Got your e-mail, kid. Sorry for handwriting in reply. Not sure e-mailing is the best move, considering the topic, but, of course (you being nearly six foot now, your mother says?), that’s up to you, dear, although, you know: strange times.
The rest of the letter, mostly through hints and intimations, gives us a sketch of those “strange times”: namely, a future of our now in which Trump, after having won a second election, is succeed by “the son” in a “total sham election.” These “strange times” are saturated in paranoia and marked by arrests for dissension, as well as the detainment of persons for reasons not always clearly stated.
Indeed, Robbie’s email to his grandfather was in request of help for his friend “J.,” who has been detained. The following paragraph shows Saunders’ method and gives an adequate overview of the story’s tone:
Where is J. now? Do you know? State facility or fed? That may matter. I expect “they” (loyalists) would (with the power of the courts now behind them) say that although J. is a citizen, she forfeited certain rights and privileges by declining to offer the requested info on G. & M. You may recall R. & K., friends of ours, who gave you, for your fifth (sixth?) birthday, that bronze Lincoln bank? They are loyalists, still in touch, and that is the sort of logic they follow. A guy over in Bremerton befriended a guy at the gym and they would go on runs together and so forth, and the first guy, after declining to comment on what he knew of his friend’s voting past, suddenly found he could no longer register his work vehicle (he was a florist, so this proved problematic). R. & K.’s take on this: a person is “no patriot” if he refuses to answer a “simple question” from his “own homeland government.”
There’s a lot here: the codified language (“‘they,'” “loyalists,” “certain rights and privileges,” “‘no patriot,'” etc.), the use of anonymizing initials in lieu of names, and plenty of imagistic details to flesh out the epistle (“Love Letter” is full of little details like “that bronze Lincoln bank,” a bid toward realism I suspect).
The grandfather’s use of initials is, of course, to help protect them if the letter were to fall into the hands of any “loyalists” who might cause further problems for J. and the other persons mentioned. He also insists that Robbie destroy the letter after reading it. (I find it interesting and somewhat inexplicable that he names Robbie.)
As I noted above, the impetus for the grandfather’s reply is his grandson’s request for help for J. “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment in dystopian ethics, with the central questions of What to do? and How to do it? reverberating throughout. Through the accretion of details, the reader comes to realize that the grandfather was likely born sometime during the 1950s, is comfortably middle class, subscribes to left-leaning politics, and likely lives in California. We also come to find out that during the period when the “loyalists” ascended—our near now—the grandfather, preoccupied with his own life (work, hobbies, his “dental issues”), did next-to-nothing to protect democracy:
Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now.
He protests to his grandson that he tried things like calling and writing his senator, and donated money to “certain people running for office,” but these actions weren’t actiony enough. He also shares this bit of protest:
I beg you not to underestimate the power/danger of this moment. Perhaps I haven’t told you this yet: in the early days, I wrote two letters to the editor of the local rag, one overwrought, the other comic. Neither had any effect. Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.
In a typically-postmodern move, Saunders’ hero is a writer (of letters).
“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckster’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within preëxisting literary genres.
Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.
I was taken then by the grandfather’s admission that his “comic” letter to “the local rag” had no effect: “Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.”
A moment later in “Love Letter” strikes me as another correction to the glib posturing of “Little St. Don”:
Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives.
It’s that “wry, satirical smugness” that stuck out to me, a smugness that’s part and parcel of the sense that “some adult or adults would arrive…to set things right.” Saunders is not only describing an attitude shared by millions of Americans, but also describing the implicit tone of his story “Little St. Don.”
Both “Elliott Spencer,” with its rhetorical innovations, and “Love Letter” serve as noticeable improvements on “Little St. Don” (if not correctives). “Love Letter” also feels like something new from Saunders—the dystopia is more subdued, less zany. Scarier. And as I write this, I realize it’s because the dystopia “Love Letter” evokes seems far too close to our own reality.
I claimed in my essay on “Little St. Don” that the story’s biggest failure was that
Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.
“Love Letter,” as the name clearly states, radiates with love—confused love, troubled love, love that wavers in concrete action but never in its abstracted purity. We feel both the grandfather’s love for his grandson as well as Saunders’ love for his reader. We also feel a deep, melancholy love for democracy, or at least the postwar democracy of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Saunders’ narrator is never critical of that twentieth-century democracy, let alone the predatory capitalism it eventually engendered. This is, after all, a letter to a grandson, not a polemic. Saunders, as he often does in so many of his stories, collapses the absurdity of the contemporary world into the personal problems of some hapless patriarch or other. The narrator’s compassion and love come through in “Love Letter,” but so does the narrator’s radical ambivalence to real action.
It might be possible to read the story as a critique of the narrator’s inaction, but any such reading would have to ultimately dismiss the sympathy and love with which Saunders’ crafts this grandfather. In short, it’s difficult to read “Love Letter” as a satire, the genre with which Saunders has been most closely identified. Instead, “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment with no real conclusion, no solid answer. Or, rather, the solution is there in the title: love. But is that enough?
I think I should have loved Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel.
Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person I that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.
Nog reads like a hallucinatory accounting of the American literature before it, starting with a narrator who aims for transcendentalism, but is “wrenched out of two months of calm” by the sight of a young woman walking the beach:
There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant.
Right in the first paragraph, Wurlitzer announces themes of travel (feet) and weird oedipal angles (those “large breasts”) that will pulsate throughout the novel. The image of the young lady zaps our narrator:
I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus.
Nog is larded with comparisons and lists and octopuses (or octopi, if you prefer—our (un-)helpful narrator points out both are acceptable). The narrator lists beaches, lakes, and rivers, a motif of travel and horizons that underscores the novel’s surreal critique of Manifest Destiny. The octopuses fit more neatly with Nog’s pscyhosphere of bodies wrangling bodies, possessed limbs wriggling willy-nilly, groping, prodding, promising. Wurlitzer uses similes and metaphors that repeatedly compare both people and situations to squid or octopuses, and also evokes the image without naming it in imagery (including a really gross menage a trois).
I have not described the plot of Nog yet. Describing the plot would not be impossible, I guess, but it would involve typing out most of the novel. Nog is a surreal picaresque fueled on All Of The Drugs and All Of The Sex, both a product and critique of the End Of The Sixties that birthed it. (Forgive all that capitalization.) Here is the slim blurb from indie Two Dollar Radio, which republished the novel a decade ago:
In Wurlitzer’s signature hypnotic and haunting voice, Nog tells the tale of a man adrift through the American West, armed with nothing more than his own three pencil-thin memories and an octopus in a bathysphere.
Nog is certainly a surreal Western, one organized around three memories that Our Hero keeps reinventing (memories often anchored by an octopus).
There are characters, of course, but the characterization is vague, hazy, slip-sliding. Wurlitzer sticks to Narrator and his foils Meridith and Lockett for the most part. The pair are Ur-Parents and Ur-Partners who his narrator fucks, fucks over, and gets fucked over by. At times, the narrator—who may or may not be Nog his damnself—even becomes iterations of Meridith or Lockett. In an effort to share Wurlitzer’s prose style in Nog, here is a paragraph from late in the novel that comes close to summarizing it, but not really summarizing it, due to its surreal aporia:
I’m not cold or warm. I might be approaching both. I don’t remember when I’ve last fallen asleep. I’m not asleep or awake. I first met Meridith over a jar of artichoke hearts. But it’s Lockett now… There’s no possibility of an erection. The supermarket was crowded. The colors were warm. Lockett’s hands moved easily over the frozen-meat packages, slipping them into his army overcoat. We discovered each other stealing. I had four jars of artichoke hearts in my pocket. Lockett kept me from being busted. He straightened me out. He sold me a doctor’s bag and gave me connections.
“There’s no possibility of an erection” ! — of course Thomas Pynchon blurbed Nog. Wurlitzer’s novel is an unmediated riff on Manifest Destiny’s ugly horniness (or is it hornyness — Wurlitzer and other authorities won’t sing on this matter). There are buffalo shoots, rapes, and all that westward expansion. But by the Space Age Nineteen-Sixties, where were the borders? As the narrator comments/laments:
Nothing for it but to plunge on to the manufactured end. The Pacific is gone.
No place to go but into the surreal.
But Nog also exemplifies everything wrong with the late sixties—a kind of self-indulgent, (literally-)masturbatory psychoromp that frequently tests the patience of its audience. (By “its audience” I mean “me.”)
