Blog about some recent reading

From the bottom of the stack to the top:

I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.

I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.

When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.

Could Barthelme be considered your literary father?

BLVR: Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?

Padgett Powell: Barthelme edited the book, cutting for cleanliness and strength. In terms of my overall development as a writer, he lamented that he had found me already “fully formed.” By this he meant that I was, then, formed by my vision of realistic writing as more or less an amalgam of Faulkner and O’Connor and Williams and Percy and, say, Mailer.

I could not at the time make sense of Barthelme and Beckett and so forth. I never would have had I not, in knowing Don personally, seen that he was a red-blooded normal dude, not a wacko that the writing might suggest. Before I met him in fact I anticipated a Warhol kind of beast. He showed up in jeans and a yoked cowboy shirt a little drunk and introducing himself as Don and shaking hands firmly. We had not had a teacher to that point in our tour in Houston who would deign shake hands.

I referred to Don, as did many of the students, as Uncle Don. He did not shape Edisto beyond cleaning up, with considerable deftness, what I gave him. He could have been a professional editor of the highest caliber. He did in fact select the ten non-consecutive chapters that were sent to the New Yorker. They admitted later that they would not have seen that excerpt had they been given the entire book at first.

I assumed some influence from Don along what we’ll call surreal lines only later. Either that or I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance. I’ve swung so far in this direction now that I’m virtually unpublishable. Don himself at this age was swinging back to realism; he was a man of sense.

From a 2006 Believer interview with Padgett Powell.

Three Books (Books acquired, 16 Oct. 2020–John Barth, Walker Percy, and Padgett Powell)

Chimera by John Barth. First edition 1973 hardback from Random House. Jacket design by George Giusti.

I couldn’t pass up this pristine first edition Barth today when browsing the used bookstore with my kids. I first read Chimera twenty or more years ago, as an undergrad, and it broke my brain a bit.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. Second printing 1972 trade paperback from Noonday. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

Earlier this year in the same used bookshop I came across a first edition hardback copy of Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins. I hadn’t read Percy at the time (I’ve since loved his later novel Lancelot and been kinda sorta iffy on his famous debut The Moviegoer), but Janet Halverson’s oh-so-seventies Schoolhouse Rock!ish cover grabbed my attention. I really wish I’d bought it now (I think it was six bucks). Two weeks ago I came across two more Percys (Percies?) with Halverson covers, but let them be. But not today—at least not for this copy of The Last Gentleman.

A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. First edition 1987 hardback from FS&G.. Jacket design by Cynthia Krupat, using a photograph by William Wegman.

On the aforementioned-fortnight-last trip to the bookstore, I picked up, somewhat at random, Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I finished it in three days, enjoying it very much, so I couldn’t pass up this copy of his slim second novel today.

Blog about “Authors’ Authors,” a 1976 round up of various authors’ favorite books that year

The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”

There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.

John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:

I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.

He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:

It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.

(I had to look up the word wherry.)

Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:

I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as

The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.

Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner,  and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.

Henry Miller kept it short and sweet:

James Dickey loved something called Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith:

A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.

Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.

William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:

J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.

The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.

The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.

Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:

While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.

He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.

Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).

John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).

Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.

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 The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s existential novel of sad little happinesses and horny ennui

I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read  his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.

The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”

Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.

Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:

It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.

That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.

Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:

“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:

I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.

But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?

Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.

I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.

From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault. 

The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.

And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.

Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.

If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.

(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)

Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

William Gaddis: In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about”  

Brigitte Felix: If I may ask the same question, phrasing it differently:  Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.”  What do you think your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?

 William Gaddis: [after a long pause]  I suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of . . . In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about.”  It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what America is all about.  I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book down finally, having finished it — not after starting it, which is the case, frequently — and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and so forth . . .

From William Gaddis’s 1993 interview in with Brigitte Félix and Marc Chénetier  in La Quinzaine littéraire.

William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, John Updike and other writers on book dedications

Bobbie Ann Mason: “Book dedications are…a private message in a public place… They’re like reading the personals.”

Joseph Heller: “I have not the slightest understanding of what they mean…none of my books except the first one have any.”

Richard Ford: “All of my books are dedicated to my wife.”

Ward Just: “My last seven books were all dedicated to my wife.”

Kaye Gibbons: “In the new printings of A Virtuous Woman, I’m deleting my ex-husband’s name and replacing it with my second and final husband’s Frank Ward.”

Christopher Buckley: “I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, ‘Now type, “For my wife, with love.”‘ And she cried. I dedicated my first book, Steaming to Bamboola, to John Lennon. It was about the merchant marine, and he was the son of a merchant seaman, and he died while I was writing it, and I was very sad, so I just dedicated it to him.”

