand for death”; Hughes goes on to remind us that this sprawl is the same one we can see of “the dead man facedown to the left of the French firing squad in the Tres de Mayo, his hands scrabbling palms-down to the earth.”

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13. Immediately above the guard, and to the viewer’s left of him, stands his likely assassin, his chest bared and his gun (jutting from the pelvis) now confidently trained on our hapless couple.

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14. Gunman #2 is not half so menacing though as his partner who occupies the low dark center of the painting.

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His hat cocked ever-so-slightly to the right, this central bandit, clothed in greenish-gold garb, raises a rope in his left hand. The rope signifies every awful kind of horror the viewer cares (“cares” is not the right verb) to imagine, but it’s the action that bandit performs with his right hand that is somehow the most menacing gesture of the painting: We can almost hear him coo, “Shhhhhhhh…”

15. And our poor victims? Their hands up, in supplication, what do they have to look to? Perhaps, like the attendant viewer, they return to the sky blue sky.

z

June 13, 2013

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

by Edwin Turner
sleep of reason

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

June 3, 2013

“All Our Figments and Alogisms” | The Kafkaesque, Borgesian, Phildickian Worlds of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

by Edwin Turner

20130602-142757.jpg

At some point I acquired the notion, probably a fair one, that comparing writers to other writers is critically lazy. At the same time, writers write after other writers, through other writers, to other writers, against other writers, in other writers, out of other writers, on top of other writers, and so on. Literature is archaeological. And if I’m honest, a lot of the time it’s the comparison to another writer that prompts my interest in a writer I haven’t read.

Let me get to what I was getting at:

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Russian, 1887-1950: His collection Memories of the Future: Seven stories in spirited translation by Joanne Turnbull: Available in English from the good folks at NYRB: It’s the sort of book that deserves its own book. Etc.

In lieu of writing that book, quite beyond my power, I’ll compare Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to some other writers in the hope of piquing your interest in this neglected master.

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KAFKAESQUE

You knew I would start here.

Four years senior to Krzhizhanovsky, Mr. Kafka of Prague was our Russian writer’s contemporary (if we want to use our postmodern imaginations). I was tempted to simply type “K” for Kafka, but they are both K. Kafkaesque is invoked frequently enough to potentially sap the adjective’s potency, but consider that the same nebulous yet very real forces that shaped (warped?) Kafka (which, in turn Kafka shaped (warped) in his own writing) shaped (warped?) Krzhizhanovsky. Unseen, displaced authority, alienation, and absurdity, yes, but also humor, the line of hysteria, the constraining order that induces madness. The nightmare of modernity.

From “The Branch Line”:

“Speaking in more modern terms,” the fine print went on, “our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customer’s call this ‘world history.’ But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.”

BULGAKOVIAN

If Kafka was Krzhizhanovsky’s psychical contemporary, Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian, b. 1891) is his geographic one. Both men were writing through (and to some extent, against) the Russian Revolution, rendering the crowded buzz of new Moscow in manic strokes. Humming under the surface of Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita is the threat of disappearance, the loss of personal space, but also absurd humor. These themes run through the seven stories collected in Memories of the Future, but perhaps evince most strongly in “Quadraturin” (maybe Krzhizhanovsky’s most famous story), where furtive bachelor Sutulin obtains a samizdat device that expands his tiny apartment—ad infinitum into limitless space and terror.

From “Quadraturin”:

In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in teh middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.

BORGESIAN

So much of Kafkaesque applies to Borgesian, and perhaps I’ve quickly run up against one of the central problems of comparison: The originary: The source of the source: Primary (etc.). No matter. Krzhizhanovsky’s modernism is Borgesian: Tale-telling: nested tales, circular tales, winding tales, labyrinths and mirrors, trap doors and hidden texts (motives), narrators who tell us a story as if it’s just a distraction in the middle of some bigger story we won’t get to hear—yet. Could there be a more Borgesian title than “The Bookmark,” a tale loaded with hundreds of tales. (Okay, maybe not hundreds, but still loaded with that Scheherazade programming, that infinite looping…).

