Your identity comes back in horror | Moby-Dick reread, riff 10

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 33-35 of Moby-Dick.

II. (Re: Above—I just finished Ch. 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” which is like, too goodToo loaded. Ahab erupts. Up until now I’d just been riffing on what I’d read, trying to keep it simple, but “The Quarter-Deck” needs its own riff.)

III. Ch. 33, “The Specksnyder.”

Specksnyder is a strange word. Ishmael tells us that, “Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer.” Its provenance is anglicized Dutch—another splicing in a novel of splices.

IV. Ch. 33 follows a pattern (initiates a pattern?) common to Moby-Dick: Ishmael begins his chapter with some facts and descriptions specific to whaling (in this case, the business of the Specksnyder), only to zoom out (or is it zoom in?) to larger philosophical matters.

V. In this case, those larger philosophical matters concern the psychological temperament of those who would assume the mantle of leadership. Ishmael notes that moody Ahab eschews the “shallowest assumption” of “elated grandeur.” Our captain is no faker, fraud, humbug, or poseur — “the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience.”

VI. But Ishmael, ever the hedger of bets, ever the ghost who trades in double negatives, warns us that despite his leadership qualities, “even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea…that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.” Foreshadowing!

VII. Ch. 34, “The Cabin-Table.”

Another chapter that begins with ship’s business but expands toward grander abstractions. Those abstractions help to shade and characterize Ahab, who has yet to give his first grand speech (that’s in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck”). The ship’s business also points again to obeisance and command. We learn who descends to eat first, a kind of alpha dog Darwinism reconfigured as sea law. Ahab and his three mates go to table in silence. Starbuck is next to go to dinner after his captain. Flask is last: “hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.” Then the three harpooneers eat, noisy, ravenous.

The two most interesting things about this chapter for me on this reread:

a. It is composed in the present tense, beginning: “It is noon.” While Ishmael has shifted into the present tense many times before, unless I am mistaken, this particular whole-chapter shift is a first. And—

b. We have another moment in the narrative where Ishmael witnesses behaviors, viewpoints, events that he should not be able to see. In other words, Ishmael, a lowly seaman has no business at the cabin table.

“The Cabin-Table” is another early moment in M-D that calls into question Ishmael’s witnessing—is he a ghost survivor, a kind of time traveler of consciousnesses? A spy or voyeur, peeking through holes? Or is it just a book, and this is how books work?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VIII. Ch. 35, “The Mast-Head.”

Man does Melville love hyphens. Hyphens in the title, hyphens in the chapter, hyphens at suppertime.

IX. Again we have a chapter that starts with some description and history of whaling and ship business. Ishmael waxes at length about assuming watch at the top of the mast-head, making sure to bring up ancient Egypt (always!), the Tower of Babel, Louis Bonaparte, Childe Harold, George Washington (et al.).

X. But again, Ish moves from particulars to abstraction. “The Mast-Head” reads as both an endorsement of and a warning against romantic transcendentalism. (This is a tale of ambiguities, hedging, and double double double negatives.)

XI. Ish relates the reveries to be had atop the mast-head. A watcher on the watery world will quickly lose a sense of self. His ego will fold into something grander, yet grander without clear object. In short, transcendentally-overwhelmed by horizonless horizons, he will forget to sight the whales he hunts.

In such cases, a watcher might be remonstrated:

‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’

But we sense that Ishmael was the dreaming lad

Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

What a sentence! I thought about getting in there for a minute, but hell…what a sentence.

XII. (The word “vacant” above points towards Moby-Dick’s devastating “Epilogue,” where survivor (?) Ishmael assumes the “vacant post” of bowsman.)

XIII. But back to the marvelous conclusion of Ch. 35. Ishmael describes a moment of transcendence, of ego-loss, even ego-death. And then what happens:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

Your identity comes back in horror.

Yeah, damn, heed. 

 

No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world | Riff 4 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (A Bosom Friend/Nightgown/Biographical/Wheelbarrow)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. “A Bosom Friend” (Ch. 10)  is another one of the remarkable key early chapters of Moby-Dick. It twins Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” book-ending Ishmael’s Wild New Bedford Nights with Queequeg.

II. While Ishmael’s largehearted acceptance and quick love for Queequeg probably does not seem as eccentric to contemporary readers as it might have been to Melville’s 1851 audience, it’s nevertheless an enduring emblem of Moby-Dick’s expansive spirit.

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” Ish intones in Ch. 3; by Ch. 10, he admiringly attests that, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” In a curt but not impolite dismissal of his own culture’s moral compass, Ish declares he’ll, “try a pagan friend…since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Like Huck Finn, another American prototype who wishes to escape into the wild, Ishmael will always value raw truth over empty artifice.

III. There are so many good lines in “A Bosom Friend,” but I think this must be my favorite:

…I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.

Ishmael claims that Queequeg, a “soothing savage” has “redeemed” the world for him.

IV. It is more than possible (and so much has been written on M-D that I’m sure much has been made on the topic) that Ish (and Melville) has (have) taken what might be a complex and nuanced character in Queequeg and othered it into a flat projection screen.

Ishmael, who finds “no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits” in Queeg, might be accused of turning his bosom friend into a romanticized avatar of Ish’s own desire for a noble “savage” unconstrained by the dictates of Christian morality. However, the events of the novel and its developed characterization of Queequeg do not merit such a facile reading (or is my estimation at this point).

V. Indeed—and to jump ahead, maybe—in Ch. 12, “Biographical,” we learn Queequeg’s origin story.

Queeg is a prince of “Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South.”

Pause a moment, and look it up, seek it out.

(Wait! “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”)

Queequeg desires to travel the world in the hopes of advancing his culture, and, like so many folks in M-D, runs away to sea (to see). However, his time on whaleboats and in ports of the western world soon soon reveal to him that “it’s a wicked world in all meridians.”

He decides to “die a pagan.”

VI. Notably and necessarily, Queequeg’s “Biographical” chapter is delivered entirely in Ishmael’s voice (unlike Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” where Father Mapple overtakes the narrative).

