There’s Only Love & Dreams — Davor Gromilovic

There’s Only Love & Dreams, 2022 by Davor Gromilovic (b. 1985)

Study for The Tennis Players — Pavel Tchelitchew

Study for The Tennis Players, 1934 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)

Baltimore — Miles Cleveland Goodwin

Baltimore, 2022 by Miles Cleveland Goodwin (b. 1980)

Still Life with Mug, Pipe and Book — John Frederick Peto

Still Life with Mug, Pipe and Book,1899 by John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)

Matt Bucher’s The Belan Deck is an unexpectedly moving argument for humanity and serious triviality

I stayed up later than I meant to the other night reading all of Matt Bucher’s new book The Belan Deck in one cover-to-cover go. On his website, Bucher describes The Belan Deck as “a little book…set mostly during a layover at SFO” that “centers around a person who maybe doesn’t really fit in at their AI tech job but still needs to produce one final PowerPoint deck.” This description approximates the plot, in the barest sense, but doesn’t touch on the spirit or form of The Belan Deck.

Let’s talk about the spirit and form of The Belan Deck. Bucher borrows the epigraphic, anecdotal, fractured, discontinuous style that David Markson practiced (perfected?) in his so-called Notecard Quartet (1996-2007: Reader’s Block, This Is Not A NovelVanishing Point, and The Last Novel). “An assemblage…nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like,” wrote Markson, to which Bucher’s narrator replies, “Bricolage. DIY culture. Amateurism. Fandom. Blackout poems.”

Bucher’s bricolage picks up Markson’s style and spirit, but also moves it forward. Although Markson’s late quartet is arguably (I would say, by definition) formally postmodernist, the object of the Notecard Novels’ obsession is essentially Modernism. Bucher’s book is necessarily post-postmodern, taking as its objects the detritus and tools of postmodern communication: PowerPoint, Google Street View, Wikipedia, social media, artificial intelligence.

At the same time, Bucher continues Markson’s obsessions with artists and death, adding to the mortality lists that wormed through DM’s quartet. Bucher’s updates are odd though, in that they seem to, in their print form, contextualize anew coincidences that were so raw and immediate when they popped up on Twitter and other social media:

Nicanor Parra died the day after Ursula K. LeGuin died.

Larry McMurty and Beverly Cleary died the same day.

(In my memory, William H. Gass died the day before LeGuin, but this is not true. He died almost two months before LeGuin. But I recall teaching selections from both of their work in a literature class in the spring semester of 2018, and pointing out to my students that the empty spaces behind the dashes after their birth years might now be filled in. “An encyclopedia entry demands at least a birth or a death,” notes Bucher’s narrator.)

The encyclopedia, by which I mean Wikipedia, becomes a heroic motif in The Belan Deck. “Wikipedia is the number one result for over 50% of Google searches,” Bucher’s narrator points out, following it up with,

Wikipedia, made by humans, for free, is a better search engine than Google, the most expensive and sophisticated algorithm in the world.

Earlier in The Belan Deck, the narrator points to the “mindless pleasure of going down a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole,” a pleasure that an artificial intelligence, no matter how developed, could never feel. About three dozen pages later, Bucher’s narrator throws a slant rhyme to his previous note on the “mindless pleasures” of Wikipedia rabbit holes, pointing out that Thomas Pynchon had used Mindless Pleasures as a working title for Gravity’s Rainbow. That’s how this book operates: Disparate fragments of information are “Clues rather than trivia.”

The goal is to find the sublime in these connections; Bucher’s narrator repeatedly and succinctly argues that finding the beautiful, much less the sublime, is impossible for an artificial intelligence. The Belan Deck plays out as a discursive, looping, and unexpectedly moving argument for humanity, in all its serious triviality, against the backdrop of capital’s rapid encroachment into the human position in the arts.

