April 9th.–There was a great rain yesterday,–wind from the southeast, and the last visible vestige of snow disappeared. It was a small patch near the summit of Bald Mountain, just on the upper verge of a grove of trees. I saw a slight remnant of it yesterday afternoon, but to-day it is quite gone. The grass comes up along the roadside and on favorable exposures, with a sort of green blush. Frogs have been melodious for a fortnight, and the birds sing pleasantly.
[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of various Flannery O’Connor short story collections and novels. To be clear, I’m a big O’Connor fan. I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].
I wanted to burn it.
I like happy endings.
100 per cent not for me.
I did not finish the book.
This story was agonizing.
I do not like the words used.
To me it was very depressing.
I really, truly hated this book.
The plot was as much a mystery.
They barely even seemed human.
I would not recommend this to anyone.
I had to force myself to finish this book.
I didn’t understand the characters at all.
Not only that, but I really didn’t like them either.
I would never have guessed that the author was female.
I didn’t understand, and I’m fairly certain that I never will.
I think this is the only book I’ve ever felt that I really hated.
One finds it impossible to symapthize or identify with them.
O;Connor is a gifted writer. However this book is dark in tone.
This story just stopped, no solutions to the problems involved.
I think it was a failing of the author to make the character believable.
After reading this book I really need some sunshine and happy voices.
Perhaps most disurbing is the brutal portrayal of violence against children.
Flannery O’Connor is the most depressing writer I have ever had the misfortune to read.
I can’t understand an author who could treat her characters with such callous disregard!
There is little here that resonates with my life’s experiences or my understanding of them.
I would not read this book again without a gun to my head, and I regret ever having picked it up. Continue reading “Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story Collections and Novels”
What you felt stirring across the land… it was the equinox… green spring equal nights… canyons are opening up, at the bottoms are steaming fumaroles, steaming the tropical life there like greens in a pot, rank, dope-perfume, a hood of smell… human consciousness, that poor cripple, that deformed and doomed thing, is about to be born. This is the World just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal. Alive, it was a threat: it was Titans, was an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona about Earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in before it blew the Creation apart. So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counterrevolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death. The way we kill, the way we die, being unique among the Creatures. It was something we had to work on, historically and personally. To build from scratch up to its present status as reaction, nearly as strong as life, holding down the green uprising. But only nearly as strong.
Only nearly, because of the defection rate. A few keep going over to the Titans every day, in their striving subcreation (how can flesh tumble and flow so, and never be any less beautiful?), into the rests of the folksong Death (empty stone rooms), out, and through, and down under the net, down down to the uprising.
In harsh-edged echo, Titans stir far below. They are all the presences we are not supposed to be seeing—wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods—that we train ourselves away from to keep from looking further even though enough of us do, leave Their electric voices behind in the twilight at the edge of the town and move into the constantly parted cloak of our nightwalk till
Suddenly, Pan—leaping—its face too beautiful to bear, beautiful Serpent, its coils in rainbow lashings in the sky—into the sure bones of fright—
Don’t walk home at night through the empty country. Don’t go into the forest when the light is too low, even too late. Don’t go into the forest when the light is too low, even too late in the afternoon—it will get you. Don’t sit by the tree like this, with your cheek against the bark.
From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, pages 720-21.
Jorge Luis Borges
English translation by Andrew Hurley
To make his horror perfect, Caesar, hemmed about at the foot of a statue by his friends’ impatient knives, discovers among the faces and the blades the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his ward, perhaps his very son—and so Caesar stops defending himself, and cries out Et tu, Brute? Shakespeare and Quevedo record that pathetic cry.
Fate is partial to repetitions, variations symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is set upon by other gauchos, and as he falls he recognizes a godson of his, and says to him in gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read): Pero, ¡che! Heches, but he does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.
March 11th.–After the ground had been completely freed of snow, there has been a snow-storm for the two days preceding yesterday, which made the earth all white again. This morning at sunrise, the thermometer stood at about 18 degrees above zero. Monument Mountain stands out in great prominence, with its dark forest-covered sides, and here and there a large, white patch, indicating tillage or pasture land; but making a generally dark contrast with the white expanse of the frozen and snow-covered lake at its base, and the more undulating white of the surrounding country. Yesterday, under the sunshine of mid-day, and with many voluminous clouds hanging overit, and a mist of wintry warmth in the air, it had a kind of visionary aspect, although still it was brought out in striking relief. But though one could see all its bulgings, round swells, and precipitous abruptnesses, it looked as much akin to the clouds as to solid earth and rock substance. In the early sunshine of the morning, the atmosphere being very clear, I saw the dome of Taconic with more distinctness than ever before, the snow-patches, and brown, uncovered soil on its round head, being fully visible. Generally it is but a dark blue unvaried mountain-top. All the ruggedness of the intervening hill-country was likewise effectively brought out. There seems to be a sort of illuminating quality in new snow, which it loses after being exposed for a day or two to the sun and atmosphere.
“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”
Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked travelling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.
They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there, they were regularly working there both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there. Georgine Skeene was gay there and she was regular, regular in being gay, regular in not being gay, regular in being a gay one who was one not being gay longer than was needed to be one being quite a gay one. They were both gay then there and both working there then.
They were in a way both gay there where there were many cultivating something. They were both regular in being gay there. Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there and really she was just gay there, she was gayer and gayer there, that is to say she found ways of being gay there that she was using in being gay there. She was gay there, not gayer and gayer, just gay there, that is to say she was not gayer by using the things she found there that were gay things, she was gay there, always she was gay there.
They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.
To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that they did every day. To be regularly gay was to end every day at the same time after they had been regularly gay. They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay.
The voice Helen Furr was cultivating was quite a pleasant one. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating was, some said, a better one. The voice Helen Furr was cultivating she cultivated and it was quite completely a pleasant enough one then, a cultivated enough one then. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating she did not cultivate too much. She cultivated it quite some. She cultivated and she would sometime go on cultivating it and it was not then an unpleasant one, it would not be then an unpleasant one, it would be a quite richly enough cultivated one, it would be quite richly enough to be a pleasant enough one.
They were gay where there were many cultivating something. The two were gay there, were regularly gay there. Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling. They did some travelling, not very much travelling, Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling, Helen Furr did not care about doing travelling, she liked to stay in a place and be gay there.
They stayed in a place and were gay there, both of them stayed there, they stayed together there, they were gay there, they were regularly gay there. Continue reading “Read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a fiction by Gertrude Stein”
Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.
In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”
The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.
Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,
When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.
Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:
Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”
As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:
Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….
The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.
As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.
Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.
Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.
This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.
Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.
When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:
He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.
So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.
Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.
“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”
Gabriel García Márquez
Erendira was bathing her grandmother when the wind of her misfortune began to blow. The enormous mansion of moon like concrete lost in the solitude of the desert trembled down to its foundations with the first attack. But Erendira and her grandmother were used to the risks of the wild nature there, and in the bathroom decorated with a series of peacocks and childish mosaics of Roman baths they scarcely paid any attention to the caliber of the wind.
The grandmother, naked and huge in the marble tub, looked like a handsome white whale. The granddaughter had just turned fourteen and was languid, soft-boned, and too meek for her age. With a parsimony that had something like sacred rigor about it, she was bathing her grandmother with water in which purifying herbs and aromatic leaves had been boiled, the latter clinging to the succulent back, the flowing metal-colored hair, and the powerful shoulders which were so mercilessly tattooed as to put sailors to shame.
“Last night I dreamt I was expecting a letter,” the grandmother said.
Erendira, who never spoke except when it was unavoidable, asked:
“What day was it in the dream?”
“Then it was a letter with bad news,” Erendira said, “but it will never arrive.”
When she had finished bathing her grandmother, she took her to her bedroom. The grandmother was so fat that she could only walk by leaning on her granddaughter’s shoulder or on a staff that looked like a bishop’s crosier, but even during her most difficult efforts the power of an antiquated grandeur was evident. In the bedroom, which had been furnished with an excessive and somewhat demented taste, like the whole house, Erendira needed two more hours to get her grandmother ready. She untangled her hair strand by strand, perfumed and combed it, put an equatorially flowered dress on her, put talcum powder on her face, bright red lipstick on her mouth, rouge on her cheeks, musk on her eyelids, and mother-of-pearl polish on her nails, and when she had her decked out like a larger than life-size doll, she led her to an artificial garden with suffocating flowers that were like the ones on the dress, seated her in a large chair that had the foundation and the pedigree of a throne, and left her listening to elusive records on a phonograph that had a speaker like a megaphone. Continue reading ““The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” — Gabriel García Márquez””
João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.
That first-person voice is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist travels to cold winter London on an unspecified “mission.” Indeed, the mission remains unspecified to both reader and narrator alike, although it does seem to involve an English university. The man who arranges for the narrator to come to London is himself a shifting cipher in Lord, transforming into different entities—at least in the narrator’s (often paranoid) view. We get the sense in Lord that consciousness is always under radical duress, that a state of being might collapse at any time or give way to some other, unknown state of being.
Throughout Lord, Noll dramatizes abject consciousness in turmoil. Early on, the narrator, already feeling uncertain about why he has moved halfway across the world, arrives at a university’s Portuguese department. In a book-lined office, he attempts to stabilize himself through the textual “reality” of printed matter:
The walls were covered with books. I trailed my hand over them as if to confirm the reality I was living in. Though I knew I was not living an unreality per se—like those born out of a simple dream and ending up in a nightmare, which we can only escape from when we wake up sweaty, trembling, and confused.
The irony is that the narrator has not fully comprehended yet that he is living an unreality, that he is actually narrating the nightmare. Noll’s hero is an unfixed voice, a voice that can’t square the signifiers around him with any stable signified meaning in his consciousness.
Slowly (but not too slowly—Lord moves at a steady clip), the narrator embraces this abjection and wills the dissolution of his self and its reformation into some new other. “My tiredness did not demand sleep, but, damn!, how I craved some indistinguishability between bodies, volumes, and formats,” he tells us.
The narrator carries his project of transformation even farther, applying cosmetics and hair dye to alter his appearance and “find a new source for [his] new formation”:
My lack of definition was already greater than me, although I had lost myself and begun to suspect that even my English boss couldn’t do anything to bring me back to me. I needed to keep up this task of being every- one somehow, because without it I wouldn’t even make it as far as the corner: without asking anyone, I happened to have overcome being the individual whom I had mechanically created for other people. I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.
Lord’s narrator takes this new version of himself on various London adventures, most of which are lurid and gross, and many of which are downright horny. Our Brazilian writer (who is slowly unbecoming a Brazilian writer) visits museums and has weird sex encounters, sleeps on the streets and takes a soapy bath with a Professor of Latin American Studies. Lord moves at a rapid and occasionally bewildering pace, giving the narrator’s quest a mock-ironic urgency. In Edgar Garbeletto’s capable English translation from the Portuguese, the paragraphs go on for pages but the sentences are choppy, riddled with colons and dashes, lurches and leaps, falls and stops.
Through this turbulent rhetoric, Lord’s narrator channels other voices, sublimating them into the text proper. The narrator absorbs bits and pieces of the other voices he encounters, dissolving his consciousness into and out of them as he strives for transformation. He also absorbs bits and pieces of bodies—fluids and other detritus, other abject bits of our human borders.
Our narrator is obsessed with borders, but his transgression of them has little to do with a moral framework. For the narrator, moral semblance is simply the result of an “individual…mechanically created for other people.” Rather, the narrator is fascinated by what makes a consciousness conscious. However, he’s not yet willing to cross the ultimate border, despite his fascination. In one little episode of Lord, our hero happens upon a dying man on the street. He watches the man pass from life:
I squeezed his hand. His mouth opened, and I could see the pool of blood that had overflowed his rotten teeth. That death, in some way, in some corner of my mind, gave me tremendous satisfaction. Someone was not afraid to go all the way to the end. To do for others what everyone tried to avoid. I wished I could follow him, but I didn’t have his bravery; I lacked the necessary elements to consummate the act. I needed that hug today.
A strange hug indeed!
The apparent finality of death as cessation-of consciousness holds a certain appeal to Lord’s narrator, whose quest is perhaps to overcome abjection via transformation. But it’s not easy,
It’s not just a snap, man: it’s being stuck in this limbo between staying in England and going back to South America that made me unrecognizable to myself anymore, it didn’t let me transfigure myself, it wouldn’t let me leave this stupid little body here, vomit myself out in disgust, or turn me into someone else.
Indeed, the quest in Lord might be summarized by that phrase: “vomit myself out in disgust.” While the voice in Lord remains untethered by the normal strictures of narrative (or even moral) logic, it is hardly free or disembodied. Indeed, the relationship between bodies and consciousness is perhaps the primary problem of Lord. Our narrator’s voice has a body that can’t catch up to what’s happening in its consciousness. Hence the novel’s preoccupation with the corporeal reality of bodies: blood, urine, semen, sweat, vomit…all the leaking stuff of humanity spurting out, transgressing the apparent borders and showing those borders are but a moral fiction.
In one abject episode, our narrator attempts to dispel London himself from his consciousness:
On a corner in Bloomsbury, a totally unexpected need to vomit hit me. I wiped myself with a sheet of newspaper that was fluttering by. But I couldn’t stop; I realized it was London I was throwing up, London with its ghosts and impossible missions, already entirely unsuccessful.
Tellingly, the narrator grasps a newspaper that just happens to be “fluttering by” to clean himself, to restore the moral fiction of an arranged, presentable self. The newspaper, like the books in the university office, is another nod to Lord’s metatextual motif. The written word proves to be illusory as an anchor in Noll’s novel—it cannot codify consciousness, it cannot fix meaning. Hence, the novel’s strange, disruptive rhetorical program, which takes first-person consciousness and literally deconstructs it.
The fact that Noll’s hero is/was a writer, “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public,” suggests another metatextual nod. Lord’s narrator is a strange cipher of Noll himself. In 2004, the year Lord was published, Noll served as writer-in-residence at the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. But the narrator is a cipher of Noll only—a voice that deconstructs and reconstructs itself, autofiction that dissolves the self.
This abject voice tries to reinvent itself from the outside in, only to vomit the inside back out again. Utter disintegration seems fatally imminent; madness seems inescapable. As one reaches the final pages of Lord, one senses that the narrative might fall apart into nothing—which, to be clear, it doesn’t. Lord sticks its ending a strangely and suitably satisfying way. I won’t give away the end, but instead reverse the course of my previous sentence: Lord falls apart into something.
Like Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel (the other Noll books currently available in English translation), Lord is propelled on its own dream-nightmare logic. It’s fucked-up, gross, abject, and surreal. It’s permeated by a vague horror. Reading it might make parts of your stomach hurt. I like these particular flavors, and I particularly like a book that doesn’t just upset me with its themes and its plot, but also with its style and its rhetoric. Lord certainly isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and I think that there’s an audience of weirdos out there like me who will really dig this book too. Highly recommended.
João Gilberto Noll’s Lord is new from Two Lines Press. It is the third novel by Noll Two Lines has published. I hope they publish more.
February, 18th.–A walk, yesterday afternoon, with the children; a bright, and rather cold day, breezy from the north and westward. There has been a good deal of soaking rain lately, and it has, in great measure, cleared hills and plains of snow, only it may be seen lying in spots, and on each side of stone-walls, in a pretty broad streak. The grass is brown and withered, and yet, scattered all amongst it, on close inspection, one finds a greenness;–little shrubs that have kept green under all the severity of winter, and seem to need no change to fit them for midsummer. In the woods we see stones covered with moss that retains likewise a most lively green. Where the trees are dense, the snow still lies under them. On the sides of the mountains, some miles off, the black pines and the white snow among them together produce a gray effect. The little streams are most interesting objects at this time; some that have an existence only at this season,–Mississippis of the moment,–yet glide and tumble along as if they were perennial. The familiar ones seem strange by their breadth and volume; their little waterfalls set off by glaciers on a small scale. The sun has by this time force enough to make sheltered nooks in the angles of woods, or on banks, warm and comfortable. The lake is still of adamantine substance, but all round the borders there is a watery margin, altogether strewed or covered with thin and broken ice, so that I could not venture on it with the children. A chickadee was calling in the woods yesterday,–the only small bird I have taken note of yet; but crows have been cawing in the woods for a week past, though not in very great numbers.
Barad-dûr: The Fortress of Sauron, c. 1944 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).
Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),
Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.
The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.
Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.
We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:
She was simply enveloped.
This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.
In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:
It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.
The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:
Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.
The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”
The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.
“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.
Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).
The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:
Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.
The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:
“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.
“You need a screw up your ass.”
The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.
Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.
“Yesterday I dreamed about Thea von Harbou. . . . It woke me right up. . . . But then, thinking about it, I realized that I dreamed about her because of a novel I read recently. . . . It’s not that it was such a strange book, but I got the idea that the author was hiding something. . . . And after the dream, I figured it out . . .”
“Silhouette, by Gene Wolfe.”
“. . .”
“Want me to tell you what it’s about?”
“All right, while I’m making breakfast.”
“I had some tea before, when you were asleep.”
“I’ve got a headache. Are you going to want another cup of tea?”
“Go on. I’m listening, even if my back is turned.”
“It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race. At last they find one, but it’s been many years since they set off on the voyage, and the crew has changed; they’ve all gotten older, but you have to realize that they were very young when they set off. . . . What’s changed are their beliefs: sects, secret societies, covens have sprung up. . . . The ship has also fallen into disrepair—there are computers that don’t work, blown-out lights that no one bothers to fix, wrecked sleeping compartments. . . . Then, when they find the new planet, the mission is completed and they’re supposed to return to Earth with the news, but no one wants to go back. . . . The voyage will consume the rest of their youth, and they’ll return to an unknown world, because meanwhile several centuries have gone by on Earth, since they’ve been traveling at close to light speed. . . . It’s just a starving, overpopulated planet. . . . And there are even those who believe that there is no life left on Earth. . . . Among them is Johann, the protagonist. . . . Johann is a quiet man, one of the few who love the ship. . . . He’s of average height. . . . There’s a hierarchy of height; the woman who’s captain of the ship, for example, is the tallest, and the privates are the shortest. . . . Johann is a lieutenant; he goes about his duties without making too many friends. Like nearly everyone, he’s set in his ways; he’s bored . . . until they reach the strange planet. . . . Then Johann discovers that his shadow has grown darker. . . . Black as outer space and dense . . . As you probably guessed, it’s not his shadow but a separate being that’s taken over there, mimicking the movements of his shadow. . . . Where has it come from? The planet? Space? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. . . . The Shadow is powerful, as we’ll see, but as silent as Johann. . . . Meanwhile the sects are preparing to mutiny. . . . A group tries to convince Johann to join them; they tell him that he’s one of the chosen, that their common fate is to create something new on this planet. . . . Some seem pretty loony, others dangerous. . . . Johann commits to nothing. . . . Then the Shadow transports him to the planet. . . . It’s a vast jungle, a vast desert, a vast beach. . . . Johann, dressed only in shorts and sandals, almost like a Tyrolean, walks through the undergrowth. . . . He moves his right leg when he feels the Shadow push against his right leg, then the left, slowly, waiting. . . . The darkness is total. . . . But the Shadow looks after him as if he’s a child. . . . When he returns, rebellion breaks out. . . . It’s total chaos. . . . Johann, as a precaution, takes off his officer’s stripes. . . . Suddenly he runs into Helmuth, the captain’s favorite and one of the heads of the rebellion, who tries to kill him, but the Shadow overpowers him, choking him to death. . . . Johann realizes what’s happening and makes his way to the bridge; the captain and some of the other officers are there, and on the screens of the central computer they see Helmuth and the mutineers readying a laser cannon. . . . Johann convinces them that all is lost, that they must flee to the planet. . . . But at the last minute, he stays behind. . . . He returns to the bridge, disconnects the fake video feed that the computer operators have manipulated, and sends an ultimatum to the rebels. . . . Whoever lays down arms this very instant will be pardoned; the rest will die. . . . Johann is well acquainted with the tools of falsehood and propaganda. . . . Then, too, he has the police and the marines on his side, who’ve spent the voyage in hibernation, and he knows that no one can snatch victory from him. . . . He finishes his communiqué with the announcement that he is the new captain. . . . Then he plots another route and abandons the planet. . . . And that’s all. . . . But then I dreamed about Thea von Harbou, and I realized that it was a Millennial Reich ship. . . . They were all Germans . . . all trapped in entropy. . . . Though there are a few weird things, strange things. . . . Under the effects of some drug, one of the girls—the one who sleeps most often with Johann—remembers something painful, and, weeping, she says that her name is Joan. . . . The girl’s real name is Grit, and Johann thinks that maybe her mother called her Joan when she was a baby. . . . Old-fangled and unfashionable names, banned by the psychologists, too . . .”
“Maybe the girl was trying to say that her name was Johann.”
“Possibly. The truth is, Johann is a serious fucking opportunist.”
“So why doesn’t he stay on the planet?”
“I don’t know. Leaving the planet, and not going back to Earth, is like choosing death, isn’t it? Or maybe the Shadow convinced him that he shouldn’t colonize the planet. Either way, the captain and a bunch of people are stuck there. Listen, read the novel, it’s really good. . . . And now I think the swastika came from the dream, not Gene Wolfe. . . . Though who knows . . . ?”
“So you dreamed about Thea von Harbou . . .”
“Yes, it was a blond girl.”
“But have you ever seen a picture of her?”
“How did you know it was Thea von Harbou?”
“I don’t know, I guessed it. She was like Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Dylan song, you know? Weird stuff, spooky, but very up-close and personal—it’s hard to explain, but personal.”
“So the Nazis take over the Earth and send ships in search of new worlds.”
“Yes. In Thea von Harbou’s version.”
“And they find the Shadow. Isn’t that a German story?”
“The story of the Shadow or the man who loses his shadow? I don’t know.”
“And it was Thea von Harbou who told yo all this?”
“Johann believes that inhabited planets, or habitable planets, are the exception in the universe. . . . As he tells it, Guderian’s tanks lay waste to Moscow . . .”
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novella Silhouette was originally published in The New Atlantis, an anthology of sci-fi edited by Robert Silverberg, and later collected in Endangered Species (1989). Silhouette begins with an epigraph culled from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Psychological Shipwreck” (1879):
To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go foreappointed ways, unknowing.
In Bierce’s story, this passage is itself quoted from “that rare and curious work, Denneker’s Meditations.”
Thea von Harbou wrote many novels and screenplays, including numerous screenplays for her husband director Fritz Lang, including the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. After its ascendance to power, von Harbou remained loyal to the Nazi party.
Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby
Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.
We is narrated by D-503. D-503 is an engineer building a spacecraft, the Integral, which will expand the domain of OneState. Although OneState has conquered earth (after the apocalyptic Two Hundred Years War), they seek to expand their empire of conformity to the stars, perhaps replicating their giant city-state on planets yet unknown. In its physical form, OneState is a glass panopticon surrounded by a great Glass Wall that keeps the wild natural world out. In its ideological form, OneState mandates uniformity, mechanization, and mathematical precision. The denizens of OneState conform to this ideology at all times. They wear uniforms — “yunies” — that bear the numbers that serve as their names. Indeed, they are “Numbers,” not people. The Numbers wake and sleep at the exact same hour. They march in unison and live and work in glass buildings. They “vote” to elect the same Benefactor each year, who runs unchallenged. They eat foods made from petroleum and produce children in a machine-like process that follows a system of “Maternal and Paternal Norms.” Numbers that don’t meet these Norms are forbidden from reproducing, but any Number can register for intercourse with another Number on Sex Day. A secret police force, the Bureau of Guardians, monitors the population, but it’s ultimately groupthink that keeps the Numbers in line.
One-State’s groupthink ideology is neatly summed up in propaganda that D-503 shares late in the novel:
Here’s the headline that glowed from page one of the State Gazette:
For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.
IN WHAT WAY?
Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason? The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect? The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. …But think of this: The mechanism has no imagination.
Imagination is the ultimate enemy of the machine, and the Benefactor and his Guardians have a plan to finally root it out and exterminate it.
Throughout much of We, D-503 is very much attuned to this ideology. D-503 thinks of OneState as “our glass paradise.” What we see as dystopia he sees as utopia, he initially constructs We as a testament to OneState’s glory that he will include as part of the cargo of the Integral. However, as the narrative unfolds, D-503 unravels. His sense of self divides as signs of mental illness emerge–first dreams, then an imagination, and then—gasp!—a soul.
D-503’s internal conflict stems from discovering his own innate irrationality—namely, a soul which cannot be measured in numbers or weighed in physical facts. This internal conflict drives much of the narrative of We. Zamyatin delivers this conflict in D-503’s first-person consciousness, a consciousnesses that contracts and expands, a consciousness that would love to elide its own first-person interiority completely and subsume itself wholly to a third-person we—but he can’t. Consider the following passage;
I lie in the bed thinking … and a logical chain, extraordinarily odd, starts unwinding itself.
For every equation, every formula in the superficial world, there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulas, for my √—1, we know of no corresponding solids, we’ve never seen them…. But that’s just the whole horror—that these solids, invisible, exist. They absolutely inescapably must exist. Because in mathematics their eccentric prickly shadows, the irrational formulas, parade in front of our eyes as if they were on a screen. And mathematics and death never make a mistake. And if we don’t see these solids in our surface world, there is for them, there inevitably must be, a whole immense world there, beneath the surface.
I jumped up without waiting for the bell and began to run around my room. My mathematics, up to now the only lasting and immovable island in my entire dislocated life, had also broken loose and floated whirling off. So does this mean that that stupid “soul” is just as real as my yuny, as my boots, even though I can’t see them now (they’re behind the mirror of the wardrobe door)? And if the boots are not a disease, why is the “soul” a disease?
What initiates D-503’s anti-quest for a soul? It is a woman of course. I-330 interrupts D-503’s routine life, puncturing his logic with irrational passions, taking him on transgressive trips to the Old House—and eventually, leading him to the greatest transgression of all. You see, there’s an underground movement, a secret resistance force—one that not uncoincidentally needs access to the Integral—and this resistance plans to…but I shouldn’t spoil more.
Or really, could I even spoil the plot of We? So many novels and films have borrowed heavily from (or at least echoed) its premise that you already know what it’s about. The major examples are easy—Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1955), etc. Then there are all their followers—the cheap sci-fi paperbacks of the sixties and seventies, their corresponding films—Logan’s Run, Soylent Green–and so on and so on, well into our Now (Running Man, Total Recall, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. forever).
You get the point: We is a generative text. And after reading We, I couldn’t immediately think of a clear generative text that generated it. From what materials did Zamyatin craft his tale? The closest predecessor I could initially think of was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), or maybe bits of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), neither of which feel as thoroughly modern as We does. However, cursory research (uh, skimming Wikipedia) turned up Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 short story, “The New Utopia,” which does feature some of the tropes we find in We. Set in city of the future, “The New Utopia” features uniformed, nameless, numbered people whose government attempts to destroy the human imagination. Here, the “Destiny of Humanity” has become an egalitarian nightmare.
While it’s likely that “The New Utopia” furnished Zamyatin some of the tropes he needed to construct We, Jerome’s story simply doesn’t have the same epic themes of underground resistance to technological bureaucracy that have became the stock of so much 20th and 21st-century science fiction. (I rewatched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) while reading We, and the parallels are remarkable—but the same can be said for any number of sci-fi films of the last sixty or so years).
More significantly, Jerome’s “The New Utopia” is beholden to a rhetorical scheme that makes it feel closer to an essay than a finished work of art. The story is essentially a one-sided dialogue—a man falls asleep, wakes up a few thousand years later, and gets the skinny on the utopian nightmare city he’s awoken in from an enthusiastic Future Person. Reading “The New Utopia” reminded me of reading London’s The Iron Heel, which essentially works in the same way—London’s plot often feels like an excuse to stitch together Marxist readings into monologues posing as dialogues.
Zamyatin’s book, in contrast, is Something New. We is a work of Modernism, not just a collection of new tropes, but a new configuration of those tropes. Zamyatin’s D-503 is a consciousness in crisis, a self that simultaneously dissovles and resolves into something new—a creature with a soul. Consider D-503’s recollection of a nightmare:
It’s night. Green, orange, blue; a red “royal” instrument; a yellow-orange dress. Then, a bronze Buddha; suddenly it raised its bronze eyelids and juice started to flow, juice out of the Buddha. Then out of the yellow dress, too: juice. Juices ran all over the mirror, and the bed began to ooze juice, and then it came from the children’s little beds, and now from me, too—some kind of fatally sweet horror….
The prose here showcases Zamyatin’s vivid style. We, crammed with colors, often evokes Expressionist and Futurist paintings. We get here a painterly depiction of D-503’s abjection, his sense of a self leaking out in “some kind of fatally sweet horror” — his boundaries overflowing. The dream-synthesis here is at once joyful, terrifying, and utterly bewildering to our poor hero. It is also poetic in his rendering. D-503 laments early in his narrative that he is not a poet so that he cannot properly celebrate OneState in writing for his readers. But later, his friend R-13—a poet himself—tells him that he has “no business being a mathematician. You’re a poet…a poet!”
R-13 is correct: D-503 is a poet, a poet who cannot abide all the metaphysics gumming up his mathematical mind. This poetry is rendered wonderfully in the English translation I read by Clarence Brown (1993), and is showcased in the very “titles” of each chapter (or “Record,” in the book’s terms). Each “Record” begins with phrases culled from the chapter. Here are a few at random:
An Author’s Duty
The Most Difficult Love
An Absolutely Inane Occurrence
These are the titles of four random chapters, but I suppose we could string together the whole series and arrive at a Dadaist poem, one that might also serve as an oblique summary of We.
And yet for all its surrealist tinges and techno-dystopian themes, the poem that We most reminded me of was, quite unexpectedly, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Whitman’s poem sought a new language and a new form to tell the story of a new land, a new people. He wanted to be everyone and no one at the same time, himself a kosmos, form and void, an I, a you, a we. Whitman addressed his poem to both the you of his readership, an immortal future readership beyond him (“Listener up there!”) as well as himself, famously declaring: “I loaf and invite my soul.”
D-503 presents almost as an anti-Whitman. He directly addresses his “unknown readers” in nearly every chapter, and with a Whitmanesque turn, like this one: “You, my unknown readers, you will be told everything (right now you are just as dear, as close, and as unapproachable…).” His ebullience and optimism are ironic of course—they are honest performances that crack under the increasing reality of his emerging soul. Unlike Walt Whitman, D-503 cannot loaf and invite his soul. He can’t sustain the negative capabilities Whitman’s poem engenders. His we cannot reconcile with an I, even as it seeks a mediating you in its dear readers.
And yet for all its bitter ironies and for all its hero’s often feckless struggle, We is a comedy. The book is a cartoon-poem-satire, its comedy sustained in the careening voice of D-503. It’s somewhat well known that George Orwell used We as a template for 1984 (he began that novel less than a year after penning a review of a French translation of We). Orwell’s novel though falls into the same essaying that we see in The Iron Heel and “The New Utopia.” It’s also awfully dour. In contrast, We shuttles along with zany elan, inviting us to laugh at modern absurdity. Indeed, Zamyatin posits laughter as resistance to tyranny, myopia, and brutish closed-mindedness. Late in the novel, D-503 arrives at the following epiphany:
And that was when I learned from my own experience that a laugh can be a terrifying weapon. With a laugh you can kill even murder itself.
I could end by cataloging the various parallels that might be drawn between We and our own dystopian age, but I think that they are too obvious, and, as I’ve noted, have been repeated (with degrees of difference) throughout the body of dystopian narratives that We has helped generate. What the book does though—or I should say, what it did for me—is offer the strange comfort. A century after Zamyatin diagnosed the emergence of another modern world, the human position remains essentially unchanged, and in times of despair we can remember to laugh—and imagine to imagine. Very highly recommended.
No one else was outside, and I was too depressed to call anybody to come see the unbelievable sunset. Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.
From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Lead Street, Albuquerque.” Collected in Evening in Paradise.
Otherwise I scarcely know what to say to your request for help on ‘more background’ first, I think, and I am not being facetious when I plead not that it’s so long since I wrote it but that [following a strikeover] (I’ve been typing all day and getting a little bleary) so long since I read it. If I named a single influence it would certainly be TS Eliot who still takes my breath away as he did then (and as a fair number of his lines sprinkled through the book might attest). Regarding any ‘message’, perhaps that art abides and the artist is its tool and victim but despite that it is the only enterprise worth embracing in the attempt to justify life; that art executed without love is bad (false) art but such love is not easy to come by. There was a corollary there too with God (perfection, gold) and the driving impossibility of grasping it because of our finite condition but that attempt being all we have to justify this finite condition (page 689 at the top I suppose is the key to the book if there is such). And in taking it down just now to look for this reference I read a few pages at random and must confess found them quite entertaining. I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition’, to simply enjoy it.
From Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Excerpted from a 1972 reply to Jeanne G. Howes, a student at Case Western Reserve University who wrote a thesis on The Recognitions.