White Meridian | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’d bought a small ruled notebook at the stationer’s in Ibiza. Cheap pulp paper that would soon yellow and crumble. He took it out and wrote in it with his pencil. Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine Sein.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

In the second paragraph of the last chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger, protagonist Bobby Western, now living on a Spanish island near Ibiza, writes in German a sentence in a cheap notebook. The sentence translates to something like, Before me there will be no time, after me there will be none.


Vor mir war keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn,
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.

Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientum, III, II, Daniel von Czepko (1655)

Western’s line appears to be cribbed from an epigram by the early seventeenth-century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Czepko’s epigram translates to something like, Before me there was no time, after me there will be none / With me she gives birth, with me she dies.


I deny, in a high number of instances, the existence of succession. I deny, in a high number of instances, contemporaneity as well.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Did McCarthy find Czepko’s in Borges’ essay “A New Translation in Time,” where I found it when I first searched the German phrase?


All language is of a successive nature: it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby


I feel like I’ve jumped into the deep end here too quickly for this riff, what with the seventeenth-century German poet and the wonky Borges essay that feels like a gimmicky (and perhaps ironic) championing of idealism in service towards forging an aesthetics of time. Let me put in a simpler substitution for Western’s (McCarthy’s (Borges’ (Czepko’s))) epigram, a favorite line from another life-and-deather with oceanic motifs:

Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.

“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane


Start again: This is a scattered mess. I finished The Passenger yesterday, punched in the face by the final chapter, where McCarthy condenses characters and tropes and symbols and allegories into a slim 19 pages that points to both infinity and death. The Passenger is possibly McCarthy’s baggiest novel, messier than Suttree, and eschewing even a glimmer of the precision of Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old MenThe Passenger is bound in genre fiction tropes—crime novels, detective novels, 1970s paranoia novels, Westerns, and so on. Like No Country, The Passenger purposefully derails reader expectations for what the genre plot should do. The refusal to go forward with the initial promised plot (Who is the missing passenger, escaped or removed from the sunken plane?) reinforces the tense ambiguity in the core of McCarthy’s worldview. The apparent abandoning of a tight plot might alienate some readers, but I suspect most fans of the trajectory of McCarthy’s work would have been disappointed if he’d stuck to a story that Makes Sense and Follows a Clear Trajectory and Ultimately Resolves. I would have been furious if the end of The Passenger gave up some kind of easy answer.


For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
“Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 479), Emily Dickinson

In her white gown carrying the barnlantern out through the trees. Holding the hem of her gown, her slender form candled in the sheeting. The shadows of the trees, then just the dark. The cold in the stone amphitheatre and the slow turning of the stars overhead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Last time I wrote about The Passenger, I wrote about its dominant incest motif. I suggested that the dummy Crandall was the dreamchild of incestuous Western union. I had not yet gotten to the episode where Bobby, on the lam in Idaho, dreams of an incestuous stillborn child, one with only the rudiments of a brain. Bobby queries the dream doctor of his dreamchild: “Does it have a soul?” Bobby’s True Love, his sister Alicia, is the barest slip of a ghost in the final chapter of The Passenger (in contrast to the ghost of Long John Sheddan, who gets a full last dialogue with Bobby), but she shows up again here—theatrical, ghostly, an echo of the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I hope we get more from Alicia Western in Stella Maris.


His father. Who had created out of the absolute dust of the earth an evil sun by whose light men saw like some hideous adumbration of their own ends through cloth and flesh the bones in one another’s bodies.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Père Western, coauthor of the atom bomb (“evil sun”/evil son, evil Adam) is a background wraith in The Passneger (although more present than Ma Western—but I’m sure the lack of mothers in McCarthy’s oeuvre has been commented on at length, perhaps in academic papers. Dude doesn’t include mothers, and mother figures, if they appear, are tangential, marginalized). Wait, where was I? Père Western, haunting the background of The Passenger, takes a bit more of the stage (just a bit) in the final chapter of The Passenger. His Big Crime seems to soak diver Bobby, even if Bobby can’t directly address it.


It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


His father spoke little to them of Trinity. Mostly he’d read it in the literature. Lying face down in the bunker. Their voices low in the darkness. Two. One. Zero. Then the sudden whited meridian. Out there the rocks dissolving into a slag that pooled over the melting sands of the desert. Small creatures crouched aghast in the sudden and unholy day and then were no more. What appeared to be some vast violetcolored creature rising up out of the earth where it had thought to sleep its deathless sleep and wait its hour of hours.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy.


More than a decade ago, I suggested on this site that the moral core of McCarthy’s best novel Blood Meridian is a sequence wherein a host of creatures coalesce into a “constellation of ignited eyes…in a precarious truce” to observe a burning tree in the desert. Witness and attendant, his own eyes presumably ignited, is the kid, the hero of Blood Meridian. The sequence rebukes the pronouncements of Judge Holden, satanic anchor of that novel, pointing towards coexistence and peace.

The whited meridian sequence in The Passenger, evoking the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, reverses McCarthy’s previous passage—blanches it, makes a ghost of it, turns its blood white. Whites it.


(I have a few more thoughts scribbled on a cheap yellow legal pad but the hour grows late and a big storm looms—so, more thoughts to come (including a kind of peace with mules?)


 

Scattered thoughts on starting Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger (Book acquired, 25 Oct. 2022)

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The last Cormac McCarthy novel was The Road, which came out way back in 2006, year of this blog’s birth. I read most of The Road in the delivery ward over a few days when my daughter was born. Since then I’ve read pretty much everything by McCarthy that’s been published (excepting the screenplay for The Counselor), and a lot of it more than once. (I’ve reread Blood Meridian more times than I can think of. I fall asleep to the audiobook version sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, starting at a random chapter.) In the decade and a half after his last novel The Road became an unlikely, Oprah-endorsed hit, McCarthy wrote a screenplay for a film I can’t even pretend is any good and an article about “The Kekulé Problem,” which was published in Nautilus. He seemed to devote most of his time to hanging around the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a trustee.

Rumors of The Passenger have slipped around the internet for the past seven years—it would be about lawyer, it would be about a mathematician, it would be the first McCarthy novel to feature a woman as its main character, it would be in a wholly new style. Scraps and rumors seeped out, but like a lot of readers, I suspect, or at least readers I spoke to online and even in the flesh, I didn’t expect to see a completed version of The Passenger published in McCarthy’s lifetime. (He’s 89, just a few years younger than my dear sweet grandmother, also from Tennessee, who passed away this past Thursday.) I thought that we might see a version of the text, eventually, posthumous, possibly even cobbled together, a la Wallace’s The Pale King or Hemingway’s Garden of Eden.

But Knopf announced not only would The Passenger publish in 2022, so too would a shorter, connected novel Stella Maris. I’ll admit I was both excited and apprehensive, especially after reading The Silence by Don DeLillo two years ago. DeLillo is (like Thomas Pynchon) just four years younger than Cormac McCarthy. And The Silence is hardly his strongest stuff. But apples and oranges: who am I to worry one old master against another old master? So I was excited. (But apprehensive.)

So I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The cover is not as bad as it looked in the early internet promotional pics—not as static and flat. But it’s still not a great cover (and I say this as one partial to blue and orange, colors of my alma mater).

But a cover is not a book. I went into the pages. Before I get into the words on the pages, here’s a bit on the form of The Passenger. The novel appears to switch between two viewpoint characters: Alicia and her brother Bobby Western. (Bobby Western sounds like a William S. Burroughs character.) The Alicia passages are shorter, written completely in italics (which is fucking annoying) and given chapter numbers. The Bobby Western chapters look like regular ole Cormac McCarthy chapters.

