The Inhumanity Museum

 

Scissors, Richard Diebenkorn

Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:

[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]

March, 50

The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph.

July 13th, 50

There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.

July 29th, 50

Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.

Aug. 3, 50

America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.

The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:

30th March 2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.

This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this? 

Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.

I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:

Friday June 18, 1999

Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..

There is more

Tomato and Knife, Richard Diebenkorn

I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).

Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine): 

We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.

“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha! He would read the paper and make clippings out of it, like Pivner père in Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, who builds his own Inhumanity Museum:

…he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous. 

There is more.

This section of The Recognitions reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s faits divers, microtragedies composed in 1906 for the newspaper Le Matin:.

“If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,” M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself.

A thunderstorm interrupted the celebration in Orléans in honor of Joan of Arc and the 477th anniversary of the defeat of the English.

In the course of a heated political discussion in Propriano, Corsica, two men were killed and two wounded.

In Bone, the courts and the bar have reestablished contact with the prison, now that the typhus outbreak there has been curbed.

Clash in the street between the municipal powers of Vendres, Herault, and the party of the opposition. Two constables were injured.

Despondent owing to the bankruptcy of one of his debtors, M. Arturo Ferretti, merchant of Bizerte, killed himself with a hunting rifle.

Etc.

Scissors and Lemon, Richard Diebenkorn

Fénéon’s faits divers owe their survival to scissors and paste: His mistress cut each column from the paper and collected them in an album. A century later, NYRB published Novels in Three Lines, their own album of Fénéon’s faits divers.

Recently, the writer Teju Cole has followed Fénéon’s example, composing his own series of small fatesCole began his small fates while working on his “new book, a non-fictional narrative of Lagos.” Cole’s small fates had their origin in the crime and metro sections of the Nigerian newspapers that he read daily. Attracted to the “life in the raw” presented here, Cole revised the news articles into a synthesis of Fénéon’s style with his own. He felt that these stories were “too brief, too odd, and certainly too sensational” for his new book, and yet he was compelled to tell them anyway. Even if he couldn’t fit them into his new book, they were nevertheless part of his storytelling project.

Fénéon was elevating a preexisting form of newspaper reporting, artfully injecting humor and subtle observation into the structure of his faits divers, unlike Lessing, Gaddis, or Gass, who used clippings to inject reality—and the real human inhumanity of reality—into their fictional texts. 

Perhaps Fénéon was motivated by the same spirit as those later authors. Perhaps like Pivner the Elder in Gaddis’s The Recognitions “the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself.” There’s something defensive about the humor in Fénéon’s faits divers, a human reaction to horror we misname inhuman.

Is there another way to react? In her short story “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor converts the Inhumanity Museum into a strange, private shrine. Mrs. Greenleaf (whom the protagonist Mrs. May regards with utter contempt) buries her clippings and prays over them:

Instead of making a garden or washing their clothes, her preoccupation was what she called “prayer healing.” Every day she cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so, moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and, Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.

The opening lines suggest an ironic displacement. Mrs. May, a thoroughly worldly figure, devoid of spirituality, thinks that Mrs. Greenleaf should be “making a garden or washing,” activities we might associate with a kind of spiritual activity—Eden-building or purifying (for Mrs. May these would be quotidian chores). Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer healing is of course explicitly spiritual, but its spirituality directly responds to the awful lurid everyday morbidity of the news. 

O’Connor doesn’t use the same (in)direct cut and paste technique as some of the other writers I’ve mentioned here, but her fiction is full of newspaper and magazine readers. I think now of Bailey, the ill-fated father in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” whom we meet “bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.” There’s something lurid about the orangeness, a bright distraction. (In O’Connor’s universe The Holy Bible is the book everyone evades contemplating). And it’s in that same paper that the Misfit is introduced, the serial killer who brings the characters from distraction back to reality.

For O’Connor, the stakes couldn’t be higher—she was concerned for the immortal soul:

…in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.  This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

While O’Connor was deeply invested in her own “Christian view of the world,” I think she offers a description, if not a definition, of how the Inhumanity Museum can function in literary texts. It’s the violent shock of the real that the author wishes to evoke. The utter banality of how that reality is communicated through mass texts serves to bring the shock into sharper relief.

Is the goal then to unlearn the dulled reading habits that Gaddis showcases in Pivner?: “Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart.” Yet to be so fully absorbed into the pain and ugliness and stupidity of the world would surely result in crushing madness, or “chaos,” as Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook claims. And perhaps that’s why the Inhumanity Museum is such an important location. A museum has an exit.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published this post in August, 2014].

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The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

sleep of reason

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.


Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013]. 

Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

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Illustration for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by Nancy Martinez

Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.

I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.

To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:

We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).

Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”

Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.

And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.

But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).

Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.

So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.

The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.

I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:

This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.

O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.

The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.

When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:

‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’

‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.

The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:

. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’

This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.

And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.

This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:

I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.

Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.

Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .

But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.

But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in May of 2012].

Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’ novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine.

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering—

—okay, wait, it occurs to me now that I’ve completely neglected to offer any kind of plot description that might anchor this ostensible “review,” to set up who exactly Miss Goering is, etc., so  here goes (and I encourage you to just go ahead and skip the next long paragraph)—

A bad summary: Two Serious Ladies comprises three long chapters, each of which might stand on its own as a long short story. Part the first: Miss Goering is rich but strange. Her childhood is bizarre; alienated from others “she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a human being.” Her attempt to baptize another child luckily doesn’t end in a drowning. She grows up out of step with her peers, dresses odd, speaks odd. One day out of nowhere appears a Miss Gamelon, who becomes her (often disagreeable) companion. At a party she runs into the other serious lady, Mrs. Copperfield, whose adventures in Panama comprise the second section of the book. At the same party she meets Arnold, a would-be artist, goes home with him, meets his folks, his father. She elects to move (with Arnold and Miss Gamelon) to a run-down cottage on a drab island, forsaking her wealth, sort of. Part the second: We shift to section two, the Copperfields’ adventures in Panama. Mr. Copperfield checks the couple into a seedy hotel in the wrong part of town and promptly drops his wife off where the brothels are. She moves into a run-down hotel with a prostitute named Pacifica while her husband does God-knows-what. There’s a lot of drinking and near-madness, run-ins with bad boyfriends and snooty hoteliers. Mr. Copperfield leaves without his wife. Part the third: We return to Miss Goering and gang in the dilapidated cottage. Arnold’s father soon moves in with them. Miss Goering starts going out at night alone. She gets picked up at bar and moves in with a man named Andy. She eventually leaves him for a gangster who mistakes her for a prostitute. On a dinner date—okay, not really a dinner date but—on a dinner date with the gangster (who, like the dinner date, is never actually named as a “gangster”), Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield. Both are much changed.

—okay, so this time with (or without) some context—

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering and her gangster:

This man, they had noticed, drove up to the saloon in a very beautiful big automobile that resembled more a hearse than a private car. Miss Goering had examined it one day when the man was drinking in the saloon. It appeared to be almost brand new. She and Andy had looked in through the window and had been a little surprised to see a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. Miss Goering was completely preoccupied now with what course to take should the newcomer be willing to make her his mistress for a little while. She was almost sure that he would, because several times she had caught him looking at her in a certain way which she had learned to recognize. Her only hope was that he would disappear before she had the chance to approach him. If he did, she would be exempt and thus able to fritter away some more time with Andy, who now seemed so devoid of anything sinister that she was beginning to scrap with him about small things the way one does with a younger brother.

And of course she gives in to her terrible desire. The plot of Two Serious Ladies might be described as a search for “anything sinister.”  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield seek the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: disasters, abysses, madness. Love?

The novel most reminded me of what I love best in the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Roberto Bolaño—that sense of perverse night-time dread, the sordid intimation of just how easily the veneer might crack, of how simple it might be for civilization to give way to the madness under the surface.

David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño suffuse their work with an absurd howling humor that percolates along with the dread, and Two Serious Ladies operates along the same horror/humor axis. The book is hilarious, but my several attempts to capture that here in a few excerpts of dialogue fail to translate into this digest form. Will you take my word? Will you take my word that the book was much funnier the second time I read it?

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review of Two Serious Ladies in February of 2015].

Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods just wasn’t for me

I sought out Helen DeWitt’s so-called cult novel The Last Samurai a few weeks ago after hearing buzz about it for the past few years. I couldn’t find it at the library or at my local bookstore, but I did pick up her follow-up, 2011’s Lightning Rods, and began reading. I enjoyed the first 50 or so pages, began feeling fatigued around the 100 page mark, waited patiently for the novel to turn a corner (it never did) up through the middle, and read the last 120 or so pages in a kind of frantic, increasingly annoyed blur. Lightning Rods wasn’t for me.

Here is the novel’s premise, via publisher New Direction’s blurb:

Joe is a down-and-out salesman who spends most of his time sitting around his trailer in Florida fantasizing about women. But one afternoon a particularly strange fantasy turns into a life-changing epiphany. Suddenly he knows how to curtail sexual harassment in the office and increase productivity. His solution? Sexual lightning rods: women who, via a carefully constructed system of anonymity and strict protection, provide “sexual release” for alpha-male employees. As unlikely to succeed as it seems, Joe has finally found a product he can sell with boundless enthusiasm, and he simply refuses to fail, no matter what the obstacles. And of course he encounters quite a few of those on his rise through corporate America.

