The Radiance of Attention by Luc Tuymans (b. 1958)
The Radiance of Attention by Luc Tuymans (b. 1958)
Making a weekend trip from the east coast of Florida to its Gulf shores, my family and I listened to Nicol Williamson’s early 1970s recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Williamson’s recording is rich and expressive, his command of each voice bringing Tolkien’s characters to life.
I first heard Williamson’s recording over twenty years ago on a series of LPs that I checked out from the library. I had probably already read The Hobbit half a dozen times by then, but Williamson’s sonorous voice—along with the music and audio production effects—added another layer to Middle Earth.
My daughter, five, already familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass film, had no problem keeping pace with the story (although she occasionally asked me to pause for clarification on a few finer points, such as the delicate distinctions between goblins and trolls, or just who exactly is this guy Bard who shows up all of a sudden?) My favorite part of the entire weekend was my two year old imitating Gollum, sniveling a sinister, “My precious!” while squinting gleefully.
There are few books I’ve read as many times as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I read it countless times between the ages of 11 and 15, read it again as an undergrad, then read it again–twice, I’m not ashamed to admit—when Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out. However, despite reading The Hobbit repeatedly as a kid, I’ve never really gone back to it. It traffics in a gentle folklore that seems out of square with the epic mythmaking in The Lord of the Rings, and I think that I was always unsettled by a certain discontinuity between the two books that was easier to ignore if I never went back to The Hobbit.
Memory has a way of eliding details, and books are especially susceptible to this wearing down and smoothing out. So, I remembered The Hobbit as a quest, a miniature epic with Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home to find treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. I remembered Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves invading Bilbo’s tidy hobbit hole; I remembered trolls who turn to stone; I remembered riddles with Gollum and a ring that turns its wearer invisible; I remembered Mirkwood and barrels and the mountain lair of a dragon. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Five Armies, where the enormous eagles literally swoop in and save the day, deus ex machina style.
Listening to the unabridged audio, I was struck by just how much had escaped my memory: I barely recalled the spiders of Mirkwood or the talking ravens or the part where the wargs tree the dwarves. I had completely forgotten the shapeshifter Beorn, a creature straight out of Scandinavian myth.
What I found most strange in revisiting The Hobbit though was its radical compression, its tendency and willingness to pivot sharply, to cast its characters about or trample them under (metaphorical and sometimes literal) foot, or throw them in dungeons or barrels or some other danger.
Whereas The Lord of the Rings progresses from the folkloric feel of The Shire through to the high-adventure sweep of Icelandic saga and ultimately to a King Jamesish condensation of near-pure archetypery (and back again, of course), The Hobbit showcases a rambling, flowing, discursive, “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rhythm.
In short, The Hobbit, as it turns out, is a picaresque novel.
And just what is a picaresque novel, and why is The Hobbit one?, you may or may not ask.
Michael Seidel offers a clear definition in his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (an excellent picaresque, by the way):
. . . the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature . . . became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. . . . Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.
The Hobbit is very much the story of the topsy-turvy turns of Bilbo Baggins’s identity. At the adventure’s outset, he’s a respectable—comfortable—Baggins of Bag End. Not the sort of fellow who goes on adventures. And yet he’s enlisted by Gandalf to serve as burglar for the expedition, a picaró in the making who steals a purse from a troll and never looks back.
It’s not just Bilbo’s various thefts, but also his “adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior” that marks him as a picaró. His scheming is evident repeatedly in the novel, whether he’s riddling with Gollum or Smaug, devising a breakout from the Elf King of Mirkwood’s dungeon, or playing the long con against the parties involved in the Battle of Five Armies. He echoes Gandalf in this way, whose talents seem to veer more toward trickery and cunning than dazzling spells or marvelous magic.
Bilbo’s picaresque turns of fortune and turns of identity are neatly summarized in a late exchange with yon dragon Smaug, who immediately calls him out as a picaró:
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”
“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”
“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I am chosen for the lucky number.”
“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”
“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”
“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”
But imagination is of course the primary tool of the picaró, and Bilbo is no slouch: The Hobbit condemns evil, greedy Smaug when it shows the rewards of letting “your imagination run away with you.” Indeed, the entire novel is a running away, a constant deflection of stable identity, as Bilbo twists and turns his way back to The Shire.
And what happens to Bilbo? What happens to that once-stable, once-comfortable identity? We learn at the novel’s end about the queering of his identity—
. . . he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.
So! Queer, strange Baggins the picaró embraces his “Took side,” his disreputable adventuring side. And still the narrative comes to a lovely cozy warm respectable ending, Bilbo’s identity transformed, sullied, illuminated, and enlarged by his picaresque adventure.
And the picaresque? Well, maybe I’ve stretched its definition a bit simply because I’m so fond of picaresque narratives these days. Maybe I’ve simply revisited a childhood classic and imposed a new viewpoint upon it. (And maybe years and years from now I’ll revisit it again with grandchildren, and find something new and different there as well. I hope).
I think what I enjoyed most about The Hobbit this time was hearing the rambling discursiveness of it all—here we have a narrative that understands the perilous and precarious position of the storyteller, he or she who might lose the thread—or worse, lose the audience!—at any damn time. So keep the story sailing, shifting, rambling out into new moods, modes, movements.
Seidel gives us a lovely definition of picaresque above, but can’t do better than Ralph Ellison who, in describing his modernist classic Invisible Man, offers us a description of the picaresque as “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”
And this is the power of The Hobbit—which is to say the staying power of The Hobbit—its ability to evoke the imaginative force of one damned thing after another sheerly happening for generation after generation.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this review in October of 2012. I’m rerunning it today in honor of The Hobbit’s 80th anniversary. My daughter is five years older, and has since read the book on her own. She loves it.]
I returned to classes on Monday after 10 humid, uncomfortable, and often scary days “off” due to Hurricane Irma. In the slim hour and change between my last lecture and my kids’ school dismissal, I swung by my favorite used bookshop. I was worried that it might have flooded, but the waters didn’t get to the inventory (well over a million books).
I picked up a a PKD Daw edition, a mass market paperback, Deus Irae, co-authored with Roger Zelazny. I’ve been picking up pretty much any early PKD mass market ppbk; new editions of his stuff tend to be pretty boring. I had to pick between two editions:
I also picked up Eddie Campbell’s Alec: How to Be an Artist, which I gobbled up the other day in two sittings. There’s a pretty neat canon of graphic novels at the end, which I’ll share later this week. The cover looks like an illustration of Roberto Bolaño to me.
I also picked up two Roald Dahl books we didn’t have, Esio Trot and Danny the Champion of the World, which my kids read immediately and greedily.
I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sf is not. It cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel. So if we separate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?
We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society—or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one—this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation—the new idea, in other words—must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.
I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create—and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.
(in a letter) May 14,1981
From a letter by Philip K. Dick, used as the preface to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1.
thunderIt was like…
like a wild animal
ribs like fishbones
like thin red leeches
they drank like dogs
It was like a sermon
true as a spirit level
like a string in a maze
He was bald as a stone
like rival bands of apes
silently as a bird alighting
mute as a tailor’s dummy
men or creatures like them
they buried their stool like cats
like effigies for to frighten birds
Yonder sun is like the eye of God
They rode either side like escorts
dark falls here like a thunderclap
The men looked like mud effigies.
like an army asleep on the march
their chins in the sand like lizards
like some naked species of lemur
something like a pound of powder
like a man beset with bees or madness
black waters all alight like cities adrift
like beings for whom the sun hungered
great steady sucking sounds like a cow
fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton
the fires on the plain faded like an evil dream
abdomens like the tracks of gigantic millipedes
leather wings like dark satanic hummingbirds
us behind him like the disciples of a new faith
he come along and raised me up like Lazarus.
jerking and lurching like a deputation of spastics
holding the coins cupped in her hands like a bird
the mules clambering along the ledges like goats
they labored on sideways over the sand like crabs
shambling past the fires like a balden groundsloth
whores call to him from the dark like souls in want
Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes
A hardlooking woman with a wiry body like a man’s.
