All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.
It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.
We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and there is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill… So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.
Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.
We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.
We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The Shire changed irrevocably even in Bilbos lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Plus c’est la meme chose, plus fa change.
From Ursula K. LeGuin’s foreword to her 2001 collection Tales from Earthsea.
Last night, between eleven and twelve o’clock, when the Old Year was leaving her final footprints on the borders of Time’s empire, she found herself in possession of a few spare moments, and sat down—of all places in the world—on the steps of our new city-hall. The wintry moonlight showed that she looked weary of body and sad of heart, like many another wayfarer of earth. Her garments, having been exposed to much foul weather and rough usage, were in very ill condition, and, as the hurry of her journey had never before allowed her to take an instant’s rest, her shoes were so worn as to be scarcely worth the mending. But after trudging only a little distance farther this poor Old Year was destined to enjoy a long, long sleep. I forgot to mention that when she seated herself on the steps she deposited by her side a very capacious bandbox in which, as is the custom among travellers of her sex, she carried a great deal of valuable property. Besides this luggage, there was a folio book under her arm very much resembling the annual volume of a newspaper. Placing this volume across her knees and resting her elbows upon it, with her forehead in her hands, the weary, bedraggled, world-worn Old Year heaved a heavy sigh and appeared to be taking no very pleasant retrospect of her past existence.
While she thus awaited the midnight knell that was to summon her to the innumerable sisterhood of departed years, there came a young maiden treading lightsomely on tip-toe along the street from the direction of the railroad dépôt. She was evidently a stranger, and perhaps had come to town by the evening train of cars. There was a smiling cheerfulness in this fair maiden’s face which bespoke her fully confident of a kind reception from the multitude of people with whom she was soon to form acquaintance. Her dress was rather too airy for the season, and was bedizened with fluttering ribbons and other vanities which were likely soon to be rent away by the fierce storms or to fade in the hot sunshine amid which she was to pursue her changeful course. But still she was a wonderfully pleasant-looking figure, and had so much promise and such an indescribable hopefulness in her aspect that hardly anybody could meet her without anticipating some very desirable thing—the consummation of some long-sought good—from her kind offices. A few dismal characters there may be here and there about the world who have so often been trifled with by young maidens as promising as she that they have now ceased to pin any faith upon the skirts of the New Year. But, for my own part, I have great faith in her, and, should I live to see fifty more such, still from each of those successive sisters I shall reckon upon receiving something that will be worth living for. Continue reading ““The Sister-Years,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical New Year’s tale”→
Later, toward dusk, several enormous water bugs, a very dark reddish brown, emerge like elves from the wainscoting, and go lumbering toward the larder—pregnant mother bugs too, with baby translucent outrider bugs flowing along like a convoy escort. At night, in the very late silences between bombers, ack-ack fire and falling rockets, they can be heard, loud as mice, munching through Gwenhidwy’s paper sacks, leaving streaks and footprints of shit the color of themselves behind. They don’t seem to go in much for soft things, fruits, vegetables, and such, it’s more the solid lentils and beans they’re into, stuff they can gnaw at, paper and plaster barriers, hard interfaces to be pierced, for they are agents of unification, you see. Christmas bugs. They were deep in the straw of the manger at Bethlehem, they stumbled, climbed, fell glistening red among a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles up and downward—an edible tenement-world, now and then gnawed through to disrupt some mysterious sheaf of vectors that would send neighbor bugs tumbling ass-over-antennas down past you as you held on with all legs in that constant tremble of golden stalks. A tranquil world: the temperature and humidity staying nearly steady, the day’s cycle damped to only a soft easy sway of light, gold to antique-gold to shadows, and back again. The crying of the infant reached you, perhaps, as bursts of energy from the invisible distance, nearly unsensed, often ignored. Your savior, you see… .
Oh sharp diamond, my mother!
I could not count the cost
of all your faces, your moods-
that present that I lost.
Sweet girl, my deathbed,
my jewel-fingered lady,
your portrait flickered all night
by the bulbs of the tree.
Your face as calm as the moon
over a mannered sea,
presided at the family reunion,
the twelve grandchildren
you used to wear on your wrist,
a three-months-old baby,
a fat check you never wrote,
the red-haired toddler who danced the twist,
your aging daughters, each one a wife,
each one talking to the family cook,
each one avoiding your portrait,
each one aping your life.
