I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men; The Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.
So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.
In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.
I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.
When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.
I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.
I’ve made a habit of prowling around my own shelves each week, trying to build a small stack of books I can part with. I then head up the street to trade the books in. Lately, I’ve done a decent job of leaving with far fewer books than I brought in to trade—hell, last Friday I came back with no books.
I always have a little mental checklist of books I’m hoping to come across. It mutates and swells, and I get lucky a lot of times. Sometimes I grab stuff at near-random. And other week’s are stale. Increasingly, I search for first editions and interesting mass market paperbacks, a reversal of a previous version of myself who found hardbacks clunky and mass market paperbacks cheap. Mass market editions tend to have wilder art, more interesting designs, and generally take more risks than contemporary, respectable trade paperbacks, as do older hardbacks. I ended up with three first editions. I was not especially looking for any of the books I acquired.
I was looking for certain books of course. Here are some interesting book covers I saw while looking for what I did not find.
I was looking for Walker Percy’s second novel Love Among the Ruins. I’d found a copy at this same book store last year—a first edition in beautiful condition with a really cool cover. I almost bought it (I think it was seven bucks) and now regret not having done so. I’m sure I’ll regret skipping on both of these Percy books, both of which have cover designs by Janet Halverson.
I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I saw this hardback copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but the font on the spine attracted me. Love the cover painting, which is by Richard Powers (I assume this is a different Richard Powers than the American novelist).
I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I picked up this Bantam collection of Mark Twain stories, which has a very cool uncredited Giuseppe Arcimboldoesque cover. Not sure why I picked it out. But I love the cover.
I was hoping to score a cheap paperback copy of one of David Marskon’s early novels when I came across this edition of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a cover by Ben Shahn.
I was looking for anything by Gerald Murnane when I found this beautiful edition of Robert Musil’s Young Torless.
The bookshop I frequent separates “Classic Fiction” from “General Fiction” (with some somewhat arbitrary distinctions, in my opinion)—so I checked under the “PE” section in general fiction for a stray Walker Percy (no luck). Never heard of J.Abner Peddiwell’s The Saber-Tooth Curriculum but I love the simple expressive cover.
Walking past “PE,” “PI,” “PL” etc. I stopped at section on James Purdy to check out this edition of The Nephew. I’ve never been able to get into Purdy—seems so sad—but I love this cover.
I always look for a copy of David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman and I never find it. I do like this vibrant cover for Chad Oliver’s The Shores of Another Sea.
While I was in the sci-fi section, I passed by the Gene Wolfe area, and spied a complete hardback set of his seminal The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. I couldn’t pass up on a first hardback edition of the first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer:
I also picked up a pristine first edition hardback copy of William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. It’s the only Gaddis novel I’ve yet to read and buying a second copy seems like a good motivation to finally dig in.
I also came across a first edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Powell. He was the writer in residence at the University of Florida when I was an undergrad there in the late nineties. He’d taken the post over from Harry Crews, and I always resented that for some reason, brought that resentment to the few readings I attended, never made it through anything but a few stories. But this copy of Edisto was only four bucks. And check out the blurbs on the back:
There’s my guy Barthelme. And then Percy, who brought me to the store today. I’ll give it a shot.
Peter Brooks’s study of Balzac is newish from NRYB.
The only thing I’ve read by Balzac is Donald Barthelme’s short story “Eugénie Grandet.”
Balzac, more than anyone, invented the nineteenth-century novel, and Oscar Wilde went so far as to say that Balzac had invented the nineteenth century. But it was above all through the wonderful, unforgettable, extravagant characters that Balzac dreamed up and made flesh—entrepreneurs, bankers, inventors, industrialists, poets, artists, bohemians of both sexes, journalists, aristocrats, politicians, prostitutes—that he brought to life the dynamic forces of an era that ushered in our own. Peter Brooks’s Balzac’s Lives is a vivid and searching portrait of a great novelist as revealed through the fictional lives he imagined.
I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.
The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”
Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.
Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:
It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”
The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.
That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.
Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:
“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”
And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:
I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.
Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.
But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?
Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.
I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.
From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault.
The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.
And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.
Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.
If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.
(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)
Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.
I’ve been a big fan of the Vintage Contemporaries 1980s series for ages now. The books were easily available, cheap and used, in the nineties, and I first read Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney in VC editions, later adding novels by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski to the burgeoning collection. I was thrilled to find a VC copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree years ago; I wasn’t looking for it in particular, but the spine of a Vintage Contemporaries edition is hard to miss in a used bookstore. I picked it up of course, and gave the Vintage International edition I’d read to a friend who’d just finished Blood Meridian. The dark, moody Vintage International covers strongly contrast the bright, vivid VC edition (with a surreal painting by Marc Tauss):
In time, I’d unshelve at least one or two VC editions when browsing a used bookstore, especially if it was an author I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading and loving Joy Williams’ first collection, Taking Care, that way, as well as Charles Portis’s Norwood (which led to me reading every Portis novel I could get my hands on).
The one I really, really wanted though was the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s collection Airships. I must have seen it first–just the spine–in this great write up of VC designs at Talking Covers, and then added it to a mental list of titles to check for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Grove Press copy I have of Airships; indeed, I really dig its photorealistic cover by Hannah’s contemporary Glennray Tutor—but I guess at this point I have to admit I’m collector (of cheap eighties paperbacks).
In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.
Well so and anyway:
Yesterday, browsing my beloved used bookstore, I found, while not really looking for it, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Airships. I was in the “H” section of General Fiction, looking for something by Chester Himes (which I found, but in the Mysteries section, which I really have never browsed before), and there it was, its spine singing to me from a low shelf. I was happy to note the cover is by Rick Lovell, who’s responsible for my favorite VC editions (along with, obviously, series designer Lorraine Louie). As a sort of cherry on top, my edition has a little gold sticker at the top of the inside cover, proclaiming “Square Books on the Square, Oxford Mississippi.” Hannah taught at Ole Miss for nearly three decades. Square Books is still there.