And so well: I ended up reading the first chapter, the Alicia chapter twice. It is unlike anything else McCarthy has written. The chapter takes place in Alicia’s head in the form of a discursive discussion with “the Thalidomide Kid,” a vaudevillian interlocutor who’s quick with punning wordplay that’s rare in McCarthy’s work (of the apparent suicide note Alicia aims to write, he chides that it will be a “wintry summary”). With all his japes and clowning and weird zany energy (and hell, that name), the Thalidomide Kid seems like something more out of a Pynchon or Robert Coover story than a McCarthy novel. The closest thing that I can compare it to, at least in McCarthy’s oeuvre, is the trip scene in Suttree. I really really dig it. It’s dark and weird.

The first Alicia section ends with a dream of her brother, whom we then meet in the next section. Bobby Western is a salvage diver working with the Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s three am and freezing cold and there’s a jet with nine dead bodies down in the dark water. The writing here is what I would expect from McCarthy: lots of ands and thens, a general disregard for punctuation, and a lot of descriptions of men doing things. (There’s even a He spat in there!) This particular section was excerpted in The New York Times a fortnight ago, and you can read it without anything being spoiled for you, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting without the hallucinatory Alicia chapter that precedes it.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. I saw some lit folks I respect who have apparently read the novel already suggest that it’s Not Good, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far, and Want More.

 

A review of My Phantoms, Gwendoline Riley’s novel of disappointed expectations

Gwendoline Riley’s novel My Phantoms is not so much a sad novel as it is an unhappy one—an unhappy novel about an unhappy family. Some joker once suggested that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but the unhappiness of the unhappy family evoked in My Phantoms will feel familiar to anyone who grew up with a narcissistic or depressed, passive-aggressive parent.

Our unhappy family are the Grants: mom Helen (“Hen”), father Lee, and sisters Michelle and Bridget (“Bridge”). Bridge is our narrator and her foil is mother Hen. In some ways, My Phantoms amounts to an oblique biography Hen, one patched together through estrangement and emotional distance. Bridge does not let her mother into her life: she refuses to introduce Hen to her boyfriends and will not let her into her home. She meets Hen once yearly for a dreary birthday dinner filled with passive-aggressive banter.

Late in the novel, Bridge finally acquiesces to spend a few days with Hen, caring for her after a surgery, and the pair almost—almost—come to a communication breakthrough. Hen, an extrovert with two failed marriages and only one close friend (whom she does not like), repeats her mantra: It was just what you did. The It in that sentence stands in for a proscribed life: getting married when you were a certain age, moving to the suburbs, abandoning your dreams. Having children, even if you didn’t want children.

As My Phantoms progresses, it becomes clear that, even if she never states it, Hen resents that Bridge has evaded the proscriptions of It was just what you did. Bridge has engineered a patchwork of phrases and prompts to make it through her “conversations” with Hen, but as her caretaker visit comes to a close, she actually opens up to her mother, suggesting that Hen starts therapy. Bridge continues:

Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?

Hen never attends therapy, but she is finally permitted to go to her daughter’s flat for dinner and meet her boyfriend, John. A man Hen met traveling also attends the dinner. The awkward evening is yet another example in a series of Hen’s disappointed expectations. She is unable to converse naturally with anyone at the table. John observes of Hen, after their first meeting, that:

It just became quickly obvious that she wasn’t going to engage with anything that was actually being said. She had a stance, she was sticking to that, and that precluded reacting to what was actually happening. Or experiencing what was actually happening.

Hen’s inability to square her idealized expectations with reality and the impact that inability has on her children will be familiar to many readers. Riley’s evocation of the passive-aggressive mother is understated and deeply realistic. There’s nothing hyperbolic about My Phantoms, which makes the novel’s core unhappiness even more unsettling.

Take for instance Riley’s portrayal of Bridge’s narcissistic father Lee. Like Hen, he is unable to clearly communicate with his daughters. Instead, he picks on them with stock phrases and formulations. “I’m testing the produce!” Lee declares in the grocery store, stealing grapes to his daughters’ embarrassment. He mocks Bridge for reading Chekov, insisting that she’s merely “posing with a book. He makes lewd comments about women’s bodies to his daughters. And yet his hectoring ultimately fails to get under their skin. They learn to tune him out, and choose to have nothing to do as soon as they are able. Lee is possibly the most annoying character I’ve read in a contemporary novel. Unable to communicate with his daughters, he verbally bullies them in a light style that might be plausibly denied as actual abuse. But it is abusive. Lee is a man who believes himself to be much smarter and much funnier than he is, and when the world around him fails to notice his supposed brilliance, he responds by amplifying his obnoxiousness. I am sure you know someone just like him in your own life.

Bridge’s estrangement from her parents is unhappy—and realistic, as I’ve noted repeatedly. It’s her disconnection from her sister Michelle that I find most sad about the novel. It is not that the two are on bad terms; rather, they seem to have cultivated distance as a coping mechanism. What might have brought them closer instead separates them. But again, that separation is realistic.

There’s no joy in My Phantoms, and the bits of humor are bitter. The enjoyment in the novel comes from slowly piecing together the emotional reality behind the accretion of realistic details in the foreground. Bridge isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she’s rarely direct. She shows us scenes from her life and comments on their emotional impact–but she never tells us what they mean, even as we reach the novel’s indelible and unhappy final image.

My Phantoms is available now from NYRB.

October recommendation: Fireworks, Angela Carter’s collection of sadomasochistic erotica

It’s October, and maybe you want some light heavy reading, something titillating but deep, sharp, maybe a little gross at times, always unnerving, right?

How about reading Angela Carter’s 1974 collection Fireworks?

Subtitled Nine Profane Pieces, the collection features nine profane pieces. Actually, I don’t think profane is the right adjective (although I’d always cede to Carter’s judgment in matters of diction). Many, no, most, of these stories approach the spiritual—albeit in a roundabout, okay, profane, manner. In the phallically-titled “Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest,” for example, Carter reimagines Adam and Eve in a new garden through a lens that ironizes both Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage as well as the European colonial project in general. There’s also some mild incest in the tale, to boot—so, okay, sure, profane.

The noun in Carter’s subtitle, pieces, is wholly accurate: the selections in Fireworks have a unified tone, but are disparate in form. There are fabulous thrillers here (“The Loves of Lady Purple,” the story of a puppet prostitute who sucks the life out of her ventriloquist master), morality tales (“Master,” a riff on the Great White Hunter with a figurative middle finger pointed in the general direction of Defoe’s Crusoe), and reminiscences that approach so-called autofiction (“A Souvenir of Japan” and “The Smile of Winter,” mementos of the years Carter lived in Japan). “Flesh and the Mirror” expands on Carter’s years in Japan, but swerves into Borgesian territory; “Reflections” goes straight through the Borgesian mirror into Burroughs world (William S., with just a touch of Edgar R.).

The strongest piece in the collection, at least in my estimation, is “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” which reads like a travelogue into incestuous abjection. “Here we are, high in the uplands,” our detached narrator begins, before offering up an anthropological catalog of life in that upland. The barest ghost of a plot clutches onto “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” and the piece is all the stronger for it. Instead, we get a cold, ugly study in cruelty and horror.

Readers new to Carter might prefer to start with her seminal 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, a book whose inverted fairy tales eviscerate the adjective I used in the previous clause, that adjective seminalThe Bloody Chamber is great! (Check out “Wolf-Alice” for a taste.) (And while I’m hanging out in parentheses, I’ll point out that Burning Your Boats collects pretty much all of Carter’s short fiction.) But back to Fireworks—if the pieces here are not as refined and unified as the anti-fairy tales that comprise Carter’s more-celebrated collection The Bloody Chamber, they are all the more fascinating as studies in sadomasochism, alienation, and the emerging of a new literary consciousness. Great stuff.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts made me physically ill. (This is praise.)

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Their Four Hearts (in English translation by Max Lawton) made me physically ill several times. To be clear, the previous statement is a form of praise. I finished it a few weeks ago and put it on a high shelf where no one in my family might come across it.

I picked up Their Four Hearts on the strength of the first Sorokin novel I read, Telluria, and the third, Blue Lard (both also in translation by Max Lawton). The kinetic energy of those novels evoked cinema in my mind’s eye—something akin to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Holy Mountain or Luis Buñuel’s comic masterpiece L’Age d’Or—narratives that engender their own new visual grammars. In Their Four Hearts, I again found a cinematic comparison, this time in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s study of depravity and cruelty, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Like Salò, Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts explores seemingly every form of depravity in extreme detail. It is not for the faint of heart or stomach. (Sorokin’s potent language, in Lawton’s sharp translation, would eviscerate the cliches that precede this parenthetical aside.) Their Four Hearts is fairly short—200 pages, including over 30 pages of charcoal illustrations by Greg Klassen—but I had parcel it out over four distinct sittings. (After the second time I had to put it down because of nausea, I decided to avoid reading it close to mealtimes.)

Frontispiece for Their Four Hearts, Greg Klassen

Before I touch briefly on that depravity, it might be useful to interested readers to offer a gloss on the plot of Their Four Hearts. There is no recognizable plot. Or, rather, the plot hides behind the accumulation of violent, abject details, forever unavailable to a reader, no matter how keen a detective that reader might be. It is a cannibalizing plot, both literally and figuratively, stochastic, absurd, consuming its own horrific iterations.

But, like, what is it about?, hypothetical you might ask. In lieu of a list of depravities, let me cannibalize the back cover copy:

Their Four Hearts follows the violent and nonsensical missions carried out by a group of four characters who represent Socialist Realist archetypes: Seryozha, a naive and optimistic young boy; Olga, a dedicated female athlete; Shtaube, a wise old man; and Rebrov, a factory worker and a Stakhanovite embodying Soviet manhood. However, the degradation inflicted upon them is hardly a Socialist Realist trope. Are the acts of violence they carry out a more realistic vision of what the Soviet Union forced its “heroes” to live out? A corporealization and desacralization of self-sacrificing acts of Soviet heroism? How the Soviet Union truly looked if you were to strip away the ideological infrastructure? As we see in the long monologues Shtaube performs for his companions––some of which are scatological nonsense and some of which are accurate reproductions of Soviet language––Sorokin is interested in burrowing down to the libidinal impulses that fuel a totalitarian system and forcing the reader to take part in them in a way that isn’t entirely devoid of aesthetic pleasure.

Libidinal forces . . . totalitarian system . . . forcing the reader . . . aesthetic pleasure?

Aesthetic pleasure? Pleasure is doing a lot in that phrase, although I was admittedly alternately rapt by Their Four Hearts even while I was (quite literally) disgusted. I’ve read enough Sorokin to this point that I didn’t have to be forced into the surreal, jarring logic of the plot, finding instead deeply dark humor in it, where possible (although more often than not, horror without humor).

“Rebrov took a noose out of his pocket and put it around Alexandra Olegnova’s neck,” Greg Klassen

I have resisted turning this ostensible “review” into a catalog of the horrors Sorokin offers in Their Four Hearts. These horrors are all the more horrible for their sensory evocation set against their seemingly senseless (lack of) meaning. When the foursome, very early in the novel, drug and murder Seryozha’s parents, remove the glans from his father’s penis, and pop into the kid’s mouth to suck on, does that mean something exterior to the novel’s own aesthetics? That the quartet continues to trade the glans off, taking turns sucking on it throughout the novel—are we to plumb that for some kind of allegorical gloss? Or do we simply ride with it? Their Four Hearts confounds its readers, creating not only its own inventions of vocabulary, but its own grammar of storytelling.

Instead of my describing further the horrors of Their Four Hearts (murder, pedophilia, parricide, torture, mutilation, coprophagia, rape, cannibalism, etc. ), it might be more profitable for interested readers to inspect the illustrations by Greg Klassen I’ve included in this review. Reminiscent of George Grosz or Hans Bellmer, Klassen’s charcoals capture the tone and vibe of Their Four Hearts. They add to the text’s cinematic quality. (Publisher Dalkey Archive should have given Klassen the cover.)

“With only a few strokes, Schtaube opened up the maxillary sinus cavities in the corpse’s face,” Greg Klassen

By now you likely have a clear idea if Their Four Hearts is For You or Not For You. I found the experience of reading Sorokin’s novel paradoxically compelling and repellent. (One of the closest experiences I can compare reading it to was eating beef chitterlings at a Korean restaurant in Tokyo. The waitress brought the raw gray intestines to our table, where we grilled them ourselves over charcoal, dipping them in sauces. We ate three orders.)

“He skewered all of their hands on the first meter-long spoke,” Greg Klassen

Telluria and the forthcoming Blue Lard are much better starting places for those interested in Sorokin, but his translator Lawton suggested in an interview that,

…any new reader of Sorokin [should] immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.

It’s a strange chaser, and it leaves a flavor unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommended.

Mild derealization at the used bookstore (Books acquired, 23 Sept. 2022)

The first time that I remember having intense derealization in my adult life was when I spent a few hours cleaning out a large spare closet in the house my wife and I were then living in.

This was about sixteen years ago, close to the birth of our first child, our daughter, and I was removing from the closet boxes of nostalgia: high school and college papers, paintings and sketches, patches, guitar pedals, old issues of MAD Magazine, punk zines, stereo wire, soon-to-be obsolete audiovisual cables, record sleeves without records, 3.5 inch floppy disks, memory cards from abandoned cameras, rolls of film, tennis balls, band t-shirts I’d never fit into again, heavy stereo equipment, and so on and etc.

I was removing all these old things to make space for new things, a pattern that I’ve followed ever since. And well anyway, not an hour into the process I began to get an odd dizziness, a feeling that none of this was real. I was not thinking about any of the objects but something about their accumulated physicality overruled my subjectivity. I recall having to turn off the record I was listening to, drinking a lot of cold water, and lying down. But the sensation kept on, like a low-grade psychotropic trip.

I experienced similar misadventures later in similar circumstances—reorganizing large bookshelves, moving offices, more stuff with closets. I also began to (rarely) experience full-blown anxiety attacks later in life, usually triggered by driving an automobile over a large bridge or on a complex highway, and the feelings of derealization I’d previously experienced were a part of those attacks, but they were also accompanied by feelings of dread and difficulty breathing. Those kinds of attacks are awful; the derealization thing is just trippy and weird. And it happened to me today while I was browsing for books. I’m not sure if it was the closeness of the aisles or the smell or a certain book or the mild change in weather that we had in north Florida today, where the throbbing humidity and scorching sun relaxed to a cloudy eighty. I think it was the screaming child who triggered it though, thrashing around on the ancient cut carpet, slapping the carpet, kicking her feet like a swimmer. Her mother and siblings walked away from her, walked into another aisle of this mazelike used bookstore, while I completely lost and never regained the name of the author I was searching for in the “T” section of Classics.

