Posts tagged ‘William T. Vollmann’

April 19, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people (Kollwitz/Vollmann)

by Biblioklept

kathe-kollwitz4

She worked without reference to the fiery proto-Cubism of those years, the representational, classical past as dead as the Second Reich itself, dead, dead!—as dead as the Tsarist officers who’d now sunk beneath their own weedy mucky parade grounds so that the Party of Lenin and Stalin could march across their moldering faces. Since 1912 she had kept a room on Siegmund-shof for her plastic arts. That was where she would create the mourning woman out of stone. Mostly she carved, etched, and painted in that flat on Weissenbürgerstrasse. Those were the years when the figures in other people’s paintings began to go ever flatter, more garish, more distorted, the colors hurtful to her although she liked some of the galloping calligraphic riders in Kandinsky. Grosz’s desperately angry caricatures, the X-ray bitterness of Otto Dix, not to mention abstract constructivism; she didn’t swim with that tide. Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people, starving people (white figures in dark fields, dark chalk on brown Ingres paper), raped women, mothers with dying children, mothers with dead children. In the end she depicted mainly herself, her stricken, simian face thinking and grieving. She too was a mother with a dead child.

From William Vollmann’s Europe Central.

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April 18, 2014

Fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood (William T. Vollmann)

by Biblioklept

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?

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

April 17, 2014

And doesn’t the parable possess greater integrity? (William T. Vollmann)

by Biblioklept

And doesn’t the parable possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form? For its many conventions weave a holy covenant between the reader, who gets the mystification he craves in a bonbon-sized dose, and the writer, whose absence renders him divine. Granted, those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity.

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

April 14, 2014

“Finally, feverishly, I read this book that I would love to have written” (Vollmann’s Europe Central in Binet’s HHhH)

by Biblioklept

I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French. Finally, feverishly, I read this book that I would love to have written, and I wonder, reading the endless first chapter, how long he’ll keep it up, this style, this incredible tone. In fact, it lasts only eight pages, but those eight pages are magical, with phrases streaming past as in a dream, and I understand nothing, and understand everything. This is perhaps the first time that the voice of history has resounded so perfectly, and I am struck by this revelation: history is a prophet who says “We.” The first chapter is entitled “Steel in Motion,” and I read: “In a moment steel will begin to move, slowly at first, like troop trains pulling out of their stations, then more quickly and ubiquitously, the square crowds of steel-helmed men moving forward, flanked by rows of shiny planes; then tanks, planes and other projectiles will accelerate beyond recall.” And, further on: “Serving the sleepwalker’s rapture, Göring promises that five hundred more rocket-powered planes will be ready within a lightning-flash. Then he runs out for a tryst with the film star Lida Baarova.” The Czech. When I quote an author, I must be careful to cut my quotations every seven lines. No longer than seven lines. Like spies on the telephone: no more than thirty seconds, so they can’t track you down. “In Moscow, Marshal Tukhachevsky announces that operations in a future war will unfold as broad maneuver undertakings on a massive scale. He’ll be shot right away. And Europe Central’s ministers, who will also be shot, appear on balconies supported by nude marble girls, where they utter dreamy speeches, all the while listening for the ring of the telephone.” In the newspaper, somebody explains to me that this is an account of “slow-burning intensity,” a novel that is “more fantastical than historical,” the reading of which “requires a psychoanalytic listening.” I understand. I will remember. So … where was I?

From Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH.

I need to slam out a review of HHhH, which I loved.

November 15, 2013

“I looked like this horrible Elizabethan courtier” | William Vollmann, Cross-Dresser

by Biblioklept

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Mr. Vollmann is 54, heterosexual and married with a daughter in high school. He began cross-dressing seriously about five years ago. Sometimes he transforms himself into a woman as part of a strange vision quest, aided by drugs or alcohol, to mind-meld with a female character in a book he’s writing. Other times it’s just because he likes the “smooth and slippery” feel of women’s lingerie.

From another profile on William T. Vollmann, this time in The New York Times. The profile centers around Vollmann’s latest book, The Book of Dolores.

You may recall Vollmann’s previous adventures in cross-dressing.

 

November 6, 2013

William T. Vollmann, Profiled at Newsweek, Suggests “We’re a culture of prostitutes”

by Biblioklept

Newsweek has published a profile/interview of William T. Vollmann by Alexander Nazaryan. It’s a vivid, engaging read. The first two paragraphs of the profile:

If William T. Vollmann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature – as many speculate he will – he knows exactly what he will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. “It will be fun to give some to prostitutes,” he says, sitting on his futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

He is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollmann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse – especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. His so-called prostitution trilogy - Whores for GloriaButterfly Stories, and The Royal Family - is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machismo of Raymond Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donald Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollmann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. He approached the prostitute like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Whores for Gloria, “The unpleasantnesses of her profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the prostitute must conduct it.”

Read the rest of it.

August 22, 2013

“He reportedly owns many guns and a flame-thrower” and Other Extracts from William Vollmann’s FBI File

by Biblioklept

William T. Vollmann has an essay in the newest issue of Harper’s called “Life as a Terrorist.” In the essay, Vollmann details what he finds in his FBI files (after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, an appeal, and a lawsuit to actually get a hold of the thing). He finds out that he was one of the Unabomber suspects:

When I finally received my FBI file, such as it was — namely, two higgledy-piggledy batches of papers, out of order, padded with duplicates, some of which they had forgotten to redact — I learned that I had been Unabomber Suspect Number S-2047:

S-2047 William T. Vollman. Predicated on a referral from a citizen. Investigation has determined that Vollman, a professional author, is widely travelled, however, existing travel records for him do not eliminate him as a viable suspect.