Nog is dark and foul, poisonous, an indictment of the End Of A Big Dream (forgive my capitalization). It’s not fun, nor did I find it funny—maybe because I read it right after Charles Wright’s much funnier novel The Wig (1966), a novel that collapses the horror and humor of the Dream Of The Sixties (eh, capitalization) into something far sharper, funnier, surrealer, and ecstaicer (or is it ecstackier—authorities diverge on this matter).
Or maybe I didn’t dig Nog the way I wanted to because I read it during The Weirdest Spring Break Of My Life, in the quarantine that we’re all going through, uncomforted by its abject digressions, its plasticity, its refusal to mean in a healthy, wholesome, unvirused way.
Maybe I should read it again, in Healthier Times.
Nog for now reads a bit-too-disturbing, which I guess is actually Good, according to the traditional rubric that I’ve used to measure novels—the whole disturb the comfortablemodel, right? Maybe I’m disturbed, anxious, agoraphobic, hypochondriac. But this is a Bad Trip.
Nog reads like a bad trip right to its end. Near the novel’s end, our narrator (who may-or-may-not-be Nog, or Lockett — or locket or lock it) takes a bad trip on a ship to “the manufactured end” — to Manifest Destiny Done Run Out. Here’s the authoritarian captain:
“The main thing,” he says, “is to be obedient for a long time, and in one and the same direction. Keep to the same space. Don’t try to go to new ports. Eight hundred Chinese were imported to build a railroad alongside the Canal. They committed suicide when they were deprived of their opium. They strangled or hanged themselves or sat down on the beach and waited for the tide to drown them. Let that be a lesson to you. Be kind to her.”
I have no idea what to make of the captain’s advice to the narrator. On one hand, it seems antithetical to the spirit of the novel—of movement, of going in new directions and mooring in new ports. At the same time, it highlights the cruelty of the American Project of Manifest Destiny (goddamn dude, all those Capital Letters!) as a kind of murder-suicide.
926 Yearsis a collaboration between Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster. The book consists of 22 stories, each a paragraph long, and each paragraph no longer than the front and back of a 4.5″ x 7″ page. Each story is titled after a character plus the character’s age (e.g. “Chaplain Blake, age 60”; “Sebastian, age 30”; “Marty Fantastic, age 81”). (I have not done the math to see if all the ages add up to 926.) Although the characters never meet in the book’s prose, key sentences suggest that they may be connected via the reader’s imagination.
Indeed, the blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories.” After reading it twice, I don’t see 926 Years so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. Coma-Thompson lives in Louisville, Kentucky and Foster lives in Sydney, New South Wales. They’ve never met in person. And yet they share a common language, of course, and other common cultural forces surely shape their prose. (Melville’s Ishmael refers to Australia as “That great America on the other side of the sphere” in Ch. 24 of Moby-Dick.)
The book’s prose offers a consistency to the apparently discontinuous narrative pieces that comprise 926 Years. My first assumption was that Coma-Thompson and Foster traded narratives, but as I read and re-read, the prose’s stylistic consistency struck me more as a work of synthesis, of two writers tuning to each other and humming a new frequency. The sentences of 926 Years are predominantly short, and often fall into fragmentation, or elide their grammatical subject. Here’s an example from “Shelley Valentine, age 34”:
A flare of sansho pepper on the tongue tip. Catch the tree at the right time of year and the fruit bursts, raining peppercorns down. Maybe like the season when pistachios open, the night snapping like broken locust song. Used for seasoning eel. Sansho leaves for garnishing fish. Clap it between the hands for aroma, make a wish, the finishing touch to the perfect soup. In Korea, the unripe fruit was used for fishing. Poisonous to the smallest ones. That was cheating wasn’t it? Or was pulling up the fish all that mattered?
Eventually we can attribute these fragmented thoughts to Shelley Valentine, now well out of her magic twenties, drinking sansho-peppered gin and tonics in a “New bar, same lost , of course.” She’ll leave alone.
The characters in 926 Years move between isolation and connection, between fragmentation and re-integration. Here’s Larry Hoavis (age 47, by the way), sitting in a lawn chair in his rural backyard:
Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one knows he’s even here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere, how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows?
Hoavis’s lonely transcendental private (and tequila-tinged) reverie of disconnection reinforces 926 Years’ themes of interconnection coupled with disintegration. In one of my favorite tales, “Lew Wade Wiley, age 55,” we learn of the “Spoiled heir of the Prudential fortune” who collects other people’s lives. He has them brought to his Boston penthouse to offer
…their worst fears, desires, the messy embarrassments of their commonalities…these he worked into undead monotone prose, the diary of Lew Wade Wiley, and so lived fuller than anyone who’d opened a newspaper to read those advertisements, wrote to that listed address, knocked at his penthouse door.
The adjective “undead” above fits into a resurrection motif that floats through 926 Years, whether it be the lifeforce of currency or the proverbial powers of cats to cheat death. Sometimes the resurrection is a kind of inspiriting force, as one character, overwhelmed by aesthetic possibility that “knocked the air out of him” experiences: “It had reminded him of a moment in a childhood that wasn’t his.”
Elsewhere, we see resurrection at a genetic level, as in “Mrs. Anderson, age 67,” whose psychologist describes to her the “cherry blossom” experiment, the results of which suggest that fear and anxiety to specific aesthetic stimuli can be passed down from generation to generation.
Reincarnation becomes both figurative and literal in the case of the lounge star Marty Fantastic, “Eighty-one-year-old darling with ten faces (one for each lift)…The plague of identities—who to be tonight, Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart, Cole Porter, Journey?” The oldest (and penultimate) character in 926 Years, Marty reflects on his own death as he gazes at his audience: “The songs of their future–what about those? They lyrics set in stone, the melodies: unknown.” The lovely little couplet suggest a complex relationship of aesthetic substance and aesthetic spirit.
The final piece in 926 Years–well, I won’t spoil it, I’ll simply say it kept me thinking, made me happy in a strange, nervous way. It features the youngest character in the book, and it points clearly if subtly to the book’s affirmation of imaginative and aesthetic possibility as a kind of crucial lifeforce. I’ll close instead with something from the book’s third tale, a little moment early on when 926 Years clicked for me:
Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest, outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position. It is written into them by instinct to share the effort, burrowing southwards through the sky; that nevertheless sky we all live below.
Frenetic, chaotic, and unceasingly energetic, the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems plays out like a two-hour panic attack. Uncut Gems opens in the turbulent aftermath of a mining accident. An Ethiopian mine worker is borne up by his frenzied fellows, his leg a raw mangled bloody mess. The Ethiopian workers’ voices mix into the Chinese mine operators’ attempts to calm the situation. This initial cacophony signals the babble and buzz that will continue through the rest of the film, and the camera’s lingering on the destroyed leg signals the violent cost that underwrites the material splendor at the heart of Uncut Gems.
Two Ethiopian miners take a gamble and use the chaos as an opportunity to sneak away, back into the mine to make off with a rare black opal, the titular uncut gem. One of the miners peers into the gem, and the camera follows his gaze. We are taken into a kaleidoscope of shifting colors as Daniel Lopatin’s beautiful synth score kicks in. The camera swirls through the gem and, in an opening sequence that rivals Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, eventually enters the colon of our hero, Howard Ratner.
A title card informs us it is two years later. It is 2012 in New York City and Howard Ratner is getting a colonoscopy. There is probably some metaphor here—the aesthetic journey from the gem’s dazzle of color to the interior glistening-chewing-gum-pink flesh of Howard’s colon—but I’ll avoid remarking further upon it.
Here is the film’s premise: Howard owns and runs a jewelry store in the Diamond District. His associate Demany brings rappers and athletes to him to buy unique, high-end pieces. He is flush with cash all the time, but is also severely indebted to a loan shark named Arno (among other folks). However, his debts don’t stop him from continuing to place bets. He is also in the middle of an affair with one of his employees, Julia, whom he keeps in his Manhattan apartment, barely-concealed from his wife and children in Long Island.
