February, 1938 by Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)
Lovers, 1962 by Nancy Spero (1926-2009)
No Sunday School, 2021 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)
I finished A. V. Marraccini’s We the Parasites very very early Friday morning and then sneaked in two hours of sleep before a nine a.m. alarm. We the Parasites is a discursive ekphrasis, its finest moments concentrated on Cy Twombly (and his historical painting The Age of Alexander in particular). Marraccini turns her lens also to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, Jean Genet, and pomegranates and wasps. 2020 and Covid-19 hang over the book, inverting its would-be-flânerie: It’s flânerie for silent nights, cybernights, flânerie for necessary introversion.
I’m about 100 pages into Cities of the Plain, the final book of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I read it maybe fifteen years ago and recall almost nothing about it other than McCarthy uniting the two heroes of the first two books, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. So far, the novel is a far quicker read than the first two Border novels—more direct, more cinematic, less adolescent, its intensities tamped by experience. About thirty pages in, McCarthy devotes two entire pages to a description of changing a tire. It’s beautiful.
Nest in the Bones collects a career-spanning selection of Antonio Di Benedetto short stories (in translation by Martina Broner). I’ve been trying to read one or two a day. Many of the early stories are quite short, and Di Benedetto perhaps shows a bit too much debt to Kafka here, but the oddity of it all is wonderful.
It is true that William S. Burroughs was fond of dinners with famous and interesting people, and was totally fine with having a young, perhaps good looking Victor Bockris serve as a nexus and recorder for such events, events that have nothing to do with big-ell Literature. But my favorite thing here (as was the case with Allen Ginsberg’s nineties jaunt with Burroughs in the same vein, Don’t Hide the Madness), my favorite thing here is how Burroughs undercuts any pretension or redirects conversation to his own strange obsessions.
The Trees have Ears and the Field has Eyes, c. 1500 by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516)
Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture is out now from Grove Atlantic. Their blurb–
In a hotel room in the middle of the night, Abby, a young feminist economist, lies awake next to her sleeping husband and daughter. Anxious that she is grossly underprepared for a talk she is presenting tomorrow on optimism and John Maynard Keynes, she has resolved to practice by using an ancient rhetorical method of assigning parts of her speech to different rooms in her house and has brought along a comforting albeit imaginary companion to keep her on track—Keynes himself.
Yet as she wanders with increasing alarm through the rooms of her own consciousness, Abby finds herself straying from her prepared remarks on economic history, utopia, and Keynes’s pragmatic optimism. A lapsed optimist herself, she has been struggling under the burden of supporting a family in an increasingly hostile America after being denied tenure at the university where she teaches. Confronting her own future at a time of global darkness, Abby undertakes a quest through her memories to ideas hidden in the corners of her mind—a piecemeal intellectual history from Cicero to Lewis Carroll to Queen Latifah—as she asks what a better world would look like if we told our stories with more honest and more hopeful imaginations.
With warm intellect, playful curiosity, and an infectious voice, Martin Riker acutely animates the novel of ideas with a beating heart and turns one woman’s midnight crisis into the performance of a lifetime.
- Yesterday afternoon, I finished rereading Cormac McCarthy’s 1994 novel The Crossing.
- I used the word rereading above, although this felt like a first read—fresh, raw, often far more painful than I would have thought.
- The Crossing is a coming-of-age novel, the story of New Mexican Billy Parham whose life is wracked with adventure and beauty and pain.
- I probably read The Crossing for the first time some time around 2009 or 2010, when I was consuming all of McCarthy like a disgusting tick chasing a high from sucking down his prose. My recollection of that period is loving most of everything, but not really loving the so-called Border Trilogy.
- Maybe then, a younger, angrier man, I thought The Border Trilogy was too flowery, or too sentimental, or downright hokey at times.
- I reread All the Pretty Horses late last year as a chaser to The Passenger.
- All the Pretty Horses was much, much better than I had remembered it being, but it is not nearly as strong as The Crossing.
- Both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing seem to revision elements of their antecedent, McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian.