I was excited with my find and I’m a dork so I tweeted about it. The next tweet I saw in my timeline was this tweet by Christopher DeWeese (retweeted by the writer John Lingan):
In the last email he sent me, David Berman included this fake picture of a new edition of Actual Air in the old Vintage Contemporaries style. Ugh I'm sad. pic.twitter.com/aSHnEGCP2i
David Berman was a poet, musician, and singer (and more) who died almost exactly a year ago. He was kind of a hero of mine, as far as these things go, and as such I never made an attempt to contact him, even when he linked to this blog on his blog, Menthol Mountains. I absolutely love the cover he made—or did he make it? I don’t actually know—but I know that he loved Vintage Contemporaries, that they were important to him. I recall John Lingan tweeting about having to cut some of his discussion about the series with Berman in his fantastic profile of the then-not-late artist. I couldn’t find the tweet, but I reached out to John, and he told me I remembered right; he also told me he recalled seeing a copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows in Berman’s room.
I wonder if Berman and I had the same VC edition of First Love and Other Sorrows? The one with the Rick Lovell cover of butterflies on a sandcastle? Or maybe he had the one with the purple cover? I gave my copy to a good friend years ago, and have never seen one with the Lovell cover since.
William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 debut novel A Different Drummer has eleven chapters. The first, and shortest, “The State,” opens like this:
AN EXCERPT from THE THUMB-NAIL ALMANAC . . . page 643;
An East South Central state in the Deep South, it is bounded on the north by Tennessee; east by Alabama; south by the Gulf of Mexico; west by Mississippi.
I am a Southerner, and my brain turned into a wrangled wriggling squiggle trying to visualize where “the State” must be, before giving in to the next few lines that declare that “the State’s” capital is Willson City (no such place of course), which is named after “Confederate General Dewey Willson…the chief architect of the two well-known victories at Bull’s Horn Creek and at Harmon’s Draw” (never happened).
And so well yeah Kelley has created his own Southern State, an amalgam of sin and poverty that sweats and skulks in the tradition of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Structurally, too, A Different Drummer recalls Faulkner’s work. Kelley makes his reader cobble the narrative together through myriad, rotating viewpoints—a white farmer, his son, porch talkers, and the members of the Willson family, the aristocratic descendants of Confederate General Dewey Willson, who make their living collecting rent.
We get the perspective of all four Willsons—daughter, brother, mother, and father—who put together a picture of a life entangled with the Calibans. The Calibans were the enslaved descendants of a mythical figure named “the African,” a kind of warrior-king who escapes slavery with his only child, only to be tracked for days and nights by Willson, who shoots him before he can dash the child’s brains to free him.
The Calibans work the Willsons’ land over decades, first as slaves and then as sharecroppers. This brings us to the novel’s central conceit. I’ll let the blurb of the Anchor reissue I read do the heavy lifting:
June, 1957. One hot afternoon in the backwaters of the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, shoots his horse, burns his house, and heads north with his wife and child. His departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the established order into brilliant disarray. Told from the points of view of the white residents who remained, A Different Drummer stands, decades after its first publication in 1962, as an extraordinary and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.
I had neglected the blurb until now, and had somehow missed the key idea of the second-to-last line: Told from the points of view of the white residents.
Kelley’s tactic here is extraordinary, and ultimately painful. We first get an “average” citizen of Sutton (the central setting of the novel in our unnamed “state,” Harry Leland, whose sentiments of race probably track with those of the hypothetical white moderate MLK warned us about. Leland’s not a bad guy and he’s trying to make his son a decent human being, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
We meet that son next, and see the narrative through his young eyes. Kelley’s satiric edge is perhaps sharpest here. The menfolk call the boy “Mister Leland,” an irony underlined when Tucker Caliban—whom Mister Leland counts as a friend—addresses the lad as such. It’s Mister Leland too who accompanies Bennett Bradshaw (excuse me, “THE REVEREND B.T. BRADSHAW [of] THE RESURRECTED CHURCH OF THE BLACK JESUS CHRIST OF AMERICA, INC., NEW YORK CITY,” as his business card attests)—it’s Mister Leland who accompanies Bradshaw (and his chauffeur) to the site of Tucker Caliban’s salted-and-abandoned farm. Unlike the various perspective characters, Bradshaw, an intellectual, understands Caliban’s motivation—and envies his spirit.
Caliban’s primal rejection and refusal of the Southern Way of Life is the novel’s central problem, a “problem” that Kelley addresses somewhat obliquely through primarily white eyes. The various Willsons attempt to reckon with both past and present, but their tools are limited, for the most part. The novel’s penultimate chapter is a series of journal entries by David Willson, starting when he’s a young man off to attend an Ivy up in New England.
Young David attends a socialist meeting, but is bored with “nothing but a bunch of fellows showing each other how much they knew about Marx.” He meets—guess who!—Bennett Bradshaw, and falls fast for the guy. (I might be spoiling too much of the plot here—look, it’s a strong book, skip this and read it.)
Willson’ friendship with Bennett adds a strange ballast late in the narrative, tipping the book in a different trajectory than the course it seemed to have previously been taking. Willson is a tragic Faulknerian figure, an intellect who wishes absolution from his namesake’s sins, from the Sins of the South, but who is also beholden to and limited by the dictates of his own time. Bennett too is limited and beholden. It’s Tucker Caliban who breaks the chains.
