Bobbie Ann Mason: “Book dedications are…a private message in a public place… They’re like reading the personals.
Joseph Heller: “I have not the slightest understanding of what they mean…none of my books except the first one have any.”
Richard Ford: “All of my books are dedicated to my wife.”
Ward Just: “My last seven books were all dedicated to my wife.”
Kaye Gibbons: “In the new printings of A Virtuous Woman, I’m deleting my ex-husband’s name and replacing it with my second and final husband’s Frank Ward.
Christopher Buckley: “I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, ‘Now type, “For my wife, with love.”‘ And she cried. I dedicated my first book, Steaming to Bamboola, to John Lennon. It was about the merchant marine, and he was the son of a merchant seaman, and he died while I was writing it, and I was very sad, so I just dedicated it to him.
Nicholson Baker: I hope to dedicate several more books to my wife although not every one. You don’t want to be like Nabokov. Every book was to Vera, to Vera, to Vera.
Susanna Moore: “My favorite dedication is by Gregor von Rezzori. In one of his books, he just says, For whom else but you!'”
William Gaddis: “You never dedicate a book to another writer. You’d worry that he wouldn’t like it.”
John Updike: “You worry with another writer, that he won’t like the book, that you’re like the cat who’s bringing a dead mouse to the back door.”
I ended up reading Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot earlier this month. I’m a big fan of Southern literature—Faulkner and O’Connor, Barry Hannah and Charles Portis, etc.—but Percy has been a blind spot up until now. I got copies of Lancelot and The Second Coming when my college’s library removed a ton of books last year. They’d been in my office for months, and when I went back at the beginning of the fall semester to grab some textbooks—I’m teaching online only now—I grabbed the Percys (Percies?). I picked up Lancelot and then never really put it down. Something about its comedic grotesquerie, its insane monologuing just…clicked for me right now.
I figured I should read Percy’s first and most famous novel The Moviegoer next, so I picked up a used copy last week. I was stoked to find a 1971 Noonday edition with a cover design by Milton Glaser. I read the first fifty pages this weekend, and have enjoyed it so far, but maybe Lancelot spoiled me a bit. Percy’s first novel seems far more restrained and measured—subtler, really, although Lancelot is, to be clear, out there. While Lancelot reminded me of Barry Hannah’s zany, mean-spirited stuff, so far The Moviegoer strikes me as soaked in existentialist ennui. The main character and narrator, Binx Bolling, echoes Camus’ hero of The Stranger, Mersault so far. I do enjoy Percy’s evocation of New Orleans in the late fifties very much, but I was hoping for a little more humor. Still, I’ll stick with it.
By Bernie Wrightson, 1948-2017
Who should be the next American Nobel Prize winner?
CORMAC McCARTHY: Would you wish the Nobel Prize off on a friend or an enemy?
What would you have done, do you think, if it hadn’t been for writing?
CORMAC McCARTHY: I think I can say that if I hadn’t been a writer I’d have been what I have been all my life anyway: one more unemployed person of dubious character.
The “article” consists of a ten-question questionnaire Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills sent to around fifty American writers. These are the only two answers from Cormac McCarthy.
An Old Envelope, 2016 by Chester Arnold (b. 1952)
I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).
This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:
When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.
The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:
“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.
In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:
They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.
James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:
The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”
At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:
When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.
I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that
Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.
She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;
The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.
That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.
The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.
And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:
Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”
Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:
lnexplicable Joy in the Time of Corona, 2020 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)
“Ovid on Climate Change”
Bastard, the other boys teased him,
till Phaethon unleashed the steeds
of Armageddon. He couldn’t hold
their reins. Driving the sun too close
to earth, the boy withered rivers,
torched Eucalyptus groves, until the hills
burst into flame, and the people’s blood
boiled through the skin. Ethiopia,
land of burnt faces. In a boy’s rage
for a name, the myth of race begins.
I found the 1970 film adaptation of Norwood on YouTube and watched it this morning. It stars Glen Campbell in the title role. He’s reasonably charming but a little too handsome. Kim Darby is also in the film; she starred as Mattie Ross in the 1969 film adaptation of Portis’s True Grit along with Campbell. Norwood was also produced by the same guy as True Grit (Hal Wallis) and shared the same screenwriter (Marguerite Roberts), and it kinda sorta feels like…left overs from that production? I don’t know if that makes sense. Joe Namath and Dom DeLuise also pop up.
It has a few moments (mostly coming on Campbell’s charm delivering lines cribbed from the novel), but it looks terrible and never gets close to the wit and energy of its source material. But I thought I’d share it any way, as a kind of curio for Portisheads who might want to skim through it.
Your opinion gives me a serious feeling. I would like to be what you deem me.
(Emily Dickinson letter 319 to Thomas Higginson)
is a phrase
You see my position is benighted.
(Emily Dickinson letter 268 to Thomas Higginson)
She was too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hours interview.
(Thomas Higginson letter 342a to Emily Dickinson)
God made me [Sir] Master—I didn’t be—myself.
(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)
Rushing among my small heart—and pushing aside the blood—
(Emily Dickinson letter 248 to Thomas Higginson)
Save what you can, Emily.
And when I try to organize—my little Force explodes—and leaves me bare and charred.
(Emily Dickinson letter 271 to Thomas Higginson)
Save every bit of thread.
Have you a little chest to put the Alive in?
(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)
One of them may be
By Cock, said Ophelia.
(Emily Dickinson letter 268 to Thomas Higginson)
the way out of here
“Piper in the Woods”
Philip K. Dick
First published in Imagination: Stories of Science and Fantasy, February 1953 and made available via Project Gutenberg.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Because—because I promised not to.”
Earlier this summer, I “discovered” the long-neglected novels of William Melvin Kelley, first through an essay on postmodern fiction by Black American authors (I can’t find the essay now, but I think it was by Bernard Bell), and then in a more-widely circulated article at The New Yorker. I then read Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer and his fourth novel, dem. What I really wanted to read though was Kelley’s final novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, which is generally described as his most postmodern and Joycean.
Dunfords was, at that point, not in print. I had no success finding it at my local used bookshop, so I looked on Abebooks, where I discovered that the cheapest copies were going for a hundred bucks.
Fortunately, Anchor Books has reissued Dunfords Travels Everywheres—it’s out later this month. Even better, they’ve included the many pen-and-ink illustrations for the book that Kelley commissioned from his wife Aiki. These illustrations were not included in the novel’s first edition in 1970. Here is one of her illustrations:
Proper review in the works; for now, here’s publisher Anchor’s blurb:
William Melvin Kelley’s final work, a Joycean, Rabelaisian romp in which he brings back some of his most memorable characters in a novel of three intertwining stories.
Ride on out with Rab and Turt, two o’New Afriqueque’s toughfast, ruefast Texnosass Arangers, as they battle Chief Pugmichillo and ricecure Mr. Charcarl Walker-Rider. Cut in on Carlyle Bedlowe, wrecker of marriage, saver of souls.
Or just along with Chig Dunford, product of Harlem and private schools, on the circular voyage of self-discovery that takes him from Europe’s Café of One Hand to Harlem’s Jack O’Gee’s Golden Grouse Bar & Restaurant.
Beginning on an August Sunday in one of Europe’s strangest cities, Dunfords Travels Everywheres but always returns back to the same point—the “Begending”—where Mr. Charcarl’s dream becomes Chig Dunford’s reality (the “Ivy League Negro” in the world outside the Ivory Tower).
Türme (Towers), 2011 by Neo Rauch (b. 1960)