From there I leaned into the unreality and made a nice little trip of it, reminding myself that if I am a little bit crazy, that makes me a normal American. I too have microplastics in my blood! I too feel the stress of the appearance of unrelenting, non-stop change!

I picked up two books: Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins and Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War. I mostly knew Marías from his “La Zona Fantasma” columns in The Believer, and I have read only one book by MaríasVoyage Along the Horizon, which I scarcely remember. But I know Roberto Bolaño was a fan, so I’d always meant to return and try again. Today, I saw a hardback copy of Thus Bad Begins (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) propped lazily up against a hardback copy of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black. Mantel died yesterday; Marías died a dozen days ago; both books had strayed from their author’s placards, not unusual in this wonderful sprawling store. So I picked it up. It’s probably not the best starting place for Marías, right? I’ll try. I love the title; I am shallow.

The title on the spine attracted me to Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War (translated by Nick Caistor), the goofy, menacingly violent cover intrigued me and the Calvino blurb and first three pages sold me.

I don’t have a conclusion for this blog. I still feel a little outside of myself.

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 novel Telluria, in its first English translation thanks to the estimable talents of Max Lawton, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices.

The world Sorokin conjures in Telluria is best experienced without map or gloss. My joy in reading the novel came from wandering through its fifty chapters and slowly building my own sense of this post-collapse world. You explore Telluria, finding footing after stumbling initially over the disorienting newness of a particular section. And just as you’ve tuned into the particular section’s frequency, you find yourself in a new chapter, a new idiom, a new voice. It’s a goddamn linguistic picaresque best enjoyed on its own terms, terms it refuses to spell out in simple exposition.

Telluria does not have a plot in the traditional sense, although its sum is greater than its parts. The fifty sections are not mere exercises in style, but rather a reflection of post-twentieth century consciousness: fractured, paranoid, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, joyous, dystopian, utopian, ironic, earnest, strange…The reader who wanders through the fifty chapters will piece together a brave weird world where our contemporary nation states and political alliances have splintered into a cacophony of fiefdoms, city states, monarchies, republics, and so on. (There’s even a system of “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism.”)

The needle that threads through it all is tellurium, a real (if earth-rare) element (as you’ll undoubtedly recall from your high-school chemistry class). In our world, tellurium is mostly employed in creating alloys for machines. In the world of Telluria, it is a drug that can take its user on a transcendental journeys, Those lucky enough to get their hands on a tellurium spike might find themselves transported into metaphysical spaces. Expert “carpenters” hammer tellurium nails into the heads of seekers, and these seekers go on to communicate with the dead, rampage fearlessly in battle, meet Christ in heaven, fly above mountaintops, or, in some cases, simply perish.

I should have by now offered a taste of the language in Telluria. A nice chunk of text set within the gum of context, no? But I don’t know how to do that effectively–Telluria is a dazzle of tongues. Offering a taste of just two or three of the sections would insufficient. It would amount to something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Instead, I’ll offer Max Lawton’s thoughts on translating Telluria, from an interview he granted me earlier this year

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices…I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations…), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others.

Telluria’s verbal carnival matches (and, really, engenders) seemingly endless imaginative invention on Sorokin’s part. We get dog-headed mutants engaged in philosophical discourse, “litluns” planning a revolution over the normies, the Carpenters of Western Europe hammering tellurium spikes into an army of Knights Templar who are about to set off on their thirteenth flying crusade against Islamic invaders. There are late-night, drug-fueled, multilingual bullshitting sessions, orgies, a princess who gets her kicks slumming it in disguise and fucking the serfs. There are lovers separated by thousands of miles, mutated horses larger than three-story houses, tourists in the USSR — the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic. A centaur falls in love. Etc.

I copped out of citing any passages from Telluria above, protesting that it might offer an incomplete picture—and that’s true. But reviewing my notes, I think it’s worth sharing one passage at some length, a passage that I think both describes the milieu of the novel as well as approaches a kind of moral vision for the novel (with the strong caveat that any one distinct moral vision is necessarily exploded and ironized by the other voices that thread through the novel—as Lawton stated in our interview, Telluria is “an ode to difference….For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.”)

“We must not take anyone else’s karma upon ourselves, not even in small matters,” the brigadier continued. “Especially now in our renewed, post-war world. Take a look at the Eurasian continent: after the collapse of ideological, geopolitical, and technological utopias, it was finally plunged back into the blessèd and enlightened Middle Ages. The world returned to human scale. Nations found themselves. Man ceased to be the sum of the technology around him. Mass production is living out its final years. There aren’t two identical nails beaten into humanity’s head. Man regained a sense of the thing, started to eat healthy grub and ride horses again. Genetic engineering helps man to feel his true size. Man has regained faith in the transcendental. Regained his sense of time. We’re not rushing anywhere anymore. Most importantly–we understand that there can be no technological heaven on earth. And, and in broader terms, no heaven at all. Earth has been given to us as an island of overcoming. Everyone chooses what to overcome and how to overcome it. And they make that choice themselves!”

Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad to me. 

Telluria was my first encounter with Sorokin, and I think it makes a grand introduction. I’ve since read Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) and Blue Lard (forthcoming next year from NYRB and also translated by Max Lawton). I’m currently reading Lawton’s translation of Their Four Hearts. While I think Blue Lard is the strongest of these titles (and I look forward to/dread reviewing it in the future), Telluria is an excellent introduction to Sorokin’s work, offering an engaging taste of his methods (all through Lawton’s lively translation). The book’s energy and imagination offer a nice counter to the dour dystopian narratives that abound these days.

Telluria is Not For Everyone. Readers interested in clear “worldbuilding” or plots that tie up all the loose ends will find themselves exasperated, as will readers who actively resist the linguistic playfulness of Lawton’s translation. Similarly, readers searching for a moral analogy for contemporary Russian politics and culture will find themselves straining to apply whatever mold they’ve already forged in their minds. Neither is this book particularly interested in the Americas or Western Europe. Sorokin’s province is the vast vacillating mass of Eurasia. In his 2012 book Russia: A Very Short History, Geoffrey Hosking notes “the arduous and challenging task of building a coherent polity on the flat open plains of northern Eurasia,” arguing that although Russia “has been a remarkable success story,” it is nevertheless a country “which had its own weaknesses programmed into it.” Hoskings continues: “[Russia] rested on a tacit compact between ruler, elites, and communities of ordinary people, renewed after periods of upheaval and crisis, yet never wholly harmonious, always subject to internal strains.” Telluria is an ecstatic and jarring exploration of those upheavals, those crises, those wonderful strains, a satire on the very notion of a coherent polity.

I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

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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Schrödinger’s Deer | A review of Dashiel Carrera’s surreal debut novel The Deer

Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer is puzzling, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally frustrating. Gloomy, surreal, and terse, The Deer is at its best when it’s at its most sinister—namely, on its first half, “Side A.” Taking a record album as its model, The Deer has two sides (A and B), each divided into titled Tracks  (on side A) or Lessons (side B). This unusual structure results in a genuinely experimental novel, where some elements crackle with eerie verve and others fall flat. The result is a novel that simultaneously compels and baffles readers, while challenging their notions of what a novel can—or should—do.

“Side A” of The Deer follows a man who may or may not be quantum physicist Henry Haverford, who may or may not have been drunk when he may or may not have hit a deer with his automobile at the beginning of the story. Henry may or may not be going back to his parents’ home to bury his father. I could keep adding may or may not to pretty much everything else that happens in The Deer, which operates on its own nightmare logic. The name Schrödinger is invoked in the fourth paragraph. The Deer reads like an attempt to apply quantum superposition theory to a novel about family trauma.

The family trauma that resonates in the first half is dark and icky—dead dogs, dead deer, Henry’s aloof brother Arthur, their sinister father, a dying (dead) mother, and a mother-figure girlfriend. In the background murmurs jazz piano, messages from the International Space Station, baseball on the radio, and the stifling threat of the police force, which Henry Haverford’s father may or may not have been a member of.

Henry’s multiple encounters with the police, who are simultaneously local law enforcement officers as well as Kafkaesque Authorities — “the Force” — showcase some of the best writing in The Deer. An early run-in with the police at the grocery store unfolds with particularly menacing grace:

“What have you got there, Mr. Haverford?”
The cops sip their coffees and grin.
“Beets,” I say. “I’ve got to bring home some beets for
dinner.”
“We heard you were sick,” says one of the cops.
“You did?”
“Yes, we heard you’ve come down with something really awful.”
“Truly awful.”
“That you’ve been asking all sorts of strange questions.”
I frown. “Well, I’ve been remembering a few things here and there. It’s been a long time since I was home.”
“Yes, but very strange things, Mr. Haverford. You haven’t been thinking straight.”
I force a chuckle.
“Is that liquor in your bag?”
I fondle the cap and lean back. The sliding glass doors open. “Yes. It’s for Arthur.”
“Oh, Arthur.” The men exchange a smile.
“Yes—I should get back to him, actually.”
“Oh, of course, Mr. Haverford. We wouldn’t want to
keep Arthur waiting.”
“Thank you. Yes, I shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I turn.
“It’s just that—well—we’d like to have you come into
the station tomorrow. For a few questions.”
“Questions?”
The other man takes off his cap. “Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Haverford. I’m sure you understand.”
“Right. Sure.”
“Wonderful.” One of the cops glances at the other.
“Well, we must be off.” He grasps my forearm and smiles.
“Great to see you again, Mr. Haverford.”
I nod. “Right. Very good to see you too, Officer.”

When he goes to his first interrogation, things get even stranger, with the police asking Henry what they believe should be done with the dead deer. The interrogation culminates with an ominous line that shouldn’t feel like a threat, but nevertheless sounds like one:

“Am I free to go?”
“Yes,” says the man in the long grey coat. “But we’ll
have you back to see the fawn.”

From there, side A of The Deer edges further into a nightmare of superimpositions and displacements—Henry seems unstuck in time and reality, he’s a boy, a teen, a man, but also a deer, even a fawn, a victim. The situation climaxes in the final track on side A, “The Deer.” It’s another interrogation scene, far more intense, and by the end of it one senses that our Henry, like a character from a David Lynch film, has shifted identities by the time he’s left the room—although nothing is permanent or stable in the world Carrera’s constructed.

Side B continues exploring the may-or-may not themes of the first half, but in an entirely different setting. We move to a first-person narrator, a woman who cares for an ailing mother with her sister. They live in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, with threats of marauding “riders,” illness, drought. Although the settings are radically different, Carrera takes pains to underscore the thematic line in his novel, invoking Schrödinger’s cat again:

Mother prepares another bowl. We eat slowly. The
kitchen light rocks back and forth. Sister leans back on the counter, popping bread in her mouth.
I read aloud to Mother. It is the Old Book, from the
Before Times. The title has long disintegrated.

I say, this is the story of a cat.

She nods slightly. Or maybe it is a rocking. Maybe her head was rocking, and I only thought it was a nod.

I say, the cat goes into a box.

I say, a man comes up to the box, and he leans down
next to it.

I say, the cat does not make a sound. Not even a scratch.

I say, the cat’s tail slowly curls around itself but the man does not know, because he cannot see the cat and the cat cannot see him.

I say, the man must decide if the cat exists.

At times the choppy, etiolated first-person voice of side B didn’t resonate as fully-realized in my ear, and I found some of the genre-bound descriptors (like “Before Times”) too on-the-nose in a book that is otherwise full of compelling obliquities. Other moments are stronger, like in the following passage, which again underscores the book’s theme of quantum superposition:

Read to me in the book how everything is shaking. Read to me how all the objects are composed of molecules and these molecules are fluid in structure. Read to me how all things twirl in recombination and the existence of objects is confirmed only through collective patterns of sensory perception. Read to me about how we must stay in sync, how these objects which we know to be real must be kept afloat by a rhythm of agreement, how this Earth which tilts so slowly pulls us all in the same direction. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only feel the cool of the ink and the scratch of the parchment. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only see the glimmers of this world.

It’s a remarkable paragraph, which feels both timely and timeless, for are we not always in a crisis of the “rhythm of agreement”?

Carrera studied writing under both Jason Schwartz and Evan Lavender-Smith, and the imprint of those writers, as well as the tree from which their own fiction might be said to extend, bears influence on The Deer. In his masterful John the Posthumous, Schwartz found sinister power in the vignette, in the cruel detail, which Carrera evokes in his novel as well. The Deer’s engagement with radical ambiguity also brings to mind Lavender-Smith’s novella Avatar, a study in untethered consciousness. Beyond that, Carrera branches from the Kafka tree, and The Deer will appeal to those who can hang in the surreal abject worlds of, say, João Gilberto Noll or Kōbō Abe or Anna Kavan or Hiroko Oyamada, without collapsing into goo. Good stuff.

The Deer is available from Dalkey Archive.

 

 

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 | Rambling notes around a very long audiobook

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I listened to Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666 on audiobook (in English translation by Natasha Wimmer) over the last month,

I listened while I took long early walks in my neighborhood before the big sun burned me back home; I listened while I gardened; I listened while I undertook a list of summer chores that included painting the interior of the house.

I was listening to the book when our fire alarm gave alarum to an accidental fire in our kitchen, which I put out quickly (I was hearing but not listening to the book during this exercise). I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when I started getting texts from friends about the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe. I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when my neighbor waved me down, approached me, told me while crying (she was walking her dog) that her ex-husband, who I was very close to, loved, frankly, a kind man who I spent a few hours a week drinking wine and discussing x and y and z, but especially discussing literature and civics film and local raptors, this man, my friend, had died unexpectedly the previous morning. I turned the audiobook off, finished my walk, and drove four hours to the Gulf shore, a nice place I take every July 4th holiday with my extended family. I took a week off 2666.

I finished the 2666 audiobook yesterday. This audiobook is 39 hours and 15 minutes long. A different reader reads each of the novel’s five distinct parts. (The readers are John Lee, Armando Durán, G. Valmont Thomas, Scott Brick, and Grover Gardner.)

Should someone who hasn’t read 2666 before try it on audiobook first?

I have no idea.

(Try it and tell me.)

I don’t think it would have worked for me, an audiobook on the first go around, for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that there are so so so many voices in the novel, and not all of the five readers necessarily fully capture those voices. (G. Valmont Thomas and Grover Gardner do; Armando Durán gets close; John Lee fares well for the most part; Scott Brick tries too hard at times and not hard enough at others).

Some people are pretty good at auditing audiobooks; other people have a difficult time zoning in. Forty hours is a long time, and if I opened with a list of “I” statements, related to the book, it was because it felt like a sharp chunk of life passed as I listened to 2666. (Sorry.)

