Sixteen books I wish I’d written more about in 2016

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I read a lot of great books this year but had a hard time writing full reviews for all of them. These are some of the ones I liked the most.

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard

I finished Woodcutters just the other night, reading most of it in three sittings. (Actually, I was lying down. And it was very late at night, each time. I couldn’t pick the book up during daylight hours). Anyway, I finished Bernhard’s novel just the other night, so maybe I’ll muster something on it, but for now: I think this may be my favorite Bernhard novel so far! I can only think of a handful of writers so masterful at mimicking the operations of consciousness, of replicating consciousness (and conscience) reflecting on consciousness. (I even had to stop and do a too-hasty read of Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, a plot point of Woodcutters). What happens in Woodcutters? A man sits in a chair remembering things. It’s fucking amazing.

White Mythology, W.D. Clarke

White Mythology is comprised of two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. The first and longer novella, Skinner Boxed, takes place over a few days in the life of a psychiatrist; it’s a zany zagging yarn, crowded with MacGuffins and red herrings (a missing wife, a bastard son, a new anti-depressant drug, etc.). Oh, and it’s a Christmas story! Did I mention that? (Skinner Boxed takes its epigram from A Christmas Carol…and another from Gravity’s Rainbow). Love’s Alchemy is a kind of time-arrangement, or locale-arrangement—a story in pieces that the reader has to assemble. I enjoyed White Mythology (especially Skinner Boxed, which, typing this out, I realize I’d like to read again).

The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin

The Franchiser, Stanley Elkin

Somehow I’d made it to 2016 without reading Elkin. I read these two back-to-back. The best parts of The Dick Gibson show are as good as anything any of those other big postmodern dudes have written. (Okay. If not as good, nearly as good). I didn’t review The Dick Gibson Show because Elkin basically did it for me in his Paris Review interview. The Franchiser is a comic tragedy—or do I mean tragic comedy? It does all that inversion stuff: high-low/low-high. A novel of things and colors, both mythic and predictive, The Franchiser feels simultaneously ahead of its time and yet still very much bound to the 1970s, when it was first published.

Bear, Marian Engel

This slim novel is somehow simultaneously lucid and surreal, conventional and bizarre, romantic and ironic, heady and dry. And wet. A bibliographer travels to a remote island in Ontario to index an old library. I’m going to read this one again.

(Oh, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear. Like, a real bear. Not a metaphorical bear. A real one).

Collected Stories, William Faulkner

I didn’t read them all because I’m not a greedy pig. I read a lot of them though. Lord.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I will read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden again in the first quarter of 2017 and I will write a proper Thing on it. I read it in a two-day blur, drinking up the sentences greedily, perhaps not (no, strike that perhaps) comprehending the plot so much as sucking up a feeling, a place, a mood, a vibe. But there’s so much history reverberating behind the novel’s lens. Like I said (wrote): I need to read it again, which will kinda sorta be like reading it for the first time. Which is a thing one might say of any great novel.

The Weight of Things, Marianne Fritz

I read this really early in the year and I only remember the impression of reading it—not the plot itself, but the language—I remember horror, cruelty, pain. And this is why I need to write about the books I read.

The Inheritors, William Golding

A colleague told me to read Golding’s account of telepathic Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. I’ll admit that I’d unfairly written off Golding as YA stuff, but the evocation of a prelingual (and postlingual) consciousness is fascinating here. It’s also a ripping quest narrative starring the Holy Fool Lok, who laughs in terror and joy. What stands out most in my memory, beyond the premise, is Golding’s concrete prose. I’m glad my colleague told me to read The Inheritors.

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

I read Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies in a blurry weekend (sensing a pattern here) and enjoyed it very much: Grimy neon noir poured into mythological contours. Lovely.

