Jean Giono’s The Open Road (Book acquired like last week or maybe the end of the week before; I can’t remember, September’s been rough)

I’m a big fan of picaresque novels about con artists. Jean Giono’s The Open Road is forthcoming in translation by Paul Eprile from NYRB. Their blurb:

The south of France, 1950: A solitary vagabond walks through the villages, towns, valleys, and foothills of the region between northern Provence and the Alps. He picks up work along the way and spends the winter as the custodian of a walnut-oil mill. He also picks up a problematic companion: a cardsharp and con man, whom he calls “the Artist.” The action moves from place to place, and episode to episode, in truly picaresque fashion. Everything is told in the first person, present tense, by the vagabond narrator, who goes unnamed. He himself is a curious combination of qualities—poetic, resentful, cynical, compassionate, flirtatious, and self-absorbed.

While The Open Road can be read as loosely strung entertainment, interspersed with caustic reflections, it can also be interpreted as a projection of the relationship of author, art, and audience. But it is ultimately an exploration of the tensions and boundaries between affection and commitment, and of the competing needs for solitude, independence, and human bonds. As always in Jean Giono, the language is rich in natural imagery and as ruggedly idiomatic as it is lyrical.

Benjamín Labatu’s When We Cease to Understand the World (Book acquired, 11 Sept. 2021)

Benjamín Labatut’s Booker shortlisted When We Cease to Understand the World is forthcoming in the US from NYRB this fall in translation by Adrian Nathan West. The book bears blurb’s from Geoff Dyer, Mark Haddon, and Philip Pullman and Barack Obama put it on his 2021 summer reading list.

NYRB’s blurb:

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.

Papa Hamlet (Book acquired, 20 Aug. 2021)

Papa Hamlet is kind of a weird one. This is the first time Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf’s collaborative 1889 German novel has appeared in English, thanks to translator James J. Conway and publisher Rixdorf Editions. Here’s their blurb:

Adultery, vulgarity, disordered lives on the brink of collapse: the feverish existence of failed actor Niels Thienwiebel shocked German readers when Papa Hamlet was first published in 1889. In declaiming the soliloquies of his most famous role, ‘the great Thienwiebel’ finds delusional refuge from the squalid room he shares with despondent wife Amalie and infant son Fortinbras. But it was the radical style as much as the moral outrage of this novella that so confounded contemporaries. Reflecting their own bohemian Berlin milieu, Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf showed the dream of the self-authored life turning to nightmare through apathy and self-absorption. Originally credited to a fabricated Norwegian writer, Papa Hamlet signalled the explosive arrival of Naturalism while also pointing ahead to Modernism; its appropriations, irony and play of identity even foretold Postmodernism. Appearing for the first time in English, it is teamed here with an early incarnation of the same narrative by Schlaf alongside further collaborations with Holz. Together their fearless candour and anarchic ingenuity reveal another side to German Naturalism that is well overdue for rediscovery.

Just four years in duration, the collaboration between Arno Holz (1863-1929) and Johannes Schlaf (1862-1941) created a revolution in form and content which exerted a huge influence on German literature. As well as Papa Hamlet their partnership produced the play The Selicke Family, a number of shorter prose works and an autobiographical comic. After living and working in bohemian isolation just outside Berlin, the pair split acrimoniously in 1892 and continued sniping at each other for decades as they moved on from their Naturalist origins. Arno Holz was something of a tragic figure, consumed with bitterness; works like his verse collection Phantasus were years head of their time yet security eluded him. The more amenable Johannes Schlaf enjoyed greater success but his posthumous reputation suffers from his later embrace of the Nazis. Neither writer has previously appeared in English.

Read an excerpt here.

Abe/Melchor/Schwartz (Books acquired, 13 Aug. 2021)

Got some books today.

Last month I wrote a little bit about slowly converting hundreds of my grandmother’s books into store credit. I still have a closet full of boxed books. In the post I linked to above, I wrote about picking up Kobo Abe’s Secret Rendezvous, which I still haven’t read, which didn’t stop me from picking up two more today.

