Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Second Riff: The Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain)

A. Okay. So I finished the first section of Mason & Dixon a few days ago. I’m now at the part where our titular heroes are smoking weed and eating snacks with George Washington. I can’t possibly handle all the material I’ve read so far—even in a riff (here’s the first riff for anyone inclined)—so instead I’ll annotate a few passages from Ch. 19, one of my favorite episodes so far.

B. Setting and context: 1762. “The George,” a pub in Gloucestershire (Mason’s home county). The patrons at the tavern are heatedly discussing the eleven days that went “missing” when the British moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

One (satirical) source for this controversy comes from William Hogarth’s 1755 painting An Election Entertainment; in the detail below, you can read (barely) the slogan  “Give us our Eleven Days” on the black banner under the man’s foot.

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A bit more context, via History Today:

In 1750 England and her empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Europe.

Attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to adopt the new calendar had broken on the rock of the Church of England, which denounced it as popish. The prime mover in changing the situation was George Parker, second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was assisted in his calculations by his friend James Bradley…

I emphasized Bradley—Mason’s mentor—and Macclesfield as they are minor characters in this episode.

Basically, the pub patrons demand that Mason explain what happened to the missing eleven days.

C. Okay—so this whole episode, this discussion of time and space clearly helps underline the big themes of Mason & Dixon: How to measure the intangible, the invisible—how to pin down the metaphysical to the physical—how to know and how to not know. (Hence all the paranoia). Read More

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (First Riff)

A. Mason & Dixon: I bought my copy at Shaman Bookstore in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the fall of 2002. I had just read and absorbed V., but could not get into Mason & Dixon. Chalk up this initial failure to the novel’s daunting scope, the formal characteristics of its faux-18th c. style, too much Thai whiskey, etc. I made attempts again over the years, sporadic ones, small dents, etc., including a half-hearted attempt after reading the book’s sort-of sequel, Against the Day last year. But of course I needed space from/for a big-assed Pynchon novel, so, a year later, I finally commit to Mason & Dixon. I’ve read the first 15 chapters.

B. “against the Day”: The phrase leaps out in the third paragraph of Chapter 13 (p. 125), imploring me to read Mason & Dixon as a prequel of sorts to Against the Day. The themes, motifs, and formal devices of both novels are utterly Pynchonian, of course (he tautologically types): Paranoia, global powers contesting for domination, science, adventure, means and methods of conveyance, dick jokes, ditties, inebriating substances, all manner of rascalism, man’s inhumanity to etc. And condiments!

C. “ketjap”: Against the Day gave us a history of the cult of mayonnaiseMason & Dixon is the ketchup book. (Not really but maybe really).

D. “The Learned English Dog”: We meet this marvelous beast, this talking dog, early in the novel, and he of course reminds me immediately of Pugnax, the loyal and brave companion to the Chums of Chance in Against the Day.

E. “invisible”: Just as in Against the Day, Pynchon sounds the note “invisible” repeatedly to highlight some of the Big Themes of the novel. Mason & Dixon is about The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of even the very conceptualization of an Age of Reason—an age when “Men of Science” like our titular Daring Duo sought to make the invisible—the passage of the stars and time itself—visible, measurable, defined, bordered, colonized, etc.

F. “…please do not come to the Learned English Dog if it’s religious Comfort you’re after. I may be preternatural, but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog,—Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns.” Said the Talking Dog.

G. “inconvenience”: The first time I notice the word—another of Pynchon’s signatures—is in Ch. 3 (p. 28). It stands out: A sailor by the name of Fender-Belly Bodine claims that he once sailed on the H.M.S. Inconvenience. The Chums of Chance of course sail the heavens on their airship The Inconvenience. 

H. But again: “inconvenience” (and iterations of the same) thread through Mason & Dixon: Why? What to make of the word? Perhaps—just a perhaps—The Age of Reason is really a rhetorical substitution for The Age of Convenience, the Age of Better Living (For Some Folks) Through Science. Convenience: The application of some kind of method or utility—relies on measurement, on demarcation, on prediction, etc. Convenience, then, perhaps then, as the practical aim of the age of science.

