George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

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Blog about the first half of Antoine Volodine’s Writers

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Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.

That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:

…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:

  • sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
  • twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
  • ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
  • and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar

I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.

The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:

Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…

The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”

Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?

They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.

The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.

Courtyard with Lunatics, 1794 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book  An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer

…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.

“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the OttersEve of PandemicJournal of PandemoniumGoodbye CloudsGoodbye RomeoMlatelpopec in ParadiseMacbeth in ParadiseHell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.

 

Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

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The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Blog about Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”

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I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity.  A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.

But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:

“Happiest Moment”

The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.

If you

The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).

ask her what is a favorite story she has written,

We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!

she will hesitate for a long time

Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.

and then say

Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.

it may be this story that she read in a book once:

Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.

(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).

an English language teacher in China

There’s a frame.

asked his Chinese student

Another frame (and a second ask).

to say what was the happiest moment in his life.

The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).

The student hesitated for a long time.

(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).

At last he smiled with embarrassment

(God I love this guy).

and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,

(We’re getting to our climax folks).

and she often told him about it,

Another frame, another telling.

and he would have to say

Our verb, our answer—

that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.

What a sweet, sweet ending.

The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

 

William H. Gass on postmodernism

William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.

Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.

WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.

I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.

So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.

JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.

WG: Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.

From an interview with William H. Gass published in Bomb #51, Spring 1995.

Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

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I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

A review of Blade Runner 2049

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Film poster for Blade Runner 2049 by James Jean

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.

By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?

Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.

Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.

Continue reading “A review of Blade Runner 2049”

On Philip K. Dick’s novel A Maze of Death

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I finished Philip K. Dick’s 1970 novel A Maze of Death this afternoon. The end made me tear up a little, unexpectedly. It’s a sad end, profoundly sad in some ways, and the unexpectedness of the sadness, is, like, particularly sad.

Sad because I didn’t quite expect (hence that adverb unexpectedly) Dick to stick any kind of ending, what, after nearly 200 pages of cardboard characters wandering through a pulp fiction death maze, ventriloquized by the author to perform monologues on consciousness and perception and reality and religion and prayer and faith and afterlife and salvation and so on and so on and so on.

A Maze of Death has some strong moments and strong images—one-way space shuttles, organic 3-D printers, riffs on a deity that would necessarily absorb the concept of a non-deity, a cosmic recapitulation of Odin, space sex, etc.—but on the whole A Maze of Death peters out towards the end, its energy sapped as Dick tires of revolving through (and killing off) the cast of characters (and consciousnesses) he’s assembled in his Haunted (Space) House. The thin allegory he’s patched together crumbles. Or perhaps it was only an allegory assembled for its author’s sad delight. In any case, the whole does not cohere. But no matter.

Too, A Maze of Death suffers perhaps in comparison to its twin, Dick’s bouncier 1969 ensemble satire Ubik. Hell, Ubik probably peters out too, but it’s funnier and sharper. Still: A Maze of Death delivers a strong conclusion, a thesis statement that will resonate with anyone who’s ever envied a machine’s “Off” switch.

But book reviews aren’t supposed to start with endings, right?

What is A Maze of Death about? I mean, that’s what a book review is supposed to do, maybe? Give up some of the plot, the gist, right? The short short answer is Death. (And, like, how does consciousness mediate the ultimate promise of a life-maze that leads to Death, the apparent undoing of consciousness?). But wait, that’s not the plot, that’s like, theme, which is just a way of condensing the plot. This paragraph has gotten us nowhere. I’m going to get up off my ass and walk across the room I’m in to pick up Lawrence Sutin’s 1989 biography of PKD, Divine Invasions and crib from the “Chronological Survey and Guide” at its end. Okay, here, from the entry for Maze:

A group of colonists encounter inexplicable doings—including brutal murders—on the supposedly uninhabited planet Delmark-O. They then learn the truth of Milton’s maxim that the mind creates its own heavens and hells. … In his forward to Maze Phil cites the help of William Sarill in creating the “abstract, logical” religion posed in the novel; Sarill, in interview, says he only listened as Phil spun late-night theories.