Queequeg is always a linguistic outsider in M-D—and indeed, an outsider in general, an outsider among outsiders—but also a superhuman superhero, as the events of Ch. 13, “The Wheelbarrow,” show.

VII. I seem to be skipping around, so, fine, okay—

—in “The Wheelbarrow,” Ish and Queeg take a packet schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket, where they plan to join a whaling ship’s crew. On the schooner, one of the several “boobies and bumpkins” aboard mocks Queequeg. Queeg catches ahold of the redneck and tosses him playfully into the air, leaving him shaken but unhurt. Captain, crew, and passengers threaten the “devil” outsider, but chaos erupts when the main-sail’s boom sets loose due because of high winds. The boom knocks the redneck into the ocean. Others panic; Queeg calmly secures the spar dives into the ocean, and rescues his mocker: “The poor bumpkin was restored,” Ishmael remarks. He then tells us that “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive,” foreshadowing that not all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick.

VIII. (Or, alternately—all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick, but only through Ishmael’s wailing tale.)

IX. But I have skipped around so much—back to Ch. 10, “A Bosom Friend.” In one of the more-remarked upon moments in the book, Ish and Queeg tie the knot after a good smoke:

…he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.

X. Ishmael then, through a kind of tortuous logic, describes why he, “a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” “must turn idolator” and pray to Queeg’s pagan idol. It’s what God would want him to do, see? Ishmael’s logic is predicated on two simple principles:

–He is “to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me”

and

–“Queequeg is my fellow man”

For me, the remarkable part of Ishmael’s commitment to Queequeg isn’t the first Jesusian imperative to do unto others—it is, in other terms, to recognize the other as a fellow man.This recognition is the moral imperative of Moby-Dick.

XI. And then a sweet ending: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”

XII. “Nightgown,” Ch. 11, is a short chapter where something remarkable and likely inexplicable occurs: Ishmael and Queequeg learn to communicate.

And not just communicate at the level of base transaction or simple need, but rather share philosophical and even aesthetic viewpoints, as born out in the details of Queequeg’s story in Ch. 12, “Biographical.” Again, we might criticize Ishmael as ventriloquizing Queequeg, painting his own broad romantic visions over the possibility of a complex and nuanced character that Melville can’t muster. But I ultimately believe—or at least, I believe up until now on this reread—that Ish and Queeg’s accelerated ability to communicate points to an aspirational transcendental horizon, post-culture, post-language.

XIII. “Nightgown” also has one of my favorite moments in Moby-Dick, a little riff by Ishmael that anticipates the deconstruction of oppositions we later locate in the work of late twentieth-century language theorists:

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm.

XIV. (As a final note—I remembered this passage in Thanksgiving, 2020, after receiving a very sad text message from my aunt, who we would not be seeing that year, after having not seen her for July 4th—like so many other people feeling the smallbig losses of the year, of the absences of festival and visitation—but also feeling those traditions of festival and visitation so much dearer and warmer in their absence. Nothing exists in itself.)

All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)

I. Chapters 5 through 8 of Moby-Dick are all pretty short and showcase the novel’s ever-shifting moods. Ch. 5, “Breakfast,” brims with humor and energy, which extends through Ch. 6, “The Street.” However, by the time we get off the street and into “The Chapel” (Ch. 7), Ishmael takes a sober, somber turn, meditating on death. Ch. 8, “The Pulpit,” continues the serious, philosophical tone, setting the stage for Father Mapple to take over the narrative in Ch. 9, “The Sermon.”

II. “Breakfast” begins with Ishmael forgiving the landlord Peter Coffin for “skylarking with me not a little in the matter of [Ish’s] bedfellow,” Queequeg. Ish values the humor:

…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

“Breakfast” has a bustling comic energy. Ish describes the various whalemen setting down to eat: “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” (I encourage you to read that line aloud.) We also get the spectacle of Queequeg, “cool as an icicle,” eating bloody beefsteaks at the head of the table—with his harpoon no less!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. The comedic energy carries out into “The Street.” Here, Ishmael describes for us a carnival of cultures in New Bedford, a pavement teeming with “Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians” as well as “other sights still more curious, certainly more comical.” He gently mocks “the green Vermonters and New Hampshire men,” who head to New Bedford “athirst for gain and glory in the fishery,” pointing out their tendencies to overdress: “No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy.” Ish’s portrait of New Bedford extends to a description of its wealth and its beautiful homes, parks—and women. We get the sense that he’s over those “hypos” he was suffering in the novel’s opening chapter—or, rather, he’s intoxicated by the newness of his adventure.

IV. The atmospheric shift in “The Chapel,” is announced with a change in weather: “The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist.” Ishmael makes his way to a church peopled by “a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows.” (A “scattered congregation” strikes me as an oxymoron.)

In strong contrast to the babble and verve of the two preceding chapters, in the chapel “muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.”

Ishmael gazes upon marble placards memorializing dead sailors, sailors who never returned, and reflects,

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.

The line “refuse resurrections” calls back to Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael gives us a rare glimpse into his past. Punished as a child to a kind of small death on the summer solstice (okay, he’s made to go to bed early)—the punished Ish hopes for a “resurrection” from his fate and is visited by some “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” an ineffable something that simultaneously signals dread and hope.

Ishmael’s morbid pondering turns philosophical:

…how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

And then in bit of foreshadowing of the book’s catastrophic conclusion, our narrator, thinking of the countless sailors lost and dead at sea, indulges in a bit of self-talk: “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”

V. “The Pulpit” isn’t a particularly memorable chapter, but it serves a significant rhetorical purpose. “The Chapel” gives us some of Ish’s most melancholy philosophizin’, culminating in self-talk about his own death. It’s an introspective, insular chapter; indeed, even as Ishmael furnishes us the details of the memorial placards, he confesses that he does “not pretend to quote.” Ish’s concern is ultimately not for the concrete particulars but for the abstract—the unnamed and unknown dead.