I. And Inconvenience, then, perhaps then, as a disruptive metaphysical force (?).

J. I’ve neglected entirely to remark on the 18th c. style. Maybe another time.

K. Also the songs.

L. But I will, before closing, remark quickly on how much I enjoy how Pynchon riffs on jocular forms—jokes you mean, right?—to compose elements of the narrative. Early on, Dixon tries to tell a joke about “this Jesuit, this Corsican, and this Chinaman” before he’s stopped by a mortified Mason; they return to the joke about a hundred pages later (still no punchline). Globalization is already there.

M. (Also: An extended episode in the Dutch Cape of South Africa riffs repeatedly on the farmer’s daughters joke. No insight at all here—just love how Pynchon uses the joke to move his narrative along).

M. Okay, then: Just a few opening notes, just a little riff, a sketch, some initial ideas. More to come. Loving the book so far.

A Too Many Cooks Riff, Focusing on The Killer, Who Is There Right from the Beginning

If you haven’t yet seen Too Many Cooks, Casper Kelly’s short film for Adult Swim, here it is:

 

Too Many Cooks compels and rewards/punishes its audience not because of its comedic elements, but rather for its horror. Kelly has made one of the finest little horror films I’ve ever seen.

The central techniques of Too Many Cooks–repetition, collage, and genre parody—are fairly obvious and wonderfully synthesized. The film relies on an understanding that its audience has a particular way of seeing. The intended audience of Too Many Cooks has:

1) An understanding and acceptance of the postmodern tradition of repeating a punchline (or set-up) past the point of humor. And–

2) A particular ironic vision that delights in seeing commercial TV genre conventions of yore skewered.

Too Many Cooks succeeds by disrupting both ways of seeing. Its audiovisual repetitions (oh my lord the song!) become insane tics in a horror story that the viewer did not expect to happen—despite a number of early clues.

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe suggests that when “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.” Let us substitute “Horror” for “Beauty” (Poe would not mind, I think) and we have a fair description of what the filmmakers behind Too Many Cooks have created: A short piece of art that, by its arrangement, editing, of particulars—including its audience’s preconceptions—creates the effect of horror.

That horror emanates from the secret protagonist of Too Many Cooks, a mad-eyed killer who haunts the film first from its peripheries before eventually overtaking it. (He bears a slight resemblance to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek).

The Killer is the organizing principle of Too Many Cooks. He’s right there from the beginning, a specter whose agency throughout the piece subverts audience expectations. It’s not the uber-Father (who begat too many Cooks) who is the film’s central figure, but the infanticidal Killer.

Here is the first time we see The Killer, just 20 seconds in. He’s there on the right, sweater-vested (like a dad):

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And then a few seconds later, lurking on the Brady/Cosby/Bundy stairs, still obscure:

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The Killer next shows up about 90 seconds in; this is, unless I’m wrong, the first time we see his visage. It’s also the moment when Too Many Cooks’s early joke on corny nineties sitcom intros really starts to wear thin—the filmmakers offer us repeated images of cooks as if to underscore the tedious point.

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And there’s The Killer in the second family photo:2andhalf

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

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

I’ve tried.

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

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

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

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

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

What is the book about?

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

Okay, but:

What is the book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.

On the iPad:

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq

My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentorsjust sucking down venom.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

I might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.

The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni

Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

Good lord.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But 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.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa

What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño

Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews

Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).

(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov

The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.

Read “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” Maxims by Gilbert Sorrentino

Reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s riff/story/essay “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” I couldn’t help but think of his correspondent, David Markson, whose 1996 novel Reader’s Block is anticipated in the structure of Sorrentino’s piece. Obviously Markson’s project and Sorrentino’s riff have literary roots that go way way back—maxims and riffs are hardly novel. Still, there’s something about the tone, rhythm, and content of the piece that reminds me of Markson’s tetralogy. A few samples below; read the whole thing in the Fall ’93 issue of Conjunctions.

I have never read a review of a play by Samuel Beckett in which the reviewer’s ignorance of Beckett’s fiction was not made clear.

All popular culture is essentially the same, i.e., it cannot transcend its audience-attentive whatness, nor can it escape the universe of camp toward which it is pointed at the moment of its birth. Lawrence Welk really is the same as Mick Jagger and “Saturday Night Live” the “Ed Sullivan Show”‘s other face.

No fatal disease is privileged, and all disease is as natural as health. To believe otherwise is to believe that we are “supposed to” die in a certain, “reasonable” way, sans pain and sadness. This attitude toward mortality makes for a lot of misery.

