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].
“Was” by William Faulkner
Isaac McCaslin, ‘Uncle Ike’, past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one
this was not something participated in or even seen by himself, but by his elder cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, grandson of Isaac’s father’s sister and so descended by the distaff, yet notwithstanding the inheritor, and in his time the bequestor, of that which some had thought then and some still thought should have been Isaac’s, since his was the name in which the title to the land had first been granted from the Indian patent and which some of the descendants of his father’s slaves still bore in the land. But Isaac was not one of these:-a widower these twenty years, who in all his life had owned but one object more than he could wear and carry in his pockets and his hands at one time, and this was the narrow iron cot and the stained lean mattress which he used camping in the woods for deer and bear or for fishing or simply because he loved the woods; who owned no property and never desired te since the earth was no man’s but all men’s, as light and air and weather were; who lived still in the cheap frame bungalow in Jefferson which his wife’s father gave them on their marriage and which his wife had willed to him at her death and which he had pretended to accept, acquiesce to, to humor her, ease her going but which was not his, will or not, chancery dying wishes mortmain possession or whatever, himself merely holding it for his wife’s sister and her children who had lived in it with him since his wife’s death, holding himself welcome to live in one room of it as he had during his wife’s time or she during her time or the sister-in-law and her children during the rest of his and after not something he had participated in or even remembered except from the hearing, the listening, come to him through and from his cousin McCaslin born in 1850 and sixteen years his senior and hence, his own father being near seventy when Isaac, an only child, was born. rather his brother than cousin and rather his father than either, out of the old time, the old days.
When he and Uncle Buck ran back to the house from discovering that Tomey’s Turl had run again, they heard Uncle Buddy cursing and bellowing in the kitchen, then the fox and the dogs came out of the kitchen and crossed the hall into the dogs’ room and they heard them run through the dogs’ room into his and Uncle Buck’s room then they saw them cross the hall again into Uncle Buddy’s room and heard them run through Uncle Buddy’s room into the kitchen. Where Uncle Buddy was picking the breakfast up out of the ashes and wiping it off with his apron. “What in damn’s hell do you mean,” he said “turning that damn fox out with the dogs all loose in the house?”
“Damn the fox” Uncle Buck said. “Tomey’s Turl has broke out again. Give me and Cass some breakfast quick we might just barely catch him before he gets there.”
Had a wonderful if sweaty trip to New Orleans last week.
Great food, great music, and great bookstores.
First up, Faulkner House:
Faulkner House is a tiny little shop just off Jackson Square. Its two rooms (really, a main room and a hallway) are lined from bottom to top with literature, poetry, and philosophy. I can’t overstate the excellence of the collection in here—all kinds of rare and beautiful tomes, signed stuff, local and localish stuff, etc (local gal Anne Rice was the closest thing I saw to genre fiction). It’s great to walk into a bookshop and see a near-complete collection of new NYRB volumes stacked prominently upfront along with new novels by Richard Ford and Teju Cole.
I picked up this handsome illustrated edition of Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit, the handsomeness and bigness and luxuriousness of which simply doesn’t come across in this lousy iPhone pic:
Random framed shot:
And a random two-page shot with glare:
My wife picked out three lovely editions from Everyman’s Library Pocket series, poems from Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Brontë:
The owner and the manager were very kind, knowledgeable, and tolerant of my questions about what kind of stock they moved (biggest seller, unsurprisingly, is Soldier’s Pay).
Info for Faulkner House, via bookmark (the manager put one in each book I bought):
A few days later after a three-Bloody-Mary-breakfast I stumbled into Crescent City Books:
This is a great shop that, like Faulkner House, doesn’t waste precious shelf space on glitter vampires or self-help books or novelty cookbooks. Lots of art volumes (many rare and in German, French, Italian, etc.), a large poetry section, philosophy, history, etc. Lots of great old prints too. And an old cat, who was basically boss of the place.
They also carry physical copies of Rain Taxi, which I haven’t seen in years.
