“I Wrote a Letter…” — Donald Barthelme

“I Wrote a Letter…”

by

Donald Barthelme


I wrote a letter to the President of the moon, asked him if they had towaway zones up there. The cops had towed away my Honda and I didn’t like it. Cost me seventy-five dollars to get it back, plus the mental health. You ever notice how the tow trucks pick on little tiny cars? You ever seen them hauling off a Chrysler Imperial? No, you haven’t.

The President of the moon replied most courteously that the moon had no towaway zones whatsoever. Mental health on the moon, he added, cost only a dollar.

Well, I needed mental health real bad that week, so I wrote back saying I thought I could get there by the spring of ’81, if the space shuttle fulfilled its porcelain promise, and to keep some mental health warm for me who needed it, and could I interest him in a bucket of ribs in red sauce? Which I would gladly carry on up there to him if he wished?

The President of the moon wrote back that he would be delighted to have a bucket of ribs in red sauce, and that his zip code, if I needed it, was 10011000000000.

I cabled him that I’d bring some six-packs of Rolling Rock beer to drink with the ribs in red sauce, and, by the way, what was the apartment situation up there?

It was bad, he replied by platitudinum plate, apartments were running about a dollar a year, he knew that was high but what could he do? These were four-bedroom apartments, he said, with three baths, library, billiard room, root cellar, and terrace over- looking the Sea of Prosperity. Maybe he could get me a rent abatement, he said, ’cause of me being a friend of the moon.

The moon began to sound like a pretty nice place. I sent a dollar to the Space Shuttle Hurry-Up Fund.

Drumming fiercely on a hollow log with a longitudinal slit tuned to moon frequencies, I asked him about employment, medical coverage, retirement benefits, tax shelterage, convenience cards, and Christmas Club accounts.

That’s a roger, he moonbeamed back, a dollar covers it all, and if you don’t have a dollar we’ll lend you a dollar through the Greater Moon Development Mechanism.

What about war and peace? I inquired by means of curly little ALGOL circuits I had knitted myself on my Apple computer.

The President of the moon answered (by MIRV’D metaphor) that ticktacktoe was about as far as they’d got in that direction, and about as far as they would go, if he had anything to say about it.

I told him via flights of angels with special instructions that it looked to me like he had things pretty well in hand up there and would he by any chance consider being President of us? Part-time if need be?

No, he said (in a shower of used-car asteroids with blue-and-green bumper stickers), our Presidential campaigns seemed to damage the candidates, hurt them. They began hitting each other over the head with pneumatic Russians, or saying terminally silly things about the trees. He wouldn’t mind being Dizzy Gillespie, he said.

From The Teachings of Don B. (Via.)

“Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks” — Wallace Stevens

“Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks”
by
Wallace Stevens

In the moonlight
I met Berserk,
In the moonlight
On the bushy plain.
Oh, sharp he was
As the sleepless!
And, “Why are you red
In this milky blue?”
I said.
“Why sun-colored,
As if awake
In the midst of sleep?”
“You that wander,”
So he said,
“On the bushy plain,
Forget so soon.
But I set my traps
In the midst of dreams.”
I knew from this
That the blue ground
Was full of blocks
And blocking steel.
I knew the dread
Of the bushy plain,
And the beauty
Of the moonlight
Falling there,
Falling
As sleep falls
In the innocent air.

D.H. Lawrence’s The Bad Side of Books (Book acquired 16 Oct. 2019)

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NRYB has compiled a collection of essays from D.H. Lawrence entitled The Bad Side of Books. I’ve always appreciated Lawrence’s nonfiction (particularly Apocalypse) more than his fiction, so this collection (with its great title) piques my interest. NYRB’s blurb:

You could describe D.H. Lawrence as the great multi-instrumentalist among the great writers of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant, endlessly controversial novelist who transformed, for better and for worse, the way we write about sex and emotions; he was a wonderful poet; he was an essayist of burning curiosity, expansive lyricism, odd humor, and radical intelligence, equaled, perhaps, only by Virginia Woolf. Here Geoff Dyer, one of the finest essayists of our day, draws on the whole range of Lawrence’s published essays to reintroduce him to a new generation of readers for whom the essay has become an important genre. We get Lawrence the book reviewer, writing about Death in Venice and welcoming Ernest Hemingway; Lawrence the travel writer, in Mexico and New Mexico and Italy; Lawrence the memoirist, depicting his strange sometime-friend Maurice Magnus; Lawrence the restless inquirer into the possibilities of the novel, writing about the novel and morality and addressing the question of why the novel matters; and, finally, the Lawrence who meditates on birdsong or the death of a porcupine in the Rocky Mountains. Dyer’s selection of Lawrence’s essays is a wonderful introduction to a fundamental, dazzling writer.

The Bootleggers — Edward Hopper

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The Bootleggers, 1925 by Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Come, you, I want to show you something | From Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz 

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Come, you, I want to show you something. The harlot Babylon, the great harlot, that sitteth upon many waters. I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints.

