William Carlos Williams’ final and posthumous book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) opens with a cycle of ten ekphrastic poems that describe (and subtly interpret) ten paintings by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
These poems are, in my estimation, some of Williams’ finest. Possibly the most famous of these poems is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a devastating observation of how inclined we are to look away from miracles.
Another of Williams’ Brueghel poems, “The Dance,” which takes The Peasant Dance as its subject, is also widely-anthologized; however Williams’ poem “The Dance” was published in The Wedge (1944). Williams’ “The Dance,” which begins “In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess, / the dancers go round,” is frequently and incorrectly cited to have been published in Pictures from Brueghel (a cursory internet search shows this misinformation appears in Harper’s, as well as the last resort of lazy high school students, Shmoop). Williams did publish a poem called “The Dance” in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, but this “Dance” is very much one of those other poems (this “Dance” begins “When the snow falls the flakes / spin upon the long axis,” for the record). That The Peasant Wedding is another subject of Pictures of Brueghel may also account for the spread of this misinformation (which can be resolved simply by opening the second volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, which includes both The Wedge and Brueghel). But I find myself going on a bit too much about this simple mistake.
Let’s get to the poem:
“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”
William Carlos Williams
Disciplined by the artist
to go round
in holiday gear
a riotously gay rabble of
peasants and their
the market square
featured by the women in
they prance or go openly
toward the wood’s
round and around in
rough shoes and
kicking up their heels
“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” echoes the sensual depth of Williams’ earlier poem “The Dance” (1944), which emphasized the hips and bellies and shanks of those dancers who are “swinging their butts” (!) to “the squeal and the blare and the / tweedle of bagpipes” as they prance about.
The word “prance” is repeated too in “Wedding Dance” — and not only do our partygoers prance, they even “go openly / toward the wood’s / edges,” the edge of civilization where civilization gets made.
At the other edge of the painting, the foreground, are some of the boldest of Williams’ “riotously gay rabble.” But should I call them “Williams’ ‘riotously gay rabble'” or Brueghel’s? I think that it is Williams’ interpretation that matters here, but Brueghel gives him the material with which to grapple.
Look at those colors, look at those codpieces! Look at the hands, twisting, gripping, artfully fingering!
Williams captures the painting’s sexual energy not just in lines that highlight the “ample-bottomed doxies” who fill this market square, but also in the vivacious images of “mouths agape” and heels a’ kicking. The poem pulses with an energy proximal to the painting, an energy simultaneously alien and native, highlighting not only the difference in the two art forms—poetry and painting—but also the space between the viewer and the thing being viewed.
Enhancing the poem’s ekphrastic powers of imagery and feeling are the subtle rhymes of Williams’ “The Wedding Dance.” While one can find the odd (very odd) rhyme or three in WCW’s poetry, “The Wedding Dance” makes for one of the poet’s more direct concessions to poetry’s most common formal feature. The second stanza gives us “gear” slipping into “their,” picked up again in the fourth stanza’s “headgear,” and more subtly touched on in the final lines of stanzas six and seven, “breeches” and “heels.” Hell, “edges” in the fifth stanza basically rhymes with “breeches.” This thread of slant rhymes approximates the off-kilter, elliptical dance Brueghel depicts. Williams kneads guttural g sounds and harsh rs into his poem, roughening his poetry to match his rustic subject. And yet there’s just the right measure of sensuality that slips through the poem, just enough to get the rough words wet.
Like any successful ekphrasis, Williams’ poem transcends a mere physical description of art. He does describe The Wedding Dance in Open Air, yes, but the description does more than relay the physical contours of Brueghel’s art, or Williams’ analysis of Brueghel’s art—William gives us something of the painting’s spirit, captured in language, sound—another way of feeling something beautiful. Oya!
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.
While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.
The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.
The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:
The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.
Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.
The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.
Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…” Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.
This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —
In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.
—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.
(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).
I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.
Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.
A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.
Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.
For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).
The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:
I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.
Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.
What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”
What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.
I have just finished Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. This is the first novel I have read by Murdoch and I now want to read more novels by Murdoch, which I suppose is the best praise I can offer the novel.
The Bell is set primarily in Imber House, a large old mansion in the English countryside. Imber House adjoins a Benedictine abbey; this nunnery is essentially closed off to the outside world. The residents of Imber House form a “brotherhood,” a laity of would-be acolytes who strive to find spiritual meaning in the commercial and often venal world of the postwar era. Various conflicts between these characters drive the plot of The Bell.