They were shambling along the road like dumb things
our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg
The watchers looked like forms excavated from a bog.
is voice passed from him like a gift that was also needed
the old man sitting in the shrubbery solitary as a gnome
the parasol dipping in the wind like a great black flower
in his sleep he struggled and muttered like a dreaming dog
dragging themselves across the lot like seals or other things
an old anchorite nested away in the sod like a groundsloth
blackened and shriveled in the mud like an enormous spider
the kid behind him on the mule like something he’d captured
he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant
the squatting houses were made of hides ranged like curious dorys
little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going
a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent
The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand
the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus
the tent began to sway and buckle and like a huge and wounded medusa
he comes down at night like some fairybook beast to fight with the sailors
the blackened rings of the burnedout fires lay in the road like bomb-craters
Buzzards shuffled off through the chaff and plaster like enormous yardfowl
he naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation
a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise
Then he waded out into the river like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate.
the barman labored over the floor toward him like a man on his way to some chore
He looked like a great clay voodoo doll made animate and the kid looked like another.
the burnt tree stood vertically in the still dawn like a slender stylus marking the hour
he looks like a raggedyman wandered from some garden where he’d used to frighten birds
the bloody stump of the shaft jutted from his thigh like a peg for hanging implements upon
The wagons drew so dry they slouched from side to side like dogs and the sand was grinding them
They crossed a vast dry lake with rows of dead volcanoes ranged beyond it like the works of enormous insects. Continue reading “(Probably not) All of the similes in Blood Meridian”
“Pull Back and Reload: Barry Hannah in Hollywood,” a wonderful article by Will Stephenson, is new this week in Oxford American. The article focuses on Hannah’s time in Hollywood in the early 1980s, trying to develop a movie script called Power and Light with Robert Altman. Altman, (not-so-)fresh from making cult jam Popeye, was enchanted by Hannah’s 1980 novel Ray. The director invited Hannah to stay in his Malibu home to work on a script:
Hannah had driven out to Hollywood proudly on his Triumph motorcycle, he and Altman having settled on a meeting place, whereupon Altman was to guide him the rest of the way to his home in Malibu. But when Altman arrived, Hannah hadn’t showed. The filmmaker waited for an hour, increasingly frustrated, until he noticed, across the street, a peep show and adult video store. As Rapp remembers him putting it, Altman thought to himself, “That fucker would be just crazy enough . . .” He wandered inside the adult emporium and there found Hannah, deeply absorbed.
The article is pretty great, larded with nuggets from Hannah’s correspondence and not a few wild anecdotes. Check it out.
I first started getting a tad—just a tad—nervous about Hurricane Irma on Monday, September 4th. This was Labor Day. I had the day off from work, and it was a good day: beer, barbecue, swimming. Etc. Hurricane Irma was already enormous, a monstropolous beast for the record books looming in the Atlantic to eat up our beloved Florida.
I was still reading Barry Hannah’s last novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan that day; I’d finish it up a few days later. It was excellent, full of great sentences, vignettes, riffs, rants, etc. I’d say it unraveled at the end but “unravel” implies a cohesiveness that maybe isn’t quite there—I’d have to read it again to see, and it’s worth a reread. Actually, in a sense, it coheres in that it collects a number of Hannah’s former characters into a picaresque of grotesque misadventures, hung loosely on a pimp-pornographer-outcast named Man Mortimer. Man Mortimer is the closest thing to a hero the novel has, and he’s pretty evil. Let me crib from an actual review; from Christopher Tayler’s 2001 write-up in the 2001 LRB:
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the depredations of a demonic big-city outsider called Man Mortimer, ‘a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives’. Mortimer starts to take an interest in cutting people when he finds out that his sort-of girlfriend, Dee Allison – a single mother, nurse and ‘nun of apathy’ – has been unfaithful to him. Dee’s feral twin sons, meanwhile, find in a dried-up sinkhole a car containing the skeletons of Mortimer’s former lover and her child; they clean the skeletons up and take to carting them round the woods. Mortimer is initially concerned with avenging himself on Dee and reclaiming the evidence, but he soon graduates to fairly random attacks on all who cross his path – all, that is, except the poisonous Sidney Farté, who is delighted when Mortimer chops his father’s head off and replaces it with a football, since this speeds his inheritance of the family bait store.
Yonder Stands Your Orphan is often surreal and always dark; it often reminded me of David Lynch’s crime stories, with their grotesque gangsters and abject phantoms. Hell, there’s even a character named Frank Booth.
But where was I? Sorry. This riff is in part a way for me to collect the past few days into something coherent, to figure out what day it is, to prevent an unraveling. Yes, I was nervous on Labor Day, a tad. I had made a list at the beginning of that weekend of five items, chores, I mean, of which I’d accomplished four, including Clean gutters and roof. I did not complete the item I had listed as Hurricane audit.
I picked up a few flats of bottled water before my first class on Tuesday, September 5th. The shelves were already looking bare. I stopped by a Walmart and then a Lowe’s on the way home, failing to get a second gas can. Other people were starting to get a tad nervous. (Nervousness spreads like an infection).
By September 6th, it was nigh impossible to buy a generator in Jacksonville or any of its satellite cities. The college where I teach closed on Thursday, September 7th; my kids’ school closed. Everything started shutting down. There were lots of texts and calls between friends and family, basically amounting to, Should I stay or should I go? Back up plans, hotel reservations to hopefully cancel, etc.
I managed to get a generator on September 8th, which I’d crank up two days later. At this point it seemed clear, or relatively clear, that we were staying, and that family from Tampa Bay would be staying with us. September 8th was long: Trimming back suspicious branches, securing loose items from around the house’s perimeter, busting up an old playhouse that my kids really didn’t play on any more. Cooking meals that could be reheated on a grill. Rehashing plans, piling up supplies. Etc.
I finally got tired of listening to the radio (scaring the hell out of me) during this hurricane prep, and picked up the audiobook of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, translated by Olena Bormashenko, and read by Robert Forster. I basically listened to each chapter twice over the next few days. The translation is inspiring—witty and raw, noir and smart, and Robert Forster’s narration is perfect—wry, dry, sad, and profound. I need to rewatch Tarkovsky’s Stalker now. I’m a bit ashamed that I haven’t read this one before, and I found its final moments especially moving (exhausted as I was). Highly recommended.
My evacuees arrived early September 9th. The next few days are a soggy blur. A nor’easter saturated northeast Florida; the St. Johns River was already, like, full, and the peninsula I live on (a peninsula on a peninsula), was loose. Like, not firm. Irma’s big bands started hitting the First Coast with a frank sincerity. We watched the local NFL team beat Houston’s team. There’s no symbolism or irony there. I was alternating vodka with coffee with green tea. Two twin pines lord over my house, one in the back, one in the front, maybe five decades old. They swayed and swayed, pelting fresh green pine cones onto the roof for the next 24 hours or so with an admirable consistency. By 10pm Sunday night I realized that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. We lost electrical power, put the kids to bed. Branches started coming down, thudding with scary force, kick drums for the pine cones’ tight snare raps. Limbs like something heavier, thick bass notes. How did the kids sleep through it all?
By candlelight, I read the first 66 pages of João Gilberto Noll’s novella Atlantic Hotel (English translation by Adam Morris) at some point that night. Atlantic Hotel is a picaresque nightmare, one weird horror turning into another. In a way, it was perfect reading for Irma’s approach, ominous and eerie. I also don’t know how much I registered, as I kept going out in the hard wind and slanted thick rain to put a big flashlight on my backyard, where the water kept creeping up and up, eventually getting too high for my gumboot but thankfully never spilling into my house. The feeling of reading Atlantic Hotel registered—the tone, the mood, the rhythm—but not the plot or the anonymous lead character. I’ll have to hit Reset on it.
By 3:00am the brunt of the storm cascaded over my own personal house (yes); the pine cones hailed down in a rhythm like hard rain, punctuated by larger crashes of pine limbs and other debris. For unreasonable reasons I will never know, I pulled out Keats and read Lamia with a bigass flashlight. The storm band somewhat subsided; I rested my eyes for an hour or two, then the whole thing commenced again. By nine in the morning it seemed the worst of the storm had passed, and I slept. Lamia snaked into my dreams, coiled into Irma. My son woke me up at 10:30am—a house down the street was on fire. Some asshole had cranked his generator in his garage—his closed garage!—next to his gas cans and propane tank and car. The garage burned; the car exploded, along with the other car in the driveway.