Franz Biberkopf drifts through the streets, trots his trot and doesn’t stop, he’s getting his strength back. It is warm summer weather, Franz schlepps himself from bar to bar.

He steers clear of the heat. In the bar they are just drawing the first beers.

The first beer says: I come from the cellar, from hops and malt. I am cool, how do I taste?

Franz says: Bitter, good, cool.

Yes, I’ll cool you down. I cool the men, then I make them warm, and then I take away their superfluous thoughts.

Superfluous thoughts?

Yes, most thoughts are superfluous. Am I right or am I right? – Right.

A small schnapps stands bright yellow before Franz. Where did you spring from? – They burnt me, man. – You have a bite to you, fellow, you’ve got claws. – Well, that’s what makes me a schnapps. Expect you haven’t seen one in a while. – No, I was almost dead, little schnapps, I was almost dead and done for. Gone without a return ticket. – You look like it too. – Look like it, cut the cackle. Let’s try you again, come here. Ah, you’re good, good and fiery. – The schnapps trickles down the back of his throat: fire.

The smoke from the fire rises in Franz, it scorches his throat, he needs another beer: you’re my second beer, I’ve already had one, what have you got to say to me? – Taste me first, fatso, then we can talk. – All right.

Then the beer says: now listen, you, if you drink another couple of beers, and another kummel, and another grog, then you’ll swell up like dried peas. – So? – Yes, then you’ll be fat again, and then what will that look like? Can you be seen among people like that? Have another swallow.

And Franz grabs his third: I’m swallowing. One after the other. All in nice order.

He asks the fourth: what do you know, darling? – She just growls back blissfully. Franz knocks her back: I believe yer. Whatever you say, my darling, I believe yer. You’re my little sheep, and you and me are going up to the meadow together.

From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

 

From “Our History of Art” — Chris Ware

Three panels from “Our History of Art,” by Chris Ware. From the 2005 Pantheon collection The Acme Novelty Library.

Appears the Man — Ivan Albright

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Appears the Man, 1980 by Ivan Albright (1897-1983)

Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek

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I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.

Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.

The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.

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Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.

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Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.

I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.

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Shelter — Jennifer Cronin

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Shelter, 2011 by Jennifer Cronin

Plastics and paranoia (Harold Bloom on Thomas Pynchon)

For Pynchon, ours is the age of plastics and paranoia, dominated by the System. No one is going to dispute such a conviction; reading the New York Times first thing every morning is sufficient to convince one that not even Pynchon’s imagination can match journalistic irreality. What is more startling about Pynchon is that he has found ways of representing the impulse to defy the System, even though both impulse and its representations always are defeated. In the Zone (which is our cosmos as the Gnostics saw it, the kenoma or Great Emptiness) the force of the System, of They (whom the Gnostics called Archons), is in some sense irresistible, as all overdetermination must be irresistible. Yet there is a Counterforce, hardly distinguished in its efficacy, but it never does (or can) give up. Unfortunately, its hero is the extraordinarily ordinary Tyrone Slothrop, who is a perpetual disaster, and whose ultimate fate, being “scattered” (rather in biblical sense), is accomplished by Pynchon with dismaying literalness. And yet—Slothrop, who has not inspired much affection even in Pynchon’s best critics, remains more Pynchon himself.

From Harold Bloom’s introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Views: Thomas Pynchon.

Reading the very best writers is not going to make us better citizens (Harold Bloom)

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.

From Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

The authentic American apocalyptic novel | Harold Bloom and Blood Meridian

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation since its publication, especially in pre-social media outlets, like Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library edition, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies:

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights — Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore:

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes:

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel. Bloom intuits that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage—a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published a version of this post in September of 2010].

Girl Reading a Newspaper — Louis Anquetin

Girl Reading a Newspaper 1890 by Louis Anquetin 1861-1932

Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890 by Louis Anquetin (1861–1932)

Three Books

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The Last Days of Louisiana Red by Ishmael Reed. 1974 first edition hardback from Random House. No designer credited, but the jacket flap indicates that the cover design was “suggested” by Ishmael Reed. I reviewed Louisiana Red earlier this year on this site.

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Blue Beard by Max Frisch. English translation by Geoffrey Skelton. 1983 first edition hardback from HBJ. Design by Amy Hill.

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Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits by Stanley Elkin. Foreword by Robert Coover. 1980 first edition hardback from E.P. Dutton. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

Genius of the River Chases Away The Frenzy of Art — Jillian Denby

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Genius of the River Chases Away The Frenzy of Art, 2017 by Jillian Denby (b. 1944)

25 still frames from Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

64 (393)01 (522)03 (521)05 (522)08 (522)20 (532)21 (532)24 (532)25 (532)26 (532)27 (532)28 (531)30 (531)31 (528)32 (530)37 (529)43 (522)53 (498)54 (494)56 (484)58 (479)59 (475)62 (434)63 (410)65 (357)

From Jackie Brown, 1997. Directed by Quentin Tarantino with cinematography by Guillermo Navarro. Via Film Grab. RIP Robert Forster.

