“A Way You’ll Never Be” — Ernest Hemingway

“A Way You’ll Never Be”


Ernest Hemingway

The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farm houses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. Coming along the road on a bicycle, getting off to push the machine when the surface of the road became too broken, Nicholas Adams saw what had happened by the position of the dead.

They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers. Continue reading ““A Way You’ll Never Be” — Ernest Hemingway”

You know, I’ve never been entirely clear what “postmodern” means | Steve Erickson

Q. It’s interesting that you say your new book is surreal but not magical realism. You’ve said that you don’t consider your earlier books to be surrealistic. Why not?

A. Surrealism was born out of a preoccupation with the irrationality and illogic of the subconscious, and a view that human relationships are fundamentally absurd. Whatever else my books may be about, they don’t express an absurd view of existence. The form of the books, and the strange juxtapositions of their narratives, may strike people as surreal, but the central concerns that drive the stories are traditional ones. I don’t think any true surrealist would consider me a surrealist, in the same way no hard-core science-fiction fan would consider me a science-fiction writer, since the basic concern of most classic science fiction is the relationship between man and technology. Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon and a few others are exceptions. Technology is a completely valid and important topic to write about, but it just doesn’t happen to interest me. And my books aren’t “experimental” because my priorities don’t involve reinventing literary forms, and they’re not fantastic because they’re not characterized by the sense of wonder that fantasy evokes. I think it’s been hard for my novels to find a niche.

Q. Do you see your books as being postmodern?

A. You know, I’ve never been entirely clear what “postmodern” means. But to at least some extent postmodernism seems to involve a cultural or aesthetic self-awareness, and an insistence on art recognizing and tweaking its own artifice. My aim isn’t to call attention to the artifice of my books but to make readers forget the artifice, to persuade them to exchange their reality for the one I’ve created. I’m aware that trying to get readers to give themselves over to another reality is always doomed to failure. On the other hand, that’s the job of the novelist, to fail and fail again. The great hope isn’t to succeed-I’m not sure what success would really mean-but to risk everything, and perhaps to fail by narrower  margins, until there’s nothing left to fail with.

From a 1997 interview with novelist Steve Erickson. Larry McCaffery and Takayuki Tatsumi conducted the interview, which published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1997, Vol. 38, No. 3.

“Wet” — Joy Williams



Joy Williams

from 99 Stories of God

The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible.

This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and booties on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be here.

What have you done to my water? the Lord asked. My living water…

Oh, they said, we thought that was just a metaphor.


“Mothers” — William Gaddis



William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

I am on kind of a Borges kick (Thomas Pynchon)



More Thomas Pynchon letters here. Via Reddit user Forest Limit.

“Togetherness” — Thomas Pynchon


(Click to enlarge.)

“Togetherness,” by Thomas Pynchon was published in the vol. 16, no. 12 issue of Aerospace Safety in December 1960. The byline reads “Thomas H. Pynchon” (for Huggles, presumably).

Full text of the article here (for completists only, of course).

Culte de la mayonnaise (Thomas Pynchon)

THE NEXT TIME he saw Pléiade Lafrisée was at a café-restaurant off the Place d’Armes. It would not occur to him until much later to wonder if she had arranged the encounter. She was in pale violet peau de soie, and a hat so beguiling that Kit was only momentarily surprised to find himself with an erection. It was still early in the study of these matters, only a few brave pioneers like the Baron von Krafft-Ebing had dared peep into the strange and weirdly twilit country of hat-fetishism—not that Kit noticed stuff like that ordinarily, but it happened actually to be a gray toque of draped velvet, trimmed with antique guipure, and a tall ostrich plume dyed the same shade of violet as her dress. . . .

“This? One finds them in every other midinette’s haunt, literally for sous.”

“Oh. I must’ve been staring. What happened to you the other night?”

“Come. You can buy me a Lambic.”

The place was like a museum of mayonnaise. This being just at the height of the culte de la mayonnaise then sweeping Belgium, oversize exhibits of the ovoöleaginous emulsion were to be encountered at every hand. Heaps of Mayonnaise Grenache, surrounded by plates of smoked turkey and tongue, glowed redly as if from within, while with less, if any, reference to actual food it might have been there to modify, mountains of Chantilly mayonnaise, swept upward in gravity-impervious peaks insubstantial as cloud, along with towering masses of green mayonnaise, basins of boiled mayonnaise, mayonnaise baked into soufflés, not to mention a number of not entirely successful mayonnaises, under some obscure attainder, or on occasion passing as something else, dominated every corner.

