The Land of Extreme Happiness in The West, 2019 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)
The Land of Extreme Happiness in The West, 2019 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)
In a work of blistering dark hilarity, a young Nietzsche experiences life in a metal band & the tribulations of finals season in a modern secondary school
When a new student transfers in from a posh private school, he falls in with a group of like-minded suburban stoners, artists, and outcasts—too smart and creative for their own good. His classmates nickname their new friend Nietzsche (for his braininess and bleak outlook on life), and decide he must be the front man of their metal band, now christened Nietzsche and the Burbs.
With the abyss of graduation—not to mention their first gig—looming ahead, the group ramps up their experimentations with sex, drugs, and…nihilist philosophy. Are they as doomed as their intellectual heroes? And why does the end of youth feel like such a universal tragedy?
And as they ponder life’s biggies, this sly, elegant, and often laugh-out-loud funny story of would-be rebels becomes something special: an absorbing and stirring reminder of a particular, exciting yet bittersweet moment in life…and a reminder that all adolescents are philosophers, and all philosophers are adolescents at heart.
Untitled (Stage), 2018 by Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
The Pillow, 2006 by John Currin (b. 1962)
I read Ishmael Reed’s 1976 novel Flight to Canada over the last few days of 2019. I enjoyed the book tremendously, even as it made me dizzy at times with its frenetic, zany achronological satire of the American Civil War.
What is it about?
Flight to Canada features a number of intersecting plots. One of these plots follows the ostensible protagonist of the novel, former slave Raven Quickskill, who escapes the Swille plantation in Virginia. Along with two other former slaves of the Swille plantation, Quickskill makes his way far north to “Emancipation City” where he composes a poem called “Flight to Canada,” which expresses his desire to escape America completely. The aristocratic (and Sadean) Arthur Swille simply cannot let “his property run off with himself,” and sends trackers to find Quickskill and the other escapees, Emancipation Proclamation be damned. On the run from trackers, Quickskill jumps from misadventure to misadventure, eventually reconnecting his old flame, an Indian dancer named Quaw Quaw (as well as her husband, the pirate Yankee Jack). Back at Swille’s plantation Swine’rd, several plots twist around, including a visit by Old Abe Lincoln, a sadistic episode between Lady Swille and her attendant Mammy Barracuda, and the day-to-day rituals of Uncle Robin, a seemingly-compliant “Uncle Tom” figure who turns out to be Reed’s real hero in the end.
(And oh, Quickskill makes it to Canada in the end. Now, whether or not he wants to stay there after he gets there…)
There’s a whole lot more in the book, too. It’s difficult to summarize—like the majority of the other seven novels I’ve read by Reed, Flight to Canada isn’t so much a work of plot and character development as it is a jazzy extemporization of disparate themes and motifs. Reed’s novel is about slavery and freedom, war and aesthetics, perspective and time, and how history gets told and taught to future.
As a means to satirize not just the Civil War but also how we read and write and portray the Civil War, Reed collapses time in Flight to Canada. As novelist Jerome Charyn points out in his contemporary review of the novel in The New York Times,
Reed has little use for statistical realities. He is a necromancer, a believer in the voodoos of art. Time becomes a modest, crazy fluid in Reed’s head, allowing him to mingle events of the last 150 years, in order to work his magic. We have Abe Lincoln and the Late Show, slave catchers and “white ‐ frosted Betty Crocker glossy cake,” Jefferson Davis and Howard K. Smith. Every gentleman’s carriage is equipped with “factory climate‐control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power‐lock doors, six‐way power seat, power windows, whitewall wheels, door‐edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and softglass.”
Reed’s achronological gambit allows him to bring figures from any time period into the narrative, no questions asked. Edgar Allan Poe is there, even though he died over a decade before the war began. No matter. Our narrator claims early on that Poe was “the principal biographer of that strange war…Poe got it all down. Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians.” Lord Byron shows up too, as do Charles I of England and the Marquis de Sade. There are contemporary figures of the Civil War era there too, of course—Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Reed takes to task repeatedly), Frederick Douglass, and the writer William Wells Brown, whom Quickskill meets in a surprisingly moving scene (Quickskill says that Brown is his hero and that his novel Clotel was the inspiration for “Flight to Canada”). The fictional characters of Flight to Canada discuss or interact with these historical figures in such a way to continually critique not just the words and deeds of the historical figures, but the very way we frame and narrativize those words and deeds.
