A 1983 letter from Thomas Pynchon to Donald Barthelme.
Pynchon here is ostensibly apologizing for missing Barthelme’s so-called “Postmodern Dinner” in New York.
In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection from novelist Walter Abish:
Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.
Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”
Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”
An episode from Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West
It was up in Minnysota that Tom made up his mind to give over cowboying and take on the law. Becky Thatcher was the daughter of a judge and maybe she give him the idea how to set about doing it. Before that him and me was mostly adventuring round the Territories without no thoughts about the next day. We run away from home all them years ago because Tom was bored and hankered to chase after what he said was the noble savages. At first they was the finest people in the world and Tom wanted to join up with them, and then they was the wickedest that ever lived and they should all get hunted down and killed, he couldn’t make up his mind. Some boys in a wagonload of immigrants we come across early on learnt us how to ride and shoot and throw a lasso so that we got to be passing good at all them things.
That story turned poorly and we never seen what was left of them afterward, but ending stories was less important to Tom than beginning them, so we was soon off to other adventures that he thought up or read about in a book or heard tell of. Sometimes they was fun, sometimes they warn’t, but for Tom Sawyer they was all as needful as breathing. He couldn’t stand a day that didn’t have an adventure in it, and he warn’t satisfied until he’d worked in five or six.
Once, whilst we was still humping mail pouches back and forth across the desert on our ponies, I come on a rascally fellow named Bill from near where we come from. He was also keen on adventures and he was heading back east to roust up a gang of bushwhackers in our state to kill jayhawks over in the next one. The way he told it, he had a bunch of swell fellows joining his gang and he wondered if Tom and me might be interested. With the war betwixt the states starting, there were lots of gangs forming up and making sport of burning down one another’s towns, which seemed like sure enough adventures, not just something out of books, so maybe we was looking in the wrong place. But when I told Tom about it the next time we crossed up at a relay station, he says he reckoned he’d just stay out west and maybe get up a gang of his own, because he couldn’t see no profit in going back. But I knowed that warn’t the real reason. The real reason was he couldn’t be boss of it.
Tell me, would you please, about Jane Bowles.
That’s an all-inclusive command! What can I possibly tell you about her that isn’t implicit in her writing?
She obviously had an extraordinary imagination. She was always coherent, but one had the feeling that she could go off the edge at any time. Almost every page of Two Serious Ladies, for example, evoked a sense of madness although it all flowed together very naturally.
I feel that it flows naturally, yes. But I don’t find any sense of madness. Unlikely turns of thought, lack of predictability in the characters’ behavior, but no suggestion of “madness.” I love Two Serious Ladies. The action is often like the unfolding of a dream, and the background, with its realistic details, somehow emphasizes the sensation of dreaming.
Does this dreamlike quality reflect her personality?
I don’t think anyone ever thought of Jane as a “dreamy” person; she was far too lively and articulate for that. She did have a way of making herself absent suddenly, when one could see that she was a thousand miles away. If you addressed her sharply, she returned with a start. And if you asked her about it, she would simply say: “I don’t know. I was somewhere else.”
Can you read her books and see Jane Bowles in them?
Not at all; not the Jane Bowles that I knew. Her work contained no reports on her outside life. Two Serious Ladies was wholly nonautobiographical. The same goes for her stories.
She wasn’t by any means a prolific writer, was she?
No, very unprolific. She wrote very slowly. It cost her blood to write. Everything had to be transmuted into fiction before she could accept it. Sometimes it took her a week to write a page. This exaggerated slowness seemed to me a terrible waste of time, but any mention of it to her was likely to make her stop writing entirely for several days or even weeks. She would say: “All right. It’s easy for you, but it’s hell for me, and you know it. I’m not you. I know you wish I were, but I’m not. So stop it.”
The relationships between her women characters are fascinating. They read like psychological portraits, reminiscent of Djuna Barnes.
In fact, though, she refused to read Djuna Barnes. She never read Nightwood. She felt great hostility toward American women writers. Usually she refused even to look at their books.
Why was that?
When Two Serious Ladies was first reviewed in 1943, Jane was depressed by the lack of understanding shown in the unfavorable reviews. She paid no attention to the enthusiastic notices. But from then on, she became very much aware of the existence of other women writers whom she’d met and who were receiving laudatory reviews for works which she thought didn’t deserve such high praise: Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Anaïs Nin. There were others I can’t remember now. She didn’t want to see them personally or see their books.
In the introduction that Truman Capote wrote for the collected works, he emphasized how young she’d been when she wrote Two Serious Ladies.
That’s true. She began it when she was twenty-one. We were married the day before her twenty-first birthday.
Was there something symbolic about the date?
No, nothing “symbolic.” Her mother wanted to remarry and she had got it into her head that Jane should marry first, so we chose the day before Jane’s birthday.
Did your careers ever conflict, yours and your wife’s?
No, there was no conflict of any kind. We never thought of ourselves as having careers. The only career I ever had was as a composer, and I destroyed that when I left the States. It’s hard to build up a career again. Work is something else, but a career is a living thing and when you break it, that’s it.
Did you and Jane Bowles ever collaborate?
On a few songs. Words and music. Any other sort of collaboration would have been unthinkable. Collaborative works of fiction are rare, and they’re generally parlor tricks, like Karezza of George Sand and who was it: Alfred de Musset?
How did she feel about herself as an artist—about her work?
She liked it. She enjoyed it. She used to read it and laugh shamefacedly. But she’d never change a word in order to make it more easily understood. She was very, very stubborn about phrasing things the way she wanted them phrased. Sometimes understanding would really be difficult and I’d suggest a change to make it simpler. She’d say, “No. It can’t be done that way.” She wouldn’t budge an inch from saying something the way she felt the character would say it.
What was her objective in writing?
Well, she was always trying to get at people’s hidden motivations. She was interested in people, not in the writing. I don’t think she was at all conscious of trying to create any particular style. She was only interested in the things she was writing about: the complicated juxtapositions of motivations in neurotic people’s heads. That was what fascinated her.
Was she “neurotic”?
Oh, probably. If one’s interested in neuroses, generally one has some sympathetic vibration.
Was she self-destructive?
I don’t think she meant to be, no. I think she overestimated her physical strength. She was always saying, “I’m as strong as an ox,” or “I’m made of iron.” That sort of thing.
Considering how independently the two of you lived your lives, your marriage couldn’t really be described as being “conventional.” Was this lack of “conventionalism” the result of planning, or did it just work out that way?
We never thought in those terms. We played everything by ear. Each one did what he pleased—went out, came back—although I must say that I tried to get her in early. She liked going out much more than I did, and I never stopped her. She had a perfect right to go to any party she wanted. Sometimes we had recriminations when she drank too much, but the idea of sitting down and discussing what constitutes a conventional or an unconventional marriage would have been unthinkable.
She has been quoted as saying, “From the first day, Morocco seemed more dreamlike than real. I felt cut off from what I knew. In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I’ve written two short stories and nothing else. It’s good for Paul, but not for me.” All things considered, do you think that’s an accurate representation of her feelings?
But you speak of feelings as though they were monolithic, as though they never shifted and altered through the years. I know Jane expressed the idea frequently toward the end of her life, when she was bedridden and regretted not being within reach of her friends. Most of them lived in New York, of course. But for the first decade she loved Morocco as much as I did.
Did you live with her here in this apartment?
No. Her initial stroke was in 1957, while I was in Kenya. When I got back to Morocco about two months later, I heard about it in Casablanca. I came here and found her quite well. We took two apartments in this building. From then on, she was very ill, and we spent our time rushing from one hospital to another, in London and New York. During the early sixties she was somewhat better, but then she began to suffer from nervous depression. She spent most of the last seven years of her life in hospitals. But she was an invalid for sixteen years.
That’s a long time to be an invalid.
Yes. It was terrible.
I’m in the middle of Paul Bowles’s stories right now, and loving the weird sinister menace of it all. I’ll probably take a crack at some of his novels this year too (The Sheltering Sky next? I’ll need to pick them up).
Senges’s The Major Refutation is also on deck.
Not pictured, because it’s not out yet, is Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories (forthcoming in the spring from Dorothy); I’m really looking forward to this one. The NYRB is also publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below, which looks really cool. I’ve only read the collection The Oval Lady (and that through samizdat means), so I’m happy to see Carrington’s words in print.
Also not pictured because its forthcoming (from Two Lines Press) is Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll (translated by Adam Morris). I’m anxious to read more from Noll after digging his novella Quiet Creature on the Corner.
Also not pictured: I’d like to reread Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I read it when I was 19 or 20. I don’t own it.
Back to the stack in the picture: I loved Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and The Freelance Pallbearers (which strikes me as a really under-remarked upon novel), and I plan on getting to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down at some point this year.
I’ve had a few false starts with Arno Schmidt’s The Egghead Republic, but maybe I can knock it out in a weekend.
I’ve taken multiple cracks at the novels by Gray, Murdoch, and Hawkes in the stack…so we’ll see.
I read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden in a blur; I’d like to reread it and the other Forrest novel I picked up last month, Two Wings to Veil My Face.
I’ve read enough Pynchon now to make a better effort with Vineland…but again, we’ll see (I’m actually kind of jonesing to reread Against the Day).
(And oh I didn’t make a list like this in 2016, but I was 4 for 8 in the one I did in 2015).
The only way to do anything is to have it so well rehearsed in one’s imagination that when the moment comes one does it automatically, as though for the hundredth time. Then it is all natural, and there is little likelihood of a slip-up. And there was no slip-up anywhere along the way. It was a heavy day, but not too hot because of the rain, which fell quietly as I walked down the road to the station. On the train I was not in the slightest degree perturbed: I knew there was no chance of any trouble. I kept marveling at the peculiar pleasure afforded by the knowledge that one has planned a thing so perfectly there can be no room for the possibility of failure, all the while being conscious that both the pleasure and the idea itself were completely childish, and that my conviction of success was, at the very least, ill-founded. But certain situations call forth certain emotions, and the mind is a thing entirely apart. I have cakes of soap that I bought twenty-five years ago, still in their wrappers, and I am saving them in the perfect confidence that the right day will come to unwrap each one and use it. And there are probably a hundred books downstairs in the library that I am eager to read, have been eager to read for years, yet refuse to read until the day comes, the day that says to me: This is the morning to start Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, or George Borrow, or Psichari, or someone else. Now, in my logical mind, I know quite well that these promised days are not likely ever to arrive: I shall never use those old cakes of soap that are stored in the linen closet, and I am reasonably sure of never reading Romany Rye, because it doesn’t interest me. But there is that other person, the ideal one that I ought to be, whom it does interest, and it comforts me to think that those things are there waiting for him. Certainly, the mind is a thing absolutely apart.
People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight! Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.
Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth. Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life. Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.
Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength. Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck). In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal: mucus, barn, salt, and sense. The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty. When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.
He sat on a milking stool in the dark. With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal. Breath, water, cud were entering it: wind, piss, shit were leaving.
Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry. They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy. In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete. This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created. Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”
The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast. While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard. When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice. Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review of Pig Earth in 2011. We run it again in appreciation of John Berger, who died today at the age of 90].
From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. English translation by R.J. Hollingdale. NYRB.
When I first heard about the concept for Scott Esposito’s new book The Missing Books, I thought, Damn. I wish I had thought of that. Then I read it and thought, Damn, I wish I had written that.
The Missing Books is an ongoing e-book project, “a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” The first version features missing books from “Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé,” and many others. It’s a joy for bibliophiles.
Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin) and the author of The Surrender. His book The Doubles is forthcoming in 2017. He’s a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle. His blog is Conversational Reading. He was kind enough to talk with me about The Missing Books over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When and how did the idea for The Missing Books come to you?
Scott Esposito: The concept of The Missing Books came together over the summer while I was trying to figure out a good concept for an ebook to release to my core fans.
Let me take a small step back to explain: I’m a big fan of hip hop music, and one of the things I’ve really taken note of about that scene is how rappers use mixtapes to stay relevant between projects, increase their fan base, try out new concepts, etc, etc. I think rappers are geniuses at marketing their concepts and getting attention for them in the world—they’re some of the best in terms of speaking in ways that the internet can understand—and mixtapes are a true innovation in this regard. I’ve long admired this. So I had the idea that I could try to create something like a mixtape in the literary world.Last fall I tried it out by releasing an ebook project titled The Latin American Mixtape, which was well-received. Like any good mixtape, it had some old content that was repurposed for the project, plus some things that were completely new and strictly Mixtape-only.
With the success of The Latin American Mixtape, I decided to do another one this year, so I began to try out concepts that might work for such a venture. Ebook-native projects are up against some barriers that don’t pertain to print titles, so I knew that in order to make this work, it would have to be a fairly catchy idea that could translate into various sorts of memes. Eventually when I hit upon the idea of doing missing books, I had the feeling that this was definitely a concept that could work in that way.
Of course, this wasn’t just about outreach. Lost books, non-existent books, book criticism, biographies of fictitious entities—these are all very much my aesthetic. I like what Borges says, along the lines of preferring to write about a novel instead of writing the novel itself, that you can have all of the essential features there in a condensed form, and it’s even better because you can dispense with all that unnecessary stuff. I feel an affinity for that kind of commentary that stands in for a book, that can be a way of grasping the inherent mystery and excitement of a book at a glance. And this is what I’ve tried to offer in The Missing Books, little chunks of what these books might have been, since we can’t actually read them.
I’ve also long been fascinated by the Oulipo, whose whole idea of writing “potential books” is very much in league with the project. (I had formerly wanted to title The Missing Books something along the lines of Potential Books, but I had to discard that, as it was too close to sounding like the Oulipo.) And just in general, I love to find out about the curiosities of the world, the oddities, those things that were epic failures, that drove writers to the end of their career, that never quite got completed, or that are so bizarre that they can only exist inside of other books. Those things have always appealed to my imagination.
Lastly, making The Missing Books electronic-only allows me to easily integrate a feature I really wanted to have in there: revisions. One of the core ideas of The Missing Books is that it grows and updates as I find out more about this world of nonexistent titles, and as the books themselves change their lost status. While this could be done in print, it’s much more practical to do this electronically. Moreover, it allows The Missing Books itself to be a missing book: a book that is always getting a little bit closer to completion, but who says I’ll ever finish it?
Biblioklept: When I first heard of The Missing Books, I thought it might be a work of fiction, like Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, or Borges’s work in general.
SE: It’s a little bit of both. That was one of the fun things with a project like this. It was really fun to research (it got a little addicting to try and find more and more “missing books”; it was a great way to relax after hours of writing), but then it also opened a lot of doors to invent or embellish within the boundaries of the project. In the end, I don’t think it kind of defies definition as either nonfiction or fiction. I think there’s a little of the spirit of Borges in there, where if you write it maybe one day it finds a way to become true, or maybe the fiction is just better than the truth.
First off, I should say that there’s a lot in The Missing Books that’s based on solid fact, like the book Truman Capote never finished writing, or Georges Perec’s long lost first novel, which was recently discovered, translated, and published in English. That’s all pretty firm nonfiction—these things really happened, you can look it up—although in some places, I tread into fiction. Like, for instance, where I imply that someone should complete Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual art project to print out the Internet. That’s insane! I don’t really think anyone’s going to do that, or necessarily should. So there I’m playing with the unreliability of the voice and hinting that people who read The Missing Books might not take everything in it completely truthfully.
Then there’s a gray zone, books that may exist at some point in the future, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger. There’s a lot of hearsay and rumor involved in that section, and of course what we regard as “facts” about these titles will change as dictated by future events. So I’d say those titles are rooted in nonfiction, but aren’t exactly nonfiction, something more along the lines of “speculative nonfiction,” stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily commit to print (or even e-print) but that is appropriate to a work like this, where the understanding is that it’s a living, updating document that often thrives on speculation and half-truths.
Then there are the books that themselves come from works of fiction, which turn into an even grayer zone. These are in some weird kind of ontological status, but where they come from fiction, and where in the context of The Missing Books I treat them like fact, even though we both probably know that these aren’t actual books. Except, in some cases they are: like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fairly minor invention of Lovecraft’s that developed a huge and devoted following after his death and which now has been written into existence (multiple times) by other people. Or even a book found in Philip K. Dick, which someone self-published on the Amazon Kindle. What are these things? Fact or fiction? Are these books the Necronomicon? Could such a thing even exist, aside from some unstable and uncommitted concept in the mind of Lovecraft fans?
For fun and to add to the poeticism of the project a bit, I admit to embellishing or adding a few twists of my own to certain of these book-from-books, although fairly minor things that might be hard to detect. And—and this is something that to my knowledge no one has picked up on yet—I have invented a few titles in The Missing Books. Maybe some day they’ll come into existence in one way or another.
Biblioklept: My experience in reading The Missing Books was very much that strange mix of recognition and then its immediate opposite—for example, nodding in recognition at the entry on PK Dick’s The Owl in Daylight, but also puzzling over the veracity of Thomas Bernhard’s Breathing.
You brought up “the books that themselves come from works of fiction.” This is a potentially enormous section (just check out Wikipedia’s list of fictional books). How did you go about deciding what to include (and what to leave out) in this section?
SE: Oh yeah, it’s a ridiculously large category. Just the books listed in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is enough to make up a document five times as long as The Missing Books. Then you could start to bring in all the fake books in authors like Eco, Lem, and popular authors like Stephen King, and it all gets excessive very quickly.
I started off with a simple rule: I was only going to consider things from the beginning of the 20th century forward. So that right there slices off quite a bit, but it still leaves a whole lot. So to pare it down even further, I chose to only list items that I felt had some kind of story to tell us. One easy rule to follow was: do I find this interesting? If I can’t become intrigued by the story behind a missing book, that’s a pretty good indication that no one else is going to either, and that it probably doesn’t have anything of interest to communicate to us.
With those rules in place, I began to get together a fairly substantial group of projects, and some general themes and arcs of the project began to naturally emerge. Once that started happening, I began to purposely look for missing books based on how well they played off of what was already there. Like, for instance, The True Son of Job by Harry Sibelius, which is found in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature—it’s quite reminiscent of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, found in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and I know that Bolaño was a big Dick fan, so it seems possible that there was some influence there. At the very least the similarities are striking enough that it’s interesting to situate them close to one another. And then from there, it seemed worthwhile to include various works by Phoebus K. Dank, which begins to comment on how the idea of the “Philip K. Dick” author has grown into a trope of his own.
I was also always interested in books that seemed to push up against the boundaries of the categories. Like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which I place under the heading of “lost books”—is it really lost, or did Pessoa complete it? Well obviously Pessoa never “finished” it in the sense that most books are finished, but then again, Pessoa’s life project arguably rebuts the whole notion of finished books as we tend to construe them. And also, The Book of Disquiet is arguably a journal of sorts, and are those ever completed? George Steiner also makes an interesting case when he argues for Disquiet as a complete work by telling us that “As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” So I was also always on the lookout for titles that seem to render these categories less stable, the better to contemplate what they actually mean and whether or not there really is such a thing as a “missing book.”
Biblioklept: On the other side (if there is an “other” side) are the books that we never finish reading (even if we read all the words on all the pages)…there are books I return to again and again and richer, deeper, changed since the last time I read them. Do you experience this? Are there “missing,” unfinished books that you have, as a reader, “finished,” yet return to anew?
SE: For sure, it would be a disappointing kind of literature that didn’t permit those sorts of repeats. What immediately comes to mind is the author Stephen Marche, who claims to have read Hamlet over a hundred times, or Gerald Murnane, who avowed in his writing of the early 2000s that he would spend what time remained to him as a reader contemplating a handful of the mot profound texts in his life.
Certainly there are lots of books of theory that I have only begun to understand, writers like Heidegger or Lacan or Deleuze and Guattari, who have tried pushing language to challenging places in order to say things that it cannot currently say. Or a writer like Adorno, who wrote in such a way as to frustrate simple meanings or conclusions. These are people whose ideas can easily be summed up but whose actual work must simply be experienced as such and wrestled with for a long period of time.
In terms of literature, I think of writers like Pynchon, who writes in such a dense and maximalist and frustrating way that his books require long engagement, or someone like Proust, who understood humanity so deeply and extensively that one continually gains new insight as one becomes more and more experienced as a human being. But then there is also something to be said for the minimalism of a Coetzee or a Bioy or a Kafka, whose constructs seem to me like some kind of a simple-but-intricate object that one keeps staring at, trying to understand how it is built and what it means.
I would also add the category of books that I refuse to return to, books whose first experience was so bewildering and mysterious—and also so poetically infused with my life circumstances at the time—that I am fearful of destroying the impression they have left in my mind.
Biblioklept: Do you have a timeline for how the different versions of The Missing Books will come out? Or are you working on the project more organically?
SE: I very much want it to grow organically. I don’t have timetables other than to keep each new version somewhat spaced out in order to give readers a chance to chew over each edition of The Missing Books before the next one comes out. Also, I want to give the titles themselves a little time to move around and change status, as well as for new titles to emerge through the news cycle, so making the updates too frequent would be counterproductive. And of course, there’s a fairly heavy research component to each update, as I don’t want to release a new version without making some substantial additions. I’m also toying around with adding a new title grouping for Version 2, but I’ll have to see about that—it might be a little early for that sort of thing.
Right now, I’ve been more or less eyeing a spring release date for the next version.
Biblioklept: Which of the titles in The Missing Books do you most want to read?
SE: Wow, this is one of the hardest questions anyone has ever asked me. There are so many titles in The Missing Books that would greatly alter my sense of literature, that could change my life, that would put entirely new angles on writers I love…I think were I to pick just one, I would select the universal dictionary of all known human languages. I love reference books; when I was a kid I would just read volumes of the encyclopedia like they were novels, and to this day I spend obscene amounts of time reading random entries on Wikipedia, or Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dictionaries are great too in this way, although they offer a very different reading experience from the encyclopedias. I think it would be too much to pass up, the opportunity to be able to pore over all of the weird words and parts of grammar and ideas and what have you that have been embodied in the languages that humans have created to express themselves in over the course of our few thousand years of being writing, speaking beings on this planet.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SE: No, definitely not. I’m fortunate in that books are one of those minor luxuries that I’ve always had the means to support for myself, so I’ve never been anywhere near the position of needing to steal them. When I was young my parents would always buy me any books I needed, and now it’s not an onerous expense to purchase the books I read. There are review copies, of course, there’s no getting around the need for them, but I make it a priority to support presses with purchases in at least some cases where I’d probably be “entitled” to a review copy. Especially nowadays, when my colleagues include many people at independent presses and bookstores, I try to do what I can to support their work financially.
As always: I’m sure it was my fault, and not the book’s fault, that I abandoned it.
(Except when it was the book’s fault).
And also: “Abandoned” doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t come back to some of these books. (One of them even ended up on a list I made earlier this year of the books I’ve started the most times without ever finishing (and I finished one of those books this year, by the way)).
That big guy down on the bottom there, Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream (Eng. trans. by John Woods)?—I didn’t so much abandon it as I was told to put it away before we served Thanksgiving dinner at our house. There really isn’t a place for me to read the damn thing besides the dining room table. I’m sure I’ll dip into it more and I’m pretty sure I’ll never finish it in this lifetime. But I haven’t abandoned it forever. Earlier this year I wrote about the anxiety Bottom’s Dream produces in me.
Louis Armand’s The Combinations had the misfortune to show up as I was in the middle of a third reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the first two chapters of Armand’s 888 page opus, then some other stuff showed up at the house in the mail, and then The Combinations got pushed to the back of the reading stack. The novel still interests me, but I’m not sure if I have the stamina right now.
Most of my reading experiences have as much to do with the time and the place that I read the book as they do with the form and content of the book. This year was not the time or the place for me to read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, a strange book I really, really, really wanted to love, but abandoned maybe 35 pages in.
I actually read a large portion of Peter Biskind’s history of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I broke down and finally bought it this summer after multiple viewings of William Friedkin’s film Sorcerer and two trips through Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Biskind’s style is insufferable—gossipy and tawdry—and he swings wildly from venerating the book’s heroes (Bogdanovich, Coppola, Nichols, Scorsese, Malick, De Palma) to tearing them down (um, yeah, they were assholes). But there is an index which is of some use (although in reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you’re more likely to find out about a director’s drug problems or sex problems or money problems than you are to find out about, like, filmmaking). The worst part of Biskind’s book though is its repetitive insistence that not only did the Baby Boomers save Hollywood filmmaking, but also that the Boomers’ films were the last real outsider art ever to come out of Hollywood. Yeesh.
The first several stories in James Purdy’s short story collection 63: Dream Palace made me feel very, very sad, so I shelved it.
I read the first 258 pages of Samuel Delany’s novel Dhalgren. The book is 801 pages long and I couldn’t see it improving any. The book might be as great as everyone says it is, but it was mostly a boring mess (pages and pages of a character moving furniture around). On page 258, a character declares “There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.” I took that as a sign to ditch.
End with two limes: I’ve tried reading Thomas Bernhard’s The Limeworks too many times. I tried twice this year (once in the summer when it was simply too hot to read Thomas Bernhard). I read Bernhard’s Woodcutters though, and it is amazing.
And: I was reading John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig on Election Day, 2016 and haven’t been able to pick it up since then.
Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death? Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel. Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.
The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight. The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost. The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine. Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient. The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters. They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.
Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters. She’s tough, articulate, and well-read. While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory. She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life. She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them. Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar? Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth. Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words. “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.” When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”
Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship. Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness. He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story. Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real. His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse. This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide. A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in 2011. Today is PKD’s birthday].
Roberto Bolaño on Philip K. Dick. from New Directions’ collection of Bolaño’s newspaper columns, forewords, and other ephemera Between Parentheses)—
Dick was a schizophrenic. Dick was a paranoiac. Dick is one of the ten best American writers of the 20th century, which is saying a lot. Dick was a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage. Dick talks to us, in The Man in the High Castle, in what would become his trademark way, about how mutable reality can be and therefore how mutable history can be. Dick is Thoreau plus the death of the American dream. Dick writes, at times, like a prisoner, because ethically and aesthetically he really is a prisoner. Dick is the one who, in Ubik, comes closest to capturing the human consciousness or fragments of consciousness in the context of their setting; the correspondence between what he tells and the structure of what’s told is more brilliant than similar experiments conducted by Pynchon or DeLillo.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.