There’s a little bit of terror to almost all the good stuff I recall in literature, a little bit of terror, like Heart o f Darkness. I love the ghost story. I love to go after mysteries. I think all the best stories I have ever read are very close to ghost stories. I have no interest, by the way, in Poltergeist. But I am interested in the mysterious X, the big force behind something perceived. We’re usually not privy to too many of those things ourselves. But our friends have lived them. Of course I grew up in the Vietnam era. My classmates fought the war, came back with their tales— it still works on the heads of people my age, because it was a fantastic zone, that some of the veterans can’t even acknowledge happened nowadays, you know? But there are other places you’ve been that are—Denis Johnson examines these things-zones of irreality that had not only horror, but some sweetness. The writer ought to go into these other zones and come back like a spy, and tell us something exciting. And move us. And sometimes disgust us. There’s not enough of that now.
It is a relief to turn to the honest American book about the whale. A captain wants to kill it because the last time he tried to do that it bit off his leg while escaping. He embarks with a cosmopolitan crew who don’t like home life and prefer this way of earning money. They are brave, skilful and obedient, they chase the whale round the world and get themselves all drowned together: all but the storyteller. He describes the world flowing on as if they had never existed. There are no women or children in this book, apart from a little black boy whom they accidentally drive mad.
From Alasdair Gray’s unwieldy cult classic Lanark. In this particular episode, a version of the author of the novel Lanark itself (a conjurer-king, not named Gray) discusses and describes the great national epics; he chooses Moby-Dick as the American epic. There is no listing of a Scottish national epic; presumably Gray intends his novel to fill that slot.
The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.
From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.
Christmas is here, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting. Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.
But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:
Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.
Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.
So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.
But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…
Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.
I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:
Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.
A riot ensues.
Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].
“The Yellow Rose”
Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
It was neither that afternoon nor the next that Giambattista Marino died— that illustrious man proclaimed by the unanimous mouths of Fame (to use an image that was dear to him) as the new Homer or the new Dante—and yet the motionless and silent act that took place that afternoon was, in fact, the last thing that happened in his life. His brow laureled with years and glory, the man died in a vast Spanish bed with carven pillars. It costs us nothing to picture a serene balcony a few steps away, looking out toward the west, and, below, marbles and laurels and a garden whose terraced steps are mirrored in a rectangular pool. In a goblet, a woman has set a yellow rose; the man murmurs the inevitable lines of poetry that even he, to tell the truth, is a bit tired of by now:
Porpora de’giardin, pompa de’prato,
Gemmadi primavera, occhio d’aprile…
Then the revelation occurred. Marino saw the rose, as Adam had seen it in Paradise, and he realized that it lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speakabout the rose, allude to it, but never truly express it, and that the tall, haughty volumes that made a golden dimness in the corner of his room were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents.
Marino achieved that epiphany on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.
December 13th.—Chill, frosty weather; such an atmosphere as forebodes snow in New England, and there has been a little here. Yet I saw a barefooted young woman yesterday. The feet of these poor creatures have exactly the red complexion of their hands, acquired by constant exposure to the cold air.
At the ferry-room, this morning, was a small, thin, anxious-looking woman, with a bundle, seeming in rather poor circumstances, but decently dressed, and eying other women, I thought, with an expression of slight ill-will and distrust; also, an elderly, stout, gray-haired woman, of respectable aspect, and two young lady-like persons, quite pretty, one of whom was reading a shilling volume of James’s “Arabella Stuart.” They talked to one another with that up-and-down intonation which English ladies practise, and which strikes an unaccustomed ear as rather affected, especially in women of size and mass. It is very different from an American lady’s mode of talking: there is the difference between color and no color; the tone variegates it. One of these young ladies spoke to me, making some remark about the weather,—the first instance I have met with of a gentlewoman’s speaking to an unintroduced gentleman. Besides these, a middle-aged man of the lower class, and also a gentleman’s out-door servant, clad in a drab great-coat, corduroy breeches, and drab cloth gaiters buttoned from the knee to the ankle. He complained to the other man of the cold weather; said that a glass of whiskey, every half-hour, would keep a man comfortable; and, accidentally hitting his coarse foot against one of the young lady’s feet, said, “Beg pardon, ma’am,”—which she acknowledged with a slight movement of the head. Somehow or other, different classes seem to encounter one another in an easier manner than with us; the shock is less palpable. I suppose the reason is that the distinctions are real, and therefore need not be continually asserted.