—Okay, wait—I promise I’ll return to Sutin’s lucid summary—but Damn, that’s it right there— “Phil spun late-night theories” —much of Maze reads like a late night amphetamine rant about consciousness, man

The plots of Eye [in the Sky]Ubik, and Maze are strikingly similar: A group of individuals find themselves in a perplexing reality state and try to use each other’s individual perceptions (idios kosmos) to make sense of what is happening to them all (koinos kosmos). Only in Eye, written ten years earlier, is the effort successful. In Ubik and Maze, by contrast, individual insight and faith are the only means of piercing the reality puzzle. In Maze, Seth Morley alone escapes the dire fate of his fellow twenty-second-century Delmark-O “colonists” (who are in truth…

—Okay, wait, it looks like Sutin is eager to spoil the ending there—but honestly, the ending that I found so satisfying wasn’t the twist that Sutin goes on to describe in his summary. The ending that Dick gives to his main viewpoint character Seth Morley that I found so moving had nothing to do with plot. Sutin’s line “Morely alone escapes” echoes the actual language of Dick’s novel, which echoes the end of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael alone escapes the wreckage of the Pequod, which in turn echoes the book of Job, where a witness returns from disaster to exclaim, I only am escaped alone to tell thee. This is the core of storytelling, I suppose: witnessing, enduring, and telling again. But Dick’s Morely wants an out, an off switch, a way to break the circuit, to escape the maze. The end of the novel—am I spoiling, after I cut Sutin off for fear of spoiling? Very well, I spoil—the end of the novel posits storytelling as a kind of survival mechanism against the backdrop of the existential horror of endless and apparently meaningless space. And yet the hero Morely still wants out of the story, and Dick lets him out. Out into non-story, out into a kind of plant-like existence—life without consciousness, life without a story.

But what’s the story the others, the rest of the maze’s ensemble, create?—

There is a quaternity of gods in Maze—an admixture of Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity; the Mentafacturer, who creates (God); the Intercessor, who through sacrifice lifts the Curse on creation (Christ); the Walker-on-Earth, who gives solace (Holy Spirit); and the Form Destroyer, whose distance from the divine spurs entropy (Satan/Archon/Demiurge)/ The tench, an old inhabitant of Delmark-O, is Phil’s “cypher” for Christ.

The “tench” is originally introduced as a kind of 3-D printer thing and I didn’t read it as a Christ figure at all, but what the hell do I know. In fact, I took the name (and figuration) to be a composite of the tensions between the characters—the allegorical forces at work in Dick’s muddy made-up late-night religion.

Anyway, I suppose you get some of the flavor of the novel there, dear reader—a mishmash of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, filtered through touches (and tenches) of space opera and good old fashioned haunted housery. A Maze of Death is a messy space horror that threatens to leave its readers unsatisfied right up until the final moments wherein it rings its sad coda, a reverberation that nullifies all its previous twists and turns in a soothing wash of emptiness. Not the best starting place for PKD, but I’m very glad I read it.

Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master”

“To Serve the Master”

by

Philip K. Dick


Applequist was cutting across a deserted field, up a narrow path beside the yawning crack of a ravine, when he heard the voice.

He stopped frozen, hand on his S-pistol. For a long time he listened, but there was only the distant lap of the wind among the broken trees along the ridge, a hollow murmuring that mixed with the rustle of the dry grass beside him. The sound had come from the ravine. Its bottom was snarled and debris-filled. He crouched down at the lip and tried to locate the voice.

There was no motion. Nothing to give away the place. His legs began to ache. Flies buzzed at him, settled on his sweating forehead. The sun made his head ache; the dust clouds had been thin the last few months.

His radiation-proof watch told him it was three o’clock. Finally he shrugged and got stiffly to his feet. The hell with it. Let them send out an armed team. It wasn’t his business; he was a letter carrier grade four, and a civilian.