Later, after the party,
after the house went to bed,
I sat up drinking the Christmas brandy,
watching your picture,
letting the tree move in and out of focus.
The bulbs vibrated.
They were a halo over your forehead.
Then they were a beehive,
blue, yellow, green, red;
each with its own juice, each hot and alive
stinging your face. But you did not move.
I continued to watch, forcing myself,
waiting, inexhaustible, thirty-five.
I wanted your eyes, like the shadows
of two small birds, to change.
But they did not age.
The smile that gathered me in, all wit,
all charm, was invincible.
Hour after hour I looked at your face
but I could not pull the roots out of it.
Then I watched how the sun hit your red sweater, your withered neck,
your badly painted flesh-pink skin.
You who led me by the nose, I saw you as you were.
Then I thought of your body
as one thinks of murder-
Then I said Mary-
Mary, Mary, forgive me
and then I touched a present for the child,
the last I bred before your death;
and then I touched my breast
and then I touched the floor
and then my breast again as if,
somehow, it were one of yours
Hi! Did anyone else experience 2017 as an overlong, poorly-conceived, cartoonishly bad, poorly-written dystopian novel?
With that out of the way, a few notes on some of my favorite reading experiences this year—a year I abandoned more books than I stuck with, a year I wrote fewer reviews on this site than ever, a year that I failed to write in full on some of the books I loved best. So, from the top of the pic to the bottom:
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carringtonhas been a replenishing gift all year—something to dip into between novels, between projects and papers, a kind of surrealist palate cleanser. I still have about a dozen unread tales to savor later.
Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons is not in the pic above, because I read a digital review copy. I included Signs and Bodies as visual placeholders though; as I wrote in my review:
I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours.
Herrera’s novel is, come to think of it, one of only two contemporary novels on this list that was actually published this year—and even then it’s a work in translation.
Also not in the picture (because I loaned it to someone who never returned it!), and ed in 2017 is Robert Coover’s novel Huck Out West a critique of Manifest Destiny that’s as timely as ever.
Also not in the picture because I read it as a (samizdat) ebook: Thomas S. Klise’s 1974 cult novel The Last Western. Any indie press that brings The Last Western back into print will find plenty of readers and champions for the book.
And also not in the stack picture because it’s an audiobook is my favorite audiobook I audiobooked in 2017, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, translated by Olena Bormashenko, and read by Robert Forster. I audited it during Hurricane Irma—and then again, after.
Continuing down the stack: I’ve been going back through Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels via audiobook. Sort of like literary comfort food.
Lish’s prose is amazingly concrete. He renders New York City (and the other settings) with seemingly effortless thoroughness; the evocation of place is vivid and refined in its attention to detail, but reads raw somehow. There’s a flavor of prime Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo here, but these comparisons aren’t fair: Lish is original—the prose reads thoroughly real, real to and from the author. The novel…strikes me as one of the most authentic “post-9/11” novels I’ve read. There’s almost something sci-fi to Preparation—Lish shows us our world through alien eyes that suck in every detail. I wish I’d read it sooner.
I read a lot of Barry Hannah over the summer, sucking it up like bourbon or grits or eggs but mostly like bourbon. Long Last Happy rehashes some greatest hits, and is a great place for anyone interested—but it also led me to his last stuff, which ended up being darker, danker, richer than I would have imagined. So then I read his last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which, fuck…
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
“In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.
Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this riff in December, 2015. I’ll see the new film on Saturday.
Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in AChristmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting. Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.
But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:
Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.
Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.
So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.
But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…
Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.
I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:
Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in Decemberthat ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]
I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog). Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:
“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].
The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because I want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks.Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:
“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.
The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate. Gass (never the kind of hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.
“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.
Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:
“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:
‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”
And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point. I wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.
Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:
“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.
I could keep listing.
Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass.
Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.
From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.
The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.
Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?
(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).
I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.
I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.
Why are works of art so socially important? Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. Certainly, images exist, shadows and reflections, fakes exist and hypocrites, there are counterfeits (quite real) and grand illusions – but it is simply not true for the copies are as real as their originals, that they meet all of the tests which I suggested earlier. Soybean steak, by God, is soybean steak, and a pious fraud is a fraud. Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare – rarer, let me say – than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceit, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must in itself be noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, we fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland – true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart and none of us will ever be as real as vital, as complex and living as he is – a total creature of the stage.