I ordered a copy of his most famous novel, The Woman in the Dunes (translation by E. Dale Saunders), on the recommendation of the bookseller who rang up Secret Rendezvous for me. (We chatted about Ballard and a few other writers and I recommended Martin Bax’s overlooked novel The Hospital Ship.) I picked it up today. The Vintage International edition I got includes wonderful illustrations by Machi Abe, like the one below (unfortunately the art director did not choose to adapt one for the cover):

I also got Beasts Head for Home (translation by Richard F. Calichman), an earlier less-celebrated novel.

I’d been wanting to read Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translation by Sophie Hughes), so I ordered it as well. It’s been compared to both 2666 and Faulkner, so I have high expectations. (Flicking through it recalls Krasznahorkai or Sebald or Bernhard—big long paragraphless chunks.)

I also picked up Francie Schwartz’s memoir Body Count, somewhat at random, based on the title and the spine. It was shelved incorrectly (or maybe correctly?) in “General Fiction.” I opened it to see that it was a first edition, 1972, dedicated to Norman Mailer. Unless I’m wrong, it’s one of only two editions, the other being a British hardback copy. Flicking through it, the chapter titles, the mostly-written-in dialogue prose, and the general themes of sex drugs rocknroll interested me enough to look it up while I was in the store. The first google hit was for an Amazon listing pricing the book at over a thousand dollars, so I left with it. The main attraction for this book seems to be a brief affair Schwartz had with Paul McCartney. I read through some of those bits, and they seem juicy enough I guess.

I’ll read either the Melchor or Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes next. (I finished Carol Emshwiller’s novel Mister Boots this morning and loved it. Not sure if I’ll ever get my shit together enough to write a real review again though. Peace.)

 

Aleksandar Tišma’s Kapo (Book acquired, 10 Aug. 2021)

Aleksandar Tišma’s Kapo is forthcoming from NYRB in translation by Richard Williams. NYRB’s blurb:

The Book of BlamThe Use of ManKapo: In these three unsparing novels the Yugoslav author Aleksandar Tišma anatomized the plight of those who survived the Second World War and the death camps, only to live on in a death-haunted world. Blam simply lucked out—and can hardly face himself in the mirror. By contrast, the teenage friends in The Use of Man are condemned to live on and on while enduring every affliction. Kapo is about Lamian, who made it through Auschwitz by serving his German masters, knowing that at any moment and for any reason his “special status” might be revoked.

But the war is over now. Auschwitz is in the past. Lamian has settled down in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a respectable job as a superintendent in the railyard. Everything is normal enough. Then one day in the paper he comes on the name of Helena Lifka, a woman—like him a Yugoslav and a Jew—he raped in the camp. Not long after he sees her, aged and ungainly, Lamian is flooded with guilt and terror.

Kapo, like Tišma’s other great novels, is not simply a document or an act of witness. Tišma’s terrible gift is to see with an artist’s dispassionate clarity how fear, violence, guilt, and desire—whether for life, love, or simple understanding—are inextricably knotted together in the human breast.

Three by Carol Emshwiller (Books acquired, sometime last week)

Small Beer Press had a warehouse sale last month, so I ordered two by the late avant-garde sci-fi writer Carol Emshwiller. I ordered Carmen Dog, which is what I take to be her most lauded novel, based on this blurb from Ursula Le Guin:

Carol is the most unappreciated great writer we’ve got. Carmen Dog ought to be a classic in the colleges by now . . . It’s so funny, and it’s so keen.

The pub’s blurb:

The debut title in our Peapod Classics line, Carol Emshwiller’s genre-jumping debut novel is a dangerous, sharp-eyed look at men, women, and the world we live in.

Everything is changing: women are turning into animals, and animals are turning into women. Pooch, a golden setter, is turning into a beautiful woman–although she still has some of her canine traits: she just can’t shuck that loyalty thing–and her former owner has turned into a snapping turtle. When the turtle tries to take a bite of her own baby, Pooch snatches the baby and runs. Meanwhile, there’s a dangerous wolverine on the loose, men are desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and Pooch discovers what she really wants: to sing Carmen.

I also ordered a story collection, Report to the Men’s Club. Small Beer’s blurb:

 What if the world ended on your birthday — and no one came? What if your grandmother was a superhero? What if the orphan you were raising was a top-secret weapon, looked like Godzilla, and loved singing nursery rhymes? What if poet laureates fought to the death, in stadiums?

