Blog about the first 96 pages of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

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I have blazed through the first three (unnumbered) chapters of William Gaddis’s third novel Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) this weekend, consuming the prose with an urgency I did not expect. After all, Gaddis is (at least according to Jonathan Franzen) “Mr. Difficult,” right?

But Carpenter’s Gothic is not especially difficult, or does not feel that way to me, anyway—although I’m sure I find it so readable in large part because I’ve read Gaddis’s second novel  J R twice already, and Carpenter’s Gothic is written in the same style as J R. The first time I read J R did find its style tremendously challenging. Gaddis strips almost all exposition and scene-setting in J R. The novel’s 726 pages are comprised primarily in dialogue, often unattributed, leaving the reader to play director, producer, and cinematographer. Reading it a second time was, in a way, like reading it for the first time, revealing one of the best and arguably most important American novels of the second-half of the twentieth century.

In any case, reading J R has taught me how to read Carpenter’s Gothic, which is told in the same style. Carpenter’s Gothic is a smaller novel though, both literally (around 250 pages) and figuratively. While J R sports a large cast, sprawling and interlinked plots, divergent tones, and a wide array of themes, Carpenter’s Gothic is restrained to a few talking characters, whom Gaddis keeps confined to an isolated house somewhere in New England. (It is from this house’s architectural design that the novel gets its title).

The central character is Elizabeth Booth, 33, an heiress locked out of her inheritance. Elizabeth is married to an awful abusive man named Paul, a racist Vietnam Veteran who embodies almost every characteristic of what we now think of as toxic masculinity. Elizabeth is recovering from an as-yet-unspecified accident, and spends most of her time confined to her rented house, fielding phone calls. Some of these phone calls are from folks related to her husband’s latest scheme with a televangelist. Other calls are from her friend Edith who has run off to sunny Jamaica—a prospect of escape that entices Elizabeth. Even more calls come for the mysterious owner of the house, McCandless, who eventually shows up in the third chapter.

McCandless’s visit sparks something in Elizabeth. She gets to glance into his locked study, crammed with papers and books and even a piano, and she takes him for a writer, but he claims he’s a geologist. His short visit inspires Elizabeth to dig up the draft of a book, or something like a book, she’s been working on, and add a few notes. The romantic impulse is eventually punctured by her husband’s return.

Carpenter’s Gothic’s relentless interiority and inherent bitterness can give the novel a claustrophobic feeling, and reading it often reminds me of the scenes in J R that are set in the ramshackle 96th Street apartment shared by Bast and Gibbs. And yet its interiority always branches outward, evoking an exotic and pulsating world that Elizabeth might love to experience. There’s Montego Bay, there’s Orson Welles in Jane Eyre, there’s the nomadic Masai of central east Africa. Etc. But Elizabeth’s experiences are mediated by newspapers, magazine articles, phone calls, and old movies on television. It’s quite sad and frustrating.

Elizabeth thus far fits neatly into American literature’s motif of the confined woman: Walt Whitman’s 29th bather, Kate Chopin’s Mrs. Mallard, William Carlos Williams’ young housewife, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s distressed and nervous heroine. There are many, many more, of course.  I’m not quite half way through Carpenter’s Gothic–no spoilers from you please, readers!—and curious what Gaddis will do with his heroine. Will there be an escape? Freedom? A happy ending?

So many 19th and 20th century American writers seemed unsure of what to do with their heroines, even after they had freed them (Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier is a particularly easy go-to example, but again: there are more). Carpenter’s Gothic seems set on a tragic track, but Gaddis has a way of making his readers recognize the farcical contours in tragedy.

I haven’t given a taste of Gaddis’s prose yet. I will share, as a closing, the novel’s opening two-sentence paragraph, which I think is simply marvelous, and which I had to read at least three times before I could turn to the novel’s second page. Here it is:

The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she’d found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she’d taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of the boys out there wiping mud from his cheeks where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they’d end up that time of day.

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Blog about Evan Dara’s two-act play Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins

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Evan Dara’s latest work is a two-act play called Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins. Set “c. 2015” on a stage “As bare as you can stand it,” Dara’s play follows Mose Eakins, “35-ish and spry,” as he becomes afflicted with a condition that “has come to be known as imparlence.”

Mose’s imparlence erodes his ability to communicate with others. He loses his job, his home, and eventually his girlfriend Zina, from whom he initially hides his condition. Though his life deteriorates, Mose eventually lands a job as the maitre d’ of an overpriced French restaurant. Here, his sympathies extend to the overworked kitchen staff, and he takes a stand against the unjust working conditions, trying to make meaning through his actions, even as his words fail to communicate.

Dara keeps Provisional Biography spare but active, using a device he calls “the swirl” as a kind of Greek Chorus to keep the play shuttling along, even as the narrative threatens to fall apart. And because Mose is our viewpoint character, and because Mose is afflicted with “imparlence,” the narrative of Provisional Biography is under constant threat of its own linguistic erasure. As the swirl helpfully informs the audience, “people with imparlence lose the capacity to infuse their words with intelligible significance.”

Provisional Biography’s opening lines are an especially baffling affront to “intelligible significance.” When we meet Mose, he’s already imparlent, although he does not know it yet. Consider the play’s opening lines:

MOSE: Tell me something, Jeff. Those numbers convincing to you?

(to someone else)

Bring me the swordfish. Not blackened. You got that? Not blackened. Go.

(to someone else, jauntily)

Well, you know what they say…

(to someone else)

Nice, Zina – the chart is really good. Zina, your students will love it!

(to someone else, laughing)

Tell him that and he’s totally going to have a kitten!

The first few pages of the play continue in this line, Mose’s utterances disconnected from any context that might anchor their meaning. A swirl member eventually appears on stage to push the narrative into more traditional territory:

SWIRL MEMBER 1: Hear it here! Mose Eakins (born June 10, 1978) is an American
field-risk analyst working for Concord Oil. Specializing in mid-level hard-soil
extractions, he won the Kamden Prize for his research into adjacent fauna protection and occasionally lectures in his field.

As Mose’s imparlence worsens, the tension between Mose and the world he cannot communicate with increases, erupting in moments both tragic and comic (and farcical and tragicomic). The swirl is often there to assuage him (and the audience), armed with a humorous (and occasionally ironic) quiver of quotes from the likes of Melanie Klein, William H. Gass, Jean Jacques Rousseau, St. Augustine, and television personality Doctor Oz.

The swirl advises our poor hero, suggesting treatments and support groups—and also offering up punchlines when there’s no real hope in sight:

SWIRL MEMBER: There is no known cure. Imparlence is untreatable—

MOSE: But the doctor – the doctor recommended medicine!

(Mose pulls out the paper given by Doctor Mazlane, shows it to the swirl.)

He told me to take this and come see him again! It’s a prescription…

(reads the paper)

…a prescription…to pay him five hundred and twenty dollars… And I thought bleeding patients went out in the nineteenth century.

SWIRL MEMBER: There’s been a strong return to traditional medicine.

(Other jokes don’t land so neatly—in a segment mocking TV drug commercials, a swirl member offers up an absolute groaner with the phrase “irregular vowel movements.” Who knows though? Maybe the joke plays well on the stage).

With all of its humor, Provisional Biography is ultimately a sad, even tragic story, and nowhere is it sadder than in Mose’s revelation that he can communicate to other humans through one medium: economic exchange. He takes to desperately buying Tic Tacs from street vendors simply to communicate intelligibly, and eventually resorts to buying phrases from a fellow homeless person.

And yet these purchased utterances are not true linguistic exchanges—they do not mean outside of their inherent economic content. Mose Eakins despairs:

MOSE: So – so that’s it? That’s it for me? I can only just flapgaggle by myself for the
rest of my days – flapgaggle and hope?

SWIRL MEMBER: Perhaps inevitable. According to Robert Nozick of Harvard, imparlence is just the latest expression of the ownership society.

SWIRL MEMBER: Meaning has been privatized. It’s been made part of the private
sphere.

SWIRL MEMBER: Significance is no longer a publicly-owned utility, a service
provided by a command and control center.

SWIRL MEMBER: This will vastly increase our linguistic productivity—

SWIRL MEMBER: —liberate our potential as creators of meaning—

SWIRL MEMBER: —freeing us from the restrictions and inefficiencies of the nanny
dictionary!

MOSE: But…

The swirl here satirizes the newspeak of late capitalism, imagining language—a thing that makes us inherently human—as yet another commodity to be consumed and sold back to us by a dehumanizing system that seems to operate on its own inscrutable logic. While there’s humor in the little scene, it’s also quite painful.