I picked up Masquerade and Other Stories after a Biblioklept commenter recommended Walser (by way of Kafka). I read about half of this over the next few days (full review to come):
“Words,” a page from one of Joyce’s notebooks for Ulysses:
James Joyce’s eye glasses prescription:
Joyce’s caricature of Leopold Bloom:
James Joyce’s passport:
James Joyce’s death mask:
Book shelves series #22, twenty-second Sunday of 2012: Tolkien, Faulkner, McCarthy
As always, sorry for the glare. Shooting this case head on is almost impossible because of the windows on the other side of the room. Anyway.
I’ve read everything by Cormac McCarthy with the exception of his screenplay for The Gardener’s Son, which I found a week or two and picked it up. I don’t own a copy of No Country for Old Men because I haven’t found one that isn’t a movie tie-in.
This copy of The Lord of the Rings—my first—was a kind gift from some friends we were staying with in Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida).
I’ve read it at least four times; I have other copies of LoTR and have read them too. It’s probably the book I’ve read the most, although I haven’t read it since 2002. This copy is kindly inscribed:
There’s a slim space on the shelf that currently holds a few books that I’ve been meaning to read:
A strange, gross sex scene from William Faulkner’s novel Light in August. As a child, the book’s anti-hero,Joe Christmas, an orphan of unclear parentage, sneaks off to suck sweet toothpaste from a tube. There, he surreptitiously witnesses a clandestine meeting between the orphanage’s dietitian and another worker:
In the quiet and empty corridor, during the quiet hour of early afternoon, he was like a shadow, small even for five years, sober and quiet as a shadow. Another in the corridor could not have said just when and where he vanished, into what door, what room. But there was no one else in the corridor at this hour. He knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year, ever since the day when he discovered by accident the toothpaste which the dietitian used.
Once in the room, he went directly on his bare and silent feet to the washstand and found the tube. He was watching the pink worm coil smooth and cool and slow onto his parchmentcolored finger when he heard footsteps in the corridor and then voices just beyond the door. Perhaps he recognised the dietitian’s voice. Anyway, he did not wait to see if they were going to pass the door or not. With the tube in his hand and still silent as a shadow on his bare feet he crossed the room and slipped beneath a cloth curtain which screened off one corner of the room. Here he squatted, among delicate shoes and suspended soft womangarments. Crouching, he heard the dietitian and her companion enter the room.
The dietitian was nothing to him yet, save a mechanical adjunct to eating, food, the diningroom, the ceremony of eating at the wooden forms, coming now and then into his vision without impacting at all except as something of pleasing association and pleasing in herself to look at—young, a little fullbodied, smooth, pink-and-white, making his mind think of the diningroom, making his mouth think of something sweet and sticky to eat, and also pink-colored and surreptitious. On that first day when he discovered the toothpaste in her room he had gone directly there, who had never heard of toothpaste either; as if he already knew that she would possess something of that nature and he would find it. He knew the voice of her companion also: It was that of a young interne from the county hospital who was assistant to the parochial doctor, he too a familiar figure about the house and also not yet an enemy.
He was safe now, behind the curtain. When they went away, he would replace the toothpaste and also leave. So he squatted behind the curtain, hearing without listening to it the woman’s tense whispering voice: “No! No! Not here. Not now. They’ll catch us. Somebody will—No, Charley! Please!” The man’s words he could not understand at all. The voice was lowered too. It had a ruthless sound, as the voices of all men did to him yet, since he was too young yet to escape from the world of women for that brief respite before he escaped back into it to remain until the hour of his death. He heard other sounds which he did know: a scuffing as of feet, the turn, of the key in the door. “No, Charley! Charley, please! Please, Charley!” the woman’s whisper said. He heard other sounds, rustlings, whisperings, not voices. He was not listening; he was just waiting, thinking without particular interest or attention that it was a strange hour to be going to bed. Again the woman’s fainting whisper came through the thin curtain: “I’m scared! Hurry! Hurry!”