A few more extracts from Vollmann’s FBI file:

  • While VOLLMANN’s appearance varies over the years, New Haven notes strong physical resemblance to UNABOMBER composites. New Haven provided color video prints of book jackets to Sacramento via referenced airtel.
  • UNABOMBER’s moniker FC may correlate with title of VOLLMANN’s largest work, novel Fathers and Crows. That novel reportedly best exemplifies VOLLMANN’s anti-progress, anti-industrialist theme/beliefs/value systems and VOLLMANN, himself, has described it as his most difficult work.
  • [An informant] suggests VOLLMANN has a death wish . . . Reportedly, at age 9, VOLLMANN’s younger sister (age 6) drowned in a backyard pond in New Hampshire while he was supposed to be watching over her. Guilt from that situation may have had a profound effect on VOLLMANN.
  • VOLLMANN’s meticulous nature, as described above, is consistent with manufacture of and presentation on UNABOM devices. Several witnesses have commented that UNABOM packages appeared “seamless” and “too pretty to open.”
  • By all accounts VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.
  • He revels in immersing himself in the seamy underside of life. He reportedly has used drugs (crack cocaine) extensively. He reportedly owns many guns and a flame-thrower.

“I would love to own a flamethrower,” Vollmann wryly adds to this last entry. And thus, new entries for the ongoing chronicles of The Myth of the Vollmann!

Vollmann discussed the article on NPR’s NPR’s Morning Edition with David Greene this morning.

 

August 1, 2013

Intertexuality and Structure in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Edwin Turner

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

1. I had been reading William T. Vollmann’s enormous book Imperial. I bought the book in paperback and then put an illicit copy on my Kindle (this riff is not about the ethics of that move). It’s just easier to read that way, especially at night. At some point in Imperial, probably at some mention of coyotes or polleros—smugglers of humans—I felt a tug in the back of my brain pan, a tug that wanted to pull up Roberto Bolaño’s big big novel 2666—also on my Kindle (also an illicit copy, although I bought the book twice).

This is how I ended up rereading 2666 straight through. It was unplanned.

2. Like many readers, I aim to reread more than I actually end up rereading.

Truly excellent novels are always better in rereading: richer, fuller, more resonant. Sometimes we might find we’ve thoroughly misread them. (Imagine my horror rereading Lolita in my twenties to discover the vein of evil throbbing through it). Sometimes we find new tones that seemed impossible on the first run through. (I’ve read Blood Meridian at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it keeps getting funnier and funnier). Most of the time, rereading confirms the greatness of the novel, a greatness inhabiting the smallest details. (I’m looking at you Moby-Dick).

3. Even a riff should have a thesis, and here’s mine:  2666 has a reputation for being fragmentary and inconclusive—and in some ways, yes, of course it is—but a second full reading of 2666 reveals a book that is cohesive, densely allusive, and thematically precise.

Rereading is one way of stepping back to see the bigger picture that  Bolaño twists together from smaller fragments. Rereading reveals the intertextual correspondences between the books of 2666 (the five books proper, the “Parts,” of course, but also the texts, invented or real, that those books house).

4. 2666 is also a book about writing.

Earth, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

5. To wit: “The Part About Archimboldi,” the fifth and final book of 2666, the book that features Benno von Archimboldi, the writer at the heart of 2666—this final chapter sews together many of the book’s (apparently) loose threads.

6. Two problems with point #5:

A. Benno von Archimboldi (aka Hans Reiter) is not at the heart of 2666 but rather a shadowy trace slipping through the margins, a ghost-presence that’s always there, but not generative or muscular like a heart. (I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this).

B. “The Part About Archimboldi” most decidedly does not sew together all the loose threads: That’s the reader’s job (or task or pleasure or plight or burden).

7. And so then point #4 (“2666 is also a book about writing”): 2666 is also a book about reading: A book about reading as detective work.

8. Who are the heroes of 2666?

They are all detectives of some kind, literal or otherwise.

Literary critics. Journalists. Philosophers. Psychologists. Psychics and fortune tellers. Police detectives. Private detectives. An American sheriff. A rogue politician. Poets. Publishers. Parents. Searchers.

9. Archimboldi shows up in the first book of 2666, “The Part About the Critics”; the eponymous critics, literary detectives are searching for him.

How does Archimboldi show up?

Inside a story (the Frisian lady’s) inside a story (the Swabian’s) (inside the story of “Critics,” which is inside the story of 2666).

The Frisian lady asks:

“Does anyone know the answer to the riddle? Does anyone understand it? Is there by chance a man in this town who can tell me the solution, even if he has to whisper it in my ear?”

And Archimboldi answers. He’s a reader, a detective.

10. Swinging back to point #4: 2666 is a book about writing, and it shares the postmodern feature of calling attention to its own style and construction, yet it never does this in an overtly clever or insufferable fashion: It’s far more sly.

Water, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

11. What is the construction or shape of 2666?

A straightforward answer: Five books in an intertextual conversation that seem to loop back around, where the last book prefigures the first book in a strange circuit.

Some possible metaphorical answers:

A void (“Voids can’t be filled,” Archimboldi says).

A labyrinth (the word labyrinth appears 14 times in Wimmer’s translation of 2666).

A mirror (61 times).

An abyss (22 times)

An asylum (43 times; madhouse appears 5 times).

12. And then, back to point #10: How does Bolaño slyly announce or criticize or puncture his style in 2666?

In Ignacio Echevarria’s “Note to the First Edition” of 2666, he tells us that:

Among Bolaño’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano.” And elsewhere Bolaño adds, with the indication “for the end of 2666″: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.”

Belano is Bolaño’s alter ego, a trace who slips and sails and ducks through the Bolañoverse (he also shows up unnamed in 2666 with his partner Ulises Lima; they manage to father a bastard son, Lalo Cura).

So Belano who narrates 2666 (how?!) is Bolaño: Okay: So? Now?

13. I suggested earlier on Biblioklept that 2666 is a grand ventriloquist act, a forced possession, a psychic haunting. Bolaño channels Belano who channels detectives, journalists, poets, writers. Readers.

14. The channeling is metatextual or intertextual, a series of transpositions between the various narrators and protagonists and readers (detectives all).