The lightning rods are basically anonymous female butts hanging out of special holes cut into bathroom walls. Much of the narrative is devoted to describing the mechanics, rationale, problems, and adaptations to this process.

The premise is like something out of an experimental J.G. Ballard short story, and indeed, Lightning Rods might have made for a very fine longish short story. However, DeWitt stretches the material’s satirical premise too-thinly over a nearly 300-page frame. The main conceit is wonderfully-weird and icky, and DeWitt’s extemporizations on it are occasionally interesting, but none of it seems to add up to very much. Intentionally flat characters wander in and out of the narrative, and the story doesn’t so much progress as simply happen.

I’m fine with a novel light on plot and character development, but the style has to satisfy. For Lightning Rods, DeWitt employs a flat, repetitive rhetorical style. This style generates much of the novel’s initial wry humor, but over time it becomes annoying, then enervating, and then finally (at least for this reader) unbearable. DeWitt’s narrator repeats the same stock phrases, iterations of “The way X thought about it was, X,” or “When you’re an X, you X.”  The dry repetitions call attention to the banality of contemporary business-speak, but the effect is grating—especially grating when DeWitt’s narrator attempts to take us through one of her characters’ supposed moments-of-genius. Harnessing consciousness-in-action in language is incredibly difficult. When our narrator describes a character as having a “genius” idea (which happens a few times in the novel), the flattening rhetoric makes neither a case for the character’s genius idea, nor a case for a satirical reading of the character’s genius idea.

Perhaps ironically, Lightning Rods’ flat and repetitive rhetorical style makes it incredibly “readable,” whatever that means. DeWitt’s narrator establishes a formula early on that allows a reader to glide effortlessly through. No strange snags here, which is maybe my big problem with the book.

The wry, dry style glides nowhere but to boredom. By the end of the novel, the characters seem bored with the narrative, the narrator seems bored with the characters, and the author seems bored with the narrator. Or at least anyway, this reader was bored with the book.

While Lightning Rods never matches the satirical rush of its first few chapters, there is a moment worth remarking upon in the book’s final pages. Protagonist Joe’s initial epiphany happens in the natural environs of a Florida beach. At the end of the book, DeWitt’s narrator merges that natural environment with the environment of commerce, with the postmodern environment:

The sky was darkening, but it was not yet dark. In the west the molten gold of the setting sun slipped through the hills, and in the darkening hollow the yellow arches and the 7-Eleven and the Waffle House and the TCBY were glowing in the golden light. High above a flock of geese sped southward in a V formation and on the highway the cars and trucks sped north and south.

The alliteration (“setting sun slipped”) and the painterly evocations (“molten gold”) segue via the “yellow arches” of a McDonald’s into the modern commercial terrain. Geese fly, cars drive, businesses rest in “the golden light”: this is the world. This passage jars in comparison to the narrative’s generally flat, sterile style, and helps to usher us out of Lightning Rods.

Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000
Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000

The language in DeWitt’s passage strongly reminds me of Brandon Bird’s painting Prelude to the Magic Hour, itself an ironic postmodern continuation of the modernist scenes depicted in the previous century by Edward Hopper and George Bellows. As in Bird’s painting, DeWitt’s passage asks us to find art in the artlessness of our contemporary commercial environment, even if that art is tempered in irony.

I’ve been pretty clear that Lightning Rods wasn’t for me, but I think it will find many admirers and defenders alike who may appreciate DeWitt’s rhetorical style and find in it a more satisfying critique of contemporary American business-speak than I did. (Perhaps I wanted a dismantling of business-speak, not a critique). In any case, the premise and initial energy of Lightning Rods are enough to make me want to still take a stab at The Last Samurai.

Posted in Art

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb

Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review3:AMFull StopThe Los Angeles Review of BooksFull Stop, and more.

Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.

In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.


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Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”

This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense? 

Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).

I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).

The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.

Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.

DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.

Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.

Biblioklept: It seems that there’s a demand that contemporary fiction be “useful” now—that literature is supposed to foster empathy or make us better human beings (or even make us live longer). 

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Daniel Green

DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.

I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.

I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.

Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “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 cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?

DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.

Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?

DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).

Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?

DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.

 Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?

DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.

Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.

Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?

DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”

There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.

Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.

DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.

Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” 

DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.” Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”

An interview with Scott Esposito, author of The Missing Books

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When I first heard about the concept for Scott Esposito’s new book The Missing Books, I thought, Damn. I wish I had thought of that. Then I read it and thought, Damn, I wish I had written that.