A Different Drummer is not the narrative I expected to read. I found Kelley’s name looking for works by black American postmodernists, which is how I found Fran Ross’s Oreo—an utterly postmodern novel, carnivalesque, polyglossic, metatextual. (In her essay on Ross’s novel, Harryette Mullen compares Oreo to Kelley’s last novel, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres.) A Different Drummer’s rotating cast of viewpoint characters and its shifts in point of view point toward postmodern polyglossia, but Kelley’s novel is anchored in a kind of Faulknerian modernism. The great trick of it all though is the ironic layering here, where the only strong truth seems to be Tucker Caliban’s renunciation of white supremacy.
And this renunciation angers and ashames novel’s constituents, summed up in its final chapter, “The Men on the Porch.” Here we have a short, devastating exclamation point to the whole affair, which might be easily characterized by Flannery O’Connor, who said that
I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
Born in New York City and educated at Harvard, Kelley was nevertheless attuned to Southern rhythms, Southern voices, Southern eyes. To steal more from O’Connor, “we find that the writer” — here, Kelley— “has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Kelley’s realism, in the end, hurts—it’s too grotesque, too real. But it’s powerful and powerfully-written. Highly recommended.
Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.
Oreo is Ross’s only novel. Itwas met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen. (New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)
In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.
Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”
Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.
Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissue. Senna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”
In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”
Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?
In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).
Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:
Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:
A word about weather
There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.
What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)
Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)
Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)
Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”
Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.
—and even then I didn’t even label it even, the non-review, as a “review” —- what was it, sixty days ago?—a thing on Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edgewhich I managed to pound out in time for Pynchon’s 83rd birthday on 8 May 2020, sixty odd days ago. (All these days are odd, or if not odd, then boring, and very hot humid heavy here in Florida lately, filled with smaller and bigger dreads and excuses for and away from screens, me spinning proverbial plates to distract my kids and myself from the yawning hot nothingness of a campless, socially-distant, non-vacationing summer, etc.) I signed my name, Edwin Turner, to that non-review. I also signed my name to another non-review, another thing I called a “blog about” (this is still a blog about books, isn’t it? Not sure), a blog posted about twenty-four days ago, a few days after my forty-first birthday. I let an image of a stack of books guide that post, a stupid trick I use too often, or maybe not enough, I don’t know. There were some good books and great books in the photograph in the non-review that I would like to have written proper reviews of: Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent (great), Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (good), Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine (good/weird/good weird)—and a book I have absolutely loved, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (excellent, I think), which I have stopped in the dead middle of, for reasons that I am not sure about but which are certainly uninteresting, these reasons. There was also Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which may or may not be great, and which I loved, and which I have no interest in “reviewing.” And more Muriel Spark novels. And I bought some more Spark novels, including A Far Cry from Kensington, which is on this double-stacked shelf of books that I need to or at least want to write about or am in any case reading or have read or intend to read; look, here’s a picture, what most of you will simply scroll and scan and then move on, never having read any of this blather—
—not in the pic is the large gorgeous alienlanguage graphic novel Anasaziby Mike Mccubbins and Matt Bryan, a really excellent and very different book that I’ve dithered around (not) reviewing for months now (starting painful starts and stabs at reviews, deleting pretentious paragraphs about Wittgenstein, deleting three word “reviews” (Get this book!), etc.): Get this book!—and etc. I’ll never finish The Complete Gary Lutz (that’s a compliment). I listened to the audiobook of Steve Erickson’s novel Zeroville (read by Bronson Pinchot of True Romance and Cousin Balki fame) and loved it and picked up another Erickson novel—Rubicon Beach. Zeroville reminded me of the fictional novel version of Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that I didn’t know I wanted. It also made me want to watch more films, and I’ve been watching at least a film a night for a while now (Can I remember the past few nights?: Princess Mononoke, Withnail & I, C.H.U.D., Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Week-End, Bringing Up Baby, Scanners, Lifeforce, The Battle for Algiers, Cutter’s Way); I listened to the audiobook of Nico Walker’s novel Cherry and liked it at first and then it really started to wear on me and then I kind of hated it by the end—my review of Cherry is “I would’ve fucking loved Cherry when I was 20″; I do not currently have an audiobook on deck. I read Claudia Rankine’s discursive memoir-poem-essay Citizen on July 3rd, and were I the kind of person who wore socks (I don’t wear socks if I can help it), they would have been knocked far, far from my hobbitfeet. I am not the right person to review Citizen but reading it was wonderful, painful, expansive. Reminded me a bit of David Markson and W.G. Sebald, but not at all like those things. Excellent stuff.
There must have been something else but I forget.
And I realize now that this post was not what I intended to write, but maybe I have to push this garbage out of me to move forward and actually write a review again (if, indeed, this is still a blog about books).
I finally started Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia last week. I took the book with me to a place we rented near Black Mountain, North Carolina for a week. I purposefully took only Animalia, leaving behind two books I was in the middle of—Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent and Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine. I used the adverb purposefully in the previous sentence, although I’m not sure what my purpose was. I think I just wanted an associative break from the past few months. I read geographically, even in my own home. I read the first section of Animalia, often overwhelmed by its abject lifeforce. The novel begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on a family farm. The preceding sentence is a bad description: Animalia is, so far anyway, a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as intrigued as to how a novel was translated, either. In Frank Wynne’s English translation, Del Amo’s prose carries notes and tones evocative of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Del Amo employs precise Latinate words, using, for example, genetrix, instead of mother, as in this paragraph:
The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.
The paragraph, from early in Animalia, conveys the prose’s abject flavor. Read the rest of the excerpt at Granta.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The Castle, The Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman. I loved it.
