Thomas Pynchon beats J.G. Ballard to win the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

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Thomas Pynchon beat out J.G. Ballard, earning 60% of 337 votes of my totally-scientific and not-at-all arbitrary twitter poll to become the Champion of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Mr. Pynchon’s trophy is at Biblioklept World Headquarters here in Florida. After this whole quarantine business is over I’m sure he’ll arrange to pick it up.

My gut feeling is that the people who follow me on twitter are skewed toward Pynchon more than Ballard. Either of the pair could have taken the prize and I’d have been happy.

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J.G. Ballard described the late twentieth century as good as anyone, and anticipated almost every aspect of our zeitgeist. The dude not only understood the intersection of commerce and politics and sex and art, but he could convey it in wild (and wildly-entertaining, forgive the cliche) stories and novels of the blackest and bleakest humor. There are any number of great starting places for Ballard, but if you haven’t read him yet, I’d recommend High-Rise or Concrete Island before jumping into the more challenging Crash. Then: The Atrocity Exhibition, the earlier novels (1962’s The Drowned World is particularly prescient) and the early stories of Vermilion Sands. Actually, if you can get a hold of The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, go for it. (I riffed on reading all the stories back in 2014.) I don’t recommend starting with the later novels—Ballard’s descriptions are so prescient that there’s this weird drop off in quality when reality catches up to him. In the meantime, why not read “The Secret Autobiography of  J G B”? (It was composed in 1981 but published in 2009; it took autofiction a few decades to catch up with the Notorious JGB.) Ballard is great.

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are famously byzantine, shaggy, esoteric, and paranoid. He captures both the zaniness and the menace of our zeitgeist. His protagonists are often straight figures who go crooked, insiders pushed to the outside through maladventure and adventure alike. Pynchon places a premium on the underdog who resists the Them—the technocracy, the war machine, the military-industrial-entertainment complex. His most famous (and probably best) novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an indictment of war and capitalism; although it’s set in WW2, it also addresses itself, ultimately, to that war’s hangover and the Nixonian evil contemporary with its publication. Pynchon’s loose California trilogy—The Crying of Lot 49Vineland, and Inherent Vice—document, describe, and deconstruct the myth of the American cultural revolution of the 1960s. Pynchon’s “historical novels,” Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are probably my favorites. Both analyze American history as a series of strange mistakes, big blunders, and minor foibles. His longest (and strangely, most accessible) novel Against the Day is also his clearest attack on the nebulous Them who oppose freedom, progress, and, ultimately, love. The humor and intelligence of Pynchon’s writing often softens the core anger of his work, an anger directed at the invisible forces that cry out, to steal from the Dead Kennedys, “Give me convenience or give me death!” He is a national treasure and I hope he lives forever—which he will, through his works.

Finally: I hope that everyone who participated in this thing had (at least the tiniest of sliver of) fun. I don’t think pitting writers against each other has anything to do with literature. I missed college basketball in March, so this is what I did. It also helped me drift off into other places for a while. Ballard is gone but I would love to read his quarantine novel. And I’ll read anything else we get from Pynchon.

Peace to all.

 

 

Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

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A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

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Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

Bad trip | Blog about Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog

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I don’t know man.

I think I should have loved Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel.

Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.

Nog reads like a hallucinatory accounting of the American literature before it, starting with a narrator who aims for transcendentalism, but is “wrenched out of two months of calm” by the sight of a young woman walking the beach:

There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant.

Right in the first paragraph, Wurlitzer announces themes of travel (feet) and weird oedipal angles (those “large breasts”) that will pulsate throughout the novel. The image of the young lady zaps our narrator:

I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus.

Nog is larded with comparisons and lists and octopuses (or octopi, if you prefer—our (un-)helpful narrator points out both are acceptable). The narrator lists beaches, lakes, and rivers, a motif of travel and horizons that underscores the novel’s surreal critique of Manifest Destiny. The octopuses fit more neatly with Nog’s pscyhosphere of bodies wrangling bodies, possessed limbs wriggling willy-nilly, groping, prodding, promising. Wurlitzer uses similes and metaphors that repeatedly compare both people and situations to squid or octopuses, and also evokes the image without naming it in imagery (including a really gross menage a trois).

I have not described the plot of Nog yet. Describing the plot would not be impossible, I guess, but it would involve typing out most of the novel. Nog is a surreal picaresque fueled on All Of The Drugs and All Of The Sex, both a product and critique of the End Of The Sixties that birthed it. (Forgive all that capitalization.) Here is the slim blurb from indie Two Dollar Radio, which republished the novel a decade ago:

In Wurlitzer’s signature hypnotic and haunting voice, Nog tells the tale of a man adrift through the American West, armed with nothing more than his own three pencil-thin memories and an octopus in a bathysphere.

Nog is certainly a surreal Western, one organized around three memories that Our Hero keeps reinventing (memories often anchored by an octopus).

There are characters, of course, but the characterization is vague, hazy, slip-sliding. Wurlitzer sticks to Narrator and his foils Meridith and Lockett for the most part. The pair are Ur-Parents and Ur-Partners who his narrator fucks, fucks over, and gets fucked over by. At times, the narrator—who may or may not be Nog his damnself—even becomes iterations of Meridith or Lockett. In an effort to share Wurlitzer’s prose style in Nog, here is a paragraph from late in the novel that comes close to summarizing it, but not really summarizing it, due to its surreal aporia:

I’m not cold or warm. I might be approaching both. I don’t remember when I’ve last fallen asleep. I’m not asleep or awake. I first met Meridith over a jar of artichoke hearts. But it’s Lockett now… There’s no possibility of an erection. The supermarket was crowded. The colors were warm. Lockett’s hands moved easily over the frozen-meat packages, slipping them into his army overcoat. We discovered each other stealing. I had four jars of artichoke hearts in my pocket. Lockett kept me from being busted. He straightened me out. He sold me a doctor’s bag and gave me connections.

“There’s no possibility of an erection” ! — of course Thomas Pynchon blurbed Nog. Wurlitzer’s novel is an unmediated riff on Manifest Destiny’s ugly horniness (or is it hornyness — Wurlitzer and other authorities won’t sing on this matter). There are buffalo shoots, rapes, and all that westward expansion. But by the Space Age Nineteen-Sixties, where were the borders? As the narrator comments/laments:

Nothing for it but to plunge on to the manufactured end. The Pacific is gone.

No place to go but into the surreal.

But Nog also exemplifies everything wrong with the late sixties—a kind of self-indulgent, (literally-)masturbatory psychoromp that frequently tests the patience of its audience. (By “its audience” I mean “me.”)

Nog is dark and foul, poisonous, an indictment of the End Of A Big Dream (forgive my capitalization). It’s not fun, nor did I find it funny—maybe because I read it right after Charles Wright’s much funnier novel The Wig (1966), a novel that collapses the horror and humor of the Dream Of The Sixties (eh, capitalization) into something far sharper, funnier, surrealer, and ecstaicer (or is it ecstackier—authorities diverge on this matter).

Or maybe I didn’t dig Nog the way I wanted to because I read it during The Weirdest Spring Break Of My Life, in the quarantine that we’re all going through, uncomforted by its abject digressions, its plasticity, its refusal to mean in a healthy, wholesome, unvirused way.

Maybe I should read it again, in Healthier Times.

Nog for now reads a bit-too-disturbing, which I guess is actually Good, according to the traditional rubric that I’ve used to measure novels—the whole disturb the comfortable model, right? Maybe I’m disturbed, anxious, agoraphobic, hypochondriac. But this is a Bad Trip.

Nog reads like a bad trip right to its end. Near the novel’s end, our narrator (who may-or-may-not-be Nog, or Lockett — or locket or lock it) takes a bad trip on a ship to “the manufactured end” — to Manifest Destiny Done Run Out. Here’s the authoritarian captain:

“The main thing,” he says, “is to be obedient for a long time, and in one and the same direction. Keep to the same space. Don’t try to go to new ports. Eight hundred Chinese were imported to build a railroad alongside the Canal. They committed suicide when they were deprived of their opium. They strangled or hanged themselves or sat down on the beach and waited for the tide to drown them. Let that be a lesson to you. Be kind to her.”

I have no idea what to make of the captain’s advice to the narrator. On one hand, it seems antithetical to the spirit of the novel—of movement, of going in new directions and mooring in new ports. At the same time, it highlights the cruelty of the American Project of Manifest Destiny (goddamn dude, all those Capital Letters!) as a kind of murder-suicide.

Or maybe I just want to end on those words:

Be kind to her.

 

 

Blog about some recent reading (Spring break/quarantine (?) edition)

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Left to right:

I used interlibrary loan to check out a copy of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography. It’s pretty neat, and includes some photos of Our Reclusive Favorite that I’d never seen before, like this one:

I read Charles Wright’s 1966 novel The Wig last weekend. The novel is amazing—a picaresque, burlesque, Black black comedy that made me want to reread Invisible Man and read all the Ishmael Reed that I’ve left unread. And more Charles Wright. The energy of The Wig enraptured me; Wright’s cartoon vision of 1960’s Harlem is poised just on the edge of horror. I loved loved loved this novel, and aim for a full review sometime this week.