The idea that late capitalism reduces linguistic exchange to only an economic (and thus inauthentic) exchange is repeated again in a far more painful scene later in the play. Mose pleads for “Something real…A real response – something that speaks from the heart!” from the homeless man he has been buying phrases from, to which the man simply puts out his hand for a coin. “Is that the only thing left?” cries Mose. The swirl is there to offer an out to this existentialist despair: “Salvation–only through action! Guided by further philosophical slivers proffered by the swirl, Mose converts his despair into radical action by the end of the play. The conclusion is fittingly moving and movingly strange.

Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, in showing a human communication dissolve, follows Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, which shows a town dissolve. Flee is an oblique but devastating address to the 2008 economic collapse in America, and Provisional Biography is a fitting follow-up, continuing Dara’s critique of the human position in the late-capitalist landscape.

Significantly, Dara’s critique of the relationship between language and commerce extends to accessing his play, which can be downloaded for free at his publisher Aurora’s website.  You simply have to give them your email address. Under the “Download” button and above the PayPal button is the following message:

“If you please, reciprocation accepted only after reading. Thank you.”

And what would “reciprocation” mean, in the end? Write your own two-act play about the relationship between language and commerce in the early 21st century and send it to Evan Dara?

I PayPal’d Aurora $11.11.

A review of Anders Nilsen’s comic Tongues

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Check out my review (at The Comics Journal) of Anders Nilsen’s new comic Tongues. First paragraph:

There’s a lot going on in the first two issues of Anders Nilsen’s new graphic novel-in-progress Tongues. A black eagle plays chess with Prometheus before tearing out the chained god’s liver. A young American ambles aimlessly through a Central Asian desert, a teddy bear strapped to his back. Stealing away from his lover’s tower window, a youth morphs into a black swan and flies into the desert, where he consumes the tongue and throat of a murder victim sprawled in the sand. A little girl chats in Swahili about her assassination plans with a black chicken. (There are lots of black birds in Tongues). There’s also some literal monkey business. It’s all really beautiful stuff.

Read the full review at The Comics Journal.

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On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:

For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…

This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.

Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.

Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.

Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.

Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:

At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.

For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…

These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.

The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).

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Continue reading “On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno”

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Melville’s Moby-Dick

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantasticbut I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].


Yechh.

It made for a smashing movie.

If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.

Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns

I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.

I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.

Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!

If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.

I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.

Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.

Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.

The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.

First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.

I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.

I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!

Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.

i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.

There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.

Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.

It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.

What is the whales motivation? You dont know.

It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.

No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.

OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.

I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!

Moby Ick’s more like it.

A review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile

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Toward the end of the 130 page monologue that is Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, narrator Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix claims that “An individual is no match for history.” His statement neatly encapsulates (what might be) the dominant theme of By Night in Chile, namely an individual person’s capacity and ability to correctly–and sanely–somehow measure, attest to, confront, and witness the horror and brutality of history. In this case, Bolaño’s narrator, a Catholic priest–and conservative literary critic (and, of course, failed poet)–Father Urrutia, via a sweeping deathbed confession of sorts, recounts his life story, leading inexorably to Pinochet’s coup and its attendant subsequent draconian reforms and abuses. While it would be a mistake to reduce Bolaño’s rich novella to one conflict, I think the root of Urrutia’s struggle emanates from his inability to come to terms with his role as an intellectual (let alone an artist, critic, or priest) complicit somehow in Pinochet’s crimes. Throughout the book, from the very beginning, Urrutia blames his inner turmoil on a “wizened youth” (I don’t want to spoil this antagonist’s identity, but puzzling out that paradoxical appellation provides a major clue), a kind of idealist who stands apart from the dying priest, mocking and taunting him. After his claim that “An individual is no match for history,” Urrutia avers that “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.” For Urrutia, this is of paramount importance, not just as a Catholic priest (which, it must be pointed out, is a role he doesn’t seem particularly suited for) but also as a literary critic and intellectual: Urrutia wants to systematize and critique history, to be “on the right side of history,” to quote Barack Obama. And yet his own attempt to narrativize his own life ironizes and critiques this very possibility at every turn–he is a sham, a charlatan, motivated and prompted by fear and even hate.

And on that attempt to narrativize a life: I would call By Night in Chile an anti-bildungsroman. Although Urrutia relates a life story, the free flow of psychic impressions that characterizes his telling slip and sail and rock and crash throughout years and over decades, often flowing backwards and forwards, sometimes spending pages on what could only be considered inconsequential minutiae, while at times glossing over the profoundest events with little more than a word or two. It is often what Urrutia does not remark upon that characterizes what is of the greatest importance in this work, and this is a testament to the power of Bolaño’s writing, to his command of voice. In one of the greatest performances of the novel, Urrutia describes the time right before, during, and after Pinochet’s coup. The passage is less than four pages, and for every contemporary action of immediate consequence, Urrutia seems to provide twice as many examples of his retreat into the past: ” . . . the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Herodotus . . . .” Urrutia doesn’t bother to scrutinize or analyze the visceral reality of history in the making around him, regressing instead to the comfort of established philosophical tradition–the history of Herodotus in favor of the chaos, anarchy, and brutality happening around him. He’s really quite a terrible priest, and as an intellectual he refuses to be engaged. Confident that he will always be “on history’s side,” he refuses to actively even try come to terms with history until he’s dying. And thus we get the narrative of By Night in Chile.

This reckoning with the past takes the form of a long monologue but, as those familiar with Bolaño will attest, there are plenty of other voices here, stories nested within stories like Russian dolls. The force and vitality of Urrutia’s speech is astonishing; one envisions the monologue as a single immediate and discrete exhalation, a stream of memory, the living wail of a dying man. Bolaño’s rhetorical style here conveys this ironic energy. He employs long (very, very long) sentences, sometimes going on for several pages, and often uses little or no transitions between what should be major shifts of space and time. There are plenty of references to writers, of course, many obscure, and more motifs and leitmotifs than I can work out here (or elsewhere, to be honest). I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the book is probably even more intense in the original Spanish, although I think Chris Andrews has done a brilliant job translating here, just as he did in Last Evenings on Earth. And since I’ve brought up that book, I’m going to make another suggestion: if you’ve yet to read Bolaño, you should, and Last Evenings of Earth (or 2666 if nearly a thousand pages doesn’t seem too daunting)is probably the best place to start–which is kind of another way of saying that By Night in Chile is not the best entry point to Bolaño–at least not for anyone intimately familiar with Latin American history. It’s not that By Night is particularly challenging or hard to read. However, I think that this particular book will probably be better enjoyed with more context. As Rodrigo Fresán points out in his essay “The Savage Detective,” (published in the March 2007 issue of The Believer), By Night in Chile could be (should be?) read as part of one cohesive book along with Amulet and Distant Star. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, Bolaño’s works seem to coalesce into one great work, a secret universe parallel to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Urrutia’s voice enriches this universe, but one must have something of a foothold on Bolaño’s themes in order to appreciate the complex ironies of By Night in Chile. Or maybe not. Maybe this is a great entry point to Bolaño. Either way, great book. Highly recommended.


Editorial note: Biblioklept ran the original version of this review in July of 2010. I saw the new cover for By Night in Chile today in a bookstore I was visiting in a town that I do not live in, and the new cover—the picture of which is the only new “content” for this review—is the occasion for republishing this Bolaño review.

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob”

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Detail from Newgate Exercise Yard by Gustave Dore, 1872

Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob” is the third selection in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. At about 20 pages, it’s also the shortest piece in the collection (the other four stories run between 40 and 50 pages). While still a bit longer than the stories in Johnson’s seminal collection Jesus’ Son, “Strangler Bob” nevertheless seems to pulse from that same vein, its narrator Dink another iteration of Jesus’ Son’s Fuckhead. Indeed, “Strangler Bob” feels a bit like an old sketch that’s been reworked by Johnson into something that fits thematically into Largesse.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Strangler Bob” in full, which gives us the basic premise and setting (and you can’t beat those two opening sentences):

You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days.

Those forty-one days take us from Thanksgiving to the New Year, with the story’s spiritual climax occurring on Christmas Eve.

Before we get to that climax Johnson builds an unexpectedly rich world in the county lockup, populating it with young toughs who can’t yet see how bad the paths they’ve chosen will be. The men of Johnson’s jail aren’t simply down on their luck or somehow morally misunderstood. They are jovial young fuck-ups who plan to continue fucking up their lives the minute they get out.

A lot of the stage-setting and background characterization in “Strangler Bob” reads like picaresque sketches that Johnson had lying about unused from decades ago. Much of the early part of the story is dedicated to “the blond sociopathic giant Jocko,” a sort of prince of the jail who saves a crazy kid from being murdered by the other inmates. Such scenes give the story a ballast of baroque energy and even an unexpectedly-comic realism, but they don’t fully fit into the main theme of the story, which is hunger.