“The Pulpit” refocuses the narrative gaze, moving from Ishmael’s introspection to the imagery of Father Mapple ascending the stage to deliver his sermon.

VI. “The Sermon” is one of many chapters of Moby-Dick that can be read independent of the novel proper. It is one of my favorite chapters. Up until this point, we’ve largely been in Ishmael’s head, and the spare voices we get—a few lines of pidgin from Queequeg, some bantering with Peter Coffin—have the feel of reported speech. In “The Sermon” though, Ish’s consciousness gives way to Father Mapple’s. Mapple retells the story of Jonah in rapt detail, bringing “this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—” to vivid life. His Jonah is a sympathetic deject on the run who finds himself resurrected in the belly of a whale.

Mapple’s sermon quickly edges out any of Ishmael’s stage directions, flowing out uninterrupted for paragraphs. It usurps the voice of the novel, prefiguring Ahab, whose voice will dominate in future chapters. Ghostly Ishmael seems to fall into the background of his own adventure at times, and “The Sermon” is an early rhetorical example of this phenomenon.

As Mapple’s sermon comes to its conclusion, Ishmael returns to the narrative, but he’s still at a distance, still a mechanical describer of sights and sounds, not an analyzer or thinker here.

And it’s the final line of the chapter that stuck out to me the most in this reread:

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

If he is truly alone, then how does Ishmael witness his solitude?

The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open | Riff 1 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Etymology/Extracts/Loomings)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

 

I. I last reread Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick in full way back in 2013.

II. I’ve read chunks and excerpts of it over the intermittent seven years though—there’s always some bit in it that calls to me, prompted by events personal, political, cultural. I read Melville’s 1846 novel Typee during the beginning of 2020’s quarantine, and knew I’d need to reread M-D in full sooner than later.

III. (Why later, why now? I guess I made this kinda sorta tacit promise to myself not to reread in 2020—to expand my palate, to go past all the Dead White Guys.)

IV. I started Moby-Dick this afternoon. I read the two opening salvos, “Etymology” and “Extracts,” and then the first chapter, “Loomings.”

V. (I have read that some folks skip the “Extracts”: No.)

VI. I started Moby-Dick in an edition that I bought years ago but haven’t actually read: the California UP/Arion Press edition with Barry Moser illustrations. It’s lovely—grand, generous, rich on the page.

VII. So I’ve probably read “Etymology” more than any other section of M-D. It was certainly the section I messed around with for years before reading the actual novel in full. The etymology has supposedly been given to the author of M-D — HM? Ishmael? Some other ghost — by a “pale Usher” (not Poe’s), “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain…” The poor fellow “loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

VIII. I don’t dwell on the pale Usher, but I’ve long found the next line of “Etymology” fascinating. It’s a quote attributed to the sixteenth-century English author Richard Hakluyt:

While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.

A former teacher of mine, A. Samuel Kimball (who I am forever indebted to for teaching me to read again) made much of this citation. For Kimball, the foregrounding of the “H” calls attention to one of Melville’s central themes: whaling as wailing—Moby-Dick as a wail, a grief, maybe a resistance to the infanticidal, genocidal scope of American culture. Ishmael, an orphan, goes to sea to resist his suicide-impulse on a ship named after a near-extinct tribe of American Indians. Ishmael, whose very name is marks him, at least in the KJV context Melville was working within, as the rejected son of the patriarch Abraham. In the novel’s last moments, Ishmael is saved (is he though?) by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IX. (Whale-wail / whiteness-witness. Etc. etc.)

X. And those “Extracts,” supplied by a “burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub” — who’s the dom?

XI. I remembered the “Extracts” more fondly than I experienced them.

I just really wanted to get into Ishmael’s head (voice). (And then get out of it, into the drama of Ahab and His Whale.)

XII. And so I got into Ishmael’s head (voice).

XIII. “Loomings” is such a great, great, perfect chapter, and the joy in re-reading Melville is having already worked out most of the plot kinks. Instead of dwelling on What is happening? you can experience What is.

XIV. (I always forget how terribly sad poor Ish is at the outset of M-D. He’s depressed, suffering from hypos, the spleen. He’s not just suicidal, he’s homicidal, wanting to step in the street and knock people’s hats off.)

XV. One of the fascinating things about Moby-Dick, at least in my memory of it, which maybe I’ll expand upon in riffs on this reread, is how little we get to know Ishmael. Like his wanderer namesake, he’s an outsider who, despite taking us in to his tale, nevertheless keeps us out: We know very little about his past or his future, and his present (by which I mean Moby-Dick) is mediated in voyeurism, questioning, and philosophy.

XVI. And “Loomings” — well, what a great title, maybe obvious, but great — the indistinct coming into view, but also the mount of the warp, the initial move in a great tapestry: Moby-Dick.

XVII. I’ll close on the closing line of “Loomings,” which point to the great wonder-world to come, and the grand hooded phantom at the end of Ishmael’s journey:

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Happy New Year! // Some books I’ll try to read/re-read in 2021

Happy New Year!

Time for the cliched “Stuff I May or May Not Read This Year” post!

Bottom to top–

A Frolic of His Own is the only Gaddis I haven’t read. I read the first fifty or so pages a few years ago, but got distracted with something else.

I haven’t re-read Moby-Dick in a few years, but I found myself sifting through it a bit at the end of 2020. Time for a re-read, sooner than later.

I’ll continue the Walker Percy reading with The Last Gentleman.

I actually finished Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers about 45 minutes ago—it’s a wonderful mix of breezy brutality and brutal humor. This one had an unexpectedly sweet ending. More Himes in 2021.

I’ve been reading through Anakana Schofield’s novel in “warnings,” Bina, and I really dig it so far—very different stuff. It reminds me a bit of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai or David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but also unlike those things.

I read a bunch of Muriel Spark in 2020 and I aim to read more in 2021. The ones I have (unread) by her are Robinson and A Far Cry from Kensington.

I also look forward to Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s short novel Fra Keeler as well.

