All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and personal computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the place ain’t what it used to be.
The byproduct of the lifestyle is polluted rivers, greenhouse effect, spouse abuse, televangelists, and serial killers. But as long as you have that four-wheel-drive vehicle and can keep driving north, you can sustain it, keep moving just quickly enough to stay one step ahead of your own waste stream. In twenty years, ten million white people will converge on the north pole and park their bagos there. The low-grade waste heat of their thermodynamically intense lifestyle will turn the crystalline icescape pliable and treacherous. It will melt a hole through the polar icecap, and all that metal will sink to the bottom, sucking the biomass down with it.
Did you see Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list? I saw it this morning, and on the whole it ain’t half bad, despite including way too many novels from the past 10 years. Lists are stupid and maybe we already live in a dystopia, but our dystopia could be way way worse and lists are stupid fun…so—my stupid thoughts on this stupid fun list. (They organized it chronologically, by the bye)—-
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726: Good starting place, although I’m sure you could reach farther back if you wanted—Revelations, Blake, Milton, etc.
The Last Man, Mary Shelley, 1826: Never read it. The listmakers seem to have skipped Voltaire’s Candide (1759).
Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872: Hey, did you know that Erewhon is actually Nowhere backwards? Ooooh…far out. I really don’t remember it but I read it in school. I’m sure I would’ve thrown it on the list.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895: Great track. Some of the best required reading ever.
“The Machine Stops,” E.M. Forster, 1909: Never read it/never heard of it.
We, Yvegny Zamyatin, 1924: The list reminded me I need to reread this one—I read it twice—in my teens and in my twenties. Good stuff. (Also reminds me that I would’ve added something by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list—like his collection Memories of the Future).
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932: This is the guy. I mean, I think Huxley got it right here, y’know? Not that a dystopian novel needs to predict, but…anyway. I actually had a student come by during office hours just to visit, and she asked for a novel recommendation, and I gave her BNW after she told me 1984 was the last great book she’d read. If I recall correctly, the Vulture list only has one duplicate author (Margaret Atwood), but I’d also add Huxley’s often-overlooked novel Ape and Essence.
It Can’t Happen Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 1935: I think this is one of those ones where I know the basic plot, themes, etc., but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.
Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin, 1937: An entry that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, the sort of thing that shows the value in stupid silly fun lists. I’ll search it out.
Last night at one of his homes, the big fifties-ranch-style one, he had watched on his large flat screen Phillips television the film clips and recitation of a minister. A curious breed of faith, perhaps not even Christian.
“Why do people look for science, science fiction and signs of the End? Why do they seek the Revelation of the Apocalypse here and there and chant the old chants of the coming Antichrist, the Four Horsemen? Science fiction has already been had, fools. It was the Battle of Kursk, German tanks against Russian tanks, fifty-seven years ago. It was Leningrad, Stalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, idiots! What does it take, a sock in the jaw for you to get it that the Forces of Darkness fought then? The Antichrist on both sides. Piss on Star Wars. Nothing touches WW Two for science fiction and wasteland.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Ulrich had been quiet, painting on deck varnish. Now he spoke. “We don’t love each other as much as we used to. You can see the uncertain looks, the calculations, the dismissals. People are not even in the present moment. Everybody’s been futurized. You look in those eyes and see they’re not home, they’re some hours ahead at least. I hate to go into Vicksburg anymore. Anywhere, really. It’s all like meeting people who have just departed. Old men and women don’t look wise anymore. They are just aged children. And who gets the highest pay? Actors. Paid to mimic life because there is no life. You look at everybody and maybe they’re a little sad, some of ’em. They’re all homesick for when they were real.” Ulrich began painting again as the others tried to guess what could have prompted this.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. It was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.
The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:
I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!
And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—
I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read. Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.
I was at the bookstore last week, killing a spare hour, looking for nothing in particular, when I spotted a first edition Knopf paperback copy of William Gaddis’s novel J R. The book is one of my favorites—I first read it in 2012 and then again in 2016 (which maybe means I’ll reread it again in 2020?). I’ll cobble really quickly from my 2016 review here:
Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves)). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J R is the Great American Novel to Come . . .
The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.
. . . in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?