On his first day in the jail the narrator Dink is warned not to oversleep or he will have his breakfast stolen. Hardheaded, he sleeps in anyway, but learns from his mistake:

After that I had no trouble rousing myself for the first meal, because other than the arrival of food we had nothing in our lives to look forward to, and the hunger we felt in that place was more ferocious than any infant’s. Corn flakes for breakfast. Lunch: baloney on white. For dinner, one of the canned creations of Chef Boyardee, or, on lucky days, Dinty Moore. The most wonderful meals I’ve ever tasted.

Hunger in “Strangler Bob” is an expression of the deep boredom the prisoners feel, and mealtimes become the only way these men measure the passing of time. The hunger in “Strangler Bob” is not just a desire for food, but rather something to fill up the void, the space, the empty feeling. In this world, romantic adventure is ironized into confined torpor:

Dundun, BD and I formed a congress and became the Three Musketeers—no hijinks or swashbuckling, just hour upon hour of pointless conversation, misshapen cigarettes, and lethargy.

Dundun and BD are perhaps unlikely friends for Dink—

Dundun was short and muscled, I was short and puny, and BD was the tallest man in the jail, with a thick body that tapered up toward freakishly narrow shoulders.

—but their fellowship holds together because they had “long hair and chased after any kind of intoxicating substance.” Thanks to BD they get their mitts on some LSD:

BD told us he had a little brother, still in high school, who sold psychedelic drugs to his classmates. This brother came to visit BD and left him a hotrod magazine, one page of which he’d soaked in what he told BD was psilocybin, but was likelier just, BD figured, LSD plus some sort of large-animal veterinary tranquilizer. In any case: BD was most generous. He tore the page from the magazine, divided it into thirds, and shared one third with me and one with Donald Dundun, offering us this shredded contraband as a surprise on Christmas Eve.

The ink from the newsprint turns their tongues black. Narrator Dink seems to think that the LSD was not evenly distributed on the page though—BD trips the hardest, seeing snow falling indoors, but Dink seems to think he’s mostly unaffected, while Dundun denies any effect at all. However, consider this exchange between Dink and Dundun, which suggests that they might be tripping harder than they think:

“I’m feeling all the way back to my roots. To the caves. To the apes.” He turned his head and looked at us. His face was dark, but his eyeballs gave out sparks. He seemed to be positioned at the portal, bathed in prehistoric memories. He was summoning the ancient trees—their foliage was growing out of the walls of our prison, writhing and shrugging, hemming us in.

A sloppy and unnecessary Freudian analysis of the three kids parcels them out easily as id (Dundun the apeman), super ego (BD the strange moralist), and ego, our narrator who rejects any kind of spirituality in a world where “Asian babies fried in napalm.”

Dink’s cellmate, the eponymous Strangler Bob, poses a challenge to the narrator’s easy nihilism though. Even though Dink believes that he’s not affected by the LSD, his encounter with Bob on Christmas Eve reads like a bad trip:

The only effect I felt seemed to coalesce around the presence of Strangler Bob, who laughed again—“Hah!”—and, when he had our attention, said, “It was nice, you know, it being just the two of us, me and the missus. We charcoaled a couple T-bone steaks and drank a bottle of imported Beaujolais red wine, and then I sort of killed her a little bit.”

To demonstrate, he wrapped his fingers around his own neck while we Musketeers studied him like something we’d come on in a magic forest.

Dundun then exclaims that Strangler Bob is “the man who ate his wife” — but Bob admonishes that his cannibalism was greatly exaggerated:

Strangler Bob said, “That was a false exaggeration. I did not eat my wife. What happened was, she kept a few chickens, and I ate one of those. I wrung my wife’s neck, then I wrung a chicken’s neck for my dinner, and then I boiled and ate the chicken.”

The hunger in Strangler Bob is perverse and abject; his crime is of a moral magnitude far more intense than the malicious hijinks the youthful Musketeers have perpetrated–it’s taboo, a challenge to all moral order. He’s also an oracle of strange dooms:

He said, “I have a message for you from God. Sooner or later, you’ll all three end up doing murder.” His finger materialized in front of him, pointing at each of us in turn—“Murderer. Murderer. Murderer”

We learn in the final melancholy paragraphs of the story that Bob’s prophecy comes true, more or less. In those paragraphs too there is a moment of grace, albeit a grace hard purchased. Of the latter part of his life, the Dink tells us:

I was constantly drunk, treated myself as a garbage can for pharmaceuticals, and within a few years lost everything and became a wino on the street, drifting from city to city, sleeping in missions, eating at giveaway programs.

It’s worth noting that if Dink were 18 in the fall of 1967, he would likely have been born in 1949, the year that Denis Johnson was born. The narrators of two other stories in Largesse are also born in or around 1949, and it’s my belief that all of the narrators are essentially the same age, and all are pseudoautofictional iterations of Johnson.

In “Strangler Bob,” Dink is an iteration that fails to thrive, that can’t survive addiction and recovery and enter into a new life. He does not heed Bob’s warning, and at the end of the story he laments that he is a poisoned person who has poisoned others:

When I die myself, B.D. and Dundun, the angels of the God I sneered at, will come to tally up my victims and tell me how many people I killed with my blood.

These final lines push the narrator into a place of bare remorse and regret, as he reflects back on his time in the jail, which he describes in retrospect as “some kind of intersection for souls.” Dink now sees that he’s failed to acknowledge the messengers that might have sent him on a better path. Angels come in strange forms.

Very early Christmas morning on the planet of 1967, after “the festival of horrors” that constituted the LSD trip, Strangler Bob gives one last message, a strange delivered in Dink’s grandmother’s voice:

I studied him surreptitiously over the edge of the bunk, and soon I could see alien features forming on the face below me, Martian mouth, Andromedan eyes, staring back at me with evil curiosity. It made me feel weightless and dizzy when the mouth spoke to me with the voice of my grandmother: “Right now,” Strangler Bob said, “you don’t get it. You’re too young.” My grandmother’s voice, the same aggrieved tone, the same sorrow and resignation.

“You’re too young” — wisdom is purchased through folly, pain, terrible mistakes, crimes and sins. The narrator’s grandmother ventriloquizes Strangler Bob, but she doesn’t have a moral message, just tired pain.

The voice here is Denis Johnson’s voice too, inhabiting a mad oracle, warning some version of himself that exists today.


You can read “Stranger Bob” online here.

I wrote about the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden here.

I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here.

 

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

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I finished reading Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a few weeks ago. I felt a bit stunned by the time I got to the fourth story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” which ends with these words: “It’s plain to you that at the time I wrote this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Denis Johnson died just over a year ago, of course, a fact that haunts any reading of Sea Maiden (at least for fans, and I am a fan). The collection was released just half a year after his death, and I managed to avoid reading any reviews of it. I held out on picking it up for reasons I don’t really know how to explain, but I when I finally read it, I consumed it in a greedy rush.

Anyway, since I finished the book I’ve tried a few times to put together a “review,” but each time I get some words down I find myself sprawling out all over the place, rereading bits of the stories, picking out new motifs, new questions, new parallels between Johnson’s life and the lives of his narrators. Very short review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is one of Johnson’s best books, a perfect gift to his readers—his own tragicomic obituary in fictional form. It’s a book about death and writing and art and commerce and regret and salvation, and each time I go back to it I find more in there than I saw the first time–more order, more threads, more design. So instead of a full long review, I’ll offer instead a series of blogs about each of the five stories in the collection. (Perhaps this form is simply an excuse to reread The Largesse of the Sea Maiden).

The first story is the title track, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” First published in The New Yorker back in 2014, this long short story (it runs to not-quite 40 pages) introduces the major themes and tones of the entire collection. “Largesse” is told by a first-person narrator in ten titled vignettes. Some of the titles, like “Widow,” “Orphan,” “Farewell,” and “Memorial,” directly name the themes of both the story and the book.

The narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a writer—but not a writer of literature or fiction—of art—but of commercials. Although “Largesse” shows him somewhat comfortable in his life in San Diego with his third wife, the narrator nevertheless is melancholy, even dour at times. In the beginning of the vignette “Ad Man,” he declares:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.

(Is there a subtle nod there to one of Johnson’s most well-known stories, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking”? I think so. If not, I find a thread).

“Ad Man” initiates the major plot trajectory of “Largesse”: Our narrator has won an award for an advertisement he wrote and directed decades ago, and he will have to return to New York City to be given the award at a special dinner. Floating through the vignettes is the ad man’s anxiety about his own legacy of work against the backdrop of the finer arts. We learn in “Accomplices” that he cares enough about the arts to object that his host has hung a Mardsen Hartley oil landscape above a lit fireplace—but he doesn’t prevent the man from burning the painting—his “property”—in a moment where Johnson subtly critiques the relationship between art and commerce. The narrator turns the burning of the painting into a new art though—storytelling.