- Namely, these first two books of The Border Trilogy seem to reimagine the erstwhile viewpoint character of Blood Meridian, the kid, first in John Grady Cole and then in Billy Parham.
- Like the kid (or The Kid), these orphaned/self-orphaned protagonists seem to at times inhabit a kind of superhuman ability to fight, to wrangle, to survive.
- (The boy in The Road might turn into one of these young men.)
- What had most stuck with me in my first reading of The Crossing was its initial episode, wherein Billy saves a pregnant she-wolf from a trap, helps nurse her back to health, and then elects to take her back “home” to the mountains of Northwest Mexico.
- In fact, I remembered the entirety of The Crossing as this initial episode with the wolf.
- This episode is, however, just one episode—a heavy quarter of the book.
- In my memory of the novel, other plots, like the adventures of Billy and his brother Boyd, are spiked into the devastating ballast of the she-wolf section.
- Somehow more of a superhero than Billy, Boyd is—a folk hero mythologized in corridos and other legends.
- But like I said, the she-wolf narrative is only part of the book (and a great part at that—the section could stand alone as the perfect introduction to McCarthy).
- The Crossing is far baggier than I had recalled. Unlike All the Pretty Horses, which is somewhat straightforward, McCarthy will turn over dozens of pages at a time to the denizens of the road Billy encounters.
- The gypsy commander, late in the novel, whose crew hauls a dead airplane from the jungle.
- The ex-priest who languishes in the ruins of a church, concocting a personal theodicy to no avail.
- The revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist.
- The tale of the revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist, whose kind wife offers Billy a meal of hard-boiled eggs before the tale unfolds, is one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read.
- More hardcore than anything in Blood Meridian.
- Or The Road.
- The initial gruesome passage: “He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.”
- —and the kicker—
- “They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.”
- The Crossing is full of evil gross awful moments like this.
- The bandito who stabs the horse Niño.
- And scatters a dead brother’s bones.
- The cadre of zoosadists who run a dogfighting ring.
- The would-be rapist road agents (brave Boyd and Billy prevail).
- But The Crossing is full of beauty–
- –as when McCarthy’s prose-camera hovers around the she-wolf–
- –or gets into the minutiae of storytelling itself–
- (The Crossing seems to me the most direct example of McCarthy’s postmodernism.)
- –or another entry in McCarthy’s reckoning with heterodox witnessing—
- –a lot of beauty here, beauty that doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, but reverberates all the stronger for it.
- A simile: “Downriver the nacre bowl of the moon sat swaged into the reefs of cloud like a candled skull.”
- Or: “The river where it lay behind the trees looked like poured metal.”
- (These similes are from late late late in the novel; I didn’t dogear the pages of the first-edition of the novel I found a few years ago, but I should’ve.)
- But more than these moments of reflection and storytelling, these metaphors and similes, The Crossing is about hospitality.
- For all the evils that befall Billy and brother Boyd, there seem to be tenfold blessings.
- Like Homer’s tale of an unhoused wanderer, The Crossing might be understood as a series of hostings.
- Again and again, strangers take Billy in—feed him, give him respite, clothe him.
- Care for his brother, shot through the chest.
- Share what they have, even if what they have is just words, stories.
- But more than anything else, a human concern.
- Fifty seems like enough (too many) points in a riff, so—
—The Crossing is one of McCarthy’s best novels, up there with Suttree and Blood Meridian, and possibly The Passenger. It might seem baggy, but its fatty prose is generous. I’m amazed that it did not have as much of an impact on me a decade and a half ago as it did in the first month of 2023, but I’m glad I went back to it and met its myriad messages when I needed them.
Very highly recommended. If you’re interested in McCarthy but don’t know where to start, The Crossing might be a great place.