The technological anachronisms of Flight to Canada also serve to critique our framing of history. Our American Cousins plays live on broadcast TV, assassination and all:
Booth, America’s first Romantic Assassin. They replay the actual act, the derringer pointing through the curtains, the President leaning to one side, the FIrst Lady standing, shocked, the Assassin leaping from the balcony, gracefully, beautifully, in slow motion. They promise to play it again on the Late News. When the cameras swing back to the Balcony, Miss Laura Keene of Our American Cousins is at Lincoln’s side “live.” Her gown is spattered with brain tissue. A reporter has a microphone in Mary Todd’s face.
“Tell us, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you feel having just watched your husband’s brains blow out before your eyes?”
(In a very Reedian move, the live assassination plays out during a sex scene between Quickskill and Quaw Quaw. The TV is always on in America, even during sex.)
Reed’s rhetorical distortions in depicting the Lincoln assassination are both grotesque and comic. Not only can we imagine a reporter doing the same in 1976, when Flight to Canada was published, we can imagine the same crass, exploitative handling today. Technology might have changed but people really haven’t
In his review, Jerome Charyn, begins by pointing out that 1976 is the American Bicentennial, something that simply did not entire my mind while reading Flight to Canada. Reed’s novel’s publication is appropriate and timely, and breaks “through the web of historical romance” (in the words of Charyn) that hangs over the “chicanery, paranoia and violence underlying most of our ‘democratic vistas.'”
Concluding his review, Charyn writes,
Flight to Canada could have been a very thin book, an unsubtle catalogue of American disorders. But Reed has the wit, the style, and the intelligence to do much more than that. The book explodes. Reed’s special grace is anger. His own sense of bewilderment deepens the comedy, forces us to consider the sad anatomy of his ideas. Flight to Canada is a hellish book with its own politics and a muscular, luminous prose. It should survive.
Books don’t survive of course; rather, they are always in the process of surviving. Books are either read, or not read. Flight to Canada should be read because it is witty and angry and unique and smart, and its critique of American history (and how we narrativize and aestheticize American history) is as vital and necessary today as it was nearly a half century ago.
Since the last time I’ve done one of these stupid “books acquired” posts, I’ve had at least six review copies show up at Biblioklept World Headquarters, Joy Williams’ 1988 Florida Keys novel Breaking and Entering, and a signed first-edition hardback copy of Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-hoodoo novel Flight to Canada—which I finished yesterday morning—and I’ve yet to do one of these stupid “books acquired posts” on any of them.
I had intended to do write about Flight to Canada today—a very Reedesque romp, overstuffed with characters and capers and motifs and themes, a zany satire of not just the Civil War, but also the American 1970s. Anyway, I’d intended to write about it today (or maybe riff on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which I saw last night and adored), but I ended up having to do a bunch of post-Xmas chores. The last few weeks have been busy.
In between post-Xmas chores, I dropped my daughter off at my in-law’s, which necessitates driving past my favorite used bookstore. I couldn’t resist stopping by, even though I need another book like I need another hole in my head. I mean, I had intended to start Charles Portis’s latest (and hopefully not last!) novel Gringos today. Instead, I started Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was an unexpected highlight for me in 2019—I’ll admit I’d never really thought to read anything of hers after filing her under Eighth grade lit after reading “The Lottery” (I made a similar stupid mistake with William Golding (filed under Tenth grade lit), corrected by good people who told me to read The Inheritors). I didn’t really know anything about We Have Always Lived in the Castle until today, but I love the title and really dig this Penguin edition’s cover (by comix artist Thomas Ott). Like Hill House, Castle also has a fantastic opening paragraph:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The first sentence is a bit banal, a little bit of exposition, right? And then by the time you get to the “I could have been a werewolf,” well, what the hell? And then there’s a because, lovely, before a nice lists of dislikes (first!) and then likes (including a deadly mushroom, which Jackson’s narrator Mary (purposefully?) misnames as the “death-cup” instead of the death cap. The last line is a hell of a zinger.
I skipped Jonathan Lethem’s introduction of course, but I did have to go figure out if he also wrote the introduction to the edition of Hill House I read last year. (He didn’t Jonny Lethe wrote the intro to the copy of Anna Kavan’s Ice that I read last year. I’ll read J-Lethz intro after I finish.)