I will be posting a proper review of Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine some time this month, so I won’t remark at length on it. I’m a little under halfway through (had to restart after returning from the mountains), and it seems to me that the plot is impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s really simple: A rural couple, Norabole and Bernard, escape from their small town and move to the big city (“Big City”). Norabole very quickly becomes the CEO of a huge company, with an eye toward creating “the world’s first Gothic conglomerate” (she plans to get an exorcist on the board, as well as having the company partake in an annual seance). Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find employment and whips up seven course meals for his Noarbole. He also has apparently contracted (contracted?!) xenoglossia. Lake of Urine is energetic and very funny and so so weird. Stitch seems to be doing whatever he wants on the page and I dig it.
I really enjoyed Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan), mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself. Good stuff.
Four by Muriel Spark. I’d never read her until May, and I’ve just been gobbling these up. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is fantastic, and then read The Girls of Slender Means, which I liked even more than Prime. Slender Means unself-consciously employs some postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The novel unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany. (And the whole thing coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I then read Loitering with Intent, which is my favorite so far—just sharp as hell, and chock full of patterns and loops that I want to go back to again. I definitely will reread that one. I’m near the end of Memento Mori, a novel that concerns aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark seems to inhabit their consciousness with a level of acuity that surprises me. Memento Mori is sharp and witty, but, barring some last minute shift, it’s not been my favorite Spark—but it’s still very good, and I want to read more. Any suggestions?
My beloved bookstore reopened this Monday. This past Wednesday, I donned my finest mask, got into the car for the first time in a while, and drove the 1.1 miles to my beloved bookstore, which reopened this Monday. I had done curbside pickup on a few books for my kids sometime early in April, but I hadn’t been into a bookstore since the middle of March.
The staff were all wearing masks, as were the few customers in the store (with the exception of two elderly patrons). The store is a sprawling maze of stacks covering close to 25,000 (very irregular, bendy, weird) square feet (it’s not a small space), and the stacks were marked for distancing.
I managed to find all the books on my list—two dystopian teen novels for my not-quite-yet-teen daughter, novels by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman for the boy (who’s already finished both), a copy of My Brilliant Friend for my wife, who loved the filmic teevee adaptation (I gave my copy to my department head years ago, thinking she’d love it, but she never mentioned anything about it to me, and I don’t press), and two books for me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and Herman Melville’s fourth novel Redburn (which I’ve been meaning to read for awhile after reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s literary biography of Melville a few weeks ago). Edward Gorey did the Redburn cover, by the way.
Despite already being into four other novels, I started in on The Unconsoled. The novel reads like a hallucinatory series of side quests in the strangest first-person video game ever made–a novel of absurdity and art and time and memory, wherein the first-person narrator Ryder, on a mission he can never quite name or even possibly remember, constructs and deconstructs his (always-deferred) present “reality” on a moment-to-moment basis. The book is weird in the best way—it reminds me a lot of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Anna Kavan’s Ice, João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, and pretty much everything by Kafka. I imagine it will frustrate many readers with its refusal to cohere or to settle on a plot, but I’m digging it big time.
I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.
Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.
Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…
Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:
She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.
Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.
And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.
Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.
The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.
That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).
The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.
Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.
The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoia, invisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.
Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.
It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.
Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.
I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today. But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.
There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.
Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.
Machines in the Head, new from NYRB, compiles twenty-three Anna Kavan stories that were originally published between 1940 and 1975, as well as one previously unpublished story. The stories here, culled from five previous collections, show not so much a stylistic evolution over three decades of Kavan’s writing as they do a writer pushing herself into ever stranger territory. And while Kavan’s experimental forms shift from story to story, her modes of radical ambiguity, rattling paranoia, and sinister menace course through the collection, giving it a strange coherence.
Machines in the Head is arranged chronologically, with the first nine stories coming from Asylum Piece (1940). These storiesannounce themes and images that repeat throughout Kavan’s writing and this new NYRB collection: sleep, dreams, ice, sun (and the lack of sun), prisons, asylums, hospitals, lovers, friends (and the absence of friends), enemies, persecutors, mysterious patrons, strange summonses from abstract authorities, sentencing and judgment, windows, walls, doors.
“Going Up in the World” is a miniature study of cold anxiety in which the unnamed protagonist suffers alienation from the “Patrons” who seem to abandon her. “The Enemy” is five paragraphs of Kafkaesque persecution and paranoia. In “The Summons,” an ugly waiter ruins a meal with an old friend, and our narrator is soon taken away by an ambiguous authority, only to return to dinner to have her friend urge her to go back to the authority on her own volition. The nightmare-dream logic here is part and parcel of Kavan’s style, as is the the conclusion of “The Summons”:
…I began to wonder, as I have wondered ever since, whether the good opinion of anybody in the whole world is worth all that I have had to suffer and must still go on suffering — for how long; oh, for how long?
Pretty much every tale in Machines in the Head ends in existential suffering, inconclusive menace, our outright doom. The narrator of “The Summons” tells us at one point that “a feeling of dread slowly distilled itself in my veins,” a line that could fit neatly into any of the stories here.
Suffering and despair continue in “At Night,” where the narrator’s bedroom is a “jailer,” her bed her “coffin.” The story’s surrealist touches capture the all-too-real horror of insomnia. “Machines in the Head” continues the sleep motif, showing us the terror of that tyrant, the alarm clock. Kavan conveys the awful moment many of us experience upon awakening too early:
Roused in this brutal fashion, I jump up just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door.
“Asylum Piece II,” however, suggests that there is trouble in dream:
I had a friend, a lover. Or did I dream it? So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.
In “The End in Sight,” our narrator, having “received the official notification of my sentences,” experiences time’s passing “like shadows, like dreams,” again suggesting that dreams and sleep are not the solution to anxiety and unease. “The End in Sight” concludes with our narrator still in the grips of anxiety, waiting to be carted away by invisible and unnamed forces.