As he climbed the hill toward the road, the sound came again. And this time, standing high above the ravine, he caught a flash of motion. Fear and puzzled disbelief touched him. It couldn’t be — but he had seen it with his own eyes. It wasn’t a newscircular rumor. Continue reading “Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master””

Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list

Did you see Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list? I saw it this morning, and on the whole it ain’t half bad, despite including way too many novels from the past 10 years. Lists are stupid and maybe we already live in a dystopia, but our dystopia could be way way worse and lists are stupid fun…so—my stupid thoughts on this stupid fun list. (They organized it chronologically, by the bye)—-

Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726: Good starting place, although I’m sure you could reach farther back if you wanted—Revelations, Blake, Milton, etc.

The Last Man, Mary Shelley, 1826: Never read it. The listmakers seem to have skipped Voltaire’s Candide (1759).

Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872: Hey, did you know that Erewhon is actually Nowhere backwards? Ooooh…far out. I really don’t remember it but I read it in school. I’m sure I would’ve thrown it on the list.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895: Great track. Some of the best required reading ever.

“The Machine Stops,” E.M. Forster, 1909: Never read it/never heard of it.

We, Yvegny Zamyatin, 1924: The list reminded me I need to reread this one—I read it twice—in my teens and in my twenties. Good stuff. (Also reminds me that I would’ve added something by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list—like his collection Memories of the Future).

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932: This is the guy. I mean, I think Huxley got it right here, y’know? Not that a dystopian novel needs to predict, but…anyway. I actually had a student come by during office hours just to visit, and she asked for a novel recommendation, and I gave her BNW after she told me 1984 was the last great book she’d read. If I recall correctly, the Vulture list only has one duplicate author (Margaret Atwood), but I’d also add Huxley’s often-overlooked novel Ape and Essence.

It Can’t Happen Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 1935: I think this is one of those ones where I know the basic plot, themes, etc., but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.

Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin, 1937: An entry that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, the sort of thing that shows the value in stupid silly fun lists. I’ll search it out.

1984, George Orwell, 1949: I guess this one is the big dawg, but I never want to reread it (unlike Huxley’s stuff). Maybe I’m missing the humor in it. Maybe the most important novel of the 20th century, whatever that means. Continue reading “Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list”

This is not a review of Shattering the Muses, a strange hybrid “novel” by Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori

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Rainer J. Hanshe’s new book Shattering the Muses is comprised of citations, short histories, poems, complaints and lamentations, anecdotes, essays, etchings, manipulated photographs, photographs of old documents, ink and enamel drawings, coal and ash pictures, and other media. His co-conspirator on the project is Federico Gori who provides original art for Shattering the Muses. Here are two of nine depictions by Gori of muses that open (in a sense) the narrative:

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The books is ten inches tall, seven inches wide, and one inch thick. It contains 370 pages, many of them illustrated, several blank, and five that are completely black. There are at least four fonts (and more languages than that, although the book is primarily in English).

Have I lingered over form too long here? It’s difficult to describe the content of Shattering the Muses (which often foregrounds the “narrative’s” form).

Or maybe description isn’t so difficult—perhaps we can rely on the book to name its own central problem. The question that threads through Shattering the Muses is “Beware the Book?”

Let’s look at a few examples:

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Above, we read an account—with its own embedded quotation—of The First Emperor of Qin’s ordering, two hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, a grand burning of a great many books. The account ends with the question: “Beware the book?”

(Some historians remark that Quin Shi Huang caused to be buried alive 460 Confucian scholars).

On the opposing/facing page, a 1493 German woodcut depicts Jews being buried and burned alive, scapegoats for the Black Death plague. The woodcut provides an answer to the question: “Beware the book?”: No, beware the burners. The space between the two pages is a gap for the reader to crossPut the pieces together.

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Indeed, it is the reader’s task (task is not quite the right word) to put the pieces of Shattering together. Take the pages above, for example. A passage from Areopagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, contends that books are “not absolutely dead things,” but rather extractions of the soul’s intellect. He compares them to “those fabulous dragon’s teeth” that Cadmus scattered by Athena’s command. Milton warns that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of Life.”