The narrator later tells us that “looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward,” and “Largesse” is riddled with encounters with art and artists, like the outsider painter Tony Fido, whom the narrator meets at a gallery. The artist offers, unprompted, a scathing critique of a Edward Hopper’s painting Gas:

“You’re a painter yourself.”

“A better painter than this guy,” he said of Edward Hopper.

“Well, whose work would you say is any good?”

“The only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.”

That attribution — “he said of Edward Hopper” — is a lovely example of Johnson’s sharply-controlled wit.

Tony Fido plays a major minor role in “Largesse.” Fido tells the narrator the story of his encounter with a widow—one of several widows in both “Largesse” and Largesse, and his own suicide—Fido’s—becomes a strange moment for the narrator to realize how little he actually knows about his friend. And of course, all of these plot points give Johnson a chance to riff on the themes of death, loss and regret.

“Largesse” is loaded with thoughts on regret and forgiveness. Talking with a friend, the narrator muses that “we wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” The vignette “Farewell” stages a chance for the narrator to repent his past sins; his ex-wife, dying of cancer, calls him up to (possibly) forgive him:

In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

I’ve quoted at such length because the moment is an example of Johnson’s tragicomic genius—a sick punchline that disconnects crime from punishment and punishment from forgiveness. The narrator ends up making the connections himself in the end: “after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” And yet Johnson keeps pushing his character past reconciliation into a midnight walk to clear his conscience:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasseled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.”

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

“Farewell” ends on this note of a winking Mystery—on the profound insight that we are always susceptible to misreading the signs in front of us.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is very much a story about trying to put together a cohesive narrative from the strands and fragments around us. Indeed, its very form points to this—the fractured vignettes have to be pieced together by the reader. Johnson fractures not just form but tone. The deadpan, tragicomic, pathos-laden humor that’s run throughout Johnson’s oeuvre dominates in “Largesse,” yes, but there are strange eruptions of sentimental fantasy, particularly in “Mermaid,” a vignette that reads like the narrator’s own imaginative construction, and not the (often banal) reality that most of the narrative is grounded in. After receiving his award in New York, the narrator makes his way to a bar, and here conjures a scene like something from a film noir:

I couldn’t see the musician at all. In front of the piano a big tenor saxophone rested upright on a stand. With no one around to play it, it seemed like just another of the personalities here: the invisible pianist, the disenchanted old bartender, the big glamorous blonde, the shipwrecked, solitary saxophone…And the man who’d walked here through the snow…And as soon as the name of the song popped into my head I thought I heard a voice say, “Her name is Maria Elena.” The scene had a moonlit, black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blond woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. “I am a prisoner here,” she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”

The ecstasy here—internalized and “still”—is the ecstasy of storytelling, imagination, art. This is the gift of the mermaid, the largesse of the sea maiden. The minor moment is the real award for our ad man hero, who finds no real transcendence in commercial writing.

I’ve been using “the narrator” in this riff, but our hero has a name, which he reveals to us in the final vignette, “Whit.” It’s here that he describes the ad he’s (not exactly) famous for, an “animated 30-second spot [where] you see a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit.” The chase ends when the rabbit gives the bear a dollar bill.” Narrator Whit explains that this ad for a bank “referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving.” He goes on:

I think it pointed to orderly financial exchange as the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is peace. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.

And yet our ad man, despite his commercial interpretation of his own writing, recognizes too that this work “was better than cryptic—mysterious, untranslatable.” The word “untranslatable” is one of several clues that link the final section of “Largesse” to the final section of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Whitman’s narrator (“Walt Whitman, a kosmos”) claims that he is, like the spotted hawk who swoops to disturb his reverie, “untranslatable.” Bequeathing himself to us—a gift for our good graces—he reminds us that “You will hardly know who I am,” a line that Johnson echoes in the beginning of “Whit”: “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work.” And then of course, there’s the big tell—Johnson’s narrator is Bill Whitman, a pun that works on several levels. Walt Whitman’s language has seeped into the language of advertising—in a way it is the genesis of a new commercial American idiom—and here Johnson slyly pushes it back into the realm of art.

Just as the conclusion of Song of Myself builds to a self-penned elegy for its self-subject, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” reads like Johnson’s elegy for an alter-ego. We learn in the final paragraphs that Bill Whitman is “just shy of sixty-three” — roughly the same age as Johnson would’ve been when the story was published. (We learn that the narrator of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the final story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is also the same age as Johnson. That narrator was born on “July 20, 1949.” Johnson’s birthday was July 1, 1949).

Narrator Whit reflects on his life in the story’s melancholy penultimate paragraph:

I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.

However, there’s still a restlessness to his spirit, a questing desire to answer the final lines of Song of Myself, perhaps, where Whitman writes:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

The last paragraph of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is Johnson’s narrator’s implicit response to these lines, and as I cannot improve upon his prose, they will be my last lines as well:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

Riff on finishing Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel of consciousness

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Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

I finally finished George Eliot’s long and marvelous 1872 novel Middlemarch.

When I wrote about reading Middlemarch last month, from not-quite-the-middle of the book, I lamented that I’d rather be rereading the book than reading it. Rich and dense, it’s the kind of big book that clearly offers more on repeat readings. And yes, I will reread Middlemarch, but I’ll give it a year or three to mellow in the back of my consciousness.

Middlemarch is a novel about consciousness, and what the novel does best in my estimation is show how different kinds of consciousness mediate and are mediated by the social forces they inhabit (and are inhabited by).

(The word consciousness appears 90 times in Middlemarch. If we include similar iterations, like consciousconsciouslyunconscious, and unconsciously, the count grows to a total of 172 times. In contrast, iterations of the word conscience appear only 38 times).

Dorothea Brooke remained my favorite consciousness throughout the novel, and I missed her when she wasn’t there, when Eliot had us hovering around or even fully inhabiting another consciousness.

I’ll admit that in the final quarter of Middlemarch I found myself a bit weary of the Bulstrode disgrace plot—and yet I appreciate how Eliot inhabited that consciousness as well. Bulstrode provides Eliot a sharp tool to show how consciousness is blind, or even self-blinding—how consciousness massages conscience in order to survive. In a passage that illustrates this process, Eliot writes,

Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his more indirect misdeeds. But many of these misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience.

Consciousness cannot lay claim to conceiving of an absolute omniscient conscience, an absolute and ever-present moral consciousness. Too, earlier in the novel, Eliot’s narrator observes,

For the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.

Egoism is a central problem in Middlemarch; indeed, Eliot seems to posit egoism as the greatest threat to how individual consciousnesses navigate social reality. Here is here narrator again:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.

I cannot improve upon “no speck so troublesome as self” and will not adventure an attempt.

But back to the consciousness I liked best in Middlemarch: Dorothea.

Dorothea is a kind of genius of intention, and Eliot harnesses that genius—she shows us Dorothea’s consciousness-in-action. Eliot doesn’t just tell us what’s happening in Dorothea’s head; she makes that consciousness live in our own heads.

Dorothea’s life, like all lives, is beset with foiled plans and terrible mistakes. Still, Middlemarch grants Dorothea something of a happy ending in her marriage to Will Ladislaw, and yet refuses the conclusion of a classical comedy. There is no wedding scene. Indeed, the last time Dorothea speaks in the novel it is to reconcile with her sister Celia—a conclusion that confirms their love story the equal to that of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s love story.

Eliot’s novel is too sophisticated and too realistic for a simplistic happy or tragic conclusion, of course. In the novel’s “Finale,” the narrator reminds us that,

Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending…the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web.

The narrator then gives us broad details of the fates of the novel’s principal couples: Lydgate and Rosamond, skewing depressive; Mary and Fred, skewing comic; and finally Ladislaw and Dorothea. We learn of Ladislaw’s success as a reform politician and understand that Dorothea is an instrumental force in this success.

Eliot’s conclusion for this final pair skews neither comic nor tragic, but is something more complex—more realistic. Dorothea becomes a cautionary tale in the town of Middlemarch; her legacy is one of misspent potential in the eyes of society. The novel ends without indicating that any of the grand plans of Dorothea’s youth have been achieved. And yet the novel concludes with an oblique revelation about Dorothea’s misunderstood legacy.

In the second-to-final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot writes that,

those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.

Eliot refuses a simple happy ending here; her heroine is still a consciousness subject to the social forces around it. Dorothea’s great utopian ambitions are ultimately tempered by the cultural constraints her consciousness would otherwise seek to transcend.

But then the final paragraph of the novel points towards transcendence:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. … But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Dorothea—and, more significantly, the spirit of Dorothea—did real grand good in the world, an immeasurable good, “incalculably diffusive.” Even if she lived ultimately a “hidden life,” Eliot insists that it is people like Dorothea who have made the world better for “you and me.”