One of these conflicts, especially notable for a novel published in 1958, involves Michael, the leader of the Imber House community. A former schoolmaster who dreamed of joining the clergy, Michael lost his job in a small scandal for “seducing” one of his students, Nick, a teenage boy at the time. Over a decade later, circumstance brings Nick to Imber House, where his twin sister Katherine is staying. Katherine plans to join Imber Abbey; in the meantime, her family hopes that the religious solitude at Imber House will help Nick recover from his alcoholism. The conflict between Michael and Nick becomes further charged when the youngest member of Imber House, a teenager named Toby, befriends both of them.
She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’
The blank space between those sentences highlights a radical gap between contemplation and action.
The train-seat passage is one of many humorous episodes in The Bell, but Murdoch’s humor is underwritten by a deeper menacing anxiety, which can be neatly summed up in the novel’s opening sentences:
Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.
Those opening lines basically summarize the big thematic plot of The Bell—the conflict between controlling and ultimately abusive Paul and his much younger wife. (“She married him a little for his money,” Murdoch writes just a few paragraphs in, wedging the detail between more positive aspects of Paul’s character–the “a little” is just genius there, the slightest omission from Dora’s consciousness slipping into the third-person narrator for the briefest of moments). The opening lines of The Bell also showcase Murdoch’s rhetorical powers. Her comic precision here reverberates with a hazardous undertone.
Will Dora really return to her husband? Or will she become her own person—whatever that means? The Bell satisfies these questions with complex answers. The novel has every opportunity to veer toward pat conclusions. Murdoch fills her novel with images that suggest a conventional tragic conclusions, and then surpasses these conventions, turning them into something else. A death by drowning might be foreshadowed, but someone will learn to swim; an epiphany achieved in an art museum might not meet its achievement outside of aesthetic response; the Blakean contraries of innocence and experience might be synthesized into a new, original viewpoint. There’s something real about The Bell—it offers a realism that points outside of its own literary contours. The English novelist A.S. Byatt puts it far better than I can in her essay “Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Irish Murdoch”:
…The Bell seems to me arguably Miss Murdoch‘s most successful attempt at realism, emotional and social—the tones of voice of the members of the religious community are beautifully caught, the sexual, aesthetic and religious passions and confusions of the three main characters, Dora, Michael, and, to a lesser extent, Toby, are delicately analysed with the combination of intellectual grasp and sensuous immediacy of George Eliot.
Byatt’s comparison to Eliot reminds me that I had intended to read Middlemarch some time this year—but to be fair to myself, I put The Bell on the same list. I won’t be reading Middlemarch next though; The Bell, with its story of a would-be utopian community, strongly reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which I haven’t read in ages. And after I read that, I’d like to read another one by Iris Murdoch. Any recommendations?
“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press). Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”
“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.
The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time.”
For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).
In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).
In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).
Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).
In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.
The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”
Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.
In his introduction to the first episode of The Paris Review Podcast, former editor Lorin Stein tells us that we’re going to hear some great writing. He then claims, “what you won’t hear is much in the way of hosting from me or anyone else. We’re just going to let the writing speak for itself, the way it always has in the magazine.” The first two parts are true—there’s plenty of great writing here from The Paris Review archive, and there’s no one hosting the pieces. The last part of Stein’s claim is the problem though: The Paris Review Podcast repeatedly refuses to simply let the writing speak for itself. Prose and poems alike are slathered in distracting and silly sound effects and busy musical cues. This is a shame, because the estimable voice talents the producers have enlisted do a marvelous job conveying the tones, mood, and rhythms of the pieces the producers have selected (most of which are excellent). Perhaps the podcast’s producers simply don’t trust their readers enough to stay engaged without all the buzzing clutter—but for me the overproduction is too much.
There are ten episodes of The Paris Review Podcast to date. I have listened to half of them: episodes 10, 1, 5, 2, and 3 (in that order). Episode 10, “The Occasional Dream,” was perhaps an unfortunate starting point, as it contains some of the most overproduced segments I heard in the series.
