Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. To be clear, I’m a big Pynchon fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


If it were better written, it might qualify as pretentious.

the prose was simultaneously confusing and boring

my first Pynchon novel and probably my last

I am really picky when it comes to reading.

I suppose if you like post modernist crap?

This novel just did not do it for me.

Opaque, muddled, and mindless.

Yuck! Had to read for class. :-(

the characters were unlikable

Reading shouldn’t be work…

If you’re an English major

What is this I don’t even

I didn’t finish it

insufferable

convoluted

No thanks.

overly complicated

gacked-up cartoon of a…thing

stupidest thing I’ve ever read

left confused about many things

deliberate manipulation of names

palpably viscerally nauseated and sick

Pynchon and Robbins can just go and get a room.

I love A LOT of post-modern experimental fiction, but

I managed to finish this novel only because it’s short

This is really the worst book I have ever read

loaded with pretentious intellectualism

I find the weirdness too weird

required too much effort

A Silly Word Salad

wacky hi-jinks

post-beatnik weirdoes

difficult, delirious writing style

pretentious intellectualism posing as literature

like Sacha Baron Cohen of the dreadful movie “Borat” fame

(modern life is uncertain; there is no guarantee of a happy ending)

Pynchon is a sad man with a rather warped and gloomy view of the world

a prose style that is going to either delight or dismay most readers

physics, Greek tragedies, postal history, drug culture

is bizarre like the author is high when he wrote it

hyperstylized game of literary three card monte

I was expecting a Victorian crime drama

nothing to interest a decent reader

he really should find a day job

the character names; silly

without the humor

Thankfully brief

chaos engine

 

 

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Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself

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Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.

Chief among Tracker’s  allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.

The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.

From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.

James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.

At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.

Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.

Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:

And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.

James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”

Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.

A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:

I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.

A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.

While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.

The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.

The sex is more interesting than the violence in Black Leopard, Red Wolf—and there’s plenty of both. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic urges,” our lead characters repeat to themselves. James’s novel is deeply horny, its characters fluidly shifting into all kinds of weird fucking. Tracker partners with various members of his fellowship in more ways than one. Sex is magic in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, too—only ten pages in, Tracker ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, fish eat it, and turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead.

There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.

In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf  points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.

Jon McNaught’s graphic novel Kingdom reviewed

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My review of Jon McNaught’s newest book Kingdom is live now at The Comics Journal.

First two paragraphs:

Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.

“Life, friends, is boring,” the poet John Berryman wrote in his fourteenth Dream Songbefore quickly appending, “We must not say so / After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” In Kingdom, McNaught creates a world of flashing sky and yearning sea, natural splendor populated by birds and bats, mice and moths. In Kingdom Fields, waves crash in gorgeous dark blues, the sun rises in golden pinks, rain teems down in violet swirls, and the wind breezes through meadows of grass. It’s all very gorgeous, and the trio of main characters spend quite a bit of the novel ignoring it. The narrator of John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song understood the transcendental promise of nature’s majesty, yet also understood that “the mountain or sea or sky” alone are not enough for humans—that we are of nature and yet apart from it.

Read the rest at the Comics Journal.

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A review of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower

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Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar 

Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures  a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.

When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community,  He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.

After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.

Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.

The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.

Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.

Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.

Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.

The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.

And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,

Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.

Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:

He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”

“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”

Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”

Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.

Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.

The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”

“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.

 

A review of Taking Care, Joy Williams’ debut short story collection

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Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:

Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.

The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?

Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.

In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.

There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:

The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”

A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).

“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:

I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.

“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:

It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!

Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.

What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).

“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:

“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …

“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.

While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:

Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.

Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:

The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.

The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.

In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:

“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.

Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”

“Oh,” Dan said.

In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:

I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.

Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.

The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.

Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s sharp satire The Last Days of Louisiana Red

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Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.

In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”

The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.

Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,

When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.

Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:

Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”

As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….

The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.

As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.

Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.

Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.

This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.

Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.

When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:

He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.

So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.

Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.

A review of Lord, João Gilberto Noll’s abject novel of dissolving identity

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João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.

That first-person voice is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist travels to cold winter London on an unspecified “mission.” Indeed, the mission remains unspecified to both reader and narrator alike, although it does seem to involve an English university. The man who arranges for the narrator to come to London is himself a shifting cipher in Lord, transforming into different entities—at least in the narrator’s (often paranoid) view. We get the sense in Lord that consciousness is always under radical duress, that a state of being might collapse at any time or give way to some other, unknown state of being.

Throughout Lord, Noll dramatizes abject consciousness in turmoil. Early on, the narrator, already feeling uncertain about why he has moved halfway across the world, arrives at a university’s Portuguese department. In a book-lined office, he attempts to stabilize himself through the textual “reality” of printed matter:

The walls were covered with books. I trailed my hand over them as if to confirm the reality I was living in. Though I knew I was not living an unreality per se—like those born out of a simple dream and ending up in a nightmare, which we can only escape from when we wake up sweaty, trembling, and confused.

The irony is that the narrator has not fully comprehended yet that he is living an unreality, that he is actually narrating the nightmare. Noll’s hero is an unfixed voice, a voice that can’t square the signifiers around him with any stable signified meaning in his consciousness.

Slowly (but not too slowly—Lord moves at a steady clip), the narrator embraces this abjection and wills the dissolution of his self and its reformation into some new other. “My tiredness did not demand sleep, but, damn!, how I craved some indistinguishability between bodies, volumes, and formats,” he tells us.

The narrator carries his project of transformation even farther, applying cosmetics and hair dye to alter his appearance and “find a new source for [his] new formation”:

My lack of definition was already greater than me, although I had lost myself and begun to suspect that even my English boss couldn’t do anything to bring me back to me. I needed to keep up this task of being every- one somehow, because without it I wouldn’t even make it as far as the corner: without asking anyone, I happened to have overcome being the individual whom I had mechanically created for other people. I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.

Lord’s narrator takes this new version of himself on various London adventures, most of which are lurid and gross, and many of which are downright horny. Our Brazilian writer (who is slowly unbecoming a Brazilian writer) visits museums and has weird sex encounters, sleeps on the streets and takes a soapy bath with a Professor of Latin American Studies. Lord moves at a rapid and occasionally bewildering pace, giving the narrator’s quest a mock-ironic urgency. In Edgar Garbeletto’s capable English translation from the Portuguese, the paragraphs go on for pages but the sentences are choppy, riddled with colons and dashes, lurches and leaps, falls and stops.