The black eyes all shifted to the leader of their small clan. He sat for a long time. It was very quiet. Out on the road one of the oxen began to piss loudly. Finally he shaped his mouth and said that he believed that fate had intervened in the matter for its own good reasons. He said that fate might enter into the affairs of men in order to contravene them or set them at naught but to say that fate could deny the true and uphold the false would seem to be a contradictory view of things. To speak of a will in the world that ran counter to one’s own was one thing. To speak of such a will that ran counter to the truth was quite another, for then all was rendered senseless. Billy then asked him if it was his notion that the false plane had been swept away by God in order to single out the true and the gypsy said that it was not. When Billy said that he had understood him to say that it was God who had ultimately made the decision concerning the two planes the gypsy said that he believed that to be so but he did not believe that by this act God had spoken to anyone. He said that he was not a superstitious man. The gypsies heard this out and then turned to Billy to see how he would respond. Billy said that it seemed to him that the freighters did not hold the identity of the airplane to be of any great consequence but the gitano only turned and studied him with those dark and troubled eyes. He said that it was indeed of consequence and that it was in fact the whole burden of their inquiry. From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither. He said that in any case the past was little more than a dream and its force in the world greatly exaggerated. For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.
La cascara no es la cosa, he said. It looked the same. But it was not.
Y la tercera historia? said Billy.
La tercera historia, said the gypsy, es esta. El existe en la historia de las historias. Es que ultimadamente la verdad no puede quedar en ningun otro lugar sino en el habla. He held his hands before him and looked at his palms. As if they may have been at some work not of his own doing. The past, he said, is always this argument between counterclaimants. Memories dim with age. There is no repository for our images. The loved ones who visit us in dreams are strangers. To even see aright is effort. We seek some witness but the world will not provide one. This is the third history. It is the history that each man makes alone out of what is left to him. Bits of wreckage. Some bones. The words of the dead. How make a world of this? How live in that world once made?
From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing.
The Inheritors, 2022 by Salman Toor (b. 1983)
BOCKRIS: William, have you ever written anything out of admiration?
BURROUGHS: I don’t know what this term means. It does seem to me an anemic emotion.
SONTAG: Bill, suppose you agreed, which maybe you couldn’t even conceive of doing, to write about Beckett. Somebody offered you a situation at which you said, yes, I’d like to say what I want to say about Beckett, and my feeling about Beckett is mainly positive. I think that’s harder to get down in a way that’s satisfactory than when you’re attacking something.
BURROUGHS: I don’t see what’s being said here at all.
From With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker by Victor Bockris. The selection is from Bockris’s recording of a 1980 dinner with Susan Sontag, Stewart Meyer, and Gerard Malanga.
William S. Burroughs
In the noon streets three men sitting on ash cans. One of the men looked up and saw Agent 23. Electric hate crackled between them. In a panic 23 tried to pull his eyes back. He could not do so. He held one point and felt the pilot land. Something cracked in his head like a red egg and the ground swayed beneath him then he could feel it pouring out his eyes. A crowd was gathering quick and silent eyes blazing hate. 23 ran toward them up the narrow street moving his head from side to side burning a path through charred flesh and shredded brains running very light on his feet up the steep stone street toward the skies of Marrakech the whole film tilted now the stones moving in waves under his feet a blaze of blue and he was stabbing two black holes in the blue sky smoking with a sound like falling mountains the sky ripped open and he was through the film barrier. Standing naked in front of a washstand copper luster basin the film jumped and shifted music across the golf course he was a caddy it seems looking for lost balls by the pond flickering silver buttocks in the dark room fading flickering all from an old movie that will give at his touch.
Hare, 1967 by Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993)
Suma, 1982 by Cy Twombly (1928-2011)
“Buried in Colorado All Alone”
from 99 Stories of God
The girl from the pharmacy who delivered Darvon to Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, wore a golden fish necklace.
“What does that mean?” asked Dick.
She touched it and said, “This is a sign worn by the early Christians so that they would recognize one another.”
“In that instant,” Dick writes, “I suddenly experienced anamnesis, a Greek word meaning, literally, loss of forgetfulness.”
Anamnesis is brought on by the action of the Holy Spirit. The person remembers his true identity throughout all his lives. The person recognizes the world for what it is—his own prior thought formations—and this generates the flash. He now knows where he is.
BURIED IN COLORADO ALL ALONE