To its right is The Complete Gary Lutz, which I’ve been nibbling at for a few months. It’s like a rich cheese block or a lovely single malt—not something to inhale all at once, but wonderful in moderation.

I’ve also been picking through Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, mostly reading the journalism at the front end. (I’m saving the play, Delray’s New Moon for…I don’t know…like a quarantine or something?)

This afternoon, I dipped into Marrow and Bone, Walter Kempowski’s satirical road novel set in Germany and Poland right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte Collins’s translation renders Kempowski’s prose as frank, funny, and often ironic.

I’m a little over halfway through Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult classic Nog. The novel is far more abject and despair-inflected than I had imagined, and so far, anyway, the despair and abjection isn’t leavened with any humor that’s registered with me. I dig the absurdity, but I’ve got to admit that the book isn’t working for me. I wanted to love it—-blurbed by Pynchon, right? features an imaginary octopus, right?—but something’s missing for me. (The vague something in the previous sentence is humor—there are maybe some jokes or japes I’m missing, to be fair, but…) The book’s strengths bleed over with its weaknesses. Wurlitzer does an admirable job portraying a consciousness dissolving and resolving, only to desire to not desire consciousness at all, only static, Buddhist peace. Nog is essentially a narrative voice, a howl disintegrating in on itself, bubbling down, and revivifying itself via verbal goo to speak anew. There are Big Western Themes, too—Wurlitzer’s critique of America’s favorite myth of Manifest Destiny is subtle but sharp. The novel’s druggy haze recalls William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, but a bit more focused. It so far makes me think of better novels by João Gilberto Noll, though. I very much love two films that Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; dir. Monte Hellman) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973; dir. Sam Peckinpah). I’d love to see two others he wrote: America (1986; dir. Robert Downey Sr.) and Walker (1987; dir. Alex Cox).

Nog also has some really gross sex scenes.

(I think I might be enjoying Wurlitzer’s debut novel more if I hadn’t read The Wig immediately before it.)

The last two skinny volumes there on the right are new joints from Sublunary Editions. Vik Shirley’s Corpses is like a thirty-paragraph prose-poem, part comic, part morbid.  The blurb for Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm describes the tract:

This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem.

To the right of Palms is a pothos plant that was formerly thriving on the window sill of my office. Our college’s spring break starts tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be coming back after it, so I brought my plants home. It turns out we’ll come back, sans students. I brought my textbooks home too, but I forgot my copy of  S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid, which I’d brought to work to snack on. So it isn’t in this blog, except it is.

Two Studies for Steerpike — Mervyn Peake

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It hadn’t been murder, the courts decided. It was only a happening | From Charles Wright’s novel The Wig

I remembered Abraham Lincoln, who had died for me. I remembered the Negro maid who had walked from Grapetree, Mississippi, to Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, and was flogged for being too maidenly fair. I remember the young man who, competing for the title “Blacker the Berry, Sweeter the Juice,” was killed during an avant-garde happening in a Washington Mews carriage house. The killing did not take place during a Black Mass, as was first reported. The Negro youth had committed a sexual outrage, according to Confidential Magazine in its exclusive interview with the hostess and the hostess, who were famous for their collection of Contemporary Stone Art. Their sexual safaris were legendary too. Inspired by childhood tales of lynchings (ah, the gyrations the moans, the sweat, the smell of fresh blood, the uncircumcised odor), the couple had explored Latin rice-and-bean delights, European around-the-world-scootee-roots, Near Eastern lamb, flip-flop, and it’s-all-in-the-family.

Hoping to avoid the press, which arrived by helicopter, fifty miles from shore, exhausted, jaded, they returned to their native land on a luxury liner but in steerage class, with seventy pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage.

“It was off-season,” the hostess had jokingly told reporters. The host added with great dignity: “We are returning to our native land, where fornication is pure and simple. We’re returning to the womb of nature.” They went into seclusion in their Greenwich Village carriage house until the night of the celebrated “happening,” the night that was to reestablish their worldly reputation. The gleaming, white-toothed young Negro with the rough but carefully-combed kinky hair (if one ran one’s hand through his hair, one trembled and saw Venus and Mars) displayed a rosebud instead of a penis! The effrontery—a Negro and nipped in the bud! Certainly a shock that could drive anyone to murder, only it hadn’t been murder, the courts decided. It was only a happening.

From Charles Wright’s fantastic 1966 novel The Wig. 

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Blog about some books acquired, 13 March 2020

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After one week of abstinence I drove the mile or so to the used bookstore I go to too often and browsed.