That Sunday, September 11th saw historic flooding in the urban core of Jacksonville. My kids’ school, about a third of a mile from my house, flooded. While trudging around in the late afternoon in our gumboots, happy to be free of our sweltering house for a bit, we saw two teams of Army Rangers paddle up a canal, onto the street, there to evacuate stranded old folks. Surreal. Word traveled about other locations underwater—a flooded Publix, a ruined boatyard, Memorial Park a lake. The worst rumor, to me anyway, was that my beloved used bookstore, Chamblin Bookmine, was underwater. I still can’t bring myself to go over there. I know where it is and how high the water got.
These past few days, I listened to my favorite audiobook during much of the cleanup—Richard Poe’s recording of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. What a strange awful comfort. A tree fell on my carport and shed, but they held, sorta. My lawn is a stinking mess, the blazing sun pulling out the water in humid reeking waves. The squelch of it all is something damn else. The pine trees dropped plenty of enormous limbs, but none did real damage. Up on the roof yesterday, clearing one off, I shuddered at its size and weight. I shuddered because of course It could have been so much worse. I’m thankful.
Raymond suddenly knew it was time to return to the bad restaurant and then his ache for visions would be satisfied. The bad restaurant would stay when only zombies prevailed. It served food for the dead, tired fishermen and humble vacationers worsened the instant they sat down and had the bad water. Thousands like it at state lines, watering holes in the great western deserts, far flung Idaho and Maine. Their owners say, “We just couldn’t help it, we were food people. We never said good food people.”
Raymond was in the pawnshop looking at a delightful saxophone and about to buy it when the feeling hit him. What he would see and be transformed by was right next door to his own cottage, not out in the fars, the wides, the bars or churches. He put the saxophone down and within seconds saw a shadow past the shop. It was a man hobbling and slurring of the few words he could manage, and Raymond was positive it was Mimi’s old ex, what was left of him after the suicide attempt in Vicksburg, rolling and pitching up Market and the pawns to find Raymond. He went out to the walk and saw nothing but a red car leaving. And he followed it in his own. Mimi it was in Miami singing with another band for a couple of weeks. He was alone. He knew this was right. He had not eaten for two days, for no good reason. The moment was pressing.
A zombie had just waited on him in the pawnshop, a man who stood there remarking on the history of this saxophone. In apparently good health, in decent clothes and well groomed, polite, but quite obviously dead and led by someone beyond. You could look at them and know they are spaces ahead into othernewss. Not at all adolescent either, that natural Teutonic drifting or the sullenness without content. They might still be people, but unlikely.
Everything about the zombie is ravaged except his obsessions, thought Raymond, following the red car. Dead to every other touch. They simply imitate when there is movement or sound. They imitate the conversations around them to seem human to one another. He had seen them in scores from the airports to the bandstands imitating one another, mimicking the next mimicker in no time, no space, no place, no history.
The bad restaurant even had bad-food loungers and loiterers, hard to shake when they got a good imitation of you going. The restaurant with its RESTAURANT sign. Its mimicking of the dining life, yet no edible food, bad water and a weak tea to go with that. Refill that beige for you, sir? Every dish served in contempt for what used to be human. Rations for an unannounced war.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan
“Most animals live a short while,” said Ulrich, “but I had a revelation. That we cannot know the intensity of their lives, which is hundreds of times more attuned than ours. They don’t talk because they don’t need speech. A dog, when it puts its head out a car window, smells almost everything in a county, a world we never even suspect and have no description for. That is why I am daft. I have flown and smelled the smells, Carl Bob. I have known life by my nose. That’s why the dog looks so ecstatic sniffing in the wind. They smell a thousand times more than we do. We could only know it as hallucinatory sense. Dogs are in space and time. We can only know one or the other, plodding, toddling. Not to mention hearing. And taste. Water is fifty times more delicious to them. We must not pity them, a cheap passive hobby. They live huge lives before they die. Watch how happy sleep is to them, and right next to waking. They live both at once. We are predators not only of meat but of essence, my friend. We want to be them because they have spoken to us without speaking and we can hardly bear their superiority.”
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
The sheriff was doing a five-minute commentary on the Weekend Review on television Saturday night. Both Dee and Melanie watched.
“The world is full of middle-aged men who seek revenge. The anger passes for most when they see there is no way. The rate of incarceration is very low for first-time offenders of sixty. For some, there is a bigger engine of hate even then, running at the red line and very vigilant toward what they might consider insults or even bossiness. They aren’t just having it, the engine, like the others. They are it. They have not been aware of this, and their acts confound them. Those are ones you see on television or in the newspapers discussing sodomy, rape, kidnapping and murder in the passive voice, something happened, somebody was killed and so on, sometimes even giggling. ‘Mistakes were made, yes, when she was killed. I can’t remember, really.’ Such as that.”
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
João Gilberto Noll’s novella Atlantic Hotel is new English translation by Adam Morris from Two Lines Press. I loved loved loved the last one I read by Noll, Quiet Creature on the Corner. Full review to come; for now, here’s Two Lines’ blurb:
Compared by critics to filmmaker David Lynch—and deeply influenced by Clarice Lispector—João Gilberto Noll is esteemed as one of Brazil’s living legends. Following the breakthrough success of last year’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, Two Lines Press now presents Noll’s career-defining work, Atlantic Hotel.
Just who narrates the dark and mysterious Atlantic Hotel? First he books a room where a murder has occurred, claiming he’s just arrived from the airport. But then he suddenly leaves, telling a cabbie he’s an alcoholic headed for detox. After that he hops on an all-night bus across Brazil, where he begins to seduce a beautiful American woman. Next he’s recognized as a soap opera actor. Then he impersonates a priest.
At length he knocks on a very wrong door in a small town: when it opens he’s looking down the barrel of a gun. He falls down unconscious, and when he awakes something terrible is happening to him…
All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and personal computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the place ain’t what it used to be.
The byproduct of the lifestyle is polluted rivers, greenhouse effect, spouse abuse, televangelists, and serial killers. But as long as you have that four-wheel-drive vehicle and can keep driving north, you can sustain it, keep moving just quickly enough to stay one step ahead of your own waste stream. In twenty years, ten million white people will converge on the north pole and park their bagos there. The low-grade waste heat of their thermodynamically intense lifestyle will turn the crystalline icescape pliable and treacherous. It will melt a hole through the polar icecap, and all that metal will sink to the bottom, sucking the biomass down with it.
From Neal Stephenson’s prescient 1992 cyberthriller Snow Crash.
Did you see Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list? I saw it this morning, and on the whole it ain’t half bad, despite including way too many novels from the past 10 years. Lists are stupid and maybe we already live in a dystopia, but our dystopia could be way way worse and lists are stupid fun…so—my stupid thoughts on this stupid fun list. (They organized it chronologically, by the bye)—-
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726: Good starting place, although I’m sure you could reach farther back if you wanted—Revelations, Blake, Milton, etc.
The Last Man, Mary Shelley, 1826: Never read it. The listmakers seem to have skipped Voltaire’s Candide (1759).
Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872: Hey, did you know that Erewhon is actually Nowhere backwards? Ooooh…far out. I really don’t remember it but I read it in school. I’m sure I would’ve thrown it on the list.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895: Great track. Some of the best required reading ever.
“The Machine Stops,” E.M. Forster, 1909: Never read it/never heard of it.
We, Yvegny Zamyatin, 1924: The list reminded me I need to reread this one—I read it twice—in my teens and in my twenties. Good stuff. (Also reminds me that I would’ve added something by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list—like his collection Memories of the Future).
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932: This is the guy. I mean, I think Huxley got it right here, y’know? Not that a dystopian novel needs to predict, but…anyway. I actually had a student come by during office hours just to visit, and she asked for a novel recommendation, and I gave her BNW after she told me 1984 was the last great book she’d read. If I recall correctly, the Vulture list only has one duplicate author (Margaret Atwood), but I’d also add Huxley’s often-overlooked novel Ape and Essence.
It Can’t Happen Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 1935: I think this is one of those ones where I know the basic plot, themes, etc., but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.
Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin, 1937: An entry that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, the sort of thing that shows the value in stupid silly fun lists. I’ll search it out.
1984, George Orwell, 1949: I guess this one is the big dawg, but I never want to reread it (unlike Huxley’s stuff). Maybe I’m missing the humor in it. Maybe the most important novel of the 20th century, whatever that means. Continue reading “Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list”
Last night at one of his homes, the big fifties-ranch-style one, he had watched on his large flat screen Phillips television the film clips and recitation of a minister. A curious breed of faith, perhaps not even Christian.
“Why do people look for science, science fiction and signs of the End? Why do they seek the Revelation of the Apocalypse here and there and chant the old chants of the coming Antichrist, the Four Horsemen? Science fiction has already been had, fools. It was the Battle of Kursk, German tanks against Russian tanks, fifty-seven years ago. It was Leningrad, Stalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, idiots! What does it take, a sock in the jaw for you to get it that the Forces of Darkness fought then? The Antichrist on both sides. Piss on Star Wars. Nothing touches WW Two for science fiction and wasteland.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Ulrich had been quiet, painting on deck varnish. Now he spoke. “We don’t love each other as much as we used to. You can see the uncertain looks, the calculations, the dismissals. People are not even in the present moment. Everybody’s been futurized. You look in those eyes and see they’re not home, they’re some hours ahead at least. I hate to go into Vicksburg anymore. Anywhere, really. It’s all like meeting people who have just departed. Old men and women don’t look wise anymore. They are just aged children. And who gets the highest pay? Actors. Paid to mimic life because there is no life. You look at everybody and maybe they’re a little sad, some of ’em. They’re all homesick for when they were real.” Ulrich began painting again as the others tried to guess what could have prompted this.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. It was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.
The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:
I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!
And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—
I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read. Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.
I was at the bookstore last week, killing a spare hour, looking for nothing in particular, when I spotted a first edition Knopf paperback copy of William Gaddis’s novel J R. The book is one of my favorites—I first read it in 2012 and then again in 2016 (which maybe means I’ll reread it again in 2020?). I’ll cobble really quickly from my 2016 review here:
Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves)). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J R is the Great American Novel to Come . . .
The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.
. . . in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?
Well so and anyway, I was browsing the shelves of my local, looking for nothing, as I said, although I was ambling through the “GA-” section in the hopes of maybe picking up a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel, when I spied the J R, with its bold oh-so-seventies design, its big stiff spine unbroken and seemingly unbent. After handling it a few minutes, I resigned myself to a pic and a tweet—
I didn’t intend to buy another paperback copy of J R, even a first edition, even though it was only seven bucks, and even though I have trade credit out the ying-yang there—I mean, I have a perfectly fine Penguin edition; better to leave the J R for some other person to acquire, no? But qithin a few minutes Twitter folks had talked me out of my plan to not acquire it, advice that was perhaps not unwanted.
The Knopf edition—the cover design is by Janet Halverson, by the way—has a much longer summary blurb than my 1993 edition (and indeed, a much longer summary blurb than one usually sees on a paperback). The Penguin edition features an introduction by Frederick Karl (that readers should wait to read until after they’ve finished the book), a bibliography of “Suggestions for Further Reading,” and a new dedication page: “For Matthew: Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more” (I’m guessing the dedication is to Gaddis’s son Matthew). The ’93 Penguin does not have this though:
But! The Penguin edition’s colophon promises that “Errors in the original publication have been corrected by the author for the first Penguin edition” (1985 btw).
Other than that, the two edition are pretty much typographically the same—the pages are aligned, and both editions are consistent with the same typographical oddities, like JR’s famous handwritten “Alsaka” memo and his logo designs and Gibbs’s pocket scrap citations.
The big difference between the two editions (besides the cover, obviously) can be summed up in this image—the seventies Knopf is above the nineties Penguin:
The Penguin edition is slightly larger with much better binding. I’ve read it twice and I never had to break its spine; I’m pretty sure that the Knopf I picked up has never been read—and also that a serious reading would crack its spine pretty badly.
The most recent edition of J R is from Dalkey, and includes an essay by Rick Moody as its introduction. I don’t have a copy of it, but it has 752 pages—the other editions have 726 pages (which the Gaddis Annotations project match up to). I’ve handled the Dalkey, and I recall it being smaller and stiffer than the Penguin. Basically, I think, as of now, the Penguin edition is probably the best option for anyone wanting to read the book. So I love the cover of the 70’s first edition I’ve got, but I doubt I’ll be reading it soon (or, like in 2020 when I read the book again).