15. The passage that I see most frequently cited from 2666 points to its intertextuality.

The passage is likely frequently cited because

A) Ignacio Echevarria cites it in his note at the beginning of 2666 and

B) it describes Bolaño’s project in 2666, both internally (the book as a strange beast, with intertextual readings within its five (plus) parts), and also externally (intertextually against the canon). Here is the passage (from “The Part About Amalfitano”):

One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

16. At the risk of belaboring or repeating the last point: Bolaño, ever the canon-maker, the list maker, situates 2666, his final work (he knows it’s his final work) along with “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” a book that struggles “against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Air, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

17. So some metatextual moments that, read intertextually, perhaps (perhaps!) work to outline that “unknown,” that “something” of 2666:

18. Near the end of “The Part About Crimes,” a culminating moment, where a female journalist (NB: a female journalist is the first murder victim in “Crimes”) reads the work of the poet/journalist Mercado:

Hernandez Mercado’s style wavered between sensationalism and flatness. The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies. Sometimes Hernandez Mercado painted Haas as the scapegoat of a conspiracy of rich Sonorans and sometimes Haas appeared as an avenging angel or a detective locked in a cell but by no means defeated, gradually cornering his tormentors solely by dint of intelligence.

A description of the style of “The Part About the Crimes”: “The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies.”

19. And, from “The Part About Archimboldi,” a moment where some critics read Ansky’s novel Twilight and assess it:

Professor Stanislaw Strumilin read it. It struck him as hard to follow. The writer Aleksei Tolstoy read it. It struck him as chaotic. Andrei Zhdanov read it. He left it half finished. And Stalin read it. It struck him as suspect.

These are internal criticisms of 2666.

20. Another moment from Ansky’s journal that seems to describe “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666, and the Bolañoverse in general:

He mentions names Reiter has never heard before. Then, a few pages on, he mentions them again. As if he were afraid of forgetting them. Names, names, names. Those who made revolution and those who were devoured by that same revolution, though it wasn’t the same but another, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids of the dream.

21. While I’m using Ansky’s journal as a pseudo key for the intertextual labyrinth of 2666, let me grab this nugget:

Only in chaos are we conceivable.

(I added the note “thesis” in the electronic margin).

22. Or another description of the novel, couched in a description of history:

. . . history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.

23. Another description of 2666 can be found in Bubis’s description of Archimboldi’s second novel:

Lüdicke had yet to come off the presses when Mr. Bubis received the manuscript of The Endless Rose, which he read in two nights, after which, deeply shaken, he woke his wife and told her they would have to publish this new book by Archimboldi.

“Is it good?” asked the baroness, half asleep and not bothering to sit up.

“It’s better than good,” said Bubis, pacing the room.

Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something vaguely like a police investigation, but the baroness fell back asleep and didn’t hear him.

The names of the novels here also suggest something about the structure of 2666The Endless Rose suggests an eternal loop, as does Lüdicke, which etymologically suggests ludic, recursively playful . . . (Again, I’m just riffing here).

24. Another description of Archimboldi’s writing, which is of course a description of Bolaño’s 2666:

The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

Fire, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

25. Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key to the novel. He invents the name, of course, seemingly on the spot. (Invents is not the right word—rather, he synthesizes the name, cobbles it together from his readings. The name is intertextual).

The last name he appropriates from the painter Arcimboldo, whose paintings are instructive in understanding the structure of 2666, a narrative that comprises hundreds of internal discrete narratives that define the shape of the larger picture.  The first name?

“They called me Benno after Benito Juarez,” said Archimboldi, “I suppose you know who Benito Juarez was.”

The dark heart of 2666, site of “Crimes,” is Santa Teresa, a transparent stand-in for Ciudad Juarez.

(Florita Almada, psychic medium and honest detective of “Crimes” channels Benito Juarez, the shepherd boy who became the president of Mexico; I’m tempted to quote here at some length but resist).

26. Re: #25: I foolishly suggest that Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key. I don’t think there is a secret key. Just reading. Rereading.

27. I seem to be focusing a lot on “The Part About Archimboldi” in this riff. I riffed about the first three books here, and “The Part About Crimes” here.

28. But, still dwelling on “Archimboldi,” there’s a moment in it where an old alpine hermit confesses to murdering his wife by pushing her into a ravine. In some way his confession seems to answer all the puzzles of “Crimes,” all the unresolved abysses, all the falls (literal and metaphorical).  How can I justify this claim? How does a man confessing to a murder in a remote German border town in the 1950s answer the murders in Mexico in the 1990s? Or any of the other murders in the book? I suppose it’s a thematic echo, not a solution. Sweating late at night, reading past midnight, the moment struck me as larded with significance. I’m losing whatever thread I had . . .

29. So to end—how to end? Perhaps I’ll raid my first review of 2666, from January, 2009—surely I must have remarked on the end of the book, or on its apparent inconclusiveness—

30. —and so I did. And I don’t know if I can do better than this: 

Readers enthralled by the murder-mystery aspects of the novel, particularly the throbbing detective beat of “The Part About The Crimes,” may find themselves disappointed by the seemingly ambiguous or inconclusive or open-ended ending(s) of 2666. While the final moments of “The Part About Archimboldi” dramatically tie directly into the “Crimes” and “Fate” sections, they hardly provide the types of conclusive, definitive answers that many readers demand. However, I think that the ending is perfect, and that far from providing no answers, the novel is larded with answers, bursting at the seams with answers, too many answers to swallow and digest in one sitting. Like a promising, strangely familiar turn in the labyrinth, the last page of the book invites the reader back to another, previously visited corridor, a hidden passage perhaps, a thread now charged with new importance . . . 2666 is a book that demands multiple readings.

It was a good suggestion three years ago and I’ll take it up again.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this essay in July of 2012; since then, a licit e-book of 2666 has been published].

 

June 29, 2013

“I’ve got my weird neuroses” — David Foster Wallace on William Vollmann and Bret Easton Ellis

by Biblioklept

I mean, I’ve got my weird neuroses. Like I’m totally—I had this huge inferiority complex where William Vollmann’s concerned. Because he and I’s first books came out at the same time. And I even once read a Madison Smartt Bell essay, where he used me, and my “slender output,” and the inferiority of it, to talk about, you know, how great Vollmann is. And so I go around, “Oh no, Vollmann’s had another one out, now he’s got like five to my one.” I go around with that stuff. But I think, I’m trying to think of any example that …

Bell himself is an outpourer.