The Missing Books is an ongoing e-book project, “a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” The first version features missing books from “Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé,” and many others. It’s a joy for bibliophiles.

Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin) and the author of The Surrender. His book The Doubles is forthcoming in 2017. He’s a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle. His blog is Conversational Reading. He was kind enough to talk with me about The Missing Books over a series of emails.


Biblioklept: When and how did the idea for The Missing Books come to you?

Scott Esposito: The concept of The Missing Books came together over the summer while I was trying to figure out a good concept for an ebook to release to my core fans.

Let me take a small step back to explain: I’m a big fan of hip hop music, and one of the things I’ve really taken note of about that scene is how rappers use mixtapes to stay relevant between projects, increase their fan base, try out new concepts, etc, etc. I think rappers are geniuses at marketing their concepts and getting attention for them in the world—they’re some of the best in terms of speaking in ways that the internet can understand—and mixtapes are a true innovation in this regard. I’ve long admired this. So I had the idea that I could try to create something like a mixtape in the literary world.Last fall I tried it out by releasing an ebook project titled The Latin American Mixtape, which was well-received. Like any good mixtape, it had some old content that was repurposed for the project, plus some things that were completely new and strictly Mixtape-only.

With the success of The Latin American Mixtape, I decided to do another one this year, so I began to try out concepts that might work for such a venture. Ebook-native projects are up against some barriers that don’t pertain to print titles, so I knew that in order to make this work, it would have to be a fairly catchy idea that could translate into various sorts of memes. Eventually when I hit upon the idea of doing missing books, I had the feeling that this was definitely a concept that could work in that way.

Of course, this wasn’t just about outreach. Lost books, non-existent books, book criticism, biographies of fictitious entities—these are all very much my aesthetic. I like what Borges says, along the lines of preferring to write about a novel instead of writing the novel itself, that you can have all of the essential features there in a condensed form, and it’s even better because you can dispense with all that unnecessary stuff. I feel an affinity for that kind of commentary that stands in for a book, that can be a way of grasping the inherent mystery and excitement of a book at a glance. And this is what I’ve tried to offer in The Missing Books, little chunks of what these books might have been, since we can’t actually read them.

I’ve also long been fascinated by the Oulipo, whose whole idea of writing “potential books” is very much in league with the project. (I had formerly wanted to title The Missing Books something along the lines of Potential Books, but I had to discard that, as it was too close to sounding like the Oulipo.) And just in general, I love to find out about the curiosities of the world, the oddities, those things that were epic failures, that drove writers to the end of their career, that never quite got completed, or that are so bizarre that they can only exist inside of other books. Those things have always appealed to my imagination.

Lastly, making The Missing Books electronic-only allows me to easily integrate a feature I really wanted to have in there: revisions. One of the core ideas of The Missing Books is that it grows and updates as I find out more about this world of nonexistent titles, and as the books themselves change their lost status. While this could be done in print, it’s much more practical to do this electronically. Moreover, it allows The Missing Books itself to be a missing book: a book that is always getting a little bit closer to completion, but who says I’ll ever finish it?

Biblioklept: When I first heard of The Missing Books, I thought it might be a work of fiction, like Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, or Borges’s work in general.

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Scott Esposito

SE: It’s a little bit of both. That was one of the fun things with a project like this. It was really fun to research (it got a little addicting to try and find more and more “missing books”; it was a great way to relax after hours of writing), but then it also opened a lot of doors to invent or embellish within the boundaries of the project. In the end, I don’t think it kind of defies definition as either nonfiction or fiction. I think there’s a little of the spirit of Borges in there, where if you write it maybe one day it finds a way to become true, or maybe the fiction is just better than the truth.

First off, I should say that there’s a lot in The Missing Books that’s based on solid fact, like the book Truman Capote never finished writing, or Georges Perec’s long lost first novel, which was recently discovered, translated, and published in English. That’s all pretty firm nonfiction—these things really happened, you can look it up—although in some places, I tread into fiction. Like, for instance, where I imply that someone should complete Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual art project to print out the Internet. That’s insane! I don’t really think anyone’s going to do that, or necessarily should. So there I’m playing with the unreliability of the voice and hinting that people who read The Missing Books might not take everything in it completely truthfully.

Then there’s a gray zone, books that may exist at some point in the future, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger. There’s a lot of hearsay and rumor involved in that section, and of course what we regard as “facts” about these titles will change as dictated by future events. So I’d say those titles are rooted in nonfiction, but aren’t exactly nonfiction, something more along the lines of “speculative nonfiction,” stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily commit to print (or even e-print) but that is appropriate to a work like this, where the understanding is that it’s a living, updating document that often thrives on speculation and half-truths.

