A review of William Melvin Kelley’s polyglossic postmodern novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres

William Melvin Kelley’s final novel Dunfords Travels Everywhere was published in 1970 to mixed reviews and then languished out of print for half a century. Formally and conceptually challenging, Dunfords contrasts strongly with the mannered modernism of Kelley’s first (and arguably most popular) novel A Different Drummer (1962). In A Different Drummer, Kelley offered the lucid yet Faulknerian tale of Caliban Tucker, a black Southerner who leads his people to freedom. The novel is naturalistic and ultimately optimistic. Kelley’s follow up, A Drop of Patience (1965), follows a similar naturalistic approach. By 1967 though, Kelley moved to a more radical style in his satire dem. In dem, Kelley enlarges his realism, injecting the novel with heavy doses of distortion. dem is angrier, more ironic and hyperbolic than the works that preceded it. Its structure is strange—not fragmented, exactly—but the narrative is parceled out in vignettes which the reader must synthesize himself. dem’s experimentation is understated, but its form—and its angry energy—point clearly towards Kelley’s most postmodern novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres. Polyglossic, fragmented, and bubbling with aporia, Dunfords, now in print again, will no doubt baffle, delight, and divide readers today the same way it did fifty years ago.

Dunfords Travels Everywheres opens in a fictional European city. A group of American travelers meet for a softball game, only to learn that their president has been assassinated. They head to a cafe to console themselves. After some wine, the Americans toast their fallen president and begin singing “one of the two or three songs the people back home considered patriotic.” Chig Dunford, the sole black member of the travelers, refrains from singing, and when his patriotism is questioned and he is implored to sing, he explodes: “No, motherfucker!” The profane outburst alienates his companions, and Chig questions his language: “Where on earth had those words come from? He tried always to choose his words with care, to hold back anger until he found the correct words.”

It turns out that Chig’s motherfucker is a secret spell, a compound streetword that unlocks the dreamlanguage of Dunfords Travels Everywheres. After its incantation, Dunfords’ rhetoric pivots:

Witches oneWay tspike Mr. Chigyle’s Languish, n curryng him back tRealty, recoremince wi hUnmisereaducation. Maya we now go on wi yReconstruction, Mr. Chuggle? Awick now? Goodd, a’god Moanng agen everybubbahs n babys among you, d’yonLadys in front who always come vear too, days ago, dhisMorning We wddeal, in dhis Sagmint of Lecturian Angleash 161, w’all the daisiastrous effects, the foxnoxious bland of stimili, the infortunelessnesses of circusdances which weak to worsen the phistorystematical intrafricanical firmly structure of our distinct coresins: The Blafringro‐Arumericans.

So Chig, who has told us he looks always to choose the “correct words.” comes through languish/language “back tRealty,” to commence again his education and reconstruction. He’s given new names Mr. Chuggle and Mr. Chigyle. Renaming becomes a motif in the novel. Here in the dreamworld—or is it reality, as Chig’s dreamteachers seem to suggest?—there are multiple Chigs, a plot point emphasized in the novel’s strange title. Dunfords Travels Everwheres seems initially ungrammatical—shouldn’t the title be something like Dunford Travels Everywhere or Dunford’s Travels Everywhere? one wonders at first. Packed into the title though is a key to the novel’s meaning: There are multiple Dunfords, multiple travels, and, perhaps most significantly, multiple everywheres. The novel’s title also points to two of its reference points, Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (famously absent an apostrophe).

Many readers will undoubtedly recognize the influence of Joyce’s Wake in Kelley’s so-called experimental passages. And while Finnegans is clearly an inspiration, Kelley’s prose has a different flavor—more creole, more pidgin, more Afrocentric than Joyce’s synthesis of European tongues. The passages can be difficult if you want them to be, or you can simply float along with them. I found myself reading them aloud, letting my ear make connections that my eyes might have missed. I’ll also readily concede that there’s a ton of stuff in the passages that I found inscrutable. Sometimes its best to go with the flow.

And where does that flow go? The title promises everywheres, and the central plot of Dunfords might best be understood as a consciousness traveling though an infinite but subtly shifting loop. Chig Dunford slips in and out of the dreamworld, traveling through Europe and then back to America. The final third of the novel is a surreal transatlantic sea voyage that darkly mirrors the Euro-American slave trade. It’s also a shocking parody of America’s sexual and racial hang-ups. It’s also really confusing at times, calling into question what elements of the book are “real” and what elements are “dream.” In my estimation though, the distinction doesn’t matter in Dunfords. All that matters is the language.

The language—specifically the so-called experimental language—transports characters and readers alike. We’re first absorbed into the dreamlanguage on page fifty, and swirl around in it for a dozen more pages before arriving somewhere far, far away from Chig Dunford in the European cafe. In the course of a paragraph, the narrative moves from linguistic surrealism to lucid realism to start a new thread in the novel:

Now will ox you, Mr. Chirlyle? Be your satisfreed from the dimage of the Muffitoy? Heave you learned your caughtomkidsm? Can we send you out on your hownor? Passable. But proveably not yetso tokentinue the candsolidation of the initiatory natsure of your helotionary sexperience, le we smiuve for illustration of chiltural rackage on the cause of a Hardlim denteeth who had stopped loving his wife. Before he stopped loving her, he had given her a wonderful wardrobe, a brownstone on the Hill, and a cottage on Long Island. Unfortunately, her appetite remained unappeased. She wanted one more thing—a cruise around the world. And so he asked her for a divorce.

This Harlem dentist employs Carlyle Bedlow, a minor but important character in dem, to seduce his wife. Bedlow then becomes a kind of twin to Chig, as the novel shifts between Chig’s story and Bedlow’s, always mediated via dreamlanguage. Bedlow’s adventures are somewhat more comical than Chig’s (he even outfoxes the Devil), and although he’s rooted in Harlem, he’s just as much an alien to his own country as Chig is.