Nicholson Baker: “I hope to dedicate several more books to my wife although not every one. You don’t want to be like Nabokov. Every book was to Vera, to Vera, to Vera.”

Susanna Moore: “My favorite dedication is by Gregor von Rezzori. In one of his books, he just says, For whom else but you!'”

William Gaddis: “You never dedicate a book to another writer. You’d worry that he wouldn’t like it.”

John Updike: “You worry with another writer, that he won’t like the book, that you’re like the cat who’s bringing a dead mouse to the back door.”

From “Dedicated Lines,” an article by Jamie Malanowski in the 25 Dec. 1995 issue of The New Yorker.

Book report (Peanuts)

Via Peanuts on This Day.

Watch Norwood, the not-especially-good film adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel Norwood (or don’t watch it, it’s not that good)

I found the 1970 film adaptation of Norwood on YouTube and watched it this morning. It stars Glen Campbell in the title role. He’s reasonably charming but a little too handsome. Kim Darby is also in the film; she starred as Mattie Ross in the 1969 film adaptation of Portis’s True Grit along with Campbell. Norwood was also produced by the same guy as True Grit (Hal Wallis) and shared the same screenwriter (Marguerite Roberts), and it kinda sorta feels like…left overs from that production? I don’t know if that makes sense. Joe Namath and Dom DeLuise also pop up.

It has a few moments (mostly coming on Campbell’s charm delivering lines cribbed from the novel), but it looks terrible and never gets close to the wit and energy of its source material. But I thought I’d share it any way, as a kind of curio for Portisheads who might want to skim through it.

 

William Melvin Kelley’s Dunfords Travels Everywhere (Book acquired, 9 Sept. 2020)

Earlier this summer, I “discovered” the long-neglected novels of William Melvin Kelley, first through an essay on postmodern fiction by Black American authors (I can’t find the essay now, but I think it was by Bernard Bell), and then in a more-widely circulated article at The New Yorker. I then read Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer and his fourth novel, demWhat I really wanted to read though was Kelley’s final novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, which is generally described as his most postmodern and Joycean. 

Dunfords was, at that point, not in print. I had no success finding it at my local used bookshop, so I looked on Abebooks, where I discovered that the cheapest copies were going for a hundred bucks.

Fortunately, Anchor Books has reissued Dunfords Travels Everywheres—it’s out later this month. Even better, they’ve included the many pen-and-ink illustrations for the book that Kelley commissioned from his wife Aiki. These illustrations were not included in the novel’s first edition in 1970. Here is one of her illustrations:

Proper review in the works; for now, here’s publisher Anchor’s blurb:

William Melvin Kelley’s final work, a Joycean, Rabelaisian romp in which he brings back some of his most memorable characters in a novel of three intertwining stories.

Ride on out with Rab and Turt, two o’New Afriqueque’s toughfast, ruefast Texnosass Arangers, as they battle Chief Pugmichillo and ricecure Mr. Charcarl Walker-Rider. Cut in on Carlyle Bedlowe, wrecker of marriage, saver of souls.

Or just along with Chig Dunford, product of Harlem and private schools, on the circular voyage of self-discovery that takes him from Europe’s Café of One Hand to Harlem’s Jack O’Gee’s Golden Grouse Bar & Restaurant.

Beginning on an August Sunday in one of Europe’s strangest cities, Dunfords Travels Everywheres but always returns back to the same point—the “Begending”—where Mr. Charcarl’s dream becomes Chig Dunford’s reality (the “Ivy League Negro” in the world outside the Ivory Tower).

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 very incomplete list of good or adequate (and primarily indirect) 9/11 novels and short stories

The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)

“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)

Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)

“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)

Open City, Teju Cole (2011)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)

John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (Book acquired, 28 Aug. 2020)

I usually allow myself to peruse my favorite used bookstore every other Friday, poking around for weird finds and etc. I had no luck this week—nothing like a Vintage Contemporaries Barry Hannah—but they did have a copy of John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, which I’d been searching (not-too-hard) for for a few years now. The thing is much longer than I expected (I knew it was long…but it’s long…650 pages). Not sure when I’ll even get to it. It’s supposed to be a cult classic right? Here’s the blurb from my edition:

There are seven billion-plus humans crowding the surface of 21st century Earth. It is an age of intelligent computers, mass-market psychedelic drugs, politics conducted by assassination, scientists who burn incense to appease volcanoes … all the hysteria of a dangerously overcrowded world, portrayed in a dazzlingly inventive style. Employing a dazzling range of literary techniques, John Brunner has created a future world as real as this morning’s newspaper – moving, sensory, impressionistic, as jagged as the times it portrays, this book is a real mind stretcher – and yet beautifully orchestrated to give a vivid picture of the whole.