Then there are the books that themselves come from works of fiction, which turn into an even grayer zone. These are in some weird kind of ontological status, but where they come from fiction, and where in the context of The Missing Books I treat them like fact, even though we both probably know that these aren’t actual books. Except, in some cases they are: like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fairly minor invention of Lovecraft’s that developed a huge and devoted following after his death and which now has been written into existence (multiple times) by other people. Or even a book found in Philip K. Dick, which someone self-published on the Amazon Kindle. What are these things? Fact or fiction? Are these books the Necronomicon? Could such a thing even exist, aside from some unstable and uncommitted concept in the mind of Lovecraft fans?

For fun and to add to the poeticism of the project a bit, I admit to embellishing or adding a few twists of my own to certain of these book-from-books, although fairly minor things that might be hard to detect. And—and this is something that to my knowledge no one has picked up on yet—I have invented a few titles in The Missing Books. Maybe some day they’ll come into existence in one way or another.

Biblioklept: My experience in reading The Missing Books was very much that strange mix of recognition and then its immediate opposite—for example, nodding in recognition at the entry on PK Dick’s The Owl in Daylight, but also puzzling over the veracity of Thomas Bernhard’s Breathing.

You brought up “the books that themselves come from works of fiction.” This is a potentially enormous section (just check out Wikipedia’s list of fictional books). How did you go about deciding what to include (and what to leave out) in this section?

SE: Oh yeah, it’s a ridiculously large category. Just the books listed in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is enough to make up a document five times as long as The Missing Books. Then you could start to bring in all the fake books in authors like Eco, Lem, and popular authors like Stephen King, and it all gets excessive very quickly.

I started off with a simple rule: I was only going to consider things from the beginning of the 20th century forward. So that right there slices off quite a bit, but it still leaves a whole lot. So to pare it down even further, I chose to only list items that I felt had some kind of story to tell us. One easy rule to follow was: do I find this interesting? If I can’t become intrigued by the story behind a missing book, that’s a pretty good indication that no one else is going to either, and that it probably doesn’t have anything of interest to communicate to us.

With those rules in place, I began to get together a fairly substantial group of projects, and some general themes and arcs of the project began to naturally emerge. Once that started happening, I began to purposely look for missing books based on how well they played off of what was already there. Like, for instance, The True Son of Job by Harry Sibelius, which is found in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature—it’s quite reminiscent of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, found in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and I know that Bolaño was a big Dick fan, so it seems possible that there was some influence there. At the very least the similarities are striking enough that it’s interesting to situate them close to one another. And then from there, it seemed worthwhile to include various works by Phoebus K. Dank, which begins to comment on how the idea of the “Philip K. Dick” author has grown into a trope of his own.

I was also always interested in books that seemed to push up against the boundaries of the categories. Like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which I place under the heading of “lost books”—is it really lost, or did Pessoa complete it? Well obviously Pessoa never “finished” it in the sense that most books are finished, but then again, Pessoa’s life project arguably rebuts the whole notion of finished books as we tend to construe them. And also, The Book of Disquiet is arguably a journal of sorts, and are those ever completed? George Steiner also makes an interesting case when he argues for Disquiet as a complete work by telling us that “As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” So I was also always on the lookout for titles that seem to render these categories less stable, the better to contemplate what they actually mean and whether or not there really is such a thing as a “missing book.”

Biblioklept: On the other side (if there is an “other” side) are the books that we never finish reading (even if we read all the words on all the pages)…there are books I return to again and again and richer, deeper, changed since the last time I read them. Do you experience this? Are there “missing,” unfinished books that you have, as a reader, “finished,” yet return to anew?

SE: For sure, it would be a disappointing kind of literature that didn’t permit those sorts of repeats. What immediately comes to mind is the author Stephen Marche, who claims to have read Hamlet over a hundred times, or Gerald Murnane, who avowed in his writing of the early 2000s that he would spend what time remained to him as a reader contemplating a handful of the mot profound texts in his life.

Certainly there are lots of books of theory that I have only begun to understand, writers like Heidegger or Lacan or Deleuze and Guattari, who have tried pushing language to challenging places in order to say things that it cannot currently say. Or a writer like Adorno, who wrote in such a way as to frustrate simple meanings or conclusions. These are people whose ideas can easily be summed up but whose actual work must simply be experienced as such and wrestled with for a long period of time.

