Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next (DeLillo on Pynchon)

It was as though, in some odd quantum stroke, Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next. One literature bends into another. Pynchon has made American writing a broader and stronger force. He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on.

I was writing ads for Sears truck tires when a friend gave me a copy of V. in paperback. I read it and thought, Where did this come from?

The scale of his work, large in geography and unafraid of major subjects, helped us locate our fiction not only in small anonymous corners, human and ever-essential, but out there as well, in the sprawl of high imagination and collective dreams.

Don DeLillo on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

Watch The Lives of Brian, A Documentary About Flann O’Brien

Happy Breece D’J Pancake Day

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Today is Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras—or Pancake Day if you like. Besides his unusual last name, there is basically no connection between this pre-Lenten day and the West Virginian writer Breece D’J Pancake. But whatever. Pancake remains woefully under-read—so any occasion for notice, yes?

Breece Pancake’s stories are compact, sad, and beautiful. Haunting is a fair word—these tales stick with you. Pancake’s evocation of place and mood are so strong that it’s often a relief to leave the little world he’s painted for the reader. (Does that sound like a negative criticism? ‘Twas not meant to be).

There’s not much Pancake to read—just one collection of short stories, posthumously published. Pancake shot himself in the head a few months before his 27th birthday. In his afterword to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, John Casey points out that Pancake had not yet achieved his full vision of his writing (he also explains the unusual punctuation in the author’s name):

When he sold his first story to The Atlantic he scarcely took a breath. (He did do one thing by way of celebration. The galley proofs came back with the middle initials of his name set up oddly: Breece D’J Pancake. He said fine, let it stay that way. It made him laugh, and, I think, it eased his sense of strain—the strain of trying to get things perfect—to adopt an oddity committed by a fancy magazine.) He was glad, but the rhythm of his work didn’t let him glory or even bask. He had expected a great deal from his work, and I think he began to feel its power, but he also felt he was still far from what he wanted.

Obviously, we can lament that we don’t get to read what Pancake might have written—or we can read what he gave us and be grateful. There’s “Hollow”“The Honored Dead,” and “In the Dry”—go ahead, those links are for full-text stories. Don’t be afraid to click.

Pancake’s most well-known story might be “Trilobites” — here are the first few paragraphs:

I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

 

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.

 

The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly’s little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny’s and they slope nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae. I smile at her, but she’s jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things “Won’t touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker’s head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.

Why isn’t the story in my Norton Anthology of American Literature?

Do you want more than those paragraphs? Here’s Joyce Carol Oates on Pancake, from her 1983 NYT review of the collection:

The most powerful of the stories – ”Trilobites,” ”Hollow,” ”Fox Hunters,” ”The Scrapper,” ”In the Dry” – are as compactly and tightly written as prose poems and should be read (and reread) with extreme care. The author’s method is to create an atmosphere of extreme tension in his readers as well as in his protagonists. The stories’ opening paragraphs often announce in embryo what will follow, so that the narrative is thematically complete before, in a sense, it begins, and one feels the inexorable bars of circumstance closing about the characters. And the writing, lean, taut, pared back, near-flawless in its uninflected cadences, is perfectly suited to its content.

Over three decades after that review, there’s still a sense that Pancake hasn’t quite gotten his due. Here’s Jon Michaud, writing almost exactly a year ago in The New Yorker:

…Pancake deserves to be more than a writer’s writer. In his stories, objects are constantly being unearthed: fossils and coal from the earth, skeletons and arrowheads from Indian burial grounds. “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake” is a sharp, flinty object, an arrowhead left behind by a talented and tragic young author. It would be easy to allow his one collection of stories to be buried under the landslide of books published every year. But it’s worth doing a little excavating to dig it up. The past few years have seen late-in-the-day and posthumous revivals of interest in writers such as Renata Adler, Elena Ferrante, and John Williams. Get out your pickaxes. It’s high time for a Pancake revival.

I agree.

An article on cemeteries, and other ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books

The spells of witches have the power of producing meats and viands that have the appearance of a sumptuous feast, which the Devil furnishes: But a Divine Providence seldom permits the meat to be good, but it has generally some bad taste or smell,–mostly wants salt,–and the feast is often without bread.

 

An article on cemeteries, with fantastic ideas of monuments; for instance, a sundial;–a large, wide carved stone chair, with some such motto as “Rest and Think,” and others, facetious or serious.

 

“Mamma, I see a part of your smile,”–a child to her mother, whose mouth was partly covered by her hand.

 

“The syrup of my bosom,”–an improvisation of a little girl, addressed to an imaginary child.

 

“The wind-turn,” “the lightning-catch,” a child’s phrases for weathercock and lightning-rod.

 

“Where’s the man-mountain of these Liliputs?” cried a little boy, as he looked at a small engraving of the Greeks getting into the wooden horse.

 

When the sun shines brightly on the new snow, we discover ranges of hills, miles away towards the south, which we have never seen before.

 

To have the North Pole for a fishing-pole, and the Equinoctial Line for a fishing-line.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

Philip K. Dick — Kent Bellows

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“I know of two kinds of writers” — Jorge Luis Borges

I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.

From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.

Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “William Burns”

Untitled (Two Dogs Fighting), Bill Traylor

I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy). 

I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews. 

“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver). 

Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:

If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.