The problem wasn’t the first selection, a fantastic Frank O’Hara poem called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” which I’d never read before. David Sedaris’s reading conveys the poem’s wit and depth, and the musical cues are only mildly intrusive, bleeding in at beginning and end. Then we get to Roberto Bolaño’s poem “When Lisa Told Me,” read by Dakota Johnson. The poem is set in a phone booth, so the producers, not trusting Bolaño’s powers of mimesis, or the auditor’s imagination (or both), include phone booth sound effects, like change dropping into a slot, buttons being punched, a dial tone. There’s also some distracting music. All of this takes away from Bolaño’s music (and Johnson’s capable reading).
By the time I got to Mary-Louis Parker reading Joy Williams’s story “Making Friends” I was dismayed. Cheesy calypso music crawls all over the story. When Williams notes a dog panting, the producers employ the sound effect of a dog panting. This is not how fiction works. In my distracted consternation, I forgot to pay attention to the story itself.
The worst offender by far though is an archival recording of John Ashberry reading his poem “Soonest Mended” which has been, for some reason I do not understand, accompanied by a new guitar composition by Steve Gunn. Gunn’s music is wonderful, his guitar evocative of fingerpickers like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and I would be happy to listen to it on its own. Mashing it up with Ashberry’s poem adds nothing—or rather, we have subtraction by addition.
Archival recordings fare better elsewhere. In Episode 2, Jack Kerouac tells the story of the Buddha without any fussy interruptions. Kerouac’s unadorned riff showcases the podcast’s potential to present wonderful little moments, stitching them to other wonderful moments, without any overproduced impositions. Similarly, the inaugural episode, “Times of Cloud,” gives us Maya Angelou and Paris Review founder George Plimpton in conversation. The producers choose an apt moment; Angelou essentially offers a raison dêtre for The Paris Review Podcast:
I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.
The most “glorious language” in Episode 1 of The Paris Review Podcast comes from Wallace Shawn reading Denis Johnson’s classic story “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking.” A really good reader—and Wallace Shawn is a really good reader—can help us hear a story we’ve read a dozen times in a new way. It’s a testament to both Shawn’s reading and Johnson’s prose that they withstand the goofy sound effects and needless music the producers daub all over the story. Johnson’s narrator has already told us that it is raining; we do not need a canned rain shower murking up the audio.
The mimetic cloudiness of sound effects can be cheesy, but the unneeded musical cues are often the more damaging imposition. In Episode 5, Alison Fraser reads Lucia Berlin’s “B.F. and Me,” conveying the story’s odd flirty energy with aplomb. The bluesy vamping soundtrack adds nothing though—again, it takes away from the auditor’s experience of the prose. In the same episode, Caleb Crain reads his wonderful short story “Envoy.” The tale’s strange poignant climax manages to survive the unnecessary intrusion of a heavy-handed musical cue that could easily have disrupted the ambiguities in the last few sentences. A Dorothea Lasky poem in Episode 3 begins well enough. Its imagistic contours of concrete reality unfurl without any noisy claptrap. But when the poem’s second half steers toward abstraction, the producers add a piano étude to compete with Lasky’s own music. And in the climactic moment in Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” (also in Episode 3)—you know, the part where the characters, um, dance—the producers actually add a fucking country waltz.
The Paris Review Podcast perhaps suffers from an anxiety of influence. I imagine the show wishes to separate itself from The New Yorker’s no-frills Fiction Podcast, where one author reads another author’s story, and then discusses the story with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. The Paris Review Podcast veers far more closely to the busy buzziness of Radiolab, with a dash of This American Life. I can understand the appeal there, the attempt to capture some of that ole timey radio Foley stage energy. But Radiolab is its own medium with its own formal innovations. The Paris Review is a mixtape, yes, but it’s a mixtape of poetry, prose, and interviews. A poem that John Ashberry wrote and read aloud in his own voice does not need the innovation of a contemporary guitar score. We do not need the sound of shallots simmering in a pan to convey that someone is cooking, as happens in Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, In Converse.” We do not need a bluesy-guitar bend or the sustain of melancholy piano chords to convey the emotion that the writer has already conveyed through the language. The effect of such impositions is like someone doing shadow puppets over an oil painting, or talking during a film, or pouring soup over a really good salad.
And yet you’ll note above that I listened to half of the podcasts. I listened while walking or driving or doing small household chores or yard chores. The stories, the poems, the interviews are quite good. There’s so much potential here. But it often seems like The Paris Review Podcast is content to present the material as an ambient backdrop, an aural texture that might compete with a commute. This is wholly unnecessary. The form is already there, embedded in the content—the language itself. And the language is best—most glorious, Angelou might say—when it is naked.
Tanibis has now published Awaiting the Collapse: Selected Works 1974-2014, a gorgeous compendium of some of Kirchner’s finest work over the past four decades. Many of Kirchner’s Dope Rider strips are here, along with a handful of his covers for Screw, as well as miscellaneous comics in different genres. Despite the range of years and variety in genres here, Kirchner’s surrealist spirit dominates. His comics poke at the weird worlds that vibrate beneath the surface of our own routine reality, offering new ways of seeing old things, to see the real as surreal.
Kirchner’s Dope Rider strips are particularly surreal. Dope Rider, a psychedelic skeleton cowboy, embarks on adventures that transcend time, space, and psyche. In “Beans for All”, Dope Rider rescues Pancho Villa, busts his revolutionary army out of the hoosegow, and opens the U.S. border, leading the revolution to Las Vegas, a psychedelic city floating over an astral desert. In “Loco Motive”, Dope Rider crosses the border again to smuggle good dope back into the mother country. “Crescent Queen” finds Dope Rider on a quest to find mythical Tucumcari. In this episode, Kirchner transmutes the Battle of Little Bighorn into a Pop Art mandala where Plains Indians morph into centaurs. And in “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…” our hero… well, our hero smokes some really, really good dope, resulting in a vision that allows Kirchner to show off his estimable visual talents.
Phantom Thread (2017) is the eighth feature film by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. I have been a fan of Anderson’s work since I saw Boogie Nights (1997) in my freshman year of college, and have watched each of his subsequent films in the theater. The theater is the proper place to watch Anderson’s lush, luscious films, although they are also so strong as narratives that they hold up just fine on, say, a 19″ Toshiba television with a built-in VCR, which is how I repeatedly watched Blockbuster-remaindered cassettes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (1999) circa 1998-2001. But again: The theater is the proper place to see an Anderson film, and Phantom Thread is exceptionally lovely on the big screen—one doesn’t so much watch it as imbibe it, or perhaps, in a reversal of that metaphor, sink into it. What I’m saying is: Watch Phantom Thread in the theater.
Is “Watch it in the theater” not enough in the way of argument, reader? Perhaps you want, like, details?
Here are some details I knew going in to the film (I generally try to avoid reviews and any press on any film I plan to see): The film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis portraying a fashion designer; the film is set sometime in the 1950s.
My wife and I went to see the film yesterday afternoon and we loved it, then discussed it at length at dinner, and then again this morning over breakfast (perhaps prompted by “breakfast” itself, one of the film’s motifs). It’s a strange, beautiful, perplexing romantic comedy that will disarm and unsettle audiences. I can’t wait to see it again.
The Plot and the Major Characters
1950s. London and countryside environs. Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous fashion designer who dresses the highest of high in European society. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the House of Woodcock, following a precise, obsessive routine. At the film’s outset, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a countryside restaurant. He asks her to dinner that night, and from there the two enter into a strange relationship. The film’s trajectory explores the conflicts and confluences of that strange relationship, tracing how Reynolds’ and Alma’s romance intertwines with Cyril, business, design, and art. (Oh. And Reynolds’ and Cyril’s dead mother).
Cinematography, Score, Costume Design and Set Design
Gorgeous. Like I said, go see the film—the aesthetics are marvelous, rich, sumptuous. I’ve been writing about Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur (and will continue to do so), but his production team is fantastic, and I think there’s an implicit argument in Phantom Thread itself against the whole auteur concept. (If you listen to or read interviews with Anderson, he will often use the pronoun “We” when discussing his work).
Phantom Thread’s Place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Filmography
Phantom Thread might be Anderson’s “best” film to date: it is certainly one of the best-acted, best-shot, and best-directed, and its editing and pace move with a more precise rhythm than his looser and more sprawling films. I loved it, but it’s not necessarily my favorite Anderson film. If pressed to choose a favorite, I might point to the weird sprawl of Inherent Vice(2014) or the perfect imperfection of The Master(2012)—or just settle on There Will Be Blood (2007). Many Anderson fans point to Anderson’s shortest film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as his best.