In terms of literature, I think of writers like Pynchon, who writes in such a dense and maximalist and frustrating way that his books require long engagement, or someone like Proust, who understood humanity so deeply and extensively that one continually gains new insight as one becomes more and more experienced as a human being. But then there is also something to be said for the minimalism of a Coetzee or a Bioy or a Kafka, whose constructs seem to me like some kind of a simple-but-intricate object that one keeps staring at, trying to understand how it is built and what it means.

I would also add the category of books that I refuse to return to, books whose first experience was so bewildering and mysterious—and also so poetically infused with my life circumstances at the time—that I am fearful of destroying the impression they have left in my mind.

Biblioklept: Do you have a timeline for how the different versions of The Missing Books will come out? Or are you working on the project more organically?

SE: I very much want it to grow organically. I don’t have timetables other than to keep each new version somewhat spaced out in order to give readers a chance to chew over each edition of The Missing Books before the next one comes out. Also, I want to give the titles themselves a little time to move around and change status, as well as for new titles to emerge through the news cycle, so making the updates too frequent would be counterproductive. And of course, there’s a fairly heavy research component to each update, as I don’t want to release a new version without making some substantial additions. I’m also toying around with adding a new title grouping for Version 2, but I’ll have to see about that—it might be a little early for that sort of thing.

Right now, I’ve been more or less eyeing a spring release date for the next version.

Biblioklept: Which of the titles in The Missing Books do you most want to read?

SE: Wow, this is one of the hardest questions anyone has ever asked me. There are so many titles in The Missing Books that would greatly alter my sense of literature, that could change my life, that would put entirely new angles on writers I love…I think were I to pick just one, I would select the universal dictionary of all known human languages. I love reference books; when I was a kid I would just read volumes of the encyclopedia like they were novels, and to this day I spend obscene amounts of time reading random entries on Wikipedia, or Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dictionaries are great too in this way, although they offer a very different reading experience from the encyclopedias. I think it would be too much to pass up, the opportunity to be able to pore over all of the weird words and parts of grammar and ideas and what have you that have been embodied in the languages that humans have created to express themselves in over the course of our few thousand years of being writing, speaking beings on this planet.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

SE: No, definitely not. I’m fortunate in that books are one of those minor luxuries that I’ve always had the means to support for myself, so I’ve never been anywhere near the position of needing to steal them. When I was young my parents would always buy me any books I needed, and now it’s not an onerous expense to purchase the books I read. There are review copies, of course, there’s no getting around the need for them, but I make it a priority to support presses with purchases in at least some cases where I’d probably be “entitled” to a review copy. Especially nowadays, when my colleagues include many people at independent presses and bookstores, I try to do what I can to support their work financially.

Roman Muradov’s graphic novella Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art reviewed

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Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.

There’s more of course.

In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:

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Okay.

Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).

But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?

Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).

The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders. 

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The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805).  Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.

Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.

These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).

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It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.

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So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).

Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).

Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:

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Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.

Do you follow Muradov on Twitter?

I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).

But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).

Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):

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The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness. 

And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.

Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).

But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).

That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.

 

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for page 539 | There is a terrible possibility now, in the World

1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9

The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.

Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”

Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”

Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—

Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.

Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.

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The World tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:

It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.

Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):

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Weissmann’s tarot

In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Elect. The baddies.

Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.

Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.

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Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909
Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:

The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.

If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.

The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:

Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

Pynchon’s phrasing also echoes William Bright’s 1866 hymn, “Once, Only Once, and Once for All,” which begins:

Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.

In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Seems like a Preterite Sermon.

Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.

Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?

Oh I think you know the answer.

A place must be made for innocence | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 419

In a corporate State 1, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses 2. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable . Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder 5. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor 6, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark 7, the Hoard of the Nibelungen 8, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor 9,… child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.10

From page 419 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pynchon, as always, diagnoses not just the past and present, but the future. The state is corporate; They — the oligarchy et al. — run the show. And conceptualizing innocence is part of running that show.

Cf. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), Blake wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Without corruption there is no innocence; without abjection there is no purity; without an elect, there is no preterite.

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The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake, 1794

Blake’s Songs share much in common with Pynchon’s big novel—both argue for the preterite, pointing out the ways in which industrial technologies exploit the most vulnerable among us; both are wildly, acidly vivid; both employ metaphors of fall and ascent; both foreground the utterly real humanity of their subjects.

Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Experience) shows in simple language how the official version of innocence can be used to enforce the dominant and exploitative order. Consider the last stanza:

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery

Blake’s chimney sweeper asserts his right to happiness, to laughter and joy. The creative impulse is a Counterforce against Them—here, the Priest and King. Yet They co-opt the dancing and joy and convert it into signs of “the official version of innocence”: a lie to cover over the utter corruption of the dominant order.