A day or two before they showed up, I found a copy of Emshwiller’s 2005 novel Mister Boots in the YA section of my local bookshop. I launched into it and I don’t think it necessarily reads as YA-as-genre, but it’s the kind of weird shit I would’ve loved to get a hold of as a sixteen year old. Blurb:

Bobby Lassiter has some important secrets—but it’s not as if anyone’s paying attention. It’s the middle of the Depression, and while Bobby’s mother and older sister knit all day to make money, Bobby explores the California desert around their home. That’s how Bobby finds Boots. He’s under their one half-dead tree, halfdead himself. Right away he’s a secret, too—a secret to be fed and clothed and taken care of, and even more of a secret because of what he can do. Sometimes Boots is a man. Sometimes he’s (really, truly) a horse. He and Bobby both know something about magic—and those who read this book will,

Le Guin also blurbs this book.

I hate to admit that I had never heard of Emshwiller until last month. In a strange moment of synchronicity, Joachim Boaz, who blogs at Science Fiction and Other Suspect ruminations, reviewed a bunch of older Emshwiller stories this July. On twitter, he described Emshwiller as “an author who should be a feminist science fiction icon.” I’m excited to read more.

Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content (Book acquired, 23 July 2021)

I went by my favorite used bookstore the other week to pick up the copy of Tatyana Tolstoya’s novel The Slynx last week. (I’m halfway through it, and it’s fantastic stuff—dirty, cruel, funny, unexpectedly moving—like a filthy generative loam that isn’t exactly poisonous, but will certainly yield side effects.) After seeing this diagram earlier in the week, I looked for a copy of Thomas C. Oden’s 1969 multidisciplinary

text Structure of Awareness. I was unsuccessful there, but I did spy something called The Shape of Content by the artist Ben Shahn. I’ve long been a fan of his work, so I picked it up and thumbed through. I ended up reading most of it this weekend.

The Shape of Content (the title now is not exactly ironic, I guess) collects a series of lectures Shahn gave to Harvard students in the late 1950s. The first lecture is a somewhat boring apologia, a kind of What the hell am I doing here?, but the following material is good stuff, if not exactly fresh. There are plenty of illustrations too, mostly unrelated to the, uh, content of the words (although they are of course intimately related). Illustrations like the one above, and this one, below, make the 144 pager seem, well, kinda short.

Here’s Harvard UP’s blurb:

In his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, the Russian-born American painter Ben Shahn sets down his personal views of the relationship of the artist―painter, writer, composer―to his material, his craft, and his society. He talks of the creation of the work of art, the importance of the community, the problem of communication, and the critical theories governing the artist and his audience.

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (Book acquired, 23 July 2021)

I’ve been wanting to read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic novel The Slynx for a few years now. I finally broke down and ordered a copy through my local book store, and started it yesterday—fantastic stuff: gross, grimy, raw, inventive, perplexing, upsetting, and very very funny. Jamey Gambrell’s translation transmits the playful noisy distortions that must surely be in the original Russian. I’m about fifty pages in, and so far it reminds me of the Strugatski brothers’ stuff—pessimistic, wry, earthy, as well as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Gely Korzhev’s mutant paintings.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast, Benedikt isn’t one to complain. He’s got a job—transcribing old books and presenting them as the words of the great new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe—and though he doesn’t enjoy the privileged status of a Murza, at least he’s not a serf or a half-human four-legged Degenerator harnessed to a troika. He has a house, too, with enough mice to cook up a tasty meal, and he’s happily free of mutations: no extra fingers, no gills, no cockscombs sprouting from his eyelids. And he’s managed—at least so far—to steer clear of the ever-vigilant Saniturions, who track down anyone who manifests the slightest sign of Freethinking, and the legendary screeching Slynx that waits in the wilderness beyond.

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx reimagines dystopian fantasy as a wild, horripilating amusement park ride. Poised between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Burgess’s A Clockwork OrangeThe Slynx is a brilliantly inventive and shimmeringly ambiguous work of art: an account of a degraded world that is full of echoes of the sublime literature of Russia’s past; a grinning portrait of human inhumanity; a tribute to art in both its sovereignty and its helplessness; a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.

