Untitled (Stage) — Kerry James Marshall

untitled-stage

Untitled (Stage), 2018 by Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)

The Pillow — John Currin

2011_cks_07990_0012_000john_currin_the_pillow

Screenshot 2020-01-04 at 11.03.26 AM.png

The Pillow, 2006 by John Currin (b. 1962)

Klop, Klop, Klack Klack Klack — Kati Heck

KH

Klop, Klop, Klack Klack Klack, 2018 by Kati Heck (b. 1979)

Three Books (that I loved in 2019)

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.

2019-10-20_185738_3

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.

2019-10-06_172844

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.

“Unbe-fucking-lievable”

2019-12-31_134606

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.)

 

Three Books (that were my favorite books published by indie presses in 2019)

2019-12-30_150344_1

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.

2019-12-30_150344

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.

2019-12-30_150344_2

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.

From my review of Geometry in the Dust:

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 Alasdair Gray

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 6.54.56 PM

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.

super

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.

omworldcrop

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.

140

 

The Massacre of the Innocents — Mitchell Villa

708027_-massacreofthe-innocents-2018-oiloncancas-59x82inches
The Massacre of the Innocents, 2018 by Mitchell Villa

The Cruise — Mary Adshead

The Cruise 1934 by Mary Adshead 1904-1995

The Cruise, 1934 by Mary Adshead (1904–1995)

Interior: Girl Reading — Mary McEvoy

Interior: Girl Reading 1901 by Mary McEvoy 1870-1941

Interior: Girl Reading, 1901 by Mary McEvoy (1870–1941)

My entry in The Comics Journal’s “Best Comics of 2019” article

krazykat

The Comics Journal’s lengthy write up of “The Best Comics of 2019” is up. Here’s my entry:

I’m reading Ishmael Reed’s 2011 novel Juice! right now. The narrator, a version of Reed, is a cartoonist whose comix on the O.J. Simpson case cost him his career and family. It’s not a comic, but it’s comic, and I love it.

Reed and Reed’s narrator repeatedly evoke George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips, and I’ve returned to their slapstick surreal ebullience. There’s an ecstatic nihilism to Krazy Kat (or do I mean nihilistic ecstasy?), a radical absurdity that seems to both diagnose and describe Our Big Dumb Zeitgeist of 2019 in the most perfectly oblique way. The strip’s (il)logic runs on a strange Dada engine, crashing into both sensibility and decorum. It’s a wonderful anarchist romp. I have no idea if there was some new Krazy Kat compendium that came out in 2019, but Herriman’s strip is the best critique of 2019 I can think of. (Also: Read more Ishmael Reed.)

Speaking of: Drew Lerman’s collection Snake Creek reverberates with the spirit of Krazy Kat mixed and mushed with the apocalypse ghost swamp of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, along with tinges of Garfield Goes Total Nihilist. (Who am I kidding? Garfield was always a total nihilist.) Lerman’s shaky strips approximate our own shaky days and shaky daze, evoking a Florida fit to sink into its own wild psychosphere.

Chris Ware’s novel Rusty Brown is a fucking masterpiece. 

I loved Rat Time by Keiler Roberts. I missed one of my nephew’s baseball games because I started reading it one Saturday morning and then lied about having to do something work-related—like an emergency—because I wanted to finish up Rat Time instead. It made me feel Warm (& Fuzzy), despite how dry Roberts’ humor is. (Desiccant dry, folks.) Roberts’ autofiction is utterly real.

The collective of folks at The Perry Bible Fellowship continue to make good comics.

I also really admired Ben Passmore’s comic Sports Is Hell, 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. I hope Ishmael Reed will read it.

Large Studio at Castiglion — Stephen McKenna

Large Studio at Castiglion 1993 by Stephen McKenna born 1939

Large Studio at Castiglion, 1993 by Stephen McKenna (1939–2017)

All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth David Lynch

all-i-want-for-christmas-is-my-two-front-teeth-2012.jpglarge

All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, 2012 by David Lynch (b. 1946)

“The Death of Santa Claus” — Charles Harper Webb

“The Death of Santa Claus”

by

Charles Harper Webb


He’s had the chest pains for weeks,
but doctors don’t make house
calls to the North Pole,

he’s let his Blue Cross lapse,
blood tests make him faint,
hospital gown always flap

open, waiting rooms upset
his stomach, and it’s only
indigestion anyway, he thinks,

until, feeding the reindeer,
he feels as if a monster fist
has grabbed his heart and won’t

stop squeezing. He can’t
breathe, and the beautiful white
world he loves goes black,

and he drops on his jelly belly
in the snow and Mrs. Claus
tears out of the toy factory

wailing, and the elves wring
their little hands, and Rudolph’s
nose blinks like a sad ambulance

light, and in a tract house
in Houston, Texas, I’m 8,
telling my mom that stupid

kids at school say Santa’s a big
fake, and she sits with me
on our purple-flowered couch,

and takes my hand, tears
in her throat, the terrible
news rising in her eyes

Father Christmas — J.R.R. Tolkien

father-christmas

Father Christmas drawing of “Me” and “My House,” 1920 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).

