A review of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black

In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.

At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.

The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.

I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall so much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in 2010. RIP to Hilary Mantel, who died “suddenly but peacefully” yesterday at 70.]

From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal | From Osamu Dazai’s novel The Setting Sun

From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal

from

The Setting Sun

by

Osamu Dazai

Translated by Donald Keene


A sensation of burning to death. And excruciating though it is, I cannot pronounce even the simple words “it hurts.” Do not try to shrug off this portent of a hell unparalleled, unique in the history of man, bottomless!

Philosophy? Lies. Principles? Lies. Ideals? Lies. Order? Lies. Sincerity? Truth? Purity? All lies. They say the wisteria of Ushijima are a thousand years old, and the wisteria of Kumano date from centuries ago. I have heard that wisteria clusters at Ushijima attain a maximum length of nine feet, and those at Kumano of over five feet. My heart dances only in those clusters of wisteria blossom.

That too is somebody’s child. It is alive.

Logic, inevitably, is the love of logic. It is not the love for living human beings.

Money and women. Logic, intimidated, scampers off precipitously.

The courageous testimony of Dr. Faust that a maiden’s smile is more precious than history, philosophy, education, religion, law, politics, economics, and all the other branches of learning.

Learning is another name for vanity. It is the effort of human beings not to be human beings.

I can swear even before Goethe that I am a superbly gifted writer. Flawless construction, the proper leavening of humor, pathos to bring tears to the reader’s eyes—or else a distinguished novel, perfect of its kind, to be read aloud sonorously with the deference due it, this (shall I call it running commentary on a film?) I claim I could write were I not ashamed. There’s something fundamentally cheap about such awareness of genius. Only a madman would read a novel with deference. In that case it had best be done in formal clothes, like going to a funeral. So long as it does not seem as affected as a good work! I will write my novel clumsily, deliberately making a botch of it, just to see a smile of genuine pleasure on my friend’s face—to fall on my bottom and patter off scratching my head. Oh, to see my friend’s happy face!

What is this affection which would make me blow the toy bugle of bad prose and bad character to proclaim, “Here is the greatest fool in Japan! Compared to me, you’re all right—be of good health!”

Friend! You who relate with a smug face, “That’s his bad habit, what a pity!” You do not know that you are loved.

I wonder if there is anyone who is not depraved.

A wearisome thought.

I want money.

Unless I have it….

In my sleep, a natural death!

I have run up a debt of close to a thousand yen with the pharmacist. Today I surreptitiously introduced a clerk from the pawnshop into the house and ushered him to my room. I asked, “Is anything here valuable enough to pawn? If there is, take it away. I am in desperate need of money.”

The clerk, with scarcely a glance at the room, had the effrontery to say, “Why don’t you forget the whole idea? After all, the furniture doesn’t belong to you.”

“Very well!” I said with animation, “just take the things I have bought with my own pocket money.” But not a one of all the odds and ends I piled before him had any value as a pledge.

Item. A hand in plaster. This was the right hand of Venus. A hand like a dahlia blossom, a pure white hand, mounted on a stand. But if you looked at it carefully you could tell how this pure white, delicate hand, with whorl-less finger tips and unmarked palms, expressed, so pitifully that even the beholder was stabbed with pain, the shame intense enough to make Venus stop her breath; in the gesture was implicit the moment when Venus’ full nakedness was seen by a man, when she twisted away her body, flushed all over with the prickling warmth of her shock, the whirlwind of her shame, and the tragedy of her nudity. Unfortunately, this was only a piece of bric-à-brac. The clerk valued it at fifty sen.

Items. A large map of the suburbs of Paris. A celluloid top almost a foot in diameter. A special pen-point with which one can write letters finer than threads. All things bought by me under the impression that they were great bargains.

The clerk laughed and said, “I must be leaving now.”

“Wait!” I cried, holding him back. I finally managed to load him down with an immense stack of books for which he gave me five yen. The books on my shelves were, with a few exceptions, cheap paper-bound editions, and at that I had bought them secondhand. It was not surprising that they fetched so little.

To settle a debt of a thousand yen—five yen. That is approximately my effective strength. It is no laughing matter.

But rather than the patronizing “But being decadent is the only way to survive!” of some who criticize me, I would far prefer to be told simply to go and die. It’s straightforward. But people almost never say, “Die!” Paltry, prudent hypocrites!

Justice? That’s not where you’ll find the so-called class struggle. Humanity? Don’t be silly. I know. It is knocking down your fellow-men for the sake of your own happiness. It is a killing. What meaning has it unless there is a verdict of “Die!” It’s no use cheating.

Continue reading “From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal | From Osamu Dazai’s novel The Setting Sun”

“Wild Flowers” — Gertrude Stein

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 novel Telluria, in its first English translation thanks to the estimable talents of Max Lawton, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices.

The world Sorokin conjures in Telluria is best experienced without map or gloss. My joy in reading the novel came from wandering through its fifty chapters and slowly building my own sense of this post-collapse world. You explore Telluria, finding footing after stumbling initially over the disorienting newness of a particular section. And just as you’ve tuned into the particular section’s frequency, you find yourself in a new chapter, a new idiom, a new voice. It’s a goddamn linguistic picaresque best enjoyed on its own terms, terms it refuses to spell out in simple exposition.