Asylum Piece was the first collection that Kavan published under the name “Anna Kavan.” She previously had written under her legal name, Helen Ferguson, but took “Anna Kavan” (from a character in her 1930 novel Let Me Alone) first as a pen name and then later as her new personal identity. It’s hard not to read Kavan’s fiction as largely semi-autobiographical, while also recognizing that much of that biography was the result of imaginative invention and re-invention. Asylums and psych wards show up in her stories so much because she spent quite a lot of time in such places. Kavan suffered depression and attempted suicide several times in her life. Alienation and loneliness permeate her work: her characters can never seem to truly know each other, to truly communicate. Kavan was essentially alienated from her parents; her father abandoned the family (and later committed suicide), and she spent most of her youth at boarding schools. Both of her marriages failed before the publication of Asylum Piece, a fact that underscores her stories’ curves toward despair. She did have romantic relationships later, doomed as they were, and also was extremely close to Dr. Karl Bluth, the German psychiatrist who prescribed her heroin from the time that he met her until he died in 1964.
Iterations of Bluth—sympathetic doctors—-start to appear in some of Kavan’s stories stories starting with I Am Lazarus (1945). The stories here are longer, richer, and more focused than those in Asylum Piece (but still strange, strange, strange). The nightmare of the Blitz hangs over the tales, which are populated with doctors, nurses, and soldiers.
“Palace of Sleep” — the first third-person piece in the anthology is set in a mental hospital. “Palace” picks up the night shift motif of Asylum Piece, focusing on an unnamed patient undergoing treatment for narcosis. “The Blackout” continues the narcoleptic motif. In this story—one of the strongest in the collection—a soldier who had blacked out for five days talks to psychologist. The soldier parcels out bits of a tragic life story, redeemed in part by the aunt who eventually raises him after he’s orphaned. There’s an oedipal undercurrent to “The Blackout,” which circles around a profound horror without actually naming the crime at the heart of the tale. “Face of My People” is another psych ward piece, with a tone and development worthy of J.G. Ballard. (Ballard was a big fan of Kavan’s fiction.)
“The Gannets” is another very strong piece. In five visceral paragraphs, Kavan condenses the horror of World War II into a strange allegory of terrible violence. “The Gannets” contains one of the strongest images in the whole collection. It’s shocking, really, when it happens—so much of her writing runs on unspecified dread and slow-motion menace, that when she does deploy concrete horror, the effect is devastating. I won’t spoil that devastation by quoting the image, but I will share the story’s final paragraph:
How did all this atrocious cruelty ever get into the world, that’s what I often wonder. No one created it, no one invoked it, and no saint, no genius, no dictator, no millionaire, no, not God’s son himself, is able to drive it out.
“Our City” is a longish Kafkaesque exercise that feels similar to the early short stories “Airing a Grievance” and “The Summons,” but with more absurd humor and more control. Kavan elides details that would allow us to identify the titular city as London during the Blitz. Instead of realism, we get something closer to a psychological portrait of a place under the most extreme duress. “Our City” is a slow-motion panic attack, a fever dream that sprawls outward but refuses to resolve.
Machines in the Head includes just three stories from A Bright Green Field (1957), but all are excellent. “A Bright Green Field” is the surreal story of a visitor (to where?!) who witnesses “prone half-naked human bodies, spreadeagled on the glistening bright green wall of grass.” The bodies are bound “by an arrangement of ropes and pulleys [with] semi-circular implements of some sort fastened to their hands.” The bizarre image has an even more bizarre explanation: These people are employed in the Sisyphean task of mowing the grass in this fashion. Why? Well, look, are you expecting a rational answer?–
That poison-green had to be fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost. There was no other defence against the mad proliferation of grass blades, no other alternative to grass, blood-bloated, grown viciously strong, poisonous and vindictive, a virulent plague that would smother everything, everywhere, until grass and only grass covered the face of the globe
If “A Bright Green Field” is allegorical—and it really, really doesn’t have to be—perhaps it’s an ironic allegory of humanity’s perverse relationship to ecology.
The plot of “Ice Storm” is scant: a woman travels from New York City to Connecticut to visit some friends and decide whether or not to leave America. It turns out that she doesn’t really like her friends that much, and she’s ultimately unable to make a decision, “Because there were far too many decisions to make about everything and no permanent set of values by which to decide.” With its touches of realism, “Ice Storm” feels anchored in autobiography. (The title and much of the imagery suggest that “Ice Storm” might be the germ–or a germ—of Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice.) Kavan interposes newspaper headlines, seemingly at random, throughout the story, a device that might have come off as a gimmick; instead the headlines serve to highlight the narrator’s alienation from reality.
“All Saints” is the most avant-garde exercise in the collection. The story—story is probably not the right word—the story seems to drift between two or three consciousnesses that riff on decadent decline and imminent death. I’ve read it several times and still can’t puzzle it out, which is why I like it so much, I suppose. (I put a big star on the margin next to the line, “the end of every project comes down to the rat.”)
The stories from Julia and the Bazooka (published in 1970, two years after Kavan’s death) are the first to deal openly and frankly with drug addiction. “The Old Address” is a sad first-person number steeped in agoraphobia. Our addict-narrator, discharged from the clinic, ventures into an anonymous but teeming world which she murders in her imagination in an abject and revolting sequence:
Huge black clots, gouts, of whale blood shoot high in the air, then splash down in the mounting flood, soaking the nearest pedestrians. Everybody is slipping and slithering, wading in blood. It’s over their ankles. Now it’s up to their knees. All along the street, children start screaming, licking blood off their chins, tasting it on their tongues just before they drown.
The poison-blood-drowning-murder vision continues for several more paragraphs, before the narrator capitulates to her own panic, realizes that there’s “only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered,” hops in a taxi, and tells “the man to drive to the old address.” Another sad ending.