From The Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.”

New Accursed Art Club — Nigel Cooke

New Accursed Art Club 2007 by Nigel Cooke born 1973

New Accursed Art Club, 2007 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Three Books (that were my favorite books I read in 2019 that were published in 2019)

I read very few contemporary books, especially contemporary novels. This reluctance to read contemporary literature isn’t a rule as much as it is a necessity born from the human limitations of my time and the fact that I am a slow reader. (I’ll also admit to a certain wariness towards trends coupled with an antipathy toward publishing hype. (I’m sure many readers detest the trendy/hype couple, as do I. (I’m sure some readers think I use this blog to hype/trend. Forgive me; it’s not my intention. I’m enthusiastic at times.)))

I have no idea what the best books of 2019 are. Maybe I’ll know in 2039 or 2049 or 2079 (when I’ll be a magical one hundred years old).

I’ve been doing these Three Books posts on and off for a few years. They give me something to do on a Sunday, except when I have something to do on a Sunday, in which case, I don’t do them. There are two more Sundays in 2019 and I figured I’d do a Three Books post about the books published this year that I enjoyed most this year. A few jumped readily to mind, including books that were translated or republished in new editions this year, like João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord, or Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, or Ann Quin’s 1964 novel BergBut new editions or new/first translations isn’t exactly “2019” is it? Or is it? I mean, these were published in 2019?

Just add them to the list anyway.

And add Anna Burns’ maybe-horror/maybe-comedy novel Milkman to the list, even though it was published in 2018.

And add Anna Kavan’s definitely-horror/definitely-sci-fi novel Ice to the list, even though it was re–published in 2018, a fiftieth anniversary edition. (It’s not a new book, right? New to me though.)

Ann Quin, Anna Burns, Anna Kavan…how about Anne Boyer? For me, 2019 was a variation on Annas, I guess.

2019-12-22_155858_1

The Undying by Anne Boyer. 2019 first edition hardback from FS&G. Jacket design by Srick&Williams; jacket art by Mykola Davydenko.

This is a wonderfully angry, discursive, recursive book: literary biography, literary criticism, art history, art criticism, Foucault, John Donne, Susan Sontag, Lucretius, Virginia Woolf; a howl at the hoaxers, frauds, self-helperists and their pinkwashed platitudes. And lots of pain, expressed with sentiment that bears no trace of sentimentality.

Boyer’s aphoristic style is engrossing. Her paragraphs and one-liners bear a ludic stamp seemingly at odds with her subject matter. The work of the writing, the heavy burden of smithing those sentences is all but elided—instead we get the clarity of a focused mind drawing together seemingly-disparate threads into a cohesive and compelling memoir that transcends the personal without necessarily meaning to.

Showing is a betrayal of the real, which you can never quite know with your eyes in the first place, and if you are trying to survive for the purpose of literature, showing and not telling is reason enough to endure the disabling processes required for staying alive.

Thank you again to BLCKDGRD for sending me this strange angry beautiful book.

2019-12-22_155858

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. 2019 first edition hardback from Random House. Jacket design by Helen Yentus; jack illustration by Pablo Gerardo Camacho.

I wrote a review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I titled “Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf makes me think of that trend/hype problem I mentioned above—novels that get hyped, novels that seem trendy (“It’s Game of Thrones in a medieval mythical Africa!”) and then maybe not read. I think a lot of people read BL/RW though, and many found it Not to Their Taste, which, fine. I loved. it. From my review:

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.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. 2019 first edition hardback from Pantheon. No cover designer or artist credited, but the work is unquestionably Ware’s.

A masterpiece. I reviewed it for The Comics Journal, stating that,

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.

Rusty Brown is only the first part of (what I understand to be) a two-part novel. It took Ware eighteen years to finish. Maybe we’ll know in 2037 if it was in fact a really great important best favorite novel of 2019. Or maybe not.

But I love it now, and I loved these books this year.

Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics — Mike Davis

mike-davis-final_low-copy-1050x1126-540x579-1

Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics by Mike Davis