I also picked up a 1973 Penguin edition of a collection of Flann O’Brien’s stories and plays. (Neil Stuart’s cover was worth the two bucks.) The bulk of the collection is devoted to an unfinished novel called Slattery’s Sogo Saga and a play called Faustus Kelly, attributed to O’Brien’s pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (rendered in this edition as Myles Na Gopaleen—Flann O’Brien was actually a pseudonym too, for Brian O’Nolan).
Like the O’Brien collection, picking up a clearly-unread pristine massmarket paperback edition of J.G. Ballard’s 1965 novel The Drought was more an I have to type situation than anything else, although I’m sure I’ll read it this year (I’m always looking to scarf down a Philip K. Dick or Ballard I haven’t read, and I haven’t read The Drought). Initially, I was perplexed—I thought I knew all Ballard titles, even the ones I haven’t read—but it turns out that The Drought was initially published in 1964 as The Burning World (which I was aware of). In any case, The Drought is probably horrifyingly prescient novel as we enter the New Twenties. Happy New Year!
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, Angela Carter
Deeply horny and deeply deprave. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. It’s a picaresque adventure with narrator Desiderio taking on titular mad scientist Hoffman and his war against reality. Wild shit happens and each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Remedios Varo (translation by Margaret Carson)
Interviewing Margaret Carson was an early highlight of 2019 for me. We talked about Varo’s letters and other writings (dreams!), and she brought up Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Pynchon, which is like, golden for me.
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (translation by Clarence Brown)
I absolutely loved Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation of Zamyatin’s We. From my review:
Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.
Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover
Probably the best opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel that fails deliver after the first 100 or so pages. Coover turns it up to 11—the second chapter of Origin, describing a mine’s implosion, is some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, but the next 400 pages of the disaster’s fallout is a rhetorical trudge.
The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)
For completists only. A dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives. I wrote about it here.
Evening in Paradise, Lucia Berlin
Taking Care, Joy Williams
No!, Leslie Fiedler
Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is extremely important to how I think about American literature. No! is not nearly as good.
A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer
How serendipitous that Boyer’s collection of essays begins with a wonderful essay called “No.” Good stuff.
Kingdom, Jon McNaught
I reviewed it at The Comics Journal, writing,
Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.
,before going on to riff on John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song a bit.
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James
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.
Berg, Ann Quin
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Did these on audiobook and loved them. The first in this tetraology, The Shadow of the Torturer was probably my favorite, but the best scene in the whole deal is in the third book, The Sword of the Lictor, when the protagonist Severian fights this were-bear thing called the Alzabo—a slow, protracted battle scene based more on strategy and tactics than on brute force.
Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
I love Thomas Pynchon but Vineland is not his best book, or his second- or third- or fourth-best book (etc.). Has a perfect paragraph nevertheless.
Don Quixote, Kathy Acker
I dig that wild gross stuff what can I say.
Slave Old Man, Patrick Chamoiseau (translation by Linda Coverdale)
The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez
Is This How You See Me?, Jaime Hernandez
I reread The Love Bunglers to review Is This How You See Me? at The Comics Journal. From my review:
Can you ever really go home again?
This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.
Border Districts, Gerald Murnane
Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore
“Lonely cows on the highway appeared as splendid Baracuda, and the dismally soaked Spanish moss luxuriant submarine vetch,” Gaddis writes his mother, in 1947, describing leaving rainy New Orleans. All the best letters are to his sweet mama, even the many many ones asking for money. God rest Mama Gaddis’s soul.
Optic Nerve, Maria Gainza (translation by Thomas Bunstead)
Maybe it was the time of year, maybe it was because I had to rush before returning the book to the library. I thought Optic Nerve was nice post-Sebald thing, but it never zapped me.
The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin
Good stuff, good experiments, not Berg.
Ice, Anna Kavan
This book is imperfectly perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago but I’m glad I read it this year. More here. (I fucking loved Ice.)
Geometry in the Dust, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)
Milkman, Anna Burns
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.
A Little Lumpen Novelita, Roberto Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)
A Little Long Short Story by dipped out of the bottom of the Bolaño barrel.
Tears of the Trufflepig, Fernando A. Flores
This review piqued my interest in Flores’s alternate timeline border novel. The novel’s premise was good, but the prose seemed uninspired.
Norwood, Charles Portis
The Dog of the South, Charles Portis
Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis
True Grit, Charles Portis
I read Norwood this summer and then promptly picked up everything I could by Portis. Can’t believe I haven’t read him until now. I wrote about his novels in a post here. I’m saving Gringos for later.
The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Warner Townsend
I never would’ve thought an epic story about a backwater nunnery could be so good. More Townsend in 2020.