Through this turbulent rhetoric, Lord’s narrator channels other voices, sublimating them into the text proper. The narrator absorbs bits and pieces of the other voices he encounters, dissolving his consciousness into and out of them as he strives for transformation. He also absorbs bits and pieces of bodies—fluids and other detritus, other abject bits of our human borders.

Our narrator is obsessed with borders, but his transgression of them has little to do with a moral framework. For the narrator, moral semblance is simply the result of an “individual…mechanically created for other people.” Rather, the narrator is fascinated by what makes a consciousness conscious. However, he’s not yet willing to cross the ultimate border, despite his fascination. In one little episode of Lord, our hero happens upon a dying man on the street. He watches the man pass from life:

I squeezed his hand. His mouth opened, and I could see the pool of blood that had overflowed his rotten teeth. That death, in some way, in some corner of my mind, gave me tremendous satisfaction. Someone was not afraid to go all the way to the end. To do for others what everyone tried to avoid. I wished I could follow him, but I didn’t have his bravery; I lacked the necessary elements to consummate the act. I needed that hug today.

A strange hug indeed!

The apparent finality of death as cessation-of consciousness holds a certain appeal to Lord’s narrator, whose quest is perhaps to overcome abjection via transformation. But it’s not easy,

It’s not just a snap, man: it’s being stuck in this limbo between staying in England and going back to South America that made me unrecognizable to myself anymore, it didn’t let me transfigure myself, it wouldn’t let me leave this stupid little body here, vomit myself out in disgust, or turn me into someone else.

Indeed, the quest in Lord might be summarized by that phrase: “vomit myself out in disgust.” While the voice in Lord remains untethered by the normal strictures of narrative (or even moral) logic, it is hardly free or disembodied. Indeed, the relationship between bodies and consciousness is perhaps the primary problem of Lord. Our narrator’s voice has a body that can’t catch up to what’s happening in its consciousness. Hence the novel’s preoccupation with the corporeal reality of bodies: blood, urine, semen, sweat, vomit…all the leaking stuff of humanity spurting out, transgressing the apparent borders and showing those borders are but a moral fiction.

In one abject episode, our narrator attempts to dispel London himself from his consciousness:

On a corner in Bloomsbury, a totally unexpected need to vomit hit me. I wiped myself with a sheet of newspaper that was fluttering by. But I couldn’t stop; I realized it was London I was throwing up, London with its ghosts and impossible missions, already entirely unsuccessful.

Tellingly, the narrator grasps a newspaper that just happens to be “fluttering by” to clean himself, to restore the moral fiction of an arranged, presentable self. The newspaper, like the books in the university office, is another nod to Lord’s metatextual motif. The written word proves to be illusory as an anchor in Noll’s novel—it cannot codify consciousness, it cannot fix meaning. Hence, the novel’s strange, disruptive rhetorical program, which takes first-person consciousness and literally deconstructs it.

The fact that Noll’s hero is/was a writer, “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public,” suggests another metatextual nod. Lord’s narrator is a strange cipher of Noll himself. In 2004, the year Lord was published, Noll  served as writer-in-residence at the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. But the narrator is a cipher of Noll only—a voice that deconstructs and reconstructs itself, autofiction that dissolves the self.

This abject voice tries to reinvent itself from the outside in, only to vomit the inside back out again. Utter disintegration seems fatally imminent; madness seems inescapable. As one reaches the final pages of Lord, one senses that the narrative might fall apart into nothing—which, to be clear, it doesn’tLord sticks its ending a strangely and suitably satisfying way. I won’t give away the end, but instead reverse the course of my previous sentence: Lord falls apart into something.

Like Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel (the other Noll books currently available in English translation),  Lord is propelled on its own dream-nightmare logic. It’s fucked-up, gross, abject, and surreal. It’s permeated by a vague horror. Reading it might make parts of your stomach hurt. I like these particular flavors, and I particularly like a book that doesn’t just upset me with its themes and its plot, but also with its style and its rhetoric. Lord certainly isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and I think that there’s an audience of weirdos out there like me who will really dig this book too. Highly recommended.

João Gilberto Noll’s Lord is new from Two Lines Press. It is the third novel by Noll Two Lines has published. I hope they publish more. 

 

 

 

Two by Robert Coover and one by Don DeLillo (Books acquired—a few plays, unexpectedly—26 Jan. 2019)

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On Friday night we watched the first Hunger Games film with our daughter, who had finished the book this week. The movie isn’t that great, as I argued when I saw it seven years ago in the theater, but she seemed to like it, although she said she would have “done a lot of things differently.” She asked me to pick up the second book for her when I got a chance, and Not at the library, I want to own it, etc. So I figured that I’d use that as an excuse to browse my favorite used bookstore, so conveniently located 1.1 miles away (I swear I didn’t move into this neighborhood because of its proximity).

I went for a walk, got bitten rather viciously by a medium-sized dog, cleaned and dressed the wound, and went to browse books.

There are over two million books in this bookstore, a lot of them not really organized. While I usual mull around general fiction, literary criticism, art and art history, sci-fi, fantasy, and a section called “literary fiction,” I like to mix it up by going into areas I don’t know as well. Strolling through stack after stack in the drama section, an outward-turned collection of plays by Robert Coover caught my eye. I’d never heard of A Theological Position, but the cover and a few minutes browsing the four plays collected here—including one called Rip Awake, about Rip Van Winkle, which especially interested me—sealed the deal. That was before I turned the book over and saw this magnificent author photo, where a young Coover looks a bit like Jacques Derrida, in lieu of a tired blurb—

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A column over I spied a copy of Don DeLillo’s play The Day Room, 1986 joint I’d never heard of. The Penguin Plays edition with a black and white cover of a production recalled to me the four years of theater and drama I took in high school—we had plenty of these in the drama room, plays by Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, etc. I was like the only one interested in these; it took me until the end of my sophomore year to realize that most of the drama kids were interested in fucking musicals and not literary drama. I probably belonged with the art kids but whatever.

I went and picked up the second Hunger Games book, and then browsed sci-fi a bit, hoping to find some more by the Strugatsky brothers or David Ohle’s Motorman, but not that day, friends! I also wanted to get a copy of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—and there were several—but they were all in these ridiculously well-kempt respectable and utterly literary cover editions that I can’t get down with. I’m sure I’ll find something I can live with sometime this year, but in the meantime, turning a corner, I found a massmarket paperback copy of Robert Coover’s novel The Origin of the Brunists, a novel I’ve been meaning to read for almost twenty years now. So.

 

Gaddis Contra Carnegie | How to Win Friends and Influence People in The Recognitions

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The second episode of Part II, Ch. 5 of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions returns to the consciousness of sadsack everyman Mr. Pivner. Through milquetoast Mr. Pivner (the long-lost father of poseur-supreme Otto), Gaddis critiques the banal emptiness and rank venality of post-war life in America. In this particular section of The Recognitions, Gaddis reinforces one of his novel’s central themes: modern commerce has supplanted culture in contemporary America. Indeed, commerce is culture in America.

The episode begins as Papa Pivner prepares to meet Otto for the first time (their estrangement has not yet been explained in the narrative). They arrange to meet in a hotel restaurant, their recognition of each other secured in a promise to wear matching green scarves. Gaddis weaves this father-son plot into the schemes of the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who plans to offload his oh-so-artistic fraudulent currency to “a spreader” who will disseminate “the queer” bills. Ever the conman, Sinisterra disguises himself before heading to the meetup, which is to be held in a hotel restaurant. He dons a green scarf, by which his contact will recognize him. You get it: Sinisterra misrecognizes Otto for the spreader, Otto misrecognizes Sinisterra for his long-lost father, tragicomedy ensues, and Gaddis multiplies the strands of deferred and displaced father figures threaded through his bigass too-big too-long novel. This paternity motif is underlined even more when we remember Otto’s competition with Sinisterra’s son Chaby for the affections of Esme. But such deferrals and displacements are the material for a different riff. Let us shift back to Papa Pivner, sad soul, Gaddis’s little manikin-symbol-thing of paternal cultural authority cuckolded by commercial masscult modernity.

As he preps to meet his boy Otto, Mr. Pivner skims through Dale Carnegie’s 1936 utlrabestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help book that Gaddis beats up for nearly ten straight pages in The Recognitions(Not incidentally, Gaddis had his students at Bard College read Carnegie’s book as part of a class he taught called “The Theme of Failure in American Literature”). Carnegie’s book is the AntiRecognitions, and Gaddis delights in savaging its self-help hucksterism by setting How to Win Friends against the Western canon:

Mr. Pivner sat staring through rimless glasses at a kindly book-jacket face which returned his amorphous gaze. He was preparing to meet his son, to win him as a friend, and influence him as a person. As Odysseus had Mentor, Jesus John the Baptist, Cesare Borgia Machiavelli, Faust Mephistopheles, Descartes Father Dinet, Schopenhauer’s dog Schopenhauer, and Schiller his drawerful of rotten apples, Mr. Pivner had Dale Carnegie: he and four million other individuals, that is…

The passage’s bathos exemplifies Gaddis’s techniques in the Pivner episodes. Gaddis inflates the rhetoric with rich allusion and haughty parallelism, only to puncture the verbal balloon with the banality of middlebrow midcentury American values. For Gaddis, Carnegie’s book represented a signal synthesis of these venal values. How to Win Friends and Influence People cannibalized millennia of writings on wisdom, philosophy, ethics—and the strange mystery vibrating underneath these disciplines—and distilled it all into a self-help book centered on selling yourself to others. The contempt is palpable in another bathetic passage:

True, Mr. Pivner might have read Descartes; and, with tutelage, understood from that energetic fellow, well educated in Jesuit acrobatics (cogitans, ergo sum-ing), that everything not one’s self was an IT, and to be treated so. But Descartes, retiring from life to settle down and prove his own existence, was as ephemeral as some Roger Bacon settling down to construct geometrical proofs of God: for Mr. Pivner, a potential buyer (on page 95) who was head of the Hotel Greeters of America (and president of the International Greeters too!) was far more real.

Cribbing and re-appropriating Carnegie’s own words, Gaddis’s narrator notes that How to Win Friends “was not a book of thought, or thoughts, or ideas, but an action book.” Gaddis then ironically resituates the value of such a book:

An action book; and herein lay the admirable quality of this work: it decreed virtue not for virtue’s sake (as weary Stoics had it); nor courtesy for courtesy (an attribute of human dignity, as civilized culture would have it); nor love for love (as Christ had it); nor a faith which is its own explanation and its own justification (as any faith has it); but all of these excellences oriented toward the market place.

Gaddis posits How to Win Friends as the cynical, terminal destination for the radical transcendental values of the previous century. The values of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-making upheld by Henry David Thoreau, whose writings are alluded to in The Recognitions, are converted into self-improvement, which translates into self-selling. Art and philosophy are simply commodities. Gaddis intuits the ways that capitalism glosses its venality over with the promises of culture and transcendence. Consider this passage, which begins with a quote from Carnegie:

“Let me repeat: the principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.” That was the wonderful thing about this book [. . .] if at first its approach seemed fraught with guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice, that feeling soon disappeared, and one had . . . “Ah yes, you are attempting a new way of life.”

The litany of the huckster’s “bag of tricks” — “guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice” — doubles back to The Recognitions’ motif of counterfeiting and also bites viciously into Carnegie’s core disingenuousness.

Gaddis not only attacks the content of Carnegie’s book, but also the form and style of the book. Carnegie’s hucksterism evinces in its very rhetoric. Gaddis seems to propose his own novel as the opposite of How to Win Friends and Influence People in both content (searching quest for meaning and authenticity in a degraded commercial world) and form (an unwieldy and often abstruse polyglossic beast of a book). In the following remarkable passage he decidedly (if obliquely) situates The Recognitions as a work contra Carnegie:

Here was no promise of anything so absurd as a void where nothing was, nor so delusive as a chimerical kingdom of heaven: in short, it reconciled those virtues he had been taught as a child to the motives and practices of the man, the elixir which exchanged the things worth being for the things worth having. It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name of Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.”

Poor Pivner. He’s really just wanting to win the friendship of the son he’s only just learned he has. Gaddis uses Pivner to indict American culture’s commercially cruel contours, where any entity might be misappropriated and misused in the market place of ideas:

Here were Barnum and the Bible, Charles Schwab, Dutch Schultz and Shakespeare, two Napoleons, Pola Negri, and the National Credit Men’s Association, Capone, Chrysler, Two-Gun Crowley, and Jesus Christ, each in his own way posting the way to the market place. Even Jehovah appeared, if only in brief reversal…

The repeated bathos in II.5 of The Recognitions is wonderfully mean humor, but Pivner doesn’t seem like Gaddis’s main mark—rather, Gaddis shows us that Pivner is Carnegie’s mark. And for all the bathos here, there’s pathos too. We can find a certain sympathy in Pivner’s mild and foiled quest to meet with his progeny. A diabetic (like Chaby Sinisterra, he too uses needles), Pivner waits too long to take his insulin and conks out in the hotel lobby. He is briefly arrested and of course fails to meet Otto.