“Capitalism is incompatible with being an artist, for most people,” avers our narrator. “Yet you participate!” might come the retort, and it’s true—not only does Bucher’s narrator work in a soulless medium, the deck (trying to inject some soul, some sublime, some humanity into it), he also works for the soulless Belan, a money guy who would love to replace artists with machines. (In what I think has to be a great intentional gag, Bucher’s narrator’s point of contact for Belan is a middleman named  Jimmy Chen. I just have to believe that the character’s a take on the Jimmy Chen who wrote and designed on HTMLGIANT for all those years.)

The narrator participates because there aren’t that many other options, as we all know. “Do you understand what I am saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” the narrator plaintively asks. I mean, for me, that’s a Yes, all the time. 

There’s much more in The Belan Deck than I can get to here—more on art, artists, baseball, airports—it’s voluminous for a “little book.” (“When we buy a book, we think we are buying time to read” is a line I underlined but could not otherwise work into this review, so I’ll include it here parenthetically. (A lot of this review has happened in parentheses.))

I’ll end with two bits of personal trivia, two coincidences.

First: The day The Belan Deck arrived in my mail, which is the day that I read The Belan Deck, some AI-cheerleading dork went viral on Twitter for posting a series of unasked-for renderings of “what the backgrounds of the most famous paintings in the world look like with AI.” He was roundly and rightly mocked for his endeavors, and I found the general antipathy heartening, but still a small cadre of people who know absolutely nothing about art congratulated his vapidity.

Second: Earlier that same day, I read a passage from Walter Tevis’s 1980 dystopian novel Mockingbird, and found its sentiment largely heartening as well. The hero of the novel, staring at a “dumb parody of humanity” declares it “nothing, nothing at all.” He continues, pointing out that the forces of capital “had given robots to the world with the lie that they would save us from labor or relieve us from drudgery so that we could grow and develop inwardly.” But underneath this false promise was a deep “contempt for the ordinary life of men and women,”  a deep hatred of human life itself. The sentiment I find heartening here is in the hero’s recognition and resistance to this contempt.

The Belan Deck isn’t a straightforward guidebook or manifesto or map, but it nevertheless, in its elliptical, poetic approach, offers a winding, thinking, feeling path of opposition to not only the machines themselves, but also the hollow men who would gladly replace artists and creators and thinkers with those machines. It’s also really fun to read. Great stuff.

Mockingbird — Aron Wiesenfeld 

Mockingbird, 2023 by Aron Wiesenfeld (b. 1972)

They had given robots to the world with the lie that they would save us from labor or relieve us from drudgery so that we could grow and develop inwardly | From Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird

I had never looked at a robot that closely before, having been brought up to fear and respect them. And I became aware, looking at his stupid, manufactured face, that I was seeing for the first time what the significance of this dumb parody of humanity really was: nothing, nothing at all. Robots were something invented once out a blind love for the technology that could allow them to be invented. They had been made and given to the world of men as the weapons that nearly destroyed the world had once been given, as a “necessity.” And, deeper still, underneath that blank and empty face, identical to all the thousands of faces of its make, I could sense contempt—contempt for the ordinary life of men and women that the human technicians who had fashioned it had felt. They had given robots to the world with the lie that they would save us from labor or relieve us from drudgery so that we could grow and develop inwardly. Someone must have hated human life to have made such a thing—such an abomination in the sight of the Lord.

From Walter Tevis’s 1980 novel Mockingbird.

 “A Note on the Word Gubernatorial” — Lydia Davis

“A Note on the Word Gubernatorial”


Lydia Davis

Gubernatorial: Even though I have never used it in a story, and probably never will, this word has always fascinated and pleased me because of its odd divergence from its noun, governor. Why did the noun and the adjective develop in different directions? The adjective is actually closer to the origin of both, which was the Latin gubernator, “governor,” and gubernare, “to steer.” The original, primary meaning of “to govern” was “to steer.” In fact, there is a maritime word in French, gouvernail, that means “rudder,” or “helm”—what we need to steer a boat. The Latin gubernator evolved into the Old French gouverneur and hence, eventually, into our English governor—our governor is one who steers the metaphorical ship of state. (The Latin also evolved into the Spanish gobernador—keeping the b—and the Italian governatore.)