Dunfords’ so-called experimental passages are a linguistic bid to overcome that alienation. While they clearly recall the language of Finnegans Wake, they also point to another of Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Kelley pulls the first of Dunfords’ three epigraphs from Joyce’s novel:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine…I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech…My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

In Portrait, Stephen Dedalus realizes that he is linguistically inscribed in a conqueror’s tongue, but he will work to forge that language into something capable of expressing the “uncreated conscience of [his] race.” The linguistic play of Dunfords finds Kelley forging his own language, his own tongue of resistance.

The dreamlanguage overtakes the final pages of Dunfords, melting African folklore with Norse myths into something wholly new, sticky, rich. There’s more than a dissertation’s worth of parsing in those last fifteen pages. I missed in them than I caught, but I don’t mind being baffled, especially when the book’s final paragraph is so lovely:

You got aLearn whow you talking n when tsay whit, man. What, man? No, man. Soaree! Yes sayd dIt t’me too thlow. Oilready I vbegin tshift m Voyace. But you llbob bub aGain. We cdntlet aHabbub dfifd on Fur ever, only fo waTerm aTime tpickcip dSpyrate by pinchng dSkein. In Side, out! Good-bye, man: Good-buy, man. Go odd-buy Man. Go Wood, buy Man. Gold buy Man. MAN!BE!GOLD!BE!

You’ve got to learn how/who you are talking to and when to say what/wit, right? The line “Oilready I vbegin tshift m Voyace” points to shifting voices, shifting consciousnesses , but also the voice as the voyage, the tongue as a traveler.

The passages I’ve shared above should give you a sense of whether or not the ludic prose of Dunfords  is your particular flavor of choice. Initial reviews were critical of Kelley’s choices, including both the novel’s language and its structure. It received two contemporary reviews in The New York Times; in the first, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praised Kelley’s use of “a black form of the dreamlanguage of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake…to escape the strictures of the conventional (white) novel,” but concluded that “there are many things in the novel that don’t work, that seem curiously cryptic and incomplete.” Playwright Clifford Mason was far harsher in his review a few weeks later, writing that “the experimental passages offer little to justify the effort needed to decipher them. The endless little word games can only be called tiresome.”

I did not find the word games endless, little, or tiring, but I’m sure there are many folks who would agree with Mason’s sentiments from five decades ago. While American culture has slowly been catching up to Kelley’s politics and aesthetics, his dreamlanguage will no doubt alienate many contemporary readers who prefer their prose hardened into lucid meaning. Kelley understood the power of language shift. He coined the word “woke” in a 1962 New York Times piece that both lamented and celebrated the way that black language was appropriated by white folks only to be reinvented again by by black speakers. In some ways, Dunfords is his push into a language so woke it appears to be the language of sleep. But the subconscious talkers in Dunfords don’t babble. Their words pack—perhaps overpack—meaning.

The overpacking makes for a difficult read at times. Readers interested in Kelley—an overlooked writer, for sure—might do better to start with A Different Drummer or dem, both of which are more conventional, both in prose and plot. Thankfully, Anchor Books has reprinted all five of Kelley’s books, each with new covers by Kelley’s daughter. This new edition of Dunfords also features pen-and-ink illustrations that Kelley commissioned from his wife Aiki. These illustrations, which were not included in the novel’s first edition in 1970, add to the novel’s surreal energy. I’ve included a few in this review.

Dunfords Travels Everywheres is a challenging, rich, weird read. At times baffling, it’s never boring. Those who elect to read it should go with the flow and resist trying to impose their own logical or rhetorical schemes on the narrative. It’s a fantastic voyage—or Voyace?—check it out.

Don DeLillo’s new book The Silence is a slim disappointment

Don DeLillo’s latest fiction The Silence is set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. The story, such as it is, takes place over the course of a few hours, focusing primarily on five characters who gather in a New York apartment to watch the big game. The quintet is unable to see the game though because, for reasons unknown and never really explored, contemporary communication systems and technologies fail worldwide. No email, no internet, no teevee.

“Seemingly all screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?” the narrator—or maybe one of the characters—wonders. Other characters insist that what’s happening is the beginning of World War III (The Silence opens with Einstein’s famous quote about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones). “The drone wars,” another quips blankly, worrying—is he worrying?—that the “drones have become autonomous.”

We’re told of chaos, panic, and “small riots” in response to this unexplained failure of technology, but DeLillo doesn’t show us any of the pandemonium, let alone evoke much of a sense of anxiety about the titular silence. Instead, the book plods along a course of droll ennui and flat utterances that I suppose are meant to sound profound. “What if we are not what we think we are?” asks a character, and if DeLillo is pulling our leg with such banal dialogue, there’s little in The Silence to signal that the book is open to an ironic reading.

Instead we get blank references to Einstein, deep time, mass surveillance, and Jesus of Nazareth, as if these would-be motifs can signal meaning (or, like, lack of meaning, man!?) on their own. Characters repeat buzzwords; a dude riffs on microplastics; another treats his auditor to a pre-coital definition of capitalism. “The woman realizes she is still in the thrall of cryptocurrencies” is a real sentence in this book.

The rhetorical moves here have long been staples of DeLillo’s toolkit, but the verbal obliquity of The Silence feels anemic. The sentences are thin, the book is thin. The ideas don’t stick. Or rather, the insights that DeLillo offers here seem, well, obvious.

I used the verb plods a few paragraphs above, which doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for such a skinny book. I checked out an ebook of The Silence from my library and read it in about 75 minutes. (I am not a fast reader.) DeLillo’s publisher Scribner lists the hardback at 128 pages. I imagine the font must be huge and the margins pretty wide. What I read could’ve fit neatly into 40 or 50 pages of a mass-market paperback. (The hardback retails for twenty US dollars.) The American cover insists that The Silence is a novel, but it sure doesn’t read like one.