“Conversation with Job” — Alfred Döblin

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Conversation with Job, it’s up to you, Job, you don’t want to

After Job had lost everything, everything a man can possibly lose, not more and not less, he lay in the cabbage patch.

‘Job, you’re lying in the cabbage patch, just far enough away from the doghouse for the dog not to bite you. You hear him gnashing his teeth. The dog will bark if you take so much as a single step. If you turn round or make to get up, he will growl, rush at you, rattle his chain, jump out, drool and snap at you.

‘Job, there is your palace, and there are the gardens and fields that once were yours. This watchdog was not even known to you, and this cabbage patch where you have been thrown was not even known to you, any more than the goats they drove past you in the mornings that would take a mouthful of grass as they passed, and grind it between their teeth and fill their cheeks with it. They were yours.

‘Job, you have lost everything. You are allowed to shelter in the barn at night. Everyone is afraid of your contagion. You once rode in splendour over your estates, and people used to flock around you. Now you’ve got the wooden fence in front of you, and you can watch the snails creep up it. You can make a study of the earthworms. Those are the only creatures that aren’t afraid of you.

You hardly ever open your crusty eyes, you bundle of misery, you human swamp.

‘What is the worst torment, Job? The fact that you lost your sons and daughters, that you own nothing, that you’re cold at night, the boils on your throat, on your nose? Tell, Job.’

‘Who’s asking?’

‘I’m just a voice.’

A voice comes out of a throat.’

‘You mean I must be a human being.’

‘Yes, and therefore I don’t want to see you. Go away.’

‘I’m just a voice, Job, open your eyes as far as you can, and then you’ll see me.’

‘I’m raving. My head, my brains, now I’m being driven mad, now they’re taking my thoughts away from me.’

‘And if they were, would that matter?’

‘I don’t want them to.’

‘Even though you’re suffering so much, and suffering so much by your thoughts, you still don’t want to lose them?’

‘Don’t ask. Go away.’

‘But I’m not taking anything. I just want to know which torment is the worst.’

‘That’s nobody’s business.’

‘You mean, nobody but you?’

‘Yes. Yes. Certainly not yours!”

The dog barks, growls, snaps at the air. The voice returns after a while:

‘Is it your sons you are lamenting over?’

‘No one need pray for me when I’m dead. I’m poison to the earth. When I am gone, just spit. Forget Job.’

‘And your daughters?’

‘My daughters. Ah. They’re dead too. They’re fine. They were pictures of women. They would have given me grandchildren, and they were dashed from me. One after the other was dashed to the ground, as though God had taken her by the hair, and lifted her up and thrown her to the ground, broken.’

‘Job, you can’t open your eyes, they are gummed shut. You are lamenting because you are in the cabbage patch, and the doghouse is the least thing that is yours, that and your disease.’

‘The voice, you voice, whosesoever voice you are, and wherever you are hiding.’

‘I don’t know why you’re lamenting.’

‘Oh. Oh.’

‘You groan, and you don’t know either, Job.’

‘No, I have—’

‘You have?’

‘I have no strength. That’s it.’

‘So you’d like strength.’

‘No strength with which to hope or wish. I have no teeth. I am soft, I feel ashamed.’

‘So you say’

‘Yes, you must know. That’s the worst.’

‘So it’s already written on my brow. That’s what a rag I am.’

‘That’s what is causing you the most suffering, Job. You would like not to be weak, you would like to resist, or to be wholly riddled, your brains gone, your thoughts gone, just an animal. Make a wish.’

‘You’ve asked me so many things, voice, I think you must be allowed to ask. Heal me. If you can. Whether your name is Satan or God or angel or man, heal me.’

‘Will you accept healing from anyone?’

‘Heal me.’

‘Job, think carefully. You can’t see me. If you open your eyes, perhaps you will be shocked to see me. Perhaps I will charge a great and terrible price.’

‘All will be seen. You speak like someone who is serious.’

‘What if I am Satan or the Evil One?’

‘Heal me.’

‘I am Satan.’

‘Heal me.’

The voice withdrew, became weaker and ever weaker. The dog barked. Job listened fearfully: he is gone, I must be healed, or I must die. He squawked. A terrible night broke in. The voice came back once more:

“And if I am Satan, how will you deal with me?’

Job screamed: ‘You will not heal me. No one will help me, not God, not Satan, and no angel, and no human.’

‘And you yourself?’

‘What about me?’

‘You won’t.’

‘What.’

‘Who can help you when you don’t want to help yourself?’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job.

The voice in front of him: ‘God and Satan, angels and humans, all want to help you, but you will not help yourself – God out of love, Satan so as to control you later, the angels and men because they are helpers of God and Satan, but you don’t want to.’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job, and screamed, and flung himself to the ground.

He screamed all night long. The voice called uninterruptedly: ‘God and Satan, angels and men, all will help you, but you will not help yourself.’ Job uninterruptedly: ‘No, no.’ He tried to stifle the voice, it grew louder and ever louder, it was always a degree ahead of him. All night long. Towards morning, Job fell on his face.

Job lay there silent.

That day the first of his boils healed.


From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).