While “hidden life” and “unvisited tombs” may harbor negative connotations, these phrases are ultimately ironic: Eliot’s novel itself is the key to the hidden life of Dorothea Brooke. Middlemarch is a vivid and vivifying tomb for Dorothea, and we readers are the lucky visitors.

19 annotations on an old review of Blade Runner 2049 (Summer Film Log)

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I recently rewatched Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) on a large television screen via a streaming service, breaking the viewing of this nearly three-hour long film into two nights.

I wrote a lengthy review of Blade Runner 2049 when it came out last year. The review ran over 3,000 words. I won’t repost all of them here, but instead quote from the review and add a few notes on the experience of a second viewing. The bits from the original review are indented, like this—

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. 1

1 A second viewing reconfirms this thesis for me. The film’s final moments are ambiguous for the audience—does K live or not? How does Ana Stelline receive Deckard? The film consoles the anxiety of this ambiguity by giving us an image of K in pain but also in peace. K is reconciled to not knowing.

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…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).2

2 I get what Leto was doing more on a second viewing. His highly-artificial yet often over-dramatic style is in sharp contrast to the various replicants in the film—Ryan Gosling’s K is particularly naturalistic in comparison. Leto’s Wallace is “real,” but presents as artificial. The performance worked more for me on a second viewing.

Like its prequel, Blade Runner 2049 is detective noir, and also like the original, it often doesn’t bother to clearly spell out any plot connections between cause and effect. Hell, the film employs a symbol in the form of a (literal) shaggy dog. And while BR ’49 never feels shaggy, its expansiveness, its slowness, often drag us away from the urgency of its core plot. K’s quest moves via the film’s own aesthetic energy, and the film is at its best when it lets this aesthetic energy drive its logic.3

3 The film seemed much faster-paced on a second viewing, but that is because the first viewing taught me how to view it. The greatest reward for “knowing” the contours of the plot is that one can attend better to BR ’49’s wonderful aesthetic logic.

The first two hours of BR ’49’s nearly-three-hour run glide on the film’s own aesthetic logic, which wonderfully lays out a series of aesthetic paradoxes: Blade Runner 2049 is both vast but compressed, open but confined, bright white and neon but gray black and dull. It is bustling and cramped, brimming with a cacophony of babble and deafening noise but also simultaneously empty and isolated and mute. It is somehow both slow and fast, personal and impersonal, an art film stretched a bit awkwardly over the frame of a Hollywood blockbuster.4

4 I still agree with most of this, aside from the claim that only the first two hours “glide.” The end is much stronger than I initially gave it credit for. To wit—

The commercial blockbuster touches that BR ’49 winks at early in its plot creep up in its third act. Frankly, the film doesn’t stick its ending.5

5 I was wrong. BR ’49 totally sticks the ending.

The final hour seems driven by a logic external to the aesthetic energies that drive its first two hours—a logic that belongs to the Hollywood marketplace, a market that demands resolution, backstory—more sequels! The film’s initial expansiveness and pacing condenses, culminating in a claustrophobic climax that feels forced. A few late scenes even threaten to push the plot in an entirely different direction. For example, very late in the film we’re introduced to a revolutionary resistance movement that plans to overthrow the Fascist-Police-Corporate-Dystopian-Grubs-for-Food-Farmed-by-Slaves-and-Holy-Hell-It’s-Bad-Etc.-State. The burgeoning resistance scene feels shoehorned in by some film executive who thought The Matrix sequels were a good idea. Sure, the scene does convey a crucial piece of plot information, but reader, there are other ways to achieve such ends. 6

6 While I still feel that the resistance plot is not included as gracefully as it might be, the film is already pushing towards three hours. Furthermore, the film is not about resistance—it is about K and K’s not knowing. I also no longer believe that the “claustrophobic climax” — a truly horrifying fight that takes place under threat of drowning — is forced. (Should I also admit that I had finished my second tallboy and had a terrible need to piss, which made the water-fight all the more excruciating?)

The climactic fight simply wasn’t what I was expecting. A second viewing reveals that I totally missed BR ’49’s water motif, a kind of elemental doubling of the film’s other motif of abject tears.

One prominent clue is Vladmir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire…One string of words that K must repeat as part of his baseline test is also key to Nabokov’s novel: “A tall white fountain.” In Pale Fire, these words are of critical importance. When the poet John Shade has a transcendent near-death experience, he sees “dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain.” Later, via a newspaper story, he learns about a woman who not only has a similar near-death experience, but who also glimpses the afterlife in the same way, seeing too a “tall white fountain.” However, when Shade contacts the reporter who wrote the story, he learns that “fountain” is a misprint; the woman’s original word was mountain. The difference in a single sliding phoneme, to M, is of enormous importance to Shade. …Let’s just say that the phonemic slip from to M conveys not only a symbolic connotation, but also a key plot clue.7

7  I don’t know how prominent Pale Fire is in retrospect, but it is visible. I also have no idea if Villeneuve is intentionally playing the F-M shift in the novel against the revelation of two lost children–female and male–that becomes central to K’s understanding of (not understanding) himself.

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Beyond Pale Fire, there are other literary allusions in BR ’49 worth noting… 8

8 Milton, Blake, e.e. cummingsPinocchio, and Kafka. I didn’t really spot any more on a second viewing, but I also wasn’t especially looking for any. I’m sure there are more.

In addition to its literary allusions, Blade Runner 2049 also incorporates a great number of tropes from the sci-fi films that came before it. For all its visual originality, there is very little in the film that we haven’t seen in some earlier form in another film. [However] when BR ’49 replicates old tropes it breathes new life into them, making scenes we’ve seen before look and sound wholly original.9

9 This is pretty much true.

One of the more remarkable scenes in BR ’49 is a three-way sex scene between the A.I. program-hologram Joi, her boyfriend K, and the replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). Watching the scene, it hit me that Like, hey, this isn’t even the first “three-way sex scene with A.I.” that I’ve seen. Jonze’s Her [2014] offers a far more awkward version of this scene, and (I know, arguably), Ex Machina [dir. Alex Garland, 2015] is basically one long implicit three way between its three primary characters. We seem to have birthed a new sci-fi trope, folks.10

10 I’m still not sure how to process the three-way in BR ’49, which makes it one of the most interesting scenes in the film. In a way, it doesn’t haven’t to be there for the film’s plot to make sense. And yet it points towards the kind of miracle that the replicants in the film’s backstory promise.

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The inclusion of an inorganic and bodiless A.I. also points BR ’49 into new and different territory, into realms beyond its parent film’s imagination.11

11 Villeneuve makes a number of aesthetic breaks from Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but the A.I. is perhaps the biggest pushback against any anxiety of influence. It’s an ingenious inclusion.

Joi’s relationship with K is heartbreaking and tender. As the emotional core of this bleak film, the connection between Joi and K is devastating (not to mention devastated by the Kafkaesque powers haunting the story). A simulacrum of “real” emotion is thus the most authentic emotional synapse in Blade Runner 2049. An epiphanic scene of Joi crying in the rain fairly early in the film telegraphs Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable death monologue from the parent film in a way that is simultaneously ironic, earnest, painful, and profound. The transcendent moment freezes and then shatters with one of the darker punchlines I’ve seen in a film in years—a voicemail. Someone’s always calling us out from our reveries into the real world12

12 I don’t really have an annotation here. I just wanted to include an image of the scene in this riff:

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[Blade Runner 2049] caters to the male gaze in an ambiguous and unsettling way. Giant naked holograms waltz across the screen, purring solid sexuality, and if their neon forms distract our boy K from the grim grey disaster of apocalyptic LA, they are also likely to captivate certain audience members’ gazes as well.13

13 I read a bunch of takes that claim that the film is sexist and I don’t really see that, but perhaps one of the constituting conditions of sexism is an inability for a consciousness to perceive its own sexism. I don’t know though.

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These spectacular but hollow holograms divert attention away from a cruel dystopian reality; they lead the male gaze away from the real story. In another surreal sequence, Villeneuve fills the screen with enormous naked female statues—naked except for their high heels, which dwarf our boy K. In BR ’49, giant naked women loom over the central protagonist, a lonely, alienated male whose authentic emotional interactions are limited to his computer.14

14 I somehow missed these giant feet on first viewing:

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In time, our male protagonist finds out that he isn’t nearly as special as he hoped he might be. His attempts at an authentic life are repeatedly thwarted by the dystopian world he lives in. Hell, he can’t even get a father figure out of this whole deal. If BR ’49 critiques the male gaze, it also simultaneously engenders and perhaps ultimately privileges it in a queasy, uncanny way.15 

15 I stand by this.

I’ve failed to remark on the many wonderful set pieces in this film—an apiary in a wasteland,16

16  What an unbeelievable scene! (I’m here all night folks).

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…a bizarre fight in a casino soundtracked by 20th-century pop holograms. The film has a weird energy, narcotic but propulsive, gritty but also informed by sleek Pop Art touches.17

17 The whole Las Vegas section of BR ’49 is utterly fantastic, its aesthetic logic doubling the film’s themes of artificiality and reality.