But of course it is all more complicated, as the development of language always is: the English word gubernator, meaning “ruler,” was also in use starting in the 1520s, though it was rare—and so was gubernatrix, meaning a female ruler. Gubernator disappeared from use and governor remained. I do not know why our adjective did not evolve in the same way as our noun. Why did it not turn into governatorial or governorial? Simply because it was not spoken as often?

I have always enjoyed pronouncing gubernatorial, as though its rather crude sound, incorporating two voiced plosives and the word “goober,” is concealing its more elegant, softer, silkier cousin, “govern.” Gubernatorial swings us closer to our Spanish friends, governor to our Italian. During the U.S. presidency of Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, there was much talk of his association with the cultivation of peanuts (colloquially known as “goobers”); thus, goober-natorial, as applied to the office of the governor of the Peanut State, was doubly appropriate.

Skin Graft — Otto Dix

Skin Graft (Transplantation), from The War series, 1924 by Otto Dix (1891–1969)

“A Way You’ll Never Be” — Ernest Hemingway

“A Way You’ll Never Be”


Ernest Hemingway

The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farm houses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. Coming along the road on a bicycle, getting off to push the machine when the surface of the road became too broken, Nicholas Adams saw what had happened by the position of the dead.

They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers. Continue reading ““A Way You’ll Never Be” — Ernest Hemingway”

Books acquired, 26 May 2023

I brought a box of old books to my spot; I did not intend to pick up any books but then I picked up six:

I’d been looking for a handsome and/or cheap copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon for a few years ago; success.

I posted something on Twitter a few days ago about how much I’ve been enjoying Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations; one of the replies put James Crumley in his company (along with McCarthy and Joy Williams), so I picked up Dancing Bear and The Last Good Kiss:

I’ve long loved Peter Mendelsund’s cover designs, so I didn’t pass up on a used copy of What We See When We Read. It has a lot of pictures and diagrams and such.

I saw a very interesting looking person reading an actor’s edition of Philip Ridley’s play Mercury Fur on the train a few weeks ago. I had never heard of the play, but looked it up, thought it sounded pretty cool, and then looked for it in the drama section of this same book store the last time I was there. I didn’t find it. I found it yesterday mixed in with the novels. (I wasn’t actually looking for it.)

I don’t own physical copies of The Last Novel and Vanishing Point, two of the three novels collected in David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels, so I couldn’t pass on this omnibus. I do own a copy of Reader’s Block, which is not collected in This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels.

Lord Candlestick’s Horses — Leonora Carrington

Lord Candlestick’s Horses, 1938 by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)

Une après-midi — Xiao Guo Hui

Une après-midi, 2022 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Penelope — Glyn Philpot

Penelope, 1923 by Glyn Philpot (1884-1937)

You know, I’ve never been entirely clear what “postmodern” means | Steve Erickson

Q. It’s interesting that you say your new book is surreal but not magical realism. You’ve said that you don’t consider your earlier books to be surrealistic. Why not?

A. Surrealism was born out of a preoccupation with the irrationality and illogic of the subconscious, and a view that human relationships are fundamentally absurd. Whatever else my books may be about, they don’t express an absurd view of existence. The form of the books, and the strange juxtapositions of their narratives, may strike people as surreal, but the central concerns that drive the stories are traditional ones. I don’t think any true surrealist would consider me a surrealist, in the same way no hard-core science-fiction fan would consider me a science-fiction writer, since the basic concern of most classic science fiction is the relationship between man and technology. Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon and a few others are exceptions. Technology is a completely valid and important topic to write about, but it just doesn’t happen to interest me. And my books aren’t “experimental” because my priorities don’t involve reinventing literary forms, and they’re not fantastic because they’re not characterized by the sense of wonder that fantasy evokes. I think it’s been hard for my novels to find a niche.

