Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

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I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

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Eddie Campbell’s canon of great graphic novels, 1977-2001

Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: How to Be an Artist (Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001) covers the “rise and fall of the graphic” over the course of a few decades. Alec combines memoir with art history and art criticism, all told through scratchy inks and spidery lettering (and plenty of pastiche–Campbell literally pastes the work of other comic artists of the last century throughout the book, along with “serious” artwork  ). While Campbell’s autobiographical stand-in “Alec MacGarry” is obviously central to the story, other figures loom here, including Bill Sienkiewicz (“Billy the Sink”), Art Spiegelman, Stephen Bissette, Dave Sim, Eastman and Laird—and especially Campbell’s From Hell partner, Alan Moore.

How to Be an Artist offers a fascinating and personal look at the time before (and immediately after) comic books reached a tipping point into (gasp!) serious artistic respectability. Witty, warm, and occasionally cruel, Campbell’s book explores the intersection of commerce and art in a very particular place and a very particular time.

The book was especially revelatory for me, I suppose: I transitioned from super hero comics to, like comix in the early nineties, a transition helped by works championed in How to Be an Artist, like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Sandman books and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Indeed, the backpages of Cerebus in the late eighties and early nineties operated like a long messy ranty meditation on the theme of “How to be an (independent, successful, self-publishing) artist”—and it was also in the backpages of an issue of Cerebus that I first saw Campbell’s work (the prologue of From Hell was published in Cerebus #124).

How to Be an Artist’s final chapter sees Campbell offer up a canon of “graphic novels” from 1977 to 2001 (I’ve typed out the full list at the bottom of this post). Campbell (or, properly, Campbell’s persona Alec) begins the chapter by dwelling on the problematic term “graphic novel”:

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After resolving to use the term, despite whatever problems might be attached to it, Campbell goes on to point out that, after the success of works like Watchmen and Maus, a glut of so-called “graphic novels” flooded the market place. He then goes about naming the best, those works that represent a “worthwhile phase in the human cultural continuum”:

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The list is organized semi-chronologically; Campbell groups works in a series together, as with Will Eisner’s Dropsie Ave books. Here’s the first page of the canon, to give you an idea of its form and layout (note that the list, like the entire book, is written in the future tense):

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I’ve never read When the Wind Blows.

I’ve also never read, to my shame, the unfinished project Big Numbers (by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz). Campbell details the drama surrounding why the project was never finished in How to Be an Artist. I’ll have to track it down.

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Campbell includes a trio of Love & Rockets novels. Poison River is the first one I read. I was a junior in high school; I checked it out from the public library. Somehow my mother saw it, flicked through it, and was mortified.

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Campbell seems to split the difference on Dave Sim’s Cerebus, including critical favorite Jaka’s Story along with the later novel Going Home (which sees Sim trying to reign in the project and steer it toward a conclusion). (Nobody asked me but I would’ve included Church & State and Church & State II).

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Joe Sacco’s comix-journalism is excellent, and Campbell includes both Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. These “graphic novels” (they aren’t really graphic novels, except that they are) expanded what was possible not just in comics, but also in journalism.

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From Hell isn’t the only one of his own works that Campbell includes on his list—he also includes another Alec novel, The King of Canute Crowd. I love the gesture—an artist fully assured of the qualities in his best work. For the record, if pressed to name “the best graphic novel” I would probably immediately say, “Oh, it’s From Hell of course” (and then hem and haw and hedge, bringing up Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the first half of Sim’s Cerebus project, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios PolypLove & Rockets, etc.).

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Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan shows up on the list, of course. I’m sure Building Stories would be on here too—along with dozens of others—if the list were updated. Indeed, Campbell’s canon (my term, not his), ends with this disclaimer:

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Here’s the full list:

 

A Contract with God, Will Eisner, 1977

A Life Force, Will Eisner, 1985

The Dreamer, Will Eisner, 1986/1991

Dropsie Avenue, Will Eisner, 1995

Tantrum, Jules Feiffer, 1979

When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982

Maus, Art Spiegleman, 1991

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1988

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1988

Big Numbers, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, 1990

The Death of Speedy, Jaime Hernandez, 1989

Blood of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez, 1989

Poison River, Gilbert Hernandez, 1994

Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1990

Going Home, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1999

Alec: The King Canute Crowd, 1990

The New Adventures of Hitler, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, 1990

The Cowboy Wally Show, Kyle Baker, 1987

Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker, 1990

Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1987

Signal to Noise, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1992

Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1995

Casanova’s Last Stand, Hunt Emerson, 1993

Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot, 1995

City of Glass, Paul Auster/David Mazzucchelli, 1994

The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Chester Brown, 1991/1994

Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse, 1995

Palestine, Joe Sacco, 1996

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco, 2000

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997/2000

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Seth, 1997

Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs, 1998

Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds, 1999

Cages, Dave McKean, 1998

Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, 1998

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999

Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks, 1998

The Jew of New York, Ben Katchor, 1998

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2001

Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson, 1999

Dear Julia, Brian Biggs, 2000

Berlin, Jason Lutes, 2001

 

 

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

Crapula

hack author

Painfully verbose

he lives in a castle!

hard to understand

NOTHING is happening

find an abridged version

I have read many horror novels

may be the worst book ever written

being the avid vampire fan that I am

attempt to cash in on the vampire craze

cavort lasciviously with the sons of the devil

Watch the movie and save yourself some time

I’m always willing to read new vampire fiction

epistolary format is monotonous and repetitive

Turns out the vampire in this book is an old guy

It was so stupid and the movie was even stupider

If you’re like me, just tring this book to make yourself feel brave, forget it

I think I have been hacked or my late wife’s daughter is using our account

Any vampire fan knows that vampires roam the streets of upper middle class suburbia

Over the past couple years I’ve started a collection of vampire books which totals over 100 now

I’ll be returning this on my next trip to the library and sticking to the teen reading section for finding my next vampire novel

I fully realize that this is a fictional/fantasy tale containing elements that obviously require a certain amount of leeway and suspension of belief, but

Epostolary novel told from multiple perspectives about the vampire, Count Dracula, who is trying to invade London and turn everyone else into vampires. A bunch of rich guys and a chick decide to stop him.

no relationship between Lucy and the Count-which i suppose makes more sense as to why he bit her

up pops a homoerotic cover with naked men, one whose penis is exposed in the background

the book is down hill from the time Dracula is in London and it is decided that he must be destroyed

the method being used to advance the plot being in disuse since quite some time

he is not a suave romantic movie/play character but an angry stupid animal

Amazon markets this book not to children but homosexual adult men

The movie was so much better even with Keanu Reeves’ awful acting

what are the standards when it comes to classic books

It started so well and I don’t know what happen?

I do not recommend this product to anyone else

Maybe I’ve read too much Sookie and Twilight

it is a great deterrent to the modern reader

unspoiled virgins or destroyed whores

I was looking for the epic love story

the female characters are cloistered

No gore, no horror, no nothing

worthless female characters

illlogical under pinnings

There’s no STORY here

creepy, and disgusting

In style it is archaic

a very weird book

I call it a joke

no romance

boring plot

Sucked.

On Philip K. Dick’s novel A Maze of Death

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I finished Philip K. Dick’s 1970 novel A Maze of Death this afternoon. The end made me tear up a little, unexpectedly. It’s a sad end, profoundly sad in some ways, and the unexpectedness of the sadness, is, like, particularly sad.

Sad because I didn’t quite expect (hence that adverb unexpectedly) Dick to stick any kind of ending, what, after nearly 200 pages of cardboard characters wandering through a pulp fiction death maze, ventriloquized by the author to perform monologues on consciousness and perception and reality and religion and prayer and faith and afterlife and salvation and so on and so on and so on.

A Maze of Death has some strong moments and strong images—one-way space shuttles, organic 3-D printers, riffs on a deity that would necessarily absorb the concept of a non-deity, a cosmic recapitulation of Odin, space sex, etc.—but on the whole A Maze of Death peters out towards the end, its energy sapped as Dick tires of revolving through (and killing off) the cast of characters (and consciousnesses) he’s assembled in his Haunted (Space) House. The thin allegory he’s patched together crumbles. Or perhaps it was only an allegory assembled for its author’s sad delight. In any case, the whole does not cohere. But no matter.

Too, A Maze of Death suffers perhaps in comparison to its twin, Dick’s bouncier 1969 ensemble satire Ubik. Hell, Ubik probably peters out too, but it’s funnier and sharper. Still: A Maze of Death delivers a strong conclusion, a thesis statement that will resonate with anyone who’s ever envied a machine’s “Off” switch.

But book reviews aren’t supposed to start with endings, right?

What is A Maze of Death about? I mean, that’s what a book review is supposed to do, maybe? Give up some of the plot, the gist, right? The short short answer is Death. (And, like, how does consciousness mediate the ultimate promise of a life-maze that leads to Death, the apparent undoing of consciousness?). But wait, that’s not the plot, that’s like, theme, which is just a way of condensing the plot. This paragraph has gotten us nowhere. I’m going to get up off my ass and walk across the room I’m in to pick up Lawrence Sutin’s 1989 biography of PKD, Divine Invasions and crib from the “Chronological Survey and Guide” at its end. Okay, here, from the entry for Maze:

A group of colonists encounter inexplicable doings—including brutal murders—on the supposedly uninhabited planet Delmark-O. They then learn the truth of Milton’s maxim that the mind creates its own heavens and hells. … In his forward to Maze Phil cites the help of William Sarill in creating the “abstract, logical” religion posed in the novel; Sarill, in interview, says he only listened as Phil spun late-night theories.

—Okay, wait—I promise I’ll return to Sutin’s lucid summary—but Damn, that’s it right there— “Phil spun late-night theories” —much of Maze reads like a late night amphetamine rant about consciousness, man

The plots of Eye [in the Sky]Ubik, and Maze are strikingly similar: A group of individuals find themselves in a perplexing reality state and try to use each other’s individual perceptions (idios kosmos) to make sense of what is happening to them all (koinos kosmos). Only in Eye, written ten years earlier, is the effort successful. In Ubik and Maze, by contrast, individual insight and faith are the only means of piercing the reality puzzle. In Maze, Seth Morley alone escapes the dire fate of his fellow twenty-second-century Delmark-O “colonists” (who are in truth…

—Okay, wait, it looks like Sutin is eager to spoil the ending there—but honestly, the ending that I found so satisfying wasn’t the twist that Sutin goes on to describe in his summary. The ending that Dick gives to his main viewpoint character Seth Morley that I found so moving had nothing to do with plot. Sutin’s line “Morely alone escapes” echoes the actual language of Dick’s novel, which echoes the end of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael alone escapes the wreckage of the Pequod, which in turn echoes the book of Job, where a witness returns from disaster to exclaim, I only am escaped alone to tell thee. This is the core of storytelling, I suppose: witnessing, enduring, and telling again. But Dick’s Morely wants an out, an off switch, a way to break the circuit, to escape the maze. The end of the novel—am I spoiling, after I cut Sutin off for fear of spoiling? Very well, I spoil—the end of the novel posits storytelling as a kind of survival mechanism against the backdrop of the existential horror of endless and apparently meaningless space. And yet the hero Morely still wants out of the story, and Dick lets him out. Out into non-story, out into a kind of plant-like existence—life without consciousness, life without a story.

But what’s the story the others, the rest of the maze’s ensemble, create?—

There is a quaternity of gods in Maze—an admixture of Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity; the Mentafacturer, who creates (God); the Intercessor, who through sacrifice lifts the Curse on creation (Christ); the Walker-on-Earth, who gives solace (Holy Spirit); and the Form Destroyer, whose distance from the divine spurs entropy (Satan/Archon/Demiurge)/ The tench, an old inhabitant of Delmark-O, is Phil’s “cypher” for Christ.

The “tench” is originally introduced as a kind of 3-D printer thing and I didn’t read it as a Christ figure at all, but what the hell do I know. In fact, I took the name (and figuration) to be a composite of the tensions between the characters—the allegorical forces at work in Dick’s muddy made-up late-night religion.

Anyway, I suppose you get some of the flavor of the novel there, dear reader—a mishmash of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, filtered through touches (and tenches) of space opera and good old fashioned haunted housery. A Maze of Death is a messy space horror that threatens to leave its readers unsatisfied right up until the final moments wherein it rings its sad coda, a reverberation that nullifies all its previous twists and turns in a soothing wash of emptiness. Not the best starting place for PKD, but I’m very glad I read it.

A review of Gisèle Prassinos’s collection of surreal anti-fables, The Arthritic Grasshopper

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I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.

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Prassinos reading her work to the Surrealists; photograph by Man Ray

 

I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.

Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:

Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.

Let’s look at that reigning chaos.

In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:

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I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.

Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.

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You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.

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Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”

I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora CarringtonIn their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.

I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checherTo Find without Seeking.

In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.

Some books I abandoned (for now)

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Five books that I’ve made some headway into over the past few weeks, only to set aside for later—

Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a skinny hundred pages, but it’s also dense, with paragraphs that go on for pages. It’s also gloomy—it’s long intro seems like a rewrite of the introduction to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” suffocating, abject, and dulling. I intend to get back to the book, but it’s just too hot right now in Florida.

Getting a copy of The Erstwhile in the late spring was my excuse for finally reading Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, a big baroque beast of a novel. I liked The Vorrh despite (because of?) its many weird shaggy problems, but it also wore me out. (I reviewed it here). I can’t seem to get past the third chapter of The Erstwhile. I might see if there’s an audiobook of it.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas probably doesn’t belong on this list. Like Tristram Shandy, it likely belongs on a list I made last year of books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again.books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again. Calling the book strange is an understatement, and its punchy, short chapters lead to me reading it in a really discontinuous fashion (I was reading it in between stories from that Leonora Carrington collection earlier this summer, which was like a perfect cocktail of weird).

Tomasso Landolfi’s collection Words in Commotion was…not quite as weird as I’d hoped it would be. I read only the shortest stories in the collection, and while I liked the Gothic tinges, I was also reading a bunch of Barry Hannah short stories at the same time. And the Hannah stories were just like, so superior, from the sentence to the paragraph to the whole tale.

I spent the first few months of 2017 gorging on Paul Bowles, with somewhat diminishing returns. I loved The Stories of Paul Bowles but was disappointed in The Sheltering Sky; I read his “lesser” novel Up Above the World and appreciated its precision a bit more—it’s something closer to a genre novel than a philosophical exercise. I’ve made it all the way to page 50 in Let It Come Down twice now, each time getting there—it’s a chapter break—and realizing I have no idea what’s going on. I read and read, but not really. I’m not comprehending anything. I’m thinking about some other thing—food or a movie or a chore I have to do or a different book, a book I’d rather be reading now than this one.

Eli Valley’s comix collection Diaspora Boy

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Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.

Here’s O/R’s blurb:

Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.

This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.

Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.

Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:

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The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:

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The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).

Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:

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Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:

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In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.

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The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.

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If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into  hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.

Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:

The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.

 

Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my post on Adorno and Sebald’s Austerlitz. In Part 1, I talked about Sebald and Adorno’s (negative) aesthetics, and challenges the latter presents to the former. Here, I discuss quotational technique as a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.

 

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It may seem like an obvious observation, but Sebald must disguise and compensate for authorial arbitration. The goal of liberating content from such arbitration, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, is a necessary & impossible fictional standpoint the philosopher must take for the sake of resistant thought (MM 247). Both he and Adorno share the desire to reclaim for their subjects the capacity for experience, but an Adornian mode risks segregating Austerlitz from the present and thereby fixing him into the past and hence foreclosing that very capacity. We will return to the “Finale” of Minima Moralia shortly, but I would first like to talk about the emergence of history as coincidence in the opening passages of Austerlitz.

Coincidences, the unplanned contact between two mutually exclusive objects which does not promise meaning, are enigma’s second cousin, and enable the emergence of history to appear natural because they are especially adept at disguising arbitrary decision. Coincidences don’t occur in literature, but they are engineered to happen.

Continue reading “Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 2)”

Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 1)

This is part of a conference paper I presented in the spring. I’m dividing it up into two posts. I’ll post the next part tomorrow. 

This section establishes the connection of Sebald’s Austerlitz to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. It proceeds to argue that the text’s Adornian valences, both aesthetic and ethical, present problems for Sebald. It also introduces Patrick Greaney’s work on quotational technique, and sets up Part 2 as an analysis of it as Sebald’s clever workaround for Adorno’s impossible demand to witness but not to rehearse.

Part 1

 

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald describes the need to represent the Holocaust as a practically impossible necessity. Sebald’s investment in first-generation Frankfurt School aesthetics, especially Adorno’s and Benjamin’s, is well-documented in his early work across his myriad reviews and essays. How do we square this interest with Sebald’s creative pursuits when Adorno’s aesthetics are so forthrightly opposed to positivist representation? Located between a narrative art and a document of witness, this Adornian mode in Austerlitz reveals an irreconcilable conflict between concealment and the difficulty of representation. This conflict forces Sebald to find means of convincing the reader that the novel is defined by, yet not confined to, the Holocaust. Using techniques of dislocated narration that find their strongest effect in the mode of quotation, Sebald pursues a method of simultaneously presenting and re-presenting events that renegotiate the negative terrain set out by Adorno. Ultimately, what is drawn out by Sebald is not the Holocaust, nor simply the poverty of representing it, but the inability to represent and reclaim experience in a narrative that draws its significance from that poverty.

Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory that the “real possibility of utopia converges with the possibility of total catastrophe.” The material possibilities of utopia are everywhere in popular media, and underneath our fingers – possibilities which are still repressed under the culture industries. Such apocalyptic images (and technological means), Sebald says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “militate against” the capacity for “discursive thinking,” and enable the unconscious subject to abet the continual destruction of her environment. Sebald’s project of approaching the verboten past is an ethico-aesthetic attempt to return to the reader a capacity for a specific aesthetic experience that unchains her from the machinations of destruction, what Ranciere might call a redistribution of the sensible. Though, in that same interview, Sebald contends “it’s practically impossible to do this,” a notion that James Wood echoes in his introduction to the English edition of Austerlitz. The novel’s attempt to restore to the eponymous character the individuality of his name and experience is foreclosed, argues Wood, and the challenge Sebald sets himself with the practical impossibility of the literary witness of European historical trauma is to be ethical, to refuse the sentimental commitment of mere witness, mere reproduction, and model in literature what actual experience might be for Austerlitz in the ecology of absent-minded media.

Sebald’s technique of dislocated narration collapses the moments of presentation and representation through quotational coincidence, a means of re-presenting that, in the same moment of destroying original context, presents the phenomenon of that moment of destruction. In Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art, Patrick Greaney argues that

[Quotational texts] indicate the repeatability of the moment of emergence of the original, the moment of the original’s origination … Quotation repeats this authoritative, authorial act and thereby indicates the possibility that this coming-into-being could have been different and could be altered in its repetition (6).

Quotational ethics are impelled by Adorno, but underwritten by Benjaminian technique – moments of the past are wrenched and re-placed in the present in order to dialectically realize untapped potential in the former, endowing it with new meaning in the present. Thus quotational power is allegorical; Benjamin writes in the German Tragic Drama that allegories present precisely that which is not there, and mean precisely what they do not present to us (296). If the ethical demand is to witness but not to rehearse, Sebald’s Adornian aesthetics hit a brick wall, as he must perform precisely that which is impossible. He is forced to contend with an inescapable authorial sovereignty and its complicity with forgetting. Faced with the impasse of Adornian aesthetics, Sebald then leans on the messianism of Benjamin to suggest that the emergence of history in the midst of an apocalypse of experience is one of realizing the extent of one’s loss of experience in a history of humanity that has still not happened yet.

The goal to liberate content from arbitration betrays a desire to maintain the critic’s sovereignty. It is this irreconcilability that plagues Adorno’s concept of the enigma and his thesis of the negative artwork in Aesthetic Theory. Enigmas invite yet defy interpretation, or at least obfuscate their enunciation. An enigma could have some, none, or all of the meanings the viewer is struggling to project onto it. When Adorno writes that enigmatic artworks are picture puzzles to be solved (AT 121), he privileges the form of the enigma over its ostensible content. Composition of content is largely irrelevant to a puzzle – the interpreter (or the one who completes the puzzle) doesn’t need to know how the original was composed in order to complete her task.

Yet so much of Aesthetic Theory is seemingly dependent on a hyper-deliberate content – I’m arguing that it’s a hyper-deliberate arrangement of content, the situation of content (The section “Situation” in Aesthetic Theory focuses on the socio-cultural contingencies of modern art). The form of an enigma, on which the crux of Adorno’s argument stands, is posed as an irreconcilability as a means of disguising the positivism of negative artworks, something they are supposed to resist. Enigmatic form delays positivity and obscures Adorno’s logic. A metaphor is used to symptomatically define the undefinable metaphor “enigma.” Too, Greaney’s book on quotational technique focuses on arrangement and context in contemporary trends in conceptual poetics and visual art. Both Adorno and Greaney, however, seek to critique the contingencies inherent in the tethering of content to a linear-progressive idiom of history.

Maintaining this ambivalence is necessary for Adorno, for not only does the enigma help stall the dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment, it also preserves the negative relationship to the social, a crucial condition of Adorno’s thesis. The ideal Adornian artwork presents a negative yet refrains the social meaning from ever being naturalistically represented in the artwork; the form must re-route the viewer or reader outside into the Social. There is, then, a stark delimitation between Art and the Social via the cracked mirror of the enigma.

This enigmatical separation—between subject and object, form and content, the past and present—has ethical consequences for Sebald. If we remember Adorno’s infamous claim about poetry, the enigmaticalized referent of the Shoah must remain firmly in the past, lending itself too easily to the maintenance of a melancholic haunting that precludes any form of resolution, ethically negative or not. The Adornian goal is always to expose the violence inherent in the social formation via the negative, and Adorno’s thesis is the key. Someone must decide on the irreconcilable conflict, and his argument ends up preserving the sovereignty of Adorno’s decision more than the autonomy of the artwork. It allows Adorno to have his cake and eat it too, and greatly challenges those who are influenced by his thought.

This is perhaps more of a failure of Adorno’s aesthetics than Sebald’s, and I am aware that the jury is still out on whether or not Sebald should be read more as an Adornian (recall that Adorno was not receptive to Sebald’s scholarly work) or a Foucauldian. Despite this seeming irreconcilability, I think it is still worth thinking about Sebald’s work as deeply tied to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. Both Foucault and Adorno offer little to no practical remedies for the social disorders they analyze and diagnose. To me, favoring a discursive analysis ignores Sebald’s dialectical style, and his debt to Benjamin’s style.

 

In Part 2, I discuss how quotational technique is a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.

This is not a review of Shattering the Muses, a strange hybrid “novel” by Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori

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Rainer J. Hanshe’s new book Shattering the Muses is comprised of citations, short histories, poems, complaints and lamentations, anecdotes, essays, etchings, manipulated photographs, photographs of old documents, ink and enamel drawings, coal and ash pictures, and other media. His co-conspirator on the project is Federico Gori who provides original art for Shattering the Muses. Here are two of nine depictions by Gori of muses that open (in a sense) the narrative:

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The books is ten inches tall, seven inches wide, and one inch thick. It contains 370 pages, many of them illustrated, several blank, and five that are completely black. There are at least four fonts (and more languages than that, although the book is primarily in English).

Have I lingered over form too long here? It’s difficult to describe the content of Shattering the Muses (which often foregrounds the “narrative’s” form).

Or maybe description isn’t so difficult—perhaps we can rely on the book to name its own central problem. The question that threads through Shattering the Muses is “Beware the Book?”

Let’s look at a few examples:

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Above, we read an account—with its own embedded quotation—of The First Emperor of Qin’s ordering, two hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, a grand burning of a great many books. The account ends with the question: “Beware the book?”

(Some historians remark that Quin Shi Huang caused to be buried alive 460 Confucian scholars).

On the opposing/facing page, a 1493 German woodcut depicts Jews being buried and burned alive, scapegoats for the Black Death plague. The woodcut provides an answer to the question: “Beware the book?”: No, beware the burners. The space between the two pages is a gap for the reader to crossPut the pieces together.

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Indeed, it is the reader’s task (task is not quite the right word) to put the pieces of Shattering together. Take the pages above, for example. A passage from Areopagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, contends that books are “not absolutely dead things,” but rather extractions of the soul’s intellect. He compares them to “those fabulous dragon’s teeth” that Cadmus scattered by Athena’s command. Milton warns that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of Life.”

The next page reproduces Johan Liss’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (c. 1627). The satyr Marsyas found and mastered the first aulos, an double-reed wind instrument cast away by Athena. (She didn’t like the shape her invention brought to her virgin cheeks). Marsyas challenged Apollo to an aulos contest and lost, natch. (Apollo’s daughters the Muses were the judges). Marsyas was subsequently flayed alive, his hide nailed to a tree. Victim for art’s sake.

(The first page of Shattering the Muses is a quote from Ovid’s Fasti. The lines describe Athena discarding her aulos: “Art is not worth this to me,” she says, seeing her reflected face deformed in the river as she produces the “sublime” music).

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One more set of two pages, then. (It’s easier to show the book than to properly describe it in words. This is not a review). Above: Tadeusz Różewicz was a Polish poet who fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He survived the war. His brother Janusz, also a poet, did not. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

The facing page is a photograph of a scrap of one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri  manuscripts (specifically, P.Oxy. 67.4633). This scrap contains commentary on Homer’s Iliad, but is mostly famous because someone used it to wipe their ass. (A literary critic?)

However, Shattering the Muses is not entirely composed of loosely arranged but discontinuous fragments. Several narratives strand through the book. The most straightforward of these is the story of Renato Naso, who is the closest thing to a main character we’ll find here. When we’re introduced to him, we’re told that he’s “unknowingly putting his life in suspension…living in an eternal between.” He’s a hero (?) ripe for “rupture, fracture, and shattering.” (Perhaps if we take Shattering the Muses as a “novel” we could imagine that the events within take place in Naso’s stretched consciousness—a more secure place for such horrors than, uh, historical reality). When we first meet him, he’s leaving New York for Berlin, forced to abandon most of his books and store them in his brother’s garage. His brother’s house and garage are flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but his library miraculously survives. And yet the historical accounts of book burnings (and human burnings) cataloged in Shattering the Music attest that no library is ever safe. As Milton suggests, libricide and homicide are intertwined.

Hence, other background “characters” emerge more prominently than others in Shattering the Muses: Hitler, Mussolini, the Gestapo. The specter of the Nazis and the Holocaust weigh heavily here, heavier than the (many) other libriciders documented. Against this evil Hanshe gives us a resistance—a wonderful chapter lingers on Samuel Beckett, who’s escaped Occupied Paris to hide in the small village of Roussillon. There, “separated from his library…literary freedom erupts” for Beckett. Absence is a generative power.

Other figures resist through art, even if they perish in the horror, like Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered by the Nazis near Győr and tossed into a mass grave. In a poetic turn, Hanshe notes “it is a daring Marsyas that he becomes, risking his flesh doubly before a merciless & savage Apollo, for he will not cast his aulos to the turf of the riverbank.” Deft touches like these link this “novel’s” motifs of beauty and destruction, art and murder.

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One Day I’m Going to Grow Wings #2, 2016, Federico Gori

A narrative forms too from more oblique strategies—a plague of mutating billboards, for instance, or spiderwebs of poetry. Handbills, demands, stray bits of philosophy. But maybe I’m back where I started—go all the way back to the title here: This is not a review of Shattering the Muses. I can’t properly parse it, really. It’s overwhelming—linguistically, philosophically, typographically, aesthetically. Intellectually is a word to use here. Hell. It’s a lot to digest all at once. Let me admit that I’m more interested in picking at it slowly. Hanshe’s put a lot of material on the table. It’s a rich meal.

Who is Shattering the Muses for? I hope that I’ve shared enough snippets to give you a sense of what (might be) happening here. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it more in the sense of a text to return to. At the same time, this book is clearly Not For Everyone. Shattering the Muses is an encyclopedic poem, a Choose Your Own Adventure story of aesthetic horror and loss. It’s not likely to cohere for you quickly and neatly, but it’s a weird joy to think (and feel) through.

Last word goes to the Text:

Beware the Book?

Beware the Purifiers!

Beware Libricide.

A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

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Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].

A review of Barry Hannah’s cult classic collection Airships

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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.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]

Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons condenses myth into vibrant narco noir

Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.

In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:

The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.

In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by

…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.

Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,

The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.

The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.

Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.

Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.

In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:

…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:

The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.

The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”

I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a perfect novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].

A review of Angels, Denis Johnson’s first novel

AngelsDenis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.

The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”

Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.

And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.

Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.

The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].

Sunday Comics

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Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).

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I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”

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Lost in The Vorrh

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I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.

These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as

….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.

Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.

There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh.  Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.

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The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.

In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.

If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.


[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The VorrhIn addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].