The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.
TURKEY REMAINS AND HOW TO INTER THEM WITH NUMEROUS SCARCE RECIPES
At this post holiday season the refrigerators of the nation are overstuffed with large masses of turkey, the sight of which is calculated to give an adult an attack of dizziness. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to give the owners the benefit of my experience as an old gourmet, in using this surplus material. Some of the recipes have been in my family for generations. (This usually occurs when rigor mortis sets in.) They were collected over years, from old cook books, yellowed diaries of the Pilgrim Fathers, mail order catalogues, golfbags and trash cans. Not one but has been tried and proven—there are headstones all over America to testify to the fact.
Very well then: Here goes:
1. Turkey Cocktail
To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.
2. Turkey at la Francais.
Take a large ripe turkey, prepare as for basting and stuff with old watches and chains and monkey meat. Proceed as with cottage-pudding.
3. Turkey and Water
Take one turkey and one pan of water. Heat the latter to the boiling point and then put in the refrigerator When it has jelled drown the turkey in it. Eat. In preparing this recipe it is best to have a few ham sandwiches around in case things go wrong.
4. Turkey Mongole
Take three butts of salami and a large turkey skeleton from which the feathers and natural stuffing have been removed. Lay them out on the table and call up some Mongole in the neighborhood to tell you how to proceed from there.
5. Turkey Mousee
Seed a large prone turkey, being careful to remove the bones, flesh, fins, gravy, etc. Blow up with a bicycle pump. Mount in becoming style and hang in the front hall.
6. Stolen Turkey
Walk quickly from the market and if accosted remark with a laugh that it had just flown into your arms and you hadn’t noticed it. Then drop the turkey with the white of one egg-well, anyhow, beat it.
7. Turkey a la Creme.
Prepare the creme a day in advance, or even a year in advance. Deluge the turkey with it and cook for six days over a blast furnace. Wrap in fly paper and serve.
8. Turkey Hash
This is the delight of all connoisseurs of the holiday beast, but few understand how really to prepare it. Like a lobster it must be plunged alive into boiling water, until it becomes bright red or purple or something, and then before the color fades, placed quickly in a washing machine and allowed to stew in its own gore as it is whirled around.
Only then is it ready for hash. To hash, take a large sharp tool like a nail-file or if none is handy, a bayonet will serve the purpose—and then get at it! Hash it well! Bind the remains with dental floss and serve.
And now we come to the true aristocrat of turkey dishes:
9. Feathered Turkey.
To prepare this a turkey is necessary and a one pounder cannon to compell anyone to eat it. Broil the feathers and stuff with sage brush, old clothes, almost anything you can dig up. Then sit down and simmer. The feathers are to be eaten like artichokes (and this is not to be confused with the old Roman custom of tickling the throat).
10. Turkey at la Maryland
Take a plump turkey to a barber’s and have him shaved, or if a female bird, given a facial and a water wave. Then before killing him stuff with with old newspapers and put him to roost. He can then be served hot or raw, usually with a thick gravy of mineral oil and rubbing alcohol. (Note: This recipe was given me by an old black mammy.)
11. Turkey Remnant
This is one of the most useful recipes for, though not, “chic”, it tells what to do with the turkey after the holiday, and extract the most value from it.
Take the remants, or if they have been consumed, take the various plates on which the turkey or its parts have rested and stew them for two hours in milk of magnesia. Stuff with moth-balls.
12. Turkey with Whiskey Sauce.
This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest.
The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.
13. For Weddings or Funerals. Obtain a gross of small white boxes such as are used for bride’s cake. Cut the turkey into small squares, roast, stuff, kill, boil, bake and allow to skewer. Now we are ready to begin. Fill each box with a quantity of soup stock and pile in a handy place. As the liquid elapses, the prepared turkey is added until the guests arrive. The boxes delicately tied with white ribbons are then placed in the handbags of the ladies, or in the men’s side pockets.
There I guess that’s enough turkey to talk. I hope I’ll never see or hear of another until—well, until next year.
At the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie returns from the Everglades to Eatonville in ragged overalls to a gossipy and unwelcoming town. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings Janie a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Janie gobbles up the simple, delicious meal, even as Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease.” She does however concede that “it’ll kill hongry.” No doubt.
We’ve always been intrigued by mulatto rice. What could it be? Is the dish still around today, but under a new name? Although the term “mulatto” has fallen into disuse, and perhaps distaste (just ask Larry David if you don’t believe us), organizations like mulatto.org have also taken a certain ownership of it. For Hurston, mulatto rice is a positive thing. Hurston could have had Phoeby bring any number of dishes to her friend Janie, so it’s telling that she chooses “mulatto rice” as a homecoming meal. The dish represents a communion, an admixture that reflects Janie’s multiracial identity as well as her resistance to gender-typing. “Mulatto” is also probably etymologically akin to the word “mule,” and if you’ve read Eyes, you know that mules are a major motif in the story. But enough literazin’.
Down to the nitty-gritty–we made up a mess of mulatto rice tonight thanks to a recipe from The Savannah Cook Book by Harriet Ross Colquitt. Not that we found this 1933 cookbook ourselves. No, the real merit here goes to the very cool website Take One Cookbook, which explores the history and culture and sociology behind old, weird cookbooks–all while making the recipes. Colquitt’s recipe, via Wendy at Take One Cookbook (see Wendy’s versionhere):
This is the very chic name given to rice with a touch of the tarbrush.
Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.
The rice is very easy to make and very, very tasty. We substituted green onions for a small onion, and used a hickory-smoked bacon that infused the rice with a lovely sweetness (we also included a tablespoon of brown sugar right after the tomatoes). We served the dish, pictured above, with ham steaks and fried green tomatoes with a spicy yogurt sauce. Hearty and rich and satisfying–just the sort of thing one wants to eat after a soul-searching quest (or maybe just a long day). Recommended.
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, an Indian named Michael prepares a turtle soup for Suttree. First, catch the turtle. Then, kill the turtle, making sure to discard its head–
The Indian braced his feet and swung it up dripping from the river and onto the rocks and it squatted there watching them, its baleful pig’s eyes blinking. It was tied through the lower jaw with a section of wire and the Indian took hold of the wire and tugged at it. The turtle bated and hissed, its jaws gasped. The Indian had out his pocketknife and now he opened it and he pulled the turtle’s obscene neck out taut and with a quick upward motion of the blade severed the head. Suttree involuntarily drew back. The turtle’s craggy head swung from the wire and what lay between the braced forefeet was a black and wrinkled dog’s cunt slowly pumping gouts of near black blood. The blood ran down over the stones and dripped in the water and the turtle shifted slowly on the rock and started toward the river. The Indian undid the wire and flung the head into the river . . .
Appetizing, no? Now that you’ve thrown the bloody head in the river (or your garbage can or wherever you throw turtle heads), it’s time to dress the beast–
Suttree laid the turtle on the rock and the Indian scouted about him until he came up with a goodsized stone.
Watch out, he said.
Suttree stepped back.
The Indian raised the stone and brought it down upon the turtle’s back. The shell collapsed with a pulpy buckling sound.
I never saw a turtle dressed before, said Suttree. But the Indian had knelt and was cutting away the broken plates of shell with his pocketknife and pitching them into the river. He pulled the turtle’s meat up off the plastron and gouged away the scant bowels with his thumb. He skinned out the feet. What hung headless in his grip as he raised it aloft was a wet gray foetal mass, a dim atavism limp and dripping.
Plenty of meat there, said the Indian. He laid it out on the rock and bent and swished the blade of his knife in the river.
Okay. Now that you’ve removed the shell and gouged away the scant bowels with your thumbs, it’s time to prepare the wet gray foetal mass.
Put him in a pot and cook him slow. Lots of vegetables. Lots of onions. I got my own things I put in.
Got it? Lots of onions. Slow cook that dim, limp, dripping atavism. The fact that the Indian has his “own things” that he puts in implies a call to the reader to experiment with the recipe. And how did Suttree like his turtle?
He spooned up a piece of the meat and cradled it in his mouth to cool it. He chewed it. It was succulent and rich, a flavor like no other.