Well so and anyway, I was browsing the shelves of my local, looking for nothing, as I said, although I was ambling through the “GA-” section in the hopes of maybe picking up a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel, when I spied the J R, with its bold oh-so-seventies design, its big stiff spine unbroken and seemingly unbent. After handling it a few minutes, I resigned myself to a pic and a tweet—
tfw you find a first edition paperback of a book you already own in another edition and you have to talk yourself out of buying it pic.twitter.com/TRuKPXK7xU
I didn’t intend to buy another paperback copy of J R, even a first edition, even though it was only seven bucks, and even though I have trade credit out the ying-yang there—I mean, I have a perfectly fine Penguin edition; better to leave the J R for some other person to acquire, no? But qithin a few minutes Twitter folks had talked me out of my plan to not acquire it, advice that was perhaps not unwanted.
The Knopf edition—the cover design is by Janet Halverson, by the way—has a much longer summary blurb than my 1993 edition (and indeed, a much longer summary blurb than one usually sees on a paperback). The Penguin edition features an introduction by Frederick Karl (that readers should wait to read until after they’ve finished the book), a bibliography of “Suggestions for Further Reading,” and a new dedication page: “For Matthew: Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more” (I’m guessing the dedication is to Gaddis’s son Matthew). The ’93 Penguin does not have this though:
But! The Penguin edition’s colophon promises that “Errors in the original publication have been corrected by the author for the first Penguin edition” (1985 btw).
Other than that, the two edition are pretty much typographically the same—the pages are aligned, and both editions are consistent with the same typographical oddities, like JR’s famous handwritten “Alsaka” memo and his logo designs and Gibbs’s pocket scrap citations.
The big difference between the two editions (besides the cover, obviously) can be summed up in this image—the seventies Knopf is above the nineties Penguin:
The Penguin edition is slightly larger with much better binding. I’ve read it twice and I never had to break its spine; I’m pretty sure that the Knopf I picked up has never been read—and also that a serious reading would crack its spine pretty badly.
The most recent edition of J R is from Dalkey, and includes an essay by Rick Moody as its introduction. I don’t have a copy of it, but it has 752 pages—the other editions have 726 pages (which the Gaddis Annotations project match up to). I’ve handled the Dalkey, and I recall it being smaller and stiffer than the Penguin. Basically, I think, as of now, the Penguin edition is probably the best option for anyone wanting to read the book. So I love the cover of the 70’s first edition I’ve got, but I doubt I’ll be reading it soon (or, like in 2020 when I read the book again).
Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget. I point out to Shotwell that two can derive more enjoyment from playing jacks than one, but he is not interested. I have asked repeatedly to be allowed to play by myself, but he simply shakes his head. “Why?” I ask. “They’re mine,” he says. And when he has finished, when he has sated himself, back they go into the attaché case.
It is unfair but there is nothing I can do about it. I am aching to get my hands on them.
Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird. Shotwell’s behavior with the jacks is strange. Is it strange? I do not know. Perhaps he is merely a selfish bastard, perhaps his character is flawed, perhaps his childhood was twisted. I do not know.
Each of us wears a .45 and each of us is supposed to shoot the other if the other is behaving strangely. How strangely is strangely? I do not know. In addition to the .45 I have a .38 which Shotwell does not know about concealed in my attaché case, and Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about strapped to his right calf. Sometimes instead of watching the console I pointedly watch Shotwell’s .45, but this is simply a ruse, simply a maneuver, in reality I am watching his hand when it dangles in the vicinity of his right calf. If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case. Continue reading ““Game” — Donald Barthelme”→
I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.
I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.
Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:
Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.
Let’s look at that reigning chaos.
In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:
I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.
Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.
You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.
Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”
I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. In their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.
I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checher—To Find without Seeking.
In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.
I’m not really sure what made me pick up Carson McCullers’ 1940 début novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to read again.
Actually, writing that sentence makes me remember: I was purging books, and the edition I have is extremely unattractive; I was considering trading it in. But I started reading it, realizing that I hadn’t reread it ever, that I hadn’t read it since I was probably a senior in high school or maybe a college freshman.