The magical realism of “A Visit” initially suggests the possibility of happy ending. Kavan gives us a rare tropical locale, where our narrator receives an erotic night visitant, gorgeous a leopard. She longs to meet the leopard again, but never sees him until he returns in a new form:
One day while I was on the shore, I saw, out to sea, a young man coming towards the land, standing upright on the crest of a a huge breaker, his red cloak blowing out in the wind, and a string of pelicans solemnly flapping in line behind him.
She glimpses the youth and leopard together just one more time, and lives the rest of her life in disappointed waiting. Sometimes the pair enter her dreams though, which only weighs her down with “the obscure bitterness of a loss” — which she blames on herself. Kavan doles out a magical epiphany, only to hobble it down to a kernel of disappointment, another machine in the head.
“Fog” tells the story of a woman high on heroin, driving her car at a dangerous speed through foggy streets. She tells us how peaceful she feels, then adds: “The feeling was injected, of course. She ends up committing a terrible crime on her joyride, and is soon brought in by the police. As the fog of the heroin wears off, the story skirts a bipolar line reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” In the end, the narrator wishes to nullify her consciousness—to “stay deeply asleep and be no more than a hole in space.”
The hero of “Julia and the Bazooka” is unstuck in time. Kavan essentially tells a version of her own life story here, with its sad childhood, failed marriages, and heroin addiction. (The titular “bazooka” is a syringe.) In some paragraphs, Julia is a young child; in others, she is a new bride, or a young woman traveling the world, or meeting the doctor who advises her to stick with heroin — “Without it she could not lead a normal existence, her life would be a shambles, but with its support she is conscientious and energetic, intelligent, friendly.” In other paragraphs, Julia is dead. Indeed, like Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Julia and the Bazooka” shows us a consciousness unraveling towards death.
The final two stories in Machine in the Head, while as strange and disconcerting as anything in the collection, are notable for one major difference: both have happy endings. “Five More Days to Countdown” (the only story here from 1975’s posthumous My Soul in China) is a gleeful picaresque exploding in energy. The story centers around an experimental school run by a genius named Esmerelda and her hapless husband. Pretty soon the school is in the grips of a youth rebellion that turns into outright violent revolution—and all five days before Christmas:
A sack of mail, directed to Santa, was delivered later. Sifting through through the contents, through the requests for definitive trendy kaftans, avant-garde night caps, exciting fab fun-fur hoods, switched-on gear of all kinds, I found the more basic items. Junior practical fighting techniques. Guerrilla warfare for the under-sixteens, including training in hand-to-hand combat. Do-it-yourself weapons for schools: simple construction of mortars, flamethrowers, ballistic missiles. How to construct an ambush, a booby trap. Useful tips on terrorism, napalm, nuclear devices, with sections on robbery with violence, blackmail, piracy on the high seas, arson, karate.
The gleeful satire here makes me wish there were more Kavan pieces like this. While the energy of the story matches the picaresque energy of Ice, there’s nothing close to the humor of “Five Days to Countdown” in the rest of the collection. (I’m also a sucker for surreal British boarding school revolution stories, like Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film if….) The absurd vivacity of the tale culminates in a surreal apotheosis of sorts:
Esmerelda and I are swinging high over the world, conveyed through a sky full of snow by eight polar bears, whose bells jingle. Gosh, I never expected a happy ending.
Gosh, neither did I.
The previously-unpublished “Starting a Career” also ends on a positive, if ironic, note. The narrator (yet again!) receives a summons. This time, Kavan names the summoner—it’s Lord Legion, a-not-quite-ousted relic of older times who contests the President (the narrator’s employer) for power. The narrator agrees to become a spy for Lord Legion, a thrilling idea that loads his imagination with all kinds of fantasies.
I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be!
The lines ironically point to Kavan’s own sense of her legacy. While she maintained some success in her lifetime as a writer, she knew that the experimental and avant-garde nature of her writing would guarantee that, well, if she wasn’t exactly “the worlds best-kept secret,” she was definitely bound to some measure of obscurity. The world has a way of catching up to the avant-garde though, and the recent Penguin reissue of Ice and this new NYRB collection suggest that Kavan has found a broader, if not exactly mainstream, audience. Her writing is still challenging today—which is what makes it so engaging. As the collection’s editor Victoria Walker puts it in her foreword—
Kavan’s writing is not to everyone’s taste. Reading her work can be disorienting and discomforting; her narratives shift disconcertingly between past and present tense, first and third person. Her characters are often disagreeable, misanthropic, self-absorbed, priggish or delusional, and the paranoia of her nameless narrators is infectious.
Walker acknowledges that it’s not possible to neatly situate Kavan into any one group of writers. She points out that Kavan is definitely from the Tree of Kafka, and also admired Joyce and Woolf. Walker does make a small canon of writers on Kavan’s wavelength though, and I think the group is is worth listing out: H.P. Lovecraft, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Leonora Carrington, Unica Zurn, Ann Quin, and J.G. Ballard. (I’d also throw in João Gilberto Noll, Gisèle Prassinos, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Roberto Bolaño.)
Walker’s editing of the anthology is commendable. Images echo earlier images, motifs build, themes swell, and Machines in the Head offers what I believe to be a close-to-comprehensive showcase of Kavan’s proclivities and range. At the same time, I would’ve loved just a few more stories from the mid to later volumes, A Bright Green Field, Julia and the Bazooka, and My Soul in China. It’s probable of course that Walker selected the more achieved pieces from those volumes, dispensing with sketches and experiments that didn’t quite come off—but I’d love to read, say “Lonely Unholy Shore” or “Mouse Shoes” from A Bright Green Field, or “Experimental” and “Obsessional” from Julia and the Bazooka, and really, just any other story from My Soul in China.