Despite its brevity, The Silence plods. For a book with a plane crash, a football game, casual sex, planet-wide panic, and the maybe-advent of WW III, The Silence is notably listless. Perhaps that’s by design, but if so it’s a design I didn’t care for.

Reviews and descriptions of DeLillo’s last novel Zero K (2016) deterred me from reading it, even though I liked its predecessor Point Omega (2010) more than many reviewers. I was intrigued by The Silence’s brevity, hopeful that DeLillo might pack the narrative with rich sentences and deep thoughts. I was hoping that he might bring some of the magic that we got in Pafko at the Wall (1992), a wonderful novella that DeLillo repurposed as the prologue for Underworld (1997).

But no. The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Infinite Jest remains underread by overtalkers].

On Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot

Walker Percy’s 1977 novel Lancelot opens with an invitation: “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home.”

The invitation is to both the reader and to the titular Lancelot’s audience of one, a friend from his college days he calls Percival. Percival listens to Lancelot’s increasingly-insane, unceasing monologue without interruption.

Lancelot Lamar—Lance, to friends—tells his story from his cell in the Center for Aberrant Behavior. It’s New Orleans, sometime in the mid-seventies. The dream of the sixties has curdled and soured, its failed would-be revolution of love turned to rot.

Lance’s (electrically-sexual) love for his wife Margot begins to sour, fester, and rot. He discovers by chance that he is not the father of their daughter Siobhan, and quickly comes to suspect that Siobhan is the product of Margot’s infidelity with Merlin, a filmmaker whom Margot, an always-aspiring actress, has known for years.

Merlin and his crew are filming at Lance’s ancestral manse, Bell Isle. Belle Isle was once a Great House in its parish, but modernity (and postmodernity) have a way of rotting out traditions. Margot, heiress to a new-money Texas fortune, restores the ancestral home to something-close-to its former glory. Belle Isle and the Lamar name might rub some good old fashioned Southern Aristocracy off on her. Despite those oil dollars, the Lamars still need to allow tour groups to visit Belle Isle—gawking Michiganders and Yankees and the like—in order to keep in the black.

Lancelot Lamar himself has long since stopped working. A one-time liberal who helped the NAACP, he trained as a lawyer, but latterly has taken to lust and drink. At the outset of his tale, our debauched wastrel spends his days in the pigeonnier of Belle Isle slurping bourbon and smoking cigs. His discovery that his daughter is not his own revitalizes him—it’s the revelation—nay, the apocalypse—that splits his life in two: “my life is divided into two parts, Before and After,” he tells Percival in cell.

Percival says all of thirteen words in the novel. Or, really, two words: twelve yeses and one no. It’s never quite clear if Percival is a failed psychiatrist or a failed priest or some hybrid of both, but we do know that Lancelot has long admired Percival since their school days, when the austere intellectual literally jumped ship to swim to a deserted island for a Thoreau-inspired think. Percival, or Lancelot’s ideation of Percival, serves not only as a confessor’s ear, but also as Lancelot’s avatar of intellectual spirituality. In contrast, visceral once-virile Lance (with his oh-so-phallic mantle) rests on his most vibrant college laurels: he once ran 110 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

But back to Lancelot of the Before and After. Specifically, the After. After discovering his wife’s apparent infidelity (infidelities?), Lance enlists the help of his retainer Elgin, the son of Belle Isle’s Black housekeepers. Elgin is an MIT student and a technical genius, a figure whose ascendancy Lancelot can understand but perhaps not fully appreciate. A scion of the South and a one-time “liberal,” Lancelot is unable to fully understand his own racism, even as he understands Elgin’s intellectual and technocratic superiority.

Still, Lancelot comprehends the failure of the 1960’s liberalism to fully follow through on its utopian promise. He relies on Elgin’s gratitude to him, but admits,

…in truth I had done very little for him, the kind of easy favors native liberals do and which are almost irresistible to the doer, if not to the done to, yielding as they do a return of benefit to one and a good feeling to the other all out of proportion to the effort expended. That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our sense of virtue and what we took to be their gratitude. Maybe that was why it didn’t last very long. Who can stand gratitude?

Driven by his own motives, tech-whiz Elgin sets up secret cameras all around Belle Isle as part of Lancelot’s movie-making scheme: our monologist plans to catch his wife in the act, either with Merlin or another lover. Percy’s postmodernism is subtle but effective here. We see Belle Isle through layers, a Gothic playground of both real and imaginary depravities, some staged, some extemporaneous, all set against the backdrop of the sins of the Gothic South.

Like William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, Percy’s Lancelot is a work of Gothic postmodernism. Belle Isle has been converted to a theme park version of its aristocratic past, glossed up for tourists and film crews. It’s certainly not the scene of domestic bliss.

Lancelot’s monologue starts to boil over into crazed horror, taking the reader (and his auditor Percival) into strange new spaces. Belle Isle becomes a haunted house, scene of repeated debaucheries on the cusp of disaster. The film crew prepares a massive weather machine to simulate a hurricane for their fantasy even as a massive hurricane approaches to destroy the real world. But maybe Lance, in his perverted quest, will destroy that world first.

Lancelot’s Gothic quest is for the anti-Grail, the Unholy Grail. As the novel unravels towards its crazed ending, Lancelot’s consciousness ping-pongs about in philosophical ranting. Our hero stands against postmodernity, against the nascent eighties, against the collapse of the Romantic sixties and its failed revolution. He plans a third Revolution, the final part in the trilogy initiated by the American Revolution and the Civil War. Lancelot’s increasingly unhinged screeds disturb both Percival and the reader. His apocalyptic urge for a great cleansing veers into strange, misogynistic territory.

A failed knight who cannot see his own failure, he becomes obsessed with the woman celled next to him, Anna, victim of a gang rape whom he both fetishizes and idealizes. Lancelot reads like a Southern companion to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Lance reminds one of Travis Bickle: both are strange, nihilistic, optimistic idealists, would-be knights seeking to save damsels in a fallen world, praying for some great rain to come and cleanse the filth of sin away. 