I hope this year is better for all of us than the last one. Peace and love &c.

Annotations on a list of books I read in full in 2020

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Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

A frenetic, zany achronological satire of the American Civil War. I wrote about it here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Jackson gives us a quasi-idyllic-but-also-dystopian world delivered through narrator Merricat, an insane witch whom I adored. Merricat hates with beautiful intensity. The novel’s premise, prose, and mood are more important than its plot, which is littered with trapdoors, smoke and mirrors, and gestures toward some kind of greater gothic paranoia. It’s a slim novel that feels like 300 pages of exposition have been cut away, leaving only mystery, aporia, ghostly traces of maybe-answers.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first of Mervyn Peake’s strange castle (and then not-castle trilogy (not really a trilogy, really)), Titus Groan is weird wonderful grotesque fun. Inspirited by the Machiavellian antagonist Steerpike, Titus Groan can be read as a critique of the empty rituals that underwrite modern life. It can also be read for pleasure alone.

926 Years, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson

The blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories,” but it read it not so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. My review is here.

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

One of the best books I read (and reread) all year. The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. This graphic novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

Machines in the Head, Anna Kavan

I have a longish review here.

Machines in the Head was the first book I was able to write about after the onset of the Great Quarantine of 2020.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Probably the best novel in Peake’s trilogy, Gormenghast is notable for its psychological realism, surreal claustrophobia, and bursts of fantastical imagery. We finally get to know Titus, who is a mute infant in the first novel, and track his insolent war against tradition and Steerpike. The novel’s apocalyptic diluvian climax is amazing.

Gringos, Charles Portis

Gringos was the last of Portis’s five novels. I read the other four greedily last year, and pulled them all out when he passed away in February. I started in on Gringos, casually, then just kept reading. Sweet and cynical, spiked with strange heroism, strange grace, and very, very funny, Gringos might just be my favorite Portis novel. But I’d have to read them all again to figure that out.

Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake

A beautiful mess, an episodic, picaresque adventure that breaks all the apparent rules of the first two books. The rulebreaking is fitting though, given that Our Boy Titus (alone!) navigates the world outside of Gormenghast—a world that doesn’t seem to even understand that a Gormenghast exists (!)—Titus Alone is a scattershot epic. Shot-through with a heavy streak of Dickens, Titus Alone never slows down enough for readers to get their bearings. Or to get bored. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the novel. Does Titus want to get back to his normal—to tradition and the meaningless lore and order that underwrote his castle existence? Or does he want to break quarantine? 

The Wig, Charles Wright

Hilarious stuff. I read most of it on a houseboat in Jekyll Island, right before lockdown.

Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer

 Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.

I should’ve loved it, but I didn’t.

I reviewed it here.

Herman Melville, Elizabeth Hardwick

Typee, Herman Melville

Like a lot of people I was going out of my mind in April of 2020. Elizabeth Hardwick’s lit-crit bio of Melville isn’t necessarily great, but she does work in big fat slices of his texts, making it a kind of comfort read. It also led me to read Typee for the first time, a horny and good novel.

Fade Out, Rudolph Wurlitzer

I liked it more than Nog and wrote about it here.

Welcome Home, Lucia Berlin

A slight and unfinished collection of memoir-slices that will appeal to those already familiar with Berlin’s autofiction.

Reckless Eyeballing, Ishmael Reed

Reed’s 1986 novel skewers Reaganism, but there’s a marked shift from the surreal elastic slapstick anger of Reed’s earlier novels (like 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo). That elastick anger starts to harden into something far more bitter, harder to chew on.

Lake of Urine, Guillermo Stitch

A very weird book. I felt awful that I could never muster a proper review of it. Weird book, indie press, all that. I felt less bad when Dwight Garner praised it in The New York Times. What is Lake of Urine? That was my trouble in reviewing it. The plot is, uh, wild, to say the least. Zany, elastic, slapstick, and often surreal, Stitch’s novel is all over the place. He seems to do whatever he wants on each page with a zealous energy that’s difficult to describe. Great stuff.

Mr. Pye, Mervyn Peake

I recall enjoying it but thinking, Oh, this isn’t Gormenghast stuff.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

I wrote about it here. What may end up being the last Pynchon novel was also the last one I read. It turned out to be much, much better than I thought it would be. It also made me very, very sad. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.

São Bernando,Graciliano Ramos; translation by Padma Viswanathan

I enjoyed São Bernardo  mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself.

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman.

The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner

I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

Animalia begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends at the end of the twentieth century, chronicling the hardships of a family farm. The preceding sentence makes the novel sound possibly hokey: No, Animalia is a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I had to read Animalia in stages, essentially splitting its four long chapters into novellas. Animalia made me physically ill at times. It’s an excellent novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Loved it! Can’t believe I hadn’t read Spark until 2020. Went on a binge.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

I liked it even more than PrimeSlender Means unself-consciously employs postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The climax coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the title takes on a whole new meaning, and the whole thing unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany.

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

My favorite of the four I read by Spark this year: funny, mean, angry postmodern perfection.

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

A novel that about aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark inhabits their consciousnesses with a level of acuity that surprised me. The weakest of the four I read, but still good.

Cherry, Nico Walker

I initially liked Walker’s war-drug-crime-romance-autoficition Cherry–the sentences are zappers and the wry, deadpan delivery approximates an imitation of Denis Johnson. Halfway through the charm starts to wear off; its native ugliness fails to compel, even Walker keeps pushing for the sublime in each chapter, only to puncture it in some way. I probably would’ve liked it at 20.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson

A mixed bag of fantasy and sci-fi stories based on Caribbean myth, some more successful than others. “A Habit of Waste” and “Slow Cold Chick” are standouts.

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

An excellent novel about film. Does in fiction what Peter Biskind’s history of New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls could not. Zeroville’s unexpectedly-poignant ending transcends the novel’s parodic parameters. It makes you want to go to the movies.

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

A discursive prose-poem-memoir-essay on racism, erasure, bodies, and more. I read it in two afternoons. Highly recommended.

The Divers’ Game, Jesse Ball

I kept waiting for the chapters of Ball’s “novel” to explicitly tangle together, but they never did. One of the very few cases where I feel there should be more pages in a book.

Nova, Samuel R. Delany

I couldn’t make it through Delany’s cult favorite Dhalgren a few years back, but Nova was easier sledding. The book is a riff on Moby-Dick, tarot, monoculture, and the grail quest. It’s jammed with ideas and characters, and if it never quite coheres into something transcendent, it’s a fun quick read (even if the ending, right from the postmodern metatextual playbook is too clever by half).

Zac’s Drug Binge, Dennis Cooper

I don’t know if Dennis Cooper’s gif novels are really novels or something else. I’m not sure if putting this gif novel on a list of books I read is any different than adding, say, a list of paintings by Mu Pan that I viewed over the year. The inclusion of ZDB also helps highlight the artificiality of a numbered list of books read in a year. (I know this list isn’t numbered, but it’s countable. I think it’s fifty-seven or fifty-eight.) It took me maybe 10 or 15 minutes to “read” ZBD while novels by Ishiguro, Pynchon, and Brunner are like 500 pages. The Ishiguro is actually pretty “easy” to read though, in a way that Zac’s Drug Binge is not. The Brunner is much “easier” than the many, many stories I read this year in The Complete Gary Lutz. The Lutz is 500 pages, and I read more of those pages than I did of some of the shorter works listed here like Rankine’s Citizen or Ball’s The Divers’ Game—but I didn’t “finish” the Lutz (and I don’t want to ever “finish” the Lutz), so its not on the list. Ditto Brian Dillon’s essay collection Suppose a Sentence, another collection that I’ve used to cleanse my palate between books. I could probably do a whole post on books like that (John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb, the Charles Portis MiscellanyThe Minus Times Collected, etc. etc.)

You can read Zac’s Drug Binge here (and, uh, careful who you’re around if you click this link!).

Oreo, Fran Ross

Loved loved loved Oreo. The novel is thoroughly overlooked as a metafictional masterpiece. In my review, I wrote:

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

A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley

I read it after OreoOreo is neon zany polyglossic hijinks, crackling, zipping, and zapping. Kelley’s first novel, despite its rotating set of viewpoints (and conceit of an invented Southern state), was much more down to earth—modernist, not postmodernist—rendered in rusty oranges, dusty browns, muted greens. I enjoyed Kelley’s later novels dem and Dunfords Travels Everywheres more, but A Different Drummer could be his best book. I wrote about it here.

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Gonna read more Himes in 2021. Any tips? I loved loved loved it.

dem, William Melvin Kelley

From my review:

“As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

Sátántangó, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Years ago I put Sátántangó on a list of books I started the most times without finishing.  This summer I listened to the audiobook version while I painted the interior of my house. The novel’s postmodern ending made me pick up the physical copy I acquired like eight years ago, making Sátántangó the only novel I re-read this year.

Edition 69, Jindřich Štyrský, Vítězslav Nezval, František Halas, and Bohuslav Brouk; translation by Jed Slast

Hey yo you like horny Czech interwar surrealism?

Lancelot, Walker Percy

The first Percy I read, and so far, my favorite–a postmodern Gothic screed against postmodernity. I reviewed it here.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Percy’s first novel is probably much better than I credited in my review, but I was disappointed after the claustrophobic zany madness of Lancelot. I think if The Moviegoer were the first Percy I read it would have been the last.

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

My favorite of the three Kelley novels I read this year.

Edisto, Padgett Powell

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

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

The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich

I remember buying this book very clearly. The yellow spine called to me; the fact it was a Two Dollar Radio title; the title itself; and then, the blurb from Steve Erickson. From my review:

“Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is ‘A vortex of a novel,’ as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.”

The Silence, Don DeLillo

In my unkind review, I wrote:

“The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.”

Motorman, David Ohle

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from strange stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

Two Stories, Osvaldo Lamborghini; translation by Jessica Sequeira

Not sure if I found a book so baffling all year.

Stand on Zanzibar, David Brunner

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Fat City is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

I read Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and loved it. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, Dog Soldiers is about a heroin deal going sideways. The CIA is involved, some twisted Hollywood folks, and a fallen cult leader. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. It reminded me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift—and Gardner’s Fat City.

Dog Soldiers gets better and better and ends with an ecstatic punchline—a big Fuck you to God in the whirlwind. Great stuff.

Nothing but the Music, Thulani Davis

In my review, I wrote:

Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.”

Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

Loved this one—more in line with the madness of Lancelot than the ennui of The MoviegoerLove in the Ruins posits a USA falling apart to reveal there never was a center.

The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington

From my review:

“Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.”

The Oyster, Dejan Lukic and Nik Kosieradzki

I still need to write a proper review of this one. It’s something between an essay and a prose-poem and an aesthetic object.

Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter

One of Carter’s earlier novels, Heroes and Villains takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where caste lines divide the Professors, the Barbarians, and the mutant Out People. After her Professor stronghold is raided, Marianne is…willingly abducted?…by the barbarian Jewel. Marianne goes to live with the Barbarians, and ends up in a weird toxic relationship with Jewel, marked by rape and violence. Heroes and Villains throws a lot in its pot—what is consent? what is civilization? what is language?—but it’s a muddled, psychedelic mess in the end.

Just Us, Claudia Rankine

A short, sometimes painful read, Just Us is a mix of essaying and poetry that documents the horrors of the past few years against the backdrop of the horrors of all American history, all in a personal, moving way.

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Starts subtle and ends sharp. A mix of satire and earnestness, purely modern, wonderful stuff. Our hero surmises at the end that Satan might actually be quite stupid. I love her.


[Ed. note–some of the language of these annotations has been recycled from previous posts.]

Chester Himes/Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (Books acquired, 28 Dec. 2020)

Picked up Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler today. I did not find the novel I was looking for but I found these.