From “Someone Else’s Theme”:

And an invented person makes the greatest impression, naturally, on the seemingly not-invented, real person who, upon finding his reflection in a book, feels replaced and redoubled. This person cannot forgive his feeling of double insult: here I, a real, not-invented person, shall go to my grave and nothingness in ten or twenty years, whereas this fabricated, not-real “almost I” shall go on living and living as though it were the most natural thing in the world; more unforgivable still is the awareness that someone, some author, made you up like an arithmetic problem, what’s more he figured you out, arrived at an answer over which you struggled your entire life in vain, he divined your existence without ever having met you, he penned his way into your innermost thoughts, which you tried so hard to hide from yourself. One must refute the author and vindicate oneself. At once!

HAWTHORNESQUE

It might be easy to go to Poe for a comparison: He’s famous for his tales, and Krzhizhanovsky is a tale-master—whereas Hawthorne’s estimable short stories are often overlooked because he happened to write what may or may not be The Great American Novel. But Hawthorne’s dark romantic imagination, his weird sci-fi streak, and his wry sense of humor offer a better frame of reference for Krzhizhanovsky’s contours. Krzhizhanovsky is also fond of Hawthorne’s closing gambit, the “It-was-all-a-dream-or-hey-was-it?” maneuver. Both writers practice allegorical destabilization in their deeply darkly ironic parables. Soul detectives.

From “The Branch Line”:

He knew from experience that dreams, like the thieves in the parable, come unseen, they slip under foreheads, trying to avoid the eyes, and only there—under the cranial roof, safe and sound, sprawled the brain—do they throw off their invisibility.

DOSTOEVSKIAN

Krzhizhanovsky directly invokes several Russian writers by name, including Gogol and Turgenev, but Fyodor Dostoevsky seems to pop up the most. This makes sense. Dostoevsky is Krzhizhanovsky’s parent-writer. Or maybe Raskolnikov is. Or maybe the Underground Man is. Like Dostoevsky, Krzhizhanovsky crafts alienated loners and thrusts them into absurd moral quandaries.

From “Red Snow”:

Resignation to one’s fate takes practice. Like any art. Or so citizen Shushashin maintains. He begins every day—after putting on his shoes and washing his face, before throwing on his jacket—with an exercise. Again, the expression is his. This expression works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live.

O’BRIENESQUE

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman channels Crime and Punishment via the dream machines of Hawthorne, Wells, Verne et al—all elements we might find in Memories of the Future. And of course O’Brien is Kafkaesque, Borgesian, etc. The stories-within-stories, the fake philosophers, the hefty strawmen, the dreams, the nightmares…Must I draw this out?

From “The Bookmark”:

‘I remember I tossed all night, my elbows bumping against the hard theme that layers our entire life. My pen, as soon as I dipped it in ink, wrote Animal Disputans. That was the title. Next came…Perhaps this doesn’t interest you?’

‘Please go on.’

‘I took the title and the first verses of my song, if you will, from an old and long-forgotten book by the Danish humorist Holberg. This book—Nicolai Klimmi Her subterraneum, I believe it’s called—describes the fantastic adventures of a traveler who winds up, I can’t remember how, inside the Earth. The traveler is astonished to find that inside the planet, as inside a hermetically sealed vessel, lives a race with its own hermetically sealed State system, way of life, culture, everything that is customary in such cases. Over time the life of these undergroundlings—once rife with wars and conflict, cut off, hidden away beneath miles of crust—sorted itself out and settled into a harmonious routine. The problems of the hermetically sealed were all solved, everything ironed out and agreed upon. But in memory of those long-ago wars, Nicolai Klimmi tells us—no, please listen, it’s rather touching—the land’s noblest and richest magnates raised animal disputans. There isn’t anything to argue about in an isolated country where everything has been determined and predetermined in saecula saculorum but these disputants were trained for the purpose, fed a special diet that irritated the liver and sublingual nerve, then pitted against one another and forced to argue till they were hoarse and foaming at the mouth—to unanimous laughter and merry halloos from the lovers of old traditions…