And like Taxi Driver, Percy’s novel—released around the same time, of course—seems like an early analysis of the failure of the sixties. It’s the burn out, the hangover, the realization that the dream was just a dream, and that the business of reality is cruel and cold and dirty. Perhaps insanity is the proper response.

There’s so much in Lancelot I’ve failed to unpack: Its analysis of America–North, South, and West–its treatment of Hollywood, its strange gnostic tinges, its weird tangled and often colliding philosophies. Lancelot Lamar is an enthralling monologist, witty, severe, pathetic and sympathetic, simultaneously cartoonish and ferociously real. I’ve also failed to convey how funny this novel is—Percy’s prose crackles and zaps, zips and dips, turns into weird little unexpected nooks. I ate it up.

Lancelot was the first Walker Percy novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Great stuff.

A review of Edition 69, a collection of interwar pornophilic Czech surrealism

New from Twisted Spoon Press, Edition 69 collects three previously-untranslated volumes of Czech artist and writer Jindřich Štyrský’s private-press books of the same name. Beginning in 1931, Štyrský published six volumes of Edition 69. The series was devoted to outré erotic writing and art — “pornophilia,” as the biologist/poet/philosopher Bohuslav Brouk puts it in an essay accompanying the sixth and final volume of Edition 69.

Because of Czech censorship laws, Štyrský’s project was limited to subscribers and friends, with each volume running under 200 editions (the final volume was limited to 69 copies). Undoubtedly, the material in Edition 69 would present an affront—indeed an intentional affront—to the “supercilious psyches of the ruling peacocks,” to again borrow from Brouk (rendered wonderfully here in Jed Slast’s estimable English translation—I should’ve mentioned Slast earlier!). Much of the material in Twisted Spoon’s new collection of Edition 69 still provokes and disturbs nearly a century after their original publication.

Three of the original volumes of Edition 69 presented Czech translations–in some cases the first—of writers like the Marquis de Sade, along with accompanying illustrations by Toyen and Rudolf Krajc. Following its mission of bringing Czech literature to an English-reading audience, Twisted Spoon’s Edition 69 collects the three volumes by Czech artists in translation by Jed Slast: Vítězslav Nezval’s Sexual Nocturne (1931), František Halas’s Thyrsos (1932), and Štyrský’s own Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream (1933). (Štyrský designed and illustrated each of these volumes.)

Nezval’s fragmentary surrealist dream-memoir Sexual Nocturne is the strongest of the three pieces in Edition 69. Nezval gives us an abject, dissolving reminiscence of an unnamed narrator’s boarding school days, centering on a trip to the local bordello and culminating in a return visit years later, one soaked in alcohol and despair. It’s a creepy and decidedly unsexy story, directly referencing Poe’s “The Raven” and Whitman’s “The City Dead-House” (and cribbing more Gothic gloom from a handful of penny dreadfuls).

Sexual Nocturne is a Freudian ramble into adolescent sexual frustration, voyeurism, and ultimately loss, loneliness, and insanity. It’s also a wonderful exploration of the connection between taboo bodily functions and taboo words. In one notable scene, our narrator sends a missive to a crush containing an obscenity, only to be discovered by the bourgeois landlord of his boarding house:

His views reflected those of society. How ridiculous. A writer is expected to make a fool of himself by employing periphrastic expressions while the word ‘fuck’ is nonpareil for conveying sexual intercourse. Fortunately there are old dictionaries where this world has its monument. How I sought it out! When the kiss of lovers pronounces it during coitus it is infused with a sudden vertigo. I have little tolerance for its disgraceful and comic synonyms. They convey nothing, just mealy-mouthed puffballs that make me want to retch when I encounter them.

The word FUCK is diamond-hard, translucent, a classic. As if adopting the appearance of a gem from a noble Alexandrine, it has, since it is forbidden, a magical power. It is one of the Kabbalistic abbreviations for the erotic aura, and I love it.

I love it! I love that second paragraph so much. It’s one of the best paragraphs I’ve read all year.

The collages by Štyrský that accompany Sexual Nocturne are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s work in A Week of Sundays, but less frenetic. At times they sync with the tale’s dream logic, and when they don’t, fine. It’s interwar surrealism, baby!

František Halas’s Thyrsos is far less successful. Halas’s poems can’t quite live up to their namesake, let alone the Sophocles’ quote that precedes them (“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came”).

The opener, “Leda’s Sorrow,” isn’t particularly bad, but it’s nothing special either:

Other poems celebrate incest, arcadian bacchanalia, and old-man boners. Halas’s poem about cunnilingus (“The Taste of Love”) is particularly bad. Outlier “In the Field” connects the collection’s larger themes of sex-as-death’s-twin, evoking a scene of what might be a battle field, with trenches and barbed wire, a solitary man jerking off “like a demon” over what I take to be a foxhole. For the most part though, Thyrsos is a strange mix of ribald and whimsical with occasional sex tips thrown in. It’s weak stuff. In his translator’s note, Slast admits that “perhaps it’s understandable that Halas considered this thin collection of poems juvenile and much inferior to his other work.” Štyrský’s pen-and-ink illustrations are simple and charming though, even if their simple charm seems to point to the fact that Halas’s ditties are out of place in the queasy surrealism of the rest of the collection.

Štyrský’s Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream reads like a mix of dream writing and automatic writing. It’s stranger and more poetic than the prose in Nezval’s Nocturne, but neither as funny nor as profound. And yet it has its moments, as it shifts from sensuality to pornography to death obsession. “I came to love the fragrance of her crotch,” our narrator declares, and then appends his description: “a mix of laundry room and mouse hole, a pincushion forgotten in a bed of lilies of the valley.” He tells us he “was prone to seeing in dissolve,” and the prose bears it out later, in a linguistic episode that mirrors Štyrský’s surrealist collage techniques:

Later I placed an aquarium in the window. In it I cultivated a golden-haired vulva and a magnificent penis specimen and delicate veins on its temples. Yet in time I threw in everything I had ever loved: shards of broken teacups, hairpins, Barbora’s slipper, light bulbs, shadows, cigarette butts, sardine tins, my entire correspondence, and used condoms. Many strange creatures were born in this world. I considered myself a creator, and with justification.