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As for the actual novel, the story, the prose, whatever—it’s great. Just amazing. These are poor adjectives for a giant work. This was my fourth full trip through 2666, and it only confirms my impression that the novel is a labyrinthine masterpiece, sinister, brave, lurid, abject, often very funny, and stuffed with so much life and experience. I’ve written several “reviews” of the novel on this site over the years, if you want to be persuaded in greater detail. Probably the better of these riffs was a piece on intertextuality in the novel. There’s also my first review in early 2009 and one from my reread it in late 2009. I wrote about abjection and horror in 2666. At some point I wrote about werewolves and 2666 and argued that Dracula is a secret character in the book.

I probably also connected 2666 in some way to many, many other things while writing on this blog over the past thirteen years. I think it’s great, more than great, grand, gargantuan, giant stuff. I felt all sad and hollowed out when I got to the end yesterday, deflated, punctured, the final images of Archimboldi eating Neapolitan ice cream with a descendant of its creator, Fürst Pückler, kinda breaking my brain.

Put forty more hours in my ears.

If you follow this blog semi-regularly, you might’ve seen (and I hope read) excerpts I’ve posted from 2666 over the past few weeks. Something that initially caught me off guard, but that I soon came to predict, was that I would audit a section, and jot down notes, something like, Post this as an excerpt on the blog—and then it would turn out that I’d posted the same excerpt a decade ago.

I also remembered specific moments where I’d read some of the selections — on airplanes, or in hotel beds, or even on the beach of the Gulf, ten or eleven years ago over a July 4th vacation that wasn’t set against such a oh-wow-we’re-sliding-into-overt-authoritarian-oligarchy-dang backdrop. But also in blank or banal places, a black couch a now-dead cat clawed up, a chair my wife threatened to axe. Two different beds. And so much of what I audited the past month is blended into my experiences of the past month. (I will never ever forget that the moment when I found out about Roe, I was listening to a painful litany of misogynistic “jokes” told by a crooked cop to an audience of other cops in “The Part About the Crimes” — the section goes on and on, a little echo or prefiguration of the litany of rapes that formalize that particular section. I am looking for a way to use the word indelible here.)

(And while I’m in parentheses: Something I would have tuned out while reading 2666 that I certainly noticed while auditing it is how often Bolaño (and his translator Wimmer, of course) uses the phrase Around this time to begin a new paragraph.)

And so well anyway: A few remarks on the readers, translators all in their own right of the material:

John Lee reads “The Part About the Critics.” His posh British twang is well-suited to conveying the semi-serious/semi-ironic tone of this section, and if he sounds annoying as shit at times, that can be forgiven. Lee, who is often too arch, shows more restraint than in other audiobooks I’ve audited that he’s read.

Armando Durán reads “The Part About Amalfitano.” He’s perfect when conveying Amalfitano’s voice, as well as consciousness, but centers too closely to that consciousness. This is a very specific and petty criticism that is more about how I hear certain other voices in the novel. Great voice.

G. Valmont Thomas reads “The Part About Fate.” He inhabits the various voices the journalist Fate speaks to with aplomb, characterizing each voice with its own unique phrasing while staying true to the tone of the “Fate” section, which tip-toes to full-blown abject madness. My only gripe, and it’s not really even a gripe, is that he voices Fate himself as a total weirdo, a weirdo who simultaneously realizes he’s out of sync with everyone around him, but also doesn’t see to register that fact as a functioning human being might. Good interpretation, I guess, but still a bit of a bold choice.

Scott Brick reads “The Part About the Crimes.” Brick has the longest and arguably most-arduous section of 2666. I think the direction he takes (or the direction he was given) is a bit too intense — again this is a case of my own reading of the voices in the novel — I think the main narrative voice of “The Part About the Crimes” should be flat, affectless, reportorial, and that all drama and verve in that section should come from characters who ventriloquize the narrative — and Brick does a good job there.

Grover Gardner reads “The Part About Archimboldi” and I loved what he did, but I’m a big fan of his voice in general. And I love that particular section.

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If I have quibbled with these voices it comes from a place of love—I loved getting to reread 2666 through their voices. And, like I said above, they are ultimately translators too of the work. So I’ll close with Bolaño himself on translation (via his 2666 translator, Natasha Wimmer, from his essay “Translation Is an Anvil,” collected in Between Parentheses):

How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its  voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.

I love the mountain, the forest, the Nightingale.

Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat is a funny, ludic novel about trauma and art

A book should be like a lot of spit. But who would publish me? Who publishes a person who’s sort of soaking in pain, who can’t always walk, employed only pretty much in name?

Did writing exist in books anyway these days? I thought perhaps defensively. Maybe it didn’t.

Writing does exist in books these days, despite what Iris, the narrator of a book of writing that exists, a book by Caren Beilin entitled Revenge of the Scapegoat, thinks perhaps defensively.

Iris, who will later transform into Vivitrix Marigold, thinks these defensive thoughts after receiving a package from her estranged father. The package contains two letters her father wrote to her when she was a teenager and a play she began but never finished composing when she was 17. The play had a title though: Billy the Id.

And why does Iris need defensive thoughts to defend her against this offensive package? Well, it turns out she was the designated scapegoat of her family, the atavistic locus for her father’s animus and her terminally-ill mother’s helplessness.

Mom’s dead now and Iris has escaped to Philadelphia, where she’s an underemployed adjunct teaching creative writing to overworked kids. She’s been “re-parented by the crucial cosmos, if poorly,” living in a house her mother left to her “like a moldy letter, black botches all over, and all over the counters.” Her mother had bought the house as an escape plan for Iris and her brother, but she never escaped (“She died of staying”). Iris lives in the moldy old house with her alcoholic husband. He lies about being a recovering alcoholic (“He told me that microdosing heroin was helping him in his recovery”). It’s clear that the marriage is failing.

But this isn’t a marriage story. It’s not her husband’s unremarkable departure, but rather the arrival of the packaged writing, that sparks Iris’s transformation. This transformation occurs over four distinct sections.

The first section is mostly a dialogue between Iris and her friend Ray, who is transitioning between genders. Like Iris, Ray was the designated scapegoat of their family, and the pair bonds and shares their trauma at a coffee shop called Good Karma. There’s a zaniness to Scapegoat that frequently veers into absurd humor and even outright surrealism (as when, for example, Iris punctuates her conversation with this observation: “The sun was going down. Holograms of dead parrots flopped in the road,” which I take to be Beilin’s oblique approximation of the old chestnut, “Somewhere in the distance a dog barked”). But the zaniness in Scapegoat is never precious or cloying; rather, the verbal quirks and eccentric images are anchored in the concrete pain and real trauma that Iris is trying to process.

Inspired by her conversation with Ray, Iris offers them her house in exchange for their boxy old Subaru. Iris drives and drives and drives, out into the New England countryside, repeatedly playing the same cassingle, one “SCAR” by Vivitrix Marigold. The poor Subaru, which “had more than 700,000 miles” on it, eventually gives out, and Iris finds herself stranded “out in the middle of a New England nowhere” — but not a poor nowhere, “No, this was all richie rich.”

It’s in this second section that Iris transforms into Vivitrix, and the narrative becomes even more surreal. It begins with our hero outside of an obscure art museum called The mARTin. There is a heart-stepping cow, of old Nazi stock, stepping on her heart. From there things get even weirder, and it would be a shame to spoil more of the plot. I don’t actually care about plot too much, but a lot of wild stuff: a curator who may or may not have murdered her husband, cowherding, a patricidal pervert, kale marmalade made from bull semen, castration conversation, a queasy dinner party (with a forced table reading of Billy the Id!) and more.