He squatted among the soft womansmelling garments and the shoes. He saw by feel alone now the ruined, once cylindrical tube. By taste and not seeing he contemplated the cool invisible worm as it coiled onto his finger and smeared sharp, automatonlike and sweet, into his mouth. By ordinary he would have taken a single mouthful and then replaced the tube and left the room. Even at five, he knew that he must not take more than that. Perhaps it was the animal warning him that more would make him sick; perhaps the human being warning him that if he took more than that, she would miss it. This was the first time he had taken more. By now, hiding and waiting, he had taken a good deal more. By feel he could see the diminishing tube. He began to sweat. Then he found that he had been sweating for some time, that for some time now he had been doing nothing else but sweating. He was not hearing anything at all now. Very likely he would not have heard a gunshot beyond the curtain. He seemed to be turned in upon himself, watching himself sweating, watching himself smear another worm of paste into his mouth which his stomach did not want. Sure enough, it refused to go down. Motionless now, utterly contemplative, he seemed to stoop above himself like a chemist in his laboratory, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. At once the paste which he had already swallowed lifted inside him, trying to get back out, into the air where it was cool. It was no longer sweet. In the rife, pinkwomansmelling, obscurity behind the curtain he squatted, pinkfoamed, listening to his insides, waiting with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him. Then it happened. He said to himself with complete and passive surrender: ‘Well, here I am.’
When the curtain fled back he did not look up. When hands dragged him violently out of his vomit he did not resist. He hung from the hands, limp, looking with slackjawed and glassy idiocy into a face no longer smooth pink-and-white, surrounded now by wild and dishevelled hair whose smooth bands once made him think of candy. “You little rat!” the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!”
In his essay “The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills argues
. . . there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?
Mills’s convincing textual evidence draws on over thirty authors, but declares Cormac McCarthy ”unchallenged king of literary mule carnage.” Some proof:
4. Decapitation by irate opera singer. Cormac McCarthy, who far surpasses even Faulkner in the mayhem he visits upon literary mules (see #s 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15), includes in his recent novel The Crossing (1994) the following dialogue about a mule whose recalcitrance proves insufferable to the artistic temperament of a singer assigned to tend him in a road company:
What was it he done to the mule?
He tried to cut off the head with a machete. . . .
I wouldn’t have thought you could cut off a mule’s head with a machete.
Of course not. Only a drunken fool would attempt such a feat. When the hacking availed not he began to saw. . . .
What happened to the mule?
The mule? The mule died. Of course
5. Drowning. This is Faulkner’s most commonly employed means of dispatch for the mules in his works. In the flood scenes he renders so effectively, we inevitably find drowned mules floating down river. As opposed to the train-struck animals in “Mule in the Yard” (see # 3), which are instrumental in developing motive and plot, Faulkner’s drowned mules tend to fall into the decorative or ornamental category, employed chiefly for drama, mood, and atmosphere. In As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, Darl recreates a wagon disaster in the surging stream: “Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth”. In the “Old Man” sections of The Wild Palms (1939), the flood throws forth its “charging welter of dead cows and mules and outhouses and cabins and hencoops,” and Faulkner’s prose strikes an elegiac note as the convict’s skiff rides “even upon the backs of the mules as though even in death they were not to escape that burden-bearing doom with which their eunuch race was cursed”. Before the ordeal ends, the accumulation of mule carcasses reaches almost cosmic proportions as the stranded convict remembers “that other wave, the second wall of water full of houses and dead mules building up behind him in the swamp”.
Robert Morgan’s story “Poinsett’s Bridge” (1989) picks up the drowned mule topos in distinctly Faulknerian terms: “The body of a mule shot by in the current, and then a chicken coop”; but Cormac McCarthy (see #s 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15) varies it in Blood Meridian (1985) by having a mule drowned intentionally: “The Yumas were swimming the few sorry mules . . . across the river. . . . Downriver they’d drowned one of the animals and towed it ashore to be butchered”. (On recurrent uses of mules as culinary items see # 14.)