Rusty Brown, Chris Ware
Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest novel (or, more precisely, novel-in-progress) strengthens the argument that Ware is a Serious American Novelist, one who deserves a large crossover audience. Like Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, Rusty Brown has a central primary setting, a small private school in Nebraska. And like those novels, Rusty Brown comprises material (lightly reworked) from Ware’s Acme Novelty Library series (issues 16, 17, 19, and 20, specifically). The cast here is much larger and the themes are arguably more ambitious though.
Rusty Brown is a sprawling story about memory and perception, about minor triumphs and chronic failures, about how our inner monologues might not match up to the reality around us. In Ware’s world, life can be blurry, spotty, fragmented. His characters are so bound up in their own consciousnesses that they cannot see the bigger picture that frames them.
In the Time of the Blue Ball, Manuela Draeger (translation by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson)
I read In the Time of the Blue Ball in two quick sittings. Draeger is one of French author Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but I had forgotten that when I picked it up. It was a Dorothy Project title, and it looked neat, so I got it. Draeger is also one of Volodine’s recurring characters, a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The three stories in Blue Ball are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.
Rat Time, Keiler Roberts
I loved Rat Time! In my review, I wrote,
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.
Negrophobia, Darius James
I had never heard of Negrophobia. I found it in a used bookstore next to something else. The title intrigued me (not to mention the NYRB imprint), and blurbs from Kathy Acker, Paul Beatty, and Kara Walker sold me on it. Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence.
Actual Air, David Berman
The Doomed City, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (translation by Andrew Bromfield)
A baggy, abject, Kafkaesque riff on a utopian project’s dystopian turn, The Doomed City was not my favorite Strugatsky jam, but it was pretty good.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
I made a huge mistake by not reading Shirley Jackson earlier. I think I just associated her with that story we all have to read in like eighth grade, and never went back. Anyway. Hill House has a perfect opening (I riffed on the opening here):
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (translation by Michael Hofmann)
A Mistake, Carl Shuker
I enjoyed Carl Shuker’s slim novel A Mistake. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, A Mistake is the story of Elizabeth Taylor, the only female surgeon at her hospital. Shuker’s novel reads in some ways as a critique of neoliberalism’s attempt to quantify every aspect of medical care. The novel is set against “the minister’s mistake,” a plan to publicize each surgeon’s results. And at the beginning of the novel, well, there’s a mistake, one which Elizabeth is involved with. Although the blurb describes A Mistake as a “procedural thriller,” I found it closer to a character study of an outsider who finds herself increasingly alienated by her peers and friends alike. Shuker conveys his hero edging into paranoia and depression in sharp, precise prose which occasionally recalls Don DeLillo.
The Undying, Anne Boyer
An aphoristic memoir-essay, The Undying is a discursive dive into Boyer’s diagnosis of, treatment of, and recovery from breast cancer. It’s an angry, smart book, with little bursts of mean humor, and it rips apart the ways that neoliberal late capitalism have made health care inhuman and inhumane.
Sports Is Hell, Ben Passmore
Sports Is Hell is a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness—think Walter Hill’s film The Warriors by way of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Why did I wait so long to read The Sellout?
Falstaff: An Apotheosis, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)
This chapbook is wonderful riff on Henry IV Part I, V.iv—the part where Falstaff flops on the battlefield, faking his death in an act of cowardly heroism.
Juice!, Ishmael Reed
Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed
I bought myself a signed first-edition hardback copy of Flight to Canada on the internet. It was like 12 bucks. I’m actually not quite finished with it, to be honest–but I’m drafting this post from the past (it’s 14:08 on 31 Dec. 2019 as I type)–but I’ve only got like fifty more pages, so I think I can get it done.
Happy 2020 to all of you!
I was having a tough time doing a Three Books post for the end of the year, so I divvied it up a bit, writing about three books I read in 2019 that were actually published in 2019, three books that I read in 2019 that were published in the 2010s, and three books I read in 2019 from indie presses. Here are three books that I loved in 2019.
Norwood by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.
I could’ve picked any of the four novels by Portis that I read this year, but I read Norwood first, so. I wrote about his novels in a post here.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.
Ice by Anna Kavan. 2017 trade paperback from Penguin Classics. Cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng. No designer credited.
Imperfectly perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago but I’m glad I read it this year. More here. (I fucking loved Ice.)