That Charles Olson made indisputably great poetry does not obviate the fact that he was also the Wizard of Oz.

There are few things more disgusting than a superior, mocking, self-important review of a trashy book by a hack writer.

Abstract love and generalized compassion increase in direct proportion to organized social viciousness.

Frank O’Hara is the saddest of all postwar American poets.

My father didn’t speak English until he was eleven, at which time he left school and went to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. His letters, despite an occasional spelling error or grammatical gaffe, are written in a better prose than can be managed by most of the university undergraduates I’ve taught. He was far from unique.

If, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles says, all theory is gray, theory concerning theory is Joycean brown.

Artists who pretend that they are no more than workers in the arts are neither artists nor workers.

To say that most book reviewers are lazy, illread and addicted to the banal is like saying “war is hell” or “greed is the root of evil.” These remarks hide their truths behind the deadening familiarity of their verbal representations; but they are truths nevertheless.

Popular art reflects and flatters popular culture, or, if you prefer, the Zeitgeist. In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if it leads and influences the true culture, or the innate wisdom of a people, but this isn’t so.

Riff on Aronofsky’s Noah

1. Noah continues director Darren Aronofsky’s streak of making films that I will never watch more than once.

2. (The film is new on DVD &c.; I dutifully missed in the theater).

3. (Although I did see Aronofsky’s first feature Pi in the theater—at my university’s student union. I liked the claustrophobic paranoia of Pi, but the film was also silly, histrionic even, and I did not understand the film’s handling of metaphysics—mostly because the film does not understand its own metaphysical vision).

4. (Noah, for its part, does seem to understand its own metaphysical vision; or, rather, it understands a version of its own metaphysical vision).

5. Aronofsky’s Noah takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape: Cities are failing, the world is barren, dry, the ground seems to be comprised of basalt and ash. The people in his Prediluvian world use a mishmash of technologies, some of which seem fairly advanced (strip-mining, metallurgy, advanced textiles, etc.)—but these technologies also seem stymied, stuck, abortive last grasps at progress. Noah looks at times like a Mad Max film, or even Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road.

6. Aronofsky’s Noah is a post-apocalyptic pre-apocalypse film.

7. Aronofsky’s Noah attempts an answer to both Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel.

8. Aronofsky’s Noah foregrounds the radical infanticide at the heart of the flood myth. 

9. From A. Samuel Kimball’s The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture:

. . . when he promises never again to subject the world to such destruction, God memorializes the irreversibility of his massively -cidal violence and binds the future that will transpire to the futurity that will now never come to pass. Indeed, God destroys an infinite number of futures with the respective deaths of the Flood’s victims, for whom the waters of the Flood will never stop flooding, never cease obliterating the future. When he ratifies his promise in the covenant with Noah and his descendants, God inscribes the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage in the limitless infanticidism of the Flood.

10. Aronofsky’s Noah gains most, if not all, of its moral tension in depicting Noah’s attempt to negate the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage.

11. Should humanity be allowed to exist after The Flood? is Noah’s (and Noah’s) central question. Aronofsky’s answer to this question is, I think, ultimately ambiguous. While Noah’s own infanticidal violence (an extension of his attempt to prevent his sons from begetting offspring) is suspended (by love!), Aronofsky represents this suspension with ambivalence. Noah, drunk in a cave, invites us to look on his naked failure. 

12. Aronofsky’s Noah is most successful as a kind of failed boilerplate color-by-numbers summer-popcorn-big-budget-action flick. It’s just too weird to fully adhere to its formula, but it hangs together by the formula nonetheless, jostling, uneasy. 

13. Aronofsky’s Noah features giant fallen angels encased in rock. These golems are probably the signal special effect of the film, and a sore reminder of the pervasive influence of the special effects battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

14. This was easily my favorite sequence of Noah:

15. (And yet that sequence still suffers from a kind of queasy supernatural cheesiness that infects Aronofsky’s work).

16. After watching the film, I sought reviews, which led me quickly to John Nolte’s paranoid (and unintentionally hilarious) take on the film at the right-wing website Breitbart. Nolte clearly enjoyed the film and he repeatedly praises its techniques, production values, and acting, but condemns it as “blasphemous” in depicting God as “some kind of tree-hugger.” “Aronofsky is the anti-Michelangelo,” Nolte declares, “a master craftsman using his talents to a dishonest and wicked end.” That wicked end is “using the story of Noah to twist Christianity into something it is not…[Noah is] a genius piece of propagandizing that is sure to lead many away from God under the mistaken belief that through left-wing environmentalism they are coming closer to Him.”

Nolte’s strident praise/condemnation is hilarious and hyperbolic.

Does he actually believe that this movie is aesthetically affecting enough to motivate any kind of change in belief?

17. (Reviews like Nolte’s are important to me because they help to remind me of the subjectivity of aesthetic experience. He saw a completely different film (with his completely different eyes) than I did).

18. My favorite Aronofsky film, and the only one that I would consider watching again, is The Fountain. I think that The Fountain might be a kind of precursor film to Noah, a trial-run even, although I have no evidence for this claim.

19. I started this riff with the claim that I have no desire to rewatch Aronofsky’s films, and that Noah continues this pattern. Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

20. Noah isn’t repulsive, but it isn’t great either. Flawed doesn’t even begin to describe the film—yes, it survives its own competing impulses of spectacle-bombast and introspective-character-study, but never synthesizes them. It’s unclear who the film is for. The film resolves in a moment of supposed-uplift, positing “love” –of offspring– as a solution, but it also binds that solution/blessing in the cursing of offspring.

Both of these moments feel wholly inauthentic. In the end, what remains is the bitter aftertaste of Noah’s contempt—and his anxiety at failing to create a utopia devoid of humans.

Under the Skin Riff

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1. I hadn’t read a review of Under the Skin until after I watched it, but I had gleaned an idea of it based on taglines and posters—something like “Scarlett Johansson as a sexy alien seducing men in Scotland.”

2. That is not what the film is.

3. Under the Skin is an aesthetic experience. Now, this phrase, aesthetic experience, this phrase is extremely pretentious, and the way I’ve used it here also strikes me as pretentious, and even worse, not particularly clear. Any film could be described as an aesthetic experience. Films are, after all, simply light and sound.

4. Under the Skin is best experienced as light and sound—as aesthetic.

5. I’ve neglected to mention the film’s director, Jonathan Glazer, who directed another film I love, Sexy Beast.

6. For Under the Skin, Glazer adapted Michel Faber’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but a cursory cruise over its Wikipedia page suggests that Glazer dissolved most of the plot, keeping just the frame, or the idea of a frame for his film.

7. What I liked most about Under the Skin: The film is not really about anything. The film just happens. 

8. Point 7 is a terrible description! Of course the film is about something—but its themes and motifs are overdetermined and underexplained—or not explained at all.

9. There is very little dialogue in the film—no exposition or explanation for what’s happening, let alone a conversation that might guide the audience to how to think or feel about what’s happening.

10. (Okay: This is not entirely true, but it is mostly true. There is a key conversation, if it can be called that, between Johansson’s unnamed character and a man with a deformed face). 

11. The bits of dialogue that do evince often seem unscripted and random. The men Johansson’s character picks up speak in thick Scottish accents, their voices often obscured behind a din of traffic, buzz of music, or the thick glass windows of the van she drives around in. 

12. (A favorite moment of auditory distortion in Under the Skin: In a domestic scene, in a kitchen, cleaning up, a man turns on his radio and just-barely tunes in a station. Deacon Blue’s “Real Gone Kid” plays through a hazy crackle. Lovely).

13. The sound mixing in the film is beautiful—waves crashing, the clip-clop of horse hooves on a high road, the wind blowing heavy through tall evergreens—these auditory cues mix in with Mica Levi’s creepy, lush score, which channels Krzysztof Komeda’s work and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score through Portishead and Loveless

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

14. Sound and light—those shots: Cinematographer Daniel Landin is the secret star of the film. Every shot is gorgeous, painterly, and if Glazer often allows a scene to linger just past an acceptable threshold, it’s because he’s in love with the film’s dark beauty. 

15. (And/or: Glazer lets his shots linger so long to provoke the viewer into a kind of hypnotic discomfort).

16. The film’s early visual references to Kubrick’s 2001 are a bit on-the-nose—too on-the-nose, too expected. As the film progresses, the shots take their cues not from Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, but his most painterly film, Barry Lyndon

17. (Under the Skin also reminded me of Upstream Color, Moon, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tree of Life, and Morvern Callar).

18. The film is best enjoyed, as I’ve said, as an aesthetic experience, art, if that’s the word you like. I think that viewers who attempt to impose their own narrative logic on the film will attune their energy to the wrong frequency. Let the aesthetic happen.

19. (The beach sequence in this film is one of the best scenes I’ve watched in a long, long time).

20. I have completely and purposefully neglected to mention anything about the plot, because I do not think the plot, in the sense of plot-as-arrangement-of-action matters to the film. The film’s aesthetic is the plot.

21. And Under the Skin’s aesthetic is the film’s theme. This film is about seeing, hearing. Touch, taste, smell.

You can boil that down to whichever theory floats your boat—the male gaze, alienation, othering, sexual subversion, radical feminism, etc.—but I think that imposing any schema, any deep reading here, may be a way of anesthetizing the film’s aesthetic.

22. Highly recommended.

 

 

Snowpiercer Riff

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1. Snowpiercer, 2013, directed by Bong Joon Ho and produced by Park Chan Wook, is a sci-fi dystopian set on a mega-train, where the vestiges of humanity survive, protected from the new ice age outside. The plot involves the third-class passengers’ revolt against the elites who enjoy a privileged life at the head of the train. Etc.

2. You’ve seen this movie before, read this book before. You’ve played this video game.

3. Metropolis, Soylent Green12 MonkeysHalf-Life 2The Time Machine, the MaddAddam trilogy, Children of Men, BioShockZardozLogan’s Run, Brave New World, BrazilThe City of Lost ChildrenBad Dudes, Die HardThe Polar Express, etc.

4. Points 2 and 3 are lazy writing, and Snowpiercer deserves better. Although the film is not especially original, it does have a clear point of view, its own aesthetics, and an engaging, energetic rhythm, powered by strong (if purposefully cartoonish) performances from its cast.

5. Snowpiercer is essentially structured like a video game. The heroes, a rebel alliance led by Chris Evans (Captain America, looking like The Edge from U2 for half the film), clear each train car—each game board—before moving on to the next challenge. An early standout scene involves a fight with a band of ninjas who for some reason ritually slaughter a fish before battle (the scene echoes the famous hammer hallway fight in Old Boy, a film directed by Snowpiercer producer Chan Wook Park). 

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6. The simple narrative structure of Snowpiercer allows the filmmakers to highlight the plot’s allegorical dimension. Highlight is the wrong verb: What I mean to say is hammer. Snowpiercer is not especially subtle in its critique of capitalism, with the engine that powers the train as a metaphor for capitalism itself—the engine determines the form of the train which in turn shapes the form of the society that must live in the train.

7. At Jacobin, Peter Frase offers a strong argument that the film challenges the entire system of capitalism and ultimately advocates transcendence of the system—not internal revolution.

8. While I think Frase’s essay offers a compelling analysis, I think that he simply wants the film to be better than it is. Snowpiercer, despite an apparent subversive streak, is still a Hollywoodish spectacle of violence and noise. It cannot transcend its own tropes (it can’t even revolutionize them). The vision of transcendence it offers is a rhetorical trick; not only that, it’s a stale trick, one that we can find at the end of any number of dystopian fictions: The exit door, the escape hatch, the way out.

9. I want to talk about that exit door—the end of the film: so major spoilers ahead. Read More

A Riff on Stuff I Wish I’d Written About In the First Half of 2014

1. Leaving the Sea, Ben Marcus: A weird and (thankfully) uneven collection that begins with New Yorkerish stories of a post-Lish stripe (like darker than Lipsyte stuff) and unravels (thankfully) into sketches and thought experiments and outright bizarre blips. Abjection, abjection, abjection. The final story “The Moors” is a minor masterpiece.

2. Novels and stories, Donald Barthelme: A desire to write something big and long on Barthelme seems to get in the way of my writing anything about Barthelme. Something short then? Okay: Barthelme is all about sex. He posits sex as the solution (or at least consolation) for the problems of language, family, identity, etc.

3. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley: I gorged on these precise, sad, funny stories, probably consuming too many at once (by the end of Little Disturbances I had the same stomach ache I got after eating too much of Barthelme’s Sixty Stories at once).

4. Concrete by Thomas Bernhard: Unlike the other novels I’ve read by Bernhard, Concrete seems to offer some kind of vision of moral capability, one which the narrator is unable to fully grasp, but which is nevertheless made available to the reader in the book’s final moments, accessible only through the novel’s layers of storytelling. Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry that might champion my shadow in days to come

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

with empty pockets, worked in slaughterhouses

on the old and on the new continent.

I seek credibility not durability for the ballads

I composed in honor of very real girls.

And mercy for my years before 26.

Seems like a reasonable request.

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

More to come.

The Unknown University is available now from New Directions.

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

Kilian Eng

Kilian Eng

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Is Europe Central too big?

No. I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

No?

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

So:

On parables and their value

On Käthe Kollwitz, who kept painting poor people.

On the assurance of a sleepwalker.

On the musicality of a weeping son.

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

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

On abjection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Mike D’Angelo points out in his smart review

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I mean to say:

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

Riff on William Shakespeare

1. William Shakespeare, the Greatest Living American Author, turns 450 today.

2. (There may be some, uh, factual, problems with the preceding sentence, but I’ll let it stand).

3. (After all, to write after Shakespeare requires some gall, a bit of fakery, maybe an outright lie or two).

4. 450! (Could I even hit a 450 points on a riff?)

5. “Shakespeare invented us,” Harold Bloom repeatedly insists in his big fat book The Western Canon.

6. (I might be misquoting; the prospect of putting the effort of fact checking into this riff horrifies me).

7. “Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying,” F. Scott Fitzgerald jotted down in his notebook.

8. We don’t actually have a record of Shakespeare’s birth, although we do know he was baptized on 26 April 1564.

9. And died 23 April 1616.

10. It’s likely that Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564.

11. Or, perhaps: There’s something symmetrical, neat, poetic about Shakespeare dying on his birthday.

12. Ingrid Bergman died on her birthday.

13. As did Thomas Browne.

14. As did Yasujrio Ozu.

15. And, according to tradition: Moses, David, Mohammad.

16. So why not Shakespeare, born on his deathday?

17. We want a teleological neatness with Shakespeare: We want his last play to be The Tempest, a tragicomedy that somehow synthesizes all before it; we can claim Prospero a commanding stand-in for Shakespeare.

18. (These claims overlooking of course that Shakespeare’s last work was likely a forgettable collaboration with John Fletcher,  The Two Noble Kinsmen).

19. The Two Noble Kinsmen was based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.

20. (Shakespeare of course “based” his works on other works; the man was not one for original plotting (thank goodness)).

21. “Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare,” claimed Ezra Pound.

22. “Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so,” he truculently added.

23. To Coleridge though Shakespeare was “myriad-minded Shakespeare” — Our myriad-minded Shakespeare.

24. Dryden credited him with “the largest and most comprehensive soul.”

25. Suggesting also that, “Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be.”

26. I’m not sure about that.

27. How many versions of Hamlet have been attempted?

28. Were not some of these Hamlets magical—magical enough, at least?

29. Ulysses?

30. Infinite Jest?

31. The Lion King?

32. Oedipus Rex?

33. David Markson points out somewhere—forgive me for not rising from my fat ass to go verify—that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have read Sophocles’ Oedipus as there was no English translation yet available.

34. And how many books did Shakespeare read?

35. (Chaucer, often credited with a library of sixty).

36. Speculation, speculation!

37. Shakespeare Truthers.

38. Or Anti-Stratfordians—whatever you want to call them.

38. Walt Whitman was a Shakespeare Truther.

39. Believing no commoner could write the plays, but “only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.”

40. Amazing that, that Walt Whitman, who could so bombastically conceive himself every man, woman, child, a cosmos, etc.—that he couldn’t credit a commoner with the depth of imagination to produce the plays that Whitman called “greater than anything else in recorded literature.”

41. David Markson: “Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man.  Or a lawyer.  Or closely associated with royalty.  Or even a Jew. To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.”

42. For some Shakespeare Truthers, evidence of his lack of authorship is to be found in the different ways he supposedly signed his name!

43. Willm Shakp.

44. William Shakspēr.

45. Wm Shakspē.

46. William Shakspere.

47. Willm Shakspere.

48. William Shakspeare.

49. The last of these from his 1616 will, in which he famously bequeathed his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway.

50. “He was a rich country gentleman, Stephen said, with a coat of arms and landed estate at Stratford and a house in Ireland yard, a capitalist shareholder, a bill promoter, a tithefarmer. Why did he not leave her his best bed if he wished her to snore away the rest of her nights in peace?” Read More