Q. Do you see your books as being postmodern?

A. You know, I’ve never been entirely clear what “postmodern” means. But to at least some extent postmodernism seems to involve a cultural or aesthetic self-awareness, and an insistence on art recognizing and tweaking its own artifice. My aim isn’t to call attention to the artifice of my books but to make readers forget the artifice, to persuade them to exchange their reality for the one I’ve created. I’m aware that trying to get readers to give themselves over to another reality is always doomed to failure. On the other hand, that’s the job of the novelist, to fail and fail again. The great hope isn’t to succeed-I’m not sure what success would really mean-but to risk everything, and perhaps to fail by narrower  margins, until there’s nothing left to fail with.

From a 1997 interview with novelist Steve Erickson. Larry McCaffery and Takayuki Tatsumi conducted the interview, which published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1997, Vol. 38, No. 3.

“Wet” — Joy Williams



Joy Williams

from 99 Stories of God

The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible.

This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and booties on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be here.

What have you done to my water? the Lord asked. My living water…

Oh, they said, we thought that was just a metaphor.


This is not a review of Fernanda Melchor’s This Is Not Miami

  1. This is not a review of Fernanda Melchor’s collection This Is Not Miami.
  2. First published in 2013, This Is Not Miami is now available in English translation by Sophie Hughes.
  3. Hughes previously translated Melchor’s two novels, the recent shorty Paradais and the superb 2017 novel Hurricane Season.
  4. Melchor composed the twelve pieces collected in This Is Not Miami between 2002 and 2011.
  5. In her introduction to the collection, Melchor declares that the pieces in This Is Not Miami are not properly tales or stories or works of journalism, but rather relatos—reports “based on events that really happened.”
  6. Melchor crafts her relatos from eyewitness accounts.
  7. (There’s also some journalistic research in there.)
  8. Like Paradais and Hurricane Season, the relatos of This Is Not Miami all take place in Melchor’s native Veracruz.
  9. Like Paradais and Hurricane Season, the relatos of This Is Not Miami describe and explore violent crime.
  10. Some characters: narcos, corrupt cops, crackheads, corrupt judges, petty drug dealers, petty drug users, an infanticidal beauty queen, a child rapist, a ufologist, a lynch mob, starving stowaways, scared cadets, a demon-possessed teen, a healer, a priest, an older couple clinging to the floor of their apartment as bullets fly through the walls, etc.
  11. (And Melchor’s “I” of course.)
  12. (Oh, and there’s a brief appearance by Mel Gibson.)
  13. Most of Melchor’s relatos are short. There are two significantly longer pieces: “Queen, Slave, Woman” and “The House on El Estero.”
  14. “Queen, Slave, Woman” tells the story of Evangelina Tejera Bosada, queen of the 1983 Veracruz Carnival who killed her children and cut them into pieces.
  15. In the previous sentence, the phrase “tells the story” is imprecise. In “Queen” and in most of the relatos in the collection, Melchor is telling the story of the witnesses who are telling the story.
  16. “The House on El Estero,” the longest piece, is a haunted house/exorcism riff that ends up being a kind of love story, a story about falling in love with a storyteller.
  17. “The House on El Estero” began to to wear thin for me, its premise stretched farther than my interest.
  18. However, William T. Vollmann singled out “The House on El Estero” as a favorite in his New York Times review of This Is Not Miami, a review I read a few minutes before I decided not to write a review of This Is Not Miami.
  19. While I don’t think “El Estero” is one of the better pieces in the collection, I generally agree with Vollmann’s assessment of the book’s trajectory.
  20. Vollmann points out that “because the relatos are arranged mostly in order between 2002 and 2011, during which time the author was obviously working hard at her craft, the style rapidly improves, in Sophie Hughes’s translation, into something natural, careful and smooth.”
  21. And, I’d add, rough when necessary.
  22. I hate to say that I was disappointed in This Is Not MiamiI mean, I was, disappointed, but also deeply interested.
  23. The sketches here are not sketchy; they are ballast, the raw and vivid material that points to the Hurricane Season’s masterful hallucinatory language explosion.
  24. As such, This Is Not Miami reads like a minor work, but one nonetheless vital to its creator’s artistic maturation.
  25. For me, This Is Not Miami is most appreciable as an apprenticeship work that points toward the Bigger Thing to come.
  26. And of course I want more.