“How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.

He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens’—”

But she was frowning, earnest as he had seldom seen her. “La Mayonnaise,” Pléiade explained, “has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV—here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent. One might usefully compare Cleo de Mérode and the marquise de Pompadour. Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in.

“The sauce was invented as a new sensation for jaded palates at court by the duc de Richelieu, at first known as mahonnaise after Mahon, the chief port of Minorca, the scene of the due’s dubious ‘victory’ in 1756 over the illfated Admiral Byng. Basically Louis’s drug dealer and pimp, Richelieu, known for opium recipes to fit all occasions, is also credited with the introduction into France of the cantharides, or Spanish fly.” She gazed pointedly at Kit’s trousers. “What might this aphrodisiac have in common with the mayonnaise? That the beetles must be gathered and killed by exposing them to vinegar fumes suggests an emphasis on living or recently living creatures—the egg yolk perhaps regarded as a conscious entity—cooks will speak of whipping, beating, binding, penetration, submission, surrender. There is an undoubtedly Sadean aspect to the mayonnaise. No getting past that.”

Kit was a little confused by now. “It always struck me as kind of, I don’t know . . . bland?”

“Until you look within. Mustard, for example, mustard and cantharides, n’estce pas? Both arousing the blood. Blistering the skin. Mustard is the widelyknown key to resurrecting a failed mayonnaise, as is the cantharides to reviving broken desire.”

“You’ve been thinking about mayonnaise a lot, mademoiselle.”

“Meet me tonight,” a sudden fierce whisper, “out at the Mayonnaise Works, and you shall perhaps understand things it is given only to a few to know. There will be a carriage waiting.” She pressed his hand and was gone in a mist of vetiver, abruptly as the other evening.

A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; I don’t think you need any context to appreciate this passage.


A review of The Stronghold, Dino Buzzati’s novel of deferred hope and ecstatic boredom

Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel Il deserto dei Tartari (retitled The Stronghold in Lawrence Venuti’s new English translation) takes place in an unidentified time in an unidentified country. Our protagonist is Giovanni Drogo, freshly graduated from an unspecified military academy and ready for a thrilling life of combat and adventure at his new post, Fortezza Bastiani, a fortress at the border of the Tartar steppe. He and his fellow soldiers wait in the hope of attaining glory.

And they continue to wait.

The nebulous Tartars repeatedly fail to appear, offering only the vaguest hints of their alien existence. The soldiers of Fortezza Bastiani live a life of anxious monotony, their desires and hopes for the heroics of war flattened by the boredom of day to day life. It’s all very existentialist.

From the opening pages of The Stronghold, Buzzati conjures a strange but familiar world, usually telegraphed in brisk, unadorned prose (a style he honed in his career as a journalist). Everything is slightly off, slightly anxious. Initially, a reader might chalk the disquieting style up to our viewpoint-character Drogo’s own hesitancy as he enters into a new life as a military officer, but we soon find ourselves in an uncanny realm.

The world of the fortezza is somehow simultaneously dull and enthralling. Consider Drogo’s first glimpse of the fortress:

Fortezza Bastiani was neither imposing, with its low walls, or beautiful in any  way. Its towers and ramparts weren’t picturesque. Absolutely nothing alleviated its starkness or recalled the sweet things of life. Yet Drogo gazed at it, hypnotized, as on the previous night at the base of the gorge. And an inexplicable ardor penetrated his heart.

This “inexplicable ardor” is nevertheless ambiguous in its penetration; after learning he is nominally free to choose a different, perhaps more invigorating post, Drogo elects to transfer from the fort. However, his commanding officer suggests that he stay for four months to avoid bureaucratic problems with the higher ups. That four-month season of waiting turns into a lifetime of waiting. And then waiting some more.

Drogo and his fellow soldiers hunger for the glory of contesting the Tartars, an enemy they know utterly nothing about. Like almost every sociopolitical, cultural, and even technological detail in The Stronghold, the specific nature of the Tartar enemy is collapsed into something closer to a fairy tale or a rumor. Vague and dreamlike, the Tartars are not a geopolitical entity; they are not even an other, but rather the figment of an other, the kernel of a dream that promises action. And this dim promise keeps the soldiers waiting at the Fortezza:

From the northern desert would arrive their fortune, the occasion of their exploits, the miraculous hour that befalls everyone at least once. Because of this vague eventuality, which grew increasingly uncertain with time, grown men wasted the best part of their lives there.

The narrator, hovering in Drogo’s consciousness, imagines an interlocutor explaining to one of these soldiers that his “entire life will be the same, utterly the same, till the very last moment” — and then imagines the hypothetical soldier’s response: “Something else must come to pass, something truly worthy.” Drogo here believes he has grasped the “transparent secret” of the soldiers of the Fortezza, but also imagines himself an “uncontaminated onlooker.” But it’s too late. Drogo too has committed to waiting for something else to come to pass.

Nothing comes to pass—or nearly nothing. (One might read The Stronghold as an extended riff on Kafka’s wonderful parable “Before the Law.“) However, this is not to say though that Buzzati’s portraiture of tedium is itself tedious. The boredom he conjures is an ecstatic boredom, anxious and writhing, exploding in strange, magical moments of hallucinations and night terrors.

In one of the novel’s most extraordinary sequences, “fragile apparitions, quite like fairies” enter Drogo’s dreams, bearing away to some spectacular land Drogo’s fallen comrade who is now converted to a child dressed in a rich velvet suit. In another episode, a mysterious horse appears from the desert, sending the men into fits of hope and despair culminating in a horrific incident that underscores the absurdities of military rigor. Late in the novel, a much-older Drogo’s desire for action, for something to come to pass, tips into near-comic paranoia, as he and a younger officer fool around with a telescope to no avail.

After all this waiting in hope, The Stronghold concludes with a devastating Kafkaesque punchline which I shall not spoil here.

It will be clear to most seasoned readers that Kafka was an influence on Buzzati even without Venuti’s afterword, which details Buzzati’s admiration for the Bohemian writer. Buzzati does not ape the older master so much as evoke the same state of anxious alterity we find in texts like “The Great Wall of China” and The Castle. Stepping into The Stronghold, one is reminded of other branches of the Kafka tree, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, among many others.

Like many Kafkaesque works, one might be inclined to fob his own allegorical readings onto The Stronghold. In his afterword, Venuti points out that early English-language readings of Buzzati’s novel tended to interpret Il deserto dei Tartari as an anti-totalitarian tract. Il deserto dei Tartari was first translated as The Tartar Steppe by Stuart Hood in 1952, and many of its contemporary critics read the novel against the backdrop of the Cold War.

While praising the “remarkable accomplishment” of Hood’s translation, Venuti differentiates his own “historically oriented interpretation” of the novel; namely, his attempt to more emphatically underline Il deserto dei Tartari’s “latent critique” of fascism. Venuti points out that “Hood had twice rendered the generic ‘stivali’ (boots) with the politically marked term ‘jackboots,'” adding, “I tripled its use.”

Venuti also discusses at some lengths his choice to change Hood’s title. He writes that Buzzati initially wanted to title the book La fortezza, but this name was rejected by the novel’s publisher who worried it might be misunderstood by the reading public. In his attempt to further historicize his translation (and differentiate it from Hood’s), Venuti elected to remove Steppe from the title fearing it “might be taken as an anachronistic reference to the Soviet Union.” He also avoided The Fort or The Fortress as a possible titles, worried they might underscore Buzzati’s “debt to Kafka’s The Castle.” Venuti eventually settled on The Stronghold, suggesting that this title helps to emphasize the “cult of virility championed during the Fascist period” while also “conveying the sheer tenaciousness of the soldier’s heroic fantasies, as well as their inability to escape their debilitating obsession.”

I haven’t read Hood’s translation of Il deserto dei Tartari, but I appreciated Venuti’s, which, as I pointed out above, takes place in an unidentified time in an unidentified country. The novel’s eerie, fable-like quality—a quality that resists historicity—is what most engages me. Buzzati’s book captures the paradox of a modern life that valorizes the pursuit of glory (or at least happiness) while simultaneously creating a working conditions that crush the human spirit. We can find this paradox in Herman Melville’s Bartleby or Mike Judge’s Office Space; we can find it in Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama or Mike Judge’s Enlightened; we can find if in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King or Dan Erickson’s recent show Severance. I could go on of course.

Some of these boredom narratives seek to assuage us, or make us laugh or cry—in recognition, spite, pity, despair, or hope. Some of these boredom narratives find resistance in art, or in just plain resistance. Buzzati’s novel offers something more like a warning. It is not possible to be an “uncontaminated onlooker” in one’s own life. It’s not enough to wait forever, even if we wait in hope.

The Stronghold is available now from New York Review Books.

St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)

On pages 611-613 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, St. Patrick meets the archdruid Balkelly:

Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime all the his cassock groaner fellas of greysfriaryfamily he fast all time what time all him monkafellas with Same Patholic, quoniam, speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphanal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal to animal, not appear to full up to-gether fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several iridals gradationes of solar light, that one which that part of it (furnit of heupanepi world) had shown itself (part of fur of huepanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one pura —— duxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis–Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually re-tained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Rumnant Patholic, stareotypopticus, no catch all that preachybook, utpiam, tomorrow recover thing even is not, bymeby vampsybobsy tap — panasbullocks topside joss pidginfella Bilkilly–Belkelly say pat — fella, ontesantes, twotime hemhaltshealing, with other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng while his comprehen-durient, with diminishing claractinism, augumentationed himself in caloripeia to vision so throughsighty, you anxioust melan-cholic, High Thats Hight Uberking Leary his fiery grassbelong- head all show colour of sorrelwood herbgreen, again, nigger- blonker, of the his essixcoloured holmgrewnworsteds costume the his fellow saffron pettikilt look same hue of boiled spinasses,other thing, voluntary mutismuser, he not compyhandy the his golden twobreasttorc look justsamelike curlicabbis, moreafter, to pace negativisticists, verdant readyrainroof belongahim Exuber High Ober King Leary very dead, what he wish to say, spit of superexuberabundancy plenty laurel leaves, after that com-mander bulopent eyes of Most Highest Ardreetsar King same thing like thyme choppy upon parsley, alongsidethat, if please-sir, nos displace tauttung, sowlofabishospastored, enamel Indian gem in maledictive fingerfondler of High High Siresultan Em-peror all same like one fellow olive lentil, onthelongsidethat, by undesendas, kirikirikiring, violaceous warwon contusiones of facebuts of Highup Big Cockywocky Sublissimime Autocrat, for that with pure hueglut intensely saturated one, tinged uniformly, allaroundside upinandoutdown, very like you seecut chowchow of plentymuch sennacassia Hump cumps Ebblybally! Sukkot?

Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to take, tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposterioprismically apatstrophied and paralogically periparo-lysed, celestial from principalest of Iro’s Irismans ruinboon pot before, (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completamen-tarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint), as My tappropinquish to Me wipenmeselps gnosegates a handcaughtscheaf of synthetic shammyrag to hims hers, seeming-such four three two agreement cause heart to be might, saving to Balenoarch (he kneeleths), to Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down) to Greatest Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down quite-somely), the sound salse sympol in a weedwayedwold of the firethere the sun in his halo cast. Onmen.

That was thing, bygotter, the thing, bogcotton, the very thing, begad! Even to uptoputty Bilkilly–Belkelly-Balkally. Who was for shouting down the shatton on the lamp of Jeeshees. Sweating on to stonker and throw his seven. As he shuck his thumping fore features apt the hoyhop of His Ards.


Good safe firelamp! hailed the heliots. Goldselforelump! Halled they. Awed. Where thereon the skyfold high, trampa-trampatramp. Adie. Per ye comdoom doominoom noonstroom. Yeasome priestomes. Fullyhum toowhoom.


Continue reading “St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)”

“A Society of Scoundrels” — Franz Kafka

“A Society of Scoundrels”


Franz Kafka

Translated by Michael Hofmann

There was once a society of scoundrels, or rather not scoundrels per se, just ordinary, average people. They always stuck together. When one of them had perpetrated some rascally act, or rather, nothing really rascally, just averagely bad, he would confess it to the others, and they investigated it, condemned it, imposed penalties, forgave him, etc. This wasn’t corrupt — the interests of the individual and the society were kept in balance and the confessor received the punishment he asked for. So they always stuck together, and even after their death they didn’t abandon their society, but ascended to heaven in a troop. It was a sight of childlike innocence to see them flying. But since everything at heaven’s gate is broken up into its component parts, they plunged down like so many rocks.

Watch a 1977 PBS film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Gardener’s Son

Well, what happened there is a metaphor | William H. Gass

The full metaphor is not accepted any more. It isn’t taken seriously, and as we say, an arm of the sea threw a curve at the batter. No. Things do deflate and become literal in that sense. That is a conventional, standard way of thinking. My notion of metaphor comes again from scientific practice. Science consists of two realms of scientific operation: on one view, mathematical systems are proceeding and developing on their own, with their own rules on relationship. Then on the other side you have a collection of observations — very chaotic, unorganized. The idea of science is to get the observations into the system, because over here in the system all is wonderful, deductive, clear (relatively speaking). If we could get the observations over here, we could create a model which is an invested system. What Galileo did, for example, was to figure out how to get motion into geometry, once he saw that an inclined plane was a triangle, or that he could get, say, distance as a rectangle with speed and time — it’s just the same formula as the area of a rectangle. Then somebody like Descartes transforms the whole science of mechanics by putting geometry into algebra—makes it a much more sophisticated, subtle system. Everything is transformed without any move except that the algebra swallows geometry, and geometry has swallowed kinetics.

So you have those great moves, and what it means is that what science does is develop a model in which we look at the shadow the tree casts, and we see a right triangle. If we make a few measurements, we make some deductions. Now, what a metaphor tends to do, it seems to me, is that one element of a metaphor tends to stand as the abstract system, while the other is the set of unorganized observations, and what you build is a model that all observational system to be structured by the abstract system is a choice — it is arbitrary, in the sense that there is nothing more abstract about the one term in the metaphor than the other. And you can have interactive ones where they take turns — this suddenly is the abstract system where it was disorganized.

Furthermore, what is the system? Let’s say, “rose.” There is a history of the term, and it isn’t organized in a nice, algebraic way. It is, in fact, this great landscape of meanings connected in various ways, and sometimes not, and even connected with other meanings — “he rose up” — just on sound parallels. We now create this model that is one thing seen in terms of this whole system. Then, just as in science, you have the scope of the law. It only holds for gases. It has only a range of things. And so there is this scope of the metaphor: How far is it pushed? Is it just to be held for a certain distance, and then dropped? Shakespeare is wonderful, because he tends to hold on to an image throughout a play.

For me, when you are doing this, you are exploring what would happen to this one meaning if it suddenly reorganized. Then it produces a multiple of metaphors, of models. One of my favorite examples is in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, “The hearts that spanieled me at heels.” Antony is complaining that his followers have deserted him: “Hearts that spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets on blossoming Caesar, and this pine is barked, that overtopped them all.” Well, what happened there is a metaphor. “Hearts” right from the beginning is a pun on “harts,” in a way, and then the dog imagery for the followers is put inside, and then another one and then another one. Incredibly complex, incredibly rich multiplying imagery. You know how the followers behave, in detail. But every phrase is a metaphor.

From an interview with William H. Gass published in 2002 in Contemporary Literature, vol. 43, no. 4. Jim Neighbors conducted the interview.

All is telling | A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

The task of the narrator is not an easy one, he said. He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one. Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener’s claim–perhaps spoken, perhaps not–that he has heard the tale before. He sets forth the categories into which the listener will wish to fit the narrative as he hears it. But he understands that the narrative is itself in fact no category but is rather the category of all categories for there is nothing which falls outside its purview. All is telling. Do not doubt it.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. 

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

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

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

From William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.

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

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

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

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

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

What are those purposes?

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


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


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

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

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

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

“Not His Best” — Joy Williams

“Not His Best”


Joy Williams

from 99 Stories of God

Franz Kafka once called his writing a form of prayer.

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

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

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

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


“The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man” — Franz Kafka

“The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man”


Franz Kafka

translation by

Alexander Starritt

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation; to be ill and spend weeks looking out of the corner of your bed at an empty room; always to say goodbye at the door; never to squeeze your way up the stairs beside your wife; to live in a room where the side doors lead only to other people’s apartments; to carry your dinner home in one hand; to be forced to admire children you don’t know and not to be allowed to just keep repeating, “I don’t have any”; to model your appearance and behaviour on one or two bachelors you remember from childhood.

That’s how it’s going to be, except that in reality both today and in the future you’ll actually be standing there yourself, with a body and a real head, as well as a forehead, which you can use your hand to slap.