Sometime, Never (Book acquired, 15 July 20210

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy was one of my favorite reads last year, so when I spotted a used copy of the anthology Sometime, Never, I picked it up. Along with novellas by William Golding (Envoy Extraordinary) and John Wyndham (Consider Her Ways), this 1956 includes Peake’s Boy in Darkness, a novel that takes place between the first two Gormenghast books. Gervasio Garvado’s cover illustration seems to depict Peake’s tale. Blurb:

Each of the three tales of imagination in this book is by a master of the art, and in each there is incident and invention enough to surpass most full-length novels.

Envoy Extraordinary, by William Golding, tells of a barbarian genius who arrives in ancient Rome with three inventions–and the results are appalling.

Consider Her Ways, by John Wyndham, presents a shocking and utterly convincing picture of a world of women–without men.

Boy In Darkness, by Mervyn Peake, is a venture into a dream-like world of strangeness and terror–quite unlike anything you have ever read, and unforgettable.

Kobo Abe’s Secret Rendezvous (Book acquired, 8 July 2021)

So well my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and we’ve had to move her to a memory care facility and pack up all the many many things in her house and so on and etc., the house she’s lived in forever, or at least for close to what I conceive of as forever, and it’s been painful and I’m not writing about it here or now, but she was a reader, still is a reader, although she doesn’t remember what she reads, although I guess I don’t remember most of what I read, but I do remember the feeling of reading a certain book, or at least the feeling of the feeling of reading a certain book, but I don’t know what it’s like for her to read now, I just know that she loved reading—not the kind of stuff I like, but a reader nonetheless, and so well now anyway I have boxes and boxes of her books to go trade in for store credit at the local shop, a thing, the trading I mean, that I try to do slowly, one box (or sometimes bag) at a time, so as not to overburden the kindly bookbuyers, who seem to be always dealing with box after box after musty box of books obtained in similar situations (i.e., grandmothers, grandfathers, beloved old great uncles and strange wonderful aunts, you know the type, who, for whatever sad reason, no longer require books in such a volume)—and so like I don’t bring in but one or two bags or boxes at a time, a strategy that also gives me some small license to browse and browse and browse and

 

 

 

And so last Thursday I picked up Kobo Abe’s 1977 novel Secret Rendezvous. I’ve always wanted to read Abe—specificically his first novel, Inter Ice Age 4, but I’ve never found it. (I have found his most famous novel, Woman in the Dunes, but for whatever reason failed to pick it up.) Secret Rendezvous, in English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter, seems to be a surrealistic tale of “a man’s desperate search for his vanished wife in a vast underground hospital.” The blurb on the back also mentions a test-tube baby, an impotent health administrator, and a nymphomaniac. Maybe I’ll read it next.

Borges/Calvino (Books acquired, 23 June 2021)

I’m a huge sucker for Avon-Bard massmarket paperbacks, so I couldn’t pass up Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. (The conversations are with the late writer Richard Burgin.) I also picked up a nifty 1976 paperback of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

Here’s one of those cosmicomics, “All at One Point” (English translation by William Weaver):

“All at One Point”

by

Italo Calvino


Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies’ velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe’s matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.

Naturally, we were all there, —old Qfwfq said, — where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn’t exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr. Pber^t Pber^d underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.

How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart, at least a little, and instead we all occupied that same point. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability; I know, for example, that in other periods neighbors called on one another; but there, because of the fact that we were all neighbors, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.

In the end each of us associated only with a limited number of acquaintances. The ones I remember most are Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her friend De XuaeauX, a family of immigrants by the name of Z’zu, and Mr. Pber^t Pber^d, whom I just mentioned. There was also a cleaning woman — “maintenance staff” she was called — only one, for the whole universe, since there was so little room. To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting — inside one point not even a grain of dust can enter — so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.

Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy (like the nebula of Andromeda) from what was assigned to geography (the Vosges, for example) or to chemistry (like certain beryllium isotopes). And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets; these Z’zus, if you weren’t careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.

