Seek some witness | A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

The black eyes all shifted to the leader of their small clan. He sat for a long time. It was very quiet. Out on the road one of the oxen began to piss loudly. Finally he shaped his mouth and said that he believed that fate had intervened in the matter for its own good reasons. He said that fate might enter into the affairs of men in order to contravene them or set them at naught but to say that fate could deny the true and uphold the false would seem to be a contradictory view of things. To speak of a will in the world that ran counter to one’s own was one thing. To speak of such a will that ran counter to the truth was quite another, for then all was rendered senseless. Billy then asked him if it was his notion that the false plane had been swept away by God in order to single out the true and the gypsy said that it was not. When Billy said that he had understood him to say that it was God who had ultimately made the decision concerning the two planes the gypsy said that he believed that to be so but he did not believe that by this act God had spoken to anyone. He said that he was not a superstitious man. The gypsies heard this out and then turned to Billy to see how he would respond. Billy said that it seemed to him that the freighters did not hold the identity of the airplane to be of any great consequence but the gitano only turned and studied him with those dark and troubled eyes. He said that it was indeed of consequence and that it was in fact the whole burden of their inquiry. From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither. He said that in any case the past was little more than a dream and its force in the world greatly exaggerated. For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.

La cascara no es la cosa, he said. It looked the same. But it was not.

Y la tercera historia? said Billy.

La tercera historia, said the gypsy, es esta. El existe en la historia de las historias. Es que ultimadamente la verdad no puede quedar en ningun otro lugar sino en el habla. He held his hands before him and looked at his palms. As if they may have been at some work not of his own doing. The past, he said, is always this argument between counterclaimants. Memories dim with age. There is no repository for our images. The loved ones who visit us in dreams are strangers. To even see aright is effort. We seek some witness but the world will not provide one. This is the third history. It is the history that each man makes alone out of what is left to him. Bits of wreckage. Some bones. The words of the dead. How make a world of this? How live in that world once made?

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. 

The wolf had crossed the international boundary line at about the point where it intersected the thirtieth minute of the one hundred and eighth meridian | A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing

The wolf had crossed the international boundary line at about the point where it intersected the thirtieth minute of the one hundred and eighth meridian and she had crossed the old Nations road a mile north of the boundary and followed Whitewater Creek west up into the San Luis Mountains and crossed through the gap north to the Animas range and then crossed the Animas Valley and on into the Peloncillos as told. She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

She wandered the eastern slopes of the Sierra de la Madera for a week. Her ancestors had hunted camels and primitive toy horses on these grounds. She found little to eat. Most of the game was slaughtered out of the country. Most of the forest cut to feed the boilers of the stampmills at the mines. The wolves in that country had been killing cattle for a long time but the ignorance of the animals was a puzzle to them. The cows bellowing and bleeding and stumbling through the mountain meadows with their shovel feet and their confusion, bawling and floundering through the fences and dragging posts and wires behind. The ranchers said they brutalized the cattle in a way they did not the wild game. As if the cows evoked in them some anger. As if they were offended by some violation of an old order. Old ceremonies. Old protocols.

She crossed the Bavispe River and moved north. She was carrying her first litter and she had no way to know the trouble she was in. She was moving out of the country not because the game was gone but because the wolves were and she needed them. When she pulled down the veal calf in the snow at the head of Foster Draw in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico she had eaten little but carrion for two weeks and she wore a haunted look and she’d found no trace of wolves at all. She ate and rested and ate again. She ate till her belly dragged and she did not go back. She would not return to a kill. She would not cross a road or a rail line in daylight. She would not cross under a wire fence twice in the same place. These were the new protocols. Strictures that had not existed before. Now they did.

She ranged west into Cochise County in the state of Arizona, across the south fork of Skeleton Creek and west to the head of Starvation Canyon and south to Hog Canyon Springs. Then east again to the high country between Clanton and Foster draws. At night she would go down onto the Animas Plains and drive the wild antelope, watching them flow and turn in the dust of their own passage where it rose like smoke off the basin floor, watching the precisely indexed articulation of their limbs and the rocking movements of their heads and the slow bunching and the slow extension of their running, looking for anything at all among them that would name to her her quarry.

At this season the does were already carrying calves and as they commonly aborted long before term the one least favored so twice she found these pale unborn still warm and gawking on the ground, milkblue and near translucent in the dawn like beings miscarried from another world entire. She ate even their bones where they lay blind and dying in the snow. Before sunrise she was off the plain and she would raise her muzzle where she stood on some low promontory or rock overlooking the valley and howl and howl again into that terrible silence. She might have left the country altogether if she had not come upon the scent of a wolf just below the high pass west of Black Point. She stopped as if she’d walked into a wall.

She circled the set for the better part of an hour sorting and indexing the varied scents and ordering their sequences in an effort to reconstruct the events that had taken place here. When she left she went down through the pass south following the tracks of the horses now thirty-six hours old.

By evening she’d found all eight of the sets and she was back at the gap of the mountain again where she circled the trap whining. Then she began to dig. She dug a hole alongside the trap until the caving dirt fell away to reveal the trap’s jaw. She stood looking at it. She dug again. When she left the set the trap was sitting naked on the ground with only a handful of dirt over the waxed paper covering the pan and when the boy and his father rode through the gap the following morning that was what they found.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing.

Best Books of 1973?

A conversation with a colleague in January of 2022 led to my blogging about the possible “Best Books of 1972.” The post was fun to research, so here’s a sequel of sorts: What were the best books from fifty years ago?

(I don’t have to do any research for a quick answer: Gravity’s Rainbow was the best novel of 1973.)

Just as in last year’s post, I’m mostly interested in novels here, or books of a novelistic/artistic scope.

Still, with that said, I’ll begin with commerce: What were the bestsellers of 1973? The New York Times bestsellers list for 1973 picks up where their ’72 list left off, with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull leading sales for the first 11 weeks (Bach’s novel was the bestseller of 1972 for half a year). Genre fiction from Frederick Forsyth, Jacqueline Susann, and Mary Stewart accounts for more than half the year. More notable bestsellers include Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. (Gravity’s Rainbow was not a chart topper.)

Critic John Leonard’s end of the year wrap up for the Times in 1973 is especially instructive. He leads with Gravity’s Rainbow, describing it as

…one of the longest, darkest, most difficult and most ambitious novels in years. Its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville, Faulkner and Nabokov and establish Pynchon’s imaginative continuity with the great modernist movement of the early years of this century. Gravity’s Rainbow is bone‐crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, poetic, dull, inspired, horrific, cold and blasted.

Leonard also recommends Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark (“her most artful exploration of her major themes: the relation of self and society, intelligence and feeling, madness and health, and, above all, the role of modern woman”) and John Leonard Clive’s  Macaulay, the Shaping of the Historian.

Some notable titles that the editors of the NYT Book Review append to Leonard’s feature include Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, Thomas McGuane’s Ninety‐Two in the Shade, and John Cheever’s The World of Apples. The editors also call out “disappointing efforts by Don DeLillo (Great Jones Street) and Marge Piercy (Small Changes).”

In addition to the essayistic feature, the Times also offered up an extensive list of notable titles. There are around 200 books on this list, which I’ve used to help generate my own list at the end of this post. (The most interesting entry I’d never heard of is The Exile of James Joyce by Helene Cixous 

Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter is not on the list because it was not published in 1973. It was published in 1972. But it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1973.

Infamously, there was no Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction in 1974, even though the jurists were unanimous in their recommendation that Thomas Pynchon win it for Gravity’s Rainbow. (Gravity’s Rainbow did win the 1974 National Book Award.)

The New York Times list also fails to include Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm. White won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.

Neither does the NYT list include Alan Gardner’s Red Shift, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, Anna Kavan’s Who Are You?, Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Devil Tree, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Charles Bukowski’s South of No North, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born or Thomas Rockwell’s juvenile classic How to Eat Fried Worms.

Here is my (almost certainly incomplete) list of the best books of 1973:

Água Viva, Clarice Lispector

The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Child of God,  Cormac McCarthy

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, B. S. Johnson

Crash, J.G. Ballard

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Red Shift, Alan Gardner

State of Grace, Joy Williams

Sula, Toni Morrison

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

Here is my short (complete) list:

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon

A few sentences on every book I read or reread in 2022

☉ indicates a reread.