There’s also a very cathartic end, which I wasn’t anticipating. But it was lovely.

Perhaps ultimately the plot of Revenge of the Scapegoat is about transforming trauma into art, but as I write this sentence out, it seems like something Iris would tell her students not to do in their writing. Iris scatters her writing advice into the narrative and then breaks it: “Do not italicize foreign words”; “I told students there could be no rain or scenes on benches”; “Don’t write about food in an inventive way”. And my favorite: “Don’t make adult women reconcile or admit anything in your writing.”

In addition to this metatextual conceit, Beilin also employs the strange rhetorical device of turning Iris’s poor arthritic feet into Bouvard and Pécuchet, characters from Flaubert’s unfinished satire Bouvard et Pécuchet. At one point the pair bicker over which kind of precious metal or gem a witch might prefer. They are the not-quite-chorus of Revenge of the Scapegoat.

Beilen also lards her tale with similes that wonderfully strain credulity. On the first page, Iris compares the vegan leather of shoes to “a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin.” Iris will often then puncture the artifice of the simile with rough reality: “I was shaking in the grass like an Etch-a-Sketch a higher power was trying to erase wholesale. Fuck that. I stopped shaking.” Or consider the surreal swell and bathetic pop in this passage, where Iris (now Vivitrix) compares her first encounter with The mARTin museum to the narrator of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” seeing the titular house for the first time:

Like that narrator, that man, so too I, Vivitrix, first looked at the reflective water rather than at a real building, weird, so I first saw The mARTin upside down. Its pink door stretched tall on morning’s mandible, as though it were flocked in flamingo leather, a pink surpassing the high heat of “hot,” a flamingo ultravinegar spilled all over something like a primed bookcover of a welcome new monograph on someone like Sade, or Wilde, someone such as Rimbaud or O’Hara, or Keats, men with honorary vaginas who castrated by love and the system, Flaubert, Adorno or Baldwin. It was a very pink door.

I’ve shared a taste of Beilin’s prose at length, and while I think it’s representative of the novel’s style, it can’t replace the feeling of how her sentences flow and build and ebb and swell. Initially, some of the verbal tics in Scapegoat irritated me, but it was the kind of irritation that makes you want to keep reading. And, a few pages after the lovely strange passage I’ve quoted above, our hungry hungry hero declares, “I needed some beef like you wouldn’t beleef.”

I laughed out loud and that initial irritation resolved into something like love. Highly recommended.

Revenge of the Scapegoat is available now from Dorothy.

Hiroko Oyamado’s subtle novel The Hole captures the banal surreal loneliness of modern life

Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Hole is a subtle, slim, slow-burn low-stakes horror story that tiptoes neatly between banality and surrealism. Our first-person narrator is Asahi, a young, recently-married woman. Asahi–or Asa, as she thinks of herself–is a part-time employee in a large city somewhere in Japan. She doesn’t really have any friends or hobbies, let alone any ambitions. When her husband Muneaki gets a job transfer to the countryside, Asa’s mother-in-law Tomiko offers the young couple the house next to hers, rent-free. The young couple’s economic situation means they can’t refuse, so they don’t. Asa’s only real acquaintance, a work buddy, remarks how lucky she is to be a housewife, but Asa is ambivalent.

That ambivalence radiates throughout The Hole. In David Boyd’s spare, direct translation, Oyamada pushes her hero into a stifling, stuffy, overheated summer. The skinny novel is an exercise in boredom-as-horror: Even before Asa arrives in her husband’s rural hometown, everything’s just a wee bit off. The cicadas vibrate at a different pitch; the locals seem to come from a different era; time seems to run backwards and forwards.

Without a car or job, Asa is essentially stranded, spending her days guilty over running the AC, and unable to communicate with her husband’s grandfather, who mutely gardens his hours away.

Her only cultural landmark is a 7-Eleven convenient store, where mother-in-law Tomiko sends her on an errand one day. The banal errand becomes a bizarre Carollonian quest—but a quest without a clear object. On her route to the convenience store (what could be more boring and inconvenient?) Asa spies a large, strange, dark-furred creature:

 It had wide shoulders, slender and muscular thighs, but from the knees down, its legs were as thin as sticks. The animal was covered in black fur and had a long tail and rounded ears. Its ribs were showing, but its back was bulky, maybe with muscle or with fat.

Frantically following it, she falls into a hole that fits her nearly perfectly (like a proscribed role, or a coffin, or like, whatever):

As I tried to move, I realized how narrow the hole really was. The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me. The bottom of the hole was covered with something dry, maybe dead grass or straw. Looking toward the river through a break in the grass, all I could see was white light.

A mysterious white-clad neighbor named Sera (who calls Asa “the bride”) pulls her out from the hole, and she makes her way to the 7-Eleven, where a gang of strange children block her mission. She also meets an oddball who later claims to be the white rabbit to her lost Alice. He claims to be an unacknowledged mystery brother-in-law who lives in a shed, having relinquished adult responsibility. There are centipedes and bug bites and other strange goings on—and Asa  talks about absolutely none of it with her husband or mother-in-law.

The Hole captures the stifling omnipresence of loneliness. Asa is a sympathetic character, and while many of the details of her circumstance are particular to Japanese culture, the narrative resonates with the larger absurdities of contemporary life. Asahi’s loneliness burns all the more real for the novel’s surrealism. Her loneliness is the realest thing in The Hole, its presence never acknowledged because it cannot fully be named. The “loneliness” is more real than the quasi-mystical hole-digging creature that plagues the countryside, or the manic brother-in-law-who-lives-in-a-shed-in-the-backyard whom no one ever mentions. But unlike these surreal entities, Asa’s loneliness is never directly invoked.

The Hole will be somewhat familiar with anyone who’s climbed about in the Kafka tree. While Oyamada directly evokes Carroll’s Alice stories, her story is far less fanciful, its dire core obscured with a thin veneer of the banal. The Hole recalls the tone and mood of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, where the protagonist comes to be in an uncanny scenario that becomes uncannier by the moment. But Oyamada’s narrator doesn’t seem to demarcate the separation into unreality; rather, the novel absorbs its narrator into a new unreal-real reality.

The Hole is wonderfully dull at times, as it should be. It’s layered but brittle, with notes of a freshness just gone sour. It’s a quick, propulsive read—a thriller, even, perhaps—but its thrills culminate in sad ambiguity. Recommended.

Is this a review of David Shields’ “autobiography” The Very Last Interview?

Is David Shields’ new book The Last Interview indeed an “autobiography in question form, with the reader working to supply answers based on the questions that follow,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?

Is it “Brilliant,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?

(Is this the same David Shields who authored Reality Hunger?)

Does, as Chris Kraus’ blurb states, Shields remix and reimagine “2,000 of the most annoying questions he’s been asked during his forty-year writing life”?

Is it really an “operatic tragic sojourn across American cultural life” (Kraus)?

Does The Very Last Interview confirm “Shields as the most dangerously important American writer since William S. Burroughs,” as Kenneth Goldsmith claims in his blurb?

(Is this the same Kenneth Goldsmith who was called out seven years ago for a publicly reading Michael Brown’s autopsy under the guise of “conceptual poetry”?)

Is it actually “very funny,” as Sheila Heti’s blurb contends?