I think just: I haven’t read a lot of the new stuff that’s come out over the last few years. Like Steve Erickson, and Tours of the Black Clock—it’s really fucking good. I thought Bret Ellis’s first book, I thought it was very, very powerful. American Psycho—I thought he was really ill-served by his agent and publisher even letting him publish it, and those are the only two things of his that I read. But that’s, I think this is another danger: you get lavishly rewarded for that first book, and it’s gonna be very difficult for him ever to do anything else. I mean there’s gonna be part of you that just wants to do that over and over and over again, so you continue to get the food pellets of praise. It’s one more way that all this stuff is toxic.

Same risk for you?

Sure. Because whatever I do, the next thing will be very different from this. And if it gets reamed, then I’ll think: “Oh no. Maybe Infinite Jest II.” In which case, somebody needs to come and just put a bullet in my head. To be merciful. David Leavitt noose quote: Reviewers will use my first book as a noose to hang my second. I think it often is. Although the nice thing about having written an essentially shitty first book is that I’m exempt from that problem. There were a lot of people who really liked Broom of the System, but unfortunately they’re all about eleven.

From David Lipsky’s book-length interview/memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself; the italicized interjections are Lipsky’s.

 

August 29, 2012

“List of What Porn Is (and Isn’t)” — William T. Vollmann

by Biblioklept

August 21, 2012

“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max

by Biblioklept

 

The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.

 

July 18, 2012

Intertexuality and Structure in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Edwin Turner

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

1. I had been reading William T. Vollmann’s enormous book Imperial. I bought the book in paperback and then put an illicit copy on my Kindle (this riff is not about the ethics of that move). It’s just easier to read that way, especially at night. At some point in Imperial, probably at some mention of coyotes or polleros—smugglers of humans—I felt a tug in the back of my brain pan, a tug that wanted to pull up Roberto Bolaño’s big big novel 2666—also on my Kindle (also an illicit copy, although I bought the book twice).

This is how I ended up rereading 2666 straight through. It was unplanned.

2. Like many readers, I aim to reread more than I actually end up rereading.

Truly excellent novels are always better in rereading: richer, fuller, more resonant. Sometimes we might find we’ve thoroughly misread them. (Imagine my horror rereading Lolita in my twenties to discover the vein of evil throbbing through it). Sometimes we find new tones that seemed impossible on the first run through. (I’ve read Blood Meridian at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it keeps getting funnier and funnier). Most of the time, rereading confirms the greatness of the novel, a greatness inhabiting the smallest details. (I’m looking at you Moby-Dick).

3. Even a riff should have a thesis, and here’s mine:  2666 has a reputation for being fragmentary and inconclusive—and in some ways, yes, of course it is—but a second full reading of 2666 reveals a book that is cohesive, densely allusive, and thematically precise.

Rereading is one way of stepping back to see the bigger picture that  Bolaño twists together from smaller fragments. Rereading reveals the intertextual correspondences between the books of 2666 (the five books proper, the “Parts,” of course, but also the texts, invented or real, that those books house).

4. 2666 is also a book about writing.

Earth, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

5. To wit: “The Part About Archimboldi,” the fifth and final book of 2666, the book that features Benno von Archimboldi, the writer at the heart of 2666—this final chapter sews together many of the book’s (apparently) loose threads.

6. Two problems with point #5:

A. Benno von Archimboldi (aka Hans Reiter) is not at the heart of 2666 but rather a shadowy trace slipping through the margins, a ghost-presence that’s always there, but not generative or muscular like a heart. (I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this).

B. “The Part About Archimboldi” most decidedly does not sew together all the loose threads: That’s the reader’s job (or task or pleasure or plight or burden).

7. And so then point #4 (“2666 is also a book about writing”): 2666 is also a book about reading: A book about reading as detective work.

8. Who are the heroes of 2666?

They are all detectives of some kind, literal or otherwise.

Literary critics. Journalists. Philosophers. Psychologists. Psychics and fortune tellers. Police detectives. Private detectives. An American sheriff. A rogue politician. Poets. Publishers. Parents. Searchers.

9. Archimboldi shows up in the first book of 2666, “The Part About the Critics”; the eponymous critics, literary detectives are searching for him.

How does Archimboldi show up?

Inside a story (the Frisian lady’s) inside a story (the Swabian’s) (inside the story of “Critics,” which is inside the story of 2666).

The Frisian lady asks:

“Does anyone know the answer to the riddle? Does anyone understand it? Is there by chance a man in this town who can tell me the solution, even if he has to whisper it in my ear?”

And Archimboldi answers. He’s a reader, a detective.

10. Swinging back to point #4: 2666 is a book about writing, and it shares the postmodern feature of calling attention to its own style and construction, yet it never does this in an overtly clever or insufferable fashion: It’s far more sly.

Water, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

11. What is the construction or shape of 2666?

A straightforward answer: Five books in an intertextual conversation that seem to loop back around, where the last book prefigures the first book in a strange circuit.

Some possible metaphorical answers:

A void (“Voids can’t be filled,” Archimboldi says).

A labyrinth (the word labyrinth appears 14 times in Wimmer’s translation of 2666).

A mirror (61 times).

An abyss (22 times)

An asylum (43 times; madhouse appears 5 times).

12. And then, back to point #10: How does Bolaño slyly announce or criticize or puncture his style in 2666?

In Ignacio Echevarria’s “Note to the First Edition” of 2666, he tells us that:

Among Bolaño’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano.” And elsewhere Bolaño adds, with the indication “for the end of 2666″: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.”

Belano is Bolaño’s alter ego, a trace who slips and sails and ducks through the Bolañoverse (he also shows up unnamed in 2666 with his partner Ulises Lima; they manage to father a bastard son, Lalo Cura).

So Belano who narrates 2666 (how?!) is Bolaño: Okay: So? Now?

13. I suggested earlier on Biblioklept that 2666 is a grand ventriloquist act, a forced possession, a psychic haunting. Bolaño channels Belano who channels detectives, journalists, poets, writers. Readers.

14. The channeling is metatextual or intertextual, a series of transpositions between the various narrators and protagonists and readers (detectives all).

15. The passage that I see most frequently cited from 2666 points to its intertextuality.

The passage is likely frequently cited because

A) Ignacio Echevarria cites it in his note at the beginning of 2666 and

B) it describes Bolaño’s project in 2666, both internally (the book as a strange beast, with intertextual readings within its five (plus) parts), and also externally (intertextually against the canon). Here is the passage (from “The Part About Amalfitano”):

One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

16. At the risk of belaboring or repeating the last point: Bolaño, ever the canon-maker, the list maker, situates 2666, his final work (he knows it’s his final work) along with “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” a book that struggles “against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Air, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

17. So some metatextual moments that, read intertextually, perhaps (perhaps!) work to outline that “unknown,” that “something” of 2666:

18. Near the end of “The Part About Crimes,” a culminating moment, where a female journalist (NB: a female journalist is the first murder victim in “Crimes”) reads the work of the poet/journalist Mercado:

Hernandez Mercado’s style wavered between sensationalism and flatness. The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies. Sometimes Hernandez Mercado painted Haas as the scapegoat of a conspiracy of rich Sonorans and sometimes Haas appeared as an avenging angel or a detective locked in a cell but by no means defeated, gradually cornering his tormentors solely by dint of intelligence.

A description of the style of “The Part About the Crimes”: “The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies.”

19. And, from “The Part About Archimboldi,” a moment where some critics read Ansky’s novel Twilight and assess it:

Professor Stanislaw Strumilin read it. It struck him as hard to follow. The writer Aleksei Tolstoy read it. It struck him as chaotic. Andrei Zhdanov read it. He left it half finished. And Stalin read it. It struck him as suspect.

These are internal criticisms of 2666.

20. Another moment from Ansky’s journal that seems to describe “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666, and the Bolañoverse in general:

He mentions names Reiter has never heard before. Then, a few pages on, he mentions them again. As if he were afraid of forgetting them. Names, names, names. Those who made revolution and those who were devoured by that same revolution, though it wasn’t the same but another, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids of the dream.

21. While I’m using Ansky’s journal as a pseudo key for the intertextual labyrinth of 2666, let me grab this nugget:

Only in chaos are we conceivable.

(I added the note “thesis” in the electronic margin).

22. Or another description of the novel, couched in a description of history:

. . . history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.

23. Another description of 2666 can be found in Bubis’s description of Archimboldi’s second novel:

Lüdicke had yet to come off the presses when Mr. Bubis received the manuscript of The Endless Rose, which he read in two nights, after which, deeply shaken, he woke his wife and told her they would have to publish this new book by Archimboldi.

“Is it good?” asked the baroness, half asleep and not bothering to sit up.

“It’s better than good,” said Bubis, pacing the room.

Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something vaguely like a police investigation, but the baroness fell back asleep and didn’t hear him.

The names of the novels here also suggest something about the structure of 2666The Endless Rose suggests an eternal loop, as does Lüdicke, which etymologically suggests ludic, recursively playful . . . (Again, I’m just riffing here).

24. Another description of Archimboldi’s writing, which is of course a description of Bolaño’s 2666:

The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

Fire, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

25. Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key to the novel. He invents the name, of course, seemingly on the spot. (Invents is not the right word—rather, he synthesizes the name, cobbles it together from his readings. The name is intertextual).

The last name he appropriates from the painter Arcimboldo, whose paintings are instructive in understanding the structure of 2666, a narrative that comprises hundreds of internal discrete narratives that define the shape of the larger picture.  The first name?

“They called me Benno after Benito Juarez,” said Archimboldi, “I suppose you know who Benito Juarez was.”

The dark heart of 2666, site of “Crimes,” is Santa Teresa, a transparent stand-in for Ciudad Juarez.

(Florita Almada, psychic medium and honest detective of “Crimes” channels Benito Juarez, the shepherd boy who became the president of Mexico; I’m tempted to quote here at some length but resist).

26. Re: #25: I foolishly suggest that Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key. I don’t think there is a secret key. Just reading. Rereading.

27. I seem to be focusing a lot on “The Part About Archimboldi” in this riff. I riffed about the first three books here, and “The Part About Crimes” here.

28. But, still dwelling on “Archimboldi,” there’s a moment in it where an old alpine hermit confesses to murdering his wife by pushing her into a ravine. In some way his confession seems to answer all the puzzles of “Crimes,” all the unresolved abysses, all the falls (literal and metaphorical).  How can I justify this claim? How does a man confessing to a murder in a remote German border town in the 1950s answer the murders in Mexico in the 1990s? Or any of the other murders in the book? I suppose it’s a thematic echo, not a solution. Sweating late at night, reading past midnight, the moment struck me as larded with significance. I’m losing whatever thread I had . . .

29. So to end—how to end? Perhaps I’ll raid my first review of 2666, from January, 2009—surely I must have remarked on the end of the book, or on its apparent inconclusiveness—

30. —and so I did. And I don’t know if I can do better than this: 

Readers enthralled by the murder-mystery aspects of the novel, particularly the throbbing detective beat of “The Part About The Crimes,” may find themselves disappointed by the seemingly ambiguous or inconclusive or open-ended ending(s) of 2666. While the final moments of “The Part About Archimboldi” dramatically tie directly into the “Crimes” and “Fate” sections, they hardly provide the types of conclusive, definitive answers that many readers demand. However, I think that the ending is perfect, and that far from providing no answers, the novel is larded with answers, bursting at the seams with answers, too many answers to swallow and digest in one sitting. Like a promising, strangely familiar turn in the labyrinth, the last page of the book invites the reader back to another, previously visited corridor, a hidden passage perhaps, a thread now charged with new importance . . . 2666 is a book that demands multiple readings.

It was a good suggestion three years ago and I’ll take it up again.

June 5, 2012

Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

by Edwin Turner

I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”

Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.

Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—”Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.

Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.

Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in “a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.

I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.

May 20, 2012

Book Shelves #21, 5.20.2012

by Biblioklept

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Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace

Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.

The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:

Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.

I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:

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He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.