But the others also had wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant” could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

It was what you might call a narrow-minded attitude, our outlook at that time, very petty. The fault of the environment in which we had been reared. An attitude that, basically, has remained in all of us, mind you: it keeps cropping up even today, if two of us happen to meet — at the bus stop, in a movie house, at an international dentists’ convention — and start reminiscing about the old days. We say hello — at times somebody recognizes me, at other times I recognize somebody — and we promptly start asking about this one and that one (even if each remembers only a few of those remembered by the others), and so we start in again on the old disputes, the slanders, the denigrations. Until somebody mentions Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 — every conversation finally gets around to her — and then, all of a sudden, the pettiness is put aside, and we feel uplifted, filled with a blissful, generous emotion. Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, the only one that none of us has forgotten and that we all regret. Where has she ended up? I have long since stopped looking for her: Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown — we’ll never meet her again, in this system of galaxies or in any other.

Let me make one thing clear: this theory that the universe, after having reached an extremity of rarefaction, will be condensed again has never convinced me. And yet many of us are counting only on that, continually making plans for the time when we’ll all be back there again. Last month, I went into the bar here on the corner and whom did I see? Mr. Pber^t Pber^d. “What’s new with you? How do you happen to be in this neighborhood?” I learned that he’s the agent for a plastics firm, in Pavia. He’s the same as ever, with his silver tooth, his loud suspenders. “When we go back there,” he said to me, in a whisper, “the thing we have to make sure of is, this time, certain people remain out … You know who I mean: those Z’zus …”

I would have liked to answer him by saying that I’ve heard a number of people make the same remark, concluding: “You know who I mean … Mr. Pber^t Pber^d …”

To avoid the subject, I hastened to say: “What about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0? Do you think we’ll find her back there again?”

“Ah, yes … She, by all means …” he said, turning purple.

For all of us the hope of returning to that point means, above all, the hope of being once more with Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0. (This applies even to me, though I don’t believe in it.) And in that bar, as always happens, we fell to talking about her, and were moved; even Mr. Pber^t Pber^d’s unpleasantness faded, in the face of that memory.

Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0’s great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy among us. Or any gossip, either. The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in a point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. If she had been another person, there’s no telling all the things that would have been said about her. It was the cleaning woman who always started the slander, and the others didn’t have to be coaxed to imitate her. On the subject of the Z’zu family — for a change! — the horrible things we had to hear: father, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother, aunts: nobody showed any hesitation even before the most sinister insinuation. But with her it was different: the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of us all in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short, what more could I ask?

And all of this, which was true of me, was true also for each of the others. And for her: she contained and was contained with equal happiness, and she welcomed us and loved and inhabited all equally.

We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 was uttering those words: “… ah, what noodles, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light-years and light-centuries and billions of light-millennia, and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe (Mr. Pber^t Pber^d all the way to Pavia), and she, dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the noodles I would make for you!,” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.

William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face (Book acquired, 17 June 2021)

William Gardner Smith’s 1963 novel The Stone Face is being reissued next month by NYRB. Their blurb:

As a teenager, Simeon Brown lost an eye in a racist attack, and this young African American journalist has lived in his native Philadelphia in a state of agonizing tension ever since. After a violent encounter with white sailors, Simeon makes up his mind to move to Paris, known as a safe haven for black artists and intellectuals, and before long he is under the spell of the City of Light, where he can do as he likes and go where he pleases without fear. Through Babe, another black American émigré, he makes new friends, and soon he has fallen in love with a Polish actress who is a concentration camp survivor. At the same time, however, Simeon begins to suspect that Paris is hardly the racial wonderland he imagined: The French government is struggling to suppress the revolution in Algeria, and Algerians are regularly stopped and searched, beaten, and arrested by the French police, while much worse is to come, it will turn out, in response to the protest march of October 1961. Through his friendship with Hossein, an Algerian radical, Simeon realizes that he can no longer remain a passive spectator to French injustice. He must decide where his true loyalties lie.

W.D. Clarke’s She Sang to Them, She Sang (Book acquired, 12 June 2021)

W.D. Clarke’s second novel She Sang to Them, She Sang is new from Slovenian indie corona\samizdat, which describes it as a “Pocket book 425 pages.”

It’s a nice little faboy, and the print isn’t pocket-sized, although I don’t know if I own a pair of pants with pockets that could accomodate She Sang to Them, She Sang. (I’ve included a beer can in the photo and a backdrop of NYRBs to give a sense of the novel’s odd physical scale).