I was specifically looking for the other Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake, the 1956 novella Boy in Darkness, and the unfinished Titus Awakes, completed by Peake’s wife Maeve after his death. I’m in the last few pages of Titus Alone, and I guess I don’t want to exit his proseworld just yet. Anyway, I went to this bookstore almost every week of February looking for Peake books with no luck after having picked up Gormenghast there on a lark a while back. I ended up buying the first and third of the Gormenghast trilogy online, because I couldn’t find them there, but today I found the complete trilogy in matching Ballantine editions. I did not find the other Gormenghast books though.

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As much as I hated to break up the triplets pictured above, I picked up the Ballantine Titus Groan and adopted it to fit my other Ballantine editions. There is a specific student I have in mind whom I think will love the Penguin edition of Titus Groan I’ll give him next week (even though my dog bit it).

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I’m obviously a sucker for covers, as any one who’s followed this blog for a while probably knows, and the Ballantine covers are better, I think—the Penguin editions of Peake’s trilogy are great, but they shy away from the bizarre nature of the narratives, tilting toward respectability.

Indeed, I like browsing in large part because I like the aesthetics of books, particularly older books. I absolutely loved this Edward Gorey cover for a 1957 edition of Joseph Conrad’s Victory—but I settled for a picture. I mean, I doubt I’ll read lesser-known Conrad at this point. But I love the orange and the blue, and Gorey’s handlettering:

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I often settle for just a snapshot of a beautiful cover, like this bizarre one for The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela. I didn’t pick it up a few weeks ago, but then wished I had.

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I had left it on the shelf like this, face outward. It wasn’t there today, and I wished that I had picked it up. Apparently it is brutal and was banned for a few years in its native Spain.

So well and anyway when I spied another Avon-Bard spine with a strange title I pulled it out, wowed at the cover, and dove in. Brazilian author Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s Zero instantly struck a chord with me. The book is typographically all over the place, with text offset in boxes or laid out in columns. There are diagrams, enormous fonts, glypsh, citations, footnotes, etc. The book is a dystopian satire that seems to be written in its own idiom. The translation is by Ellen Watson. The wonderful cover art is uncredited (as far as I can tell).

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I’ve never been able to get through Julio Cortázar’s famous book Hopscotch (despite many attempts), but I liked the short stories by him that I’ve read. I’m also a sucker for anything supershort, so when I saw his collection Cronopios and Famas (translated by Paul Blackburn), I was intrigued. I love a book in slices and morsels that I can snack on for a while (I’m really digging Gary Lutz’s The Complete Gary Lutz for the same reason). Most of the stuff in here is under three pages; much of it is much shorter too, like “Theme for a Tapestry”:

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While scanning for anything by Rudolph Wurlitzer (no dice), I spied the spine of Charles Wright’s The Wig. Wright has been on my radar for a while now, mostly due to Ishmael Reed’s consistent endorsement of him (in both fiction and nonfiction alike), and when I pulled the volume to reveal its beautiful cover, I saw Reed’s name on the margin (and on the blurb on the back), and had to have it. The cover art is by Phelonise Willie; design by Scott di Giolamo:

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The dreamers and the scum of the earth

So the grey arena formed itself and the crowd grew, while the domed ceiling of the dark place dripped, and the lamps were re-filled and some held candles, some torches, while others had brought mirrors to reflect the light, until the whole place swam like a miasma.

Were his shoulder not hurting from the grip it had sustained Titus might well have wondered whether he was asleep and dreaming.

Around him, tier upon tier (for the centre of the arena was appreciably lower than the margin, and there was about the place almost the feeling of a dark circus) were standing or were seated the failures of earth. The beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits, the conversationalists, the human oysters, the vermin, the innocent, the snobs and the men of straw, the pariahs, the outcasts, rag-pickers, the rascals, the rakehells, the fallen angels, the sad-dogs, the castaways, the prodigals, the defaulters, the dreamers and the scum of the earth.

My kind of people.

A wonderful view of the preterite underworld in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone.

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“I’m quite flattered but if I were Pynchon I think I’d be quite annoyed” | William Gaddis annotates a review of Gravity’s Rainbow

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This is a clipping of W.G. Rogers’ (circa 1973) review of Gravity’s Rainbow (click on the image to enlarge it). The marginal annotation is by William Gaddis:

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Rogers’ review of Gravity’s Rainbow is eleven paragraphs long in two columns. The final three paragraphs are devoted to a comparison with The Recognitions (this comparison takes up about three quarters of the second column). Rogers refers to Gaddis’s novel as Recognitions.

The final paragraph reads:

Gaddis could have written Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon could have written Recognitions [sic].That two hearts can beat as one is no proof two minds can. Would we not expect Gaddis to use his own respected name? Could there be two separate master hands? I suppose so, but…

Gaddis published his second novel J R, two years later, in 1975.

This document is part of the William Gaddis Papers collection at Washington University. I saw it earlier this morning thanks to Reddit user Signor Mantissa.

 

A Charles Portis miscellany, a signed Stanley Elkin oddity, and Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog (Books acquired, 21 Feb. 2020)

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I went to my beloved used bookstore the first three Fridays in February, searching for a few things: novels by Rudolph Wurlitzer (no luck); Titus Alone, the last novel in Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy (no luck; might have to order it); the penultimate Harry Potter novel (for my nine-year-old; plenty of copies—apparently his sister never made it that far).

did pick up Escape Velocity, a compendium of the late great Charles Portis’s journalism, essays, and short stories. There’s also a three-act play, Delray’s New Moon, which The Arkansas Repertory Theatre performed in 1996, and a 2001 interview with Portis that was part of The Gazette Project, which comprised a series of interviews with staff of the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette.

Portis worked for the Gazette early in his career, but it’s Civil Rights reporting for The New York Herald Tribune that’s more immediately compelling. Stories on the Klan rallies, Birmingham terror, and the assassination of Medgar Evers seem to add a new complexity and dimension to the South of Portis’s novels Norwood and The Dog of the South.

The essays in Escape Velocity seem especially promising, and also seem to inform the novels—at least the first one I read, “That New Sound from Nashville,” did. There’s something almost-gonzo about Portis’s technique (some of his early journalism vibrates with local color and ironic editorializing, too).

I’ve only read two of the five short stories in the collection. All are quite short, and the two I read feel like sketches, to be honest. Still, I’m interested in the fiction that Portis produced after his last novel Gringos, and three of the stories are from that era, along with the play Delray’s New Moon, which I hope will be richer than the stories I’ve read so far.

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At the bookstore, I spied the gilt spine of The First George Mills, a 1980 oddity that comprises the first part (roughly 50 pages) of Stanley Elkin’s 1982 novel George Mills. The spine struck me as odd—so thin, so irregularly-shaped, etc. The book itself seemed like a novelty almost, and I was surprised to find Elkin’s signature at the end. I was even more surprised to find the signature of Jane Hughes, the apparent illustrator of this volume, whose illustrations do not appear in my copy. A bit of internet browsing seems to suggest that Hughes’s illustrations—of horses—were glued insets. Still, I was happy to forgo five bucks of my trade credit for Elkin’s signature.

When I got home from the bookstore a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult classic 1969 novel Nog had arrived in the mail from Two Dollar Radio (along with a sticker and a bookmark and a thank you note—godbless indie publishers). I will be reading this book next, starting tonight. Here is the Thomas Pynchon blurb that made me interested in Wurlitzer:

Wow, this is some book, I mean it’s more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it’s also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we could be moving in — hopefully another sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive, to take hold. Rudolph Wurlitzer is really, really good, and I hope he manages to come down again soon, long enough anyhow to guide us on another one like Nog.

I did not go to the bookstore on this day, the last Friday of February 2020. I finished Gormenghast instead.

Two Books (Books acquired, 7 and 14 Feb. 2020)

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Robinson by Muriel Spark. Penguin Books, 1964. Cover drawing by Terence Greer.

I have not yet read Muriel Spark, but I’ve noted she’s been compared to Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. Robinson looked more interesting to me (and shorter) than her more famous novels The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Memento Mori, and I love this cover.

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Alchemy by Titus Burckhardt. Penguin Books,1974. Cover design by Walter Brooks, using a drawing from Basilius Valentinus’s “Aurelia Occulta Philosophorum” in Theatrum Chemicum, Argentoratie, 1614. vol. IV. Chocked full of glorious black and white images.

The first three paragraphs of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog

Yesterday afternoon a girl walked by the window and stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

I went to Smitty’s, a roadhouse a quarter of a mile down the beach. When I came back, she was gone. I could not sit in my room. The walls closed in on me. I could see the walls closing in on me, and my situation, if that is what it is, a situation, seemed suddenly so dull and hopeless; this cheap thrown-together guest house of imitation redwood on the California coast with its smell of mold and bad plumbing, the inane view from my window of driftwood and seaweed, flat predictable waves, corny writings in the sand, pot-bellied fishermen and bronzed godlike volleyball players. I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus. I suppose that is what there is to tell about. Then I’ll move on. Last night there was a storm, and I abandoned the octopus. I didn’t really abandon the octopus, it’s still in the bathysphere on the truck bed, and the truck bed is still up on blocks, but it’s not the same any more. I’m going to move on alone.