Three things happen on the day we meet Howard: Arno’s henchmen come to prove good on their threats of violence towards him if he does not pay back his loans; Demany brings Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett to Howard’s shop; and Howard receives the titular uncut black opal, which he plans to sell at auction for at least a million dollars. Seeking to impress Kevin Garnett (“KG!”), the jeweler shows off his opal, Ratner’s star. In one of the film’s most extraordinary visual sequences, KG gazes into the opal and undergoes a seismic epiphany. He demands to buy the gem, but Howard refuses—he needs the money from the auction to get clean of debt. However, Howard allows KG to borrow the gem for the night, taking Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral for its return. KG is convinced that the gem will lead to his success in that night’s Eastern Conference Semifinals game against the Philadelphia ’76ers (it does).
From this early point in the film Howard goes on to make a series of increasingly-nerve-wracking decisions against the backdrop of his loan shark’s enforcers’ increasingly-violent promises of retribution. I will not spoil any more of the plot—my “premise” paragraph seems too long as it is—I’ll simply say that there were moments that I (and other audience members) audibly gasped (in shock, in exasperation, in frustrated disbelief) at Howard’s choices.
Uncut Gems never really lets up. There are a few moments of respite as well as moments of comedy, but they mostly serve to suspend the anxiety the film creates, not release it. Uncut Gems is a horror film posing as a crime thriller, an anxiety film equal to Aronofsky’s mother! or Polanski’s Repulsion. The Safdies conjure a hectic, bustling world in Uncut Gems, a world of babble and noise and beauty and ugliness. Characters crowd the frames, their voices colliding in a way reminiscent of the films of Altman, Cassavetes, or early Scorsese.
Under and through the noise of voices in Uncut Gems floats Daniel Lopatin’s wonderful score. Waves of synths swing between between evocations of romance and horror; menacing swells and whimsical melodies, simultaneously busy and calming, cascade over the film. Lopatin, better known as the electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, is a highlight of this film.
Another highlight of Uncut Gems is Darius Khondji’s cinematography of Uncut Gems. The not-overly-saturated shots are reminiscent of his work on Wong Kar-Wai’s under-rated 2007 film My Blueberry Nights (as well as his work the same year on Haneke’s equally-anxiety-producing black comedy/horror Funny Games). Khondji conjures a candy-colored Manhattan, lush and opulent. The painterly frames are seductive but also dangerous, recalling the neon-noir of films by Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn.
And of course the acting. I have spent close to 800 words not pointing out that this is an Adam Sandler film. Sandler inhabits his role as Howard Ratner with a vibrating energy that is hard to capture in words. It’s hard to imagine any one else playing the part. Sandler’s Howard is a degenerate gambler, addicted to the thrills of his own confidence games, a trickster blowing up his life in real time. He’s in love with his own chaos, and it’s hard not to root for him, even as he destroys everything around him.
Kevin Garnett is fantastic as himself. His eyes are especially expressive, and his screen presence is utterly natural. His final scene with Sandler’s Howard is a highlight of the film, as he seems to deliver any sane person’s remarks to the gambling addict. Lakieth Stanfield is also excellent in the film as Demany, Howard’s procurer. He both balances and matches Howard’s energetic chaos, even if he can’t ground his erstwhile partner. Eric Bogosian brings ballast to the role of Arno, Howard’s loan shark, as does Judd Hirsch, playing his father-in-law. Idina Menzel plays Howard’s (soon-to-be-ex-) wife with an unflinching meanness that the character deserves. Newcomer Julia Fox is a standout as Julia, Howard’s mistress. She enables Howard, but in some ways she’s also the hero of the film.
Uncut Gems is a very good film and I was very relieved when it was over. The Safdie brothers have created something that sustains a feeling that many of us take SSRIs to avoid. “Wow, I really hated that,” the young woman next to me remarked to her date as the closing credits began. I can understand that reaction. Uncut Gems will not be entertaining for most folks, but I thought it was great. Its initial evocations of worldly violence as the cost of worldly pleasures are answered in its final moments. Catch it in the theater if you can.
“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.
What is it about?
The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:
The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.
For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)
We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.
But again: What is it about?
Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)
What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.
Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.
Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of.
With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)
General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.
And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”
And do I spoil the final line?
Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”
I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.
Let’s start with the title. Rat Time is a great title.
What is Rat Time? Rat Time is a graphic novel—or graphic autofiction, or graphic discursive memoir—I’m not really sure what genre it fits into, nor does that matter—Rat Time is a very funny and often moving book by cartoonist Keiler Roberts.
And so what is “rat time”? Rat time is the time that Keiler shares with her daughter Xia and their rats Sammy and Mateo Too. “We eat dinner, then rat time, then bed time,” Xia explains to her classmates during show and tell.
When poor Sammy dies though, “rat time” takes on a different meaning. “It’s not a time of day,” Xia declares. “It’s the time when had rats.” Keiler optimistically points out that “We still have Mateo Too.” (Care to guess what happened to Mateo One?)
The early vignettes in Rat Time intersplice rat time with riffs from Keiler’s therapy sessions, calls and visits with her parents, and child memories. Although Rat Time’s structure might be at times oblique and discursive, Roberts’ pacing and pages are often surprisingly traditional and darkly comic, as in this little episode, in which Keiler recalls a pet’s death:
Initially, Rat Time appears to have an elliptical structure. Vignettes and riffs and one-pagers succeed each other without the usual narrative linking devices we might expect from a traditional graphic novel. Roberts’ humor is so dry too that for the first few pages the tone of Rat Time may be difficult to comprehend. The more I read though, the more I laughed, and the more I cared about Keiler and her daughter.
Roberts’ mines her life for material, and the material is often painful, coming out in unexpected ways. We learn that rat time originated as a coping mechanism, a response to a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis:
Rat Time features scenes of Keiler going to the hospital for blood work, or visiting a chiropractor for treatment, all with a wonderfully droll humanity that resonates with just how damn specific the moments are. We also see Keiler in her therapist’s office, and see how her friends and family react to her bipolar disorder, as well as how she manages it. Making oatmeal seems to provide Keiler a lot of comfort, and while I’m not a fan of oatmeal myself, I deeply relate to her feelings on breakfast:
Some of my favorite parts of Rat Time hover around Keiler’s experiences as an art instructor. There’s an intense pathos to Keiler-as-teacher, even when she seems mean:
Keiler’s teaching vignettes are balanced with her own memories of teachers past. Roberts frames these moments with the clarity of detail that telegraphs raw honesty. There’s the gym teacher who humiliated her on the bus to the bowling alley, the art teacher who showed the class a cadaver, and the political science professor who earned Keiler’s admiration for “stating a truth so plainly” (namely, “I know this would be more interesting if I were entertaining, but it’s worse if I try.”)
Roberts’ spare, plain style is effective in achieving her punchlines, but it can also affect the reader with a strange poignancy:
At one point, Roberts includes a polished piece in Rat Time, which creates a wonderful moment of narrative dissonance, a strange reverberation between Keiler the hero-narrator of Rat Time and Roberts the author-illustrator of Rat Time.
Indeed, a major theme of Rat Time is storytelling itself. Keiler wants to be a writer of fiction, but it seems like her own life is far more interesting than the ideas she brainstorms. Rat Time is perhaps Roberts’ way of sussing out why her genre is ultimately autobiographical.
Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.
I’m sitting here on a black leather couch with scratched arms—the couch’s arms are scratched not mine, scratched by a cat named Remy who ran away years ago—I’m sitting here typing these dumb words while my daughter is a few feet off at the kitchen table working on a summer reading essay she should have started ages ago. The essay is on The Outsiders. She’s letting me help her, for once, but she’s complaining about the help, which is mostly in the form of questions by me—Why does it matter that they hide in a church? What does Frost’s poem mean? How does Johnny interpret the poem? What does it mean to save someone at great cost to yourself? She’d rather have answers.
I have a lot of tabs open on my browser, too. I’m looking through recent posts on Menthol Mountains, the blog of the late David Berman, who died yesterday way too young at 52, David Berman the singer-songwriter, the poet, the author of six Silver Jews albums and the slim poetry collection Actual Air and most recently an album called Purple Mountains by a band called Purple Mountains; David Berman, who died yesterday way too young at 52, was a voice in my ear and in my head from the time I was 15.
A: Try to picture yourself being shackled hand and foot to a tree, and someone firing a machine gun at you. Don’t you think that would make you a bit tense?
Was Berman allergic to interviews himself? He did a surprising number for the release of the Purple Mountains record. (John Lingan’s profile in The Ringer is particularly outstanding.) Most of the interviews and profiles told a sad story, a man living in a one-room apartment in the back of his record label Drag City’s offices, trying to stay sober. A man whose wife and ally and bandmate Cassie had left him; a man whose mother, an anchor in his life, had died in 2016. A man still estranged from his evil father.