Nervous and excitable persons need to talk a great deal, by way of letting off their steam.
On board the Rock Ferry steamer, a gentleman coming into the cabin, a voice addresses him from a dark corner, “How do you do, sir?”—”Speak again!” says the gentleman. No answer from the dark corner; and the gentleman repeats, “Speak again!” The speaker now comes out of the dark corner, and sits down in a place where he can be seen. “Ah!” cries the gentleman, “very well, I thank you. How do you do? I did not recognize your voice.” Observable, the English caution, shown in the gentleman’s not vouchsafing to say, “Very well, thank you!” till he knew his man.
What was the after life of the young man, whom Jesus, looking on, “loved,” and bade him sell all that he had, and give to the poor, and take up his cross and follow him? Something very deep and beautiful might be made out of this.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for December 13th, 1853. From Passages from the English Note-Books.
There should be a Stage IV of black identity—Unmitigated Blackness. I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfre Woodard, and the serious black actor. It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside. It’s “whereas” and “things of that nature.” It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”
From Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout
Knowing has two poles, and they are always poles apart: carnal knowing, the laying on of hands, the hanging of the fact by head or heels, the measurement of mass and motion, the calibration of brutal blows, the counting of supplies; and spiritual knowing, invisibly felt by the inside self, who is but a fought-over field of distraction, a stage where we recite the monotonous monologue that is our life, a knowing governed by internal tides, by intimations, motives, resolutions, by temptations, secrecy, shame, and pride.
December 1st.–I saw a dandelion in bloom near the lake.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for November 1st, 1850. From Passages from the American Note-Books.
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.
Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling 1. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways 2. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world 3. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus 4 to just ordinary folks, little fellows 5, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets 6. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” 7 by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars. Jews also carry an element of guilt, of future blackmail, which operates, natch, in favor of the professionals. 8
From page 105 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Gravity’s Rainbow is often (unjustly and unfairly) maligned as a messy, even pointless affair—but here’s our author speaking through the narrator, offering up one of the novel’s points—clearly, without equivocation.
2 Our narrator digs irony though…
3 Entropy is all—but entropy doesn’t make for good capitalism, by which our sly narrator means, Their Capitalism. The adult world needs to be organized, systematized, caused and effected.
Cf. Jack Gibbs’s rant to his erstwhile young students, early in William Gaddis’s 1975 novel of capitalism, J R:
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
4 Note the not-so-oblique reference to GR’s theme of stimulus-response (and upending that response).
Not too much earlier in the narrative, dedicated Pavlovian Dr. Edward W.A. Pointsman worries about the end of cause and effect, the rise of entropy:
Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
6 Pynchon reiterates his thesis.
7 Note that organic (entropic?) markets fall outside of Their System—y’know, Them—the Professionals—these organic (chaotic, necessary) markets must be labeled “black” (preterite?).
Here’s another Dutch propaganda poster:
Page 105 of Gravity’s Rainbow “happens,” more or less, in 1944, in the middle of an extended introduction of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent. (Or is that double Dutch agent?). The propaganda poster above strikes me as overtly racist, but also seems to nod to King Kong (1933, dir. Cooper and Schoedsack). Gravity’s Rainbow is larded with references to King Kong, a sympathetic but powerful force of entropy, a force against the Professionals.
From the invaluable annotations at Pynchon Wiki’s Gravity’s Rainbow site (there is no annotation for page 105 at Pynchon Wiki, by the way, and no notes on the passage I’ve cited above either in Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):
King Kong & the Like
Fay Wray look, 57; Fay Wray, 57, 179, 275; “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” 179; “headlights burning like the eyes of” 247; “the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer,” 275; Mitchell Prettyplace book about, 275; “Giant ape” 276; “the Fist of the Ape,” 277; “orangutan on wheels,” 282; taking a shit, 368; “The figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes” 483; “a troupe of performing chimpanzees” 496; “on the tit with no motor skills,” 578; “Negroid apes,” 586; “that sacrificial ape,” 664; “a gigantic black ape,” 688; Carl Denham, 689; poem based on King Kong, 689; See also: actors/directors film/cinema references;
The Kong-figure in the Dutch propaganda poster seems to wear the petasos (winged hat) and wield the caduceus of Hermes or Mercury—god of thieves. But also god of the market, of commerce, merchandise, all things mercenary.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):
8 The passage as a whole, which emphasizes war as a conduit for the techne of the market (or do I have that backwards? should I note the market of techne?) echoes an earlier passage. From page 81:
It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Führer-principle. But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally? One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma.
All signs seem to point to No.
They walked on into the dark and they slept like dogs in the sand and had been sleeping so when something black flapped up out of the night ground and perched on Sproule’s chest. Fine fingerbones stayed the leather wings with which it steadied as it walked upon him. A wrinkled pug face, small and vicious, bare lips crimped in a horrible smile and teeth pale blue in the starlight. It leaned to him. It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood.
Not soft enough. He woke, put up a hand. He shrieked and the bloodbat flailed and sat back upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth.
The kid was up and had seized a rock but the bat sprang away and vanished in the dark. Sproule was clawing at his neck and he was gibbering hysterically and when he saw the kid standing there looking down at him he held out to him his bloodied hands as if in accusation and then clapped them to his ears and cried out what it seemed he himself would not hear, a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world. But the kid only spat into the darkness of the space between them. I know your kind, he said. What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.
—from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian
In a disguised way, Goya in the Caprichos drew a parallel between witchcraft and the activities of the clergy. He stressed the resemblance between witches and friars in their obedience to the hierarchy of their calling, the younger deferring to the older. In plate 47, Obsequio al maestro (“Homage to the master”), an apparently senior witch looks down with stony disdain at another, who ois offering her (or him) the gift of a dead baby; the supplicant’s gesture reminds one of a groveling postulant kissing the cardinal’s ring. “Es muy justo,” runs the Prado text: “This is quite fair, they would be ungrateful disciples who failed to visit their professor, to whom they owe everything they know about their diabolical faculties.”
Plate 46, Correccion (“Correction”), shows a group of brujos, male witches, as seminarians, consulting “the great witch who runs the Barahona seminary” — whatever that institution may have been. Of course, Goya could not be too explicit about this: on the other side of any public criticism of clerical practices lay the ever-watchful eye of the Inquisition, which Goya had to be at pains to avoid.
—From Robert Hughes’ biography Goya.
The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.
A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:
He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…
The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.
Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:
She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.
What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.
Here is the next paragraph:
Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.
The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.
Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:
The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!
Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.
Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.
The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this post in October of 2018.]
And there are mountains, and the old man gets up and says to his son: come with me. Come with me, says the old man to his son, and he goes and his son goes with him, and they walk together into the mountains, up and down, mountains and valleys. How much further, Father? I don’t know, we are walking uphill, downhill, into the mountains, come with me. Are you tired, son, don’t you want to come with me. Oh, I’m not tired, if you want me to come, I’ll come. Yes, come. Up, down, valleys, it’s a long way, it’s midday, we’ve arrived. Look about you, son, is that an altar. Father, I am afraid. Why are you afraid, son? You woke me, we went out early, and we forgot the sheep we meant to sacrifice. Yes, we forgot it. Up and down, the long valleys, we forgot it, the sheep is not with us, there is the altar, I am afraid. I must take off my coat, are you afraid, my son. Yes, Father, I am afraid. I am afraid too, son, come closer, don’t be afraid, we must do it. What must we do? Up and down, the long valleys, I got up so early. Fear not, son, do it willingly, come closer to me, I have taken off my coat, so as not to bloody the sleeves. I am afraid, because you have the knife. Yes, I have the knife, I must slaughter you, I must sacrifice you, the Lord commands it, do it gladly, my son.
No, I cannot do it, I will scream, don’t touch me, I don’t want to be slaughtered. Now you are on your knees, do not scream, my son. Yes, I am screaming. Do not scream; if you don’t want, then I can’t do it, you must want it. Up and down, why should I not go home again. What will you do at home, is not the Lord more than a home. I cannot, yes I can, no I cannot. Move closer, see, I have the knife here, look at it, it is very sharp, it will touch your throat. Will it cut my throat? Yes. Then the blood will bubble forth? Yes. The Lord wills it. Do you want it? I cannot yet, Father. Come quickly, I must not slay you; if I do it, then it must be as though you did it unto yourself. I unto myself? Ah. Yes, and be not afraid. Ah. And not live life, not live your life, because you will give it unto the Lord. Move closer. The Lord our God wills it? Up, down, I got up so early. You surely will not be cowardly. I know, I know, I know! What do you know, my son? Apply the knife to me, wait, let me turn down my collar so that my neck is open. You seem to know something. You must only will it, and I must will it, we will both do it, then the Lord will call, we will both hear Him call: yes, come here, give me your throat. There. I am not afraid, I do it willingly. Up and down, the long valleys, there put the knife to me, and cut, I will not scream.
And the son throws his head back, his father steps behind him, clasps his forehead, and shows him the butcher’s knife in his right hand. The son wills it. The Lord calls. They both fall on their faces.
What calls the voice of the Lord. Hallelujah. Through the mountains, through the valleys. You are obedient unto me, hallelujah. You shall live. Hallelujah. Stop, throw the knife away. Hallelujah. I am the Lord whom you obey, and whom alone you always must obey. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah, lujah, lujah, lujah, hallelujah, lujah, hallelujah.
From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).
October 22d.–A continued succession of unpleasant, Novembery days, and autumn has made rapid progress in the work of decay. It is now somewhat of a rare good fortune to find a verdant, grassy spot, on some slope, or in a dell; and even such seldom-seen oases are bestrewn with dried brown leaves,–which, however, methinks, make the short, fresh grass look greener around them. Dry leaves are now plentiful everywhere, save where there are none but pine-trees. They rustle beneath the tread, and there is nothing more autumnal than that sound. Nevertheless, in a walk this afternoon, I have seen two oaks which retained almost the greenness of summer. They grew close to the huge Pulpit Rock, so that portions of their trunks appeared to grasp the rough surface; and they were rooted beneath it, and, ascending high into the air, overshadowed the gray crag with verdure. Other oaks, here and there, have a few green leaves or boughs among their rustling and rugged shade.
Yet, dreary as the woods are in a bleak, sullen day, there is a very peculiar sense of warmth and a sort of richness of effect in the slope of a bank and in sheltered spots, where bright sunshine falls, and the brown oaken foliage is gladdened by it. There is then a feeling of comfort, and consequently of heart-warmth, which cannot be experienced in summer.
I walked this afternoon along a pleasant wood-path, gently winding, so that but little of it could be seen at a time, and going up and down small mounds, now plunging into a denser shadow, and now emerging from it. Part of the way it was strewn with the dusky, yellow leaves of white-pines,–the cast-off garments of last year; part of the way with green grass, close-cropped, and very fresh for the season. Sometimes the trees met across it; sometimes it was bordered on one side by an old rail-fence of moss-grown cedar, with bushes sprouting beneath it, and thrusting their branches through it; sometimes by a stone-wall of unknown antiquity, older than the wood it closed in. A stone-wall, when shrubbery has grown around it, and thrust its roots beneath it, becomes a very pleasant and meditative object. It does not belong too evidently to man, having been built so long ago. It seems a part of nature.
Yesterday I found two mushrooms in the woods, probably of the preceding night’s growth. Also I saw a mosquito, frost-pinched, and so wretched that I felt avenged for all the injuries which his tribe inflicted upon me last summer, and so did not molest this lone survivor.
Walnuts in their green rinds are falling from the trees, and so are chestnut-burrs.
I found a maple-leaf to-day, yellow all over, except its extremest point, which was bright scarlet. It looked as if a drop of blood were hanging from it. The first change of the maple-leaf is to scarlet; the next, to yellow. Then it withers, wilts, and drops off, as most of them have already done.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 22nd, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.
For Pynchon, ours is the age of plastics and paranoia, dominated by the System. No one is going to dispute such a conviction; reading the New York Times first thing every morning is sufficient to convince one that not even Pynchon’s imagination can match journalistic irreality. What is more startling about Pynchon is that he has found ways of representing the impulse to defy the System, even though both impulse and its representations always are defeated. In the Zone (which is our cosmos as the Gnostics saw it, the kenoma or Great Emptiness) the force of the System, of They (whom the Gnostics called Archons), is in some sense irresistible, as all overdetermination must be irresistible. Yet there is a Counterforce, hardly distinguished in its efficacy, but it never does (or can) give up. Unfortunately, its hero is the extraordinarily ordinary Tyrone Slothrop, who is a perpetual disaster, and whose ultimate fate, being “scattered” (rather in biblical sense), is accomplished by Pynchon with dismaying literalness. And yet—Slothrop, who has not inspired much affection even in Pynchon’s best critics, remains more Pynchon himself.
From Harold Bloom’s introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Views: Thomas Pynchon.