☆ indicates an outstanding read.

In some cases, I’ve self-plagiarized some descriptions and evaluations from my old tweets and blog posts.

Red Shift, Alan Garner ☆

Three plots, three eras, one place: Roman-conquered England, English Civil War, contemporary (early seventies) England. Great read, reminded me a bit of Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

Tyll, Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Ross Benjamin

Tyll Ulenspiegel teaches himself to walk the tightrope and becomes the greatest jester of his age, bearing witness to the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. Very funny, slightly cruel.

The Silentiary, Antonio di Benedetto, trans. Esther Allen

In my review, I wrote that “The Silentiary is ultimately a sad, though never dour, read” that “does not wax elegaic for a romanticized, quieter past” or “call to make peace with cacophony.” The cacophony is modernity, and Di Benedetto’s sad hero does all he can to resist it. (He fails.)

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, Cynthia Ozick

Moments of sharp criticism marred by “old-man-yells-at-cloud” vibes. The thematic undercurrent of the collection is the anxiety of loss of influence.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, trans. Megan McDowell

I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I did.

Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs ☉☆

Burroughs’ final trilogy was a highlight of 2022 for me. I read the first book when I was far too young to understand it (not that I “understand” it now so much as feel it). The trilogy as a whole is an underrated postmodern classic, eclipsed by Burroughs’ cult of personality and weird sixties stuff. The strange beautiful ending of Cities collapses narrative into a performative verbal utopia. Has another book so accurately captured the all-at-onceness of dreams and nightmares?

I sneaked a whole thing into a blog about the rumors that Burroughs used a ghostwriter in his later years to clean up his final trilogy.

The Soft Machine, William S. Burroughs ☉☆

A reread, a kind of quick chaser while I tried to secure the next book in Burroughs’ last trilogy.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Simon Armitage

I listened to the audiobook (which included the original text) and really enjoyed it. I had intended to take it in before watching the film The Green Knight, but then I forgot to watch the film. (I still haven’t seen it.)

Moon Witch, Spider King, Marlon James

I wrote a few posts about James’s follow up to his outstanding 2020 novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. In the last post I wrote on the novel, I concluded with “More thoughts to come” and then I never blogged about it again. After the dazzle of its predecessor, Moon Witch was a (big) disappointment—but I’ll read the next installment.

Fidelity, Grace Paley

I don’t usually just sit down and read a whole book of poetry, but that’s what happened here. Checked it out from the library and it really stuck with me—playful, sad, focused on the end of life.

Don’t Hide the Madness, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg

A series of conversations between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is getting pretty close to the end of his life here, and Ginsberg seems to want to get him to further cement a cultural legacy through a late oral autobiography. Burroughs repeatedly derails these attempts though, which is hilarious. Burroughs talks about whatever comes to mind (often his guns). Loved it

Two Slatterns and a King, Edna St. Vincent Millay

A short play. I don’t really remember it.

The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada, trans. David Boyd

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

The Very Last Interview, David Shields

The Last Interview: pretentious, solipsistic, shallow, bathetic, and very readable. Hated it!

Augustus, John Williams ☆

Loved it. Fantastic stuff. A good friend recommended it and I read it, even though the premise seemed worked to death already. Nevermind—good writing is good writing.

Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin

Not really sure how I’d only read two of the stories here before this year. Good stuff.

Harrow, Joy Williams ☆

Williams takes the “post-apocalyptic” quite literally–Harrow is about post-revelation, an uncovering, a delayed judgment from an idiot savant. It’s one of those books you immediately start again and see that what appeared to be baggy riffing was knotting so tight you couldn’t recognize it the first time through — the appropriate style for a novel that dramatizes Nietzsche’s eternal return as a mediation of preapocalyptic consciousness in a post-apocalyptic world.

Telluria, Vladimir Sorokin ☆

One of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices. Read it!

The Adding Machine, William S. Burroughs

A quick, lucid read and another stop-gap before I got a copy of The Place of Dead Roads.

The Place of Dead Roads, William S. Burroughs ☆

The strongest and strangest of Burroughs’ final trilogy.

The Western Lands, William S. Burroughs ☆

The weakest entry in the final trilogy; still great stuff and more electric than any contemporary sci-fi schlock out there.