These sad details are expressed in every lyric and chord of the Purple Mountains record. It opens with “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” an unusually plain and plaintive title for Berman. The song begins thus:
Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself
But someone’s gotta say it, hell
I mean, things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself
(The opener “Well, I don’t” echoes the opening of “How to Rent a Room,” the first track of my favorite Silver Jews record, The Natural Bridge: “No I don’t really want to die
/ I only want to die in your eyes.”)
“This time I think I finally fucked myself.” Purple Mountains returns to this idea of fucking oneself in the last song, “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”:
If no one’s fond of fucking me
Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me
Yeah, maybe I’m the only one for me
I could pick through the record more, pull line after line out—I’ve been listening to the thing almost every day for a month—but the titles alone signal Berman’s deep pain: “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”; “Darkness and Cold”; “Nights that Won’t Happen”; the song “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is heartbreaking and I’ve found myself getting up to skip it because it’s too painful. Berman channeled all that pain into something beautiful; Purple Mountains is probably his best, most sincere, cohesive record. I hate that it was his last one, and I hate that its opening lines seemed to warn us—here’s the next set of lines from “That’s Just the Way That I Feel”:
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been
I’m not sure if I can listen to the record any time soon.
I was thrilled when Berman made new music. I wrote about hearing “All My Happiness Is Gone” for the first time, although I was really writing about myself, like I am here, and a friend, the friend who texted me three months ago to tell me that there was new music by David Berman and the friend who texted me last night to tell me that David Berman died. I was making dinner and my nephew and niece were over for the night and I was cooking angel hair pasta and I cried and I overcooked the angel hair pasta.
I wish David Berman were still alive.
(I’ve gotten up from the black leather cat-scratched couch a few times to look in on my daughter’s essay, which seems to be focusing on saving people and trying to stay golden and all that jazz.)
Everyone, he went on, speaks a language he does not understand, but which now and then is understood by others. That is enough to permit one to exist and at least to be misunderstood.
Did Berman understand his own language? I felt like I understood him, even at his most cryptic, in the poems of Actual Air or the lyrics of some of the weirder Silver Jews songs. Again, I felt like this was someone talking to me. I took “Advice to the Graduate” personally:
Sleep on your back and ash in your shoes
And always use the old sense of the words
Your third drink will lead you astray
Wandering down the backstreets of the world
I’m thinking now of the lines after those, too
On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die
The things that you do will always make your mama cry
It’s a little past noon now and my daughter is still writing, and I’m still writing, and I know she’s managed to say more than I have—that’s she’s over there spelling out what it means to sacrifice for others, what it means to stay gold and care about sunsets, and etc. But I think she might need me to make her a sandwich now.
Anna Burns’s third novel Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and was reviewed in a number of prominent publications. It hardly needs my recommendation at this point, but I do recommend it: It’s artful, horrific, endearing, and troubling, a claustrophobic, unrelenting depiction of terror and paranoia. It’s also really funny.
Scattershot snippets I’d heard about Milkman indicated that the novel was “difficult” and even “confusing” or “challenging,” in large part because of the novel’s major stylistic trope—the first-person narrator refuses to ascribe clear, “stable” names to the characters in the book.
Our narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman in Northern Ireland, is referred to variously as “daughter,” “middle sister,” and “maybe-girlfriend” (among other titles) depending on whom she is interacting with. Similarly, most other characters are referred to in such terms: “oldest friend,” “third brother-in-law,” or simply “neighbour,” a nebulous catchall. (There are “named’ characters of a sort though: “chef,” “tablets girl,” “nuclear boy,” “real milkman,” and, of course, the horrific titular character “milkman.”) This narrative device might disarm some readers initially, but I found it easy to sink into our first-person narrator’s distinctive, brave, funny voice, a voice that emerges into new states of knowing and new states of consciousness as the novel unfolds.
Naming, or rather not naming is especially rhetorically significant given the setting and context of Milkman. It is the late 1970s, and the strange hot cold silent loud civil war in Northern Ireland has been going on for the entirety of our narrator’s lifetime. It has fully colonized her consciousness, shaped her language. Significantly, the conflict itself cannot be named except obliquely, nebulously. When our narrator tries to describe this zeitgeist, she employs the vague term “political problems”; her third brother-in-law replies, “Are you referring to the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses?”
Similarly, phrases like Protestant or Catholic are never employed, let alone anything as specific as the British army and the IRA, or unionists and nationalists. There’s just “their side” and “our side.” The sides don’t ultimately matter in Milkman. Rather this is a novel about what a constant state of their side-our side does to a person.
Our narrator, bound since birth in this state of their side-our side, has difficulty clearly communicating the central conflict of Milkman. She finds herself the strange victim of the milkman, an older married man who is a top level operative of the renouncers, anti-government paramilitaries who essentially run her district. (To be clear, he is not a real milkman. There is a real milkman though, and he’s a good guy.) Milkman stalks the narrator, creeping up next to her in his white van as she walks home reading 19th-century novels (a habit that marks her as “beyond the pale,” an outsider in her community) or waylaying her as she runs in the park. He’s a nightmare force of patriarchal ideology, a creeper at the edge, but utterly empowered.
Milkman isn’t the narrator’s only stalker. No, there’s also Somebody McSomebody, who we meet, sort of, in the novel’s astonishing opening sentence: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Somebody McSomebody is a poseur though. He’s a pretend renouncer, a would-be hardman also inscribed in the violent ideology of the the Troubles. The narrator calls him her “amateur stalker.”
The narrator uses variations of the word “stalk” in Milkman, but this word is meant to convey meaning to us, to a readership that might now better understand the term. (This effect of an older voice imposing its wisdom on a younger perceiver persists in Milkman.) What’s clear though is that nobody, or at least nobody in authority, can help the narrator from her stalkers:
That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.
Our narrator lives in a constant state of maybe, a trope underscored by her relationship with “maybe-boyfriend” (himself something of an oddball). Maybe-boyfriend is a compelling character in Milkman, and perhaps something of tragic-absurd one as well. (One of the strangest details in the novel: maybe-boyfriend and his brothers are abandoned by his parents so that they can become world champion ballroom dancers—which they do (become world champion ballroom dancers, that is.)) In a particularly strong section of the book, maybe-boyfriend, a mechanic and car enthusiast, brings home the supercharger of a Bentley and shows it off to his neighbors. The jovial atmosphere slowly slides into a tense then paranoid exchange—Bentleys are English after all—which eventually erupts into violence. It’s a remarkably controlled episode that describes the ideology of the Troubles in a way that a historical textbook never could.
Even though our narrator lives in a perpetual maybe, she still understands her community and can describe it for us. She is intelligent and perceptive, and much of the humor in Milkman evinces from moments where she gets on a rhetorical roll, as when she describes her home as “our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” Horror and comedy conjoin in her absurd description of a run-in with the milkman as “talking to a sinister man while holding the head of a cat that had been bombed to death by Nazis.”
Radical horror, violence, and uncertainty percolate in Milkman. Paranoia rules on all levels, but by focusing primarily on the narrator’s being stalked by milkman, Burns offers a concrete portrait of a malevolent force that might otherwise be too sinister and abstract to properly convey in a fictional novel. At the same time, our narrator is able to extrapolate beyond her concrete circumstances to other injustices—
those big ones, the famous ones, the international ones – witch-burnings, footbindings, suttee, honour killings, female circumcision, rape, child marriages, retributions by stoning, female infanticide, gynaecological practices, maternal mortality, domestic servitude, treatment as chattels, as breeding stock, as possessions, girls going missing, girls being sold and all those other worldwide cultural, tribal and religious socialisations and scandalisations, also the warnings given against things throughout patriarchal history that were seen as uncommon for a woman to do or think or say.
Milkman is full of moments like this, rhetorical flights that help weave a richer picture of our narrator’s psychic state.
Milkman also shows us how that psychic state deteriorates. Our narrator was always an outsider, reading novels while walking or going on long runs as a way to tune out reality. Our narrator is aware of this tuning-out; indeed, it is her primary practice. However, as gossip and lies spread about her and the milkman, her consciousness begins to crumble–
Thing was though, before I’d gained the understanding of what was happening, my seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on. At first an emotional numbness set in. Then my head, which initially had reassured with, ‘Excellent. Well done. Successfully am I fooling them in that they do not know who I am or what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling,’ now began itself to doubt I was even there. ‘Just a minute,’ it said. ‘Where is our reaction? We were having a privately expressed reaction but now we’re not having it. Where is it?’ Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing. And now this numbance from nowhere had come so far on in its development that along with others in the area finding me inaccessible, I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.