Here’s Clarke’s blurb:

Katie, Jo, and Manny have got the deal of their lifetimes finally in their sights, but nowhere is it written in the Family Home Inspection Kit to triple-check the stories they tell themselves—about issues overlooked, upkeep not kept up, or damage concealed; about how more than finances flow from one generation to the next; about veiled motivations for entering into relationships of a contractual nature (be they fiduciary, informal, or solemnized); finally, about the real origins of these stories themselves, which upon closer inspection are revealed to be mere lean-tos built upon shabby foundations, and whose parlors furnish-forth tedious after-dinner speakers, who are not only the most long-winded, but also the most unreliable, of guests….

Through an innovative presentation of events (in which thoughts nested within and discoursing with other thoughts are “corralled” visually on the page), the narrative moves from one perspective to the next as each protagonist somehow manages to convince themselves of their autonomy, even as this most seemingly banal of events, the simple sale of a house, gathers to itself enough psycho-kinetic energy to threaten all who find themselves in need of shelter under its creaking joists.

I was a fan of Clarke’s first novel White Mythology. I wish I’d given it a proper review back in 2016.

 

Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake (Book acquired, 7 June 2021)

So I got Evan Dara’s fourth novel, Permanent Earthquake. There’s no summary blurb for it, but it seems to concern, like, an earthquake that is ongoing, or, if you will, permanent. The first 25 pages are written in the first-person; the novel then gives way to a third-person “he.” More thoughts to come. More on Dara:

My review of Dara’s last publication, the play Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins.

Daniel Green on Dara’s youngish oeuvre.

Ryan Chang and I riff on Dara’s last novel, Flee.

And I’ll close by saying that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook is an overlooked classic of late American postmodernism.

B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (Book (in a box) acquired 2 June 2021)

I went on a B.S. Johnson tear last month. Ordered his (infamous?) “book in a box,” The Unfortunates (1969). There are 27 unbound (but somewhat bound) sections to the novel; two are labeled FIRST/LAST, but the rest are meant to be read randomly. The New Directions edition I ordered includes some directions:

I never made it through any iteration of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, so we’ll see how I do.

Here’s a sense of what the book looks like (the initial booklet is an introduction by Johnson’s biographer Jonathan Coe):

 

George Milburn’s odd novel Catalogue (Book acquired, 28 May 2021)

The beige spine of Davenport’s 1987 reprint of George Milburn’s 1936 novel Catalogue was so wonderfully-nondescript that I picked it up yesterday and flicked through it some. The novel is about the events that happen in a small Oklahoma town after the arrival of two catalogs on the same summer day: Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. The novel’s short chapters are written around catalog entries (e.g., “33F8244 RUBBER COLLARS,” “281D820 SEPTIC TANK,” “33D340 FANCY SHIRT”), and something about its energy, form, and blurb (“More than 70 characters are portrayed in this work which is considered to be the best of the three novels by Milburn”) made me think of William Gaddis’s novel J R.

Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Book acquired, 25 May 2021)

My friend texted me yesterday to tell me that Dawnie Walton was on the NPR program Fresh Air. Walton was two years ahead of us in high school, and although I missed the interview, I was psyched when I read the description of her new novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. I picked up a copy today and read the first fifty pages.

Walton’s debut novel takes the form of an oral history of the titular fictional interracial 1970s psych duo. The controlling voice is the editor of the oral history, “S. Sunny Shelton” (a pseudonym). She’s the daughter of the duo’s deceased drummer—murdered by a “racist gang”—who was also carrying on an affair with Opal (these facts are laid out in the novel’s opening paragraph, so this isn’t a spoiler–I’m guessing that the climax of the novel (or conclusion?) gets to the murder).

I’m digging The Final Revival of Opal & Nev so far. It has a buzzy, propulsive style—genial and largehearted, even as its episodes deliver a chilling shorthand pop history of the Civil Rights Movement. The non-narrator S. Sunny Shelton is the most intriguing aspect here—what is she emphasizing or omitting in her assemblage of “facts”? (I’m reminded of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine just a bit.)

Here’s publisher Simon & Schuster’s blurb:

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.