Berg by Ann Quin. 2019 trade paperback (advanced reader proof) from And Other Stories. No designer credited on the advanced reader proof, but the cover photograph (of Ann Quin) is by Oswald Jones. The designer credited with the final version of the cover is Edward Bettison.
Berg might have been my favorite reading experience of 2019. Who can resist an opening sentence like this one?
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
Every other sentence in the book is great as well. I read Berg in a grimy haze, the last little bit of our brief Florida spring burning off into an early muggy summer. I will likely always think of Berg as part of a strange trilogy I read in 2019, the first book in a series that led (how?) to Anna Kavan’s Ice and concluded (how?) with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
From my review of Berg:
Read the book. There’s nothing I can do in this review that approaches the feeling of reading Ann Quin’s Berg. I can make lame comparisons, saying that it reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses (in its evocations of loose consciousness), or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (in its oedipal voyeuristic griminess), or Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (for its surreal humor and dense claustrophobia). Or I can point out how ahead of her time Quin was, how Berg bridges modernism to postmodernism while simply not giving a fuck about silly terms like modernism and postmodernism.
Lord by João Gilberto Noll in English translation by Edgar Garbelotto. 2019 trade paperback from Two Lines Press. Cover design by Gabriele Wilson using a photograph by Jeff Cottenden.
Reading Lord is a bit like dreaming through a fever, a fever that you’ve tried to subdue with a mix of over-the-counter night-time syrup and strong black coffee: get them down the gullet and let them fight it out in your nervously nervous system. From my review of Lord:
João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.
Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by Killoffer. English translation by Jacob Siefring. 2019 trade paperback from Inside the Castle. Cover design by Jon Trefry, adapting the original 2004 French edition from Verticales. The cover art may or may not be by Killoffer.
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.
RIP Neil Innes, 1955-2019
RIP Alasdair Gray, 1934-2019
The Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray died today, one day after his 85th birthday.
Gray’s first novel, 1981’s Lanark, is one of the strangest and most memorable novels I’ve ever read. Part dystopian fantasy, part realist autofiction, part Kafkaesque anti-quest, and part Künstlerroman, Lanark deconstructs the traditional novel, braiding multiple narratives into a complex, sharp, satirical epic.
Lanark included original artwork by Gray, a trend that would continue over the course of his career as a novelist. Gray was trained as a muralist, and if I ever make it to Glasgow I plan to see his murals.
Gray’s art of course adorns his follow-up to Lanark, 1984’s 1982, Janine, a challenging novel of debauchery. 1982, Janine is conceptually, formally, and typographically challenging, a kind of answer to Finnegans Wake, and like Joyce’s big weird fun hard novel, Gray’s sophomore jaunt is a jam I return to again and again without the hope of truly ever finishing. 1982, Janine also has the best blurb I think I’ve ever read—you can watch Gray read it in this 1993 STV documentary about Gray (around 15:34)—
The Gray Matter also features Gray discussing his novels and reading from them, as well as his art. It makes a neat primer to the Gray’s work, and while I’m no expert—just a big fan of those first two novels and his art, to be clear—I think it does a nice job of letting the artist speak about his art.
I’ll close by reiterating that Lanark has stuck with me in a way that most novels don’t. It might seem a daunting read at nearly 600 pages (not to mention its four-book structure, which begins with Book Three before going to Books One and Two and then concluding with Four—and, oh the books are formally/stylistically varied)—but Lanark might be the cult novel you’ve been missing from your life.
A story can always end happily by stopping at a cheerful moment. Of course in nature the only end is death, but death hardly ever happens when people are at their best. That is why we like tragedies. They show men ending energetically with their wits about them and deserving to do it.
From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark
It is a relief to turn to the honest American book about the whale. A captain wants to kill it because the last time he tried to do that it bit off his leg while escaping. He embarks with a cosmopolitan crew who don’t like home life and prefer this way of earning money. They are brave, skilful and obedient, they chase the whale round the world and get themselves all drowned together: all but the storyteller. He describes the world flowing on as if they had never existed. There are no women or children in this book, apart from a little black boy whom they accidentally drive mad.
From Alasdair Gray’s unwieldy cult classic Lanark. In this particular episode, a version of the author of the novel Lanark itself (a conjurer-king, not named Gray) discusses and describes the great national epics; he chooses Moby-Dick as the American epic. There is no listing of a Scottish national epic; presumably Gray intends his novel to fill that slot.
The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.
From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.
The Cruise, 1934 by Mary Adshead (1904–1995)