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Blade Runner 2049, like its parent Blade Runner, is a film about not knowing. It proffers clues, scuttles them, and casts the very notion of knowing into doubt. It’s not just the problems of knowing reality from fiction that BR ’49 addresses. No, the film points out that to know requires a consciousness that can know, and that this consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Hence, to live authentically, as real boys and girls, also requires that we live under a kind of radical self-doubt. The whole point of a miracle is that it suspends radical doubt and eliminates the state of radical faith that anyone believing in (even the the belief of believing in) miracles would have to have to keep believing in (even the belief of believing in) miracles. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a program of radical doubt|faith, a narrative that repeatedly defers the miracle it promises. This deferral points to a future, but not an endpoint, not a direct salvation. Instead we are left with our real boy K—who, yes, am I spoiling? Damn it then I spoil!—our real boy K who becomes real the moment he reconciles himself to his own ambiguous nature: to a nature of not knowing.18

18 I think all of this holds up even more on a second viewing. One thing I noticed that I didn’t catch the first time is that Blade Runner has no opening credits or title sequence—it reserves them until after the final shot.

Do watch Blade Runner 2049 in a theater on a very big screen if you can.19

19 While I’m guessing that Blade Runner 2049’s theatrical run is done for awhile, it’s the kind of film that will likely get played on the big screen again in the future. Highly recommended.

Maps to the Stars (Summer Film Log)

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Surreal and often grotesque, David Cronenberg’s film Maps to the Stars (2014) attempts to merge a satire of the film industry with a riff on haunted Hollywood. The title, with its double meaning, suggests a cartography that might pinpoint the connections between larger-than-life screen avatars and the mythological figuration our culture has lent to them.

Maps to the Stars presents a large stage then for its host of strange characters to play upon. Center stage is the (ironically-named) Weiss family. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a TV psychologist who manipulates his celebrity patients with psychobabble quackery. He’s emotionally-estranged from his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage-mother to their son Benjie (Evan Bird), an improbably gangly teen heartthrob trying to get his film career back on track after a stint in drug rehab. The Weiss family finds their not-so-blissful life terribly disrupted when daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up again after years in a mental hospital. She’s a schizophrenic with pyromaniac tendencies. Meanwhile, aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) pines for a role playing her own mother’s role in a remake of a film called Stolen Waters. Segrand resents that her mother’s fame exceeds her own. Alleging that she was sexually abused by her mother as a child, Segrand receives treatment (in her lingerie) from Dr. Weiss. Agatha eventually takes a job as Segrand’s “chore whore,” more firmly linking the two plots. There’s also a limo driver named Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison), who wants to both write and act in Hollywood. Oh, and a bunch of ghosts.

The various plot points double and triple each other: actors hope to gain coveted roles, family members hope to convert their pain into love and forgiveness, people try to escape their past. The film kneads themes of child predation, infanticide, ageism, Hollywood-as-vampirism, and incest into the plot, along with fire and water motifs. Throughout, characters repeat lines from Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem Liberté, as if the mantra’s force might grant them liberty from all these evils.

Cronenberg’s keen visual sensibilities are a highlight of Maps to the Stars. The film sparkles with a glossy Pop Art appeal which Cronenberg delights in griming up with occasional Cronenbergian touches. Still, Maps to the Stars, while thoroughly thematically abject, is not Cronenberg’s most visually Cronenbergian film.

The performances are very Cronenbergian though—stylized, affected, warped, weird. Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore are particularly good, and John Cusack leans into his role with unexpected menace. As surreal as these characters are though, there’s a ballast of reality underneath—sometimes and ultra-real reality, as when Carrie Fisher, daughter of a famous actress, plays her self in a bit role. The whole affect is unnerving.

Maps to the Star’s unnerving tone generates in part from its divergent trajectories. The film strives to be both a biting satire of Hollywood and a familial drama with mythological undertones. There’s no reason that these trajectories might intertwine successfully, but they don’t in Maps to the Stars. The tonal elements never fully cohere, and the plot careens to its climax with a pace that upsets the film’s earlier mood of slow-burning menace. The rushed ending is probably the worst part about Maps to the Stars. There’s plenty of promise in its first hour that the last 45 minutes fails to deliver. The film might have made a better limited series, even, giving Cronenberg more time to weave the threads together.

Bruce Wagner, who wrote Maps to the Stars‘ screenplay, found more room to expand in his 2012 novel Dead Stars, which ran just over 650 pages in paperback. Wagner’s novel predates the film, and is based at least in part on an earlier version of the screenplay for Maps to the Stars. (This is all a bit confusing, I know). In interviews, Wagner has rejected critics’ characterization of Maps to the Stars as a satire, declaring it rather an elegiac family melodrama. (Cronenberg himself didn’t outright reject the idea that the film was satirical though). While it’s unlikely that Wagner is being disingenuous when he claims Maps to the Stars isn’t satirical, he and Cronenberg have nevertheless produced a satire—yet one that strives to be an elegiac family melodrama, and also a take on the old haunted Hollywood stuff. And yet all this material feels pretty hollow.

The specters and doppelgangers haunting the background of Maps to the Stars remain disappointingly underexplored by the film’s end. Worse, the film suffers from a comparison to David Lynch’s far superior Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s film is richer and more expansive, evoking more with far less.

Maps to the Stars also suffers from comparison to Cronenberg’s earlier work, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1985), and Dead Ringers (1988). In the 2000s, Cronenberg delivered a particularly strong one-two punch with a pair of his most perfect films, both starring Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). The magic with Mortensen seemed to wear off in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg’s next film Cosmopolis (a 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel) was, in my estimation, unwatchable. While I think Maps to the Stars is stronger than the last two efforts, it does seem to point to a late-career slump. Here’s to hoping the next Cronenberg joint is a better deal, like the far-superior satire eXistenZ (1999) which he wrote himself. Maybe he should write the next one himself too.


How I watched it: I put it on a few nights ago on a big TV via a streaming service, late at night after a few tumblers of scotch, thinking, “Oh hey, I never watched this” but that turned out to be a false start. Rewatched on an iPad in bed with headphones in two sittings, very late at night. 

Pom Poko (Summer Film Log)

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Set mostly in the outskirts of Tokyo in the early 1990s, Isao Takahata’s film Pom Poko (1994) tells the story of forest-dwelling tanuki who band together to fight a guerrilla war against the humans who are destroying their natural habitat. Some of the tanuki can shapeshift—even into human form—and the jolly, mischievous (and very human) creatures carry out their war with the land “developers” in a playful spirit that belies the existential threat that is the backdrop of this strange and wonderful film.

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Takahata highlights the Darwinian competition between the tanuki and the humans by layering the aesthetic representation of these trickster raccoon dogs. We see the tankuki in different ways. Most of the time the film represents the tanuki in a stylized anime that’s something like a mix between ceramic tanuki effigies and, like, Disney’s funny animals.

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This representation is jolly and blithe, even when the tanuki are committing sabotage or banging each other over the head for scant resources. The tanuki are most human here, hitting a sweet spot far away from the uncanny valley. We relate to them. At other times, Takahata gives us an even more stylized version of these animated raccoon dogs—they become ultracartoon, simple bubble renderings, cartoony-cartoons avatars of their own pain or delight.

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But what’s most affecting, at least for me, are the rare moments in the film that depict the tanuki in naturalistic imagery—the moments when Takahata reminds us that these are animals in a natural world. One is reminded of the film version of Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down (1978; dir. Martin Rosen) in these scenes.

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Takahata shifts his representations of the tanuki in Pom Poko between anthropomorphic, ultra-cartoonish, and realistic, an aesthetic gambit that points towards the film’s greatest trick—a spectacle of shape-shifting tricksterism. Larded with riffs on Japanese folklore and crammed with phantasmagoric images, Pom Poko culminates in a ghost parade that the tanuki perform as a means to scare the humans away. The episode is the climactic highlight of Pom Poko, a wonderful take on the Japanese folklore of a demon parade in which yōkai dance down the street in wild abandon.

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Unfortunately, the demon parade gambit fails. Hunting publicity, an amusement park steals the credit. In a move that may reflect Takahata’s sense of his own aesthetic power, the tanuki master illusionists are almost as upset about this theft of credit for their masterwork as they are at the theft of their lands. Almost as upset though—of course this is film about the radical terror of impending extinction, and Takahata never refrains from underlining that central message.

For some, the thesis of Pom Poko might be a bit too on-the-nose—I mean, the film is not subtle in evoking the idea that humans are taking up too much of the earth’s natural resources. However, the film is far more subtle, and hence effective, in anthropomorphizing its funny animals in such a way that we see their problems as not unlike our own. The tanuki are very much like humans—prone to rash decision making, practical joking, stupid anger, infighting and badmouthing, and junk food. They can also cooperate when they need to…but even mutual cooperation has its limits.

Ultimately, Pom Poko is a surprisingly sad film. Like so many Studio Ghibli films, it feels like an elegy for not just another time, but another way of living. And yet it encodes that way of living into a new medium for a new time—another phantasy, another trick, another transformation.


How I watched it: I took my son to see it last Sunday. I’ve seen the film maybe ten times, and my son, who is eight, has seen it maybe three. He claims it’s his favorite Studio Ghibli film, or maybe second favorite, after Princess Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind (1984; dir. Hayao Miyazaki). Neither of us had seen Pom Poko in a theater before, and watching it on a big screen with big sound and a full crowd confirmed its aesthetic power.

Lady Bird (Summer Film Log)

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In her essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty wrote that “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress.”

Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird (2017) is not a novel, nor is it a portrait of a city—but what it does do very successfully, credibly, and experientially, is illustrate the ways in which place—setting, context, community, family, home—shapes character and desire. Place in the film is ultimately the territory that we mentally and aesthetically attend—and in this sense love, to borrow the film’s thesis. Gerwig’s film makes us attend.

The primary place in Lady Bird (2017) is Sacramento, California. Titular character Lady Bird’s feelings about her hometown are neatly summed up in the film’s epigraph, a quote from Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Like Didion, Gerwig is a native of Sacramento, and a sense of that place radiates throughout Lady Bird.

Lady Bird chronicles its heroine’s senior year of high school. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has rechristened herself “Lady Bird,” an eccentricity she seems to perceive as at odds with the tenor of the staid Catholic school she attends. Her central aim is to attend an elite East Coast college, preferably in a town buzzing with what she thinks she will recognize as “culture.” In her senior year, Lady Bird has a number of misadventures—tragic, comic, tragicomic, all very real—and grows a bit. Or doesn’t grow. Lady Bird is the memoir of a mature artist looking back on her youth. Gerwig shows that “coming of age” is something we do well after the fact, later in life when we visit the place called the past.

Lady Bird’s nascent adulthood is captured not only in the class-divides of beautiful boring Sacramento, but also in the time period the film traverses. Lady Bird is a period piece. Set in the Fall-Spring of 2002-2003, with America’s new weird wars either underway or just beginning, Lady Bird grounds itself in a cultural realism that makes it all the more relatable, even if your own senior year of high school was, say, in 1996-1997. Lady Bird must “come of age” in a fucked up world, but her experiences aren’t that different from our own, even if the ages and places aren’t the same. The exacting nature of Gerwig’s presentation of place and time—her “gathering spot of all that has been felt,” to misappropriate Welty again, reminds us of the bigger truths about how fucked up growing up is.

Gerwig gets at these truths through fiction’s regular distortions—comedic, dramatic, hyperbolic. Describing Lady Bird’s plot would make it sound like a number of teen angst films you’ve seen before. And yet Lady Bird twists its tropes repeatedly. Our heroine is the solipsistic center of her own life, but she occasionally looks a bit closer at those on its apparent margins—a gay ex-boyfriend, a bestie she deserts, a Cool Guy whose rich dad is dying of cancer. Gerwig populates her place with real people, not grotesque caricatures. It’s all quite moving if you let it be.

Lady Bird is at its most moving when portraying its central conflict between Lady Bird and her mother, (Laurie Metcalf) who implores her  not to leave home to attend a fancy East Coast school. Ronan and Metcalf are amazing in the film, and much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s screenplay and direction (Jon Brion’s score doesn’t hurt either). Gerwig never has the pair say or do anything towards each other that does not seem utterly true. Lady Bird’s father is played by Tracy Letts, whose performance anchors the conflict between mother and daughter with sweet sad realism.

Perhaps Gerwig’s greatest success in her film-memoir is that she neatly ties the narrative’s loose ends while at the same time leaving them frayed. The chaos of young adult life is simultaneously represented and reconciled through a more mature aesthetic revelation. I won’t spoil the film’s conclusion, but it is somehow devastating and happy and very real. Life is fucked up and messy.

We leave Sacramento with Lady Bird and head to a new place—named, yes, identified, possibly, but not yet fully concrete, or exact—at least not yet for our heroine. And yet from everything we’ve seen—and everything we know about our own experiences in so-called “coming of age”—we might feel some surety in that Lady Bird has found a new place, a new “gathering spot” to feel, experience, and progress within.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service with my wife, who liked it more than I did (I liked it very much!) and cried quite a bit.

Blog about reading Middlemarch (and wishing I was rereading Middlemarch)

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Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

There should be a word in some language (perhaps not yet invented—word or language) to describe the feeling of Having pushed far enough into a very long novel (a novel that one has cracked into more than once) to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it.

I have felt this specific feeling a number of times in my life after finally sinking into long novels like Moby-DickGravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest. There’s a sort of relief mixed into this (as-yet-unnamed?) feeling, a letting go even, where the reader (me, I mean) surrenders to the novel’s form and content. Finally freed from the idea of reading the novel, I am able to read the novel.

There are 86 numbered chapters in George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch (not counting a “Prelude” and a “Finale”). I have just finished Chapter XXXV—not exactly a half-way point, but far enough in to finally feel like the story and the style are sticking with me. I’ve been reading a public domain copy on my iPad, after having abandoned my 1977 Norton Critical Edition—the Norton’s print is too cramped (and maybe my eyes are starting to go as I approach 40). Also, the Norton annotations are useful but too intrusive for a first read. I found myself utterly distracted by the Norton footnotes after about 50 pages; switching to a footnote-free version has alleviated a lot of the anxiety I initially felt about trying to fully comprehend Eliot’s novel in its own historical context. Dispensing with the footnotes allowed me to finally sink into Middlemarch and appreciate its wonderful evocation of consciousness-in-action.

So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.

There are other intriguing characters too, like Dr. Tertius Lydgate, the wastrel Fred Vincy, and the would-be-Romantic Will Ladislaw (who has like, totally smoked opium, just so you know). I’m particularly fond of Dorothea’s goofy uncle Arthur Brooke.

I won’t bother summarizing the plot thus far of the novel, which is really a bunch of plate spinning, but rather offer this sentence from the novel itself:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

There’s also another self-summarizing passage a few chapters before this one, worth citing here:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent…

Each of us is a reader reading other lives as scratches on a mirror or trees in the distance, and in our reading we incorporate them into our own consciousness, our own narrative. Middlemarch is very good at evoking this social reality.

I started this blog post by trying to describe a very specific feeling for which I don’t have a word—namely, and again: Having pushed far enough into a very long novel to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it. I suspect that this is a not-uncommon feeling. I’m not so sure though of how common the other feeling I have while reading Middlemarch is. I keep feeling (feeling, not thinking): I wish that I was rereading Middlemarch and not reading Middlemarch. If I were rereading Middlemarch I could make much more sense of those mirror scratches and those trees in the distance; if I were rereading Middlemarch, I could feel the feeling of reading Middlemarch more. There is an obvious answer to this desire, of course. I can finish reading Middlemarch. Then I can reread Middlemarch. 

Terrible Saturday Night Double Feature: Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist (Summer Film Log)

It is possible that there is a good film hiding somewhere in the patched-together mess that is Ant-Man (2015), but I doubt it. The film had a troubled production, with original director (and producer/writer) Edgar Wright dropping out because he could see that Marvel Studios would not let him make the film he wanted to make.

I haven’t liked anything Wright has done since Shaun of the Dead (2004), and his last film Baby Driver (2017) looked so insufferable that I’ll likely never sit through it. Still: Wright’s films are his films, marked by his style, his idea of “cool,” and his idea of “humor.” I don’t think his films are particularly good, but they are nevertheless original. The version of Ant-Man that Marvel Studios gave its loyal fandom bears traces of Wright’s vision—“traces” is not the right word; it is too subtle–maybe “chunks” is the word I want: Big “chunks” of the film Wright likely intended are in Ant-Man, delivered mainly via Paul Rudd’s glib charm. And yet the chunks aren’t particularly well-integrated—or maybe it’s unclear what they are to be integrated intoAnt-Man tries to do too many things and ends up not delivering on them; or, rather, it delivers them with slick emptiness that points to the film’s utter inconsequentiality. There are plenty of examples, but none so glaring as when Michael Douglas (playing the original Ant-Man Hank Pym) reconciles a relationship with his emotionally-estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly who will become the Wasp in the upcoming and inevitable sequel), only to have the moment punctured by Paul Rudd. The breeziness doesn’t feel comedic, but rather a bit nihilistic.

Nothing matters in Ant-Man except setting up the next Marvel Cinematic Universe film. So why not shoehorn in a scene with a flying Avenger? The film sometimes delivers aesthetically—I mean, this is a movie about a guy who shrinks, right? there should be plenty of cool imagery here—but for all its charms à la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Ant-Man is ultimately uninterested in tapping the massive potential of a microscopic world. Even worse, the film has no interest at all in exploring the deeper philosophical implications of what it might mean for a consciousness to find its bearings in time/space fundamentally transformed. Ant-Man feels more like a product assembled by committee than an actual film, which is a shame, given all the potential in its basic story.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, with my wife and my children, who selected it for our viewing entertainment.


The Disaster Artist (2017) is a bad movie about a bad movie. I’ll admit that the charms of The Room (2003) will forever be lost on me. That film is bad, yes, but worse, it’s boring. (I like my bad films to be not boring).

The Disaster Artist is based on a book of the same name by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. The book chronicles Sestero’s relationship with Tommy Wiseau, the auteur behind The Room (Wiseau and Sestero star in The Room). Director James Franco plays Wiseau and his little brother Dave Franco plays Sestero. James Franco portrays Wiseau as kind of deranged Dracula; Dave Franco plays Sestero as an earnest, empathetic, friendly hero. The Disaster Artist never questions Sestero’s account making The Room. He’s simply the Good Guy.

The Francos are not nearly as compelling as the cast around them, which is larded with ringers like Alison Brie, Sharon Stone, Nathan Fielder, Hannibal Buress, Bryan Cranston, and Seth Rogen. (Rogen’s performance as a script supervisor who ends up essentially directing The Room is probably the highlight of The Disaster Artist).

A good cast is not enough to cover over James Franco’s pedestrian direction though. He takes every possible shortcut, slathering scene after scene with cheap music, staging scenes in the most formulaic way possible, and telegraphing almost every plot point in unnecessary exposition. Franco directs the film as if he is worried your baby boomer uncle might not get what’s going on, squandering much of the weird potential that rests in a character as unique as Tommy Wiseau.

To make sure that all viewers “get it” — or at least get the idea of “getting it” — Franco frontloads the film with talking head celebrities (including Adam Scott, Kristen Bell, and Danny McBride) pretending to improvise their enthusiasm for the ironic charms of The Room.

The Disaster Artist culminates in the premiere of The Room. In Franco’s portrayal, The Room’s premiere audience attunes quickly to the absurdity of Wiseau’s wreck, adopting an ironic vision that allows them to take deep joy in watching a bad film. Franco pours sweetened laughter over the scene. The whole effect is like having someone explain an absurd joke. Who wants to have an absurd joke explained to them?

What the film never does—never even really tries to do—is get into Wiseau’s weird mind. There’s a strange and fascinating story in there, but The Disaster Artist can’t get to it, offering instead contours with no real substance. Indeed, The Disaster Artist seems a bit afraid of whatever’s going on inside Wiseau, and so instead retreats into platitudes about How Great Film Is and How Great It Is To Make Movies and etc.  The Disaster Artist is boringly competent. The Room is a bad film, but at least it’s original.


How I watched it: On an iPad with earphones, lying in bed, trying to follow up Ant-Man with something better, and ultimately finding no success.

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, and interviews of Jan 2018-May 2018 (and an unrelated fruit bat)

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These are links to some of the longer pieces I’ve written so far this year. The painting of the great Indian fruit bat (c. 1777-1782) is attributed to Bhawani Das or one of his followers.

The Last Jedi and the anxiety of influence

A review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread

A review of Paul Kirchner’s underground comix collection Awaiting the Collapse (at The Comics Journal)

A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s collection Narcotics

A few paragraphs on beginning Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a compelling Stephen Crane character

A review of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a particular Gordon Lish sentence

On rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

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On Goya’s painting The Straw Man

On Don DeLillo’s novel The Names

On the radical postmodernism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” 

Polygamy as a metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

On Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “silvery veil” — and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis

An analysis of William Carlos Williams’s ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

A close reading of Lydia Davis’s very short story “Happiest Moment”

On a passage from Gerald Murnane’s short story “Stream System”

Something on a scene from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

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On John Berryman’s Dream Song 265

On making a literary cocktail, the sherry cobbler

On Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

On Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-Fry”

On Balthus’s portraits of young girls reading 

On the postmodern comedy-horror axis of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy

An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

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Antoine Volodine’s Writers blows me away

A review of Dave Cooper’s queasy abject comic Mudbite (at The Comics Journal)

On Michael Radford’s film adaptation of 1984

Is The Running Man a good film?

On William Friedkin’s paranoid, claustrophobic horror flick Bug

Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a love letter to Studio Ghibli from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi

On Hayao Miyazaki’s film Porco Rosso

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

A review of Lady Macbeth

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Lady Macbeth (Summer Film Log)

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Spare, dark, cruel, and unflinching, Lady Macbeth (2016) uncoils with an austere beauty that belies its dark core. Set in rural England in 1865, the film is the story of Katherine, a young wife essentially imprisoned by her cruel father-in-law and warped husband who try to confine her inside their drafty country estate.

Katherine would rather take her freedom in the fresh chilly air of the heath, but father-in-law Boris wants her inside, preferably laboring at creating a male heir, a task made nearly impossible by her older husband Alexander’s apparent impotence. Boris and Alexander use a housemaid named Anna to monitor Katherine, and when the father and son have to depart on separate business matters, Anna is left to watch over the bored young bride.

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Katherine’s situation becomes much less boring when, only a day or two after the departure of Boris and Alexander, she discovers Anna naked in a sack suspended from the ceiling of a kennel, surrounded by jeering men. Katherine frees the maid and asserts her dominance as lady of the house, even as she has to tussle with one of the men, Sebastian. The scene is utterly Sadean, a strange mix of sexuality, violence, and the thin veneer of social mores that glosses over the id writhing under the surface. The veneer cracks. Our Lady takes up a poorly-hidden (and then not-really-hidden-at-all) affair with Sebastian. To reveal more could spoil the story, but, like, you know some of the stuff that happens in Macbeth, right? Murders and stuff?

While Lady Macbeth recalls Shakespeare’s tragedy at times, it’s actually an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. (I read and enjoyed an English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky a few years back). Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch offer a fairly faithful adaptation of Leskov’s story, although the film’s tone is much darker and devoid of Leskov’s black humor. The film’s conclusion is also darker and more concise than Leskov’s novella’s last chapters (and better, I’d argue). Lady Macbeth’s final moments offer a chilling indictment of Victorian morality (a moral vision that continues to persist in many ways today) without the slightest concession to a mainstream audience’s desire for, say, justice. The film begins dark and strange and ends darker, stranger. Watching Lady Macbeth is a bit like having one’s stomach squeezed from the inside out.

The film’s disturbing tension is not for everyone, but those folks would miss a fantastic performance by Florence Pugh, who plays Katherine with a sensitivity that is both captivating and menacing. One of the great successes of Lady Macbeth is watching Pugh perform a character who moves from emotion to impulse to action–or in some cases radical inaction—in a thoroughly naturalistic way. Oldroyd’s direction is key here; perhaps the most terrifying thing about Lady Macbeth is how natural the film feels. Cinematographer Ari Wegner seems to shoot the film almost-entirely with natural light (and occasionally gaslight), an effect that is simultaneously gorgeous and starkly unsettling. Lady Macbeth would make a perfect double feature with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017). The film’s repetitions of interiors—often with Katherine staring out—readily recall Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi’s work.

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Lady Macbeth creates its own visual grammar to tell its story, deploying dialogue between characters with a spare efficiency that helps build the film’s anxious mood. Extradiagetic sound is virtually nonexistent in the film, too. A slow ominous rumbling swells up exactly three times in Lady Macbeth, matching and then intensifying the viewer’s nervous dread. The final credits play out over the sounds of birds chattily chirping. It’s all very disconcerting.

As I’ve noted (and which I hope is clear from this write-up), Lady Macbeth’s mix of strange Sadean sex and violence isn’t for everyone. It’s the kind of film that will likely disappoint or even upset many viewers—those looking for a Victorian-period romance should look elsewhere, and fans of straightforward horror might not get the tropes they crave. But folks interested in an unnerving but compelling story told on its own aesthetic terms should check this one out.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, somewhat late at night, at least for my wife and me. My wife loved it, by the way, and best of all, she loved it despite her usual rubric—she says she doesn’t like films where “nothing good happens.” Maybe something good happens in Lady Macbeth, but the good is so wrapped up in the bad that the two are impossible to parse.