Here’s publisher Dorothy’s blurb for Fra Keeler:

 …a man purchases a house, the house of Fra Keeler, moves in, and begins investigating the circumstances of the latter’s death. Yet the investigation quickly turns inward, and the reality it seeks to unravel seems only to grow more strange, as the narrator pursues not leads but lines of thought, most often to hideous conclusions.

I loved the first Chester Himes novel I read, A Rage in Harlem. Here’s Anthony Bucher’s somewhat dismissive non-review in the 6 Sept. 1959 issue of The New York Times:

I think I’ll be on the loving side, but we’ll see.

It’s Boxing Day (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Inside the bowl, the two goldfish are making a Pisces sign, head-to-tail and very still. Penelope sits and peers into their world. There is a little sunken galleon, a china diver in a diving suit, pretty stones and shells she and her sisters have brought back from the sea.

Aunt Jessica and Uncle Roger are out in the kitchen, hugging and kissing. Elizabeth is teasing Claire in the hallway. Their mother is in the W.C. Sooty the cat sleeps in a chair, a black thundercloud on the way to something else, who happens right now to look like a cat. It’s Boxing Day. The evening’s very still. The last rocket bomb was an hour ago, somewhere south. Claire got a golliwog, Penelope a sweater, Elizabeth a frock that Penelope will grow into.

The pantomime Roger took them all to see this afternoon was Hansel and Gretel. Claire immediately took off under the seats where others were moving about by secret paths, a flash of braid or of white collar now and then among the tall attentive uncles in uniform, the coat-draped backs of seats. On stage Hansel, who was supposed to be a boy but was really a tall girl in tights and smock, cowered inside the cage. The funny old Witch foamed at the mouth and climbed the scenery. And pretty Gretel waited by the Oven for her chance. . . .

Then the Germans dropped a rocket just down the street from the theatre. A few of the little babies started crying. They were scared. Gretel, who was just winding up with her broom to hit the Witch right in the bum, stopped: put the broom down, in the gathering silence stepped to the footlights, and sang:

Oh, don’t let it get you,

It will if they let you, but there’s

Something I’ll bet you can’t see—

It’s big and it’s nasty and it’s right over there,

It’s waiting to get its sticky claws in your hair!

Oh, the greengrocer’s wishing on a rainbow today,

And the dustman is tying his tie . . .

And it all goes along to the same jolly song,

With a peppermint face in the sky!

“Now sing along,” she smiled, and actually got the audience, even Roger, to sing:

With a peppermint face in the sky-y,

And a withered old dream in your heart,

You’ll get hit with a piece of the pie-ie,

With the pantomime ready to start!

Oh, the Tommy is sleeping in a snowbank tonight,

And the Jerries are learning to fly—

We can fly to the moon, we’ll be higher than noon,

In our polythene home in the sky. . . .

Pretty polythene home in the sky,

Pretty platinum pins in your hand—

Oh your mother’s a big fat machine gun,

And your father’s a dreary young man. . . .

(Whispered and staccato):

Oh, the, man-a-ger’s suck-ing on a corn-cob, pipe,

And the bank-ers are, eat-ing their, wives,

All the world’s in a daze, while the orchestra plays,

So turn your pockets and get your surprise—

Turn your pockets and get-your surpri-ise,

There was nobody there af-ter all!

And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball . . .

Oh the palm-trees whisper on the beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And those voices you hear, Boy and Girl of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die. . . .

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

On Christmas Eve the little pig is secretly killed (Frazer’s The Golden Bough)

On Christmas Eve in some parts of the Esthonian island of Oesel they bake a long cake with the two ends turned up. It is called the Christmas Boar, and stands on the table till the morning of New Year’s Day, when it is distributed among the cattle. In other parts of the island the Christmas Boar is not a cake but a little pig born in March, which the housewife fattens secretly, often without the knowledge of the other members of the family. On Christmas Eve the little pig is secretly killed, then roasted in the oven, and set on the table standing on all fours, where it remains in this posture for several days. In other parts of the island, again, though the Christmas cake has neither the name nor the shape of a boar, it is kept till the New Year, when half of it is divided among all the members and all the quadrupeds of the family. The other half of the cake is kept till sowing-time comes round, when it is similarly distributed in the morning among human beings and beasts. In other parts of Esthonia, again, the Christmas Boar, as it is called, is baked of the first rye cut at harvest; it has a conical shape and a cross is impressed on it with a pig’s bone or a key, or three dints are made in it with a buckle or a piece of charcoal. It stands with a light beside it on the table all through the festal season. On New Year’s Day and Epiphany, before sunrise, a little of the cake is crumbled with salt and given to the cattle. The rest is kept till the day when the cattle are driven out to pasture for the first time in spring. It is then put in the herdsman’s bag, and at evening is divided among the cattle to guard them from magic and harm. In some places the Christmas Boar is partaken of by farm-servants and cattle at the time of the barley sowing, for the purpose of thereby producing a heavier crop.

From Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

A review of Leonora Carrington’s surreal novel The Hearing Trumpet

Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.

Composed in the 1950s and first published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is new in print again for the first time in nearly two decades from NYRB. NYRB also published Carrington’s hallucinatory memoir Down Below a few years back, around the same time as Dorothy issued The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Most people first come to know Carrington through her stunning, surreal paintings, which have been much more accessible (because of the internet) than her literature. However, Dorothy’s Complete Stories brought new attention to Carrington’s writing, a revival continued in this new edition of The Hearing Trumpet.

Readers familiar with Carrington’s surreal short stories might be surprised at the straightforward realism in the opening pages of The Hearing Trumpet. Ninety-two-year-old narrator Marian Leatherby lives a quiet life with her son and daughter-in-law and her tee-vee-loving grandson. They are English expatriates living in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, and although the weather is pleasant, Marian dreams of the cold, “of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs.” She’s quite hard of hearing, but her sight is fine, and she sports “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive.” Conventional people will soon be pushed to the margins in The Hearing Trumpet.