That the image of the drowned mule also occupies a subliterary folk status in the South is perhaps attested by a common simile in which a wealthy person is said to have “enough money to burn up a wet mule.”
6. Falls from cliffs. The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment”. (See also #s 4, 5, 7, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
7. Fall into subterranean cavity. Near the conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), “Arthur Ogle was plowing an upland field one evening when the plow was snatched from his hands. He looked in time to see his span of mules disappear into the earth taking the plow with them” (195). These doomed mules qualify as highly functional in the story, since a search for their bodies leads to the discovery of a number of human corpses stored in the caves underground for sexual use by the necrophiliac Lester Ballard. (See also #s 4, 5, 6, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
9. Gunshot wounds. The high quotient of gunplay in southern fiction quite naturally extends to some of the mules that grace its pages. . . .
Mules absorb lead throughout much of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), one providing a shield against incoming fire: “He . . . crouched under the ribs of a dead mule and recharged the pistol”.
. . .
14. Stab wounds. . . .
But mules are consumed readily by man, beast, and fowl in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985), and a character in Bernice Kelly Harris’s Purslane (1939) finds the practice a perfectly acceptable topic for mealtime conversation: “Uncle Millard near the foot of the table was telling about the Christmas dinner he ate in the pesthouse years ago, declaring it was fried dog and mouse stew with a slice of boiled mule”.
15. Thirst. Alkali flats in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985) yield no shortage of “the black and desiccated shapes of horses and mules. . . . These parched beasts had died with their necks stretched in agony in the sand”
. . .
18. Submersion in domestic metaphor. Once again, Cormac McCarthy creates an exclusive category (see # 4) with a scene in Cities of the Plain (1998):
When he turned around Billy [Parham] was standing in the doorway watching him [John Grady Cole].
This the honeymoon suite? he said.
You’re lookin at it.
He leaned in the doorframe and took his cigarettes from his shirtpocket and shucked one out and lit it.
The only thing you ain’t got here is a dead mule in the floor.
Okay. So obviously a list of the books I didn’t read in 2011 would be, y’know, long.
This post is about the books I set out to read, tried to read, wanted to read, abandoned, neglected, acquired and thought looked interesting, etc. It’s also about what I want to—what I plan to—read in 2012.
A reasonable starting place: I wrote a post in early January of this year detailing the books I would try to read in 2011. I actually read most of the books I named in that post. But:
I failed to read past page 366 of Adam Levin’s incredibly long novel The Instructions, although I think I was a bit too harsh in my semi-review. Chalk it up to exhaustion.
I failed to even begin to try to read William Gaddis’s incredibly long novel JR. (But I swear to read it one year. Not next year, but maybe the year after?).
I failed to read past the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
I read most of the Tintin collections I picked up last year, but I didn’t get to volumes 5 or 6.
Moving beyond that early post, books that I recall abandoning (although I’m sure there must be more):
I abandoned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian romance The Marble Faun after about 30 pages.
I abandoned 334 by Thomas Disch after about 50 pages. Somehow simultaneously dense and loose, it struck me as intensely imagined and sloppily composed.
I abandoned John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing after the first chapter; it was a great opening chapter, but I thought it was going to be, I don’t know, more like Blood Meridian.
I also abandoned Chad Harbach’s big book The Art of Fielding (after 100 pages) because it was lame (notice it’s not pictured above because I traded in that sucker), but I had a nice dialog with some readers who responded to a post I wrote about abandoning it, so that was a plus.
Books I bought in 2011 that I aim to read in 2012:
Correction by Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a repeated suggestion from readers in the aforementioned Harbach post/rant, and he was apparently a huge influence on W.G. Sebald, so, yes, looking forward to this.
The Reivers by William Faulkner. I read A Light in August this year and reread most of Go Down, Moses. My plan is to read one Faulkner a year for the next ten years.