Should I flip it over and actually dig in?

Is that a Richard Diebenkorn painting adorning the cover?

Are there actually five more blurbs once one opens the book?

Does Shields organize this “remix: of questions he’s (supposedly) been asked into chapters with titles like “Process,” “Truth,” “Art,” “Failure,” “Criticism,” and “Suicide”?

Does Shields open each chapter with epigraphs?

Does he attribute the authors of the epigraphs?

Is there an epigraph from Nietzsche?

Why doesn’t he attribute any of the interviewers at any point in The Very Last Interview?

Does David Shields believe he is a genius?

Does he believe that his audience will find delight or joy or even a momentary reprieve from reading The Very Last Interview?

When Jonathan Lethem (whose blurb makes the inside but not the back cover) claims he “blasted through it in one night,” is it possible that by “night” he means a thin hour or two?

Is the book skinnier than its 150 pages might suggest?

Are there any bits of the book that are, as Heti blurbed, “Very, very funny”?

How about this trio?

“When we are not sure, we are alive” — are you sure this is something that Graham Green said?

Can you prove it?

Do you know what “JSTOR” stands for?

Does this little blip skate closer to mildly amusing as opposed to very very funny?

But is there a general undertone of contempt that radiates in Shields’ curation of questions?

What about these?

Do you share my contempt for Greenpoint hipsters who look and act cool but whose work is about as challenging as a Toblerone bar?

Did you every study with Gordon Lish?

What did he like about your bracelet-cum-watch?

(What would we get if we removed the hyphens from the phrase bracelet-cum-watch?)

Is it possible that David Shields overestimates how interesting he is?

Does he really want us to empathize at points, to provide answers for questions, such as the ones below?

What’s the matter with you?

No, seriously. What is your underlying impasse?

Why can’t you feel?

What’s buried beneath that seeming numbness?

Anything?

Is The Last Interview pretentious, solipsistic, shallow, bathetic, and also very readable?

Is The Last Interview available in paperback from NYRB next month?

Are we done?

Are we?

See the girl | A report from Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King

One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl.

These four sentences open Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King, the not-exactly sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red WolfThat novel centered on Tracker and his quest to recover a missing child of enormous importance. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a bizarre beast, a post-postmodern fantasy that queered its genre conventions and consistently contested the very notion that a story could ever be told straight. In it, Tracker segues between ever-shifting fellowships and nebulous nemeses–including the Moon Witch Sogolon, the protagonist of Moon Witch, Spider King.

Moon Witch, Spider King takes Sogolon as its viewpoint character, and the first seven chapters of this long, long novel (about a quarter of its 600ish pages) read far more straightforward than its predecessor. The narrative gambit of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that Tracker, captured, is telling his story to an inquisitor—and that telling is a repeated deferral, teleporting through time and space (much like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport between city-states). Tracker does all he can do to tell any truth aslant. So far, James’s new novel follows a less demanding trajectory. The repeated invocation to “See the girl” follows our hero as her circumstances rise—although Sogolon experiences her rise in a picaresque, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire spirit.

We first find her an orphan of sort, a neglected witch-child more-or-less imprisoned in a termite hill by three cruel brothers, who blame her for killing their mother, who died birthing her. Sogolon even has to name herself. She escapes only to find herself in new peril, the house of Miss Azora. It’s a whorehouse, but Sogolon mixes potions to protect herself from its patrons–excepting one. The motif of male predation repeats in Moon Witch, as well as Sogolon’s resistance against those who would take her and take from her. In time, Sogolon finds herself into the house of a fallen aristocrat. Master Komwono may hold the title, but its Mistress Komwono who runs the show. Sogolon continues to spy and absorb, to play dumb, to use how others perceive her apparent weakness as an actual strength.

After Master Komwono dies under mysterious circumstances (take a guess!), Mistress Komwono is summoned back to the kingdom of Fasisi, from which she had previously been banished. A soldier named Keme is part of the caravan to bring the Komwono household to the capital, and Sogolon finds herself taken with the man. When they arrive at the palace, things take an even more sinister turn: the King is dying and his sister has disappeared (or been disapperead).

Here is where the plot machinations of Moon Witch truly kick in, shifting into a novel of political court intrigue. Mistress Komwono gives poor Sogolon to the princess of Fasisi, and she is drawn into all sorts of machinations. We begin to see the plotting of the Aesi (another of Tracker’s antagonists), whose Machiavellian moves are yet oblique to the young girl. In the meantime, witches are being burned, and Keme meets with his own fellowship (of griots and warriors and sentient lions) in a floating city. There’s a lot going on.

There’s a lot going on, but it’s a fun going on. See the girl, the narrator repeatedly intones, and James’s prose is marvelously vivid, setting strange scene after strange scene. And while the narrative voice, focused on Sogolon, is a removed third-person, I can’t help but now notice that the book opens with an I: “One night I was in the dream jungle”…who is this I, who so quickly disappears after a few sentences, replaced by the dream-memory incantation: See the girl.

(Parenthetically—while there are no Blood Meridian vibes so far to Moon Witch, Spider King, that incantation See the girl nevertheless seems to echo that McCarthy’s novel’s opening line, See the child (itself perhaps an echo of Melville’s Call me Ishmael.))

Anyway–I’m digging Moon Witch thus far. I’ve been auditing the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin) and then rereading bits for clarification. So far, I think that anyone interested in what Marlon James is doing with this so-called Dark Star trilogy would be absolutely fine starting with this one. The line is straighter than Black Leopard, the thread is easier to follow, and it’s not necessary to know the contours or details of the plot of that “first” novel. But it still points to the wonderful queer weirdness of that novel. More to come.

Between parentheses | On Julio Cortázar’s “Letters from Mom”

Julio Cortázar’s story “Letters from Mom” is available in English for the first time thanks to translator Magdalena Edwards and the good folks at Sublunary Editions. First published in Cortázar’s 1959 collection Las armas secretas, “Letters from Mom” centers on Luis and his wife Laura, Argentinian expatriates living in Paris, where Luis works as a designer for an advertising agency.

The story begins with Luis receiving a letter from his mother. The event underscores one of Cortázar’s main themes: writing itself. Luis’s mother’s letters arrive from Buenos Aires as “an alteration of time, a harmless little scandal within the order of things that Luis had wanted and designed and achieved” for himself. Luis’s designed “order” is a self-exile which relies on his and Laura’s refusal to speak a certain name. His mother’s latest letter evokes the name, stirring emotions that Luis has sought to repress.

Indeed, Luis’s entire life is rooted in repression. His time in Paris is “a heap of probation, the ridicule of living like a word between parentheses, divorced from the main sentence which nevertheless always supports and explains.” The simile “like a word between parentheses” (which appears in the very first paragraph of the story) teaches us to read the tale that unfolds. It’s between parentheses that we learn the emotional and psychological truth at the root of Luis’s repression. And as the story reaches its climax, Cortázar’s free indirect style paradoxically finds its freest expression within parenthetical boundaries.

Like so many self-exiles, Luis wants to escape the past. His desires again invoke similes of writing: “If the past could be torn up and thrown away like the draft of a letter or a book. But it’s always there, staining the clean copy, and I think that’s the real future.” The stain arrives again and again through his mother’s letters, which repeatedly invoke — and look, I don’t want to spoil the story, so maybe stop reading this now, hey — Continue reading “Between parentheses | On Julio Cortázar’s “Letters from Mom””

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.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this review in March, 2019.]