In some ways, Phantom Thread has more in common with Punch-Drunk Love than his other films. They are both romantic comedies featuring emotionally-challenged leads who find their way to a strange resolution. In any case, Phantom Thread is an engaging character study focused on just a few intense personalities—like The Master, Punch-Drunk Love, or There Will Be Blood. It’s more focused in its vision than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, and more emotionally “true” than Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (1996). Those first three films seem to me particularly beholden to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, but Phantom Thread continues to show Anderson overcoming his anxiety of influence. (Although I’ll admit that I was occasionally reminded of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) while watching Phantom Thread—probably because of the luxuriant imagery. And Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s film is superior).
The Goddamn Movie Trailer
The discussion of the film that follows contains spoilers, including descriptions of the film’s ending
Let me start by erasing my own anxieties about “reviewing” The Last Jedi (2017, dir. Rian Johnson). I saw it over a month ago in a packed theater with my wife and two young children. We loved it. I haven’t seen it since then, although I’d like to. Because I’ve only seen it once, this “review” will be far lighter on specific illustrating examples than it should be. Now, with some of those (writing) anxieties dispersed, if not exactly erased:
The Last Jedi strikes me as one of the best Star Wars films to date, of a piece with The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) and Revenge of the Sith (2005, dir. George Lucas).
Not everyone agrees with me. Clearly, a lot of people hated Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars. I won’t repeat the laundry list of gripes about The Last Jedi, but instead offer this: the numerous noisy denunciations of The Last Jedi can be rebutted via the terms, tropes, and tones of any of the previous films themselves. Put another way, anything “wrong” (tone choices, plot devices, casting, etc.) with The Last Jedi can be found to be “wrong” with any of the previous films. Furthermore, I don’t intend to directly rebut gripes about The Last Jedi here. Most attacks on the film simply amount to iterations of, “This film did not do what I wanted this film to do,” to which my reply would be, “Well, good.”
“Well, good” — the passionate reactions to The Last Jedi show the film’s power—both narratively and more importantly, aesthetically—to disturb a cultural sense of what the Star Wars franchise “is” or “is not.” In burning down much of the mythos (again, both narratively and aesthetically) of the films that preceded it, The Last Jedi opens up new space for the series to grow.
I enjoyed The Last Jedi’s most immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams), but was critical of its inability to generate anything truly new. Riffing on The Force Awakens, I wrote that the film “is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos. . . [the film] takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is ‘about’ Star Wars.” And, more to the point:
Isn’t there a part of us…that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond that which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
The Last Jedi transcends the narrative stasis of The Force Awakens. “Stasis” is probably not a fair word to describe TFA. Abrams’s film excited viewers, roused emotions, offered engaging new characters, and even killed off a classic character via the classic Star Wars trope of Oedipal anxiety erupting in violent rage. TFA’s stasis is the static-but-not-stagnant excitement of having expectations confirmed. In contrast, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi punctures viewer expectations at almost every opportunity, aesthetically restaging tropes familiar to the series but then spinning them out in new, unforeseen directions.
The Last Jedi echoes visual tropes from The Empire Strikes Back in particular. Indeed, many fans believed that Rian Johnson’s TLJ would (or even should) reinterpret Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan’s entry into the series, much as J.J. Abrams had restaged A New Hope (1977, dir. George Lucas) with The Force Awakens. Instead, Johnson pushes the Star Wars narrative into new territory, with an often playful (and sometimes absurd) glee that has clearly upset many fans.
Johnson’s (successful) attempt to reinvent Star Wars might best be understood in terms of what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Bloom uses the anxiety of influence to describe an artist’s intense unease with all strong precursors. To succeed, new artists must overcome their aesthetic progenitors. Bloom compares the anxiety of influence to the Oedipal complex. An artist has to symbolically kill what has come before in order to thrive.
An apt description of franchise filmmaking’s inherent anxiety of influence can be found in Dan Hassler-Forest’s essay “The Last Jedi: Saving Star Wars from Itself,” published last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
An overwhelming anxiety of influence predictably permeates any new director’s attempt to elaborate on the world’s most famous entertainment franchise. In J. J. Abrams’s hands, this anxiety was clearly that of a fan-producer struggling to meet other fans’ expectations while also establishing a viable template for future installments. In doing so, his cinematic points of reference never seemed to extend far beyond the Spielberg-Lucas brand of Hollywood blockbusters that shaped his generation of geek directors, and he tried desperately to make up for what he lacks in auteurist vision with energy, self-deprecating humor, and generous doses of fan service.