The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa

This was the best novel I read in 2016 that I’d never read before. So good that I reread it immediately (the only two books I can recall doing that with in recent memory areBlood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). It was even better the second time.  The Leopard is the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily who witnesses — and takes part in — the end of the old order era during the Italian reunification. Fiery and lascivious but also intellectual and stoic, Fabrizio the Leopard is the most engrossing character I read this year. Di Lampedusa’s novel takes us through his mind, through his age—places he himself isn’t fully cognizant of at times. I can’t recommend this novel enough: History, religion, death, sex. Sense and psyche, pleasure and loss, crammed with rich, dripping set pieces: dances and dinners and games of pleasure (light sadomasochism!) in summer estates. But its plots and poisons and pieces are not the main reason for The Leopard—read it for the language, the sentences, the sumptuous words. Its final devastating images are still soaked and sunken into my addled brains.

The Absolute Gravedigger, Vítězslav Nezval

I wedged these poems into the end of my third proper trip through Gravity’s Rainbow; I was also dipping into Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the Rider-Waite tarot. It’s all crammed together in a surreal web in my memory: shimmering horror, broken badlands, entropy and degradation—but life.

Cow Country, Adrian Jones Pearson

Cow Country (not pictured above because I listened to the audiobook) is a bizarre, disjointed satire of community colleges in particular and educational administration in general. (And: a satire on our slavish sensibilities of time ). It’s also a wonderful send-up of dialectical methodology—or rather the dialectical impulse to, like, resolve things. And by things, I mean Jones Pearson (or is it AJP? Or Adrian Ruggles Pearson? Or A.J. Perry? Or—nevermind)—Our Author (whoever) breaks down the way that all of our breakdowns breakdown under any real scrutiny.

Hilda and the Stone Forest, Luke Pearson

I read all of the Hilda books this year with my kids. And I read them by myself. And my kids read them by themselves. More than once. Hilda and the Stone Forest is the best one yet—richer, denser, funnier, and more devastating than anything Pearson’s done yet. The Stone Forest is stuffed with miniature epics and minor gags, and the central story of Hilda and her mother in the titular stone forest is somehow both bleak and heartwarming. Great stuff.

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

I actually wrote a lot about Gravity’s Rainbow (probably a major reason I didn’t write more about other stuff)—but I still wish I’d written more. I will write more. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for my fourth trip through.

Marketa Lazarova, Vladislav Vančura

Strange, violent, funny, and ultimately devastating, this Marketa Lazarova is a medieval tale of family loyalty, kidnapping, and love. Nothing I can do here would be a substitute for Vančura’s vivid, surreal voice—a voice that guides the story cynically, ironically, but also energetically, buoyantly. One of the best things I read all year.

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Fantasies of power are a necessary precondition of the exercise of power (Thomas Disch)

Sf is rife with fantasies of powerless individuals, of ambiguous antecedents, rising to positions of commanding importance. Often they become world saviors. The appeal of such fantasies is doubtless greater to one whose prevailing sense of himself is of being undervalued and meanly employed; who believes his essential worth is hidden under the bushel of a life that somehow hasn’t worked out as planned; whose most rooted conviction is that he is capable of more, though as to the nature of this unrealized potential he may not be too precise.

Another prominent feature of sf that is surely related to the naive character of its audience is its close resemblance, often bordering on identity, with myth, legend, and fairy tales. Throughout the twentieth century a large part of the American urban lower classes, from which the sf audience was drawn, were recent immigrants from what is commonly called the Old Country – that is to say, from the place where folk tales were still a living tradition. Indeed, except for the stories of their religions, this was likely to have been the only literary tradition familiar to these immigrants. Thus few of the first sf readers were more than a generation away from the oral tradition at its most traditional. Think of that sense of wonder that is the touchstone of the early pulp stories: could it not be, in essence, an analogue of the sense of wonder all country mice experience at their first view of a modern metropolis? Doubtless, the twentieth century has had some surprises even for sophisticated city mice, but it is part of their code not to let on to this. Surely they will not erect wonder, novelty, and the massive suspension of disbelief into first principles of their aesthetics. Sophisticates require the whole complex apparatus developed by two centuries of realistic novelists in order just to begin enjoying a made-up story. But for a naive audience, as for children, it is enough to say, “once there was a city made all of gold,” and that city rises up in all its simple splendor before their inner eye.

A less beguiling feature we may expect to find in a lower-class literature is resentment. Resentment, because it has its source in repressed anger, usually is expressed in indirect forms. Thus, the chief advantage of the ruling classes, their wealth and the power it provides, is dealt with in most science fiction by simply denying its importance. Power results from personal virtue or the magic of machines. It is rather the personal characteristics of the wealthy that become the focus of the readers’ resentment – their cultivated accents, their soft hands, their preposterous or just plain incomprehensible ideas, which they refuse to discuss except by their own ornate rules in their own tiresome language. Most maddeningly, they hold the unanswerable and utterly unfair conviction that because they’ve had the good luck to be better educated they are therefore smarter. In a world full of doltish university graduates, this assumption of superiority is in the highest degree exasperating to any moderately intelligent machinist or clerk. But what is to be done? To attempt to catch up could be the work of a lifetime, and at the end of it one has only succeeded in becoming a poor copy of what one originally despised – an effete intellectual snob.

Happily, or unhappily, there is an alternative. Deny outright the wisdom of the world and be initiated to a secret wisdom. Become a true believer – it matters not the faith, so long as it is at variance with theirs. All millennialist religions have their origins in this need for creating a counterculture. As religion loses its unique authority, almost any bizarre set of beliefs can become the focus of a sense of Election. Whatever the belief, the rationale for it is the same: the so-called authorities are a pack of fools and frauds with minds closed to any but their own ideas. Just because they’ve published books doesn’t mean a thing. There are other books that are in complete opposition. Beginning with such arguments, and armed with the right book, one may find one’s way to almost any conclusion one might take a fancy to: hollow earths, Dean drives, the descent of mankind from interstellar visitors. For the more energetic true believer there are vaster systems of belief, such as Scientology. I select these examples from the myriad available because each historically has been a first cousin of science fiction. And for this good reason: that sf is a virtual treasury of ways of standing the conventional wisdom on its head. Only sophisticates will make a fine distinction between playing with ideas and adopting them. For a naive reader the imaginative excitement engendered by a new notion easily crystallizes into faith.

As this begins to sound like an indictment of sf and its readers, I should like to point out that these class-associated features of sf should not be considered as faults. They are essentially neutral and may be employed to good or ill effect, according to the gifts and goodwill of any given writer. Fantasies of power are a necessary precondition of the exercise of power — by anyone. One cannot do what one hasn’t first imagined doing. The upper classes possess a great initial advantage in discovering while still young that the world is in essential agreement with their fantasies of power. Princes have a great resource of self-confidence in knowing that someday they’ll be kings. Self-help books, from Samuel Smiles through Dale Carnegie, all agree on the crucial importance of hyping yourself into a state of self-confidence. Without that, there is little chance of competing against the toffs who got their gleaming teeth and firm handshakes, as it were, by inheritance. As a device for schooling the mind in what it feels like to be a real go-ahead winner, a few novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs could be quite as effective as an equivalent dosage of Positive Thinking. To denigrate the power fantasies of sf is very like laughing at cripples because they use crutches. A crutch that serves its purpose is to be admired.

As to the kinship between sf and fairy tales and legends, I should not think it would be necessary to make apology. What more fertile soil could any fiction sink its roots into, after all? If individual artists have not always been equal to their materials, that is their loss. It is our gain as readers that often, even so, their botched tales retain the power to astonish us. Even in a cheap frankfurter pork tastes good.

Finally, as to resentment, who shall say that there are not, often enough, good grounds for it? Anger and defiance may he healthier, manlier modes of expression, but when the way to these is barred, we must make do somehow. “Cinderella” and “The Ugly Duckling” are fantasies inspired by resentment, and they possess an undeniable, even archetypal, power. When we are compelled to recognize that our allegiance is owing to powers, whether parents or presidents, whose character is flawed or corrupt, what shall we feel in acquiescing to those powers (as we all do, sometimes) unless resentment? The lower classes may feel their oppression more keenly because it is more immediate and pervasive, but resentment to some degree is part of the human condition.

However (and alas), this does not end the matter. Resentment may be universal, but it is also universally dangerous, for the political program of the resentful inevitably savors of totalitarianism and a spirit of revenge. Once they attain to political power the know-nothings can have a sweet triumph over the know-it-alls by ‘declaring’ that the earth is flat, or Einstein a heretic. The books of one’s enemies can be burned or re-edited.

From Thomas Disch’s essay “The Embarrassments of Science Fiction.”

Roman Muradov’s graphic novella Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art reviewed

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Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.

There’s more of course.

In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:

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Okay.

Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).

But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?

Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).

The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders. 

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The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805).  Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.

Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.

These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).

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It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.

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So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).

Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).

Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:

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Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.

Do you follow Muradov on Twitter?

I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).

But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).

Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):

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The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness. 

And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.

Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).

But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).

That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.

 

Nineteen ideas and images from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for December 6th, 1837

December 6th.–A fairy tale about chasing Echo to her hiding-place. Echo is the voice of a reflection in a mirror,

A house to be built over a natural spring of inflammable gas, and to be constantly illuminated therewith. What moral could be drawn from this? It is carburetted hydrogen gas, and is cooled from a soft shale or slate, which is sometimes bituminous, and contains more or less carbonate of lime. It appears in the vicinity of Lockport and Niagara Falls, and elsewhere in New York. I believe it indicates coal. At Fredonia, the whole village is lighted by it. Elsewhere, a farm-house was lighted by it, and no other fuel used in the coldest weather.

Gnomes, or other mischievous little fiends, to be represented as burrowing in the hollow teeth of some person who has subjected himself to their power. It should be a child’s story. This should be one of many modes of petty torment. They should be contrastedwith beneficent fairies, who minister to the pleasures of the good.

Some very famous jewel or other thing, much talked of all over the world. Some person to meet with it, and get possession of it in some unexpected manner, amid homely circumstances.

To poison a person or a party of persons with the sacramental wine.

A cloud in the shape of an old woman kneeling, with arms extended towards the moon.

On being transported to strange scenes, we feel as if all were unreal. This is but the perception of the true unreality of earthly things, made evident by the want of congruity between ourselves and them. By and by we become mutually adapted, and the perception is lost.

An old looking-glass. Somebody finds out the secret of making all the images that have been reflected in it pass back again across its surface.

Our Indian races having reared no monuments, like the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, when they have disappeared from the earth their history will appear a fable, and they misty phantoms.

A woman to sympathize with all emotions, but to have none of her own.

A portrait of a person in New England to be recognized as of the same person represented by a portrait in Old England. Having distinguished himself there, he had suddenly vanished, and had never been heardof till he was thus discovered to be identical with a distinguished man in New England.

Men of cold passions have quick eyes.

A virtuous but giddy girl to attempt to play a trick on a man. He sees what she is about, and contrives matters so that she throws herself completely into his power, and is ruined,–all in jest.

A letter, written a century or more ago, but which has never yet been unsealed.

A partially insane man to believe himself the Provincial Governor or other great official of Massachusetts. The scene might be the Province House.

A dreadful secret to be communicated to several people of various characters,–grave or gay, and they all to become insane, according to their characters, by the influence of the secret.

Stories to be told of a certain person’s appearance in public, of his having been seen in various situations, and of his making visits in private circles; but finally, on looking for this person, to come upon his old grave and mossy tombstone.

The influence of a peculiar mind, in close communion with another, to drive the latter to insanity.

To look at a beautiful girl, and picture all the lovers, in different situations, whose hearts are centred upon her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for December 6th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Read Robert Coover’s satirical short story “Invasion of the Martians”

Robert Coover’s “Invasion of the Martians” is a wonderful little satire of contemporary American politics. Read the full thing at The New Yorker (or listen to Coover read it there).

First two paragraphs:

The handsome Senator from Texas, the Capitol’s leading heartthrob, a former astronaut, and a likely future President, was in bed with two ladies, a young intern and the more mature Secretary of the Interior (the Senator called her the Secretary of the Posterior and had just made several charming off-color but complimentary remarks about hers, bringing an embarrassed flush to all four of her cheeks, and giggles from the intern, who was playing with two of them), when his private security phone chimed with the news: “The Martians have landed! In Texas!” He kissed the ladies, donned his spacesuit and helmet, and sprang into action.

The Senator flew his private jet directly from his ranch to the Martians’ landing site, not at all surprised that they had chosen the great state of Texas for this historic occasion. There, in an internationally televised address, he welcomed them to the once sovereign Republic of Texas, the last best place on earth and the heartland of the American nation, to which it also presently owed allegiance. The Martians poured out of their pear-shaped spaceship like spilled soup. They were pea-green, as anticipated, but with fluid bodies and multiple limbs that appeared and disappeared in the sticky flow. A random scattering of startled eyes blinked like tree lights. It wasn’t easy to see what separated one Martian from another.

“Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” — Anne Sexton

“Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty”

by

Anne Sexton


Consider
a girl who keeps slipping off,
arms limp as old carrots,
into the hypnotist’s trance,
into a spirit world
speaking with the gift of tongues.
She is stuck in the time machine,
suddenly two years old sucking her thumb,
as inward as a snail,
learning to talk again.
She’s on a voyage.
She is swimming further and further back,
up like a salmon,
struggling into her mother’s pocketbook.
Little doll child,
come here to Papa.
Sit on my knee.
I have kisses for the back of your neck.
A penny for your thoughts, Princess.
I will hunt them like an emerald.

Come be my snooky
and I will give you a root.
That kind of voyage,
rank as a honeysuckle.
Once
a king had a christening
for his daughter Briar Rose
and because he had only twelve gold plates
he asked only twelve fairies
to the grand event.
The thirteenth fairy,
her fingers as long and thing as straws,
her eyes burnt by cigarettes,
her uterus an empty teacup,
arrived with an evil gift.
She made this prophecy:
The princess shall prick herself
on a spinning wheel in her fifteenth year
and then fall down dead.
Kaputt!
The court fell silent.
The king looked like Munch’s Scream
Fairies’ prophecies,
in times like those,
held water.
However the twelfth fairy
had a certain kind of eraser
and thus she mitigated the curse
changing that death
into a hundred-year sleep.

The king ordered every spinning wheel
exterminated and exorcised.
Briar Rose grew to be a goddess
and each night the king
bit the hem of her gown
to keep her safe.
He fastened the moon up
with a safety pin
to give her perpetual light
He forced every male in the court
to scour his tongue with Bab-o
lest they poison the air she dwelt in.
Thus she dwelt in his odor.
Rank as honeysuckle.

On her fifteenth birthday
she pricked her finger
on a charred spinning wheel
and the clocks stopped.
Yes indeed. She went to sleep.
The king and queen went to sleep,
the courtiers, the flies on the wall.
The fire in the hearth grew still
and the roast meat stopped crackling.
The trees turned into metal
and the dog became china.
They all lay in a trance,
each a catatonic
stuck in a time machine.
Even the frogs were zombies.
Only a bunch of briar roses grew
forming a great wall of tacks
around the castle.
Many princes
tried to get through the brambles
for they had heard much of Briar Rose
but they had not scoured their tongues
so they were held by the thorns
and thus were crucified.
In due time
a hundred years passed
and a prince got through.
The briars parted as if for Moses
and the prince found the tableau intact.
He kissed Briar Rose
and she woke up crying:
Daddy! Daddy!
Presto! She’s out of prison!
She married the prince
and all went well
except for the fear –
the fear of sleep.

Briar Rose
was an insomniac…
She could not nap
or lie in sleep
without the court chemist
mixing her some knock-out drops
and never in the prince’s presence.
If if is to come, she said,
sleep must take me unawares
while I am laughing or dancing
so that I do not know that brutal place
where I lie down with cattle prods,
the hole in my cheek open.
Further, I must not dream
for when I do I see the table set
and a faltering crone at my place,
her eyes burnt by cigarettes
as she eats betrayal like a slice of meat.

I must not sleep
for while I’m asleep I’m ninety
and think I’m dying.
Death rattles in my throat
like a marble.
I wear tubes like earrings.
I lie as still as a bar of iron.
You can stick a needle
through my kneecap and I won’t flinch.
I’m all shot up with Novocain.
This trance girl
is yours to do with.
You could lay her in a grave,
an awful package,
and shovel dirt on her face
and she’d never call back: Hello there!
But if you kissed her on the mouth
her eyes would spring open
and she’d call out: Daddy! Daddy!
Presto!
She’s out of prison.

There was a theft.
That much I am told.
I was abandoned.
That much I know.
I was forced backward.
I was forced forward.
I was passed hand to hand
like a bowl of fruit.
Each night I am nailed into place
and forget who I am.
Daddy?
That’s another kind of prison.
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkeningly bends over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
What voyage is this, little girl?
This coming out of prison?
God help –
this life after death?

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for December 1st, 1853

December 1st.–It is curious to observe how many methods people put in practice here to pick up a halfpenny. Yesterday I saw a man standing bareheaded and barelegged in the mud and misty weather, playing on a fife, in hopes to get a circle of auditors. Nobody, however, seemed to take any notice. Very often a whole band of musicians will strike up,–passing a hat round after playing a tune or two. On board the ferry, until the coldest weather began, there were always some wretched musicians, with an old fiddle, an old clarinet, and an old verdigrised brass bugle, performing during the passage, and, as the boat neared the shore, sending round one of their number to gather contributions in the hollow of the brass bugle. They were a very shabby set, and must have made a very scanty living at best. Sometimes it was a boy with an accordion, and his sister, a smart little girl, with a timbrel,–which, being so shattered that she could not play on it, she used only to collect halfpence in. Ballad-singers, or rather chanters or croakers, are often to be met with in the streets, but hand-organ players are not more frequent than in our cities.

I still observe little girls and other children bare-legged and barefooted on the wet sidewalks. There certainly never was anything so dismal as the November weather has been; never any real sunshine; almost always a mist; sometimes a dense fog, like slightly rarefied wool, pervading the atmosphere.

An epitaph on a person buried on a hill-side in Cheshire, together with some others, supposed to have died of the plague, and therefore not admitted into the churchyards:–

“Think it not strange our bones ly here,
Thine may ly thou knowst not where.”

ELIZABETH HAMPSON.

These graves were near the remains of two rude stone crosses, the purpose of which was not certainly known, although they were supposed to be boundary marks. Probably, as the plague-corpses were debarred from sanctified ground, the vicinity of these crosses was chosen as having a sort of sanctity.

“Bang beggar,”–an old Cheshire term for a parish beadle.

Hawthorne Hall, Cheshire, Macclesfield Hundred, Parish of Wilmslow, and within the hamlet of Morley. It was vested at an early period in the Lathoms of Irlam, Lancaster County, and passed through the Leighs to the Pages of Earlshaw. Thomas Leigh Page sold it to Mr. Ralph Bower of Wilmslow, whose children owned it in 1817. The Leighs built a chancel in the church of Wilmslow, where some of them are buried, their arms painted in the windows. The hall is an “ancient, respectable mansion of brick.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for December 1st, 1853. From Passages from the English Note-Books.

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

they-live-billboard

The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for page 539 | There is a terrible possibility now, in the World

1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9

The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.

Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”

Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”

Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—

Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.

Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.

img_4346
The World tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:

It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.

Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):

Weissmann's tarot
Weissmann’s tarot

In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Elect. The baddies.

Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.

Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.

5  

Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909
Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:

The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.

If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.

The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:

Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

Pynchon’s phrasing also echoes William Bright’s 1866 hymn, “Once, Only Once, and Once for All,” which begins:

Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.

In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Seems like a Preterite Sermon.

Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.

Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?

Oh I think you know the answer.

That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day (Italo Calvino)

A few paragraphs from Italo Calvino’s 1968 story “The Daughters of the Moon”:

That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.

At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.

The lunar procession zigzagged around uptown, then started down Broadway, and came quickly and silently to converge with the other procession, which was dragging its balloon giant along Fifth Avenue.

At Madison Square, one procession met the other; or, more precisely, the two became a single procession. The Satisfied Customer, perhaps owing to a collision with the moon’s jagged surface, deflated into a rubber rag. On the motorcycles now were the Dianas, pulling the moon with multicolored ribbons; or, rather, since the number of naked women had at least doubled, the female motorcyclists must have thrown away their uniforms and kepis. A similar transformation had overtaken the motorcycles and the cars in the parade. You could no longer tell which were the old cars and which were the new: the twisted wheels, the rusty fenders were mixed together with bodywork as shiny as a mirror and paint that gleamed like enamel.

Read “The Daughters of the Moon” in full at The New Yorker (translation by Martin McLaughlin) (or have novelist Robert Coover read it to you, also via The New Yorker).

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a painting

Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688
Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Roberto Bolaño’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

Read “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


On the evening of Thanksgiving day, John Inglefield, the blacksmith, sat in his elbow-chair, among those who had been keeping festival at his board. Being the central figure of the domestic circle, the fire threw its strongest light on his massive and sturdy frame, reddening his rough visage, so that it looked like the head of an iron statue, all aglow, from his own forge, and with its features rudely fashioned on his own anvil. At John Inglefield’s right hand was an empty chair. The other places round the hearth were filled by the members of the family, who all sat quietly, while, with a semblance of fantastic merriment, their shadows danced on the wall behind then. One of the group was John Inglefield’s son, who had been bred at college, and was now a student of theology at Andover. There was also a daughter of sixteen, whom nobody could look at without thinking of a rosebud almost blossomed. The only other person at the fireside was Robert Moore, formerly an apprentice of the blacksmith, but now his journeyman, and who seemed more like an own son of John Inglefield than did the pale and slender student.

Only these four had kept New England’s festival beneath that roof. The vacant chair at John Inglefield’s right hand was in memory of his wife, whom death had snatched from him since the previous Thanksgiving. With a feeling that few would have looked for in his rough nature, the bereaved husband had himself set the chair in its place next his own; and often did his eye glance thitherward, as if he deemed it possible that the cold grave might send back its tenant to the cheerful fireside, at least for that one evening. Thus did he cherish the grief that was dear to him. But there was another grief which he would fain have torn from his heart; or, since that could never be, have buried it too deep for others to behold, or for his own remembrance. Within the past year another member of his household had gone from him, but not to the grave. Yet they kept no vacant chair for her.

While John Inglefield and his family were sitting round the hearth with the shadows dancing behind them on the wall, the outer door was opened, and a light footstep came along the passage. The latch of the inner door was lifted by some familiar hand, and a young girl came in, wearing a cloak and hood, which she took off, and laid on the table beneath the looking-glass. Then, after gazing a moment at the fireside circle, she approached, and took the seat at John Inglefield’s right hand, as if it had been reserved on purpose for her. Continue reading “Read “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

Alla Tha’s All Right, but – June Jordan

june-jordan

A U.S.A. that would die for the so-called perfect Entertainment (Infinite Jest)

 

The sky of U.S.A.’s desert was clotted with blue stars. Now it was deep at night. Only above the U.S.A. city was the sky blank of stars; its color was pearly and blank. Marathe shrugged. ‘Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.’

Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.

The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Québecers making this kick to l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a U.S.A. production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the U.S.A. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also is U.S.A. The U.S.A. drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistol to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.

Marathe made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?’

From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

 

Read “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm,” new fiction from Robert Coover

Robert Coover’s short story “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” is new in this week’s New Yorker. It’s of a piece with the last Coover story The New Yorker published, “Invasion of the Martians.”

Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”:

The schoolmarm is playing poker in the town saloon. The stake is the saloon itself. As she is preparing to deal the cards, one of the men demands that she cut the fuckin’ deck, and she shoots him from her lap. “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .”

The others tip their crumpled hats. “No, ma’am, you just go ahead and deal.”

The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot—in fact, all the time—but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.

After winning the saloon in the poker hand, the schoolmarm has the deceased removed and turns the card tables into school desks. The bar becomes an altar on Sundays, but there’s no preacher, so the schoolmarm provides temperance lectures from it, which the men are obliged to attend. In their minds, it’s still the old bar, the old saloon, so they carry along hip flasks and beef jerky to ease themselves through the unholy tedium, belching and snorting noisily.

“Titian Paints a Sick Man” — Roberto Bolaño

“Titian Paints a Sick Man”

by

Roberto Bolaño

At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.

1

The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.

2

In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.

How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.

From Between Parentheses.

Belong (Theodore Roethke)

screenshot-2016-11-17-at-5

(From Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63).