The next page reproduces Johan Liss’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (c. 1627). The satyr Marsyas found and mastered the first aulos, an double-reed wind instrument cast away by Athena. (She didn’t like the shape her invention brought to her virgin cheeks). Marsyas challenged Apollo to an aulos contest and lost, natch. (Apollo’s daughters the Muses were the judges). Marsyas was subsequently flayed alive, his hide nailed to a tree. Victim for art’s sake.

(The first page of Shattering the Muses is a quote from Ovid’s Fasti. The lines describe Athena discarding her aulos: “Art is not worth this to me,” she says, seeing her reflected face deformed in the river as she produces the “sublime” music).

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One more set of two pages, then. (It’s easier to show the book than to properly describe it in words. This is not a review). Above: Tadeusz Różewicz was a Polish poet who fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He survived the war. His brother Janusz, also a poet, did not. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

The facing page is a photograph of a scrap of one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri  manuscripts (specifically, P.Oxy. 67.4633). This scrap contains commentary on Homer’s Iliad, but is mostly famous because someone used it to wipe their ass. (A literary critic?)

However, Shattering the Muses is not entirely composed of loosely arranged but discontinuous fragments. Several narratives strand through the book. The most straightforward of these is the story of Renato Naso, who is the closest thing to a main character we’ll find here. When we’re introduced to him, we’re told that he’s “unknowingly putting his life in suspension…living in an eternal between.” He’s a hero (?) ripe for “rupture, fracture, and shattering.” (Perhaps if we take Shattering the Muses as a “novel” we could imagine that the events within take place in Naso’s stretched consciousness—a more secure place for such horrors than, uh, historical reality). When we first meet him, he’s leaving New York for Berlin, forced to abandon most of his books and store them in his brother’s garage. His brother’s house and garage are flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but his library miraculously survives. And yet the historical accounts of book burnings (and human burnings) cataloged in Shattering the Music attest that no library is ever safe. As Milton suggests, libricide and homicide are intertwined.

Hence, other background “characters” emerge more prominently than others in Shattering the Muses: Hitler, Mussolini, the Gestapo. The specter of the Nazis and the Holocaust weigh heavily here, heavier than the (many) other libriciders documented. Against this evil Hanshe gives us a resistance—a wonderful chapter lingers on Samuel Beckett, who’s escaped Occupied Paris to hide in the small village of Roussillon. There, “separated from his library…literary freedom erupts” for Beckett. Absence is a generative power.

Other figures resist through art, even if they perish in the horror, like Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered by the Nazis near Győr and tossed into a mass grave. In a poetic turn, Hanshe notes “it is a daring Marsyas that he becomes, risking his flesh doubly before a merciless & savage Apollo, for he will not cast his aulos to the turf of the riverbank.” Deft touches like these link this “novel’s” motifs of beauty and destruction, art and murder.

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One Day I’m Going to Grow Wings #2, 2016, Federico Gori

A narrative forms too from more oblique strategies—a plague of mutating billboards, for instance, or spiderwebs of poetry. Handbills, demands, stray bits of philosophy. But maybe I’m back where I started—go all the way back to the title here: This is not a review of Shattering the Muses. I can’t properly parse it, really. It’s overwhelming—linguistically, philosophically, typographically, aesthetically. Intellectually is a word to use here. Hell. It’s a lot to digest all at once. Let me admit that I’m more interested in picking at it slowly. Hanshe’s put a lot of material on the table. It’s a rich meal.

Who is Shattering the Muses for? I hope that I’ve shared enough snippets to give you a sense of what (might be) happening here. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it more in the sense of a text to return to. At the same time, this book is clearly Not For Everyone. Shattering the Muses is an encyclopedic poem, a Choose Your Own Adventure story of aesthetic horror and loss. It’s not likely to cohere for you quickly and neatly, but it’s a weird joy to think (and feel) through.

Last word goes to the Text:

Beware the Book?

Beware the Purifiers!

