Blog about the first half of Antoine Volodine’s Writers

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Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.

That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:

…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:

  • sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
  • twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
  • ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
  • and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar

I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.

The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:

Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…

The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”

Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?

They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.

The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.

Courtyard with Lunatics, 1794 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book  An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer

…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.

“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the OttersEve of PandemicJournal of PandemoniumGoodbye CloudsGoodbye RomeoMlatelpopec in ParadiseMacbeth in ParadiseHell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.

 

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A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

To date, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (American, b. 1937), has published eight novels and one collection of short stories. These books were published between 1963 and 2013. On this day, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 81st birthday, I present my ranking of his novels. My ranking is completely subjective, essentially incomplete (in that I haven’t read two of Pynchon’s novels all the way through), and thoroughly unnecessary. My ranking should be disregarded, but I do not think it should be treated with any malice. You are most welcome to make your own ranking in the comments section of this post, or perhaps elsewhere online, or on a scrap of your own paper, or in personal remarks to a friend or loved one, etc. I have not included the short story collection Slow Learner (1984) in this ranking because it is not a novel.

Here is the list, ranked from not-greatest to greatest:

8. Bleeding Edge (2013)

I have never made it past the first thirty pages of Bleeding Edge, despite two attempts. I don’t even own it. I will probably read it in ten years and see something there that I didn’t see in 2013 or 2015 but for now, I’m not sure.

7. Vineland (1990)

Vineland is the other Pynchon novel I haven’t managed to finish. I’ve tried three times, including a semi-serious shot last year where I stalled after the fourth chapter (around 90 pages in). Vineland seems to have a strange status for Pynchon cultists—its a cult novel in an oeuvre of cult novels, I guess. Perhaps Vineland has a sturdier core to it than I can sense, but even though I dig the goofy humor, I haven’t yet found something to grab onto.

6. Inherent Vice (2009)

I love Inherent Vice. It has a bit of a reputation of being “Pynchon lite,” whatever that means, but I think it’s a much denser book than a first reading might suggest—its shaggy baggy breeziness coheres into something stronger on a second or third read. Inherent Vice is both a diagnosis of the sixties and a prognosis of a future to come.

5. V. (1963)

V. makes a good starting place for anyone new to Pynchon. Even though it’s his first novel, V. already stages Pynchon’s major themes (paranoia, technology, entropy, globalism) in an elastic and discursive narrative style and a zany (and sometimes sinister) tone. These elements continued throughout the next half century in Pynchon’s writing. V. shares a few characters with Gravity’s Rainbow, and in many ways it feels like a dress rehearsal for that bigger, grander, fuller novel—but it reverberates with its own richness. The ninth chapter, the story of of Kurt Mondaugen, is a particularly dark and decadent bit of writing.

4. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t so much convert paranoia into hope as it shows that the two are part and parcel of the same impulse of a consciousness that has to know that it cannot know. Pynchon’s dualities here feel new—paranoia/hope is wrapped into zaniness/horror. He sends us to escape into the labyrinth. I wrote new in the previous sentence, but Pynchon’s ambiguities resonate with American literature’s dark romantic traditions—Melville, Hawthorne, O’Connor, et al.

3. Against the Day  (2006)

Against the Day glides into its sprawl, billowing out into genre trajectories that transcend the boundaries of the plot’s dates (1893-1918). Pynchon’s longest novel to date earns its 1,085-page run, pivoting between comic fantasy, high adventure, flânerie escapade, scientific treatise, and a byzantine global mystery—all weighed down by the ballast of rising modernism. Pynchon merges these styles, both “high” and “low,” into something thoroughly Pynchonian. Despite its length, Against the Day is perhaps Pynchon’s clearest indictment of sinister power, neatly figured in the oligarch Scarsdale Vibe. Just writing about it here makes me want to revisit it again and check in on The Chums of Chance and their marvelous airship The Inconvenience. 

2. Mason & Dixon (1997)

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

1. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the best American postmodern novel ever produced. In any case, I haven’t read another novel that so acutely dissects postwar America. Pynchon extends Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” by adding another element: entertainment. The intuition here surpasses prescience. The problem with Gravity’s Rainbow is that it cannot be read—it has to be reread. Its themes, motifs, and symbols are easy to miss on a first pass through, when you’re likely bugeyed and bewildered. Rereading Gravity’s Rainbow is like reading it for the first time. You have to let the book teach you how to read it. Let it teach you.

Pynchon book titles embedded in other Pynchon books

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Slow Learner. From page 641 of Gravity’s Rainbow.

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Vineland. From the beginning of ch. 66 of Mason & Dixon.

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Inherent Vice. From page 272, chapter 27 of Mason & Dixon. 

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Against the Day. From page 125, chapter 13 of Mason & Dixon.

Pynchon in Public Day, 2018

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What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?

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My (incomplete) annotations of Gravity’s Rainbow

An argument for three possible starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

In which I read Playboy for the Thomas Pynchon article

 

Portrait of Thomas Pynchon, James Jean

List of Possible Descriptors for Against the Day

Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice’s bodacious banana breakfast for a bunch of hung over army officers (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Routine: plug in American blending machine won from some Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now….Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree ‘nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England. . . . Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in the skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows. . . .

Louis Menand reviews Mason & Dixon

A riff on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)

Wingnuts (The Crying of Lot 49):

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.
Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.”
“They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also.
“Us?” asked Oedipa.

Pynchon on Melville’s “Bartleby”

Grape people and grain people (Mason & Dixon)

My review of Inherent Vice

American history lesson (from Against the Day):

“Not quite how it sorts out. Differences among the world religions are in fact rather trivial when compared to the common enemy, the ancient and abiding darkness which all hate, fear, and struggle against without cease”— he made a broad gesture to indicate the limitless taiga all around them— “Shamanism. There isn’t a primitive people anywhere on Earth that can’t be found practicing some form of it. Every state religion, including your own, considers it irrational and pernicious, and has taken steps to eradicate it.”

“What? there’s no ‘state religion’ in the U.S.A., pardner, we’ve got freedom of worship, it’s guaranteed in the Constitution—keeps church and state separate, just so’s we don’t turn into something like England and keep marching off into the brush with bagpipes and Gatling guns, looking for more infidels to wipe out. Nothing personal o’ course.”

“The Cherokee,” replied Prance, “the Apache, the massacre of the Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, every native Red Indian you’ve found, you people have either tried to convert to Christianity or you’ve simply killed.”

“I suggest it was about the fear of medicine men and strange practices, dancing and drug-taking, that allow humans to be in touch with the powerful gods hiding in the landscape, with no need of any official church to mediate it for them. The only drug you’ve ever been comfortable with is alcohol, so you went in and poisoned the tribes with that. Your whole history in America has been one long religious war, secret crusades, disguised under false names. You tried to exterminate African shamanism by kidnapping half the continent into slavery, giving them Christian names, and shoving your peculiar versions of the Bible down their throats, and look what happened.”

“The Civil War? That was economics. Politics.”

“That was the gods you tried to destroy, waiting their hour, taking their revenge. You people really just believe everything you’re taught, don’t you?”

A rambling and possibly incoherent riff on Inherent Vice (film and novel) and The Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon will not make it to Donald Barthelme’s postmodernist dinner:

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Read Thomas Pynchon’s short story “Entropy”

The Crocodile, a traditional anarchist cocktail:

“I’ll be in the bar,” said Reef. Yzles-Bains was in fact one of the few places on the continent of Europe where a sober Anarchist could find a decent Crocodile—equal amounts of rum, absinthe, and the grape spirits known as trois-six—a traditional Anarchist favorite, which Loïc the bartender, a veteran of the Paris Commune, claimed to have been present at the invention of.

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Lydia Davis on Thomas Pynchon

A dirty lapdog joke from Against the Day

Proverbs for Paranoids (from Gravity’s Rainbow):

1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

Pynchon Cover Gallery

Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?

Some riffs on Mason & Dixon

 Don DeLillo on Pynchon:

“Somebody quoted Norman Mailer as saying that he wasn’t a better writer because his contemporaries weren’t better…I don’t know whether he really said that or not, but the point I want to make is that no one in Pynchon’s generation can make that statement. If we’re not as good as we should be it’s not because there isn’t a standard. And I think Pynchon, more than any other writer, has set the standard. He’s raised the stakes.”

Some riffs on Against the Day

A (probably incomplete) list of films mentioned in Inherent Vice

One-star Amazon reviews of Gravity’s Rainbow

Anarchists’ golf (Against the Day):

THE NEXT DAY Reef, Cyprian, and Ratty were out on the Anarchists’ golf course, during a round of Anarchists’ Golf, a craze currently sweeping the civilized world, in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number—of holes, with distances flexible as well, some holes being only putter-distance apart, others uncounted hundreds of yards and requiring a map and compass to locate. Many players had been known to come there at night and dig new ones. Parties were likely to ask, “Do you mind if we don’t play through?” then just go and whack balls at any time and in any direction they liked. Folks were constantly being beaned by approach shots barreling in from unexpected quarters. “This is kind of fun,” Reef said, as an ancient brambled guttie went whizzing by, centimeters from his ear.

Antoine Volodine’s Writers (Book acquired, 5 May 2018)

I picked up Antoine Volodine’s Writers today.

I also looked at some pictures, including these–

An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

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Biblioklept: What is Egress?

David Winters: Literally: the act or way of leaving a place; an emergence, opening or exit. Egress is also a biannual literary magazine devoted to showcasing the most innovative writers on both sides of the Atlantic today. Our first issue features, among others, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden and Kimberly King Parsons.

Biblioklept: How long has Egress been incubating? How did the magazine come about?

DW: Incubation began in May 2017, over a lunch of okonomiyaki in Bloomsbury, London. We met through Gordon Lish. Little Island had published Lish’s White Plains, as well as books by his students Russell Perrson and Jason Schwartz. I’d also alerted Andrew to the work of David Hayden, author of Darker with the Lights On, who has two new stories in Egress #1So, there was a sense of shared tastes. A sense, too, that UK literary magazines–despite the efforts of a few pioneers—lacked the avant-garde spirit of US publications like NOON and New York Tyrant. We both saw a space for something new. Okonomiyaki, for the benefit of your readers, are a type of savoury Japanese pancake.

Andrew Latimer: Through David and Gordon Lish, I’d discovered writers like Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte (both in Egress #1) and desperately wanted a vehicle for engaging this type of work here, in the UK. Egress – the name, the style, the design – all came about quite naturally from a desire to bring writing like this into one place.

Biblioklept: For readers unfamiliar, can you describe the Lishian aesthetic, at least as you see it?

DW: Well, in a sense, there’s no such thing. Journalists in the eighties harped on about ‘minimalism’—a stupid label, with little purchase on the writers in question. Sven Birkerts once claimed there was a ‘School of Gordon Lish’. But Lish’s influence can’t be reduced in that way. Over the decades, hundreds of very different writers have worked with him, learned from him, bounced off him, swerved away from him. What the best of them have in common is an acute sensitivity to the power of language, and a commitment to creating new and lasting art—art that stands apart from the marketplace. Those are also the qualities we prize at Egress. But they are hardly restricted to “Lishian” fiction.

Biblioklept: That “acute sensitivity to the power of language” is on display in the two fictions from Lish in Egress #1, “Jawbone” and “Court of the Kangaroo.” The first Lish story, “Jawbone,” is about this seemingly unimportant minuscule moment, but Lish turns the whole thing into a drama about language itself. There’s this line in “Jawbone” that I kept tripping over, rereading and rereading: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.” The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky—rapturous really.

AL: Rereading is the key here. We’re familiar with rereading whole stories that we like or ones with endings that puzzle us. But what Lish, and writers of this ilk, ask us to do is to reread sentences in the course of making our first reading. This assumes a reader, a listener even, with the patience to linger over the page, its construction. (Gary Lutz prefers a “page-hugging” to a page-turning reader.)

DW: “Gorgeous and ugly” — exactly, yes. Donald Barthelme once said, “every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.” Lish, when he was teaching, called this “burnt tongue”: “God only listens to those whose tongues are burnt, twisted, crippled.” Writers of fiction can achieve extraordinary power by attending to everything wrong, skewed, erratic in their natural speech — and, rather than being afraid of that wrongness, amplifying it on the page. But power of this kind needn’t be purely spontaneous; it can also be elicited by editing. The sentence you mention went through multiple revisions; Lish reworks his stories obsessively, right up to the final proof stage. When I edit fiction, in my lesser way, I often look out for those off-kilter sentences, isolate them, tweak them, try to increase their tension and pressure.

Biblioklept: How much and what kind of editing did you guys do with Egress #1. I mean, were the authors submitting finished pieces, or were you working with them through the process?

DW: It varies. Some stories are, with the authors’ approval, heavily edited. Some authors come to us in such command of their material that no editing is necessary. Sometimes, editing is simply about discovery: finding the new. Sometimes it’s about reinvention: getting stuck in and making it new. Between these extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of interventions.

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Biblioklept: I’ll admit that I opened Egress with the idea that I’d probably go straight to Lish and then maybe read Christine Schutt or Evan Lavender-Smith—some of the writers I’d already read before—before reading ones that were new to me. However, the first story in Egress #1, which is by Kimberly King Parsonhad a title that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Corpulent Wants Polaroid Proof.” So I started there, and all the sentences made me want to keep reading, and then read into her second story. Then I read the next story, Grant Maierhofer’s “Everybody’s Darling.” (The opening line “I suppose I took to mother’s unders when the end became too sure” sort of insisted Keep going).  How important is sequencing the stories (and essays) of Egress and what was that process like? How much of your editorial mission involves opening up a place for newer voices?

DW: Openings are important. Andrew and I share the view that stories should command attention from their very first sentence–what some would call the ‘attack’. Again, though, an attack doesn’t have to be nailed down straight away; it can emerge in the process of revision. However they’re made, the best openings astonish, seduce, compel us, as you say, to ‘keep going’.

And if literary art is about attention, so too is the art of the literary magazine. Drawing attention to unknown writers has long been the mission of little magazines, ever since the heyday of modernism. Incidentally, this has also been my mission as a critic. When I started writing about Christine Schutt, Evan Lavender-Smith and others, they were largely overlooked and unpublished in the UK. Both in mainstream literary journalism and in the academy, critical attention often fixates on the famous and commercially successful. This is especially true of prose fiction, which inhabits a different institutional ecosystem to, say, poetry. With the current renaissance of small presses, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Even so, the writers who make the Booker Prize shortlist or get reviewed in The Guardian are not, by and large, the writers who’ll be remembered decades from now. The market exerts a powerful pull on our collective attention. Good publishing, like good criticism, resists that pull. The task is to look away from what everyone else is looking at–look at what they’re not looking at–and then make them see.

AL: Absolutely – and the sequencing of the stories and essays plays a huge part in showcasing those new voices. As a reader, there is always that pull to go to the names you know and love first. (It’s part of why you pick up a magazine.) But, as an editor, you can’t just rely on the big names; you’ve got to be in the business of making new ones. You have a responsibility to disrupt the reader’s expectations, to put things in their way. Beyond names and reputations, there’s also a careful and deliberate counterpointing of the work in Egress. David and I think about how one story or essay speaks to another, how it’s placement can enrich another’s meaning, its rhythms. This kind of editorial work, the imposition of an overarching rhythm to the issue, wills the reader to ‘keep going’. Catrin Morgan’s illustrations (of various egresses – trapdoors and staircases) are a neat visual cue to the reader to push on, to explore what’s round the corner.

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

Biblioklept: Some of this blog’s readers might know Catrin Morgan from her illustrated version of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. How did you get her involved with Egress? Do you plan for each issue to have a different artist?

AL: Originally we asked her for an image for the front cover, but she ended up drawing all these bizarre stairs and exits that were so compelling I just had to use them. I’d like to continue using her illustrations throughout the text for the future, but there will be a new artist featured in the colour plates each issue. The “artist” for this issue is Hob Broun.

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Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?

DW: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.

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Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?

DWCardinal Numbers, without a doubtOpen Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.

Biblioklept: Maybe Egress could get a hold of a few pages.

DW:  We’ve been looking at some of his unpublished work, yes.

Biblioklept: Why is it necessary to publish Egress in a physical, print form?

AL: Why is Egress in print? There are so many reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The role of curation has never been more important as it is now. We are distracted: information, entertainment, stuff causes our attention to bleed from one thing to the next. Egress, like all the best journals and mags, is a highly curated affair. David and I wanted there to be a palpable sensation derived from receiving and reading each issue of the magazine. The style of writing, the artwork, the design. Much of that effect relies on all the pieces being enclosed between covers – simultaneously held together and also cut off, if only briefly, from everything else that’s going on. It’s hard, likely impossible, to get that same sense of quietude, to enforce focus, when reading on a screen as infinite worlds suggest themselves merely clicks away. As well as this, there’s an indispensable sense of occasion one gets from a print magazine: ‘when is it out?’ The magazine, as a format, craves temporality.

Biblioklept: Do you envision future issues of Egress publishing some of the authors featured in the first issue?

AL: Yes, definitely.

Biblioklept: There’s an obvious aesthetic value to a literary journal or magazine publishing the same authors frequently, but are there any risks?

DW: There are risks and rewards. Magazines like Egress serve two roles in the culture. Our primary role is to discover and promote new writers. Often unpublished, unagented, and lacking industry connections, these writers reside at the margins. But we believe in them, fervently, and we believe they deserve to be heard. This gives rise to a second role. You might even call it a moral responsibility. Newness needs to be nurtured, protected, given a space in which it can grow. One contributor to Egress #1 only began writing fiction six months ago. She’d published nothing before she came to us. But what she’s doing is truly unique. Will we publish her again? You bet. We’ll do everything in our power to support her work. The same goes for any writer we believe in. If you do that and keep doing it–if you keep bringing new writers together–you become something more than a magazine. You become a community. Look at the best literary magazines of recent decades–from The Quarterly through to elimaeNOONTyrant and Unsaid–and that’s what you’ll see: artistic communities. Temporary autonomous zones; bubbles in which innovation can flourish. The risk, of course–and here I could name several lesser litmags–is that such communities can solidify into coteries, stables, ‘closed shops’. We’ll champion writers as long as they need us, but we’ll never close ourselves off in that way. After all, the real thrill is when someone comes to you from out of nowhere–no publications, no social media accounts, no ‘platform’, fuck, even no cover letter–just power on the page.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DW: Sure, when they’re overpriced or out of print. Worse, I’ve had others steal them for me. Years ago, a friend went to great lengths to liberate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ Order Out of Chaos from a university library for me. And a contributor to Egress #2 once smuggled an exorbitantly priced theology monograph out of a bookshop on my behalf. (Sorry Julie—see you in prison!)

AL: I’m bad for stealing books from places I’m staying at — friends’, hostels, BnBs — especially if I think I’d appreciate the book more myself. My favourite steal so far has been Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, which I’ve read the covers off so can’t return that now (not that I would).

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

 

The first issue of Egress is out now in the UK. It will be available in the US on 21 June 2018.

David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookforumThe Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing a book about Gordon Lish. He co-edits both Egress and 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.

Andrew Latimer is editorial director at Little Island Press.

This interview was conducted via email during the month of April, 2018.

Blog about Blog about 3

  1. There are 30 days in April. On 1 April 2018—Easter Sunday and/or April Fool’s Day—I declared on my cursed blog that I would write something on the blog every day this month. I failed to write every day on the blog in the month of April; specifically, I did not post stuff on April 13, April 20, or April 24.
  2. (Not a reason for not posting on any of these dates but fun: April 13 was a Friday the 13th; April 20 is 4/20; April 24 is my cousin’s birthday).
  3. On the 1 April Blog about post I specifically hunted down the Fool card in the Rider-Waite tarot deck that I keep out for fun. I always thought tarot was foolish silliness, even if I found some of the aesthetics attractive, before a third or maybe fourth rereading of Gravity’s Rainbow prompted my buying a deck for research purposes. The deck figures heavily in Pynchon’s novel, providing a mystical and indeterminate contrast to the novel’s motif of mathematical precision. At some point I start flipping a card every day—not as some kind of superstitious soothsaying totem, but rather for fun. I don’t know. I scattered some of those cards into these posts when I photographed books; every card was a card I flipped that day, aside from The Fool.
  4. This morning I flipped the Two of Wands, a card I like. I like most of the Wands suit (and generally dislike the Swords suit; the Cups are my thing though). It’s in the pic above, which is a lazy attempt at an organizing principle for this post, which is not The Last Blog about post, but the last one for April 2018. (Tomorrow is May 2018).
  5. I mean what I mean is, Trying to blog every day was rewarding but also exhausting. I was surprised at some of what I wrote, even a little tiny small bit happy with some of it, and I still have a slim deck of ideas on deck. I think I’ll try to do one or two of these a week, and at least do one on Sundays.
  6. So I said above (by said I mean wrote) that I used a picture as an organizing principle for this disorganized post. The pic is of a loose stack of books that I’ve read or am reading or intend to read or have maybe halfway sorta given up on. It’s a pile that needs organizing. So, from top to bottom:
  7. I reread Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance this month and loved it. I almost started a reread of The House of Seven Gables after reading it—and typing this out now, I realize that that’s what I’d like to read soon, actually. One of the favorite posts I did in this Blog about series was on making a cocktail Hawthorne’s narrator drinks in the novel.
  8. I picked up Players after reading DeLillo’s The Names, which I wrote about early in these Blog about posts. It’s been hanging out unattended for a few weeks and I’m sure I’ll get to it in 38 months.
  9. I said I’d finally read Middlemarch this year, but I find myself unwilling to commit after two or three chapters and am irritated with myself in my constantly transferring it from room to room without reading it or shelving it. Maybe I’m only interested in it because it is monstrous. (I love big fat monsters; make me read Middlemarch).
  10.  I wrote one of these Blog about posts about Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System.” I have another thing sketched out for his story “Stone Quarry” which is like this wonderfully satirical take on metafiction. I’m mostly enjoying reading this book slowly. I hate the drive to read too fast.
  11. I read The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector maybe five or six years ago and I pulled it out the other day because I think I’d like to reread it, because that’s what I like—rereading—I mean, I’ d prefer to reread Middlemarch without all the hard labor of, like, reading it first.
  12. I got the Hob Broun in the mail today and I’m going to quit writing this stupid fucking blog and go read it now.
  13. I’ll do another one of these tomorrow if I feel like it, but not if I don’t feel like it, and if I don’t not feel like it, maybe.

Hob Broun’s Cardinal Numbers (Book acquired, 30 April 2018)

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I first heard of Hob Broun a few years ago from the literary critic David Winters, who is a fan of Broun’s work. I’ve had Broun on a list of writers I mean to read for a long time now (an actual physical list, by the way, which I keep in my wallet). However, I’ve yet to come across one of his books in a bookstore. Anyway so well—

The inaugural issue of the new literary magazine Egress has a feature on Broun, which reignited my interest in him. I’ve been emailing the editors of Egress, David Winters and Andrew Latimer, for an interview about Egress (which will post sometime in the next day or two), and David basically talked me into breaking down and buying the book online (I got it for five bucks). A snippet of our upcoming interview:

Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?

David Winters: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.

Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?

DWCardinal Numbers, without a doubtOpen Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.

Blog about Three Books

Between the first Sunday of September 2015 and the first Sunday of September 2016 I ran a series of posts—every Sunday that year—I called “Three Books.” I would scan the covers of the books, and I generally tried to find books with interesting design elements to them; I would also try to find a thread between the books (but not always). The posts allowed me to write about the design and aesthetics of covers, as well as other elements of the books (y’know, like, what was actually between the covers). The posts also gave me a regular goal on a Sunday. After a year, I moved on to another series of Sunday posts I called Sunday Comics; before the Three Books thing, I posted pics of my bookshelves on Sundays and wrote about that; and before that, I posted images of death masks on Sundays. A themed post of some kind every Sunday seemed to give this accursed blog a sense of direction, however false. I don’t remember how or why I quit posting Sunday comics, but searching the tag shows me I stopped at the end of June in 2017. This whole paragraph seems like a long and rambling preamble to saying something like, Maybe I should do these Blog about posts on Sundays? Huh? What do you think?

But the title said “Three Books”…so—Three Books, chosen somewhat at random:

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Captain Maximus by Barry Hannah. First edition hardback by Knopf, 1985. Cover design by Fred Marcellino.

Great cover, right? Fred Marcellino popped up a few times in the Three Books series.

Last summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where, along with sometime-Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang, I fondly fondled a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel RayI couldn’t bring myself to pay sixty dollars for it, but one night, after a few drinks, broke down and bid on eBay for a signed Hannah—Captain Maximus. I wound up paying six dollars more than what Knopf wanted to charge folks for an unsigned edition back in ’85. This particular copy clearly has never been read. I ended up picking up the Penguin Contemporary Classics paperback version of Captain Maximus (for three dollars of used bookstore credit) and reading that instead. The signed Hannah’s spine is still pristine, and I realize that I am something awful.

The book is purple.

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The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. English translation by Michael Kenny. First edition hardback, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968. Design by Applebaum & Curtis Inc.

The last fifty pages or so are warped from water damage, but I couldn’t pass up this oh-so-purple, oh-so-sixties Bulgakov. I ended up liking it a lot more than I liked The Master and Margarita.

The book is purple-pink.

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The World within the Word by William H. Gass. Trade paperback by Basic Books. Cover design by Rick Pracher.

Just a wonderful collection of essays. His essay on Stein is required reading, and “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” is perfect metafiction posing as criticism. Lovely stuff.

The book is pink.

 

Blog about like just the sheer damn orality of Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

This weekend I picked up a new audiobook collection of Robert Coover short stories which has been titled Going for a Beer (presumably because “Going for a Beer” is a perfect short story).  The audiobook contains 30 stories and is read by Charlie Thurston, a more than capable as an orator.

The opening story is one of Coover’s earliest published stories. “The Brother” (1962) retells the Noah narrative from the book of Genesis. I just wrote “retells,” but that’s not really the right term. Instead of retelling the story of Noah and the ark and YHWH’s flood, Coover imagines the apocalyptic affair from the perspective of Noah’s younger brother, who narrates this tale.

Noah’s unnamed brother is an earthy, sensual fellow who loves his wife and loves his wine. His wife—a sympathetic and endearing figure—is pregnant with their first child. They’re already picking out names (“Nathaniel or Anna”). Brother Noah keeps taking the narrator from his own familial duties to help build a boat though:

right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother

That’s kinda-sorta the opening paragraph—although no it’s not, because the whole story is just one big paragraph, a big oral fragment really, which begins with a lower-case and keeps going in a verbal rush whose only concessions to punctuation are question marks and quotation marks. No periods or commas here folks. On the page, “The Brother” perhaps approximates the blockish brickish look of a Gutenberg Bible or even the Torah, neither of which give the reader a nice period to rest on, let alone a friendly pause between paragraphs.

“The Brother” might be typographically daunting, but the apparent thickness of verbal force on the page belies its oral charms. The story is meant to be read out loud. Hell, it’s biblical, after all—a witnessing. Read aloud, “The Brother” shows us a deeply sympathetic pair of characters, a husband and wife whose small pleasures, telegraphed in naturalistic speech, might remind the auditor of real persons living today. And yet there’s an apocalyptic backdrop here. Noah’s brother and Noah’s brother’s wife—and their unborn child, and all the unborn children—will not survive YHWH’s flood.

Coover does not paint Noah as anything but a shrugging reluctant weirdo. He’s no prophet who warns and helps his brother, but rather a defeated man:

and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wee\s I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-l-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry

Noah’s dismissing his brother’s work strikes me as utterly cruel—he makes no attempt to explain why his brother’s efforts at creating a better world are in vain. I shared the passage at length again in part because I hope you’ll read it aloud gentle reader, but also that you’ll note that maybe you didn’t note all its blasphemies—Coover’s story is larded with “my Gods” and “damns” and “goddamns,” no different than the speech of 1962, no different than the speech of 2018.

Coover gives us a narrator like us, human, earthly, driven by simple pleasures and a basic sense of love. Noah comes off like a prick. The Bible loves its heroes, but the ordinary folks don’t even get to live in the margins. There’s more morality in orality though—in conversation and communication and talk.

You don’t have to buy the audiobook though to hear “The Brother.” Here is Coover reading it himself:

Blog about making a sherry cobbler, a cocktail I read about in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel

In the final third of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, the narrator, having departed the titular would-be utopian farm, enjoys some city time in a hotel. He takes a voyeuristic pleasure in watching people from his window, and elects to deepen the pleasure by ordering a drink: “Just about this time a waiter entered my room. The truth was, I had rung the bell and ordered a sherry-cobbler.” The explanatory end note for my Penguin Classics copy of Blithedale gives the following recipe: “A drink made with sherry, lemon juice, sugar, and cracked ice.” I decided to make a few.

A brief internet search resulted in dozens and dozens of recipes, all more or less the same iteration: long glass, crushed ice, sherry, simple syrup, citrus (oranges cited most frequently), fresh berries if you have ’em, and a straw. The straw is the kicker here. Here is a passage from Charles Dickens’ 1844 novel Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit that shows the titular hero’s delight with his first sherry cobbler (note Chuzzlewit’s ecstasy when he gets “the reed” to his lips):

‘I wish you would pull off my boots for me,’ said Martin, dropping into one of the chairs ‘I am quite knocked up—dead beat, Mark.’

‘You won’t say that to-morrow morning, sir,’ returned Mr Tapley; ‘nor even to-night, sir, when you’ve made a trial of this.’ With which he produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture—which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice—and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘There, sir!’ said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face; ‘if ever you should happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is to ask the nearest man to go and fetch a cobbler.’

‘To go and fetch a cobbler?’ repeated Martin.

‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short. Now you’re equal to having your boots took off, and are, in every particular worth mentioning, another man.’

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah—so I looked around for recipes. David Wondrich’s 2007 cocktail history Imbibe! gives a helpful baseline recipe by citing Jerry Thomas’s 1862 classic, How to Mix Drinks. From Thomas’s book:

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Thomas doesn’t mention muddling the oranges, although pretty much every online recipe I read called for muddling.

So reader, I muddled.

Here is my variation on the sherry cobbler (or Sherry Cobbler, or sherry-cobbler). In the loose spirit of the cocktail, I made ours entirely of ingredients I already had at the house. These were for each cocktail:

–4 oz of sherry

–1/2 oz of simple syrup

–1/2 oz of maraschino syrup

–1 oz of sparkling water

–1 clementine (muddled)

–sprigs of mint

–blueberries

–crushed ice

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The maraschino syrup was an afterthought after I’d mixed the cocktail and was about to pour it over ice—I wanted to get a pop of color at the bottom of the glass. The mint and blueberries were from our garden. The pic above is lousy; sorry—not sure why I didn’t move the dishcloth and maybe photograph the cocktails like, uh, not in front of my wife’s kombucha hotels.

So how was it? Pretty refreshing. My wife enjoyed it more than I did, although I’m not a huge cocktail guy. (I think it’s pretty hard, for example, to improve upon neat scotch , although I do like bourbon straight up in the hotter months).

I’ve always been fascinated by literary recipes, so I’m a bit surprised the sherry cobbler has evaded my attention until now, despite its having shown up in various novels I’ve read (including Nicholson Baker’s House of Holesas Troy Patterson pointed out in a remarkably thorough literary history of the cocktail at Slate years ago). I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to make a sherry cobbler again (not that I went out of my way to make these ones), but the basic cobbler recipe’s spirit is very close to my approach to making cocktails at home anyway—use what you have. In fact, the major difference between the sherry cobblers I made yesterday and the kind of cocktail I’d normally cobble together for my wife on a Saturday afternoon is the sherry—I’d usually use rum or maybe vodka. Anyway, the whole thing was fun, which is like, the point of cocktails.

Blog about the American Arcadia (or Arcadian America?) scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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I am glad I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel for many reasons. One of those reasons is because I had completely forgotten to remember a marvelous scene near the end of the novel, in Ch. XXV — “The Masqueraders.” This episode happens near the end of the chapter. Hawthorne’s stand-in Miles Coverdale has decided to return to Blithedale after spending some time out in, like, the world.

Coverdale’s return to the utopian project he half-heartedly abandoned is thoroughly coded in Hawthorne’s signature ambivalence: He notes “a sickness of the spirits kept alternating with my flights of causeless buoyancy” as he walks through the wood. Approaching the Blithedale farm, and feels an “invincible reluctance” in his return, which causes him to linger in the forest. By and by, as the lovely transitional phrase goes, Coverdale winds his way back to his “hermitage, in the heart of the white-pine tree.” (The white-pine reference strikes me as an oblique reference here to Hawthorne himself—or rather, a nod to a distinction between white pine and black hawthorn trees, alter egos).

Here in his hermitage he rests among grapes dangling in “abundant clusters of the deepest purple, deliciously sweet to the taste.” Coverdale’s hermitage is an idealized, natural—transcendental—version of Blithedale, the grapevines (a prefiguration of communication in the American parlance) a kind of perfectly polygamous knot of communal existence.

Taken up in solo-bacchanalia, Coverdale begins devouring the grapes. Always the loner, always the voyeur, he checks out the house from his arboreal perch and notes its emptiness. He decides, drunken on sweet grapes, to skulk through the woods, where he hears “Voices, male and feminine; laughter, not only of fresh young throats, but the bass of grown people.” He continues—

The wood, in this portion of it, seemed as full of jollity as if Comus and his crew were holding their revels in one of its usually lonesome glades. Stealing onward as far as I durst, without hazard of discovery, I saw a concourse of strange figures beneath the overshadowing branches. They appeared, and vanished, and came again, confusedly with the streaks of sunlight glimmering down upon them.

“Comus and his crew” — what a lovely evocation! Comus, cup-bearer and heir of Bacchus, is a figuration of erotic chaos. Hawthorne ushers his hero into a scene of pastoral American anarchy, a strange Arcadia that Walt Whitman would try to replicate in Leaves of Grass a few years later. Note the admixture of cultures here in Hawthorne’s transcendentalist Halloween:

Among them was an Indian chief, with blanket, feathers, and war-paint, and uplifted tomahawk; and near him, looking fit to be his woodland bride, the goddess Diana, with the crescent on her head, and attended by our big lazy dog, in lack of any fleeter hound. Drawing an arrow from her quiver, she let it fly at a venture, and hit the very tree behind which I happened to be lurking. Another group consisted of a Bavarian broom-girl, a negro of the Jim Crow order, one or two foresters of the Middle Ages, a Kentucky woodsman in his trimmed hunting-shirt and deerskin leggings, and a Shaker elder, quaint, demure, broad-brimmed, and square-skirted. Shepherds of Arcadia, and allegoric figures from the “Faerie Queen,” were oddly mixed up with these. Arm in arm, or otherwise huddled together in strange discrepancy, stood grim Puritans, gay Cavaliers, and Revolutionary officers with three-cornered cocked hats, and queues longer than their swords. A bright-complexioned, dark-haired, vivacious little gypsy, with a red shawl over her head, went from one group to another, telling fortunes by palmistry; and Moll Pitcher, the renowned old witch of Lynn, broomstick in hand, showed herself prominently in the midst, as if announcing all these apparitions to be the offspring of her necromantic art.

Again though, in classic Hawthorne fashion, our author hedges all bets, tempering his mythical romantic flight in skepticism, here embodied by Silas Foster, the only real farmer (real earthworker) of Blithedale:

But Silas Foster, who leaned against a tree near by, in his customary blue frock and smoking a short pipe, did more to disenchant the scene, with his look of shrewd, acrid, Yankee observation, than twenty witches and necromancers could have done in the way of rendering it weird and fantastic.

Our narrator Coverdale also spies some men “with portentously red noses…spreading a banquet on the leaf-strewn earth; while a horned and long-tailed gentleman” tuning up a fiddle. The end result:

So they joined hands in a circle, whirling round so swiftly, so madly, and so merrily, in time and tune with the Satanic music, that their separate incongruities were blended all together, and they became a kind of entanglement that went nigh to turn one’s brain with merely looking at it.

The entanglement here—which eventually explodes in riotous communal laughter—recalls the polygamous knot of grapevines that shrouded Coverdale’s hermitage.

The great laughter prompts Coverdale to explode in his own laughter, whereupon the Bacchic party sets out after him with comic-murderous intent:

“Some profane intruder!” said the goddess Diana. “I shall send an arrow through his heart, or change him into a stag, as I did Actaeon, if he peeps from behind the trees!”

Coverdale flees.

He eventually happens upon an old rotting woodpile covered in moss, where he daydreams about “the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and children, coming out of their chill graves, and essaying to make a fire with this heap of mossy fuel!” — this before finally giving himself up to the Blithedale crew.

The episode strikes me very much as a sequel or reboot of Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which a Puritan naif wonders into the woods dark and deep and witnesses all the horrors of his young country made real—he sees the dark heart of his community beating naked and bloody and raw and Satanic—and it changes him forever, essentially dulling his soul unto a living death. The American Arcadia episode of Blithedale though is a bit richer in its mythos, its paganism more complex and inclusive, its perspective character more attuned to the vibrant possibilities of a transcendental community, even as he stands on its outside—and what is an outsider but the most vital secret ingredient of any community?

Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

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The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Blog about Blog about 2

Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday/April Fools’ Day, I wrote a blog post I titled “Blog about Blog about” declaring a goal to blog — like, to write words about something  — every day in the month of April 2018. The basic idea was to free myself from some of the anxiety that has built up into a genuine fear of writing over the past few years, which has led to me simply not to write as much as I used to.

It is now half way through the month of April and I have written fourteen (including this one) of my intended thirty posts. I failed to write on Friday the 13th.

Here are the things I’ve written about so far and my reflections on forcing myself to write about them in a fast and loose spirit:

April 2, on Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell: I finished The Bell the day after I started the Blog about project. Had I not been doing the project, I probably would have sketched a few notes toward a review that I’d never end up actually finishing. It would hang out in the blog’s drafts folder forever. I’m strangely and probably unduly happy with what I ended up writing.

April 3, on starting a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance: Still reading Blithedale; the reread was inspired by The Bell (they share a kinda-similar setting). Writing about starting a book that you’ve already read is not hard.

April 4, on a particular Gordon Lish sentence: Reflecting on this one makes me realize that this is the kind of post I should be doing more of—looking closely at something small.

April 5, on Goya’s painting The Straw Man: I was very tired and did not want to write. I pulled down Robert Hughes’ biography Goya and thumbed through it, landing on a page I’d dogeared. Then I wrote the post. This method—grabbing a book somewhat at random—-also seems like a good way to write a post.

April 6, on the etymology of the word “blog”: I don’t even remember writing this one. I guess that’s why we write, to remember. I think that’s one of Socrates’ observations (or at least I think Plato wrote it down that Socrates observed this).

April 7, on Don DeLillo’s novel The Names: I often feel a bizarre and unnecessary guilt when I do not write about a novel I’ve read. I read The Names earlier this year and had intended to write about it and then didn’t. Or rather, I did write a bit about it, but I got bogged down in a kind of silly accounting of the novel’s approach to linguistics, which isn’t really what interested me about it that much anyway. The Blog about approach freed me to the extent that I didn’t even bother to quote from the novel, which is like, a bad approach to writing reviews—but a blog isn’t a review.

April 8, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”: I think we read in my class that day or maybe the day before. I turned my notes into the post, sort of. Maybe that’s cheating.

April 9, on an image from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance: Don’t recall writing it at all, although I recall the image, which, I don’t know. Maybe these reflections aren’t as valuable to me as I thought they would be.

April 10, on the“ The Silvery Veil” tale that’s embedded in The Blithedale Romance : I also made some connections here to Madame Psychosis, a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’m sure someone’s already made those connections and written about them somewhere, but most of my Google searches led me back to, like, my own blog, which says more about my search strategies than anything else I guess.

April 11, on William Carlos Williams’ ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” (a poem about a Brueghel painting): My favorite thing in writing this was realizing how frequently Williams’ poem “The Dance” (about a Brueghel painting) is mistakenly cited as having been published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962). There is a poem called “The Dance” in Brueghel but it is not about a Brueghel painting. That “Dance” was published in The Wedge in 1944.

April 12, on Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”: Again, I think the takeaway here is: Go smaller.

April 13: Didn’t write. Couldn’t get it out. Make up post? How about this picture I took of a stack of books I’m reading that I thought I might write about it and then thought, Nah…

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April 14, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal of April 14, 1841—which happens to correlate with Hawthorne’s time on Brook Farm, the basis of his novel The Blithedale Romance which I’m still reading: I actually really enjoyed writing this one, although I don’t think anyone really read it. I researched mid-19th century farm equipment for almost an hour.

April 15 is today. I saw Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs with my wife and kids and thought I would write about it, but then I didn’t. I wrote this post instead.

Blog about “The Silvery Veil” allegory in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis)

This afternoon I got to Ch. XIII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Titled “Zenobia’s Legend,” most of the chapter is given over to the titular heroine’s tale “The Silvery Veil,” a wonderfully pre-postmodern moment in Hawthorne’s novel.

Let’s look lookingly at the layers: The Blithdale Romance is Hawthorne’s ironic-but-sincere dark-romantic semi-autobiographical account of his time at Brook Farm, a failed utopian community of Transcendentalists who maybe didn’t quite, uh, transcend. Zenobia is based partially on the great American feminist Margaret Fuller (who also did time on Brook Farm).  Taking center stage here in (the aptly-numbered) thirteenth chapter of Blithedale, Zenobia extemporizes a story about The Veiled Lady. This Veiled Lady is a local celebrity, a clairvoyant of some renown who (we learn in the opening chapter of the novel) has recently disappeared. Zenobia’s yarn is a leisure-time amusement, one she contends that she’ll spin to get out of an apparent rut:

“I am getting weary of this,” said she, after a moment’s thought. “Our own features, and our own figures and airs, show a little too intrusively through all the characters we assume. We have so much familiarity with one another’s realities, that we cannot remove ourselves, at pleasure, into an imaginary sphere. Let us have no more pictures to-night; but, to make you what poor amends I can, how would you like to have me trump up a wild, spectral legend, on the spur of the moment?”

Ironically however, Zenobia clearly relies on her “own features” as well as the features of Blithedale’s spectral ingenue Priscilla to inform her performance. Despite her declaration to “remove” herself and her auditors “into an imaginary sphere,” Zenobia essentially recasts poor Priscilla’s waifery into a supernatural ultraromantic mode. The story’s basic conceit is thus: There is a famous veiled lady who may be extraordinarily beautiful or who may be extraordinarily ugly. No one knows what she looks like because like the the veil obviously hides her face, preventing any viewer’s agency to interpret for himself.

Zenobia’s legend is a tale within a tale within a tale—a performance that each member of the small Blithedale community will recode into their own readings. However, Zenobia guides her audience toward a certain conclusion, all but declaring that meek Priscilla is in fact the Veiled Lady—hell, Zenobia even throws a bit of gauze she’d been vamping with over the poor dear’s head at the climax of her tale.

“The Silvery Veil,” in another pre-postmodern layer, is a thin but clear echo of Hawthorne’s famous allegory “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which was published 15 years before The Blithedale Romance, and would clearly have been known to Hawthorne’s intended audience of Transcendentalites. (There’s perhaps a more clear connection between “The Silvery Veil” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” : Hawthorne likely based the titular minister on the real-life preacher Joseph Moody, who wore a handkerchief over his faceBlithedale features a character named “Old Moodie” who we eventually learn is Pricilla’s secret father).

So Hawthorne overloads the allegory with meaning and misdirection—is Zenobia’s legend “The Silvery Veil” the secret key to Priscilla’s identity? A clue to Blithedale’s destiny? A watery paraphrase of Hawthorne’s own stronger story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”? Simply a Saturday night’s entertainment?

The trick of the tale I think rests in the undecidability of what’s under the veil, in the not knowing, which is neatly summed up in a paragraph:

Some upheld that the veil covered the most beautiful countenance in the world; others,—and certainly with more reason, considering the sex of the Veiled Lady,—that the face was the most hideous and horrible, and that this was her sole motive for hiding it. It was the face of a corpse; it was the head of a skeleton; it was a monstrous visage, with snaky locks, like Medusa’s, and one great red eye in the centre of the forehead. Again, it was affirmed that there was no single and unchangeable set of features beneath the veil; but that whosoever should be bold enough to lift it would behold the features of that person, in all the world, who was destined to be his fate; perhaps he would be greeted by the tender smile of the woman whom he loved, or, quite as probably, the deadly scowl of his bitterest enemy would throw a blight over his life.

Hawthorne’s description here immediately reminded me of Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the P.G.O.A.T., a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest who wears a veil either because she’s too beautiful to behold and/or because she bears a physical deformity to abject to bear. I can’t actually remember if it’s the “and” or the “or” in that previous sentence that’s correct, even though I’ve read IJ a few times (and even not that long ago). Which is like, maybe the point of this literary veiling—what I mean is that we read faces, we read expressions, and the veil covers over what we would read directly, giving us a blank space to interpret through the lens of our wild (or not so wild) imaginations. Hawthorne’s veils (and maybe Wallace’s veils) require an inward reading, asking us to interpret a signifier that does not bear a clear signified—a most puzzling sign.

Blog about “a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” (in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance)

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I hit Chapter XII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon and was delighted by some lines from its first paragraph, wherein Our Narrator Coverdale retreats to a little fort he’s made in the woods:

Long since, in this part of our circumjacent wood, I had found out for myself a little hermitage. It was a kind of leafy cave, high upward into the air, among the midmost branches of a white-pine tree. A wild grapevine, of unusual size and luxuriance, had twined and twisted itself up into the tree, and, after wreathing the entanglement of its tendrils around almost every bough, had caught hold of three or four neighboring trees, and married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy.

I was deeply disappointed that the version of myself who had read this same physical copy of The Blithedale Romance almost 15 years earlier had failed to muster a single annotation on the passage (despite having left like 10,000 other scratches and loops on the yellow pages).

Hawthorne’s naturalism is fantastically naturalistically fantastical. The wild grapevine he conjures here that “married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” is simultaneously a physical entity “wreathing” itself around the surrounding trees and at the same time a metonymy for the Bacchic spirit that pulls the souls of Blithedale into a weird marriage, an “inextricable knot of polygamy.” Hawthorne’s image points to exuberant and wild joy on one hand, but also to the thick bonds that tightly tie desire down in any moral system. The grapevine image serves as shorthand for the entire novel, underlining the push-pull tension of the narrator’s (and author’s!) conflict between Puritanism and Transcendentalism. The “inextricable knot of polygamy” is wonderfully pure in its impurity, in its radical transcendence.

Gerald Murnane’s Stream System (Book acquired, 5 April 2018)

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Four stories into Gerald Murnane’s Stream System and digging it a lot. I’ll do some kind of post about some of the stuff in here soon. For now, here’s FS&G’s blurb:

Never before available to readers in this hemisphere, these stories―originally published from 1985 to 2012―offer an irresistible compendium of the work of one of contemporary fiction’s greatest magicians.

While the Australian master Gerald Murnane’s reputation rests largely on his longer works of fiction, his short stories stand among the most brilliant and idiosyncratic uses of the form since Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov. Brutal, comic, obscene, and crystalline, Stream System runs from the haunting “Land Deal,” which imagines the colonization of Australia and the ultimate vengeance of its indigenous people as a series of nested dreams; to “Finger Web,” which tells a quietly terrifying, fractal tale of the scars of war and the roots of misogyny; to “The Interior of Gaaldine,” which finds its anxious protagonist stranded beyond the limits of fiction itself.

No one else writes like Murnane, and there are few other authors alive still capable of changing how―and why―we read.