This is a sad, remarkable, and genuinely horrifying passage. We get the horror of un-becoming, a kind of un-becoming that we might find in many other horror-tinged feminist works, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Anna Kavan’s Ice to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.
Not only is our heroine emotionally and psychologically drained, she also finds herself physically exhausted by the duress of being stalked—stalked now not only by the milkman, but also by the whispering community. No longer able to take the walks and runs that replenished her, she languishes. The horror and absurdity culminates when she is poisoned, for no real reason, by tablets girl, “our district poisoner” and must recover without the aid of professional medical care. (Nobody in the district can go to the hospital without fear of being thought an informant.)
After a serious bout of purging, the narrator recovers. While recovering, her triumvirate of “wee sisters” asks her to read them a story. Tellingly, they purloin their ma’s copy of The Exorcist. Milkman is a novel of possession and purging, of being inscribed in a preexisting symbolic order and forging a consciousness strong enough to resist and endure that order.
Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, Brazil, The King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get Out, Candide, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Funny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way. Highly recommended.
Describing Geometry in the Dust is a challenge. I’ve deleted so many openings now and my frustration is mounting: so some very basic description:
Geometry in the Dust is a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer. The novel was originally published in France (as Géométrie dans la poussière) in 2004. The English translation is by Jacob Siefring, and was published by Inside the Castle earlier this year. Geometry in the Dust is 117 pages and includes 22 black and white illustrations. The prose is set in two columns per page, with infrequent inclusions of inset notes of a smaller font obtruding into the text proper. The typeset is Venetian. The book is approximately 217cm long, 172cm tall, and 10cm thick. It weighs approximately 210 grams.
This is a lousy way to describe a book.
What is it about?, you’ll want to know. What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s the drama, the conflict, the themes?, you’ll insist.
So there’s a geometer.
The geometer is a first-person “I” who addresses himself to the “inheriting prince” who rules a “country of sand.” The geometer is of course also addressing himself to you the reader. In addition to being a geometer, he is also
your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend.
And so we have our characters: Geometer and his absent audience, his sultan, his reader.
And so for plot? What is our friend, our confidant doing in Geometry in the Dust? He is trying to describe the city that he and his monarch (?) have…dreamed up? Built from scratch? Proposed as a thought experiment?
(I’m not sure.)
The reality or unreality of the city in question should be dispensed with entirely of course. The city is made of words, and it exists in Geometry in the Dust through words. Our narrator implores us in the novel’s second paragraph: “do not be afraid of words!”
So our narrator the geometer tries to describe the city, this city, the sultan’s city, in words. But of course capturing a city in words is a problem—
How does one form an idea of the city, when all one has seen of it are little pieces of it brought back from voyages in trunks? how to describe a metropolis to someone who has only ever known sand and its forms through the cycle of seasons? how to speak of snow to a Moor, of cannibalism to a vegetarian Jesuit?
Measuring a city for our narrator amounts to measuring the angles of waves as they break on the shore: an impossible task. Even metaphors run dry, point in the wrong directions, and ultimately, “all of these measures will be in vain and mediocre , the descriptions will be lost in allegories.” Nevertheless, our narrator will try.
This trying to describe the city is the plot, I suppose, such as it is. And it’s really quite marvelous, far richer and smarter and funnier than I’ve managed to capture here so far. Our geometer is observant, sharp, witty, strangely sincere, flighty and whimsical at times. He advises his prince, his reader, on the value of getting lost in the city (the only way to know it), and a lot of Geometry might amount to our narrator getting lost himself, losing us, leading us in, out, around.
“You will readily understand that a city is not composed only of itself,” he avers at one point, continuing that, “a city is composed of city, the intentions present in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions…” Perhaps too Geometry is our narrator’s effort to measure the gaps and lacunae between split intentions, and to situate the various players that fill these gaps: black marketeers and insomniacs, calligraphers and macabre dancers, crowders and loners, musicians and animals (including “an alligator of the White Nile” to reside “in the conduits of our main sewer,” whose presence will surely “spice up the lives of your people, those incorrigible auditors of fables.” And if such an alligator can’t be find, never mind–just spread its legends. Words).
Andthemes?, you ask after. I don’t know. I’ve read Geometry twice now and it’s thick with themes, the basic one, I suppose (and I could be wrong) is: What is a city? (This is too easy, I know). Senges’ narrator invokes and evokes every manner of archaic text, imagined or otherwise; he considers our native tendencies, the roles outsiders play, the movements of crowds, what constitutes a garden, and so forth.
Maybe a better description of Geometry is to simply look at the text itself. Here is a short chapter (go on, read it—click on it if you need a bigger version):
Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents.
What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.
Killoffer’s illustrations also challenge the reader. They do not necessarily correspond in pagination to the sections that they (may) illustrate; rather, they seem to obliquely capture the spirit of the novel. The following image is perhaps the most literal illustration in the novel, evoking something in the passage I shared above:
The experience of reading Geometry is confounding but also rewarding. The first time I read it, at least for the first third or so, I kept looking for all those basic signs of a novel—character, plot, clear conflict, etc. I was happy to find instead something else, something more challenging, but also something unexpectedly fun and funny. In its finest moments, Geometry evokes the essays that Borges disguised as short stories. Readers familiar with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec will find familiar notes here too, as well as those who love the absurd tangles Donald Barthelme’s sentences can take. But Senges is singular here, his own weird flavor, a flavor I enjoyed very much. Recommended.
As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings.I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art?
Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, includingMimetismo/Mimicry andLa creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at theMuseo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world.
Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works,The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!
Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?
MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.
Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery.
I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet.
Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”
I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?
MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting,Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.
Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?
I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.
Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.
On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself?
MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—seeTransmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943,Caminos tortuosos from 1957.) I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.
Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.
On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.
As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours?
MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.
For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.
Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?
MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?
As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.
I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…
Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience?
MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’sSurrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.
Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?
MC:It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library.The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’sMimicry (Mimesis) makes an obvious nod to Carrington’sSelf-Portrait.
About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.
At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up.
Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?
MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation.
Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations.
MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.
Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness.
MC: These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossingFellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.
Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words.
MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)
I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them.Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?
MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!
I wrote about the first third of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice here and then wrote about the second third here. This third blog will discuss, sort of, the novel’s final third. If you want a very short review though, here goes: If you like novels that disrupt our conventional sense of how a novel should “work” and challenge the very process by which we understand narrative, you will like Ice. Like is maybe not the right verb here, but I’ll let it stand. Ice is simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, personal and alienating, small and epic. Kavan conjures an apocalypse that refuses the promise of revelation that an apocalypse entails, leaving her readers and characters in a state of radical unknowing. Kavan’s strangeness is Kafkaesque, yes, but hardly imitative, instead drawing from the same wells of modern absurdity, but also sculpting that absurdity into something new, something postmodern, a tale that deconstructs its own telling with gothic earnestness. If you “like” weird ones, Ice might be for you.
So I finished reading Ice the other afternoon. I then made the mistake of reading Kate Zambreno’s marvelous afterword to the novel (originally published as “Anna Kavan” in Context N°18). Zambreno’s essay is fantastic. She reads Kavan’s novels and contextualizes them within and against the novelist’s life. If Zambreno’s essay were not a work rooted in biographical reality, it would be a highly-achieved short story. Kavan’s life was fascinating.
I used the noun “mistake” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph; what I mean to say is: I should have let myself write this third blog before I had any context about Kavan’s biography. I’m glad I initially skipped Jonathan Lethem’s foreword to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of Ice that I read, which would have done me the disservice of coloring the lens through which I read Ice. Zambreno’s essay is excellent, and I don’t begrudge it (Lethem’s is, like, fine), but the fact that Penguin felt the need to wedge Ice into such a contextual frame perhaps attests to the novel’s wonderful estranging weirdness.
Kavan structures her novel (structure is not the right verb) around three persons, all unnamed: the narrator, the girl, and the warden. The narrator and the warden pursue the girl, a cipher who is placed, displaced, replaced, and displaced again throughout Ice. But as the narrative progresses, it seems that this unstable menage a trois might simply be the narrator’s projection—indeed, Ice is a monomaniac narrative. Projection in the previous sentence is not the right word—I think it implies too much a level of psychological introspection that Ice subverts. There are objects and subjects and analyses in Kavan’s novel, but they never quite meet up.