Beware Libricide.

Lost in The Vorrh

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I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.

These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as

….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.

Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.

There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh.  Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.

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The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.

In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.

If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.


[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The VorrhIn addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].

More Plant-Like: A review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.

But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.

Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.

‘…I thought trees stood up straight … I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them. … Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’

What’s peculiar about the novel, apart from the quiet horror of Kang’s prose, the quiet violence of Yeong-hye’s world and its casual presentation thereof, and actually a lot of things that are wonderfully disquieting, is that none of its three acts are narrated by Yeong-hye herself. I expected more time with and inside Yeong-hye in a book about the murderously aloof self-satisfaction of the men in power that orchestrate her destruction. But I even wince at the word “inside” of Yeong-hye. It sounds like I’m participating in a certain kind of violence. The important thing to remember is that Yeong-hye’s perceived disability is only so in the eyes of the narrators, Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Her family insists, and then demands, that Yeong-hye provide a rational reason for her vegetarianism, but they only want to hear her say that it’s for the sake of her health, or for her appearance. They might even tolerate an ethical argument. Instead, Yeong-hye only offers, like our Bartleby, a frustration. Drunk and sleepy, Yeong-hye’s husband finds his wife staring intently into the white light of the fridge.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my moth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto skin.

The repetition of the word meat has a certain violence to it, and metaphorizes the ways in which the category of “meat” is embedded even in the writing itself, how deeply it penetrates. Yeong-hye is treated like meat; pigs and cattle raised for consumption are referred to as pork and beef, even before they’re slaughtered; meat is a violently rendered, aestheticized experience. Soon, Yeong-hye does remember the places that are lost in her dreams inside of actual memories. The haunting repetition of the word “meat” transforming what was once familiar into paralyzing strangeness.

While Father ties the dog to the tree and scorches it with a lamp, he says it isn’t to be flogged. He says he heard somewhere that driving a dog to keep running until the point of death is considered a milder punishment. The motorcycle engine starts, and Father begins to drive in a circle. […] Once it has gone five laps, the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground.

Punishment and thus justice isn’t swift, but an exercise in pushing one’s ability to endure physical shame. Like when her father, incredulous and domineering, forces her family to hold Yeong-hye back as he shoves a “lump of meat” into Yeong-hye’s wailing body. Or when Yeong-hye is forced to endure the public shaming at an obligatory business dinner. Her vegetarianism unhinges the normative narrative of her family’s reality, and they take it personally. To them, it is an invitation to rape, to control, and to punish.

But it was no easy thing for a man in the prime of his life, for whom married life had always gone entirely without a hitch, to have his physical needs go unsatisfied for such a long period of time. So yes, one night when I returned home late and somewhat inebriated after a meal with colleagues, I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor. Pinning down her struggling arms and tugging off her trousers, I became unexpectedly aroused. She put up a surprisingly strong resistance and, spitting out vulgar curses all the while, it took me three attempts before I managed to insert myself successfully. Once that had happened she lay there in the dark staring up at the ceiling, her face blank, as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.

Rape doesn’t apply to Yeong-hye because she is called a wife, her refusal to play the role erases the violence of rape in the rules of this reality. Yeong-hye’s renunciation of subservience, and the subsequent violence, highlights the underlying rage of male culture presented in this novel. More striking than the appalling behavior of Yeong-hye’s husband is his nonchalance, a result of Kang’s cool, distending prose, brilliantly translated by into English by Deborah Smith. We’re not meant to be unhinged by the drapes of meat in Yeong-hye’s dreams, but the coolness in which Yeong-hye’s family preclude empathy and default to insult and violence. Even before empathy, they preclude curiosity—their questions only seek answers for which they are already disappointed. What we are supposed to be horrified by is how bereft they are of compassion.

Where they shame a woman supposedly acting out of character, Yeong-hye simply wants the dreams to stop. But where do the dreams come from? This tension sustains the entirety of the novel, and drives Yeong-hye deeper into plant-like behavior. Yeong-hye is eventually committed to a mental hospital after the staff find her shirtless, looking up into the sun with eyes clenched, as if in the grip of photosynthesis. Later, after a divorce, in a second mental hospital, something akin to the sanatoriums of Kafka’s and Bernhard’s worlds, far away from Seoul, she refuses to eat and spends hours in a hand-stand, emulating the trees of the mountains. Yeong-hye can’t do anything about the dreams because they are the signature of her conscription into humanity.

Yeong-hye cut her off. ‘They say my insides have all atrophied, you know.’ In-hye was lost for words. Yeong-hye moved her emaciated face closer to her sister. ‘I’m not an animal anymore, sister,’ she said, first scanning the empty ward as if about to disclose a momentous secret. ‘I don’t need to eat, now now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.’

Becoming vegetarian isn’t a choice, but a last resort. Yeong-hye is compelled towards plant-like existence because it’s her only method of control and, ironically, affirming her humanity. Yeong-hye doesn’t elect vegetarianism; her family conditioned her for this transformation, her refusal to play this version of humanity. But this is the humanity under which all of us are prescribed. When Yeong-hye recoils at the sight of meat, she sees herself. Yeong-hye turns to vegetarianism because she projects onto plants a freedom of being non-human, non-woman, non-sexualized. The possibility of existing without violence or domination, of being in the world without the risk of knowing what one is, but just being. Vegetarianism in The Vegetarian isn’t a religious requirement, nor the fancy of first-world privilege, but anti-human. It is an affirmation that says not only is the culture a problem, but people are the problem.

[Ed. note: Ryan Chang’s review of The Vegetarian was originally published by Biblioklept in May of 2015].

Not a review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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  1. What follows is not a novel of Han Kang’s 2007 novel The Vegetarian, which I read this weekend (in Deborah Smith’s 2015 English language translation).
  2. Here—by which I mean this link—is a review of The Vegetarian by Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang. He reviewed the novel two years ago on this blog, in depth, and with plenty of like, citations and examples from the novel itself.
  3. I meant to read The Vegetarian after reading Ryan’s review, but got sidetracked, (Sidetracked is not the right metaphor. I hoped to read it but didn’t. Until this weekend).
  4. Anyway, in the meantime while I was not reading it, The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which means it got plenty of reviews and attention, which is good, because it’s a “good” book (whatever that means—what I mean is it’s a perplexing and fucked up and weird book), and also I’ve been out in the sun drinking beers all day and I know I couldn’t muster, like, a review.
  5. To really review the book, I’d have to reread it anyway, which I’ll probably do. The narrative’s arranged in three sections told via three very different perspectives—kinda sorta Rashomon style, I guess—and information in each section shades and intensifies information in other sections—so rereading the first two sections would be, um, valuable to seeing/feeling the novel anew.
  6. I use seeing/feeling above in lieu of understanding. The Vegetarian produced an aesthetic sensation in me (by which I maybe mean emotion that I don’t have the right word for. This previous statement sounds like boilerplate hyperbole, but it’s not—I literally cannot think of an accurate word to describe the feeling of the end of the novel. I’ve read takes on the novel that use terms like “unsettling” or “disturbing,” but these seem like adjectives without clear or proper referents.
  7. My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
  8. Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
  9. Does that hold appeal for you, kind reader? A dreamy queasy South Korean novel about a woman who stops eating meat after a weird dream and whose family reacts extremely poorly to her decision to stop eating meet? That description sounds way more banal than the novel really is. The books’ not banal at all; it’s a weird take on cruelty and abjection and refusal, refusal, refusal. It’s confounding. (I don’t have the right adjectives right now).
  10. I don’t have the right adjectives right now. Maybe I’ll just hit “publish” on this post and then repost Ryan’s review, which is far more detailed and perceptive and interesting than this non-review. In fact, I’m sure I’ll do that.

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On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.

Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake,  plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).

In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.

Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.

Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.

This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:

I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.

The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).

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The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.

Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.

Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.

The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.

“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.

After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.

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Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.

Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why. 

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].