The next chapter, II.6 is set on Christmas Eve. Pivner receives a Christmas present from Otto, a beautiful and expensive robe (Otto is now flush with plenty of the counterfeit cash). Pivner is deeply moved by the gift, and elects to head back to the hotel to try to meet Otto again. The moment he dons the robe is rendered with disarming pathos. Gaddis’s narrator describes Pivner as a man “whose world was a series of disconnected images, his life a procession of faces reflecting his own anonymity in the street, and faces sharing moments of severe intimacy in the press.” If Pivner is prey to a conman like Carnegie, it is because Pivner is lonely and alienated. The modern condition is one of anxious anonymity, where “intimacy” boils down to reading the same gruesome news that others read. Human connection is mediated through mass media.

When Pivner returns to the hotel, he actually does encounter Otto. They stand next to each other, pissing into urinals in the hotel lobby men’s room, staring straight ahead at the obscene graffiti scrawled on the wall. A pornographic drawing so alarms Pivner that he turns and lowers his head, catching a glimpse of a green scarf poking from the proximal pisser’s pocket. The recognition remains incomplete though: Otto turns his “bloodshot eyes in a desolation of contempt” upon the older man and departs into the night. Pivner is unable to find confirmation of the younger man’s identity, and retreats to the bar to drink orange juice.

The final image of the chapter resonates with sympathetic and lonely despair. It is like something from an Edward Hopper painting. On one end of the bar sits a blonde; next to her Pivner; to his right, a newly-disguised Mr. Sinisterra, hoping too to catch Otto. When the blonde pays for her drink with one of his fake bills, Sinisterra gasps in a moment of recognition. The gasp draws Pivner’s attention and he looks to Sinisterra whose

sharp eyes gleamed at something beyond him, and with such intensity that his own were drawn in a reflex to look to where the blonde paid for her drink. But all Mr. Pivner saw, in the dim light, was a crisp twenty-dollar bill exchange hands: or so it looked to him, moonblind in the tinted gloom of that landscape where the three of them hung, asunder in their similarity, images hopelessly expectant of the appearance of figures, or a figure, of less transient material than their own.

In those final words and images we see the dream behind The Recognitions—the dream of recognizing the metaphysical, the original thing itself comprised of “less transient material” than our own. The final image seems to emanate from Pivner’s consciousness, and to emanate in a moment freed from the ironic bathos the narrator dragged him through before. There’s an emergent if subdued rejection of the market place figures that Dale Carnegie blithely promises his marks can attain, replaced, if fleetingly, for a longing after something more, something mysterious and unnameable. Gaddis conjures a small moment of strange, hopeless expectation—the wish for transcendent recognition.

Seek it like a dream | Another blog about Gaddis’s The Recognitions

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Earlier this week, continuing my audit of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recogntions, I felt a tingling sense of recognition in the following lines from which Basil Valentine reads from “a copy of Thoreau” (this is at the very end of Part I, on page 265):

What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.

I attributed this tingling recognition to having read The Recognitions before (and to having read Part I once before that)—but then I realized that I’d read the line far, far more recently: It’s the epigraph to Gaddis’s fourth novel A Frolic of His Own, which I’d opened up again just a few weeks ago (and subsequently put back down).

This recognition is nothing special and certainly uninteresting to longtime Gaddis fans, but it motivated me enough to look more into the remark, so I plugged it into Google and quickly found  J. M. Tyree’s essay “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph.” Tyree’s essay was originally published in New England Review but I found it, natch, on Steven Moore’s The Gaddis Annotations.

Tyree’s essay is a fascinating read, tracking the strange history of the line. Thoreau’s words, it turns out, are not exactly Thoreau’s words—rather, they are Emerson’s recollections of a conversation between the pair from a walk in the woods. Additionally, Emerson wrote and attributed these words after Thoreau’s death. The remark initially appeared in Emerson’s literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. As Tyree observes,

This detail, which seems highly trivial at first, in fact slyly reinforces the theme of original and copy supersaturating Gaddis’s novel. The very nature of authorship falls into question here, in a manner similar to the problem of Socrates and Plato: is Thoreau’s saying from Emerson or from Thoreau, or is it from both?

While issues of originality and authenticity of authorship clearly correlate to the themes of The Recognitions, Tyree’s essay is most interesting to me in the ways by which it situates Gaddis’s work with/against the American Renaissance tradition. Tyree gives us some of the flavor of that tradition, recontextualizing Gaddis’s epigraph in a full paragraph of Emerson’s. Here’s Emerson eulogizing his friend Thoreau:

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great . . . Presently he heard a note which he called that of the night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”

Tyree situates the passage within the contrasting (and quickly diverging) philosophies of the old friends: “Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature.”

Tyree’s essay becomes most interesting to me when he begins to interpret just what the hell the quote means. His analysis hovers around the word family, underlining an obsession of American literature: escape from domesticity. Here’s Tyree’s paraphrase of the Thoreau’s/Emerson’s line:

One finds the object of a long quest, quite suddenly, at the family dinner table. But in the moment of discovery, something seems to go wrong; rather than capturing the truth, one becomes its prey.  Clearly, the conversation here has expanded beyond night-warblers. Thoreau is now speaking of truth and its relationship to the family dinner table.

Tyree then susses out Thoreau’s complicated relationship with Emerson’s family:

It is possible to make too much of the fact that Thoreau’s intellectual life, as both a thinker and a man, developed in Emerson’s shade, in the shelter of Emerson’s house and family. But it is clear that Thoreau was often of two minds about living with or near Emerson. In a September 1841 letter….Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.”

That “dangerous prosperity” of domestic life echoes one of the grand themes of American literature—namely, civilization is a blockade to be surpassed on the trek into wild nature, individuality, and freedom. Domestic duty interferes with such adventures. Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Ishmael, or Huck Finn. (Or perhaps Hawthorne’s cautionary figure, Young Goodman Brown).

Tyree underlines the point (final emphasis mine):

In the exchange over the night-warbler, the family is again identified in terms of danger; the quest is a danger to the family, or the family is a danger to the quest. One might read this as Thoreau’s critique of what would now be called Emerson’s “lifestyle.” A man who is the prey to truth must leave the dinner table to find it, but Emerson, in the comfort of his household, among his family, will never book the night-warbler. Thoreau does not say that having “all the family at dinner” stops one’s seeking, only that one becomes the prey of a protracted, half-conscious quest at mealtime. Then, one must decide what to do about it—whether to search out the night-warbler or not, and how to do it. The question seems to be whether the truth can be found through the life of the family, or whether one must leave it behind in some sense.

In The Recognitions, Wyatt circumvents the danger to his quest by not only removing himself from family (in the form of his wife Esther), but from removing himself from society in general. In J R (1975), most of Gaddis’s heroes find themselves unable to reconcile to Wyatt’s solution; their seeking fumbled out in half measures, neatly figured in the 96th Street apartment apartment shared by Gibbs, Eigen, and Bast. This hellhole is a transitory space, an inbetweeness of domesticity and city wilderness. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offers a more thorough critique of the impulse in American literature to send its (generally masculine) characters out into the wild spaces where they can transcend all the trappings of domesticity that bog them down. Carpenter’s Gothic confines its heroine to one haunted house, the men in her life flitting in and out if like silly birds on foiled quests. That domestic confinement reaches a kind of apotheosis in Gaddis’s posthumous novel Agapē Agape (2002), the stifling uninterrupted monologue of a man in a room, fighting against entropy.

And what about A Frolic of His Own (1994)? Well I haven’t read it yet.

Blog about Jindřich Štyrský’s Dreamverse

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I have to admit that I had never heard of the Czech artist Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) until a review copy of something called Dreamverse arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters a week or so ago. I was excited when I saw the package though—the book is from Twisted Spoon Press, and their books are always gorgeous and strange and fascinating. Dreamverse is no exception, collecting Štyrský’s paintings, collages, sketches, poems, essays, and prose in a baffling (and yet simultaneously accessible) compendium translated by Jed Slast. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

Published posthumously in 1970 as Dreams, Štyrský’s dream journal spanning the interwar years comprises prose, sketches, collages, and paintings. The present volume includes the complete series of texts and full-color and halftone images based on Štyrský’s layout for its publication in the 1940s, his sole volume of poetry (also published posthumously), as well as a selection of his most important essays, articles, manifestos, and assorted other texts. This edition presents in English for the first time the broad range of Štyrský’s contribution to the interwar avant-garde and Surrealism.

Dreamverse begins with an (overly academic) introduction by the Czech avant garde artist Karel Teige dated from 1948, which argues that the Štyrský is deeply underappreciated. Teige describes Štyrský’s gradual artistic shift into surrealism, an excursion Štyrský shared with his partner Toyen.

Teige writes like an art historian, fussily constructing a place for a displaced artist. Dreamverse really takes off when we get to Štyrský’s prose. Dreams (1925-1940) comprises about half of the book, and begins with this lucidly surreal self-description:

Work birthed in the wellsprings of hypnagogic mental models, via faithful representations of dream objects and authentic dream records.

Štyrský then offers a brief introduction in which he dedicates the work to “my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT.” This particular chimera is a Freudian’s fantasy: Štyrský begins by discussing his prepubescent infatuation with “the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair” which he sees in a cheap magazine. This image somehow transmogrifies into “the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood,” its hair a “cluster of vipers, erect, ready to penetrate the woman through her mouth, nose, and ears.” Štyrský then tells us that this “ghastly horror,” this “alluring horror” haunts his dreams, and he tries to “place the head” on his mother and sister. The head fits his sister: “So I was madly in love with her.” Štyrský then details his sister’s death in strange, alarmingly sensual language. (She died in 1905 when he was a young boy). His muse then, his chimera, foregrounds the dreamverse he creates: we get a mass media image reconverted into a mythological figure, then reconverted again, through creative imagination, into a sister, who is in turn transformed again into a mythic trope of some kind—a figure like Eurydice for Štyrský to play Orpheus to. Štyrský’s dreamverse is a writhing collage of contradictions. Hope and despair, sex and death, the beautiful and the lurid are all collapsed into surrealist expression.

Take, for example, Dream XXXI:a

Štyrský’s dream—and its expression—excavates the sexuality suppressed just beneath the surface of our fairy tales. And while sexual abjection is typical in both Dreams (and in many of the poems collected in the Verse section of Dreamverse, sex is not always the dominant motif. Consider Dream VIII:

 

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The vignette is a perfect slice of dread an horror, and the accompanying illustration—humorous and grotesque—is nightmare fuel.

I’ve been reading the Dreams somewhat slowly, a handful at a time, and then dipping deeper in the book, into the Verse, reading the Dreamverse as a sort of push-pull of image and word.

Štyrský’s writing is abject, evocative of a world that decays and regenerates at the same moment. A poem with the title “In the Swamps” of course stands out to me, a Florida boy always on the look out for abject images:

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Štyrský’s imagery here is wonderful: The “fortune of blackcaps” pops out as an invented form of venery. Are the “blackcaps” actually little warblers—or just a surreal transformation of moorhens, the birds we would expect to find in the swamps? In either case, they are merely prey for “compassionate hunters,” susceptible to the arms of unseen brunettes and hunting dogs. The end of the poem is beautifully abject. The “horde of black swine” rumble in, neatly parallel to the “fortune of blackcaps” in the poems’s first line. These pigs slough through the swamp for “Sodden sacks of gold,” some kind of treasure there in the abject muck. Above it all is a speaker—a poet? Language hovers over the swamp.

Jed Slast deserves much praise for his translation, which seems tonally perfect and consistent over both the Dreams and the Verse sections. I’ll admit I haven’t gotten into any of the Writings at the end, which include lectures, essays, manifestos, and other fragments, but that gives me something to look forward to. So far though, Dreamverse has been an unexpected and strange joy, a dark and often perverse collection that plants its own dreamseeds in its reader.

A patchwork of conceits, a hodgepodge of good intentions, another blog about William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

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In its sixth (and penultimate chapter), William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic includes a rare scene. Our heroine Elizabeth Booth exits the house she spends most of the book confined in and actually looks at it from the outside. With her is the house’s owner, the mysterious Mr. McCandless:

—I’ve never really looked at it.

—At what… looking where she was looking.

—At the house. From outside I mean.

Carpenter’s Gothic is a novel of utter interiority—the reader never makes it but a few feet out of the house, and only then on rare occasions. This postmodern Gothic novel tingles with a smothering claustrophobia, its insularity underscored by continual references to other spaces outside the house. The possibility of an outside world waiting for Elizabeth is realized through dialogue with her husband Paul, her brother Billy, and mysterious Mr. McCandless, as well as the non-stop (and, from the reader’s perspective, one-sided) telephone conversations that make up so much of the novel’s material. And yet with all its references to traveling away to California, Africa, New York City, Acapulco, etc., Carpenter’s Gothic keeps Elizabeth locked away in the old house, tethered to the umbilical phone cord at the novel’s center.

McCandless is off in his own interior space—the shifting tortured howl of his own consciousness—when Elizabeth remarks that she has never really seen the house from the outside. Her observation raises him “to the surface” of concrete reality:

—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork.

The house is built in the Carpenter Gothic style (sometimes called Rural Gothic style), which essentially amounts to an American imitation of European Gothic’s forceful elegance. McCandless continues:

That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull’s eyes underneath?

McCandless, stand-in for Gaddis, performs a metatextual interpretation for the reader. The Carpenter Gothic is Carpenter’s Gothic, the American postGothic reinterpreation of the European form—namely, the Gothic novel. The materials Gaddis uses to build his book are the materials of mass media and mass textuality. He condenses high literature, lurid newspaper clippings, mail, textbook pages, scraps of illegible notes, pornographic centerfolds, and every other manner of paper into a postGothic synthesis. And not just paper, but also the telephone (always ringing) and the radio (always on, always tuned to inhuman human voices). And the television too, tuned to Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943),  a film which weaves its way in and out of Elizabeth’s consciousness in the beginning of the novel, planting seeds of romance and locked rooms and secrets and fire.

But I’ve cut off McCandless, who was just about to give us another neat description of the Carpenter Gothic, which is to say another neat description of Carpenter’s Gothic:

He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it’s stood here, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years…

 Carpenter’s Gothic is more than just a hodgepodge or patchwork; it is more than a ridiculous effort; it is more than the sum of its foolish inventions. Gaddis gives us something new, a postmodern Gothic analysis of the end of the American century.

McCandless, Gaddis’s stand-in, wants to put all the pieces together. He echoes Jack Gibbs, the (anti-)hero (and fellow Gaddis stand-in) of J R, and he prefigures the narrator of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, who, like Gibbs, strives to stitch together something from the atomized scraps and remnants of the 20th century.  Gaddis’s protagonists contend with entropy and attempt to get the detritus of the modern world “sorted and organized.” The push-pull of hope and despair drives these protagonists, but often drives them too far.

And McCandless’s reverie takes him too far, again into the interiority of his skull:

…breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It’s like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted, it’s the…

In a moment of self-speech, McCandless realizes that the Carpenter Gothic is “like the inside of [his] head,” underscoring his connection to his creator, Gaddis, as well as the connection between the house and the novel.

The (always) ringing phone punctures the scene:

—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it’s a hard house to hide in…

Elizabeth’s lines here emphasize Carpenter’s Gothic’s central Gothicism—the Carpenter Gothic and Carpenter’s Gothic is a hard place to hide in. Secrets will out.

And so well where does our hodgepodge of good intentions lead?

A review of Anders Nilsen’s comic Tongues

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Check out my review (at The Comics Journal) of Anders Nilsen’s new comic Tongues. First paragraph:

There’s a lot going on in the first two issues of Anders Nilsen’s new graphic novel-in-progress Tongues. A black eagle plays chess with Prometheus before tearing out the chained god’s liver. A young American ambles aimlessly through a Central Asian desert, a teddy bear strapped to his back. Stealing away from his lover’s tower window, a youth morphs into a black swan and flies into the desert, where he consumes the tongue and throat of a murder victim sprawled in the sand. A little girl chats in Swahili about her assassination plans with a black chicken. (There are lots of black birds in Tongues). There’s also some literal monkey business. It’s all really beautiful stuff.

Read the full review at The Comics Journal.

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A review of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights,

being a book of diversions, of anything but the straight and narrow; a book bound by water, in that it is fluid, unfixed, and preoccupied with the very stuff, and the whales within; an interminable book, in which numerous stories never finish (for what is an ending but a wall to be destroyed or circumnavigated by time and other stories), but also a terminal book, in that it is “situated at the extremity of something” (New Oxford American Dictionary), like a book set on the eve of an important day, the day we leave, the day we make our move, the day we attack; and speaking of extremities, it is a book obsessed with fingers and toes and the blood vessels within, and all of the body’s parts, muscles in particular, and their preservation, long after the soul has left the body, submerged in anything from booze to Kaiserling III and held in a jar, transported across the world via horse and buggy or Russian galleon, to be placed on full display before students, kings, curious onlookers, and a grieving daughter, whose letters challenge the dubious practice of plastination; a book in which letters cross paths with lists, travelogues, tall tales, myths, ruminations on plastic bags and sanitary pads, dark matter and swastikas, stories that traverse the ruins of Athens, a boiler room in Moscow, the olive groves of Croatia, not to mention places without names, impossible to find on a map, without coordinates, all of it jumping from past to present and back again, if linear time is to be believed; a book of wandering women, who disappear and reappear on their own accord, slipping into the divine rhythms of circular time; a book about the temptation to make meaning out of any assortment of objects; a book made of 116 sections in all, which is the number of years the Hundred Years’ War actually lasted, and is the prefix for several European telephone helplines such as 116000, the hotline for missing children, or 116123, the emotional support helpline, according to Wikipedia, a site which may be, says Tokarczuk, “mankind’s most honest cognitive project,” except that it cannot index “its inverse, its inner lining, everything we don’t know”; a book populated by characters who either do not know, can’t figure it out, are lost, are trying to figure out what happened in that span of time that slipped their grasp, or those who know it all, who know the map like the back of their hand, or so they think; a book that anticipates the sovereignty of airports, those modern portals that make us time travelers, where you and I might collide, and if we do, will we talk to each other, tell our stories, move beyond the Three Travel Questions (where are you from, where are you coming from, where are you going) and into our ideas, those dangerous, viscous things, or will we simply utter apologies and head to our gates; a book that floods, that breaks at the seams and spills out into the world, so that fact and fiction get scrambled and mix in the deluge, becoming indistinguishable; a book with no answers, only arrows pointing in other directions, toward books yet to be written, histories to be retold, cities at the ends of the earth, or to the person nearest you; a book oriented, most importantly, toward other pilgrims…

…is masterfully translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, available from your English publisher of choice, and a magnificent read, one that travelled with me across Poland, Ireland, and the UK, and has convinced me, once and for all, that it is a crime never to read Moby-Dick.

(Image above, a map of Novaya Zemlya, via. Read an excerpt over at Asymptotein their January 2016 issue.)

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:

For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…

This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.

Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.

Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.

Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.

Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:

At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.

For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…

These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.

The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).

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Continue reading “On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno”

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob”

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Detail from Newgate Exercise Yard by Gustave Dore, 1872

Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob” is the third selection in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. At about 20 pages, it’s also the shortest piece in the collection (the other four stories run between 40 and 50 pages). While still a bit longer than the stories in Johnson’s seminal collection Jesus’ Son, “Strangler Bob” nevertheless seems to pulse from that same vein, its narrator Dink another iteration of Jesus’ Son’s Fuckhead. Indeed, “Strangler Bob” feels a bit like an old sketch that’s been reworked by Johnson into something that fits thematically into Largesse.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Strangler Bob” in full, which gives us the basic premise and setting (and you can’t beat those two opening sentences):

You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days.

Those forty-one days take us from Thanksgiving to the New Year, with the story’s spiritual climax occurring on Christmas Eve.

Before we get to that climax Johnson builds an unexpectedly rich world in the county lockup, populating it with young toughs who can’t yet see how bad the paths they’ve chosen will be. The men of Johnson’s jail aren’t simply down on their luck or somehow morally misunderstood. They are jovial young fuck-ups who plan to continue fucking up their lives the minute they get out.

A lot of the stage-setting and background characterization in “Strangler Bob” reads like picaresque sketches that Johnson had lying about unused from decades ago. Much of the early part of the story is dedicated to “the blond sociopathic giant Jocko,” a sort of prince of the jail who saves a crazy kid from being murdered by the other inmates. Such scenes give the story a ballast of baroque energy and even an unexpectedly-comic realism, but they don’t fully fit into the main theme of the story, which is hunger.

On his first day in the jail the narrator Dink is warned not to oversleep or he will have his breakfast stolen. Hardheaded, he sleeps in anyway, but learns from his mistake:

After that I had no trouble rousing myself for the first meal, because other than the arrival of food we had nothing in our lives to look forward to, and the hunger we felt in that place was more ferocious than any infant’s. Corn flakes for breakfast. Lunch: baloney on white. For dinner, one of the canned creations of Chef Boyardee, or, on lucky days, Dinty Moore. The most wonderful meals I’ve ever tasted.

Hunger in “Strangler Bob” is an expression of the deep boredom the prisoners feel, and mealtimes become the only way these men measure the passing of time. The hunger in “Strangler Bob” is not just a desire for food, but rather something to fill up the void, the space, the empty feeling. In this world, romantic adventure is ironized into confined torpor:

Dundun, BD and I formed a congress and became the Three Musketeers—no hijinks or swashbuckling, just hour upon hour of pointless conversation, misshapen cigarettes, and lethargy.

Dundun and BD are perhaps unlikely friends for Dink—

Dundun was short and muscled, I was short and puny, and BD was the tallest man in the jail, with a thick body that tapered up toward freakishly narrow shoulders.

—but their fellowship holds together because they had “long hair and chased after any kind of intoxicating substance.” Thanks to BD they get their mitts on some LSD:

BD told us he had a little brother, still in high school, who sold psychedelic drugs to his classmates. This brother came to visit BD and left him a hotrod magazine, one page of which he’d soaked in what he told BD was psilocybin, but was likelier just, BD figured, LSD plus some sort of large-animal veterinary tranquilizer. In any case: BD was most generous. He tore the page from the magazine, divided it into thirds, and shared one third with me and one with Donald Dundun, offering us this shredded contraband as a surprise on Christmas Eve.

The ink from the newsprint turns their tongues black. Narrator Dink seems to think that the LSD was not evenly distributed on the page though—BD trips the hardest, seeing snow falling indoors, but Dink seems to think he’s mostly unaffected, while Dundun denies any effect at all. However, consider this exchange between Dink and Dundun, which suggests that they might be tripping harder than they think:

“I’m feeling all the way back to my roots. To the caves. To the apes.” He turned his head and looked at us. His face was dark, but his eyeballs gave out sparks. He seemed to be positioned at the portal, bathed in prehistoric memories. He was summoning the ancient trees—their foliage was growing out of the walls of our prison, writhing and shrugging, hemming us in.

A sloppy and unnecessary Freudian analysis of the three kids parcels them out easily as id (Dundun the apeman), super ego (BD the strange moralist), and ego, our narrator who rejects any kind of spirituality in a world where “Asian babies fried in napalm.”

Dink’s cellmate, the eponymous Strangler Bob, poses a challenge to the narrator’s easy nihilism though. Even though Dink believes that he’s not affected by the LSD, his encounter with Bob on Christmas Eve reads like a bad trip:

The only effect I felt seemed to coalesce around the presence of Strangler Bob, who laughed again—“Hah!”—and, when he had our attention, said, “It was nice, you know, it being just the two of us, me and the missus. We charcoaled a couple T-bone steaks and drank a bottle of imported Beaujolais red wine, and then I sort of killed her a little bit.”

To demonstrate, he wrapped his fingers around his own neck while we Musketeers studied him like something we’d come on in a magic forest.

Dundun then exclaims that Strangler Bob is “the man who ate his wife” — but Bob admonishes that his cannibalism was greatly exaggerated:

Strangler Bob said, “That was a false exaggeration. I did not eat my wife. What happened was, she kept a few chickens, and I ate one of those. I wrung my wife’s neck, then I wrung a chicken’s neck for my dinner, and then I boiled and ate the chicken.”

The hunger in Strangler Bob is perverse and abject; his crime is of a moral magnitude far more intense than the malicious hijinks the youthful Musketeers have perpetrated–it’s taboo, a challenge to all moral order. He’s also an oracle of strange dooms:

He said, “I have a message for you from God. Sooner or later, you’ll all three end up doing murder.” His finger materialized in front of him, pointing at each of us in turn—“Murderer. Murderer. Murderer”

We learn in the final melancholy paragraphs of the story that Bob’s prophecy comes true, more or less. In those paragraphs too there is a moment of grace, albeit a grace hard purchased. Of the latter part of his life, the Dink tells us:

I was constantly drunk, treated myself as a garbage can for pharmaceuticals, and within a few years lost everything and became a wino on the street, drifting from city to city, sleeping in missions, eating at giveaway programs.

It’s worth noting that if Dink were 18 in the fall of 1967, he would likely have been born in 1949, the year that Denis Johnson was born. The narrators of two other stories in Largesse are also born in or around 1949, and it’s my belief that all of the narrators are essentially the same age, and all are pseudoautofictional iterations of Johnson.

In “Strangler Bob,” Dink is an iteration that fails to thrive, that can’t survive addiction and recovery and enter into a new life. He does not heed Bob’s warning, and at the end of the story he laments that he is a poisoned person who has poisoned others:

When I die myself, B.D. and Dundun, the angels of the God I sneered at, will come to tally up my victims and tell me how many people I killed with my blood.

These final lines push the narrator into a place of bare remorse and regret, as he reflects back on his time in the jail, which he describes in retrospect as “some kind of intersection for souls.” Dink now sees that he’s failed to acknowledge the messengers that might have sent him on a better path. Angels come in strange forms.

Very early Christmas morning on the planet of 1967, after “the festival of horrors” that constituted the LSD trip, Strangler Bob gives one last message, a strange delivered in Dink’s grandmother’s voice:

I studied him surreptitiously over the edge of the bunk, and soon I could see alien features forming on the face below me, Martian mouth, Andromedan eyes, staring back at me with evil curiosity. It made me feel weightless and dizzy when the mouth spoke to me with the voice of my grandmother: “Right now,” Strangler Bob said, “you don’t get it. You’re too young.” My grandmother’s voice, the same aggrieved tone, the same sorrow and resignation.

“You’re too young” — wisdom is purchased through folly, pain, terrible mistakes, crimes and sins. The narrator’s grandmother ventriloquizes Strangler Bob, but she doesn’t have a moral message, just tired pain.

The voice here is Denis Johnson’s voice too, inhabiting a mad oracle, warning some version of himself that exists today.


You can read “Stranger Bob” online here.

I wrote about the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden here.

I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here.

 

Riff on finishing Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel of consciousness

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Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

I finally finished George Eliot’s long and marvelous 1872 novel Middlemarch.

When I wrote about reading Middlemarch last month, from not-quite-the-middle of the book, I lamented that I’d rather be rereading the book than reading it. Rich and dense, it’s the kind of big book that clearly offers more on repeat readings. And yes, I will reread Middlemarch, but I’ll give it a year or three to mellow in the back of my consciousness.

Middlemarch is a novel about consciousness, and what the novel does best in my estimation is show how different kinds of consciousness mediate and are mediated by the social forces they inhabit (and are inhabited by).

(The word consciousness appears 90 times in Middlemarch. If we include similar iterations, like consciousconsciouslyunconscious, and unconsciously, the count grows to a total of 172 times. In contrast, iterations of the word conscience appear only 38 times).

Dorothea Brooke remained my favorite consciousness throughout the novel, and I missed her when she wasn’t there, when Eliot had us hovering around or even fully inhabiting another consciousness.

I’ll admit that in the final quarter of Middlemarch I found myself a bit weary of the Bulstrode disgrace plot—and yet I appreciate how Eliot inhabited that consciousness as well. Bulstrode provides Eliot a sharp tool to show how consciousness is blind, or even self-blinding—how consciousness massages conscience in order to survive. In a passage that illustrates this process, Eliot writes,

Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his more indirect misdeeds. But many of these misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience.

Consciousness cannot lay claim to conceiving of an absolute omniscient conscience, an absolute and ever-present moral consciousness. Too, earlier in the novel, Eliot’s narrator observes,

For the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.

Egoism is a central problem in Middlemarch; indeed, Eliot seems to posit egoism as the greatest threat to how individual consciousnesses navigate social reality. Here is here narrator again:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.

I cannot improve upon “no speck so troublesome as self” and will not adventure an attempt.

But back to the consciousness I liked best in Middlemarch: Dorothea.

Dorothea is a kind of genius of intention, and Eliot harnesses that genius—she shows us Dorothea’s consciousness-in-action. Eliot doesn’t just tell us what’s happening in Dorothea’s head; she makes that consciousness live in our own heads.

Dorothea’s life, like all lives, is beset with foiled plans and terrible mistakes. Still, Middlemarch grants Dorothea something of a happy ending in her marriage to Will Ladislaw, and yet refuses the conclusion of a classical comedy. There is no wedding scene. Indeed, the last time Dorothea speaks in the novel it is to reconcile with her sister Celia—a conclusion that confirms their love story the equal to that of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s love story.

Eliot’s novel is too sophisticated and too realistic for a simplistic happy or tragic conclusion, of course. In the novel’s “Finale,” the narrator reminds us that,

Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending…the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web.

The narrator then gives us broad details of the fates of the novel’s principal couples: Lydgate and Rosamond, skewing depressive; Mary and Fred, skewing comic; and finally Ladislaw and Dorothea. We learn of Ladislaw’s success as a reform politician and understand that Dorothea is an instrumental force in this success.

Eliot’s conclusion for this final pair skews neither comic nor tragic, but is something more complex—more realistic. Dorothea becomes a cautionary tale in the town of Middlemarch; her legacy is one of misspent potential in the eyes of society. The novel ends without indicating that any of the grand plans of Dorothea’s youth have been achieved. And yet the novel concludes with an oblique revelation about Dorothea’s misunderstood legacy.

In the second-to-final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot writes that,

those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.

Eliot refuses a simple happy ending here; her heroine is still a consciousness subject to the social forces around it. Dorothea’s great utopian ambitions are ultimately tempered by the cultural constraints her consciousness would otherwise seek to transcend.

But then the final paragraph of the novel points towards transcendence:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. … But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Dorothea—and, more significantly, the spirit of Dorothea—did real grand good in the world, an immeasurable good, “incalculably diffusive.” Even if she lived ultimately a “hidden life,” Eliot insists that it is people like Dorothea who have made the world better for “you and me.”

While “hidden life” and “unvisited tombs” may harbor negative connotations, these phrases are ultimately ironic: Eliot’s novel itself is the key to the hidden life of Dorothea Brooke. Middlemarch is a vivid and vivifying tomb for Dorothea, and we readers are the lucky visitors.