Ferdydurke by Witold Gambrowicz. I struggled to make it through Gombrowicz’s bizarre jaunt Trans-Atlantyk, but once the novel taught me how to read it, I was enchanted by its strange humor and frenetic syntax. Over some beer and wine, I had a conversation about Ferdydurke with my father-in-law’s priest who is Polish. His pronunciation of Ferdydurke should win an award for charm.
I will read Georges Perec’s big book Life: A User’s Manual.
I have already promised to read William Vollmann’s Imperial.
There are many, many more, of course (too many, really).
Books people sent me to read and review that look really cool that I will be reading and reviewing at some point in the very near future:
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai: I will read this and review this in the very near future.
The Funny Man by John Warner: Comedy, drugs, celebrity culture.
The Book on Fire by Keith Miller: This one is about a biblioklept. It’s been at the top of my stack for a few months now, but I keep letting myself get distracted.
Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov: Apparently this novella about a maimed alcoholic war vet is funny. (I hate the cover).
Mule by Tony D’Souza: Middle class man sells marijuana cross country. (I love the cover).
Various titles from Melville House’s Neversink line: I’ve got a few in the stack.
Also: I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I actually stayed up really late last night reading free public domain books from Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson; I’ll read a contemporary novel on it this year—Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, perhaps? Suggestions welcome!—and try to review both novel and the process of reading the novel on a warm glowing machine.
And: I’m sure there are a ton of novels that will come out in 2012 that I’ll want to read; I’m already primed for Dogma, Lars Iyer’s sequel to Spurious.
So: What are you guys looking forward to reading in 2012? What did you fail to read in 2011?
Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels synthesizes dystopian themes with magical realism to tell the story of an unnamed city, in an unnamed time, afflicted by plagues of birds and bands of Gypsies. The novel is marvelous, surreal and very strange, disorienting in its tones and unnerving in its subjects; it’s at once a confounding allegory of torture, suppression, and rebellion, and at the same time a study in intrafamily relationships.
There are two families at the heart of The Avian Gospels. The aristocratic Giggs are led by the Judge, a ruthless patriarch who is both inheritor and perpetrator of endless war. Judge Giggs controls the city through fear, torture, and his fascist personal guard, the RedBlacks. While Judge Giggs seems to hold illimitable power in the city, it isn’t enough to retain the love or even respect of his family. His wife veers into a manic depressive breakdown, brought on in large part by the death of her elder son, who was killed during the last (foolish) war. His second son, Mike, is a loutish ne’er-do-well, a bully who fails to win his father’s approval. The Judge’s daughter Katherine is the apple of his eye, but as she matures in her adolescence, she begins to perceive the violent disconnect between her privileged life and the suppression and poverty forced on the city’s Gypsy population.
The other family (perhaps more of a duo, really) comprises Zvominir, an immigrant claiming to hail from Sweden, and his son Morgan, a petulant teen of an age with Katherine. Routinely beaten bloody by Mike Giggs and his RedBlack goons, Morgan develops a visceral hatred of the Judge’s regime, one that leads the lad to repeatedly (and rashly) lash out against the violent injustice he perceives around him. Zvominir and Morgan live in sad, motherless squalor, separated not only from the suburban greenzoned upper-class, but also from the Gypsies; Zvominir, who leads most of his life genuflecting to or cowering from power, will not even allow his son the joy of partaking in the Gypsies vibrant customs (like rowdy ska music and barbecues).
Most of all, Zvominir tries to contain his son’s bizarre power, a power that he shares with the boy: they can telepathically control the birds. This gift becomes both blessing and curse as the city is overrun by flocks of birds that block out the sun and make roads unnavigable. Zvominir, always kowtowing to power, agrees to employ his gift to “sweep” the city (particularly the area where the rich folks live) of the bird hordes; Morgan agrees to help, but only under the condition that he be allowed to show off his talent in the public square, where eager crowds (of Gypsies and suburbanites alike) gather to marvel at the spectacle of his “birdshows.” In time, Morgan begins writing dissent into his performances:
Birdshows were generally narrative, and featured a bird-made Morgan being chased through the streets by a soldier who was torn to bits by swans, though the swans were made of pigeons, and the soldier of flesh-colored plovers, his uniform of cardinals and crows. Swans would also be pursued through ghetto canyons by flying tigers made of orioles. These were his intentions for the birdshows, at any rate, but Zvominir would censor when the images betrayed but a hint of dangerous content, obscuring Morgan’s work with birdclouds, or worse, laughing babies made of birds. The audience found these touches psychedelic, and weren’t pacified so much as confused, so their passion turned to mumbles. The elder’s power over birds was superior, and Morgan couldn’t stop his father from suppressing the transgressive. It infuriated him.
Zvominir isn’t the only authority figure prone to parental censorship; as the poor old man tries to keep his son safe by “suppressing the transgressive,” the Judge in turn does all in his power to keep his precious daughter Katherine blind and ignorant to the violence and inequality that has purchased her material comfort. However, Katherine meets and becomes fascinated by Morgan, just as the young man’s rebellious attitude comes to find definition and ideology thanks to the Gypsy rebel Jane. Jane harnesses Morgan’s raw anger, turning him into the figurehead of a Gypsy resistance against the Judge’s terrible regime. She literally ushers him into the Gypsy underworld, a surreal setting of nightplants and black markets and ecstatic ska music and donkeys, sprawling in a labyrinthine network of caves and caverns and tunnels under the unnamed city. From this subterranean site, Jane becomes mastermind of a terrorist plot to overthrow the fascist Judge:
They—we—were helpless, and we knew it. She would do to us what Hungary had done, but with stealth; this terror stuff is easy, she mused. Who needs armies? She was poor, and lived in sewers, so nothing could be taken but her life, while we had homes, jobs, children, hopes, dreams and possessions we adored, which all gave meaning to our lives. There was no end to that of which she could deprive us. Our privilege made us vulnerable.
Now seems as reasonable a time as any to remark upon the narrator of The Avian Gospels, as its pronouns color much of the passage I just cited. A first-person plural “we” tells the story, a “we” whose contours and guts alike become more evident as the book unfolds. Much of the joy (and bewilderment and occasional frustration) I felt reading The Avian Gospels came from puzzling out just who this “we” is. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that, like the collective first plural person who narrates, say, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator is part and parcel of the story–is the story, perhaps—and that Novy’s dystopian vision is realized not just in the book’s content, but also in the telling of that content. Calling the narrator unreliable is beside the point; the narrator is the ideology itself that Novy critiques. Rebel Jane provides a very real ideological anesthesia to the narrator’s methods, the Judge’s power, and Morgan’s artistic ambitions:
. . . Jane felt suspicious of beauty, which trafficked in desire, not in justice, and left you lonelier and sadder. It made you feel worse in the guise of feeling better, and left you hungry for more beauty. Further. It enfeebled you politically, by pointing at some hypothetical catharsis, a transcendence that could not be achieved, for who could really say they had communed with a non-religious paradise of aesthetics? The beauty effect: a crescendo of nothing. Beauty distracted from things that were important—the rights of disadvantaged people—in the name of something it claimed was more important, and which didn’t actually exist. It was a cognitive conspiracy, a con that disempowered.
If Jane seems a bit shrewish—and what zealot isn’t?—it’s worth pointing out that her ideas might be the novel’s thesis, a thesis ironically couched in the very beauty that Jane would make us wary of. She’s the cold conscience in a book filled with passions. And she’s a terrorist.
While The Avian Gospels surpasses any allegorical schema we might try to impose upon it, it’s still very much a response to America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist. Novy’s Judge is a figure of malevolence glossed in benevolence. If he’s a sicko who takes dull delight in torturing Gypsies in his Boom Boom Room, he’s also a family man with problems that most of us can relate to. He’s an authoritarian who maintains order in a fractured society through violence and suppression—but he delivers what the suburban greenzoners want from a leader. So what if security comes at the expense of justice, and on the backs of a displaced population to boot?
