Perkus Tooth Still Life (Chronic City), 2016 by by Tom Sanford (b. 1975)
Perkus Tooth Still Life (Chronic City), 2016 by by Tom Sanford (b. 1975)
What do we make of the Mr. Bones voice, the minstrel voice, as employed in Berryman’s most successful work, much of it written during the high period of the civil rights movement? What do we make of Henry’s agonized dream life in our own times of crisis? And what of the author? And why is the Poetry Foundation assigning a review of Berryman’s letters, today, when they could instead review a new volume by an African American poet?
There is, it is fair to say, a stomach churning that goes with this assignment. Should I not properly imagine that I, a middle-aged white writer of privilege, am, however inadvertently, being conscripted into this review such that I might avoid rocking the boat on a now-contested figure of 20th-century confessional literature when some helping of opprobrium appears more than justifiable? Let me be plain. In the present context, it is impossible to read Berryman’s magnum opus without the keenest discontent about the use of dialect. Berryman’s conduct as a man, as a father, as a husband, as a professor, as indicated in his work and in his biography, is very often difficult to bear witness to, even at a 50-year remove. The tide has shifted so dramatically in 2020 that it is hard to know why it is a public service to review the volume at hand.
These are the third and fourth paragraphs of Rick Moody’s essay “Unspeakably Miserable For the Most Part,” published this week at the Poetry Foundation. Ostensibly a review of the new collection The Selected Letters of John Berryman (edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae), Moody’s essay continues for another dozen paragraphs.
MMXX, 2020 by Martin Wittfooth (b. 1981)
Black Hole, 2016 by Ian Cumberland (b. 1983)
In a 2001 interview, producer Mylène Moreno suggests that the short film did not violate McCarthy’s privacy:
AC: You’re also showing the short “Cormac’s Trash,” that you produced and your husband Rafe Greenlee wrote and directed, about how the obsessed fans of the elusive, reclusive El Paso resident/writer Cormac McCarthy try to smoke him out, one even going so far as to go through his trash. How did that project come about?
MM: From the moment we arrived, Cormac’s presence loomed very large. There was always a lot of buzz about him. We lived near him and were always aware of his presence in the neighborhood, though we never saw him. He was Rafe’s favorite author. The film explores Cormac’s relationship to El Paso’s artists and its literary community. As a lawyer, Rafe was interested in privacy issues, and he takes the position in the film that he’s not going to cross the line — even though the film reveals that others probably have. He was careful about revealing the sorts of things found in Cormac’s trash. He didn’t show all of what was in there.
I think we should leave Cormac’s trash alone.
I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men; The Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.
So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.
In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.
I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.
When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.
I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.
Midas, 2020 by Adam Miller (b. 1979)
October 18, 1971, 1971 by Stanislaw Fijalkowski (b. 1922)
Love and the Anti-Void, 2020 by Jean-Pierre Roy (b. 1974)
BLVR: Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?
Padgett Powell: Barthelme edited the book, cutting for cleanliness and strength. In terms of my overall development as a writer, he lamented that he had found me already “fully formed.” By this he meant that I was, then, formed by my vision of realistic writing as more or less an amalgam of Faulkner and O’Connor and Williams and Percy and, say, Mailer.
I could not at the time make sense of Barthelme and Beckett and so forth. I never would have had I not, in knowing Don personally, seen that he was a red-blooded normal dude, not a wacko that the writing might suggest. Before I met him in fact I anticipated a Warhol kind of beast. He showed up in jeans and a yoked cowboy shirt a little drunk and introducing himself as Don and shaking hands firmly. We had not had a teacher to that point in our tour in Houston who would deign shake hands.
I referred to Don, as did many of the students, as Uncle Don. He did not shape Edisto beyond cleaning up, with considerable deftness, what I gave him. He could have been a professional editor of the highest caliber. He did in fact select the ten non-consecutive chapters that were sent to the New Yorker. They admitted later that they would not have seen that excerpt had they been given the entire book at first.
I assumed some influence from Don along what we’ll call surreal lines only later. Either that or I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance. I’ve swung so far in this direction now that I’m virtually unpublishable. Don himself at this age was swinging back to realism; he was a man of sense.
Chimera by John Barth. First edition 1973 hardback from Random House. Jacket design by George Giusti.
I couldn’t pass up this pristine first edition Barth today when browsing the used bookstore with my kids. I first read Chimera twenty or more years ago, as an undergrad, and it broke my brain a bit.
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. Second printing 1972 trade paperback from Noonday. Cover design by Janet Halverson.
Earlier this year in the same used bookshop I came across a first edition hardback copy of Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins. I hadn’t read Percy at the time (I’ve since loved his later novel Lancelot and been kinda sorta iffy on his famous debut The Moviegoer), but Janet Halverson’s oh-so-seventies Schoolhouse Rock!ish cover grabbed my attention. I really wish I’d bought it now (I think it was six bucks). Two weeks ago I came across two more Percys (Percies?) with Halverson covers, but let them be. But not today—at least not for this copy of The Last Gentleman.
A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. First edition 1987 hardback from FS&G.. Jacket design by Cynthia Krupat, using a photograph by William Wegman.
On the aforementioned-fortnight-last trip to the bookstore, I picked up, somewhat at random, Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I finished it in three days, enjoying it very much, so I couldn’t pass up this copy of his slim second novel today.
Atlas, 2020 by Dragan Bibin (b. 1984)
Eluhim, 1960 by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011)
Susan Taubes’s forgotten semi-autobiographical novel Divorcing is being republished by NRYB.
I had never heard of Taubes until Divorcing showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday. Divorce was Taubes’s first, and only (to my knowledge) novel. It was first published in 1969 and received a mixed (and somewhat sexist) review in The New York Times by Hugh Kenner. A few days after the review was published, Taubes committed suicide by walking into the Atlantic Ocean. Her body was identified by her friend and contemporary Susan Sontag.
Here’s NYRB’s blurb for Divorcing:
Dream and reality overlap in Divorcing, a book in which divorce is not just a question of a broken marriage but names a rift that runs right through the inner and outer worlds of Sophie Blind, its brilliant but desperate protagonist. Can the rift be mended? Perhaps in the form of a novel, one that goes back from present-day New York to Sophie’s childhood in pre–World War II Budapest, that revisits the divorce between her Freudian father and her fickle mother, and finds a place for a host of further tensions and contradictions in her present life. The question that haunts Divorcing, however, is whether any novel can be fleet and bitter and true and light enough to gather up all the darkness of a given life.
Susan Taubes’s startlingly original novel was published in 1969 but largely ignored at the time; after the author’s tragic early death, it was forgotten. Its republication presents a chance to discover a splintered, glancing, caustic, and lyrical work by a dazzlingly intense and inventive writer.
Here’s a note on Taubes from one of Sontag’s 1965 journal entries. Sontag’s son edited the journals collected in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, and provides the note that Sontag identified Taubes’s body:
My Little Pigs, 2020 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)
William Gaddis’s contribution to a 6 June 1982 New York Times article asking numerous authors what their next book will be. I suppose that Carpenter’s Gothic, being a Gothic, is a romance.