The ever-shifting setting of the novel is apocalypse in the form of (of course) the titular ice. We never quite learn the specific cause of this apocalypse, although we do know that it is humanity itself that has engendered its own permanent victimhood. Beyond this slim explanation, Ice is a novel that defers, derails, and deconstructs our traditional notions of cause and effect. While there’s often a Ballardian tone to Kavan’s apocalyptic narrative, there’s none of the connective tissue that we might expect from even the strangest science fiction. There’s instead push and pull, contraction and expansion.
We see these oppositions at the beginning of Ch. 11, which initiates the novel’s final third. Our narrator somehow arrives at a safe harbor, a small paradise subsisting on illusions and borrowed time—
The past was forgotten, the long, hard, dangerous voyage and the preceding nightmare. Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality. There were theatres, cinemas, restaurants and hotels, shops where goods of all sorts were sold freely, without coupons. The contrast was staggering. The relief overwhelming. The reaction too great. A kind of delirium was induced, a mad gaiety.
The passive voice our narrator employs here highlights his arcing agency as he moves from nightmare to a “solid reality” that will, in due time, disintegrate. And everything in Ice disintegrates, only to re-integrate into new textual territories.
The festivities went on and on: carnivals, battles of flowers, balls, regattas, concerts, processions. Nobody wanted to be reminded of what was happening in other parts of the world. Rumours coming from outside were suppressed by order of the consul, who had assumed responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, ‘pending the restoration of the status quo’. To speak of the catastrophe was an offence under the new regulations. The rule was to choose not to know.
“The rule was to choose not to know,” but our narrator’s delusions of grandeur won’t permit him to party nonstop at the threshold of apocalypse (even if he has the girl with him)—
I could not remain isolated from the rest of the world. I was involved with the fate of the planet, I had to take an active part in whatever was going on. The endless celebrations here seemed both boring and sinister, reminiscent of the orgies of the plague years. Now, as then, people were deluding themselves; they induced a false sense of security by means of self-indulgence and wishful thinking. I did not believe for one moment they had really escaped.
And so our narrator departs, leaving the girl (who must always be abandoned, found again, imprisoned, and stolen in endless deferrals of victimhood). He heads out in search of the indris, large lemurs who reside in Madagascar (the country is never named of course). These lemurs, whom the narrator claims sing sweetly, are absurd symbols of peace, a world that suspends the very predation and violence that the narrator has participated in and will continue to participate in.
In time he joins a guerrilla force—does it matter which one?—and finds his way back to the warden, a powerful warlord here in the end of days. The warden is horrified to learn that the narrator has abandoned the girl. He chides the narrator, underscoring Ice’s Sadean themes—
‘You don’t know how to handle her,’ he stated coldly. ‘I’d have licked her into shape. She only needs training. She has to be taught toughness, in life and in bed.’
The narrator though is not upset at this idea; rather, he is mortified that his sense of identification with the warden has been sundered:
At that moment I was more concerned with him, linked to him so closely, as if we shared the same blood. I could not bear to be alienated from him. ‘Why are you so angry?’ I went a step closer, tried to touch his sleeve, but he moved out of my reach. ‘Is it only because of her?’ I could not believe this, the bond between him and myself seemed so strong. Just then she was nothing to me by comparison, not even real. We could have shared her between us…’
But of course that sharing has happened throughout the novel, in the most cruel and sadistic way. The girl, a trace, the decenterd center, slips between narrator and warden, all three agents of the same narrative force.
As Ice approaches its apocalyptic conclusion, the narrator continues to contend with his disintegrating perception of reality. Perhaps the greatest strength of Kavan’s novel is the way in which it reckons with how a first-person perspective is always under duress, always under the pressure to witness to and account for a world that will not stand still, a world to which we can never fully acclimate—
I should have been inured to climatic changes; but I again felt I had moved out of ordinary life into an area of total strangeness. All this was real, it was really happening, but with a quality of the unreal; it was reality happening in quite a different way.
The final paragraphs of Ice give way to insular, speeding destruction, the narrator and the girl (and the warden, implicitly always with them) in a heated car shuttling through a dying world. Indeed, the narrator remarks near the very end that, “The world seemed to have come to an end already. It did not matter.” The final moments of Ice are sinister and a bit heartwarming, the final phallic image an ironic spike to the narrator’s conciliatory tone. And the apocalypse? Well, the narrative ends, and the world of Ice ends with it—much as it began, with a narrative voice, lost in the cold. Very highly recommended.
I stepped into Ice with almost no information about the book aside from the fact that it was a cult classic of the British avant-garde that I had somehow up until now missed. I dispensed with the blurb on the back and skipped Jonathan Lethem’s introduction, and I know nothing yet about Kavan herself—which is like, starting to itch, the not-knowing. The novel is so wonderfully strange, so perfectly frustrating in its surreal upheavals and affronts to a reader’s sense of how a novel is supposed to work.
We access the world of Ice through an unnamed narrator’s first-hand account, an account that the narrator himself constantly places under radical suspicion. Consider these lines early in Chapter 6:
I got only intermittent glimpses of my surroundings, which seemed vaguely familiar, and yet distorted, unreal. My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.
Our narrator drops hints at times that the world he conjures through his telling might be his own surreal creation, that his quest to find “the girl” (the slippery displaced decentered center of Ice) might all be a weird fantasy.
The weird fantasy continues to take plenty of weird turns in the middle third of Ice. Our hero continues to transmogrify into different roles—a victorious commander of some antique battle, claiming “the girl” as a prize for war, or a criminal unjustly detained, or a secret agent—a double agent—playing espionage he doesn’t understand as he tracks “the girl” from unnamed country to unnamed country.
The fantasies, which arise in bursts of literary pastiche and near-parody, showcase the narrator’s expanding and contracting sense of self. His ego vacillates between energy and lethargy, intense interest and detached boredom. Kavan’s narrator echoes any number of Edgar Allan Poe’s maniacs. Sometimes he’s a ghost, immaterial, a cipher—
Nobody took the least notice of me. I must have been recognized, but received no sign of recognition from anyone, felt increasingly derealized, as familiar faces came up and passed me without a glance.
A few paragraphs later he projects grand delusions—or rather, what I take to be grand delusions. Ice presents them as reality.
Reality for our narrator is the fight between stasis and action, a reality/unreality that we get as a sort of constant narrative implosion/explosion—
In spite of an almost feverish anxiety over the girl, instead of attempting to find her I stood there doing nothing at all; became aware of an odd sort of fragmentation of my ideas.
Those ideas are always fragmenting, which for some readers (by which I mean me) makes Ice a compelling read, and for others will undoubtedly lead to frustration. Again, Kavan’s novel upends our expectations of how a novel is supposed to work.
Our first-person narrator, privy to scenes he cannot possibly have attended, tries to stabilize the whole project for both himself and us, his readers (without whom we begin to suspect he cannot exist). All of a sudden (to use a stock phrase that Kavan employs in the quote below, a stock phrase that sums up Ice’s picaresque energy) our narrator dispenses with the impending apocalypse as simply incredible and instead elects to ponder a future beyond disaster—
No snow; no ruins; no armed guards. It was a miracle, a flashback to something dreamed. Then another shock, the sensation of a violent awakening, as it dawned on me that this was the reality, and those other things the dream. All of a sudden the life I had lately been living appeared unreal: it simply was not credible any longer. I felt a huge relief, it was like emerging into sunshine from a long cold black tunnel. I wanted to forget what had just been happening, to forget the girl and the senseless, frustrating pursuit I had been engaged in, and think only about the future.
Of course, the future has other plans, at least if we take “the reality” of Ice at face value. The novel anticipates total apocalypse. Indeed, our narrator learns that as the ice collapses countries north of him, “destruction must have been on a gigantic scale. Little could have survived.” Even if broadcasters and their listeners “actually seemed to believe their country would escape the cataclysm,” our sly savvy psychopathic narrator “knew no country was safe, no matter how far removed from the present devastation, which would spread and spread, and ultimately cover the entire planet.” Thank goodness the ecological collapse dramatized in the background of Ice is wholly an imaginative fictional conceit and not an impending reality!