Rip It Up, Kou Machida, trans. Daniel Joseph

A strange little chaser for the Burroughs trilogy, this Japanese novel is equally alienating and self-indulgent stuff, conjuring a desperate, stuffy world punctured by punkrock linguistic resistance.

The Trees, Percival Everett

A novel about racist lynchings shouldn’t really be this funny. The world of The Trees is simultaneously cartoonish and brutally realistic, its comedic overtures exploding into the awful, visceral immediacy of a history of racial violence that is not actually a history at all, but a lived reality.

A Short History of Russia, Mark Galeotti

I read this (and really enjoyed it) as I reread Sorokin’s Telluria.

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

An interesting concept marred by awful prose. I was not the intended audience.

Revenge of the Scapegoat, Caren Beilin

I can’t encapsulate this zany, cruel novel into a pithy sentence or two. Read my review if you want me to justify my sentiment that this is an excellent book.

The Deer, Dashiel Carrera 

Carrera’s debut novel is sometimes brilliant, often frustrating, gloomy, surreal, and terse.

2666, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Natasha Wimmer ☉☆

My fourth full trip through 2666 was an audiobook this time. I’ll go through it again.

The Living End, Stanley Elkin

A perfect comedic chaser to the weight of 2666. The Living End, like the other novels I’ve read by Elkin, is probably best understood as a series of vaudevillian riffs—but those riffs add up to a wonderful metaphysical complaint here. Great stuff.

Prison Pit, Johnny Ryan

Abject violence and every manner of cruel depravity. Problematic! Mean! Funny stuff!

The Lonely Boxer, Michael Anthony Perri

A terse, dark (and often funny) boxing story packed with punchy sentences.

Blue Lard, Vladimir Sorokin, trans. Max Lawton ☆

I think Lawton’s translation of Blue Lard is out next year from NYRB, and I’ll wait until then to write more about it. If you were to ask me what my favorite book of 2022 is, I’d probably say, “Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria,” but the truth is my favorite book of 2022 is Vladimir Sorokin’s Blue Lard—but that isn’t out yet.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett ☆

I generally detest what might be termed autofiction unless it is particularly excellent, interesting, perceptive, and well-written: which proves that genre labels really don’t mean that much. Checkou 19 is particularly excellent, interesting, perceptive, and well-written, and I will continue to read whatever Bennett publishes.

Paradais, Fernanda Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes

While Paradais is not as rich and full (and really, just long) as Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season, it’s cut from the same abject cloth. Two kids working towards becoming full-time alcoholics in an upscale development somewhere in Mexico ruin their lives. It’s a grimy glowing postmodern gothic, part of the Nothing Good Happens genre of what I think of as the Nothing Good Happens genre, reminiscent of Handke’s Funny Games, Bolaño’s myth crimes, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon romance terrors. Good stuff.

Minor Detail, Adania Shibli, trans. Elisabeth Jaquette

A short book in two distinct halves, extrapolating individual trauma onto the trauma of the Palestinian people as a whole. Another one I wanted to like more than I did.

Dull Margaret, Jim Broadbent and Dix

Actor Jim Broadbent made a graphic novel with the artist Dix based on Bruegel’s painting Dulle Griet—and it’s really good!

Their Four Hearts, Vladimir Sorokin, trans. Max Lawton

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Their Four Hearts made me physically ill several times. To be clear, the previous statement is a form of praise.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy ☉☆

I read it or audiobook it at least once a year. I found myself falling asleep to the audiobook every night, picking it up in random places.

A Shock, Keith Ridgway ☆

The rondel of stories in A Shock coalesce into a novel that captures the weird energy of consciousness butting up against concrete reality. Standout story “The Sweat” ends with a three page monologue that begins “Happiness is lovely to come across.” Probably one of the best passages I read all year.

The Setting Sun, Osamu Dazai, trans. Donald Keene

Another book I wanted to like more than I actually did.

Players, Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s early novel reads like a dress rehearsal for the midperiod stuff (particularly The Names, Libra, and Mao II). A novel of boredom, transience, games and their players.