So it was maybe two decades ago that I first read it. I would’ve been maybe 18, about five years younger than McCullers was when the novel was published (and not much older than its protagonist Mick Kelly). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter never stuck with me like The Ballad of the Sad Café or her short stories did, but I remember at the time thinking it far superior to Faulkner—more lucid in its description of the Deep South’s abjection. (I struggled with Faulkner when I was young, but now see his tangled sentences and thick murky paragraphs are a wholly appropriate rhetorical reckoning with the nightmare of Southern history).
And of course I preferred Flannery O’Connor to both at the time—her writing was simultaneously lucid and acid, cruel and funny. Maybe I still like her best of the three.
O’Connor, in a 1963 letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.”
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when it is at its most grotesque, which is to say, most realistic.
Here’s a sample of that grotesque dirty realism from very late in the book, as Jake Blount (an alcoholic and would-be revolutionary) departs the small, unnamed Georgia town that the novel is set in—and the narrative:
The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.
The passage showcases some of McCullers’ best and worst prose tendencies. Her evocation of the South’s rural poverty condenses wonderfully in the image of “a few fruitless, smutty fig trees” — smutty!—but there’s also an underlying resort to cliché, into placeholders — “stark naked”; “clenched his fists.”
(Maybe you think I’m picking on McCullers here, yes? Not my intention. I’ll confess I read a career-spanning compendium of Barry Hannah’s short stories, Long, Last, Happy right before I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and McCullers simply can’t match sentences with Our Barry. It’s an unfair comparison, sure. But).
But McCullers was only 23 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Stock phrases must be forgiven, yes? Yes.
And there are plenty of great moments on the page, like this one, in which (McCullers’ stand-in) Mick Kelly tries her young hand at writing:
The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.
Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?
We’re several hundred words into this riff and I’ve failed to summarize the plot of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There really isn’t a plot per se, actually—sure, there are a development of ideas, themes, motifs, characters—yep—and sure, lots of things happen (the novel is episodic)—but there isn’t really a plot.
The point above is absurd. Of course there is a plot, one which you could easily diagram in fact. Such a diagram would describe the sad strands of four misfits gravitating toward the deaf-mute, John Singer, the silent center of this sad novel. These sad strands tangle, yet ultimately fail to cohere into any kind of harmony with each other. Even worse, these strands fail to make a true connection with Singer. The misfits all essentially use him as a sounding board, a mute confessional booth. They think they love him, but they love his silence, they love his listening. They don’t learn about his own strange love and his own strange sadness.
Or, if you really want to oversimplify plot: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about growing up. In a novel with a number of tragic trajectories, it’s somehow the ending of the Mick Kelly thread that I found most affecting. She still dreams of making great grand music, of writing songs the world would love—but McCullers leaves her standing on her feet working overtime in Woolworth’s to get her family out of the hole. This is the curse of adulthood, of grasping onto dreams even as the world flattens them out into a big boring nothing. The final lines McCullers gives her, via the novel’s free indirect style, strike me as ambiguous:
…what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
too and it was too. It was some good.
Is Mick’s self-talk here a defense against disillusionment—one haunted by the truth of life’s awful boring ugliness—or a genuine earnest rallying against the ugliness—or perhaps a mix of both? “Some good” can be read both ironically and earnestly.
Its navigation of irony and earnestness is where I find the novel most off balance. There’s a clumsy cynicism to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—a justified cynicism, to be sure, given its themes of racism, classicism, modern alienation—but McCullers’ approach to sussing out her big themes is often heavy-handed. Too often characters’ speeches and dialogues—particularly those of the working-class socialist Blount and Dr. Copeland, a black Marxist—feel forced. Entire dialectics that seem lifted from college lecture notes are shoved into characters’ mouths. Still: if I sometimes found such moments insufferable, McCullers nevertheless reminded me that she was pointedly addressing suffering.
The earnestness there is mature, but the cynicism isn’t. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this—the cynicism isn’t deep? The cynicism is a pose, a viewpoint not fully, but nevertheless freshly, lived in. The cynicism is the cynicism that some of us like to try on when we’re 18, 19, 20, 21.
And re: the point above—that’s good, right? I mean it’s good that McCullers channeled this pure and very real anger into her novel. Maybe I failed the novel, this time, in rereading it twenty years later and thinking repeatedly, But that’s the way the world is: Often awful and almost always unfair. Blount and Copeland are interesting but essentially paralyzed characters; they howl against injustice but McCullers can only make them act in modes of ineffective despair.
Despair. This is a sad novel—a realistically sad novel, a grotesquely sad novel—sympathetic but never sentimental. (We Southerners love sugar and sentiment; bless her heart, McCullers cuts any hint of the latter out. And if Mick Kelly enjoys an ice cream sundae for her last dinner in the novel, note that she chases it with a bitter beer that gets her just drunk enough to keep going).
But some of us like to laugh at and with despair, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter serves up a big bitter brew without a heady or hearty laugh to help you swallow it down. The novel’s humorlessness was perhaps by design—these characters dwell in absurd abjection. But absurdity often calls for a laugh, and laughter is not always sugar sweetness, but rather can be a reveling in bitterness—perhaps what I mean here, is that laughter is a sincere and deep reckoning with mature cynicism.
I quoted O’Connor above, in point six; in the same lecture, she warned against writers (particularly Southern writers) giving into the need of the “tired reader…to be lifted up.” O’Connor often forced her characters into moments of radical redemption, moments that complicate her “tired reader’s” desire to have his “senses tormented or his spirits raised.” This modern reader, according to O’Connor, “wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” For O’Connor, the modern reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Restoration in O’Connor’s fiction is always purchased at a heavy cost—many readers can only see the cost, and not the redemption in her calculus.
And restoration in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its lack of sentimentality, its unwillingness to restore its characters to a mythical Eden. Indeed, McCullers’ setting never even posits a grace from which her characters might fall. Instead, the novel’s final moments leave us “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” Any restoration is impermanent, as the final line suggests: “And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” If the morning sun promises a new tomorrow, a futurity, that futurity is nevertheless conditioned by the need to repeatedly “compose” oneself into a new being, always under the duress of “bitter irony and faith.” McCullers’ plot might side with bitter irony, but her belief in her characters’ beliefs—belief in the powers of art, politics, and above all love—point ultimately to an earnest faith in humanity to compose itself anew.
This one looks pretty cool. The Book of Emma Reyes, an epistolary “memoir,” is new in hardback from Penguin, in English translation by Daniel Alarcón. Here’s Penguin’s blurb/bio:
This astonishing memoir was hailed as an instant classic when first published in Colombia in 2012, nearly a decade after the death of its author, who was encouraged in her writing by Gabriel García Márquez. Comprised of letters written over the course of thirty years, and translated and introduced by acclaimed writer Daniel Alarcón, it describes in vivid, painterly detail the remarkable courage and limitless imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing.
Emma Reyes was an illegitimate child, raised in a windowless room in Bogotá with no water or toilet and only ingenuity to keep her and her sister alive. Abandoned by their mother, she and her sister moved to a Catholic convent housing 150 orphan girls, where they washed pots, ironed and mended laundry, scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, sewed garments and decorative cloths for the nuns—and lived in fear of the Devil. Illiterate and knowing nothing of the outside world, Emma escaped at age nineteen, eventually establishing a career as an artist and befriending the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as European artists and intellectuals. The portrait of her childhood that emerges from this clear-eyed account inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted writer whose talent remained hidden for far too long.
The fact is I wanted to write long before I had anything to say. I don’t find this condition at all unusual in young writers, good or bad. A sort of attuned restlessness. Often it is simply an overriding need to talk. A sort of transcribed logorrhea, worse than decent gossip. I’ve taught these people, forever blasting away in wretched detail, solidly in love with their own noise. I must say, I was never infatuated with my own voice. It was the ideal inner voices that took me, and they came from everywhere, especially Hemingway, Joyce, Henry Miller, and later, Flannery O’Connor. Like many Mississippians, I shied away from Faulkner, who was at once remote and right there in your own backyard, the powerful resident alien. Having read a little of him, I sensed I would be overcome by him, and had a dread, in fact, that he might be the last word. That I would wind up a pining third-rate echo, like many another Southerner. Then T.S. Eliot, especially “Prufrock.” But the earliest great howler who made me want to make the team was the badly forgotten Dylan Thomas, whose voice seemed available everywhere in English departments in the ’50s and ’60s. It seemed to me a fine thing to get drunk and just start being Welsh and crowing surrealism, as I perceived it. Put that against the sullen bitchery of Holden Caulfield, which charmed almost everybody my age, and you would be cooking. Miles Davis might one day shake your hand. He was God, and that would be very nice.
Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.
Here’s O/R’s blurb:
Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.
This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.
Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.
Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:
The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:
The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).
Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:
Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:
In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.
The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.
If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.
Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:
The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.
This is Part 2 of my post on Adorno and Sebald’s Austerlitz. In Part 1, I talked about Sebald and Adorno’s (negative) aesthetics, and challenges the latter presents to the former. Here, I discuss quotational technique as a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.
It may seem like an obvious observation, but Sebald must disguise and compensate for authorial arbitration. The goal of liberating content from such arbitration, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, is a necessary & impossible fictional standpoint the philosopher must take for the sake of resistant thought (MM 247). Both he and Adorno share the desire to reclaim for their subjects the capacity for experience, but an Adornian mode risks segregating Austerlitz from the present and thereby fixing him into the past and hence foreclosing that very capacity. We will return to the “Finale” of Minima Moralia shortly, but I would first like to talk about the emergence of history as coincidence in the opening passages of Austerlitz.
Coincidences, the unplanned contact between two mutually exclusive objects which does not promise meaning, are enigma’s second cousin, and enable the emergence of history to appear natural because they are especially adept at disguising arbitrary decision. Coincidences don’t occur in literature, but they are engineered to happen.
This is part of a conference paper I presented in the spring. I’m dividing it up into two posts. I’ll post the next part tomorrow.
This section establishes the connection of Sebald’s Austerlitz to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. It proceeds to argue that the text’s Adornian valences, both aesthetic and ethical, present problems for Sebald. It also introduces Patrick Greaney’s work on quotational technique, and sets up Part 2 as an analysis of it as Sebald’s clever workaround for Adorno’s impossible demand to witness but not to rehearse.
In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald describes the need to represent the Holocaust as a practically impossible necessity. Sebald’s investment in first-generation Frankfurt School aesthetics, especially Adorno’s and Benjamin’s, is well-documented in his early work across his myriad reviews and essays. How do we square this interest with Sebald’s creative pursuits when Adorno’s aesthetics are so forthrightly opposed to positivist representation? Located between a narrative art and a document of witness, this Adornian mode in Austerlitz reveals an irreconcilable conflict between concealment and the difficulty of representation. This conflict forces Sebald to find means of convincing the reader that the novel is defined by, yet not confined to, the Holocaust. Using techniques of dislocated narration that find their strongest effect in the mode of quotation, Sebald pursues a method of simultaneously presenting and re-presenting events that renegotiate the negative terrain set out by Adorno. Ultimately, what is drawn out by Sebald is not the Holocaust, nor simply the poverty of representing it, but the inability to represent and reclaim experience in a narrative that draws its significance from that poverty.
Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory that the “real possibility of utopia converges with the possibility of total catastrophe.” The material possibilities of utopia are everywhere in popular media, and underneath our fingers – possibilities which are still repressed under the culture industries. Such apocalyptic images (and technological means), Sebald says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “militate against” the capacity for “discursive thinking,” and enable the unconscious subject to abet the continual destruction of her environment. Sebald’s project of approaching the verboten past is an ethico-aesthetic attempt to return to the reader a capacity for a specific aesthetic experience that unchains her from the machinations of destruction, what Ranciere might call a redistribution of the sensible. Though, in that same interview, Sebald contends “it’s practically impossible to do this,” a notion that James Wood echoes in his introduction to the English edition of Austerlitz. The novel’s attempt to restore to the eponymous character the individuality of his name and experience is foreclosed, argues Wood, and the challenge Sebald sets himself with the practical impossibility of the literary witness of European historical trauma is to be ethical, to refuse the sentimental commitment of mere witness, mere reproduction, and model in literature what actual experience might be for Austerlitz in the ecology of absent-minded media.
Sebald’s technique of dislocated narration collapses the moments of presentation and representation through quotational coincidence, a means of re-presenting that, in the same moment of destroying original context, presents the phenomenon of that moment of destruction. In Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art, Patrick Greaney argues that
[Quotational texts] indicate the repeatability of the moment of emergence of the original, the moment of the original’s origination … Quotation repeats this authoritative, authorial act and thereby indicates the possibility that this coming-into-being could have been different and could be altered in its repetition (6).
Quotational ethics are impelled by Adorno, but underwritten by Benjaminian technique – moments of the past are wrenched and re-placed in the present in order to dialectically realize untapped potential in the former, endowing it with new meaning in the present. Thus quotational power is allegorical; Benjamin writes in the German Tragic Drama that allegories present precisely that which is not there, and mean precisely what they do not present to us (296). If the ethical demand is to witness but not to rehearse, Sebald’s Adornian aesthetics hit a brick wall, as he must perform precisely that which is impossible. He is forced to contend with an inescapable authorial sovereignty and its complicity with forgetting. Faced with the impasse of Adornian aesthetics, Sebald then leans on the messianism of Benjamin to suggest that the emergence of history in the midst of an apocalypse of experience is one of realizing the extent of one’s loss of experience in a history of humanity that has still not happened yet.
The goal to liberate content from arbitration betrays a desire to maintain the critic’s sovereignty. It is this irreconcilability that plagues Adorno’s concept of the enigma and his thesis of the negative artwork inAesthetic Theory. Enigmas invite yet defy interpretation, or at least obfuscate their enunciation. An enigma could have some, none, or all of the meanings the viewer is struggling to project onto it. When Adorno writes that enigmatic artworks are picture puzzles to be solved (AT 121), he privileges the form of the enigma over its ostensible content. Composition of content is largely irrelevant to a puzzle – the interpreter (or the one who completes the puzzle) doesn’t need to know how the original was composed in order to complete her task.
Yet so much of Aesthetic Theory is seemingly dependent on a hyper-deliberate content – I’m arguing that it’s a hyper-deliberate arrangement of content, the situation of content (The section “Situation” in Aesthetic Theory focuses on the socio-cultural contingencies of modern art). The form of an enigma, on which the crux of Adorno’s argument stands, is posed as an irreconcilability as a means of disguising the positivism ofnegative artworks, something they are supposed to resist. Enigmatic form delays positivity and obscures Adorno’s logic. A metaphor is used to symptomatically define the undefinable metaphor “enigma.” Too, Greaney’s book on quotational techniquefocuses on arrangement and context in contemporary trends in conceptual poetics and visual art. Both Adorno and Greaney, however, seek to critique the contingencies inherent in the tethering of content to a linear-progressive idiom of history.
Maintaining this ambivalence is necessary for Adorno, for not only does the enigma help stall the dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment, it also preserves the negative relationship to the social, a crucial condition of Adorno’s thesis. The ideal Adornian artwork presents a negative yet refrains the social meaning from ever being naturalistically represented in the artwork; the form must re-route the viewer or reader outside into the Social. There is, then, a stark delimitation between Art and the Social via the cracked mirror of the enigma.
This enigmatical separation—between subject and object, form and content, the past and present—has ethical consequences for Sebald. If we remember Adorno’s infamous claim about poetry, the enigmaticalized referent of the Shoah must remain firmly in the past, lending itself too easily to the maintenance of a melancholic haunting that precludes any form of resolution, ethically negative or not. The Adornian goal is always to expose the violence inherent in the social formation via the negative, and Adorno’s thesis is the key. Someone must decide on the irreconcilable conflict, and his argument ends up preserving the sovereignty of Adorno’s decision more than the autonomy of the artwork. It allows Adorno to have his cake and eat it too, and greatly challenges those who are influenced by his thought.
This is perhaps more of a failure of Adorno’s aesthetics than Sebald’s, and I am aware that the jury is still out on whether or not Sebald should be read more as an Adornian (recall that Adorno was not receptive to Sebald’s scholarly work) or a Foucauldian. Despite this seeming irreconcilability, I think it is still worth thinking about Sebald’s work as deeply tied to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. Both Foucault and Adorno offer little to no practical remedies for the social disorders they analyze and diagnose. To me, favoring a discursive analysis ignores Sebald’s dialectical style, and his debt to Benjamin’s style.
In Part 2, I discuss how quotational technique is a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.