After the dream writing, Štyrský delivers a sexually-explicit photomontage that’s simultaneously frank and ambiguous, ironic and sincere, sensual and abject. The photographic collages wed sex and death, desire and repulsion.

Štyrský’s Emilie includes a (previously-mentioned) postscript by Bohuslav Brouk, which, while at times academic and philosophical, plainly spells out that the mission of the so-called “pornophiles” is to give a big FUCK YOU to the repressed and repressive bourgeoisie. Brouk intellectualizes pornophilia, arguing against the conservative mindset that strives for immortal purity. He argues in favor of embracing corporeal animality: “The body will continue to demonstrate mortality as the fate of all humans, and for this reason any reference to human animality so gravely offends those who dream of its antithesis.” Hence, sex and death—blood, sweat, tears, semen—are the abject markers of the fucking circle of life, right? Our dude continues:

The body is the last argument of those who have been unjustly marginalized and ignored, because it demonstrates beyond question the groundlessness of all social distinctions in comparison to the might of nature.

I’ll give Brouk the last quote here because I think what he wrote resonates still in These Stupid Times.

Edition 69 has its highs and its lows, but I think it’s another important document of Czech surrealism from Twisted Spoon, and in its finest moments it reminds us that we are bodies pulling a psyche around, no matter how much we fool ourselves. Nice.

Three Books (Books acquired, 31 July 2020)

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Pocket Books (S&S), 1976. Cover art and design uncredited.

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Bantam, 1969. Cover art and design uncredited.

I found a lovely copy of Donald Barthelme’s story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari! a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure these two guys are twin triplets with that guy. (I found Caligari under “Classic Literature” in my local favorite sweetass bookstore; found these two in “General Fiction.”) No artist credited, which is a shame. I already own a copy of The Dead Father—maybe Barthelme’s best “novel”?—but I couldn’t pass up the mass market edition. I live with myself, but. I’ve read everything in Unspeakable —think — but again, great edition. This is probably the best starting point for Barthelme, with no fewer than five perfect or near-perfect short stories: “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “Game,” and “See the Moon?”

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Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. English translation by William L. Grossman. Mass market paperback from Avon-Bard, 1978. Cover art and design uncredited.

I’m a huge fan of these Bard-Avon Latin American editions, and although this cover isn’t one of their weirdest, it’s not bad. I’m not sure if Grossman’s translation is the one to tackle, but I’m up for it.

Blog about William Melvin Kelley’s first novel, A Different Drummer

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William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 debut novel A Different Drummer has eleven chapters. The first, and shortest, “The State,” opens like this:

AN EXCERPT from THE THUMB-NAIL ALMANAC . . . page 643;

An East South Central state in the Deep South, it is bounded on the north by Tennessee; east by Alabama; south by the Gulf of Mexico; west by Mississippi. 

I am a Southerner, and my brain turned into a wrangled wriggling squiggle trying to visualize where “the State” must be, before giving in to the next few lines that declare that “the  State’s” capital is Willson City (no such place of course), which is named after “Confederate General Dewey Willson…the chief architect of the two well-known victories at Bull’s Horn Creek and at Harmon’s Draw” (never happened).

And so well yeah Kelley has created his own Southern State, an amalgam of sin and poverty that sweats and skulks in the tradition of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Structurally, too, A Different Drummer recalls Faulkner’s work. Kelley makes his reader cobble the narrative together through myriad, rotating viewpoints—a white farmer, his son, porch talkers, and the members of the Willson family, the aristocratic descendants of Confederate General Dewey Willson, who make their living collecting rent.

We get the perspective of all four Willsons—daughter, brother, mother, and father—who put together a picture of a life entangled with the Calibans. The Calibans were the enslaved descendants of a mythical figure named “the African,” a kind of warrior-king who escapes slavery with his only child, only to be tracked for days and nights by Willson, who shoots him before he can dash the child’s brains to free him.

The Calibans work the Willsons’ land over decades, first as slaves and then as sharecroppers. This brings us to the novel’s central conceit. I’ll let the blurb of the Anchor reissue I read do the heavy lifting:

June, 1957. One hot afternoon in the backwaters of the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, shoots his horse, burns his house, and heads north with his wife and child. His departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the established order into brilliant disarray. Told from the points of view of the white residents who remained, A Different Drummer stands, decades after its first publication in 1962, as an extraordinary and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.

I had neglected the blurb until now, and had somehow missed the key idea of the second-to-last line: Told from the points of view of the white residents.

Kelley’s tactic here is extraordinary, and ultimately painful. We first get an “average” citizen of Sutton (the central setting of the novel in our unnamed “state,” Harry Leland, whose sentiments of race probably track with those of the hypothetical white moderate MLK warned us about. Leland’s not a bad guy and he’s trying to make his son a decent human being, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

We meet that son next, and see the narrative through his young eyes. Kelley’s satiric edge is perhaps sharpest here. The menfolk call the boy “Mister Leland,” an irony underlined when Tucker Caliban—whom Mister Leland counts as a friend—addresses the lad as such. It’s Mister Leland too who accompanies Bennett Bradshaw (excuse me, “THE REVEREND B.T. BRADSHAW [of] THE RESURRECTED CHURCH OF THE BLACK JESUS CHRIST OF AMERICA, INC., NEW YORK CITY,” as his business card attests)—it’s Mister Leland who accompanies Bradshaw (and his chauffeur) to the site of Tucker Caliban’s salted-and-abandoned farm. Unlike the various perspective characters, Bradshaw, an intellectual, understands Caliban’s motivation—and envies his spirit.