And here’s an excerpt, via Macmillan’s site:


context (1)

SCANALYZE MY NAME

Stock cue SOUND: “Presenting SCANALYZER, Engrelay Satelserv’s unique thrice-per-day study of the big big scene, the INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface between you and your world!”
Stock cue VISUAL: cliptage, splitscreen, cut in bridge-melder, Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere depthunder (today MAMP, Mid-Atlantic Mining Project), spaceover (today freefly-suiting), transiting (today Simplon Acceleratube), digging (today as every day homimage with autoshout).
Autoshout cue: “It’s happening it’s happening! SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER—”
Stock cue VISUAL: cliptage, wholescreen, planet Earth turning jerk-jerk-jerk and holding meridians for GMT, EST, PCT, Pacific Conflict Zone Time.
Live cue SOUND: “And it’s six poppa-momma for the happening people keeping it straight and steady on that old Greenwich Mean Time—how mean can time get, you tell me, hm? Zee for zero, bee for base, counting down to one after ess ee eks—sorree—ess EYE eks! We know what’s happening happening HAPPENING but that piece of the big big scene is strictly up to you, Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere—or Mr. and Miss, or Miss and Miss, or Mister and Mister, take your pick, hah-hah! Counting down to one after one poppa-momma for that good old Eastern Standard tie-yum, one after ten anti-matter for the Pacific Coast, and for all of you fighting the good fight in lonely midocean one after seven anti-matter—PIPS!”
Clock cue: 5 × 1-sec. countdown pips on G in alt, minute signal on C in alt.
Plug cue: “No time like the present for things to happen in, no better way to keep time straight and steady than by the signal from General Technics’ critonium clock, so accuright it serves to judge the stars.”
Script cue VISUAL: cliptage, splitscreen, excerpts from day’s news.
Live cue SOUND: “And no better way to keep abreast—pardon—than with SCANALYZER!”
Cut autoshout cue. (If they haven’t made it by this time they’ve switched off.)
Plug cue: “SCANALYZER is the one single, the ONLY study of the news in depth that’s processed by General Technics’ famed computer Shalmaneser, who sees all, hears all, knows all save only that which YOU, Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, wish to keep to yourselves.”
Script cue: the happening world.
the happening world (1)

Continue reading “John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (Book acquired, 28 Aug. 2020)”

He saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin | From László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity …and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of anyway back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

An excerpt from the beginning (and end) of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. English translation by George Szirtes.

I listened to the audiobook of Satantango last week and then launched into it again, reading bits in tandem with my New Directions edition from years ago, finding it funnier, richer, and more complex than I’d initially thought, its plot threads clarifying more easily in a reread. I think this passage does a nice job of laying out the novel’s themes of abjection, time (and deep time), observation (and surveillance), and life as one big con.

 

“The one-man band doesn’t look too happy,” Mathilda observed | Donald Barthelme

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From Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Book acquired, 14 Aug. 2020)

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is a collection of 27 essays that each take a single sentence as their starting point. Organized chronologically by author dates, the collection begins with Shakespeare and Donne and works its way to Anne Carson and Anne Boyer (with Eliot, Stein, Beckett, Bowen et al along the way). When it showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters last week I was intrigued, and admittedly jumped to the end to read the pieces on Carson and Boyer. In subsequent days I read the pieces on Shakespeare (Dillon takes his sentence “O, o, o, o” from Hamlet, but finds the vowels reputation throughout the playwright’s oeuvre) and Robert Smithson (in the middle of the book). I’ve decided to settle down and read in order at a leisurely pace—a chapter a day?

In the meantime, NYRB’s blurb

In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, whom John Banville has called “a literary flâneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,” has written a sequel of sorts to Essayism, his roaming love letter to literature. In this new book Dillon turns his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence—from Shakespeare to Janet Malcolm, John Ruskin to Joan Didion—the book explores style, voice, and language, along with the subjectivity of reading. Both an exercise in practical criticism and a set of experiments or challenges, Suppose a Sentence is a polemical and personal reflection on the art of the sentence in literature. Whether the sentence in question is a rigorous expression of a state of vulnerability, extremity, even madness, or a carefully calibrated arrangement, Dillon examines not only how it works and why but also, in the course of the book, what the sentence once was, what it is today, and what it might become tomorrow.