I would advise readers interested in Machines in the Head to start with the mid-late stuff. Maybe get into anything from A Bright Green Field and move forward a bit, before snacking on some of the shorter tales from Asylum Piece. You’ll get the full picture and also, perhaps, a more satisfying read. The selections from Asylum Piece are good but so chilly that they invoke a bit of brain freeze.
Machines in the Head provides a fantastic and surreal overview of an overlooked cult favorite, a writer whose work—long championed by those marvelous archivists, the sci-fi nerds—deserves a broader audience. The stories here will not comfort you and they won’t affirm any heroic sympathy for whatever-the-fuck the human condition is supposed to be. But they are terrifyingly, menacingly real in all their sinister surrealism. Recommended.
So I just finished auditing Drag City’s audiobook version of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade. I finished on yet-another-walk-around-the-block, this time for the express reason of ending it. The novel is read by Will Oldham with actor D.V. DeVincentis (who perhaps unfairly got left out of the headline—but no offense to DeVincentis, he has not been a hero of mine since I was like fourteen).
I read it because one of my heroes Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (do you sense a terrible propensity toward hero worship in me?). A bit of googling-it-up revealed that one of Wurlitzer’s later novels Slow Fade was reprinted by Drag City back in 2011, along with an audiobook version recorded by the singer/songwriter/actor/guy Will Oldham. This kind of shocked me—I’ve been a fan of Will Oldham and Drag City since 1994, when I and three other dudes pooled our money to order CDs, LPs, and 7″s from the fledgling label and tape the music for each other. (I got the Hey Drag City comp. I guess it must’ve been sophomore year of high school. I ended up using a line from “For the Mekons et. al.” by Will Oldham’s band Palace Brothers as my senior quote. (The quote was “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a good teacher,” which I thought was like, super zen, but the yearbook staff fucked it up and rendered it as “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a teacher.” My parents bought the yearbook declaring I would love to pore over it; I threw it away maybe 18 years ago and should’ve thrown it away years before that.))
Man! I’ve really gotten far without discussing the novel. Good for me. I started with the headline instead of the content, which seems a terrible thing to do to the reader. (Look, I’ve been drinking, which is not a good idea.)
Every one in Slow Fade is drinking (and drugging and fucking, and trying to get rock’n’rolling—but mostly they are despairing, grieving, blowing up what’s left of their lives.) The novel centers around a megalomaniac film director, Wesley Hardin, a kind of totemic holdover of Old Hollywood-into-New-Hollywood, a maker of rough Westerns likened to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Sam Peckinpah. (Wurlitzer wrote the script for Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Everything meaningful in this riff is probably parenthetical at this point.)
I marked the audiobook to quote from it but in the spirit of Wurlitzer’s novel and Our Uncertain Times I’m on my third tequila drink and I really can’t be bothered. He can turn a phrase or two or three, but there are some crutches in there, some clunkers. (And maybe some zappers: Okay—in the spirit of the parentheses doing the real work: Wurlitzer gives us the image of “a thin slice of moon that hung up in the sky like a whore’s earring,” a simile that is simultaneously terrible and great.)
Ah! But what is it about? you ask.
In the words of Hardin’s (much younger) wife Eveyln—
“It’s about a man and his wife looking for the man’s sister who has disappeared in India. So far they haven’t found her.
Well—okay—that’s actually Evelyn’s description of the screenplay that Wesley Hardin’s son Walker Hardin is writing with the opportunistic roadie/keyboardist/hustler AD Ballou (Assistant Director Balloo?), who gets shot in the eye with an arrow when he rides a stolen horse into Wesley Hardin’s current film at the beginning of Slow Fade. (Wesley and Walker both go on to blow up their lives after this moment, while AD saves his.)
In the meantime, opportunistic folk opportune around Wesley, who flames out in spectacular, globetrotting fashion. The novel plays out as a series of bad decisions, oedipal impulses, and drug-addled romps. Wesley’s treacherous cameraman Sidney tries to make his own film about the aging auteur’s implosion, leading to a postmodern film-within-a-film-within-a-film-script-within-a-novel structure that is hardly as cute as I might’ve just posited. There are heroes and villains, but mostly villains.
(Slow Fade mostly made me think of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and HBO’s Succession. My mental eye couldn’t decide if Wesley was Brian Cox or John Huston.)
Will Oldham’s narration is fantastic—honest and raw, unaffected but also acted with the achieved naturalism of a narrator who understands the novel and doesn’t need to ham it up. D.V. DeVincentis reads the sections of the novel that take the form of the film script that AD and Walker are writing, a production device that adds dynamism to the auditing experience.
I liked Slow Fade a lot more than Wurlitzer’s first novel Nog, which oozed with the abject excess of the sixties, always gazing inward. Slow Fade isn’t without its problems—the women have agency but are underwritten, and the sex scenes are at best plot points and at worst embarrassing. The novel seems a companion pieces to Pynchon’s Vineland, a riff on the failure of the Western Sixties. And also like Nog, Slow Fade reads like an encomium for the American Dream of the West. Here though, the Western dream of space, expansion, and destiny manifesting itself into the Hollywood dream seeks an Eastern outlet, a metaphysical escape hatch into India, Nepal, exotic enlightenment. But that’s all on the characters. Wurlitzer’s ultimate viewpoint sings far more cynical. Slow Fade depicts a world of opportunists trying to drape dreams over any dupe that steps in their general direction. The results are tragic, ugly, and cynical. Recommended.
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 succeeded 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.
I used interlibrary loan to check out a copy of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography. It’s pretty neat, and includes some photos of Our Reclusive Favorite that I’d never seen before, like this one:
I read Charles Wright’s 1966 novel The Wig last weekend. The novel is amazing—a picaresque, burlesque, Black black comedy that made me want to reread Invisible Man and read all the Ishmael Reed that I’ve left unread. And more Charles Wright. The energy of The Wig enraptured me; Wright’s cartoon vision of 1960’s Harlem is poised just on the edge of horror. I loved loved loved this novel, and aim for a full review sometime this week.