Caliban’s primal rejection and refusal of the Southern Way of Life is the novel’s central problem, a “problem” that Kelley addresses somewhat obliquely through primarily white eyes. The various Willsons attempt to reckon with both past and present, but their tools are limited, for the most part. The novel’s penultimate chapter is a series of journal entries by David Willson, starting when he’s a young man off to attend an Ivy up in New England.

Young David attends a socialist meeting, but is bored with “nothing but a bunch of fellows showing each other how much they knew about Marx.” He meets—guess who!—Bennett Bradshaw, and falls fast for the guy. (I might be spoiling too much of the plot here—look, it’s a strong book, skip this and read it.)

Willson’ friendship with Bennett adds a strange ballast late in the narrative, tipping the book in a different trajectory than the course it seemed to have previously been taking. Willson is a tragic Faulknerian figure, an intellect who wishes absolution from his namesake’s sins, from the Sins of the South, but who is also beholden to and limited by the dictates of his own time. Bennett too is limited and beholden. It’s Tucker Caliban who breaks the chains.

A Different Drummer is not the narrative I expected to read. I found Kelley’s name looking for works by black American postmodernists, which is how I found Fran Ross’s Oreo—an utterly postmodern novel, carnivalesque, polyglossic, metatextual. (In her essay on Ross’s novel, Harryette Mullen compares Oreo to Kelley’s last novel, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres.A Different Drummer’s rotating cast of viewpoint characters and its shifts in point of view point toward postmodern polyglossia, but Kelley’s novel is anchored in a kind of Faulknerian modernism. The great trick of it all though is the ironic layering here, where the only strong truth seems to be Tucker Caliban’s renunciation of white supremacy.

And this renunciation angers and ashames novel’s constituents, summed up in its final chapter, “The Men on the Porch.” Here we have a short, devastating exclamation point to the whole affair, which might be easily characterized by Flannery O’Connor, who said that

I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

Born in New York City and educated at Harvard, Kelley was nevertheless attuned to Southern rhythms, Southern voices, Southern eyes. To steal more from O’Connor, “we find that the writer” — here, Kelley— “has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Kelley’s realism, in the end, hurts—it’s too grotesque, too real. But it’s powerful and powerfully-written. Highly recommended.

On Fran Ross’s postmodern picaresque novel Oreo

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Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Oreo is Ross’s only novel. It was met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen(New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)

Mullen gives a succinct summary of Oreo in the opening sentence of her 2002 essay “‘Apple Pie with Oreo Crust’: Fran Ross’s Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel“:

In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.

Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”

Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.

Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissueSenna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”

In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”

Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?

In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).

Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:

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Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:

 A word about weather

There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.

What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)

Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)

Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)

Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”

Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.

Blog about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge

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I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.

Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.

Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…

Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:

She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.

Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.

And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.

Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.

The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.

That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).

The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.

Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoiainvisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.

Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.

Indeed, many of the characters in Bleeding Edge come off as mouthpieces for Pynchon’s own viewpoints, whether it’s Ernie riffing on ARPANET or the decline of labor in the US, or Maxine’s zen therapist Shawn, who rails that late capitalism is a scam headed towards its own exhaustion at the price of our planet. It’s the arrangement of these voices that makes the novel strong though—Pynchon shows the complicity of each voice, even as he shows their resistance to the ideological machine they were born into.

It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.

Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.

I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.  But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.

There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.

Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.

Titus Alone (Book acquired, 29 Feb. 2020)

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Not a dozen pages into Mervyn Peake’s 1959 novel Titus Alone something very strange happens: A man shows up in a car. The narrator simply uses the word “car,” and our hero Titus seems to accept the technological marvel in stride, using the word himself a bit later.

The strangeness of the car, a thing wholly banal in our own contemporary world, derives from its technological dissonance compared to the previous two Titus novels, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950).

These first two novels of the so-called “Gormenghast Trilogy” take place primarily in a strange, isolated castle called Gormenghast, and the limited terrain around it. The world of Gormenghast and environs seems medieval, stagnant, insular, but also wonderfully baroque, a world that centers on byzantine rituals that have been practiced and observed for at least seventy-seven generations. No one living knows what the rituals mean or from whence they derive; indeed, the rituals seem to be their own telos.

Tinged with fantastic and strange imagery, these first two novels are not fantasy per se, at least not in the traditional sense. They owe more to Charles Dickens’ novels than to the Nordic and Germanic myths that underwrite so much of Tolkien. The books are also wonderfully grotesque, full of weird mutants in varying stages of decay, imagery reflected in Peake’s illustrations for his books (which recall Leonardo’s caricatures). Peake’s prose style is singular as well: his syntax is thick, his vocabulary Faulknerian. Peake essentially creates an original idiom through which Gormenghast can exist. The world is so insular that it creates and sustains itself, both aesthetically and verbally.

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Young Titus Groan is stifled by all of this insularity and apparently-meaningless ritual, however, and he escapes it at the end of Gormenghast. Somehow he arrives into a new world—the narrative logic is dreamy, perhaps because Titus arrives in this new world asleep in a boat, a positively mythic image. And then he’s picked up by the motorist Muzzlehatch, who feeds him and lets him rest and recover. Titus then witnesses a terrible battle between a camel and a mule, members of Muzzlehatch’s strange menagerie. After he leaves—he’s always leaving, always more or less alone, a word that repeats throughout Titus Alone—after Titus leaves Muzzlehatch, he arrives in a technologically-advanced city of glass and steel. He escapes flying surveillance drones and soon drops into a party (quite literally), where he meets Juno, a beautiful woman twice his age who will later take him as a lover. I should stop summarizing. Titus Alone is episodic, picaresque even, with one damn thing happening after another. The chapters are short and propulsive — most are no more than the front and back of a pageIt’s just one damn thing happening after another, and happening with an energy and rapidity that seems the opposite of the methodical rhythm of the first two books. It reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide and Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, both punchy picaresques, but also Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass or even Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz.

I passed a little over the half way mark of Titus Alone this afternoon. The book somehow has taken an even more surreal turn, as Titus enters the Under-River, a labyrinthine Hadean space under the city populated by outcasts and refugees. Peake’s overview of these underdwellers is cinematic and at times startling; he seems to point to a much larger universe, but one that Titus (and the reader) will never fully glimpse. And yet Titus Alone takes its hero (and the reader) into the new, into a world that must be rich and severe and stocked with lore—only Peake keeps us isolated from knowing. We are on the outside of knowing, alone.

“That nevertheless sky we all live below” | A review of Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster’s 926 Years

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926 Years is a collaboration between Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster. The book consists of 22 stories, each a paragraph long, and each paragraph no longer than the front and back of a 4.5″ x 7″ page. Each story is titled after a character plus the character’s age (e.g. “Chaplain Blake, age 60”; “Sebastian, age 30”; “Marty Fantastic, age 81”). (I have not done the math to see if all the ages add up to 926.) Although the characters never meet in the book’s prose, key sentences suggest that they may be connected via the reader’s imagination.

Indeed, the blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories.” After reading it twice, I don’t see 926 Years so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. Coma-Thompson lives in Louisville, Kentucky and Foster lives in Sydney, New South Wales. They’ve never met in person. And yet they share a common language, of course, and other common cultural forces surely shape their prose. (Melville’s Ishmael refers to Australia as “That great America on the other side of the sphere” in Ch. 24 of Moby-Dick.)

The book’s prose offers a consistency to the apparently discontinuous narrative pieces that comprise 926 Years. My first assumption was that Coma-Thompson and Foster traded narratives, but as I read and re-read, the prose’s stylistic consistency struck me more as a work of synthesis, of two writers tuning to each other and humming a new frequency. The sentences of 926 Years are predominantly short, and often fall into fragmentation, or elide their grammatical subject. Here’s an example from “Shelley Valentine, age 34”:

A flare of sansho pepper on the tongue tip. Catch the tree at the right time of year and the fruit bursts, raining peppercorns down. Maybe like the season when pistachios open, the night snapping like broken locust song. Used for seasoning eel. Sansho leaves for garnishing fish. Clap it between the hands for aroma, make a wish, the finishing touch to the perfect soup. In Korea, the unripe fruit was used for fishing. Poisonous to the smallest ones. That was cheating wasn’t it? Or was pulling up the fish all that mattered?

Eventually we can attribute these fragmented thoughts to Shelley Valentine, now well out of her magic twenties, drinking sansho-peppered gin and tonics in a “New bar, same lost , of course.” She’ll leave alone.

The characters in 926 Years move between isolation and connection, between fragmentation and re-integration. Here’s Larry Hoavis (age 47, by the way), sitting in a lawn chair in his rural backyard:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one knows he’s even here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere, how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows?

Hoavis’s lonely transcendental private (and tequila-tinged) reverie of disconnection reinforces 926 Years’ themes of interconnection coupled with disintegration. In one of my favorite tales, “Lew Wade Wiley, age 55,” we learn of the “Spoiled heir of the Prudential fortune” who collects other people’s lives. He has them brought to his Boston penthouse to offer

…their worst fears, desires, the messy embarrassments of their commonalities…these he worked into undead monotone prose, the diary of Lew Wade Wiley, and so lived fuller than anyone who’d opened a newspaper to read those advertisements, wrote to that listed address, knocked at his penthouse door.

The adjective “undead” above fits into a resurrection motif that floats through 926 Years, whether it be the lifeforce of currency or the proverbial powers of cats to cheat death. Sometimes the resurrection is a kind of inspiriting force, as one character, overwhelmed by aesthetic possibility that “knocked the air out of him” experiences: “It had reminded him of a moment in a childhood that wasn’t his.”

Elsewhere, we see resurrection at a genetic level, as in “Mrs. Anderson, age 67,” whose psychologist describes to her the “cherry blossom” experiment, the results of which suggest that fear and anxiety to specific aesthetic stimuli can be passed down from generation to generation.

Reincarnation becomes both figurative and literal in the case of the lounge star Marty Fantastic, “Eighty-one-year-old darling with ten faces (one for each lift)…The plague of identities—who to be tonight, Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart, Cole Porter, Journey?” The oldest (and penultimate) character in 926 Years, Marty reflects on his own death as he gazes at his audience: “The songs of their future–what about those? They lyrics set in stone, the melodies: unknown.” The lovely little couplet suggest a complex relationship of aesthetic substance and aesthetic spirit.

The final piece in 926 Years–well, I won’t spoil it, I’ll simply say it kept me thinking, made me happy in a strange, nervous way. It features the youngest character in the book, and it points clearly if subtly to the book’s affirmation of imaginative and aesthetic possibility as a kind of crucial lifeforce. I’ll close instead with something from the book’s third tale, a little moment early on when 926 Years clicked for me:

Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest, outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position. It is written into them by instinct to share the effort, burrowing southwards through the sky; that nevertheless sky we all live below.

926 Years is available now from Sublunary Editions.

Three Books (that were my favorite books I read in 2019 that were published in the 2010s (or whatever we’re calling this stupid decade))

As I mentioned in my last “Three Books” post (on the books I enjoyed the most that I read in 2019 that were actually published in 2019), I don’t read too much recent fiction. I find the idea of making a list of the best novels of this decade (by which I mean 2010-2019, knowing full well that many folks argue that this decade is in fact 2011-2020) impossible, both because most of the novels that I read this decade were published in the last century or earlier. (I made some remarks on a premature canon late last year.)

Here are three books published this decade that I read this year and enjoyed very much.

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Border Districts by Gerald Murnane. 2017 hardback from FS&G. Cover design by Sarahmay Wilkinson with art by Gregory Reid.