The world is a victim of an unexplained disaster in Ice. The narrator too can’t fully explain his desire to victimize “the girl” he chases throughout the novel, although he does repeatedly describe it. Kavan’s cipher is a strange Sadean object for the narrator, and each chapter suggests that he might find a masochistic identification in her terror and torture—
Her face haunted me: the sweep of her long lashes, her timid enchanting smile; and then a change of expression I could produce at will, a sudden shift, a bruised look, a quick change to terror, to tears. The strength of the temptation alarmed me. The black descending arm of the executioner; my hands seizing her wrists … I was afraid the dream might turn out to be real … Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.
The narrator here seems to double himself with “the girl,” his erstwhile cipher and victim. As Ice progresses, we begin to sense that he is also a double of “the warden,” a presence of masculine force and authority—
In an indescribable way our looks tangled together. I seemed to be looking at my own reflection. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him. At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes.
I’ll read he final third of Kavan’s Ice tonight or tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll pull together another riff on it. I’ll close simply by pointing out that I really like what the novel is doing. More to come.
The first three words of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice are “I was lost,” a simple declaration that seems to serve as a mission statement for the next 60 odd pages. I read these 60 odd pages (63, to be precise, in my Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of the novel) today, often feeling lost, and glad of it. I like it when I don’t really know what a book is doing, and Ice is such a book.
Ice is told in first-person by an as-yet-unnamed narrator who strikes me as more than a little unreliable. “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” he tells us early in the first chapter, admitting that, “At times this could be disturbing.”
Kavan crafts a disturbing, dreamlike tone from the novel’s opening pages, a sinister menace that intensified over the five chapters that I read today. The novel’s settings are detailed but also indistinct, not tethered to any specific time or place, yet nevertheless vaguely familiar. Ice starts in a place like England, and our narrator soon travels to what seems like a Scandinavian country—more on that in a minute—and it’s unclear when exactly the story is taking place: the past? The future? A twisted version of now?
What is clear is that Ice is set in a world that has fallen or is falling into ruin. The word ruins repeats throughout the book; there’s a sense of a post-war world that never recovered—crumbling walls, abandoned buildings, and a reliance on ancient fortresses as symbols of civilization. It’s simultaneously real and unreal, uncanny, disquieting. “The situation was alarming, the atmosphere tense, the emergency imminent,” our narrator tells us, pointing to the vague horror that writhes under the novel’s surface.
Our unnamed narrator repeatedly underscores Ice’s central unreality, an unreality that it is possible he, as the narrator, actually is creating through his witnessing and telling:
I was aware of an uncertainty of the real, in my surroundings and in myself. What I saw had no solidity, it was all made of mist and nylon, with nothing behind.”
Our narrator, who claims to have been at times a soldier and at times an explorer, admits that his medication might contribute to his sense of unreality, to his getting lost. Reading Ice is to get lost from paragraph to paragraph, which I mean in the most complimentary sense. I often had to backtrack, especially in the early chapters, to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed a sentence or stray line of connective tissue that might explain why we had suddenly ended up in, say, a Boschian-nightmare battle, or in the inside of a mesmerist’s chamber in a high tower.
The first swerve into unreality (if it is indeed unreality) happens in the opening paragraphs. Our narrator is lost, driving icy hills, looking for the home of a woman (“the girl”) he claims is his former betrothed, now married to another. It’s not quite clear why he needs to see her, but he’s looking for her, and he’s lost. (I have just describe the plot of the first several chapters.) Here is how we first meet the girl:
An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was.
Kavan’s narrator never fully explains that what he might have just communicated to the readers was an hallucination or other species of unreality. He concedes that his medication (for “trauma” inflicted by the girl’s desertion of him) leads him to have nightmares and visions, always of the girl becoming a “victim” of some kind (the word victim repeats throughout Ice).
He finally arrives at the house of the girl and her husband. Kavan layers this visit with his memories (or fantasies?) of at least one other visit to their home. Kavan condenses these scenes with surreal fabulsim. Our narrator, like Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim, seems unstuck in time, yet also seems unable, or unwilling, to provide his audience any guideposts. We get lost together.
Our narrator can also see sights that seem impossible to a first-person perspective—he seems able to see the girl in rooms we understand to be closed, in spaces we understand to be private, from distances we understand to be impossible. In one such instance, he even seems to peer through the girl’s own consciousness:
Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.
This apocalyptic vision is a foretaste of images to come later in the novel, although Kavan (or her narrator, I should write) is more interested, for now anyway, in the dream-like psychological apocalypse of the girl over the ecological apocalypse vaguely hinted at in initial chapters (“a steep rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device,” “substantial climatic change,” impending secret wars).
The girl moves closer to the “arctic prison” of her vision after running away from home and husband (or is she kidnapped?)—and our narrator follows her, trusting his intuition, which somehow gets him on a ship headed to a Scandinavianish country in a town that pulses with mythical dread. Here, the girl seems to be imprisoned by a man called only “the warden” in a fortress called the High House. Our narrator, as before, is able to access this private space, which he describes for us in horrific, archetypal terms:
She was in bed, not asleep, waiting. A faint pinkish glow came from a lamp beside her. The wide bed stood on a platform, bed and platform alike covered in sheepskin, facing a great mirror nearly as long as the wall. Alone here, where nobody could hear her, where nobody was meant to hear, she was cut off from all contact, totally vulnerable, at the mercy of the man who came in without knocking, without a word, his cold, very bright blue eyes pouncing on hers in the glass. She crouched motionless, staring silently into the mirror, as if mesmerized. The hypnotic power of his eyes could destroy her will, already weakened by the mother who for years had persistently crushed it into submission. Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will, which was able to take complete possession of her. I saw it happen
“I saw it happen”: How?
Our narrator poses as a researcher of ruins in the town; the warden allows it (or at least seems to allow it) in the hopes that the narrator will convince his countrymen to help the warden’s country with the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile, the girl seems subject to multiple instances of becoming a victim, sacrificial and otherwise. (There are cliffs, there are dragons, there are battles, there are phosphorescent skeletons). How real these instances are is impossible to say. They are real enough to the narrator in any case, even if he seems able to walk away from them after a paragraph or two. “I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously,” he tells us, adding that “the overlapping of these planes was confusing.”
Confusing is one word, although Kafkaesque would do as well. I have tried to avoid using the word Kafkaesque to describe literature of late—it’s overused, and a bit of a crutch. Ice is reminiscent of The Castle, sure, but that’s not why I use the term here. Kavan’s writing achieves what Kafka’s writing achieves: It evokes the image and psychology of apocalypse while at the same time negating, displacing, suspending, delaying, or otherwise withholding the revelation that apocalypse promises. It is apocalypse without explanation, without understanding, without wisdom. It is being lost.
Kavan’s novel’s fable-like quality also calls to mind Angela Carter’s stories and novels, and the psychological dynamics recall J.G. Ballard (whose blurb appears on my copy). There are other notes of course—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time—but Ice strikes me as its own flavor and idiom of strange, a flavor and idiom I am digging very much right now. More thoughts to come.
Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).
The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.
I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.
Chief among Tracker’s allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.
The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.
From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.
James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.
At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.
Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.
Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:
And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.
James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”
Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.
A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:
I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.
A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.
While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.
The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.
There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.
In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.
In February of 2002, three friends came to visit me and my girlfriend in our tiny apartment in Tokyo. We had been living there for just a few months, since September of 2001. I was ostensibly teaching English, but really just serving as a conversation partner for overworked salarymen, bored hobbyists, and hopeless teens. These folks were essentially being scammed by a national corporation pretending to be a school for language instruction. It was my first job out of college. I loved Tokyo and I had made a ton of friends and I was tired all the time. It was famous times for me, and I was thrilled that my friends came to share a week of it.
My friends brought with them a care package, bolstered with items from my parents and other friends. The care package included things that weren’t easy to get in Tokyo, like taco shells and NyQuil. There was a bottle of Jack Daniels that never made it to Japan. My friends drank it on the airplane, which I guess you could still do just a few months after 9/11. There was also the October 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Last month my dean called me into his office and explained that I would have to move out of my office. We would all have to move out of our offices; our beloved shabby building was to be gutted that summer, sooner than to be expected, and the college would not be able to store much beyond a few file cabinets and boxes of books. Take all that art home, etc. This was a stressful chore at the end of term, not just because it necessitated moving physical items at the same time I had finals to grade and students to meet with (students tend to show up to office hours a lot this time of year), but also because I had essentially been using my office as a proxy storage facility for the last decade, and it was crammed with stuff I probably needed to just, like, hell, go ahead and part with.