But Rian Johnson is a filmmaker of an entirely different caliber. Just as Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan once added complexity, wit, and elegance to Lucas’s childish world of spaceships and laser swords, Johnson makes his whole film revolve around characters’ fear of repeating the past, and both the attraction and the risk of breaking away from tradition.
A break with any tradition, however, paradoxically confirms the power of that tradition. Johnson understands and clearly respects the Star Wars tradition. Despite what his detractors may believe, Johnson hasn’t erased or trampled upon the Star Wars mythos in The Last Jedi; rather, as the Modernist manifesto commanded, he’s made it new. Continue reading “The Last Jedi and the Anxiety of Influence”→
“A country, a people…Those are strange and very difficult ideas.”
— Four Ways to Forgivenss, Ursula K. Le Guin (1995)
—Each of the novels in Ursula K. Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle obliquely addresses Wells’s question by tackling those strange and very difficult ideas of “a country, a people.” The best of these Hainish books do so in a manner that synthesizes high-adventure sci-fi fantasy with dialectical philosophy.
—What am I calling here “the best”? Well—
The Left Hand of Darkness
Planet of Exile/City of Illusions (treat as one novel in two discursive parts)
—(How oh how oh how dare I rank The Dispossessed—clearly a masterpiece, nay?—so low on that little list? It’s too dialectical, maybe? Too light on the, uh, high adventure stuff, on the fantasy and romance and sci-fi. Its ideas are too finely wrought, well thought out, expertly cooked (in contrast to the wonderful rawness of Rocannon’s World, for example). None of this is to dis The Dispossessed—it’s probably the best of the Hainish books, and the first one casual readers should attend to. (It was also the first one I read way back when in high school)).
—The novels in Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle are
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
The Dispossessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1976)
Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)
The Telling (2000)
—Okay, so I decided to include For Ways to Forgiveness in the above list even though most people wouldn’t call it a “novel” — but its four stories (novellas, really) are interconnected and tell a discrete story of two interconnected planets that are part of the Hainish world. And I pulled a quote from it above. So.
—(I keep modifying “Hainish cycle” with “so-called” because the books aren’t really a cycle. Le Guin’s world-building isn’t analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Except when her world-building is analogous). But let us return to order).
People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to “mindspeech” after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn’t believe in it any more.)
OK, so, very roughly, then:
Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the “Hainish cycle” is anybody’s guess, but I’d read them first because they were written first. In them there is a “League of Worlds,” but the Ekumen does not yet exist.
—I agree with the author. Read this trilogy first. Read it as one strange book.
—(Or—again—pressed for time and wanting only the essential, read The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness—but you already knew that, no?).
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
“In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.
Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this riff in December, 2015. I’ll see the new film on Saturday.
Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in AChristmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting. Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.
But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:
Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.
Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.
So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.
But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…
Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.
I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:
Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in Decemberthat ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]
I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog). Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:
“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].
The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because I want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks.Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:
“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.
The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate. Gass (never the kind of hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.
“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.
Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:
“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:
‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”
And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point. I wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.
Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:
“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.
I could keep listing.
Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass.
I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).
The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.
Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:
Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”
Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!
So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.
The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).
Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).
Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous. Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.
What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is. And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.
As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—but The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.
Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.
After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.
During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.
Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—
The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.
The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.
Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.
In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.
Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!” The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?
For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.
In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]
It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.
IV. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .
V. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:
At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.
Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.
VI. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:
“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.
“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.
He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.
(I love Popescu’s line here).
VII. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):
Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.
So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.
He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.
When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.
Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).
VIII. Then, supper time:
That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.
Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).
IX. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:
The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.
Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.
X. Then conversation turns to culture:
The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.
I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.
XI. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:
The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.
XII. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):
First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.
The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).
We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.
So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:
Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.
This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.
(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).
XIII. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).
I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).
One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)
XIV. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:
The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.
Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).
They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:
And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.
XV. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):
Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula,which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.
I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.
XVI. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:
Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.
(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).
XVII. Here, his last appearance:
The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.
Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.
[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012].
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.
By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?
Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.
Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.