I read Murnane’s late novel, or “fiction,” over the course of three mornings, and then reread it, or most of it, in two afternoons.  Border Districts is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. Like much of Murnane’s oeuvre, the autofiction explores the intersections of place, memory, and image, as our hero susses colors and forms, awaiting an epiphany. Border Districts is thematically and rhetorically precise, unspooling as a series of deferrals that lead back to their opening or aesthetic source. A perfect starting place for Murnane.

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Milkman by Anna Burns. 2018 hardback from Faber & Faber. Cover design by Luke Bird using an image by Patrick Cullen.

I loved Milkman, despite its winning a major fiction prize. From my review:

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

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The Sellout Paul Beatty. 2016 trade paperback from Picador. Cover design by Rodrigo Corral with a cover illustration by Matt Buck.

I loved The Sellout, despite its winning a major fiction prize. Kinetic, ecstatic, angry, and zany, Beatty’s hit novel satirizes the very notion of a postracial America. In the novel’s chapter penultimate—part of a denouement, not a climax—our narrator and his girlfriend attend an open-mic night at a “black L.A.” comedy club. A white couple–the only white folks in the place—show up late to the set, sit “front and center” and laughed and “snickered knowingly like they’d been black all their lives.” The performer–a “traffic-court jester,” in Beatty’s parlance, demands, “What the fuck you honkies laughing at?” before telling them to “Get the fuck out!” Why? “This is our thing!”

The narrator ends the vignette:

When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong. No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet…It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep. That’s what I liked about the man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what or to stick up for the aggrieved white people. After all, they could’ve stood up for themselves, called in the authorities or their God, and smote everybody in the place, but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”

As a white auditor of Beatty’s comic novel, I found this particular moment particularly heavy. I’m not exactly sure how to unpack it, or if it’s even my place to unpack it, but maybe I’ll have more thoughts when I read it again. Highly recommended.

Three Books (that were my favorite books I read in 2019 that were published in 2019)

I read very few contemporary books, especially contemporary novels. This reluctance to read contemporary literature isn’t a rule as much as it is a necessity born from the human limitations of my time and the fact that I am a slow reader. (I’ll also admit to a certain wariness towards trends coupled with an antipathy toward publishing hype. (I’m sure many readers detest the trendy/hype couple, as do I. (I’m sure some readers think I use this blog to hype/trend. Forgive me; it’s not my intention. I’m enthusiastic at times.)))

I have no idea what the best books of 2019 are. Maybe I’ll know in 2039 or 2049 or 2079 (when I’ll be a magical one hundred years old).

I’ve been doing these Three Books posts on and off for a few years. They give me something to do on a Sunday, except when I have something to do on a Sunday, in which case, I don’t do them. There are two more Sundays in 2019 and I figured I’d do a Three Books post about the books published this year that I enjoyed most this year. A few jumped readily to mind, including books that were translated or republished in new editions this year, like João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord, or Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, or Ann Quin’s 1964 novel BergBut new editions or new/first translations isn’t exactly “2019” is it? Or is it? I mean, these were published in 2019?

Just add them to the list anyway.

And add Anna Burns’ maybe-horror/maybe-comedy novel Milkman to the list, even though it was published in 2018.

And add Anna Kavan’s definitely-horror/definitely-sci-fi novel Ice to the list, even though it was re–published in 2018, a fiftieth anniversary edition. (It’s not a new book, right? New to me though.)

Ann Quin, Anna Burns, Anna Kavan…how about Anne Boyer? For me, 2019 was a variation on Annas, I guess.

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The Undying by Anne Boyer. 2019 first edition hardback from FS&G. Jacket design by Srick&Williams; jacket art by Mykola Davydenko.

This is a wonderfully angry, discursive, recursive book: literary biography, literary criticism, art history, art criticism, Foucault, John Donne, Susan Sontag, Lucretius, Virginia Woolf; a howl at the hoaxers, frauds, self-helperists and their pinkwashed platitudes. And lots of pain, expressed with sentiment that bears no trace of sentimentality.

Boyer’s aphoristic style is engrossing. Her paragraphs and one-liners bear a ludic stamp seemingly at odds with her subject matter. The work of the writing, the heavy burden of smithing those sentences is all but elided—instead we get the clarity of a focused mind drawing together seemingly-disparate threads into a cohesive and compelling memoir that transcends the personal without necessarily meaning to.

Showing is a betrayal of the real, which you can never quite know with your eyes in the first place, and if you are trying to survive for the purpose of literature, showing and not telling is reason enough to endure the disabling processes required for staying alive.

Thank you again to BLCKDGRD for sending me this strange angry beautiful book.

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. 2019 first edition hardback from Random House. Jacket design by Helen Yentus; jack illustration by Pablo Gerardo Camacho.

I wrote a review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I titled “Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf makes me think of that trend/hype problem I mentioned above—novels that get hyped, novels that seem trendy (“It’s Game of Thrones in a medieval mythical Africa!”) and then maybe not read. I think a lot of people read BL/RW though, and many found it Not to Their Taste, which, fine. I loved. it. From my review:

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

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. 2019 first edition hardback from Pantheon. No cover designer or artist credited, but the work is unquestionably Ware’s.

A masterpiece. I reviewed it for The Comics Journal, stating that,

Rusty Brown is a sprawling story about memory and perception, about minor triumphs and chronic failures, about how our inner monologues might not match up to the reality around us. In Ware’s world, life can be blurry, spotty, fragmented. His characters are so bound up in their own consciousnesses that they cannot see the bigger picture that frames them.

Rusty Brown is only the first part of (what I understand to be) a two-part novel. It took Ware eighteen years to finish. Maybe we’ll know in 2037 if it was in fact a really great important best favorite novel of 2019. Or maybe not.

But I love it now, and I loved these books this year.

A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

A review of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights,

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

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

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

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran Ryan Mihaly’s review of Flights in the summer of 2018. We run it again in recognition of Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. The 2018 award was initially canceled after a sexual assault scandal. Noted genocide-apologist Peter Handke won the 2019 award.] 

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

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

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

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

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

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

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran this review in February of 2017.]