I filled boxes with old mass-market paperbacks that had migrated, triple-stacked, to my shelves over the years, and took them to classrooms, where students swooped on them with an eagerness that I found frankly shocking. I gave away posters and framed art, little plastic toys and boxes of permanent markers. I surrendered a green Underwood typewriter I’d lugged around for years to a student who promised to write poems on it. I ditched hard copies of over a decade of work I’d originated–lecture notes and quizzes and the like. And I shredded years and years of student work. All of this was cathartic and a little exhausting.
The materials in my office represented, in a way, more than a decade of my unwillingness to fully surrender the crap I’d accumulated over the years. My children needed their own space for their own things, and scores of cheap paperback books, a ribbonless typewriter, cheap ¥100-shop masks, Simpsons Lego figurines, and boxes and binders of papers had to go somewhere. There were shelves in my office though. Filing cabinets too. And I filled one of those filing cabinet drawers with around a hundred back issues of Harper’s Magazine that I could not bear to part with.
Beginning in 1998, I subscribed on and off to Harper’s for twenty years. The magazine’s journalism and short stories were a developmental influence on me, and its editorial position in the early years of Bush 2 were especially important to how I conceived of both politics and rhetoric. The book reviews—John Leonard’s in particular—were always a favorite, too, as was “Harper’s Index,” a monthly poem comprised of data.
But it was the “Readings” section of Harper’s that I loved the most. Short extracts—musings, art, poetry, petitions, found poetry, jokes, essays, letters, lists, rebukes, rejoinders, absurdities, profundities, hilarities. And art! Lots and lots of art–photography, oil painting, drawings, and so on. Harper’s “Readings” section was like a curated feed of the best content, before such a vile term as “curated feed of the best content” existed. (Please forgive me for typing “curated feed of the best content” and know that I will never forgive myself). “Readings” influenced this blog, Biblioklept, tremendously.
The “Readings” section of the October 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine does not feature any big names, other than Lucian Freud. (His painting Leigh on Green Sofa is there, but is not as intriguing as Clive Smith’s Waited, which looks like it could be a Freud painting from a previous era). The most memorable bits of this “Readings” section are a selection of excerpts from fourth graders’ essays about their experiences with their school’s rat infestation (“I saw a rat in the classroom. It was big and weird and I saw it by Sierra’s shoes. I saw it by the trash”), and this riddle:
So I disposed of, by giving away or recycling or cutting up, almost every issue of Harper’s I’d accrued over the years. By “cutting up,” I mean that I cut sections out of certain issues—mostly bits from the “Readings” section, or essays, or short stories—stuff from Margaret Atwood, William Burroughs, Wells Tower, Ursula Le Guin.
I ended up keeping eleven issues, including the October 2001 issue.
How did I decide what to keep? In some cases, I knew what I was looking for in some cases—a “Folio” section by William T. Vollmann that was later collected in Imperial, for instance, or stories and essays by old masters like William Gass and Robert Coover. Also, the double-sized June 2000 issue, the 150th Anniversary edition loaded with ringers, both in “Readings” (Barry Hannah, Gertrude Stein, Orson Welles, Mark, Twain, JL Borges) and in the magazine proper (Tom Wolfe, Russell Banks, Ha Jin, Annie Proulx). For the most part, my aim was to cut out stories or essays, but sometimes I’d end up with an issue to of-its-time to dispose of. The February 2008 of Harper’s was very 2008, for instance: David Foster Wallace, Slavoj Žižek, Malcolm Morley’s painting Death of Dale Earnhardt—
–and Ursula Le Guin’s essay “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading.” As I went to cut out the William Gass essay on Malcolm Lowry from the January 2008 issue, I browsed the contents long enough to see a story by Ben Marcus and readings from Robert Walser and Grace Paley. There’s also a full-page image of Julie Heffernan’s painting Self Portrait as Post Script.
(I have stolen and skewed the title of Julie Heffernan’s painting for the title of my own silly blog post, which is, after all, simply my own postscript, my own unnecessary, sentimental, messy afterthought on throwing out years and years of papers, an afterthought bumbling about in the semblance of a crude self portrait, a little sketch about then and now).
Gass’s name on the cover from an issue one year later, January 2009, saved a section memorializing David Foster Wallace, including selections from Zadie Smith, George Saunders, and Don DeLillo. (The issue also has an exhaustive triple-length “Harper’s Index” titled “A retrospective of the Bush era). A 2005 issue—again Bill Gass’s name on the cover—included a drawing by George Boorujy, who I interviewed on this site in 2012.
For the most part though, I threw issues away.
I did not throw out the October 2001 issue of Harper’s. I probably read it half a dozen times back in 2002. It would be a lie to say the issue is tattooed into my brain, but it’s there—like a kind of psychic residue, a blurry vibe of a weird time in my young life. I most remembered “All God’s Children Can Dance,” a short story by Haruki Marukami, an author I’ve never thought was particularly good—but I loved this story. It was the first Marukami I read and it opened with the line, “Yoshiya woke with the worst possible hangover,” and included details like riding the Marunouchi Line, the train I took every day or almost every day to work in Shinjuku to chat about my Florida lifestyle with sweating business guys and lonely housewives. The story is very Raymond Carver (it’s translated by Jay Rubin) and not especially good, I realize, as I stop to reread it now, but I love it.
The October 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine also features a charming essay about dinosaurs as pop culture by Jack Hitt, a sad riff on Alzheimer’s by Eleanor Clooney, and a lead story about troubles in Palestine by Chris Hedges. None of these selections are particularly remarkable. What’s strange to me about the issue, I guess, is that it bears absolutely no trace whatsoever of the September 11th terrorist attacks. It’s as if the event simply had not happened yet, which it hadn’t, at least for a magazine already planned and executed weeks ahead of time. I’m guessing that the issue probably was on sale in September of 2001. So the October 2001 issue of Harper’s was already a relic when it came to me in February of 2002; the world had shifted at the time of its publication. By the time I read it the U.S. military had been in Afghanistan for four months already. They are still there today.
This publishing lag in the October 2001 issue of Harper’s seems utterly bizarre in retrospect, especially given the tenor of issues a few months later. I kept the January and March 2002 issues, both brought over by a friend who visited me in Tokyo (maybe the worst house guest I’ve ever had. We sang karaoke until 8am on my 23rd birthday). Both issues are suffused in the horror of the new normal, and both feature fantastic short fiction — “The New Female Head” by Ben Marcus in the January issue, and Adam Johnson’s “Teen Sniper,” a tale that could give George Saunders a run for his money.
I searched just now for links to free online versions of “The New Female Head” and “Teen Sniper,” but I couldn’t find any. If you have a subscription to Harper’s, you can read them there, online, as pdfs or as, uh, microfiche. I haven’t used the digital archive in a long time, but I recall its being clunky and somewhat hard to use. And even if it can lead you to a pdf version of, say, an old Steven Millhauser or Don DeLillo story, the online archive simply can’t replicate the stochastic reading experience of flipping through a magazine, tumbling from weird short readings to art to lists of statistics before settling down in a long feature essay (or skimming through one of Lapham’s lectures).
My subscription is lapsed now—I don’t think the magazine is as good as it used to be—but I’ll occasionally peruse an issue at the library or flick through it at the bookstore. I’m sure something on some future cover will tempt me to commit to purchasing the issue and rounding out my archive to a nice dozen issues. For now though, I’m content to skim through this old issue from October 2001, in which Lewis Lapham, in a “Notebook” column dated September 1, 2001, concludes, quite ironically, that “Fortunately we don’t live in times that try men’s souls.” And then maybe I’ll skim through some of the later issues I held on to and see how that assessment panned out.
Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.
When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community, He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.
After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.
Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.
The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.
Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.
Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.
Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.
The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.
And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,
Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.
Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:
He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”
“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”
“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”
Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”
Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.
Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.
The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”
“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.
Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:
Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.
The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?
Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.
In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:
The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.
There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:
The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”
A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).
“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:
I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.
“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:
It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!
Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.
What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).
“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:
“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …
“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.
While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:
Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.
Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:
The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.
The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.
In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:
“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.
Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”
“Oh,” Dan said.
In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:
I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.
Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.
The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.
Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.
I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.