I have money and I can make money. I want to say that now. I’m no reprobate, nor am I a drain on anyone. My great aunt left me two thousand a year, and I have, or had, an octopus and a truck. A man sold me the octopus and truck in Oregon. I met him in a bar in one of those logging towns on the Coast where the only attractive spot is the village dump, which at least has the advantage of facing the sea. Nog, he was apparently of Finnish extraction, was one of those semi-religious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians. He was dressed in black motorcycle boots, jeans and an old army shirt with sergeant chevrons still on the sleeves. His face was lean and hatchet-edged, with huge fuzzy eyes sunk deep in his skull like bullet holes. He kept complaining about a yellow light that had lately been streaming out of his chest from a spot the size of a half dollar. We drank and talked about the spot and the small burning sensation it gave him early in the morning and about his octopus. He had become disillusioned about traveling with the octopus and had begun having aggressive dreams about it. He wanted to sell it. We bought a bottle and walked out beyond the town into logged-off hills that looked like old battlefields. A low mist hung over a struggling second growth of redwood and Douglas fir. The tracks of giant caterpillar tractors wound everywhere. Pits and ditches were scattered about like shell holes. Thousands of frogs croaked and salamanders hung suspended between lids of green slime and rotting logs. I felt vaguely elated, like a witness to some ancient slaughter.

From Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog. Reprinted from Two Dollar Radio.

Wells Tower remembers Charles Portis

Author Wells Tower (who, come on and finish a novel or another story collection or something, please) has a nice obituary in The New Yorker today for the novelist Charles Portis. From Tower’s essay:

 “Only a mean person won’t enjoy it” is something a critic once wrote about True Grit. In part, I love Portis because I feel less mean when I read him. It’s not just that his novels are gentle and funny; it’s that Portis’s books have a way of conscripting the reader into their governing virtues—punctuality, automotive maintenance, straight talk, emotional continence. Puny virtues, as Portis himself once put it, yet it is a great and comforting gift (in these days especially) to offer readers escape into a place where such virtues reign.

It’s hard to know whether Portis’s work ushered much comfort into his own life. My sense is that he was lonely. I imagine he had a fair bit in common with Jimmy Burns, described in Gringos as a “hard worker,” “solitary as a snake,” and, yes, “punctual.” Portis never married and had no children. He never published another novel after Gringos, from 1991. The closest he gets to self-portraiture comes in his short memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” the essay published in The Atlantic. Toward the essay’s close, the author spots an “apparition” of his future self in the form of a geezer idling his station wagon alongside Portis at a traffic light in Little Rock. He wore “the gloat of a miser,” Portis writes. “Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap. . . . While not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang.”

Read the whole thing here.

Read Tower’s review of Portis’s final novel Gringos here.

 

RIP Charles Portis

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RIP Charles Portis, 1933-2020

The Arkansas Times and other sources have reported that the novelist Charles Portis has died at the age of 86.

Portis published five novels in his life: NorwoodThe Dog of the SouthMasters of Atlantis, and Gringos, but he’s most likely well-known for his 1968 bestseller True Grit, which has been adapted to film twice. The first adaptation (1969), starring John Wayne, is a much broader affair than the Coen Brother’s 2010 take, which does a better job conveying the novel’s sharp humor. Neither can touch the novel, of course.

Walker Percy blurbed True Grit, comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Told in Mattie Ross’s clipped, witty, yet still-the-slightest-shade-naive voice, True Grit’s narrative voice echoes Huck’s, and is equally achieved and engrossing, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing, enduring American hero. True Grit is a novel that teens and adults alike will love, and revisit, each time finding it changed. I’m very sorry that I was forty when I first read it, but I can make sure my daughter doesn’t overlook it. True Grit is probably a perfect novel.

Portis’s first novel Norwood (1966) is the first novel I read by him. This impossibly-large but slim novel is the picaresque tale of Norwood Pratt, who kind of bumbles his way across the South after being discharged from the Marines. Portis taps into the same grotesque fount that fed Faulkner and Flannery, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers, but he converts that fuel into something more exuberant, energetic, and joyful than anything those authors ever produced.

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Eleven years after True Grit, Portis published The Dog of the South, which might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by him. This is a shaggy dog, a road trip novel, ribald, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like the novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage, a loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel with more structure and tighter refrains than Hannah’s wild jazz. Dog may have some faults, but it’s a wonderful read, and its ending reverberates with earned pathos.

1985’s Masters of Atlantis is probably the consensus favorite among Portis fans. Easily the most sprawling of his books, both in geographical scope and time, Masters is a novel of con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Despite an international cast, like Portis’s first three novels Masters is a very American novel, whatever that means. There’s a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness to Masters—the novel reminds me very much of Pynchon’s underrated Against the Day. Masters of Atlantis also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels, like Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Baum’s Oz books, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and even  The Great Gatsby. (It’s more fun to read than any of those.) Told in a third-person voice, Masters feels positively epic compared to the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Masters is a loose, shaggy epic that seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages.

I have yet to read Portis’s final novel Gringos (1991), which centers on expatriate Americans living in Merida who raid Mayan tombs and hunt UFOs (this may be an inaccurate description). I secured a copy when I was on my Portis binge, but when I finished Masters of Atlantis, I had to pause. Like many readers who fall in love with an author—especially an author with such a slim oeuvre—I tend to read greedily, voraciously, as the cliche goes. Finding Portis at forty felt like a bizarre gift from nowhere (a gift from the author himself, of course). I read all of Cormac McCarthy in my late twenties, an act I now regret. It’s not that I can’t re-read McCarthy—I do all the time—but unless we get another novel, it’s like, That’s it. When I truly fell in love with Pynchon and Gaddis, in my thirties, I consumed their novels, of course, re-reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow an J R—but also leaving one, y’know, in my back pocket, metaphorically: Bleeding Edge and A Frolic of His Own, respectively. Gringos is on the same mental shelf as those volumes, but I’ve taken it down from the actual shelf it was just-until-now resting upon, a to-be-read stack.  I used the adjective final in the first sentence of the previous paragraph to describe Portis’s 1991 novel Gringos. It’s possible that there are more novels, of course, finished or otherwise, and I have to admit that I’ll look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, I’ll start Gringos.

 

Two by Dmitry Samarov (Books acquired 7 Feb. 2020)

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Copies of Dmitry Samarov’s latest books, Soviet Stamps and Music to My Eyes showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters the other week. I started in on Music to My Eyes, a kind of fragmentary memoir told in sketches (both verbal and literal) of the Chicago music scene. The determiner “the” in the previous sentence is wrong, of course, as is the singular noun “scene” — Samarov’s book shows the diversity of the city’s music, even if fans will be able to connect the dots between bands like Eleventh Dream Day, Mekons, and Brokeback. There are stories that float around Nick Cave, Arto Lindsay, Neko Case, and many, many others. Samarov’s brief chapter on the Silver Jews ends with an anecdote about not getting to meet Berman in 2018. The final lines are heartbreaking: “Maybe there’ll be more songs. Then I could stop being mad at him for walking away too soon.”

Here’s Samarov on U.S. Maple, who made some of the strangest music ever during that weird slice of time from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts. U.S. Maple is by far the most confounding live band I’ve ever seen; it’s easy to throw around the word deconstruction, but their live performances were deconstructions of rocknroll:

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Read my 2012 interview with Dmitry Samarov.

The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 2 (Book acquired, 9 Dec. 2019)

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I finally had a bit of time to properly dip into the second issue of The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies this afternoon. (I brought it to work with me and read from it between classes.)

This issue essentially came out of a 2015 conference at the University of Bristol called David Foster Wallace and the Short Things. Issue 2 contains six essays on Wallace’s “short things” — short stories, sure, but also the vignettes and bits and pieces and fragments that make up The Pale King (and Infinite Jest).

After skimming around a bit, I read the last one, Jeffrey Severs’ “‘Listen’: Wallace’s Short Story Endings and the Art of Falling Silent.” Severs explores Wallace’s endings as a kind of series of revisions to the conclusion of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (Wallace later called the ending “shitty and dissatisfying”). Severs discusses Girl with Curious Hair extensively, but also touches on The Pale King and Infinite Jest. (And Wittgenstein, silence, and meditative listening.)

There are also two reviews of recent books on Wallace in this issue, just as in the previous issue, one for Marshall Boswell’s The Wallace Effect: David Foster Wallace and the Contemporary Literary Imagination, and one for Ralph Clare’s The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace.

A few of the other essays piqued my interest; Tim Groenland has a thing on fragments, The Pale King, and ancient Rome, and Pia Masiero has a thing on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is maybe my favorite Wallace book.

 

Blog about Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-slave narrative Flight to Canada

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I read Ishmael Reed’s 1976 novel Flight to Canada over the last few days of 2019. I enjoyed the book tremendously, even as it made me dizzy at times with its frenetic, zany  achronological satire of the American Civil War.

What is it about?

Flight to Canada features a number of intersecting plots. One of these plots follows the ostensible protagonist of the novel, former slave Raven Quickskill, who escapes the Swille plantation in Virginia. Along with two other former slaves of the Swille plantation, Quickskill makes his way far north to “Emancipation City” where he composes a poem called “Flight to Canada,” which expresses his desire to escape America completely. The aristocratic (and Sadean) Arthur Swille simply cannot let “his property run off with himself,” and sends trackers to find Quickskill and the other escapees, Emancipation Proclamation be damned. On the run from trackers, Quickskill jumps from misadventure to misadventure, eventually reconnecting his old flame, an Indian dancer named Quaw Quaw (as well as her husband, the pirate Yankee Jack). Back at Swille’s plantation Swine’rd, several plots twist around, including a visit by Old Abe Lincoln, a sadistic episode between Lady Swille and her attendant Mammy Barracuda, and the day-to-day rituals of Uncle Robin, a seemingly-compliant “Uncle Tom” figure who turns out to be Reed’s real hero in the end.

(And oh, Quickskill makes it to Canada in the end. Now, whether or not he wants to stay there after he gets there…)

There’s a whole lot more in the book, too. It’s difficult to summarize—like the majority of the other seven novels I’ve read by Reed, Flight to Canada isn’t so much a work of plot and character development as it is a jazzy extemporization of disparate themes and motifs. Reed’s novel is about slavery and freedom, war and aesthetics, perspective and time, and how history gets told and taught to future.

As a means to satirize not just the Civil War but also how we read and write and portray the Civil War, Reed collapses time in Flight to Canada. As novelist Jerome Charyn points out in his contemporary review of the novel in The New York Times,

Reed has little use for statistical realities. He is a necromancer, a believer in the voodoos of art. Time becomes a modest, crazy fluid in Reed’s head, allowing him to mingle events of the last 150 years, in order to work his magic. We have Abe Lincoln and the Late Show, slave catchers and “white ‐ frosted Betty Crocker glossy cake,” Jefferson Davis and Howard K. Smith. Every gentleman’s carriage is equipped with “factory climate‐control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power‐lock doors, six‐way power seat, power windows, whitewall wheels, door‐edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and softglass.”

Reed’s achronological gambit allows him to bring figures from any time period into the narrative, no questions asked. Edgar Allan Poe is there, even though he died over a decade before the war began. No matter. Our narrator claims early on that Poe was “the principal biographer of that strange war…Poe got it all down. Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians.” Lord Byron shows up too, as do Charles I of England and the Marquis de Sade. There are contemporary figures of the Civil War era there too, of course—Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Reed takes to task repeatedly), Frederick Douglass, and the writer William Wells Brown, whom Quickskill meets in a surprisingly moving scene (Quickskill says that Brown is his hero and that his novel Clotel was the inspiration for “Flight to Canada”). The fictional characters of Flight to Canada discuss or interact with these historical figures in such a way to continually critique not just the words and deeds of the historical figures, but the very way we frame and narrativize those words and deeds.

2020-01-03_152112_1The technological anachronisms of Flight to Canada also serve to critique our framing of history. Our American Cousins plays live on broadcast TV, assassination and all:

Booth, America’s first Romantic Assassin. They replay the actual act, the derringer pointing through the curtains, the President leaning to one side, the FIrst Lady standing, shocked, the Assassin leaping from the balcony, gracefully, beautifully, in slow motion. They promise to play it again on the Late News. When the cameras swing back to the Balcony, Miss Laura Keene of Our American Cousins is at Lincoln’s side “live.” Her gown is spattered with brain tissue. A reporter has a microphone in Mary Todd’s face.

“Tell us, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you feel having just watched your husband’s brains blow out before your eyes?”

(In a very Reedian move, the live assassination plays out during a sex scene between Quickskill and Quaw Quaw. The TV is always on in America, even during sex.)

Reed’s rhetorical distortions in depicting the Lincoln assassination are both grotesque and comic. Not only can we imagine a reporter doing the same in 1976, when Flight to Canada was published, we can imagine the same crass, exploitative handling today. Technology might have changed but people really haven’t

In his review, Jerome Charyn, begins by pointing out that 1976 is the American Bicentennial, something that simply did not entire my mind while reading Flight to Canada. Reed’s novel’s publication is appropriate and timely, and breaks “through the web of historical romance” (in the words of Charyn) that hangs over the “chicanery, paranoia and violence underlying most of our ‘democratic vistas.'”

Concluding his review, Charyn writes,

Flight to Canada could have been a very thin book, an unsubtle catalogue of American disorders. But Reed has the wit, the style, and the intelligence to do much more than that. The book explodes. Reed’s special grace is anger. His own sense of bewilderment deepens the comedy, forces us to consider the sad anatomy of his ideas. Flight to Canada is a hellish book with its own politics and a muscular, luminous prose. It should survive.

Books don’t survive of course; rather, they are always in the process of surviving. Books are either read, or not read. Flight to Canada should be read because it is witty and angry and unique and smart, and its critique of American history (and how we narrativize and aestheticize American history) is as vital and necessary today as it was nearly a half century ago.

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