PHILDICKIAN

I think we can all agree that Memories of the Future could be the title of a Philip K. Dick story, right? The story of the same title (the longest in the collection, a novella, really) strongly recalls Dick, channeling him through time travel, and Phildickian themes course throughout the book: Paranoia, identity crisis, cynicism, the realization that the waking life might conceal alternative consciousness…

From “The Branch Line”:

Haven’t we managed to unify dreams? Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity? Flags the color of poppy petals flutter above the crowds. Reality is fighting back. But its blazing suns don’t frighten the newly ascendant underground. Sleepers’ eyes are shielded by eyelids. Yesterday’s utopia has become today’s science. We’ll break the backs of facts. We’ll rout their status quos: you’ll see those status quos turn tail and run. If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we’, we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst. We’ll hide the sun behind black blots, we’ll plunge the whole world into a deep, static slumber. We’ll even put the idea of waking to sleep, and if it resists, we’ll gouge out its eyes.

BOLAÑOESQUE

While reading Memories of the Future, I sometimes pretended that Krzhizhanovsky (and his doppelganger writer-protagonists) were versions of Boris Abramovich Ansky, the dissident Russian writer who appears (via diaries and fragments) in “The Part About Archimboldi” in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Sure, I brought some of that metatextual layering with me, but Krzhizhanovsky’s Borgesian stories repeatedly destabilize the notion of an authoritative narrator or storyteller, like matryoshka dolls that open into eggs that open into dreams and nightmares. Like Bolaño’s work, Krzhizhanovsky’s writing skates across an abyss of horror. The Krzhizhanovskian milieu shares psychic space with the Bolañoverse—in particular, both writers seem to love to walk their characters through graveyards.

From “The Thirteenth Category of Reason”:

That’s how it always is: first you call on your friends, and then—when the hearses have delivered them—on their graves. Now my turn too has come to exchange people for graves. The cemetery where I go more and more often lies behind high crenelated walls and looks from the outside like a fortress: only when the fighters have all fallen will the gates open. You walk in—first past a chaos of crosses, then past the inner wall—to the new crossless cemetery: gone are the monumental statics of the old human sepulchers, the massive family vaults and stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth: red metal starts on thin wire stems fidget nervously in the wind.

***

By way of conclusion, I’ll submit that Krzhizhanovsky is just as notable for his divergences from the writers I’ve listed above as he is for any similarities. There are also plenty of names that could be added to the list above, and readers of Krzhizhanovsky will likely protest that I’ve failed to underscore the political underpinnings of his writing (for the record, the seven stories in Memories of the Future clearly respond to (and in many ways protest and satirize) early Soviet politics and lifestyle, but Krzhizhanovsky’s approach is coded, oblique, and in this sense, timeless).

I’ll end with with another citation from “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” a story that plays with Kant’s twelve categories of conception. Krzhizhanovsky’s work is always dialogic; he’s always performing voices, but occasionally one slips through that I take to be a more direct version of the author’s own. Here, Krzhizhanovsky offers a possible thesis statement for his project—his desire to write outside the confines of reason, his desire to find meaning in “all our figments and alogisms”:

For you see, all those who are off (I won’t look for another definition) or, rather, out of their heads, evicted, so to speak, from all twelve Kantian categories of reason, must naturally seek refuge in a thirteenth category, a sort of logical lean-to slouched against objective obligatory thinking. Given that the thirteenth category of reason is where we entertain, in essence, all our figments and alogisms, the old gravedigger may be useful to my projected cycle of “fantastic” stories.

That projected cycle of fantastic stories is Memories of the Future.

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