To its right is The Complete Gary Lutz, which I’ve been nibbling at for a few months. It’s like a rich cheese block or a lovely single malt—not something to inhale all at once, but wonderful in moderation.
I’ve also been picking through Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, mostly reading the journalism at the front end. (I’m saving the play, Delray’s New Moon for…I don’t know…like a quarantine or something?)
This afternoon, I dipped into Marrow and Bone, Walter Kempowski’s satirical road novel set in Germany and Poland right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte Collins’s translation renders Kempowski’s prose as frank, funny, and often ironic.
I’m a little over halfway through Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult classic Nog. The novel is far more abject and despair-inflected than I had imagined, and so far, anyway, the despair and abjection isn’t leavened with any humor that’s registered with me. I dig the absurdity, but I’ve got to admit that the book isn’t working for me. I wanted to love it—-blurbed by Pynchon, right? features an imaginary octopus, right?—but something’s missing for me. (The vague something in the previous sentence is humor—there are maybe some jokes or japes I’m missing, to be fair, but…) The book’s strengths bleed over with its weaknesses. Wurlitzer does an admirable job portraying a consciousness dissolving and resolving, only to desire to not desire consciousness at all, only static, Buddhist peace. Nog is essentially a narrative voice, a howl disintegrating in on itself, bubbling down, and revivifying itself via verbal goo to speak anew. There are Big Western Themes, too—Wurlitzer’s critique of America’s favorite myth of Manifest Destiny is subtle but sharp. The novel’s druggy haze recalls William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, but a bit more focused. It so far makes me think of better novels by João Gilberto Noll, though. I very much love two films that Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; dir. Monte Hellman) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973; dir. Sam Peckinpah). I’d love to see two others he wrote: America (1986; dir. Robert Downey Sr.) and Walker (1987; dir. Alex Cox).
Nog also has some really gross sex scenes.
(I think I might be enjoying Wurlitzer’s debut novel more if I hadn’t read The Wig immediately before it.)
The last two skinny volumes there on the right are new joints from Sublunary Editions. Vik Shirley’s Corpses is like a thirty-paragraph prose-poem, part comic, part morbid. The blurb for Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm describes the tract:
This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem.
To the right of Palms is a pothos plant that was formerly thriving on the window sill of my office. Our college’s spring break starts tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be coming back after it, so I brought my plants home. It turns out we’ll come back, sans students. I brought my textbooks home too, but I forgot my copy of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid, which I’d brought to work to snack on. So it isn’t in this blog, except it is.
Not a dozen pages into Mervyn Peake’s 1959 novel Titus Alone something very strange happens: A man shows up in a car. The narrator simply uses the word “car,” and our hero Titus seems to accept the technological marvel in stride, using the word himself a bit later.
The strangeness of the car, a thing wholly banal in our own contemporary world, derives from its technological dissonance compared to the previous two Titus novels, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950).
These first two novels of the so-called “Gormenghast Trilogy” take place primarily in a strange, isolated castle called Gormenghast, and the limited terrain around it. The world of Gormenghast and environs seems medieval, stagnant, insular, but also wonderfully baroque, a world that centers on byzantine rituals that have been practiced and observed for at least seventy-seven generations. No one living knows what the rituals mean or from whence they derive; indeed, the rituals seem to be their own telos.
Tinged with fantastic and strange imagery, these first two novels are not fantasy per se, at least not in the traditional sense. They owe more to Charles Dickens’ novels than to the Nordic and Germanic myths that underwrite so much of Tolkien. The books are also wonderfully grotesque, full of weird mutants in varying stages of decay, imagery reflected in Peake’s illustrations for his books (which recall Leonardo’s caricatures). Peake’s prose style is singular as well: his syntax is thick, his vocabulary Faulknerian. Peake essentially creates an original idiom through which Gormenghast can exist. The world is so insular that it creates and sustains itself, both aesthetically and verbally.
Young Titus Groan is stifled by all of this insularity and apparently-meaningless ritual, however, and he escapes it at the end of Gormenghast. Somehow he arrives into a new world—the narrative logic is dreamy, perhaps because Titus arrives in this new world asleep in a boat, a positively mythic image. And then he’s picked up by the motorist Muzzlehatch, who feeds him and lets him rest and recover. Titus then witnesses a terrible battle between a camel and a mule, members of Muzzlehatch’s strange menagerie. After he leaves—he’s always leaving, always more or less alone, a word that repeats throughout Titus Alone—after Titus leaves Muzzlehatch, he arrives in a technologically-advanced city of glass and steel. He escapes flying surveillance drones and soon drops into a party (quite literally), where he meets Juno, a beautiful woman twice his age who will later take him as a lover. I should stop summarizing. Titus Alone is episodic, picaresque even, with one damn thing happening after another. The chapters are short and propulsive — most are no more than the front and back of a page. It’s just one damn thing happening after another, and happening with an energy and rapidity that seems the opposite of the methodical rhythm of the first two books. It reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide and Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, both punchy picaresques, but also Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass or even Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz.
I passed a little over the half way mark of Titus Alone this afternoon. The book somehow has taken an even more surreal turn, as Titus enters the Under-River, a labyrinthine Hadean space under the city populated by outcasts and refugees. Peake’s overview of these underdwellers is cinematic and at times startling; he seems to point to a much larger universe, but one that Titus (and the reader) will never fully glimpse. And yet Titus Alone takes its hero (and the reader) into the new, into a world that must be rich and severe and stocked with lore—only Peake keeps us isolated from knowing. We are on the outside of knowing, alone.