You’ve read Freud, right? Like, those ideas on infantile sexuality that are downright icky, and yet nevertheless reaffirmed and reinforced by the Corporate State? (Oligarchial capitalism simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes its subjects). Gravity’s Rainbow does a lot of stuff it’s easier (less queasier) to write off as abject than to actually like, think through. But GR also shows that They infantilize and sexualize childhood in the service of control, as a way of establishing (and blurring and “defiling”) official versions of innocence.

Consider Our Poor Hero Tyrone Slothrop, whose conditioning as an infant by Laszlo Jamf (involving the mysterious MacGuffin Imipolex G) leads to erections that predict rocket strikes. (I swear that sentence makes sense).

“Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical places” — physical places like Gravity’s Rainbow. Well, okay. I mean, we get a condensation here of Pynchon’s process, his synthesis, his grab-bag of songs and japes and jibes and jokes and tales and etcetera.

But Pynchon’s pointing out other, perhaps more nefarious and venal and corporate uses for the same cultural material he’s massaging: A fucking theme park. Like, uh, Disneyland. Or Disneyworld. Etcetera, you get it—that we—did I just write We?!—I want to say They—that They colonize and corporatize the imagination; that They gobble up the cultural material and excrete it in smooth, digestible, sanitized (yet subtly sexualized)—and consumable, marketable!—segments that we take our kids to queue up to experience in their innocence.

5  As always, Pynchon Wiki does it better than I can:

“Twelve Children” – the name evokes Jacob’s twelve sons (and the daughter who is not one of the official twelve). This pattern is self-consciously repeated in the Grimms’ tale “The Twelve Brothers”, where the boys are to die if their mother gives birth to a girl.

The camp, which is also a quasi-town, may be modelled after Theresienstadt, the Jewish town/Lager set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic. This is suggested by themes like transit, phoney children’s paradise, as well as the large orchestra, or the number 60,000 (the number of those who “passed through” Zwölfkinder as well the population of Theresienstadt at its peak). It also recalls another totalitarian institution, that of the communist “children’s towns” (large, town-like, somewhat militarized holiday camps for Young Pioneers), whose prototype was Artek in the Soviet Union. (Deutsches Jungvolk also had its summer camps.)

Further, consider Argentina’s Republic of Children, a city proportioned for children, which was created under Juan Peron’s regime and opened in 1951.

The Oedipal plot of Grimms’ “The Twelve Children” repeats throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, and I invite you to look for it lurking in Disney.

“The brothers were full of joy, and embraced her with fondest affection,” Mary Hamilton Fry, 1912

Cf. Gravity’s Rainbow page 534—Osbie Feel’s screenplay Doper’s Greed!:

“At the entrance to the town, barring their way, stands the Midget who played the lead in Freaks. The one with the German accent. He is the town sheriff. He is wearing an enormous gold star that nearly covers his chest.”

The little person referenced is Harry Earles who played Hans in Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning).

The zoo.

A vast treasure hoard, such as Scrooge McDuck might dive into, or Bilbo Baggins and his pals might play upon.

The Nibelungen Hoard, as I’m sure you know, is the treasure of the Nibelungen. (You know Wagner’s Ring Cycle, eh? Or you’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, right?—you get the idea. The titular Nibelung is the dwarf Alberich, by the way).

Cf. W.N. Lettsom—

The tale of that same treasure might well your wonder raise;
’T was much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt-sea bay,
If to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.

It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less thereafter were left, than erst was scored.
Good reason sure had Hagan to covet such a hoard.

Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)
Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)

In the Nibelungenlied, Hagen murders the hero Siegfried and then steals and hides the Nibelung hoard.

Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, who unified Germany through technocracy and, uh, war.

10 “…they were well hidden”: A précis of Pynchonian paranoia, perhaps.

The Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 412-13

Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478
Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478

Kekulé 1 dreams 2 the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World 3. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used 4. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” 5 is to be delivered into a system 6 whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process 7 . The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply 8 , dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes 9 back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg 10  here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ 11 well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” 12  u.s.w. 13  On you 14 roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing 15 —castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups 16 and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use 17 : he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers 18 , and it’s the wands of enterprise 19 that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity 20 —but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” 21 One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT? 22

From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Friedrich August Kekulé, 1829–1896, German chemist—the “father of organic chemistry.” (Our arts and sciences must be fathered, it seems).

East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979
East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979

Actually, let me bother to set the stage a little better, by piggybacking (are pigs not a motif of GR?) off Michael Davitt Bell’s invaluable “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow:

[11], 397-433. This long chapter, consisting mostly of one long recollection, narrated in the past tense, tells the story of Franz Pökler […] Pökler dreamed about the history of Friedrich August Kekulé, father of organic chemistry (410-13), and about Kekulé’s dream: a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We learn how this dream was misused by the System, as the foundation for understanding the benzine ring. All this is lectured on by “Pökler’s old prof,” Laszlo Jamf.