Marian’s life changes when her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, a device “encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn.” At Carmella’s prompting, Marian uses the trumpet to spy on her son and daughter-in-law. To her horror, she learns they plan to send her to an old folks home. It’s not so much that she’ll miss her family—she directs the same nonchalance to them that she affords to even the most surreal events of the novel—it’s more the idea that she’ll have to conform to someone else’s rules (and, even worse, she may have to take part in organized sports!).

The old folks home is actually much, much stranger than Marian could have anticipated:

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards , cloisters , stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets , railway carriages , one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation.

The home’s rituals and procedures are even stranger. It is not a home for the aged; rather, it is “The Institute,” a cult-like operation founded on the principles of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit, two ridiculous and cruel villains who would not be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel. Dr. Gambit (possibly a parodic pastiche of George Gurdjieff and John Harvey Kellogg) represents all the avarice and hypocrisy of the twentieth century. His speech is a satire of the self-important and inflated language of commerce posing as philosophy, full of capitalized ideals: “Our Teaching,” “Inner Christianity,” “Self Remembering” and so on. Ultimately, it’s Gambit’s constricting and limited patriarchal view of psyche and spirit that the events in The Hearing Trumpet lambastes.

Marian soon finds herself entangled in the minor politics and scheming of the Institute, even as she remains something of an outsider on account of her deafness. She’s mostly concerned with getting an extra morsel of cauliflower at mealtimes—the Gambits keep the women undernourished. She eats her food quickly during the communal dinner, and obsesses over the portrait of a winking nun opposite her seat at the table:

Really it was strange how often the leering abbess occupied my thoughts. I even gave her a name, keeping it strictly to myself. I called her Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva, a nice long name, Spanish style. She was abbess, I imagined, of a huge Baroque convent on a lonely and barren mountain in Castile. The convent was called El Convento de Santa Barbara de Tartarus, the bearded patroness of Limbo said to play with unbaptised children in this nether region.

Marian’s creative invention of a “Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva” soon somehow passes into historical reality. First, she receives a letter from her trickster-aid Carmella, who has dreamed about a nun in a tower. “The winking nun could be no other than Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva,” remarks Marian. “How very mysterious that Carmella should have seen her telepathically.” Later, Christabel, another member/prisoner of the Institute helps usher Marian’s fantasy into reality. She confirms that Marian’s name for the nun is indeed true (kinda sorta): “‘That was her name during the eighteenth century,’ said Christabel. ‘But she has many many other names. She also enjoys different nationalities.'”

Christabel gives Marian a book entitled A True and Faithful Rendering of the Life of Rosalinda Alvarez and the next thirty-or-so pages gives way to this narrative. This text-within-a-text smuggles in other texts, including a lengthy letter from a bishop, as well as several ancient scrolls. There are conspiracies afoot, schemes to keep the Holy Grail out of the hands of the feminine power the Abbess embodies. There are magic potions and an immortal bard. There is cross-dressing and a strange monstrous pregnancy. There are the Knights Templar.

Carrington’s prose style in these texts-within-texts diverges considerably from the even, wry calm of Marian’s narration. In particular, there’s a sly control to the bishop’s letter, which reveals a bit-too-keen interest in teenage boys. These matryoshka sections showcase Carrington’s rhetorical range while also advancing the confounding plot. They recall The Courier’s Tragedy, the play nested in Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49. Both texts refer back to their metatexts, simultaneously explicating and confusing their audiences while advancing byzantine plot points and arcane themes.

Indeed, the tangled and surreal plot details of The Hearing Trumpet recall Pynchon’s oeuvre in general, but like Pynchon’s work, Carrington’s basic idea can be simplified to something like—Resistance to Them. Who is the Them? The patriarchy, the fascists, the killers. The liars, the cheaters, the ones who make war in the name of order. (One resister, the immortal traveling bard Taliesin, shows up in both the nested texts and later the metatext proper, where he arrives as a postman, recalling the Trystero of The Crying of Lot 49.)

The most overt voice of resistance is Marian’s best friend Carmella. Carmella initiates the novel by giving Marian the titular hearing trumpet, and she acts as a philosophical foil for her friend. Her constant warning that people under seventy and over seven should not be trusted becomes a refrain in the novel. Before Marian is shipped off to the Institution, Carmella already plans her escape, a scheme involving machine guns, rope, and other implements of adventure. Although she loves animals, Carmella is even willing to kill any police dogs that might guard the Institution and hamper their escape:

Police dogs are not properly speaking animals. Police dogs are perverted animals with no animal mentality. Policemen are not human beings so how can police dogs be animals?

Late in the novel, Carmella delivers perhaps the most straightforward thesis of The Hearing Trumpet:

It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of  planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy. Men are very difficult to understand… Let’s hope they all freeze to death. I am sure it would be very pleasant and healthy for human beings to have no authority whatever. They would have to think for themselves, instead of always being told what to do and think by advertisements, cinemas, policemen and parliaments.

Carmella’s dream of an anarchic utopia comes to pass.

How?

Well, there’s a lot to it, and I’d hate to spoil the surrealist fun. Let’s just say that Marian’s Grail quest scores a big apocalyptic win for the Goddess, thanks to “an army of bees, wolves, seven old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven Ark, and a werewoman.” No conventional normies who might find Marian’s beard repulsive here.

With its conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories and Templar tales, The Hearing Trumpet will likely remind many readers of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum (or one of its ripoffs). The Healing Trumpet’s surreal energy also recalls Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. And of course, the highly-imagistic, ever-morphing language will recall Carrington’s own paintings, as well as those of her close friend Remedios Varo (who may have been the basis for Carmella), and their surrealist contemporaries (like Max Ernst) and forebears (like Hieronymus Bosch).

This new edition of The Hearing Trumpet includes an essay by the novelist Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) which focuses on the novel as a feminist text. (Tokarczuk also mentions that she first read the novel without knowing who Carrington was). The new edition also includes black and white illustrations by Carrington’s son, Pablos Weisz Carrington (I’ve included a few in this review). As far as I can tell, these illustrations seem to be slightly different from the illustrations included in the 2004 edition of The Hearing Trumpet published by Exact Change. That 2004 edition has been out of print for ages and is somewhat hard (or really, expensive) to come by (I found a battered copy few years ago for forty bucks). NYRB’s new edition should reach the wider audience Carrington deserves.