February 1, 2012

William Gaddis on Hipsters: “An Ill-dressed, Underfed, Overdrunken Group of Squatters with Minds So Highly Developed That They Were Excused from Good Manners”

by Biblioklept

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Love this passage from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Mocking “hipsterism” has been around forever (or at least 50 years):

And by now they were at the door of the Viareggio, a small Italian bar of nepotistic honesty before it was discovered by exotics. Neighborhood folk still came, in small vanquished numbers and mostly in the afternoon, before the two small dining rooms and the bar were taken over by the educated classes, an ill-dressed, underfed, overdrunken group of squatters with minds so highly developed that they were excused from good manners, tastes so refined in one direction that they were excused for having none in any other, emotions so cultivated that the only aberration was normality, all afloat here on sodden pools of depravity calculated only to manifest the pricelessness of what they were throwing away, the three sexes in two colors, a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size.

January 27, 2012

Books Acquired, 1.25.2012 (Malcolm Lowry, Paul Auster, and William Gaddis)

by Biblioklept

I go to the bookstore once a week, whether I need books or not, which I really don’t. This week, I picked up a book I’ve already read, Lowry’s late-modernist classic Under the Volcano, simply because I hate the cover of the version I have (a bland movie tie-in). Anyway, I’ve been prowling for a version that includes an introduction by William Vollmann, but I saw this midcentury paperback with a nice minimal vibe and had to snap it up (also, it was a dollar, and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”):

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I’m not a huge Paul Auster fan, but I do like artist David Mazzucchelli’s work (especially his novel Asterios Polyp), so when I saw a crisp used copy of the graphic novelization of City of Glass (with an intro by Art Spiegelman), I had to snap it up:

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A splash page of a stark empty room which I’m sure is meaningful in some way:

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Also, couldn’t help pick up a used copy of Gaddis’s late novel Carpenter’s Gothic, even though I know there’s no way I’ll get to it anytime soon.

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January 11, 2012

Riff on Recent Reading, 1.09.2012 (Gaddis, Vollmann, Dragons, Nausicaä, Patti Smith)

by Edwin Turner

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1. Just Kids, Patti Smith

Really slowed down on this one, mostly because the spring semester hath begun, wreaking all sorts of destabilizing tasks on me. Momentum and reading habits will inevitably return. Anyway, Smith’s book is more or less a litany of famous meetings and infamous moments with lots and lots of descriptions of talismanic objects. The scene where she meets Allen Ginsberg is pretty cool. Smith presents herself as earnest, passionate, but also somehow at odds (or at least outs) with the whole Chelsea Hotel scene.

2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol 1, Hayao Miyazaki

Completed the first volume of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking manga and started the second. The art is well crafted and distinct, but often extremely busy and even frenetic. It sometimes feels squashed in the panels, like it needs room to breathe. I can’t help but compare it to the film that followed, which is visually richer and more expansive. The film, in a sense, helps me to fill out the scope signaled in Miyazki’s inky illustrations.

The story in the manga so far differs subtly but significantly from the film; without adding spoilers (I think fans of the film will enjoy the book), the political dimension of the plot is heightened and gender roles are explored with greater concern. Nausicaä’s initial rashness is also presented with greater intensity (read: violent consequences). More to come.

3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann

Chapter 3 of Imperial, “The Water of Life,” is some of the best gonzo journalism I’ve ever read. Vollmann (along with an improbably game ex-Marine/hotel clerk) takes a raft—a cheap rubber dinghy, really—down the infamous New River, purportedly one of the most polluted waterways in North America. This river is filled with dead birds, dead fish, probably dead humans, lots and lots of garbage, industrial runoff, and lots and lots of human shit.

Of course, Vollmann can find beauty and strangeness and ugliness all at once:

The chapter does everything one wants from the book, and if you’re at all intrigued, there’s a version in the excellent Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is a good starting point for his work.

The next chapter, “Sublineations: Lovescapes,” is this awful emo exploration of a bad breakup and the following heartbreak Volls feels after. It was torturous to get through, the sort of thing that screams for an editor. It also underscores how deeply deeply deeply personal the book is to him, though. More to come.

4. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)

Well goddam if I didn’t finally finish it. As I’ve lamented elsewhere in these e-pages, Martin’s fourth and fifth books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I hate that name, by the way: Game of Thrones (without the indefinite article) is way cooler sounding) are bloated, sagging, overfilled beasts sorely in need of an enema. Still, Dragons picks up in its final third, and ends with some shockers that, if I remember them 12 years from now when he finally finishes the next one, I may want to read it. Roy Dotrice = a very gifted reader. A great audiobook (still, I can’t believe this one topped so many year end lists).

5. JR, William Gaddis  (tandem reading with audiobook read by Nick Sullivan)

Big thanks to Dwight at A Common Reader for suggesting the audiobook of JR read by Sullivan. I’m a few hours in; I’ve also been rereading bits immediately when I get home (I listen mostly in the car or on walks), retracing the lines that I’ve mentally underlined. Sullivan is a gifted voice actor who brings the many, many voices of JR to vivid life (that line seems hackneyed but it is in no way insincere. If I weren’t riffing I’d revise. If I weren’t riffing I’d edit parenthetical excuses. I’m gonna drink more red zin now). I’m reminded in some ways of RTE’s full-cast unabridged recording—performance really—of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d read Ulysses twice before, but I feel like the full-cast production was an equally definitive version to the one in my head. Like Ulysses—especially the Sirens episode—JR is extremely aural; it’s mostly dialogue.

I’ve laughed out loud several times so far—had no idea the book would be this funny. Also, reading/hearing it, I can’t help but see how profoundly David Foster Wallace was influenced by Gaddis here: the bizarre corporate-speak, the disjunctive rhythms, the absurd humor, the satire on modernity, the ironic-earnest axis—even the passages of naturalistic description.

On deck: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Open City by Teju Cole, Smut by Alan Bennett and more more more.

December 31, 2011

Riff on Recent Reading, 12.31.2011

by Edwin Turner

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1. Donald Harington, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks

I want to publicly thank blogger BLCKDGRD for sending me this book; it arrived in sections, the binding glue cracked, its abused condition surely a sign of love. I happened to be recaulking the margins of my screened in porch the day it arrived, so I used silicone caulk (along with c-clamp) to repair it.

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks rightfully should have shown up on my Books I Didn’t Read in 2011 post, but it was doubly neglected, left under a pile of half-read books that I intend to keep reading: Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, a volume of stories by Breece D’J Pancake (two stories remain unread; I am sure they are awfully sad), Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma. In short, I didn’t want to own up to abandoning it because I intend to go back and finish it. I read a little over half of Harington’s big, rich, funny history of Arkansas, told through the lens of the species of spaces inhabited by the Ingledews and their fellow Stay Morons. The book is lively, deeply ironic, and stands with Kurt Vonnegut as perfect American satire.

2. Just Kids, Patti Smith

I found Just Kids, which was a Big Deal book in 2010, while looking for a copy of Lillian Smith’s The Killers of the Dream (don’t fret; I found that book too). I’ve loved Smith’s music since I was a kid; like The Talking Heads, she was hard to place, not outright punk rock, definitely not pop, very weird.

I usually read the first few pages of books in the store if I think I’m going to buy them; I ended up reading about 10 pages of Just Kids, taking it home, and then reading for a few more hours. I’m almost finished with it now.

Smith documents a fascinating time in a fascinating place (New York City’s art/lit/music scene in the late sixties/early seventies), but her perspective for most of the book is that of an outsider, a would-be artist struggling to help Robert Mapplethorpe become famous for his art. Smith is in love with literature, particularly Romantic French stuff.

She’s also an object fetishist; I can’t think of another book that details so many tchotchkes, so many surfaces, so many contours, so many things. She’s an aesthete. There are also several incidences of book theft. I’m not sure if I’ll write up a proper review of this book—it won the Nat’l Book award and made all the year end lists in 2010—but I have been enjoying it as a chronicle of creative energy.

3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann

There’s a strange shift between the first and second chapters of Vollmann’s massive book about Imperial County. The first chapter, “The Gardens of Paradise,” reads like a magazine article (and it was; it was published in abbreviated form in Gear in 1999)—lots of dialogue, short paragraph breaks, a spare, lucid syntax, but nevertheless rippling with verve. The second chapter, “Delineations” is a heady brew, a page right out of Ishmael’s big book, as we see Vollmann try to delineate or define his white whale Imperial. And yet he seems to realize that delineation is a fantasy:

People say it was miraculous that Christ walked across the water, and yet they don’t think twice when the same is performed by this entity invisible everywhere except in its representations, whose substance is comprised of equal parts imagination, measurement, memory, authority, and jurisdiction! Delineation is the merest, absurdest fiction, yet delineation engenders control.

The territory and the time Vollmann treks in just a few dozen pages astounds . . .

4. MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman

Okay—not really recent reading, although I did pick it up again and thumb through it before writing this piece; mostly, I wanted to try to write something about this book before the end of the year (I put it on my “best of ’11″ list, by the bye). This book is Spiegelman’s attempt to measure Maus: where it came from, how it was made, what making it did to him and for him—and to his family. Like Smith’s book, MetaMaus is very much about the creative process (forgive the hackneyed phrase)—only, where Smith breathlessly gushes in the glowing, enriching flames of art, Spiegelman guides us through the nitty-gritty nooks and crannies of how he made what is perhaps the signature work of comics art of the twentieth century.

The book is beautiful. Take a gander:

5. Pancha Tantra, Walton Ford

The index at the end of Pancha Tantra contains a series of citations that illustrate Ford’s paintings (hang on, the elements of that last phrase should be vice versa, right?). To wit:

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6. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)

I really liked the first three Game of Thrones books (yeah, I know they have that long silly name; I’m not gonna write it). I listened to them on audio, all read by Roy Dotrice—who is a great reader—and I gave them a positive review. The first three books detail a world of Machiavellian scheming, a phallocentric, desacralized universe where power is constantly shifting and idealism will get you beheaded. The character development is excellent, the plots are engaging, and the prose is good enough.

The fourth book, narrated by John Lee, was almost too much to get through. Here are some words to describe it: bloated, plodding, sagging, lazy, meandering, over-expansive.

I’d heard that A Dance with Dragons was much better, knew that Dotrice was narrating again, and knew that the book picked up with some of my favorite characters who were left out of that fourth book (Tyrion, Danaerys).

I’m nearing the end—it’s much better than the last one, but not nearly as good as the first three. Martin could probably make the book a third shorter simply by cutting out the endless descriptions of food, the awful, gross sex scenes (actually, he can go ahead and keep those), and the terrible stock phrases. (How long do things last in ADwD? “Half a heartbeat.” Also, I would love to never hear the phrase “Much and more” again in my life. I’m not even kidding. And “Useless as the nipples on a breastplate” doesn’t need to show up more than once in your book).

Even with my gripes, there have been some good episodes so far, including a creepy cabin fever Sadean setpiece that reminded me of the South Africa episode of Pynchon’s V, which is like one of my favorite things in literature.

7. Various public domain books on Kindle Fire, including Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson

I got a Kindle Fire. I like it. I downloaded a bunch of obscure American Renaissance stuff—letters, reviews, essays—and have been scrolling over it quite a bit late at night. More thoughts on this device to come.

December 24, 2011

Book Acquired, 12.23.2011; Or, I Read the First 2% of William Vollmann’s Enormous Book Imperial

by Biblioklept

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Earlier this week, Biblioklept correspondent A King at Night suggested on this blog that William T. Vollmann, “literature’s own Batman,” may not be entirely real. While Mr. At Night’s post was perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, he did hip us to extremely cheap new copies of Vollmann’s 2009 California opus, Imperial. I bought one, of course, knowing that my chances of actually reading it in full were, uh, slim. It showed up today.

I read the first 25 pages, a little over 2% of the book (not counting Vollmann’s endnotes and bibliography). I read the book in the bathtub, drinking a beer (those of you who fear (or find repulsive the prospect of) visualizing my stubby little birthday-suited body besoaped and besudded, I suggest that that role may be played by Geena Davis, circa early nineties, although, obviously, you can pick whomever you like to imagine reading Imperial in a bathtub). I was cognizant of the fact that I was taking a bath—a luxury of sorts—while reading a book that deals in large part about who controls water. I also managed to get the book wet with both blood and water. I don’t know where the blood came from.

The first few pages thrust us right into typical Vollmann territory, with our protagonist paying a cokehead to guide him through the back alleys of Mexicali (Vollmann takes time to note the “street-whores,” of course). Alternately, Vollmann attends the nocturnal activities of the weary Border Patrol, who regularly catch and release Mexicans heading for the Northside (America).

There’s a great little moment, very early in this first chapter, when Vollmann ponders the Sisyphean task of the men who patrol the border:

. . . I almost pitied the futility of his occupation, as I suspect he did mine (the main purpose of my essays being to line birdcages), but then I fortunately persuaded myself that all vocations and callings are equally futile.

This seems like the prototypical Vollmann moment: earnestness bound in supple irony, self-deprecation glossing the intense pride in work that the contemporary world will be happy to (even sometimes boastfully) ignore.

I enjoyed the first pages of this massive book tremendously. Vollmann’s voluminous scope and strange background often eclipse his powers as a proseslinger, and Imperial, so far, is lucid, clean, sharp, and funny.

So I’ll go for it. I’ll read it. I’ll finish it before this time (id est, late Dec.) next year.

December 20, 2011

The Myth of The Vollmann

by akingatnight
  • Europe Central: 832 pages
  • Imperial: 1344 pages
  • The Royal Family: 800 pages
  • Rising Up and Rising Down: 3352 pages

I still hesitate to believe that William T. Vollmann actually exists. Has anyone ever read one of his super-long books? Can we prove that somewhere around page 700 of Imperial that the text doesn’t just become

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for the next 600 pages? How can we prove this if no one has actually read it? Can we prove that somewhere someone actually read Imperial (and I mean all of it)? What about that seven-volume first edition of Rising Up and Rising Down? Sure we all know about it, but has anyone actually SEEN the thing? I don’t even mean OWN it, certainly not that, none of you OWN the first edition of RURD. Oh heavens no, but have any of you seen it in person, to verify for me its actual existence?

It’s sort of like those kids who had pet monkeys when you were in elementary school, always someone’s cousin, or their neighbor’s friend from another school; sometimes the story was accompanied by a thumbprint-smudged Polaroid of the creature, clutching lovingly to some human torso. But did you ever actually see it? No never. Not once. And anyone who says they did is part of the conspiracy. Sure, maybe somewhere in Mexico someone has a monkey for a pet, but not here, no way, and certainly not your cousin. And look, I agree that it’s a weird thing to lie about, but that’s part of what makes good liars good, it’s some sort of weird emotional long-con that you are complicit in by listening to them.

Why would someone lie about writing a 3000 page book about violence? I have no idea. And why the hell would the same guy write 800 pages about Shostakovich and the Russians during World War Two? You got me. It’s a brilliant scheme in a way. If Vollmann is lying about something, then he has avoided attention by writing books so long and esoteric that NO ONE can prove or disprove their legitimacy.

Of course, whatever game he’s playing at, it isn’t money.

I contacted Mr. Bob Amazon (the guy who started Amazon.com) and he confirmed my suspicion that literally no human has ever purchased a copy of either Imperial or The Royal Family. When asked if physical copies of these books were actually housed in an Amazon facility somewhere, just in case someone ever actually did buy one he hung up on me.

So, I’m thinking this thing goes deep, deeper than any of us ever imagined. Obviously Dave Eggers is involved somehow, either as the mastermind behind the whole thing, or just another pawn like the rest of us. I emailed Mr. Heartbreaking Jerk himself, asking if even he of all people can claim to have actually read all of Rising Up and Rising Down, and in return I received an auto-reply, something about the volume of emails he receives blah blah blah—the point is I think I scared him, and now I know I’m on the right trail . . .

The funny thing with all of this is that I’m pretty sure there is no hoax going on. I have no reason to think William T. Vollmann is anything but a real guy, a weirdo dude who writes epically long books that no one reads. But if you read about his life at all it sounds more made up than any of the recently famous literary hoaxes. Maybe only that old asshole with his holocaust apples can really claim to have a bigger imagination, because neither James Frey nor JT Leroy can hold a candle to this (straight from Wikipedia):

In his youth, Vollmann’s younger sister drowned while under his supervision, a tragedy for which he felt responsible. This experience, according to him, influences much of his work.

What? Really? So he’s literature’s own Batman, The Dark Knight . . . or, wait for it: Vollman!

And I’m not even going to get into all the crack smoking with prostitutes and moving to Afghanistan in the 1980s. But I will talk briefly about his “hobby” of aimlessly train-hopping, which he apparently chronicled in Riding Toward Everywhere (a book whose existence I can confirm, as I bought it as a gift for a friend). Honestly though, that’s his hobby?

“So Mr. Vollmann, when you’re not hanging out with prostitutes in Cambodia, smoking crack, dodging bullets in Bosnia, spending 20 years writing a 3000 page book about violence, running around in the desert with a rebel army, or any of your other notable pursuits . . . what do you do for fun? How does William T. Vollmann relax?”

“Oh you know, I hop trains and just go where they take me.”

What? How do we know that Vollmann’s entire “career” isn’t the longest viral marketing campaign ever for a Wes Anderson movie that’s coming out ten years from now?

I’m not really heading towards anything conclusive or coherent here. I have no big point and the answer to all of my questions is that I should just devote the next few years of my life to actually reading these books instead of doubting their existence. But that would take 1) time and 2) money. Maybe I should turn it into some kind of art project and get funding on Kickstarter or something. Or maybe I could get review copies somehow.

Actually I just looked on Amazon and I see that Imperial is no longer the $40 book it once was. A new copy in paperback will run just $3.23 and with that free prime shipping I could be reading this thing by Friday.

So I just did it,  it is on its way, but we all know I’m not going to actually read it, right? It’s gonna go on the shelf next to Europe Central and the abridged copy of RURD and it will damn well stay there until, I don’t know, I become the omega man or something and I literally have nothing else to do and no one to talk to and no pointless articles to write and nothing to do with my boredom besides consume 1300 pages about border-crossing by a guy who looks like a serial killer.

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