A neat little summary, yes.

Kekulé’s most notable contribution to chemistry—and capitalism!—is in his work on describing the structure of that valuable petrochemical benzene.

Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l'Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013
Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l’Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013

2 Receiving an honor in 1890, Kekulé, told the German Chemical Society that he had discovered benzene’s ringed shape in a daydream about the ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail (tale?!).

Kekulé’s dream-image-symbol is clearly compelling for both the reader and, I think, for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is very much about the overlap between physical and metaphysical, and Kekulé’s vision points to the convergence of dream and experience, magic and science.

3 Ouroboros is literally tail-devouring in Greek, but through surreal etymological phonological dream-time leaps, we can get to tale-devouring (why not?—okay, I guess maybe that’s mythosboros or something like that, but hell—–).

In any case, the serpent, or Serpent, here strikes me as one of Pynchon’s Moves Against Them—he taps into an older myth, one that elevates the Scaly and Low—the Preterite?—into an Elect position that the Christian Tradition simply doesn’t care for, what with the Tempting Serpent and all. No, no shedding of the skin, no eternal return…no, no return at all. Cf. a few lines later in the passage cited above: “No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean.”

The anonymous author of Ophiolatreia, or Serpent Worship (1889) offers the following:

Horapollo, referring to the serpent symbol, says of it:— ‘When the Egyptians would represent the Universe they delineate a serpent bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the Universe. The animal is extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water, moreover, it every year puts off its old age with its skin, as in the Universe the annual period effects a corresponding change and becomes renovated, and the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever, which are generated by divine providence in the world, undergo a corruption into them again.’

4 Used by Them.

Gravity’s Rainbow is clearly about paranoia of Them, and as such (necessarily), Pynchon’s targets are…nebulous. (Although technology and the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex that technology works through might be a manifest if not wholly concrete villain in GR.). Pynchon’s big novel Against the Day offers a more specific locus for everything wrong with Them in its awful villain Scarsdale Vibe and his henchmen and lackeys.

5 You are of course familiar with the concept of eternal recurrence, no?

6 Oligarchial capitalism.

7  Pynchon seems to describe the past few centuries here, and probably the future.

8  Gravity’s Ranbow was published in 1973, folks…

9 …but of course, Pynchon is also describing now, which is to say, his narrative’s own future.

10 A charming German city famous for its university.

11 A German song composed by Fred Raymond in 1925. Hear a 1932 English-language version by Arthur Lally and His Orchestra here.

12 A wooden mallet for opening the bung of a cask (or wine or beer). I visited Heidelberg when I was 16 and drank copious quantities of ale.

13 “u.s.w.” — German acronym for und so weiter; translates to etcetera. Pynchon allows the tape to roll on in his reader’s head.

14 Always beware Gravity’s Rainbow’s shifts into second-person! Look at this ride that Pynchon’s put us on…but wait…we’re already on the ride.

15 A rainbow image.

16 Tarot references abound in Gravity’s Rainbow.

3 of Swords, Sola-Busca Tarot (1491; reprint by Wolfgang Mayer, 1998)

17 The preterite’s complaint: Wisdom shall not be found, order will not reveal itself, meaning will be suspended indefinitely.

18 Our wacky busdriver is actually “the Lord of the Night,” an ominous and perhaps self-explanatory title (and one that resonates with the passage’s mythological overtones and tarot motif). The Lords of the Night are figures in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars, but I’m not sure if Pynchon’s referencing them here—although this passage is deeply concerned with the apprehension and management of time. This Lord of the Night, you’ll note—a stickler for paperwork—is awfully bureaucratic.

19 Oligarchial capitalism. The wands are another suit in the tarot deck. (The upright three of wands is associated with enterprise).

20 The strange trip here echoes Gravity’s Rainbow’s bewildering opening “evacuation” sequence, and the line I’ve noted recalls to me a line I’ve cited at least twice now in these annotations.

From the novel’s sixth paragraph:

“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”

21 In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Weisenburger provides the following context for the Rilke quote:

1

22 Well? Do you?

Sunday Comics (From Hell)

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From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper story, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise as a means to cover up an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more. The murders are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.

One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder.

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From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel. Gull goes backwards (William Blake sees him in a vision and turns that vision into Ghost of Flea) and Gull goes forwards: he sees London at the end of the twentieth century, and receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect.

From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism.

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Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure.

From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on Halloween day in 2010].