Telluria does not have a plot in the traditional sense, although its sum is greater than its parts. The fifty sections are not mere exercises in style, but rather a reflection of post-twentieth century consciousness: fractured, paranoid, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, joyous, dystopian, utopian, ironic, earnest, strange…The reader who wanders through the fifty chapters will piece together a brave weird world where our contemporary nation states and political alliances have splintered into a cacophony of fiefdoms, city states, monarchies, republics, and so on. (There’s even a system of “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism.”)

The needle that threads through it all is tellurium, a real (if earth-rare) element (as you’ll undoubtedly recall from your high-school chemistry class). In our world, tellurium is mostly employed in creating alloys for machines. In the world of Telluria, it is a drug that can take its user on a transcendental journeys, Those lucky enough to get their hands on a tellurium spike might find themselves transported into metaphysical spaces. Expert “carpenters” hammer tellurium nails into the heads of seekers, and these seekers go on to communicate with the dead, rampage fearlessly in battle, meet Christ in heaven, fly above mountaintops, or, in some cases, simply perish.

I should have by now offered a taste of the language in Telluria. A nice chunk of text set within the gum of context, no? But I don’t know how to do that effectively–Telluria is a dazzle of tongues. Offering a taste of just two or three of the sections would insufficient. It would amount to something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Instead, I’ll offer Max Lawton’s thoughts on translating Telluria, from an interview he granted me earlier this year

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices…I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations…), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others.

Telluria’s verbal carnival matches (and, really, engenders) seemingly endless imaginative invention on Sorokin’s part. We get dog-headed mutants engaged in philosophical discourse, “litluns” planning a revolution over the normies, the Carpenters of Western Europe hammering tellurium spikes into an army of Knights Templar who are about to set off on their thirteenth flying crusade against Islamic invaders. There are late-night, drug-fueled, multilingual bullshitting sessions, orgies, a princess who gets her kicks slumming it in disguise and fucking the serfs. There are lovers separated by thousands of miles, mutated horses larger than three-story houses, tourists in the USSR — the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic. A centaur falls in love. Etc.

I copped out of citing any passages from Telluria above, protesting that it might offer an incomplete picture—and that’s true. But reviewing my notes, I think it’s worth sharing one passage at some length, a passage that I think both describes the milieu of the novel as well as approaches a kind of moral vision for the novel (with the strong caveat that any one distinct moral vision is necessarily exploded and ironized by the other voices that thread through the novel—as Lawton stated in our interview, Telluria is “an ode to difference….For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.”)

“We must not take anyone else’s karma upon ourselves, not even in small matters,” the brigadier continued. “Especially now in our renewed, post-war world. Take a look at the Eurasian continent: after the collapse of ideological, geopolitical, and technological utopias, it was finally plunged back into the blessèd and enlightened Middle Ages. The world returned to human scale. Nations found themselves. Man ceased to be the sum of the technology around him. Mass production is living out its final years. There aren’t two identical nails beaten into humanity’s head. Man regained a sense of the thing, started to eat healthy grub and ride horses again. Genetic engineering helps man to feel his true size. Man has regained faith in the transcendental. Regained his sense of time. We’re not rushing anywhere anymore. Most importantly–we understand that there can be no technological heaven on earth. And, and in broader terms, no heaven at all. Earth has been given to us as an island of overcoming. Everyone chooses what to overcome and how to overcome it. And they make that choice themselves!”

Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad to me. 

Telluria was my first encounter with Sorokin, and I think it makes a grand introduction. I’ve since read Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) and Blue Lard (forthcoming next year from NYRB and also translated by Max Lawton). I’m currently reading Lawton’s translation of Their Four Hearts. While I think Blue Lard is the strongest of these titles (and I look forward to/dread reviewing it in the future), Telluria is an excellent introduction to Sorokin’s work, offering an engaging taste of his methods (all through Lawton’s lively translation). The book’s energy and imagination offer a nice counter to the dour dystopian narratives that abound these days.

Telluria is Not For Everyone. Readers interested in clear “worldbuilding” or plots that tie up all the loose ends will find themselves exasperated, as will readers who actively resist the linguistic playfulness of Lawton’s translation. Similarly, readers searching for a moral analogy for contemporary Russian politics and culture will find themselves straining to apply whatever mold they’ve already forged in their minds. Neither is this book particularly interested in the Americas or Western Europe. Sorokin’s province is the vast vacillating mass of Eurasia. In his 2012 book Russia: A Very Short History, Geoffrey Hosking notes “the arduous and challenging task of building a coherent polity on the flat open plains of northern Eurasia,” arguing that although Russia “has been a remarkable success story,” it is nevertheless a country “which had its own weaknesses programmed into it.” Hoskings continues: “[Russia] rested on a tacit compact between ruler, elites, and communities of ordinary people, renewed after periods of upheaval and crisis, yet never wholly harmonious, always subject to internal strains.” Telluria is an ecstatic and jarring exploration of those upheavals, those crises, those wonderful strains, a satire on the very notion of a coherent polity.

I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books, and over 100 other similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

    1. black eyes like two deep wells
    2. He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed.
    3. little particles of his own filth floated, tiny bits of skin that traveled like submarines toward an inlet the size of an eye, a calm, dark cove, although there was no calm, and all that existed was movement
    4. watching the fragments of his body drift away in all directions, like space probes launched at random across the universe
    5. a region very like hell
    6. he moved across the surface of the earth like a novice diver along the seafloor
    7. strands that really did look like fingers
    8. The Poles look like chickens, but pluck four feathers and you’ll see they’ve got the skin of swine.
    9. They look like starving dogs but they’re really starving swine, swine that’ll eat anyone, without a second thought, without the slightest remorse.
    10. They’re like swine disguised as Chihuahuas.
    11. A churning gray like pus.
    12. like ghost towns
    13. like blood and rotting meat
    14. moving like a diver
    15. like a night diver
    16. What was it about the boy that made him look like seaweed?
    17. that dark sea, a sea like a pack of wolves
    18. dark waves like forest beasts
    19. the body of young Reiter floating like uprooted seaweed, upward, a brilliant white in the underwater space
    20. sometimes the baby looked like a bag of rubbish left on a pebbly beach
    21. other times like Petrobius maritimus, a marine insect that lives in crevices and rocks and feeds on scraps, or Lipura maritima, another insect, very small and dark slate or gray, its habitat the puddles among rocks
    22. like prophecies
    23. “My son,” said the one-legged man.
      “He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed.
    24. that weekend was like a month
    25. samurais were like fish in a waterfall but the best samurai in history was a woman
    26. an eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die
    27. like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die
    28. like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats
    29. go forth like the keeper of a swarm of bees, except that this beekeeper wasn’t protected by a mesh suit or a helmet and woe betide the bee that tried to sting him, even if only in thought.
    30. like the eyes of a hawk that flies and delights in its flight, but that also maintains a
      watchful gaze
    31. noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books
    32. cavorted like a mermaid
    33. he watched the sunrise as it washed like a wave over the city, drowning them all
    34. darts along like a squirrel
    35. the village, like a black lump set or encrusted in the darkness
    36. like a box from some scientific research center where glove-wearing German scientists pack away something with the power to destroy the world and Germany too
    37. like seeing a giraffe go off in a pack of wolves, coyotes, and hyenas
    38. the seaweed jungle was like the locks of a dead giant
    39. like sheep or little goats
    40. He saw hills or rocky outcroppings that looked like ships about to sink, prows lifted, like enraged horses, nearly vertical
    41. the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar
    42. being here is like being buried alive
    43. like a shadow
    44. more like a horse than a man
    45. like an engraving of a worker or artisan, an innocent passerby suddenly blinded by a ray of moonlight
    46. swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia
    47. reality was increasingly vague, more like a dream
    48. d her eyes, a washed-out blue, like the eyes of a blind woman
    49. strolling like philosophers
    50. woods like dark islands in the middle of endless wheat fields
    51. a black fog rose before his eyes, full of granulated dots like a rain of meteors
    52. he fired and walked, like someone strolling and taking photographs, until the
      fort exploded
    53. looking as if they were starving or like pupils at a reform school
    54. the sergeant looked like an ant that gradually grew bigger and bigger
    55. already approaching old age, like the biblical Abraham and Sarah
    56. drank like a condemned woman
    57. more like a strand of seaweed than a human being
    58. the seaweedlike extraterrestrial
    59. like a burning doll
    60. a rending violence, like a claw, but not a claw that did any damage
    61. like a claw that pounces and floats in the middle of the room, like a helium balloon, a selfconscious claw, a claw-beast that wonders what in God’s name it’s doing in this rather untidy room, who that old man is sitting at the table, who that young man is standing with tousled hair, then falls to the floor, deflated, returned once more to nothing.
    62. like something rotting
    63. like an orphan, a self-designated orphan
    64. On the subject of art, a politician with power is like a colossal pheasant, able to crush mountains with little hops, whereas a politician without power is only like a village priest, an ordinary-sized pheasant.
    65. They lived like garbagemen. They were the garbagemen of the jungle
    66. like birds
    67. like a horror painting
    68. other poets shun them like lepers
    69. the sudden appearance of this incredible woman is like a miracle
    70. inspecting the dead like someone who inspects a lot for sale or a farm or a country house
    71. like madmen escaped from an asylum
    72. From a hill he saw a column of German tanks moving east. They looked like the coffins of an extraterrestrial civilization.
    73. feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky
    74. the bottom of the river was like a gravel road
    75. a vague noise, like the clatter of furniture, as if sick people were moving furniture around
    76. the full moon filtered through the fabric of the tent like boiling coffee through a sock
    77. my name has grown like a malignant tumor and now it turns up on the most unlikely documents
    78. the light sweeping the tent like a bird’s wing or a claw
    79. dreamlike
    80. they seemed less like children than like the skeletons of children, abandoned sketches, pure will and bone
    81. like girls who’ve just woken from a terrible nightmare
    82. like the habitues of racetracks who commit suicide in cheap rented rooms or hotels tucked away on back-streets frequented by gangsters
    83. like a murderer
    84. like a ragpicker’s room
    85. he drank like a Cossack
    86. the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse
      and slit my throat, bleed me dry
    87. I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece.
    88. He writes like someone taking dictation.
    89. his old man’s neck, like the neck of a turkey or a plucked rooster
    90. his gray temples like a stormy sea
    91. deep eyes that at the slightest tilt of his head seemed at times like two endless tunnels, two abandoned tunnels on the verge of collapse.
    92. a kind of crepuscular lethargy crept from under the doors like poison gas
    93. Mickey, like the mouse
    94. Everything is burning. It looks more like the moon than Normandy.
    95. like the living dead, zombies, cemetery dwellers, soldiers without eyes or mouths, but with penises
    96. like the soldier who was trapped under a pile of corpses and there, beneath the corpses and the snow, he dug a little cave with his regulation shovel, and
      to pass the time he jerked off, more boldly each time, because once the fear and surprise of the first few instants had vanished, all that was left was the fear of death and boredom, and to stave off boredom he began to masturbate, first timidly, as if he were seducing a peasant girl or a little shepherdess, then with increasing determination, until he managed to bring himself off to his full satisfaction, and he went on like that for fifteen days, in his little cave of corpses and snow, rationing his food and indulging his urges, which didn’t make him weaker but rather seemed to retronourish him, as if he had drunk his own semen or as if after going mad he had found a forgotten way back to a new sanity, until the German troops counterattacked and discovered him
    97. not dirty or like shit or urine, nor like rot or worm meat
    98. like Ali Baba’s cave
    99. like a doll’s house, a cabin, a hut, a place that existed on the edge of time and remained fixed in a willed and imaginary childhood, comfortable and unspoiled.
    100. like something out of a fairy tale
    101. Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something
      vaguely like a police investigation
    102. like something out of a PreRaphaelite painting
    103. a little white-chocolate house with beams like slabs of dark chocolate, surrounded by a little garden in which the flowers looked like paper cutouts and a lawn trimmed with mathematical precision
    104. all human beings are obliged to bear until their deaths, like the rock of Sisyphus
    105. throbbed like the ripped-out heart of an Aztec victim
    106. typewriter was like a heart, a giant heart beating in the middle of the fog and chaos
    107. the stain of blood was like a giant rose in full bloom
    108. and the mountains multiplying in the night, all white, like nuns with no worldly ambitions.
    109. a laugh that sounded to Archimboldi like a cascade of ice
    110. she didn’t weigh a thing anymore, it was like climbing up with a bundle of sticks
    111. like a couple of vagabonds
    112. buildings propping each other up like little old Alzheimer’s patients, a jumble of houses and mazelike passageways where distant voices could be heard, worried voices asking questions and offering answers with great dignity
    113. Like the final surroundings of Sisyphus
    114. like a phantom
    115. He smiled like a father
    116. the place looked like a graveyard
    117. the old man in pajamas looked less like a vanished novelist than like a justly forgotten novelist, the typical hard-luck bad French novelist, most likely born at the wrong time
    118. a sweet and chirping voice, like the water of a brook that runs over a bed of flat stones
    119. The essayist looked like a cigarette covered with a handkerchief.
    120. arm in arm like two ex-lovers who no longer have many secrets to tell
    121. a car like a hearse awaited her
    122. the days were like nights and the nights like days
    123. sometimes the days and nights were unlike anything, everything was a continuum of blinding brightness and explosions
    124. Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes
    125. like women who haven’t yet begun to menstruate
    126. he preferred someone decent and hardworking, who wouldn’t suck his blood like a
      vampire
    127. Her suffering was like the screech of chalk on a blackboard. As if a boy were dragging a piece of chalk across a blackboard on purpose to make it screech.
    128. like looking for a needle in a haystack
    129. slept like a baby
    130. The sounds she heard were like the sounds of the abyss.

These similes are from “The Part About Archimboldi,” the fifth part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 | Rambling notes around a very long audiobook

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I listened to Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666 on audiobook (in English translation by Natasha Wimmer) over the last month,

I listened while I took long early walks in my neighborhood before the big sun burned me back home; I listened while I gardened; I listened while I undertook a list of summer chores that included painting the interior of the house.

I was listening to the book when our fire alarm gave alarum to an accidental fire in our kitchen, which I put out quickly (I was hearing but not listening to the book during this exercise). I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when I started getting texts from friends about the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe. I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when my neighbor waved me down, approached me, told me while crying (she was walking her dog) that her ex-husband, who I was very close to, loved, frankly, a kind man who I spent a few hours a week drinking wine and discussing x and y and z, but especially discussing literature and civics film and local raptors, this man, my friend, had died unexpectedly the previous morning. I turned the audiobook off, finished my walk, and drove four hours to the Gulf shore, a nice place I take every July 4th holiday with my extended family. I took a week off 2666.

I finished the 2666 audiobook yesterday. This audiobook is 39 hours and 15 minutes long. A different reader reads each of the novel’s five distinct parts. (The readers are John Lee, Armando Durán, G. Valmont Thomas, Scott Brick, and Grover Gardner.)

Should someone who hasn’t read 2666 before try it on audiobook first?

I have no idea.

(Try it and tell me.)

I don’t think it would have worked for me, an audiobook on the first go around, for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that there are so so so many voices in the novel, and not all of the five readers necessarily fully capture those voices. (G. Valmont Thomas and Grover Gardner do; Armando Durán gets close; John Lee fares well for the most part; Scott Brick tries too hard at times and not hard enough at others).

Some people are pretty good at auditing audiobooks; other people have a difficult time zoning in. Forty hours is a long time, and if I opened with a list of “I” statements, related to the book, it was because it felt like a sharp chunk of life passed as I listened to 2666. (Sorry.)

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As for the actual novel, the story, the prose, whatever—it’s great. Just amazing. These are poor adjectives for a giant work. This was my fourth full trip through 2666, and it only confirms my impression that the novel is a labyrinthine masterpiece, sinister, brave, lurid, abject, often very funny, and stuffed with so much life and experience. I’ve written several “reviews” of the novel on this site over the years, if you want to be persuaded in greater detail. Probably the better of these riffs was a piece on intertextuality in the novel. There’s also my first review in early 2009 and one from my reread it in late 2009. I wrote about abjection and horror in 2666. At some point I wrote about werewolves and 2666 and argued that Dracula is a secret character in the book.

I probably also connected 2666 in some way to many, many other things while writing on this blog over the past thirteen years. I think it’s great, more than great, grand, gargantuan, giant stuff. I felt all sad and hollowed out when I got to the end yesterday, deflated, punctured, the final images of Archimboldi eating Neapolitan ice cream with a descendant of its creator, Fürst Pückler, kinda breaking my brain.

Put forty more hours in my ears.

If you follow this blog semi-regularly, you might’ve seen (and I hope read) excerpts I’ve posted from 2666 over the past few weeks. Something that initially caught me off guard, but that I soon came to predict, was that I would audit a section, and jot down notes, something like, Post this as an excerpt on the blog—and then it would turn out that I’d posted the same excerpt a decade ago.

I also remembered specific moments where I’d read some of the selections — on airplanes, or in hotel beds, or even on the beach of the Gulf, ten or eleven years ago over a July 4th vacation that wasn’t set against such a oh-wow-we’re-sliding-into-overt-authoritarian-oligarchy-dang backdrop. But also in blank or banal places, a black couch a now-dead cat clawed up, a chair my wife threatened to axe. Two different beds. And so much of what I audited the past month is blended into my experiences of the past month. (I will never ever forget that the moment when I found out about Roe, I was listening to a painful litany of misogynistic “jokes” told by a crooked cop to an audience of other cops in “The Part About the Crimes” — the section goes on and on, a little echo or prefiguration of the litany of rapes that formalize that particular section. I am looking for a way to use the word indelible here.)

(And while I’m in parentheses: Something I would have tuned out while reading 2666 that I certainly noticed while auditing it is how often Bolaño (and his translator Wimmer, of course) uses the phrase Around this time to begin a new paragraph.)

And so well anyway: A few remarks on the readers, translators all in their own right of the material:

John Lee reads “The Part About the Critics.” His posh British twang is well-suited to conveying the semi-serious/semi-ironic tone of this section, and if he sounds annoying as shit at times, that can be forgiven. Lee, who is often too arch, shows more restraint than in other audiobooks I’ve audited that he’s read.

Armando Durán reads “The Part About Amalfitano.” He’s perfect when conveying Amalfitano’s voice, as well as consciousness, but centers too closely to that consciousness. This is a very specific and petty criticism that is more about how I hear certain other voices in the novel. Great voice.

G. Valmont Thomas reads “The Part About Fate.” He inhabits the various voices the journalist Fate speaks to with aplomb, characterizing each voice with its own unique phrasing while staying true to the tone of the “Fate” section, which tip-toes to full-blown abject madness. My only gripe, and it’s not really even a gripe, is that he voices Fate himself as a total weirdo, a weirdo who simultaneously realizes he’s out of sync with everyone around him, but also doesn’t see to register that fact as a functioning human being might. Good interpretation, I guess, but still a bit of a bold choice.

Scott Brick reads “The Part About the Crimes.” Brick has the longest and arguably most-arduous section of 2666. I think the direction he takes (or the direction he was given) is a bit too intense — again this is a case of my own reading of the voices in the novel — I think the main narrative voice of “The Part About the Crimes” should be flat, affectless, reportorial, and that all drama and verve in that section should come from characters who ventriloquize the narrative — and Brick does a good job there.

Grover Gardner reads “The Part About Archimboldi” and I loved what he did, but I’m a big fan of his voice in general. And I love that particular section.

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If I have quibbled with these voices it comes from a place of love—I loved getting to reread 2666 through their voices. And, like I said above, they are ultimately translators too of the work. So I’ll close with Bolaño himself on translation (via his 2666 translator, Natasha Wimmer, from his essay “Translation Is an Anvil,” collected in Between Parentheses):

How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its  voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.

I love the mountain, the forest, the Nightingale.

The novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight | From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

The following excerpt of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (in Natasha Wimmer’s translation) is more or less self-contained, or at least as self-contained as anything in that labyrinth. It’s the summary of a character named Ansky’s novel; Hans Reiter (aka Archimboldi) is reading Ansky’s diaries while hiding during the war–

The novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight and its plot was very simple: a boy of fourteen abandons his family to join the ranks of the revolution. Soon he’s engaged in combat against Wrangel’s troops. In the midst of battle he’s injured and his comrades leave him for dead. But before the vultures come to feed on the bodies, a spaceship drops onto the battlefield and takes him away, along with some of the other mortally wounded soldiers. Then the spaceship enters the stratosphere and goes into orbit around Earth. All of the men’s wounds are rapidly healed. Then a very thin, very tall creature, more like a strand of seaweed than a human being, asks them a series of questions like: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? Of course, no one knows the answers. One man says God created the stars and the universe begins and ends wherever God wants. He’s tossed out into space. The others sleep. When the boy awakes he finds himself in a shabby room, with a shabby bed and a shabby wardrobe where his shabby clothes hang. When he goes to the window he gazes out in awe at the urban landscape of New York. But the boy finds only misfortune in the great city. He meets a jazz musician who tells him about chickens that talk and probably think.

“The worst of it,” the musician says to him, “is that the governments of the planet know it and that’s why so many people raise chickens.”

The boy objects that the chickens are raised to be eaten. The musician says that’s what the chickens want. And he finishes by saying:

“Fucking masochistic chickens, they have our leaders by the balls.”

He also meets a girl who works as a hypnotist at a burlesque club, and he falls in love. The girl is ten years older than the boy, or in other words twenty-four, and although she has a number of lovers, including the boy, she doesn’t want to fall in love with anyone because she believes that love will use up her powers as a hypnotist. One day the girl disappears and the boy, after searching for her in vain, decides to hire a Mexican detective who was a soldier under Pancho Villa. The detective has a strange theory: he believes in the existence of numerous Earths in parallel universes. Earths that can be reached through hypnosis. The boy thinks the detective is swindling him and decides to accompany him in his investigations. One night they come upon a Russian beggar shouting in an alley. The beggar shouts in Russian and only the boy can understand him. The beggar says: I fought with Wrangel, show some respect, please, I fought in Crimea and I was evacuated from Sevastopol in an English ship. Then the boy asks whether the beggar was at the battle where he fell badly wounded. The beggar looks at him and says yes. I was too, says the boy. Impossible, replies the beggar, that was twenty years ago and you weren’t even born yet.

Then the boy and the Mexican detective set off west in search of the hypnotist. They find her in Kansas City. The boy asks her to hypnotize him and send him back to the battlefield where he should have died, or accept his love and stop fleeing. The hypnotist answers that neither is possible. The Mexican detective shows an interest in the art of hypnosis. As the detective begins to tell the hypnotist a story, the boy leaves the roadside bar and goes walking under the night sky. After a while he stops crying.

He walks for hours. When he’s in the middle of nowhere he sees a figure by the side of the road. It’s the seaweedlike extraterrestrial. They greet each other. They talk. Often, their conversation is unintelligible. The subjects they address are varied: foreign languages, national monuments, the last days of Karl Marx, worker solidarity, the time of the change measured in Earth years and stellar years, the discovery of America as a stage setting, an unfathomable void—as painted by Dore—of masks. Then the boy follows the extraterrestrial away from the road and they walk through a wheat field, cross a stream, climb a hill, cross another field, until they reach a smoldering pasture.

In the next chapter, the boy is no longer a boy but a young man of twenty-five working at a Moscow newspaper where he has become the star reporter. The young man receives the assignment to interview a Communist leader somewhere in China. The trip, he is warned, is extremely difficult, and once he reaches Peking, the situation may be dangerous, since there are lots of people who don’t want any statement by the Chinese leader to get out. Despite these warnings, the young man accepts the job. When, after much hardship, he finally gains access to the cellar where the Chinese leader is hidden, the young man decides that not only will he interview him, he’ll also help him escape the country. The Chinese leader’s face, in the light of a candle, bears a notable resemblance to that of the Mexican detective and former soldier under Pancho Villa. The Chinese leader and the young Russian, meanwhile, come down with the same illness, brought on by the pestilence of the cellar. They shake with fever, they sweat, they talk, they rave, the Chinese leader says he sees dragons flying low over the streets of Peking, the young man says he sees a battle, perhaps just a skirmish, and he shouts hurrah and urges his comrades onward. Then both lie motionless as the dead for a long time, and suffer in silence until the day set for their flight.

Each with a temperature of 102 degrees, the two men cross Peking and escape. Horses and provisions await them in the countryside. The Chinese leader has never ridden before. The young man teaches him how. During the trip they cross a forest and then some enormous mountains. The blazing of the stars in the sky seems supernatural. The Chinese leader asks himself: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? The young man hears him and vaguely recalls a wound in his side whose scar still aches, darkness, a trip. He also remembers the eyes of a hypnotist, although the woman’s features remain hidden, mutable. If I close my eyes, thinks the young man, I’ll see her again. But he doesn’t close them. They make their way across a vast snow-covered plain. The horses sink in the snow. The Chinese leader sings. How were the stars created? Who are we in the middle of the boundless universe? What trace of us will remain?

Suddenly the Chinese leader falls off his horse. The young Russian examines him. The Chinese leader is like a burning doll. The young Russian touches the Chinese leader’s forehead and then his own forehead and understands that the fever is devouring them both. With no little effort he ties the Chinese leader to his mount and sets off again. The silence of the snow-covered plain is absolute. The night and the passage of stars across the vault of the sky show no signs of ever ending. In the distance an enormous black shadow seems to superimpose itself on the darkness. It’s a mountain range. In the young Russian’s mind the certainty takes shape that in the coming hours he will die on that snow-covered plain or as he crosses the mountains. A voice inside begs him to close his eyes, because if he closes them he’ll see the eyes and then the beloved face of the hypnotist. It tells him that if he closes his eyes he’ll see the streets of New York again, he’ll walk again toward the hypnotist’s house, where she sits waiting for him on a chair in the dark. But the Russian doesn’t close his eyes. He rides on.

“The Father Who Bowed” — Russell Edson

“The Father Who Bowed”

by

Russell Edson


A father presented himself. He said, ladies and gentlemen, your father …

His family applauded.

He bowed …

Ladies and gentlemen, he began, it has come to my attention over the last few decades that we are run up against a biological barrier …

His family began to applaud …

No, he began again, do not say that age is beauty, that the white-haired old woman trying to see the sock she darns through cataracts is worth the droppings of a rat.

No, I should say more service to the healthy microbe in the rat’s droppings than the poor darning that comes of arthritic hands and eyes in cataract …

No, indeed, more to be said for lesser forms than men astride their graves!

… We weary the promise unfulfilled, the downward repetition that ends in utter, utter death …

His family applauded …

Ladies and gentlemen, he began again, let us end this terrible business: stuffing brother George into the toilet like a turd; Mother into the garden like a potato; sister Ann up under the roof like an old cobweb; for me, the garbage can …

His family began to cheer; they were on their feet crying, bravo bravo, encore encore.

You do me too much honor, he sighed as he bowed; the curtain slowly coming down …

We’ve gotten used to death | from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

So, wanting the thick feeling and flavor of a long book but committed to so many skinny books, I started listening to the audiobook of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 this week. I’m about twelve hours in (it’s something like forty hours), and it’s activated so many memories and thoughts. I don’t think I’d recommend 2666 as an audiobook on the first read—it helps to know the novel’s abyssal shapes and strategies. I’ve read 2666 three times, including a back-to-back reading, and so much of the novel has stuck with me more than many other novels I’ve read. This morning—early for me—I went for a walk and listened in the baking Florida heat, sun blazing, and, in the book titled “The Part About Fate,” I heard a passage that resonated with me. I pulled my chunky body ‘neath a magnolia’s shade and opened up a note app on my phone to type some of the language, thinking I’d share it on this blog. When I got home I googled the phrases I’d recorded, and realized that I’d shared the passage on this blog eleven years ago.

I’ll put together some thoughts on revising 2666 after a decade, but here’s the passage.

From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:

“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.

“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.

The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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Dodo, 1638 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

Continue reading “The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow”

“The Valley” — William S. Burroughs

“The Valley”

a passage from

The Western Lands

by William S. Burroughs


THE VALLEY

There is no way in or out of the Valley, which is ringed with sheer cliffs with an overhanging ledge. How did the people of the Valley get in there in the first place? No one remembers. They have been there for many years. Children have been born, grown old and died in the Valley, but not many children. Food is scarce. A stream runs through the Valley, and they have dammed up a large pond to raise fish. There is an area along the stream where they grow corn. Sometimes they kill birds, a few lizards and snakes. So most children must be killed at birth. Just an allotted number to continue the line.

Maybe, some say, they will be seen, and people will lower ropes. There is a legend that one man built a flying machine from lizard, snake and fish skins sewn to a frame of light wood. It took him all his life to build it, and he was seventy when the machine was finally finished. It looked like a gigantic dragonfly with sixty-foot wings.
Continue reading ““The Valley” — William S. Burroughs”

“Silvio Salvático” — Roberto Bolaño

“Silvio Salvático”

by

Roberto Bolaño

translated by Chris Andrews

from Nazi Literature in the Americas


SILVIO SALVÁTICO

Buenos Aires, 1901–Buenos Aires, 1994

As a young man Salvático advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.

He was a soccer player and a Futurist.

From 1920 to 1929, in addition to frequenting the literary salons and fashionable cafes, he wrote and published more than twelve collections of poems, some of which won municipal and provincial prizes. From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him. Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.

He died in an old-age home in Villa Luro, his worldly possessions consisting of a single suitcase full of books and unpublished manuscripts.

His books were never republished. His manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies.

The Mother Conspiracy (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Otto is earnestly explaining his views on the Mother Conspiracy. It’s not often a sympathetic girl will listen. The Mothers get together once a year, in secret, at these giant conventions, and exchange information. Recipes, games, key phrases to use on their children. “What did yours use to say when she wanted to make you feel guilty?”

“‘I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!’” sez the girl.

“Right! And she used to cook those horrible casseroles, w-with the potatoes, and onions—”

“And ham! Little pieces of ham—”

“You see, you see? That can’t be accidental! They have a contest, for Mother of the Year, breast-feeding, diaper-changing, they time them, casserole competitions, ja—then, toward the end, they actually begin to use the children. The State Prosecutor comes out on stage. ‘In a moment, Albrecht, we are going to bring your mother on. Here is a Luger, fully loaded. The State will guarantee you absolute immunity from prosecution. Do whatever you wish to do—anything at all. Good luck, my boy.’ The pistols are loaded with blanks, natürlich, but the unfortunate child does not know this. Only the mothers who get shot at qualify for the finals.

Here they bring in psychiatrists, and judges sit with stopwatches to see how quickly the children will crack. ‘Now then, Olga, wasn’t it nice of Mutti to break up your affair with that long-haired poet?’ ‘We understand your mother and you are, ah, quite close, Hermann. Remember the time she caught you masturbating into her glove? Eh?’ Hospital attendants stand by to drag the children off, drooling, screaming, having clonic convulsions. Finally there is only one Mother left on stage. They put the traditional flowered hat on her head, and hand her the orb and scepter, which in this case are a gilded pot roast and a whip, and the orchestra plays Tristan und Isolde.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Game planet | William S. Burroughs

This is a game planet. All games are hostile and basically there is only one game, and that game is war. Research into altered states of consciousness — which might result in a viewpoint from which the game itself could be called into question — is inexorably drawn into the game. One of the rules of this game is that there cannot be final victory since that would mean the end of the war game. Every player must believe in final victory and endeavor to attain final victory with all his resources. In consequence all existing technologies are directed towards producing total weapons that could end the game by killing all players. Is there any way out of this impasse of national security at the expense of global insecurity? Certainly a prerequisite for any solution would be for all countries to put all their top secrets right on the table.

From “Mind War,” collected in The Adding Machine. 

Life is an entanglement of lies to hide its basic mechanisms | William S. Burroughs

From The Place of Dead Roads

by

William S. Burroughs


Kim is a slimy, morbid youth of unwholesome proclivities with an insatiable appetite for the extreme and the sensational. His mother had been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasms, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras. He wallows in abominations, unspeakable rites, diseased demon lovers, loathsome secrets imparted in a thick slimy whisper, ancient ruined cities under a purple sky, the smell of unknown excrements, the musky sweet rotten reek of the terrible Red Fever, erogenous sores suppurating in the idiot giggling flesh. In short, Kim is everything a normal American boy is taught to detest. He is evil and slimy and insidious. Perhaps his vices could be forgiven him, but he was also given to the subversive practice of thinking. He was in fact incurably intelligent.

Later, when he becomes an important player, he will learn that people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find it out. And if you are as intelligent as Kim, it’s hard not to find things out. Now, American boys are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different from the thinking of a boss or a teacher…You will find out that you aren’t supposed to think.

Life is an entanglement of lies to hide its basic mechanisms.

Kim remembers a teacher who quoted to the class: “If a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well…”

“Well sir, I mean the contrary is certainly true. If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing, even badly,” said Kim pertly, hoping to impress the teacher with his agile intelligence. “I mean, we can’t all become Annie Oakleys doesn’t mean we can’t get some fun and benefit from shooting…”

The teacher didn’t like that at all, and for the rest of the school year singled Kim out for heavy-handed sarcasm, addressing him as “our esteemed woodsman and scout.” When Kim couldn’t answer a history question, the teacher asked, “Are you one of these strong, silent men?” And he wrote snippy little comments in the margins of Kim’s compositions: “Not quite as badly as that,” viciously underlining the offending passage. At the end of the term the teacher gave him a Β — for the course, though Kim knew fucking well he deserved an A.

To be sure, Kim was rotten clear through and he looked like a sheep-killing dog and smelled like a polecat, but he was also the most ingenious, curious, resourceful, inventive little snot that ever rose from the pages of Boy’s Life, thinking up ways of doing things better than other folks. Kim would get to the basic root of what a device is designed to do and ask himself, Is it doing it in the simplest and most efficient way possible? He knew that once an article goes into mass production, the last thing a manufacturer wants to hear about is a better and simpler article that is basically different. And they are not interested in a more efficient, simpler or better product. They are interested in making money.

When Kim was fifteen his father allowed him to withdraw from the school because he was so unhappy there and so much disliked by the other boys and their parents.

“I don’t want that boy in the house again,” said Colonel Greenfield. “He looks like a sheep-killing dog.”

“It is a walking corpse,” said a Saint Louis matron poisonously.

“The boy is rotten clear through and he stinks like a polecat,” Judge Farris pontificated.

This was true. When angered or aroused or excited Kim flushed bright red and steamed off a rank ruttish animal smell.

And sometimes he lost control over his natural functions. He took comfort from learning that partially domesticated wolves suffer from the same difficulty.

“The child in not wholesome,” said Mr. Kindhart, with his usual restraint. Kim was the most unpopular boy in the school, if not in the town of Saint Louis.

“They have nothing to teach you anyway,” his father said. “Why, the headmaster is a fucking priest.”

Check out my Personal Anthology featuring Southern literature

For about five years, the writer Jonathan Gibbs has curated a project called A Personal Anthology, where guest editors offer up a dozen short stories. Sometimes the anthologies are Greatest Hits, sometimes they’re personal favorites or central to the development of the editor’s own writing, sometimes they’re themed. Jonathan was kind enough to invite me to edit this week’s Personal Anthology. Putting it together was much, much harder than I had expected it would be, but once I imposed a limit on myself —namely “Southern literature” — the tracklist came together neatly. You can read my Personal Anthology here.

Here’s the introduction:

I live in Florida, and although I’m not a native, I consider myself a Southerner. “The South” is a nebulous, diverse, and perplexing region in the United States of America, often romanticized, vilified, ridiculed, championed, and misunderstood. It’s difficult to define exactly where the South begins and ends. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are the South, but what about Kentucky or Missouri? Texas is the South, but at some point, it also becomes the West. A common joke is that Florida stops being the South the farther south one goes into Florida. The boundaries are murky.

So too is so-called “Southern literature” hard to pin down. The great Georgian moralist Flannery O’Connor declared that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Here I think we might let the word “Northern” stand for any reader not from the South. O’Connor imbued her work with grotesque distortions to bring “alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.”

In compiling this Personal Anthology, I have sought to offer up a dozen tales from/of the nebulous, dirty, fecund South that bring unaccustomed experience to life for the reader.

See which stories I picked.