Some readers will find the pacing of The Hearing Trumpet overwhelming, too frenetic. It moves like a snowball, gathering images, symbols, motifs into itself in an ever-growing, ever-speeding mass. Other readers may have difficulty with its ever-shifting plot. Nothing is stable in The Hearing Trumpet; everything is liable to mutate, morph, and transform. Those are my favorite kinds of novels though, and I loved The Hearing Trumpet—in particular, I loved its tone set against its imagery and plot. Marian’s narration is straightforward, occasionally wry, but hardly ever astonished or perplexed by the magical and wondrous events she takes part in. There’s a lot I likely missed in The Hearing Trouble—Carrington lards the novel with arcana, Jungian psychology, magical totems, and more more more—but I’m sure I’ll find more the next time I read it. Very highly recommended.

A list of twenty novels I loved in 2020, presented without comment and in no particular order

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

Gringos, Charles Portis

The Wig, Charles Wright

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

Oreo, Fran Ross

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Satantango, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Lancelot, Walker Percy

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

Motorman, David Ohle

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. (Walker Percy)

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

 

These are the opening paragraphs of Walker Percy’s 1971 dystopian speculative fiction novel Love in the Ruins. 

Moby-Dick (The Dead Don’t Die)

From The Dead Don’t Die, 2019. Dir. Jim Jarmusch; cinematography by Frederick Elmes.

“Thanksgiving,” an excerpt from Dmitry Samarov’s cab memoir Hack

I’m on way to a traditional Thanksgiving meal of pot-stickers and spicy pan-fried pork at Lao Sze Chuan when flags me down. A young guy in a tracksuit and expensive basketball shoes. He says his car broke down, which typically a scam. But it’s Thanksgiving, so I give him the benefit of the doubt and he directs to an address on the South Side.

He tells me about going to an event with Chicago Bulls players, proudly showing the autographs he collected. He is excited like a kid would be, which makes me think the broken-down car might actually exist. He asks if I’d had my Thanksgiving meal.

When we pull up to his house, he tells me his mother will have the $25 for the cab. He has me honk a few times then goes into the yard and hollers up the second-floor window. Eventually a dark form appears and a negotiation begins. I can only make out what my passenger is saying. He pleads and promises to pay it all back. It goes on for close to fifteen minutes. Then the figure in the window tosses a crumpled bill out past the overgrown shrubbery of the yard. He comes up to the driver’s side, sheepishly offering a twenty-dollar bill. “It’s all sh has.”

He says his name is Dwayne and shakes my hand when I accept it.

From Dmitry Samarov’s illustrated cab memoir All Hack.

“Situation Reaction,” a questionnaire from David Ohle’s dystopian cult novel Motorman

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness | Moby-Dick

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

From Ch. 96 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Blog about The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich’s Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies novel

Hey, it’s Halloween, spooky times, dark times, right? So here’s a novel recommendation: Grace Krilanovich’s “Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies” novel The Orange Eats Creeps.

Here is the first paragraph of The Orange Eats Creeps:

The sun is setting. The hobo vampires are waking up, their quest for crank and blood is just beginning. Over the course of the frigid night they will roam the area surrounding the train stop looking for warm bodies to suck, for cough syrup to fuel a night of debauched sexual encounters with fellow vampires and mortals alike. They distribute sexually transmitted diseases like the daily newspaper but they will never succumb, they will never die, just aging into decrepit losers inside a teenage shell. They have a sense of duty to their habit and their climax — twin addictions that inform their every move. They are lusty, sad creatures, these Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies. They traverse the Pacific Northwest’s damp, shitty countryside, forests and big trees, the dusty fields and gravel pits clearing a path of desolation parallel to the rail lines of Oregon and Washington, the half-blown-out signs for supermarket chains in strip malls featuring exactly one nail place, one juice-slash-coffee place, and one freshmex-type grill chain restaurant. Here everything is coated in brown-grey paste like moss at the bottom of a crappy tree…

Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is “A vortex of a novel,” as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.

The vortex of The Orange Eats Creeps recalls another black hole, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, also set in the Pacific Northwest, also crawling through subcultural punk detritus. Visually and thematically, there are also echoes of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s 1997 film Gummo. (And yeah, I’m sure a long essay could be worked out in the ways that this book grimes the gilt glam from Joel Schumacher’s 1987 film The Lost Boys.)

As a prose stylist, Krilanovich recalls Kathy Acker or William Burroughs, and the vomitiness and abject bodiness of it all is reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s theory. Krilanovich’s style seems to have roots in punk rock, in zines, and cut-ups, in theft and weird Xerox collages. The novel is fragmentary, random. We’re trapped—trapped?—in the narrator’s ESP-consciousness, zipping through time and space, drugged out, immortal, wishing to nullify time and space, to achieve a comforting and insensate zero.

All the shooting galleries and basement punk shows and drugstore robberies and gallon buckets of cold coffee won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Readers looking for a tightly-plotted vampire novel will find themselves frustrated. The lore here is a separate lore: foster families and parking lots and quick scores and quicker sex. The world is boxcars and group homes and 7-Elevens. But there’s plenty of weirdness: vampire boys, punk rock legends and would-be legends, a warlock, a serial killer called Dactyl, the Donner Party, and ESP, ESP, ESP. There’s a core quest: The narrator searches for her sister. Maybe the quest is a metaphor; hell, maybe vampirism itself is a metaphor in The Orange Eats Creeps. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the aesthetic impression, a swirl of images, words, and motifs coagulating around the reader’s mind’s eye. The Orange Eats Creeps is a survey of consciousness in crisis—the crisis of late capitalism, with vampires making their way through a gig economy, addicted, transient, desperate, enthralled to a particularly Western weirdness. It doesn’t all work, but who cares? Good gross stuff.