The Gypsies, refugees from countless wars afflicting the world of The Avian Gospels, aren’t the only displaced persons in the narrative. Novy displaces the readers as well. The Avian Gospels erupts with uncanny moments where the material of our recognizable world overlaps with the crumbled reality of the narrative. Social structures, attitudes, cultural norms and ideals—these remain, more or less. But how to puzzle out a world where China, Bolivia, Angloa, and Oklahoma are among the nations that surround the unnamed city? Or where technology has regressed to the point that the automobile is a thing of the past? (Guns remain). And, uh, the birds, of course.
Novy’s dystopian novel skews more fantasy (or, more properly, magical realism) than sci-fi, but it’s the novel’s strange, shifting tones that most likely will paradoxically estrange and engage most readers. There’s a violent zaniness to The Avian Gospels, but the zaniness is never tinted with even a hint of whimsy. The first-person plural “we” that narrates the text juxtaposes dense, poetic images against the teenspeak of the street. At times, the narrator staggers into a mordant lament, only to retreat into cruel, blackly ironic prose. The effect is disorienting and compelling. Novy’s writing moves rhythmically with a complex energy that I’m faltering to describe. You should probably just read the book.
I’ve neglected thus far to comment on the actual physical books that comprise The Avian Gospels. They are beautiful, compact, oxblood volumes with gilded edges and bookmarks, reminiscent of Gideon bibles, I suppose, but more lovely. They’re also very small, the sort of thing that fits easily into a pocket or a purse. I love books like that.
The Avian Gospels deserves a place on the shelf (or in the pocket) of any fan of cult or dystopian novels. It’s a story about cyclical violence, power and powerlessness, and political and cultural repression. It’s also a story about family and parent-child relationships and what it means to love another person in the face of radical danger, a novel that foregrounds the very real stakes of rebellion, both Oedipal and political. It’s a strange book, one that offers little comfort to its readers and certainly proffers no simple answers. Deeply moving and highly original, I strongly recommend this book.
See, this is why I go to my favorite local bookshop at least once once. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s like a mile from my house). I read Lillian Smith’s memoir Killers of the Dream back in grad school, but I checked my copy out from the school library (being like, a poor grad student and whatnot, and Biblioklept not being established enough to rack up, uh, free books). Anyway, this is one of the best covers I think I’ve ever seen; Doubleday seems to be taking a cue from Penguin here. The design is simple, elegant, and appropriately horrific. Anyway, I picked up Smith’s book because I had wanted to use a few passages from it for a particular class I was teaching, but I when I looked for it I realized I didn’t it own it. So. Anyway. If you haven’t read Killers, I highly recommend it: “groundbreaking” would be an understatement here. Smith plumbs the strange hypocrisies of Jim Crow South; more straightforward than Faulkner but equally affecting.
I have a little list I keep in my wallet. It’s ragged and rumpled, and some names are cribbed there in a meandering webby calligraphy that would prove to any team of forensic writing analysts that I cannot write by hand. Anyway, Michel Houllebecq (or, if we’re being honest, a bizarre corruption of that last name) has been on that list for a while—so I was happy to snap this one up. The cover is Ballardian, or maybe, more accurately, Cronenebergian (Cronenbergesque?). More forthcoming.
Just Kids: Patti Smith: Robert Mapplethorpe: I was looking under Biographies for Lillian Smith: found this: c’mon, you know this won the Nat’l BA: (or the sticker should tip you): will check out the fuss: extraneous colon: :
We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. Hence: Seven horror novels masquerading in other genres:
In my review (link above), I called Blood Meridian “a blood-soaked, bloodthirsty bastard of a book.” The story of the Glanton gang’s insane rampage across Mexico and the American Southwest in the 1850s is pure horror. Rape, scalping, dead mules, etc. And Judge Holden. . . [shivers].
Rushing to Paradise – J.G. Ballard
On the surface, Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise seems to be a parable about the hubris of ecological extremism that would eliminate humanity from any natural equation. Dr. Barbara and her band of misfit environmentalists try to “save” the island of St. Esprit from France’s nuclear tests. The group eventually begin living in a cult-like society with Dr. Barbara as its psycho-shaman center. As Dr. Barbara’s anti-humanism comes to outweigh any other value, the island devolves into Lord of the Flies insanity. Wait, should Lord of the Flies be on this list?
Okay. I know. This book ends up on every list I write. What can I do?
While there’s humor and pathos and love and redemption in Bolaño’s masterwork, the longest section of the book, “The Part about the Crimes,” is an unrelenting catalog of vile rapes, murders, and mutilations that remain unresolved. The sinister foreboding of 2666‘s narrative heart overlaps into all of its sections (as well as other Bolaño books); part of the tension in the book–and what makes Bolaño such a gifted writer–is the visceral tension we experience when reading even the simplest incidents. In the world of 2666, a banal episode like checking into a motel or checking the answering machine becomes loaded with Lynchian dread. Great horrific stuff.
King Lear — William Shakespeare
Macbeth gets all the propers as Shakespeare’s great work of terror (and surely it deserves them). But Lear doesn’t need to dip into the stock and store of the supernatural to achieve its horror. Instead, Shakespeare crafts his terror at the familial level. What would you do if your ungrateful kids humiliated you and left you homeless on the heath? Go a little crazy, perhaps? And while Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan are pure mean evil, few characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are as crafty and conniving as Edmund, the bastard son of Glouscester. And, lest I forget to mention, Lear features shit-eating, self-mutilation, a grisly tableaux of corpses, and an eye-gouging accompanied by one of the Bard’s most enduring lines: “Out vile jelly!” Peter Brook chooses to elide the gore in his staging of that infamous scene:
The Trial — Franz Kafka
Kafka captured the essential alienation of the modern world so well that we not only awarded him his own adjective, we also tend to forget how scary his stories are, perhaps because of their absurd familiarity. None surpasses his unfinished novel The Trial, the story of hapless Josef K., a bank clerk arrested by unknown agents for an unspecified crime. While much of K.’s attempt to figure out just who is charging him for what is hilarious in its absurdity, its also deeply dark and really creepy. K. attempts to find some measure of agency in his life, but is ultimately thwarted by forces he can’t comprehend–or even see for that matter. Nowhere is this best expressed than in the famous “Before the Law” episode. If you’re too lazy to read it, check out his animation with narration by the incomparable Orson Welles:
In my original review of Sanctuary (link above), I noted that “if you’re into elliptical and confusing depictions of violence, drunken debauchery, creepy voyeurism, and post-lynching sodomy, Sanctuary just might be the book for you.” There’s also a corn-cob rape scene. The novel is about the kidnapping and debauching of Southern belle Temple Drake by the creepy gangster Popeye–and her (maybe) loving every minute of it. The book is totally gross. I got off to a slow start with Faulkner. If you take the time to read the full review above (in which I make some unkind claims) please check out my retraction. In retrospect, Sanctuary is a proto-Lynchian creepfest, and one of the few books I’ve read that has conveyed a total (and nihilistic) sense of ickiness.
Great Apes — Will Self
Speaking of ickiness…Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes made me totally sick. Nothing repulses me more than images of chimpanzees dressed as humans and Great Apes is the literary equivalent (just look at that cover). After a night of binging on coke and ecstasy, artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find himself in a world where humans and apes have switched roles. Psychoanalysis ensues. While the novel is in part a lovely satire of emerging 21st-century mores, its humor doesn’t outweigh its nightmare grotesquerie. Great Apes so deeply affected us that I haven’t read any of Self’s work since.
[Ed. note: This post is a few years old. We run it again for Halloween and will run a follow up post later today].