Fireworks, Angela Carter

If the pieces here are not as refined and unified as the anti-fairy tales that comprise Carter’s more-celebrated collection The Bloody Chamber, they are all the more fascinating as studies in sadomasochism, alienation, and the emerging of a new literary consciousness.

Tripticks, Ann Quin ☆

Quin’s fourth and final novel (in print again for the first time in two decades, thanks to And Other Stories) is a radical satire of America. It’s a road novel and an anti-road novel, elegant and messy, sexy and ugly, cruel and generous. The narrative plays out in a cartoonish, slapdash sequences of chases across the American West—the narrator is either chasing one of his ex-wives and her new lover, or is being chased by them. Flashbacks interject without transition or any other warning, treating us to grotesque cavalcade of characters, including the ex-wife’s father and mother (the father is a particularly wonderful satire of the American self-made noveau riche blowhard) and a sex cult leader. Quin also slices in lists that start somewhat orderly and then explode into hyperbole and/or bathos. The germ of Tripticks was first published in the J.G. Ballard and Martin Bax’s seminal journal Ambit as part of a contest. The gimmick was to write a story Under the Influence of Drugs. Quin won with her story, composed under the influence of the contraceptive pill.

My Phantoms, Gwendoline Riley

An unhappy novel about an unhappy family. Saw way too much of myself in this one.

Cardinal Numbers, Hob Broun ☆

I feel as if Cardinal Numbers were written specifically for me. Hob Broun’s shorts (not stories, not tales) are like an intersection of Barry Hannah and David Berman—funny, devastating, enigmatic, thoughtful. Cardinal Numbers is the best collection of short stories that no one has ever heard of.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carre ☆

Fun fun fun fun fun sad fun fun fun fun dark fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun dark fun fun fun fun fun bit weird fun fun fun fun fun fun more fun fun fun fun

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy ☆

I riffed a lot on McCarthy’s baggy opus and read exactly one review of it (Joy Williams’), but I was still attuned to enough chatter to get the impression that many people did not like The Passenger. My take is something like: The Passenger is McCarthy’s messy, sad, joyful synthesis of McCarthy’s oeuvre. If Suttree is his attempt to synthesize the American literature before it into something new (which it is), McCarthy’s last (?) big novel does the same—but for McCarthy’s books. I tried to get at that idea in some of my riffs on the book. But I’ll understand too if folks wanted Something Else from The Passenger. I loved it.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy ☉☆

I read it again for the first time in years as a kind of comedown from The Passenger as I waited for Stella Maris to drop. I’ll read the other Border Trilogy books next year.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

A slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one. I think Gwendoline Riley is a good writer but I don’t think I’ll read anymore Riley novels.

Hello America, J.G. Ballard

You’d think a novel where President Manson wants to make America great Again would feel more prescient, but Ballard’s so in love here with the sparkle and pop of Pop Art America that he fails to attend to the dirt, grease, and grime that make the machine run. A fun novel, but its contemporary currency is squashed not so much by historical reality as the weight of Ballard’s oeuvre before it.

Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino

A messy book about a messy decade of filmmaking. Tarantino names a bajillion films in Cinema Speculation and makes me want to watch almost all of them. Some of his recommendations fall short of his praise (Joe) while others exceed it (Hi, Mom! and Rolling Thunder). This book almost reads like an elegy to moviegoing as a communal experience that will never come back.

Monsters, Barry Windsor-Smith ☆

When I was a kid, Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X was a revelation to me, one which (perhaps ironically, as it was a Marvel comic book featuring mainstream comics’ most popular character) led me away from Marvel and DC comics into alternative stuff. When I saw Monsters on the shelf of my college library, I immediately checked it out, a little bit confused that I simply had never heard of something so big and beautiful. When I started the novel, I was a bit worried that it was simply a retooling of the Weapon X material (itself a retooling of Shelley’s Frankenstein)—but that isn’t the case. Sweeping, dense, sad, and occasionally unexpectedly funny, Monsters is Windsor-Smith’s masterpiece, a word I don’t use lightly.

Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy

Above, I claimed that The Passenger is McCarthy’s self-synthesis of his own oeuvre. Stella Maris is the incestuous sibling of that novel, one that has to be read intertextually against it/with it—a call to read these last (?) works with/against the McCarthy novels that preceded them.

Dr. No, Percival Everett

While I was reading Stella Maris a second time, I started Everett’s Dr. No on audiobook. This was at the suggestion of Hoopla, the service my library uses. I knew that Dr. No was Everett’s new novel, and that was about it. I didn’t know that it was about a mathematician who studies nothing. It would be hard to overstate the overlap between Dr. No and Stella Maris (hell, the female protagonist in Everett’s novel is a topologist!), but they couldn’t be more tonally different. One of my favorite gags in Dr. No is the naming of characters—Everett gives characters names like “Stephanie Meyer,” “George Bush,” and “Otis Redding.” And while this initially seems like a (perhaps-lazy) postmodern joke, it ends up paying dividends in the novel’s central themes of nothing butting up against the prospect of naming nothing.

At the Doors and Other Stories, Boris Pilnyak, trans. Emily Laskin, Isaac Zisman, Louis Lozowick, Sofia Himmel, John Cournos

A lovely little book by a Russian author I’d never heard of. The title story “At the Doors” reminds me very much of “Mondaugen’s Story” in Pynchon’s V.—a strange mix of terror, grime, and zaniness that resists neat coherence. Good stuff!

The familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection | From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.

If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.

From William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.

The freed and missing passenger | Joy Williams on Cormac McCarthy’s latest novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris

At Harper’s, novelist Joy Williams has a nice long essay on Cormac McCarthy’s novels The Passenger and Stella Maris. Williams begins with a concern that I think is fundamental to reading these novels: How do they talk to each other?

Cormac McCarthy’s latest offering—in that word’s fundamentally spiritual sense—is The Passenger and its coda or addendum, Stella Maris. One is prompted to read The Passenger first (it came out in October) and Stella Maris second (it came out in December). If, however, you dare to test the trickster and begin with Stella Maris—a 189-page conversation between a psychiatrist and his patient—it will seriously trouble your perception of The Passenger. If you read the books in order, you might find Stella Maris (Latin for Star of the Sea, a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin) coldly underwhelming despite, or perhaps because of, the erudition of the twenty-one-year-old, debatably schizophrenic, suicidal math genius Alice Western.

Williams focuses heavily on Stella Maris at the outset of her essay, offering a stable timeline for the two novels. If you’ve read The Passenger and Stella Maris, you know that McCarthy withholds a linear, chronological plot. Williams’ plot-making though foregrounds something that’s easy to miss in a first-reading of The Passenger: Bobby is in a coma, officially brain dead after a racing accident. Williams writes that,

The invention of brain death serves the timeline of The Passenger well, and traversing this twisting line, tracing and retracing it, contesting it, surrendering to it, is one of the great and pleasurable challenges of these books. Is there a narrative line? The Kid thinks it’s important to locate one even if, as he says, it doesn’t hold up in court. As for McCarthy, plot has always been irrelevant to his purposes.

What are those purposes?

McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation.


Cormac McCarthy is interested in . . . the unconscious and in the distaste for language the unconscious harbors and the mystery of the evolution of language, which chose only one species to evolve in. He’s interested in the preposterous acceptance that one thing—a sound that becomes a word—can refer to another thing, mean another thing, replacing the world bit by bit with what can be said about it.


. . . the overwhelming subject is the soul. Where can it be found? By what means does it travel? Is it frightened when we take leave of it? Can it find rest in the darkness? Animula vagula blandula. The soul. The freed and missing passenger.

I could continue to cherrypick at Williams’ essay, but will instead simply recommend you read it yourself. There’s all kinds of insights there—McCarthy’s weakness in portraying women; the homelessness motif of The Passenger; a brief cataloging of his oeuvre to date.

For me, the most interesting idea in Williams’ essay–which she never directly states–is that Bobby is actually brain dead and that the events in his chapters of The Passenger take place in his unconscious mind.

Williams’ essay was the first (and so far only) review of McCarthy’s latest novels that I’ve read. Thanks to BLCKDGRD for sending a scan of his physical copy my way last week.

OOPS! (William Gaddis)


Another little nugget from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. Their description:

The Freedom Forum calendar showing a quote concerning the Pulitzer Prize by William Gaddis on December 15, 1995. Includes autograph commentary by Gaddis.

Thomas Pynchon sells his archive

At The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reports that Thomas Pynchon has sold his archive to Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

The article notes that the “archive includes 48 boxes — 70 linear feet, in archivist-speak — of material dating from the late 1950s to the 2020s” and includes :typescripts and drafts of all his published books”  to date as well as “copious research notes on the many, many subjects (World War II rocketry, postal history, 18th-century surveying) touched on in his encyclopedic novels.” And while the documents include letters related to publishing, it includes “no private letters or other personal material” — and no photographs of Pynchon.

The article also claims that Pynchon’s son Jackson “is described as having ‘compiled and represented the archive.'” (The passive voice there is a bit cryptic, but I guess cryptic is Pynchonian, so.)

The article offers a number of quotes from Sandra Brooke, the director of Huntington Library, including the notion that “‘a really substantial portion of the archive’ would be available in Pynchon’s lifetime.”

I’d love to see that lifetime go on and on, and even offer up a new novel.

“Not His Best” — Joy Williams

“Not His Best”


Joy Williams

from 99 Stories of God

Franz Kafka once called his writing a form of prayer.

He also reprimanded the long-suffering Felice Bauer in a letter: “I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse.”

He frequently fretted that he was not a human being and that what he bore on his body was not a human head. Once he dreamt that as he lay in bed, he began to jump out the open window continuously at quarter-hour intervals.

“Then trains came and one after another they ran over my body, outstretched on the tracks, deepening and widening the two cuts in my neck and legs.”

I didn’t give him that one, the Lord said.


JG Ballard Bingo

“One day is there of the series / Termed Thanksgiving day” — Emily Dickinson


On Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, abjection, and sublimated dreams

I forced myself through the last half of Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 novel First Love wondering if I actually liked her latest novel My Phantoms, a book I read just a few weeks ago.

(What do I mean to capture in the puny verb like?)

The material of First Love will be familiar to anyone who’s read My Phantoms, and I kept mentally underlining the similarities: first-person narrator, woman, living in London, a city she is culturally alienated from; bad parents–abusive asshole dad, narcissistic dippy mum. Vegetarian cooking.

Like My Phantoms, First Love is a slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one.

The thrust of First Love (one wouldn’t call it a plot, which isn’t a negative criticism) is something like this: Neve, a thirty-three-year-old writer (who makes some money teaching) is married to a man named Edwyn, who is a generation older from her, and suffering a heart condition. His heart condition has left him close to death at least once, but it also doubles as a symbol for his trashed spirit: Edwyn’s heart condition is that Edwyn has the heart of an asshole.

Edwyn belittles and abuses Neve, condescends her feminism, and generally bullies her. Most of the abuse is verbal, but sometimes it is physical. The abuse is always awful though—an abuse of spirit, of love.

Riley announces the themes of this awful “love” by the novel’s fourth paragraph:

We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises—little comfort noises—at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage.’ Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee. ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’

What’s the project? you might wonder, as does Neve—well, it’s not “winding up” Edwyn and “feel like shit all the time!’”

Does Edwyn actually feel abused by Neve’s behavior?

Riley certainly gives the man plenty of opportunities to vocalize his self-pitying and abusive rants. The central totem Edwyn hangs his anger on is an episode in which Neve drank alcohol excessively and vomited (apparently) all over the couple’s apartment. Riley does not depict the episode because Neve, natch, cannot recall it. The bits we get from it involve Edwyn’s violence, his anger. An ugly and true recollection of the sweaty abject reality of a hangover.

Much of First Love is mired in abjection—sweat and grime and piss and shit. Early in the book Neve and Edwyn exchange reminiscences of their young mothers on the toilet, Neve’s suffering IBS, Edwyn terrified of “The thundering waterfall of her first piss” in the early morning. “Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying.”

The abject reality of bodies and filth repulses Edwyn, and he buries his repulsion into a store of misogynistic tropes and curses that explode with more ugly frequency as First Love progresses. “You live in shit, so we all have to live in shit, is that right?” he demands of Neve, who he repeatedly accuses of slovenliness, filth. For Edwyn, Neve’s apparent uncleanliness is also related to her Northernness, underscoring the novel’s themes of class and place. Neve herself capitulates, reminiscing:

But was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show: ceilings bejewelled with pus-coloured animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an airlocked chamber smelling of bins that hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bathroom. It was there for three years.

So—I did grow up in shit. It was no slander.

Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty. (Mother looking up slyly from a crying jag.)

I did use to be sick a lot. No slander, though Edwyn didn’t know it.

Edwyn doesn’t know fucking anything. I was relieved in the novel’s final moments, where the narrative disappeared him.

But now and so I go back to the beginning of this riff and see the opening clause, I forced: I did force myself to finish First Love, poison cup. And, that second sentence up at the top: Did I like the novelNo. Reading it hurt. Riley offers up raw reality, ugly, abject, mean. The novel is well-written, which I don’t mean pejoratively: no seams show, and thematic resonance carries from minute details: dialogue, concrete imagery, minor moments that coalesce into an abject portrait of sick “love,” messy and cruel. I am so happy that I’m now outside of the thing.

It makes me a participant in the universe | Barry Hannah on Cormac McCarthy’s prose

Interviewer: You mention the influence of Faulkner. Who are some of the writers around at the moment who you admire and who influence you?

Hannah: Cormac McCarthy. It’s not just the language, although I can’t imagine loving his books without the special language. He’s one of the few writers who has a vision. Relentless. It’s very rough—almost fascistic, as nature is. Darwinian. But he gives such reverence to nature itself. I think that is why he seems atavistic; he likes the fact that there was a time when boulders, trees, mosses with lichens—all their individual names participated right next to man. And even though there are horrible things that happen in his books, he’s quite sure that we have disconnected ourselves from the good stuff. He can make a gorgeous, almost epic, page out of a man riding a horse through a half decent meadow somewhere in Mexico. Actually, it kind of makes me excited in a positive way—does not depress me as it does others—because it makes me a participant in the universe. You are no longer just a dead man, floating. You’re right there with the stars, smoke, the peace, and the beauty—as well as the violence. It makes you a player.

From a 1996 interview with Barry Hannah. Published in a 2011 issue of Mississippi Review.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger. I think The Passenger is a brilliant, messy, baggy synthesis of much of the philosophical and aesthetic themes of McCarthy’s previous work; I loved it.

I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


I’m too old

Horrible sci fi

another gut-punch.

literary tricksterisms

this one is different in so many ways

the airplane is never mentioned again

a cluster mess of absolutely nothing

Virtue signaling

who is missing







300 pages of mostly sci-fi

nothing like his previous writings

This author has written several really good novels

The only mention of salvage diving to find a plane was in the beginning of the book.

nothing about it makes one happy to be reading it

Introspection with no development




A plot with … no plot.

I literally threw it in the garbage

portions in italics about some person with flipper hands in some alter reality

Tedious chapters where a character we never meet argues with her imaginary friends.

the editor and McCarthy were both under the influence of something!

he has decided to eliminate quotation marks

these questions are never answered




I am a fan of McCarthy

The only passenger is the reader

reads like two people on an acid trip

If you are an average reader then you will find this book difficult to read

Why is the plane in the river

lack of punctuation

time line confusing

no stars

ten zeros

lost and confused

made me feel stupid

one of Americas great writers

A lot of physics talk by men with questionable morals.

a sunken private jet in the Gulf of Mexico is the MacGuffin in this book

I’ve read two other Cormac McCarthy works: The Road, and No Country For Old Men. I enjoyed them both, although they were nothing special.

If this book had been submitted for publication by an unknown author it never would have been published

gassy dialogue about cars, tools, diving, drinking, the Deep State, hopeless forbidden love, and loss

I get the distinct impression that the publicists never read more than the beginning of the book.

Will I read the sequel? Probably, just to see if this novel can be redeemed.

not the action adventure novel that the jacket cover advertises

I was continuing out of spite.

life is too short

What story?


Moby Dick — Christophe Chabouté

Illustration for Moby-Dick, 2014 by Christophe Chabouté (b. 1967)

“Geniuses were not fun, but Mr. Gaddis was fun” | Joy Williams reads a tribute to William Gaddis

Nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives | From Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses

In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses

—which I picked up again the other day to find a passage in connection to The Passenger and started rereading. The swelling rhythm of this passage would have knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks.