Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which comes to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroys any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the ’30s, the curious fashions of the ’20s, the peculiar moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.
The invention of the pattern often requires—among other tender elements, subject to the grotesqueries of decollation—a moonlight scene, the foreground inhabited by an animal, a black knot hanging from its throat. But when a bird, disinclined to die, is tied to a child’s collar, outside a schoolhouse, where we might otherwise find—hidden in a fire—a fragment of a jackal: well, this is just another cheerful little game, played in splendid weather. A boy’s face, they used to say, is just a grave atop a collar, the garment perhaps a shade darker than mouse gray, or so I gather from an adjacent phrase, in which the brother draws cloth across a wire.
Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency.
I. “A Bosom Friend” (Ch. 10) is another one of the remarkable key early chapters of Moby-Dick. It twins Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” book-ending Ishmael’s Wild New Bedford Nights with Queequeg.
II. While Ishmael’s largehearted acceptance and quick love for Queequeg probably does not seem as eccentric to contemporary readers as it might have been to Melville’s 1851 audience, it’s nevertheless an enduring emblem of Moby-Dick’s expansive spirit.
“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” Ish intones in Ch. 3; by Ch. 10, he admiringly attests that, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” In a curt but not impolite dismissal of his own culture’s moral compass, Ish declares he’ll, “try a pagan friend…since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Like Huck Finn, another American prototype who wishes to escape into the wild, Ishmael will always value raw truth over empty artifice.
III. There are so many good lines in “A Bosom Friend,” but I think this must be my favorite:
…I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.
Ishmael claims that Queequeg, a “soothing savage” has “redeemed” the world for him.
IV. It is more than possible (and so much has been written on M-D that I’m sure much has been made on the topic) that Ish (and Melville) has (have) taken what might be a complex and nuanced character in Queequeg and othered it into a flat projection screen.
Ishmael, who finds “no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits” in Queeg, might be accused of turning his bosom friend into a romanticized avatar of Ish’s own desire for a noble “savage” unconstrained by the dictates of Christian morality. However, the events of the novel and its developed characterization of Queequeg do not merit such a facile reading (or is my estimation at this point).
V. Indeed—and to jump ahead, maybe—in Ch. 12, “Biographical,” we learn Queequeg’s origin story.
Queeg is a prince of “Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South.”
Pause a moment, and look it up, seek it out.
(Wait! “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”)
Queequeg desires to travel the world in the hopes of advancing his culture, and, like so many folks in M-D, runs away to sea (to see). However, his time on whaleboats and in ports of the western world soon soon reveal to him that “it’s a wicked world in all meridians.”
Queequeg is always a linguistic outsider in M-D—and indeed, an outsider in general, an outsider among outsiders—but also a superhuman superhero, as the events of Ch. 13, “The Wheelbarrow,” show.
VII. I seem to be skipping around, so, fine, okay—
—in “The Wheelbarrow,” Ish and Queeg take a packet schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket, where they plan to join a whaling ship’s crew. On the schooner, one of the several “boobies and bumpkins” aboard mocks Queequeg. Queeg catches ahold of the redneck and tosses him playfully into the air, leaving him shaken but unhurt. Captain, crew, and passengers threaten the “devil” outsider, but chaos erupts when the main-sail’s boom sets loose due because of high winds. The boom knocks the redneck into the ocean. Others panic; Queeg calmly secures the spar dives into the ocean, and rescues his mocker: “The poor bumpkin was restored,” Ishmael remarks. He then tells us that “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive,” foreshadowing that not all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick.
VIII. (Or, alternately—all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick, but only through Ishmael’s wailing tale.)
IX. But I have skipped around so much—back to Ch. 10, “A Bosom Friend.” In one of the more-remarked upon moments in the book, Ish and Queeg tie the knot after a good smoke:
…he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.
X. Ishmael then, through a kind of tortuous logic, describes why he, “a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” “must turn idolator” and pray to Queeg’s pagan idol. It’s what God would want him to do, see? Ishmael’s logic is predicated on two simple principles:
–He is “to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me”
–“Queequeg is my fellow man”
For me, the remarkable part of Ishmael’s commitment to Queequeg isn’t the first Jesusian imperative to do unto others—it is, in other terms, to recognize the other as a fellow man.This recognition is the moral imperative of Moby-Dick.
XI. And then a sweet ending: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”
XII. “Nightgown,” Ch. 11, is a short chapter where something remarkable and likely inexplicable occurs: Ishmael and Queequeg learn to communicate.
And not just communicate at the level of base transaction or simple need, but rather share philosophical and even aesthetic viewpoints, as born out in the details of Queequeg’s story in Ch. 12, “Biographical.” Again, we might criticize Ishmael as ventriloquizing Queequeg, painting his own broad romantic visions over the possibility of a complex and nuanced character that Melville can’t muster. But I ultimately believe—or at least, I believe up until now on this reread—that Ish and Queeg’s accelerated ability to communicate points to an aspirational transcendental horizon, post-culture, post-language.
XIII. “Nightgown” also has one of my favorite moments in Moby-Dick, a little riff by Ishmael that anticipates the deconstruction of oppositions we later locate in the work of late twentieth-century language theorists:
We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm.
XIV. (As a final note—I remembered this passage in Thanksgiving, 2020, after receiving a very sad text message from my aunt, who we would not be seeing that year, after having not seen her for July 4th—like so many other people feeling the smallbig losses of the year, of the absences of festival and visitation—but also feeling those traditions of festival and visitation so much dearer and warmer in their absence. Nothing exists in itself.)
Invented forms are very rare: a few sets of blocks, which appeal to the spirit of do-it-yourself, are the only ones which offer dynamic forms. As for the others, French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theaters for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys).
The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc. It is not so much, in fact, the imitation which is the sign of an abdication, as its literalness: French toys are like a Jivaro head, in which one recognizes, shrunken to the size of an apple, the wrinkles and hair of an adult. There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies; soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother. However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property: objects now act by themselves, they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand. But such toys are rather rare: French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.
The bourgeois status of toys can be recognized not only in their forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances. Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swelling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time. Yet there hardly remain any of these wooden toys from the Vosges, these fretwork farms with their animals, which were only possible, it is true, in the days of the craftsman. Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and color; their very material introduces one to a coenaesthesis of use, not pleasure. These toys die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child.
From Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers.
The original manuscript may be consulted in the library at the University of Leyden; it is in
Latin, but its occasional Hellenism justifies the conjecture that it may be a translation from the Greek. According to Leisegang, it dates from the fourth century of the Christian era; Gibbon mentions it, in passing, in one of his notes to the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall.
These are the words of its anonymous author:
…The Sect was never large, but now its followers are few indeed. Their number decimated by sword and fire, they sleep by the side of the road or in the ruins spared them by war, as they are forbidden to build dwellings. They often go about naked. The events my pen describes are known to all men; my purpose here is to leave a record of that which has been given me to discover about their doctrine and their habits. I have engaged in long counsel with their masters, but I have not been able to convert them to Faith in Our Lord.
The first thing which drew my attention was the diversity of their opinion with respect to the dead. The most unschooled among them believe that they shall be buried by the spirits of those who have left this life; others, who do not cleave so tight to the letter, say that Jesus’ admonition Let the dead bury the dead condemns the showy vanity of our funerary rites.
The counsel to sell all that one owns and give it to the poor is strictly observed by all; the first recipients give what they receive to others, and these to yet others. This is sufficient explanation for their poverty and their nakedness, which likewise brings them closer to the paradisal state. Fervently they cite the words Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap: which neither have storehouse nor barn: and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? The text forbids saving, for If God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven: how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.
The prescription Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart is an unmistakable exhortation to purity. Still, many are the members of the Sect who teach that because there is no man under heaven who has not looked upon a woman to desire her, then we have all committed adultery. And since the desire is no less sinful than the act, the just may deliver themselves up without risk of hellfire to the exercise of the most unbridled lustfulness.
The Sect shuns churches; its teachers preach in the open, from a mountaintop or the top of a wall, or sometimes from a boat upturned upon the shore.
There has been persistent speculation as to the origins of the Sect’s name. One such conjecture would have it that the name gives us the number to which the body of the faithful has been reduced; this is ludicrous but prophetic, as the perverse doctrine of the Sect does indeed predestine it to extinction.
Another conjecture derives the name from the height of the Ark, which was thirty cubits; another, misrepresenting astronomy, claims that the name is taken from the number of nights within the lunar month; yet another, from the baptism of the Savior; another, from the age of Adam when he rose from the red dust. All are equally false. No less untruthful is the catalog of thirty divinities or thrones, of which, one is Abraxas, pictured with the head of a cock, the arms and torso of a man, and the coiled tail of a serpent. I know the Truth but I cannot plead the Truth. To me the priceless gift of giving word to it has not been granted. Let others, happier men than I, save the members of the Sect by the word. By word or by fire.
It is better to be killed than to kill oneself. I shall, therefore, limit myself to an account of the abominable heresy. The Word was made flesh so that He might be a man among men, so that men might bind Him to the Cross, and be redeemed by Him. He was born from the womb of a woman of the chosen people not simply that He might teach the gospel of Love but also that He might undergo that martyrdom.
It was needful that all be unforgettable. The death of a man by sword or hemlock was not sufficient to leave a wound on the imagination of mankind until the end of days. The Lord disposed that the events should inspire pathos. That is the explanation for the Last Supper, for Jesus’ words foretelling His deliverance up to the Romans, for the repeated sign to one of His disciples, for the blessing of the bread and wine, for Peter’s oaths, for the solitary vigil on Gethsemane, for the twelve men’s sleep, for the Son’s human plea, for the sweat that was like blood, for the swords, the betraying kiss, the Pilate who washed his hands of it, the flagellation, the jeers and derision, the thorns, the purple and the staff of cane, the vinegar with honey, the Tree upon the summit of the Hill, the promise to the good thief, the earth that shook, and the darkness that fell upon the land.
Divine mercy, to which I myself owe so many blessings, has allowed me to discover the true and secret reason for the Sect’s name. In Kerioth, where it is plausibly reputed to have arisen, there has survived a conventicle known as the Thirty Pieces of Silver. That was the Sect’s original name, and it provides us with the key. In the tragedy of the Cross (and I write this with all the reverence which is its due) there were those who acted knowingly and those who acted unknowingly; all were essential, all inevitable. Unknowing were the priests who delivered the pieces of silver; unknowing, too, was the mob that chose Barabbas; unknowing the Judean judge, the Romans who erected the Cross on which He was martyred and who drove the nails and cast the lots. Of knowing actors, there were but two: Judas and the Redeemer. Judas cast away the thirty coins that were the price of our souls’ salvation and immediately hanged himself. At that moment he was thirty-three years old, the age of the Son of Man. The Sect venerates the two equally, and absolves the others.
There is not one lone guilty man; there is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise. All mankind now shares in Glory.
My hand fails when I will it to write a further abomination. The initiates of the Sect, upon reaching a certain age, are mocked and crucified on the peak of a mountain, to follow the example of their masters.
This criminal violation of the Fifth Commandment should be met with the severity that human and divine laws have ever demanded. May the curses of the Firmament, may the hatred of angels …
The end of the manuscript has not been discovered.
Here are the first lines of Thulani Davis’s 1978 poem “Mecca Flats 1907”:
On this landscape
Like a thin air
Hard to breathe
Behind God’s back
I see the doors
I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back—such an image! But the book itself is so pretty, lithe, lovely. Better to leave it unmarked?
The book is Nothing but the Music, a new collection of Thulani Davis’s poems. Its subtitle Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls, & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar: 1974-1992 is a somewhat accurate description of the content here. These are poems about music—about Cecil Taylor and The Commodores and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and Bad Brains and more. “About” is not really the right word, and of course these poems are their own music; reading them aloud reveals a complexity of rhyme and rhythm that might be lost to the eye on the page.
But where was I—I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back, but I didn’t. I didn’t even dogear the page. Instead, I went back to read Davis’s acknowledgements, a foreword by Jessica Hagedorn, and an introduction by Tobi Haslett. The material sets the stage and provides context for the poems that follow. Davis’s acknowledgments begin:
I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist, opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, DC as well as on Goree Island and in Harare, Zimbabwe. Some of it was in lofts in lower Manhattan now inhabited by millionaires, crowded bistros in Paris that are close, and legendary sites like Mandel Hall and the Apollo, radio studios, recording studios, and my many homes.
Acknowledging the weird times that have persisted (behind God’s back or otherwise), Davis touches on the COVID-19 lockdown that took the joy of live music from her—and then returned it in the strange form of “masked protesters massed in the streets singing ‘Lean on Me'” during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.
Poems in Nothing but the Music resonate with the protests against police violence and injustice we’ve seen this year. The speaker of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)” (surely Davis herself?) repeats throughout the poem that “I was gonna talk about a race riot,” but the folks around her are absorbed in other, perhaps more minute affairs:
The speaker of the poem embeds a poetic plea, a poem-within-a-poem:
I said, ‘they’re mad, they’re on the the bottom going down/
stung by white justice in a white town
and then there’s other colored people
who don’t necessarily think they’re colored people
taking up the middle/leaving them the ground.’
But her would-be audience is weary:
I am still trying to talk about this race riot.
Minnie looked up and said, ‘We don’t have anywhere
to put any more dead.’
Snake put on his coat to leave, ‘We never did,
we never did.’
1992’s “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue” takes for its erstwhile subject the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. The subject is far more complex though—the speaker of the poem desires joy of course, not violence:
did they acquit somebody in LA?
will we burn it down on Saturday
or dance to the Rhythm Revue
the not too distant past
when we thought we’d live on?
Is God’s back turned—or do the protagonists just live behind it?:
…I clean my house
listening to songs from the past
times when no one asked anyone
if they’d seen a town burn
cause baby everybody had.
In Nothing but the Music, music is part and parcel of the world, entangled in the violence and injustice of it all, not a mere balm or solace but lifeforce itself, a point of resistance against it all. In “Side A (Sir Simpleton/Celebration), the first of two poems on Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album X-75, Vol. I, Davis’s narrator evokes
at the turning of the day
in these winters/in the city’s bottomless streets
it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back
we/the life blood
of forgotten places/unhallowed ground
sometimes in these valleys
turning the corner of canyons now filled with blinding light streams caught between this rock & a known hard place
sometimes in utter solitude
a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost
And again there that line, a note from a previous jam—it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back—I’ll dogear it here, digitally, underline it in my little blog scrapbook.
I think seems is the right verb though, above. Does the star of “Lawn Chair on the Sidewalk” not remain in God’s gaze?
there’s a junkie sunning himself
under my front tree
that tree had to fight for life
on this Brooklyn street
disease got to its limbs
while still young
Typing the lines out, I wonder who I meant by star above.
Nothing but the Music is filled with stars. Here’s avant-piano great Cecil Taylor in “C.T. at the Five Spot”:
this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air
In a synesthestic moment, the speaker merges her art with its subject:
the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays
delicate separate licks of poems
brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space
In the end it’s one art:
I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music
There are plenty more famous musicians, of course, but more often than not minor players emerge with the greatest force. There’s the unknown hornplayer whose ecstatic playing inspired 1975’s “He Didn’t Give Up/He Was Taken.” In “Leaving Goree” there are the “two Bambara women…gold teeth gleaming” who “sit like mountains” and then explode in song.
Davis crafts here characters with deft economy. Here’s the aforementioned couple of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)”:
Snake & Minnie
who love each other dearly
drink in different bars,
ride home in separate cars.
They like to kiss goodnight
with unexplored lips.
They go out of town
to see each other open.
Or the hero of 1982’s “Bad Brains, A Band”—
the idea that they think must scare people to death
the only person I ever met from southeast DC
was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen
she was tone deaf and had no ear for French
she once burned her partner in bid whist
for making a mistake
At the core of it all is Davis’s strong gliding voice, pure and clean, channeling miracle music and synthesizing it into new sounds. The speaker of “C.T. at the Five Spot” assessed Taylor’s performance as a work of physics, a transcendence beyond “romance & dream,” but the speaker of 1982’s “Zoom (The Commodores)” gets caught up in the aural romance of The Commodore’s pop magic:
zoom I love you
cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go
cause it’s so cruel without love
give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City
on the Fourth of July
the corny promises of Motown
give me the romance & the Zoom.
I love those corny promises too. The romance and the zoom are not, at least in my estimation, behind God’s back, but rather, if you believe in that sort of thing, might be God’s special dream. Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.
I’ve been wanting to read Leonard Gardner’s Fat City for a while, and how could I pass up this Vintage Contemporaries edition?
I think I first heard of the book years ago in conjunction with its influence on Denis Johnson. In Salon, in 1996, Johnson wrote, or gushed, really–
Exactly which year of the 1960s the book came out, I can’t remember, but I remember well which year of my lifetime it was — I was discovering that it wasn’t a joke anymore, I was actually going to have to become a writer, I was too emotionally crippled for real work, there wasn’t anything else I could do — I was 18 or 19. Newsweek reviewed “Fat City,” a first novel by Leonard Gardner, in a tone that seemed to drop the usual hype — “It’s good. It really is.” I wanted to get a review like that.
I got the book and read about two Stockton, California boxers who live far outside the boxing myth and deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life, a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.
The stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another through the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the tale blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love, Ernie its youth and Tully its future. I wanted to write a book like that.
My neighbor across the road, also a young literary hopeful, felt the same. We talked about every paragraph of “Fat City” one by one and over and over, the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love.
And like most youngsters in the throes, I assumed I was among the very few humans who’d ever felt this way. In the next few years, studying at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, I was astonished every time I met a young writer who could quote esctatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of “Fat City,” the men and women seeking love, a bit of comfort, even glory — but never forgiveness — in the heat and dust of central California. Admirers were everywhere.
My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore in California once, recognized him from his jacket photo. He was looking at a boxing magazine. “Are you Leonard Gardner?” my friend asked. “You must be a writer,” Gardner said, and went back to the magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.
Between the ages of 19 and 25 I studied Leonard Gardner’s book so closely that I began to fear I’d never be able to write anything but imitations of it, so I swore it off.
I haven’t owned a copy of “Fat City” in over 20 years, but I recently learned that the University of California Press is bringing out an edition this November, and I’ve ordered one.
When I was about 34 (the same age Gardner was when he published his), my first novel came out. About a year later I borrowed “Fat City” from the library and read it. I could see immediately that 10 years’ exile hadn’t saved me from the influence of its perfection — I’d taught myself to write in Gardner’s style, though not as well. And now, many years later, it’s still true: Leonard Gardner has something to say in every word I write.
I just finished John Brunner’s big baggy shaggy dog of a sci-fi novel, Stand on Zanzibar (reading David Ohle’s spare abject wild dystopian prose-poem Motorman, in between Zanzibar chunks)—I think Fat City might be a nice reset.
The core of DeLillo’s oeuvre is the series of five novels that began with The Names (1982) and ended with Underworld; the intervening volumes are White Noise, Libra, and Mao II (1991). Those books look permanent, with the last of them a summa; his early books in contrast seem preparatory, though they each have their admirers. To put it another way, DeLillo was born in 1936, and what matters are the novels he wrote in full middle age, with Underworld appearing when he was sixty. Dickens was dead by that age, Balzac too, but DeLillo has had a third act in the six short books he has written in the new century. These novels rarely take age itself as their topic, as both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth did in their own late work; yet still they are the product of age.
Gorra then points out that “DeLillo’s recent books are significantly different from the great novels of his middle age, and that difference is worth thinking about.” Gorra continues:
…after Underworld his sense of novelistic form, of what he needs to make a narrative, did change. Probably there was no good way to follow that novel, with its distorting size and scope, a book that began with Frank Sinatra and ended with the disposal of nuclear waste. How could one compete with that—compete with oneself? DeLillo wisely didn’t try. There would be no new plateaus, no arc of increasing achievement. Underworld’s successor, The Body Artist (2001), was deliberately slight, a novella-length exploration of the uncanny that makes me think of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It was as if a composer who’d only written symphonies had suddenly switched to a tinny atonal song, and DeLillo has since stayed small. His late books have been at most a quarter of Underworld’s length, with The Silence the shortest of them, and always with fewer characters and a more sharply limited focus.
There’s a thorough and very generous review of The Silence embedded in Gorra’s essay—he’s far, far more generous than I was toward the book (at one point Gorra attests that he “can’t tell the difference between a few randomly chosen sentences from his recent work and a passage from Libra. Reader, there’s a difference). And while his phrase “DeLillo has since stayed small” is not overtly pejorative, I think it nevertheless captures the general sense that DeLillo’s late works—or late style—simply does not meet the quality of his work in the eighties and nineties. (Gorra admits that “Cosmopolis seems to me almost unreadable” — I concur.)
Others have found crystalline beauty in DeLillo’s late work, and in The Silence in particular. I found it a depressing read, not for its content necessarily—okay, maybe for its content, but also for its form, its prose. I concur with the first sentence of Gorra’s conclusion, but not with the second:
Some pages in this book verge on self-parody, and I doubt it will draw any readers who haven’t already invested themselves in DeLillo’s work, in the half-century of risks his voice has taken. But those of us who have will find something poignant and terrible in this strange unbroken silence.
In 1976, Donald Barthelme oversaw a short-story contest in The New York Times. He wrote the first three paragraphs of an untitled story and asked readers “to provide the terrifying middle and the subtle, incomparably beautiful ending.” The winner, judged by Barthelme, was to receive a $250 prize and have their story published in the Times. That winner ended up being visual artist Karen Shaw, who applied an artistic process she termed “summantics” to the story.
What do we make of the Mr. Bones voice, the minstrel voice, as employed in Berryman’s most successful work, much of it written during the high period of the civil rights movement? What do we make of Henry’s agonized dream life in our own times of crisis? And what of the author? And why is the Poetry Foundation assigning a review of Berryman’s letters, today, when they could instead review a new volume by an African American poet?
There is, it is fair to say, a stomach churning that goes with this assignment. Should I not properly imagine that I, a middle-aged white writer of privilege, am, however inadvertently, being conscripted into this review such that I might avoid rocking the boat on a now-contested figure of 20th-century confessional literature when some helping of opprobrium appears more than justifiable? Let me be plain. In the present context, it is impossible to read Berryman’s magnum opus without the keenest discontent about the use of dialect. Berryman’s conduct as a man, as a father, as a husband, as a professor, as indicated in his work and in his biography, is very often difficult to bear witness to, even at a 50-year remove. The tide has shifted so dramatically in 2020 that it is hard to know why it is a public service to review the volume at hand.
These are the third and fourth paragraphs of Rick Moody’s essay “Unspeakably Miserable For the Most Part,” published this week at the Poetry Foundation. Ostensibly a review of the new collection TheSelected Letters of John Berryman (edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae), Moody’s essay continues for another dozen paragraphs.
Marc Chénetier: Wouldn’t you say that one of the reasons why the writer is of necessity very skeptical is that his or her trade consists of knowing how the idea of a truth can be built into a sentence? Therefore, the skepticism would derive from the awareness of the manipulations that are at work—
William Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed. That was one of the things that Plato was worried about, because the poets were so persuasive, whereas the sentences of science, expressed in highly mathematical terms, are not the kind of soft bed that one wants to lie in. Rhetorical constructions have enormous seduction, but the writer doesn’t build the belief in it. What you build is something that has unity and emotional power that the reader, then, is liable to latch onto. A good writer should be able to make any point of view sound terrific. Shakespeare could do it, of course. Then that terrificness has nothing to do with the truth, it has to do with being terrific.
From a discussion on William Gaddis’s speech/essay “Old Foes with New Faces.”
Gaddis delivered the speech at the International Writers Center as part The Writer and Religion Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 23-26 Oct. 1994. The discussion held afterwards was moderated by Marc Chénetier and the panelists were Wayne Fields, William Gass, and Heide Ziegle (and Gaddis, of course).
The essay, discussion, as well as other essays and discussions are collected in The Writer and Religion, ed. by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco.