On Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, abjection, and sublimated dreams

I forced myself through the last half of Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 novel First Love wondering if I actually liked her latest novel My Phantoms, a book I read just a few weeks ago.

(What do I mean to capture in the puny verb like?)

The material of First Love will be familiar to anyone who’s read My Phantoms, and I kept mentally underlining the similarities: first-person narrator, woman, living in London, a city she is culturally alienated from; bad parents–abusive asshole dad, narcissistic dippy mum. Vegetarian cooking.

Like My Phantoms, First Love is a slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one.

The thrust of First Love (one wouldn’t call it a plot, which isn’t a negative criticism) is something like this: Neve, a thirty-three-year-old writer (who makes some money teaching) is married to a man named Edwyn, who is a generation older from her, and suffering a heart condition. His heart condition has left him close to death at least once, but it also doubles as a symbol for his trashed spirit: Edwyn’s heart condition is that Edwyn has the heart of an asshole.

Edwyn belittles and abuses Neve, condescends her feminism, and generally bullies her. Most of the abuse is verbal, but sometimes it is physical. The abuse is always awful though—an abuse of spirit, of love.

Riley announces the themes of this awful “love” by the novel’s fourth paragraph:

We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises—little comfort noises—at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage.’ Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee. ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’

What’s the project? you might wonder, as does Neve—well, it’s not “winding up” Edwyn and “feel like shit all the time!’”

Does Edwyn actually feel abused by Neve’s behavior?

Riley certainly gives the man plenty of opportunities to vocalize his self-pitying and abusive rants. The central totem Edwyn hangs his anger on is an episode in which Neve drank alcohol excessively and vomited (apparently) all over the couple’s apartment. Riley does not depict the episode because Neve, natch, cannot recall it. The bits we get from it involve Edwyn’s violence, his anger. An ugly and true recollection of the sweaty abject reality of a hangover.

Much of First Love is mired in abjection—sweat and grime and piss and shit. Early in the book Neve and Edwyn exchange reminiscences of their young mothers on the toilet, Neve’s suffering IBS, Edwyn terrified of “The thundering waterfall of her first piss” in the early morning. “Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying.”

The abject reality of bodies and filth repulses Edwyn, and he buries his repulsion into a store of misogynistic tropes and curses that explode with more ugly frequency as First Love progresses. “You live in shit, so we all have to live in shit, is that right?” he demands of Neve, who he repeatedly accuses of slovenliness, filth. For Edwyn, Neve’s apparent uncleanliness is also related to her Northernness, underscoring the novel’s themes of class and place. Neve herself capitulates, reminiscing:

But was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show: ceilings bejewelled with pus-coloured animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an airlocked chamber smelling of bins that hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bathroom. It was there for three years.

So—I did grow up in shit. It was no slander.

Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty. (Mother looking up slyly from a crying jag.)

I did use to be sick a lot. No slander, though Edwyn didn’t know it.

Edwyn doesn’t know fucking anything. I was relieved in the novel’s final moments, where the narrative disappeared him.

But now and so I go back to the beginning of this riff and see the opening clause, I forced: I did force myself to finish First Love, poison cup. And, that second sentence up at the top: Did I like the novelNo. Reading it hurt. Riley offers up raw reality, ugly, abject, mean. The novel is well-written, which I don’t mean pejoratively: no seams show, and thematic resonance carries from minute details: dialogue, concrete imagery, minor moments that coalesce into an abject portrait of sick “love,” messy and cruel. I am so happy that I’m now outside of the thing.

The incest thing | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on its lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher—a nightmare from which our writers do not choose to awake too soon, since it is one their readers are willing to pay to share.

Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler

 

When he woke she was leaning against his shoulder. He thought she was asleep but she was looking out the plane window. We can do whatever we want, she said.

No, he said. We cant.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

She turned to the Kid. What does it say on the trunk?

What does what say? 

There’s a sticker on the trunk.

Yeah. It says progeny of Western Union.

Progeny?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


The last in the series of quotes above is an exchange between Alicia Western and her hort/figment/projection the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid has caused to be brought to Alicia a wiseassed—cruel, even—ventriloquist dummy. The dummy is another fitting prop in the Alicia-Kid episodes that punctuate The Passenger. It again underlines the vaudevillian aspect of these interstitial pieces, while also highlighting the novel’s themes of ventriloquism—of how memory of the dead might speak through the living, as the living grapple with death.

The quips above feature another of the Kid’s malapropisms — in this case his substitution of “progeny of Western Union” for property of Western Union. The Freudian slip (never really a slip on our imp’s tongue) points to The Passenger’s incest motif. It turns out that the dummy’s name is Crandall (perhaps named for the typewriter?). It’s likely Alicia herself named Crandall, and her grandmother tailored his clothes. I think the strong implication is that handy Bobby Western built (fathered) Crandall. In this sense, Crandall is the dreamchild born of a Western union. “I was only six,” Alicia cries as he disappears back into his case.


The incest motif perforates the literary tradition. We find it in Oedipus, in Lot seduced by his daughters, in David’s children Tamar and Amnon–a tale recapitulated in Faulkner’s southern Gothic Absalom! Absalom! We find it coded in Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” or made strange but more clear in Melville’s baffling Pierre. We find it in the tawdry attic of V.C. Andrew’s lurid Dollanganger novels (likely read by many more Americans than the other novels I’ve named).

The incest thing in literature is, of course, an exploration of taboo, and is such the rightful property (or progeny) of literature. In his seminal (and often bombastic) study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler suggests that “brother-sister incest in particular comes to stand in Romantic symbology for the rebellion against paternal authority, for the spirit of revolution itself.” He continues, declaring that the “Oedipal significance” of this revolutionary spirit “projects not only the desire to revolt, but also to die; that is to say, beneath the yearning for rebellion lies hidden the wish to be punished for it.”


Le’ts follow Fiedler’s reading (ahem, rehashing of Freud) and stick it on to the Western children: What is the paternal authority they rebel against—that is, beyond the actual literal father (a marginal memory)? Père Western was one of the lead authors of the atomic bomb. He changed the American relationship to death, permanently.


I have a little under a hundred pages left to go in The Passenger, but if either Bobby or Alicia has expressed overt familiar guilt over their father’s work in engineering mass death, I’ve missed it. What does linger is a deep-seated, unspoken anxiety about their father’s deeds.


At the end of his own surreal and improbable conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, Bobby expresses the only loss of his life, the only ashes in his world:

There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None.

The emotional outburst, with its plaintive tone and cycle of repetitions, is rare for Bobby Western: for the most part, when The Passenger juts its free indirect speech into Bobby’s skull, we get simple, direct (if increasingly paranoid) language.


It’s when he thinks of his sister Alicia that Bobby’s voice gives over to passion, to a kind of Gothic romantic language that recalls Poe more than Hemingway. Consider how Gothic frills in the following passage soon give way to an archaic and obscure (yet still ornate) style that recalls the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian:

In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw half-sentient mud quivering red on the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?


(I had not intended to type out the entire passage above, but once I got going I couldn’t stop.)


Bobby’s dream begins as an erotic manifestation of his sister, a Gothic evocation in silk ribbon or Grecian garb. She takes to a “stone stage,” again underscoring the shift into high drama. “I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe,” she declares. The word shadowlane here seems like a symbolic substitution for the near homphone chatelaine, an archaic word for a woman who keeps a castle or great house (readers of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series will be familiar with the word).

A chatelaine also refers to a chain belt used for holding keys, an image that carries over into the second half of Bobby’s dream, which shifts from eroticism to terror. Shadowy figures inhabit a “dusky penetralium,” an innermost chamber, a locked place. Here, the figures labor with red “half-sentient mud” (Adamic atoms) in an “autoclave” (self-key). Amidst a litter of stillbirths, the figures toil to bring a new creature into being.

Bobby’s dream moves from brother-sister incest to the Gothic terror of a laboratory creation coming to life—an evocation of the father’s sins. Bobby’s subconscious mind transmutes the Manhattan Project into a satanic ritual presided over by a clandestine “heresiarch” — the damning father figure whose strange experiment impede Bobby’s incestuous consummation. Instead, we get another Western union. And the promise of death.


(More thoughts to come.)

A review of My Phantoms, Gwendoline Riley’s novel of disappointed expectations

Gwendoline Riley’s novel My Phantoms is not so much a sad novel as it is an unhappy one—an unhappy novel about an unhappy family. Some joker once suggested that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but the unhappiness of the unhappy family evoked in My Phantoms will feel familiar to anyone who grew up with a narcissistic or depressed, passive-aggressive parent.

Our unhappy family are the Grants: mom Helen (“Hen”), father Lee, and sisters Michelle and Bridget (“Bridge”). Bridge is our narrator and her foil is mother Hen. In some ways, My Phantoms amounts to an oblique biography Hen, one patched together through estrangement and emotional distance. Bridge does not let her mother into her life: she refuses to introduce Hen to her boyfriends and will not let her into her home. She meets Hen once yearly for a dreary birthday dinner filled with passive-aggressive banter.

Late in the novel, Bridge finally acquiesces to spend a few days with Hen, caring for her after a surgery, and the pair almost—almost—come to a communication breakthrough. Hen, an extrovert with two failed marriages and only one close friend (whom she does not like), repeats her mantra: It was just what you did. The It in that sentence stands in for a proscribed life: getting married when you were a certain age, moving to the suburbs, abandoning your dreams. Having children, even if you didn’t want children.

As My Phantoms progresses, it becomes clear that, even if she never states it, Hen resents that Bridge has evaded the proscriptions of It was just what you did. Bridge has engineered a patchwork of phrases and prompts to make it through her “conversations” with Hen, but as her caretaker visit comes to a close, she actually opens up to her mother, suggesting that Hen starts therapy. Bridge continues:

Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?

Hen never attends therapy, but she is finally permitted to go to her daughter’s flat for dinner and meet her boyfriend, John. A man Hen met traveling also attends the dinner. The awkward evening is yet another example in a series of Hen’s disappointed expectations. She is unable to converse naturally with anyone at the table. John observes of Hen, after their first meeting, that:

It just became quickly obvious that she wasn’t going to engage with anything that was actually being said. She had a stance, she was sticking to that, and that precluded reacting to what was actually happening. Or experiencing what was actually happening.

Hen’s inability to square her idealized expectations with reality and the impact that inability has on her children will be familiar to many readers. Riley’s evocation of the passive-aggressive mother is understated and deeply realistic. There’s nothing hyperbolic about My Phantoms, which makes the novel’s core unhappiness even more unsettling.

Take for instance Riley’s portrayal of Bridge’s narcissistic father Lee. Like Hen, he is unable to clearly communicate with his daughters. Instead, he picks on them with stock phrases and formulations. “I’m testing the produce!” Lee declares in the grocery store, stealing grapes to his daughters’ embarrassment. He mocks Bridge for reading Chekov, insisting that she’s merely “posing with a book. He makes lewd comments about women’s bodies to his daughters. And yet his hectoring ultimately fails to get under their skin. They learn to tune him out, and choose to have nothing to do as soon as they are able. Lee is possibly the most annoying character I’ve read in a contemporary novel. Unable to communicate with his daughters, he verbally bullies them in a light style that might be plausibly denied as actual abuse. But it is abusive. Lee is a man who believes himself to be much smarter and much funnier than he is, and when the world around him fails to notice his supposed brilliance, he responds by amplifying his obnoxiousness. I am sure you know someone just like him in your own life.

Bridge’s estrangement from her parents is unhappy—and realistic, as I’ve noted repeatedly. It’s her disconnection from her sister Michelle that I find most sad about the novel. It is not that the two are on bad terms; rather, they seem to have cultivated distance as a coping mechanism. What might have brought them closer instead separates them. But again, that separation is realistic.

There’s no joy in My Phantoms, and the bits of humor are bitter. The enjoyment in the novel comes from slowly piecing together the emotional reality behind the accretion of realistic details in the foreground. Bridge isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she’s rarely direct. She shows us scenes from her life and comments on their emotional impact–but she never tells us what they mean, even as we reach the novel’s indelible and unhappy final image.

My Phantoms is available now from NYRB.

A review of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black

In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.

At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.

The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.

I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall so much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in 2010. RIP to Hilary Mantel, who died “suddenly but peacefully” yesterday at 70.]

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 novel Telluria, in its first English translation thanks to the estimable talents of Max Lawton, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices.

The world Sorokin conjures in Telluria is best experienced without map or gloss. My joy in reading the novel came from wandering through its fifty chapters and slowly building my own sense of this post-collapse world. You explore Telluria, finding footing after stumbling initially over the disorienting newness of a particular section. And just as you’ve tuned into the particular section’s frequency, you find yourself in a new chapter, a new idiom, a new voice. It’s a goddamn linguistic picaresque best enjoyed on its own terms, terms it refuses to spell out in simple exposition.

Telluria does not have a plot in the traditional sense, although its sum is greater than its parts. The fifty sections are not mere exercises in style, but rather a reflection of post-twentieth century consciousness: fractured, paranoid, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, joyous, dystopian, utopian, ironic, earnest, strange…The reader who wanders through the fifty chapters will piece together a brave weird world where our contemporary nation states and political alliances have splintered into a cacophony of fiefdoms, city states, monarchies, republics, and so on. (There’s even a system of “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism.”)

The needle that threads through it all is tellurium, a real (if earth-rare) element (as you’ll undoubtedly recall from your high-school chemistry class). In our world, tellurium is mostly employed in creating alloys for machines. In the world of Telluria, it is a drug that can take its user on a transcendental journeys, Those lucky enough to get their hands on a tellurium spike might find themselves transported into metaphysical spaces. Expert “carpenters” hammer tellurium nails into the heads of seekers, and these seekers go on to communicate with the dead, rampage fearlessly in battle, meet Christ in heaven, fly above mountaintops, or, in some cases, simply perish.

I should have by now offered a taste of the language in Telluria. A nice chunk of text set within the gum of context, no? But I don’t know how to do that effectively–Telluria is a dazzle of tongues. Offering a taste of just two or three of the sections would insufficient. It would amount to something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Instead, I’ll offer Max Lawton’s thoughts on translating Telluria, from an interview he granted me earlier this year

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices…I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations…), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others.

Telluria’s verbal carnival matches (and, really, engenders) seemingly endless imaginative invention on Sorokin’s part. We get dog-headed mutants engaged in philosophical discourse, “litluns” planning a revolution over the normies, the Carpenters of Western Europe hammering tellurium spikes into an army of Knights Templar who are about to set off on their thirteenth flying crusade against Islamic invaders. There are late-night, drug-fueled, multilingual bullshitting sessions, orgies, a princess who gets her kicks slumming it in disguise and fucking the serfs. There are lovers separated by thousands of miles, mutated horses larger than three-story houses, tourists in the USSR — the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic. A centaur falls in love. Etc.

I copped out of citing any passages from Telluria above, protesting that it might offer an incomplete picture—and that’s true. But reviewing my notes, I think it’s worth sharing one passage at some length, a passage that I think both describes the milieu of the novel as well as approaches a kind of moral vision for the novel (with the strong caveat that any one distinct moral vision is necessarily exploded and ironized by the other voices that thread through the novel—as Lawton stated in our interview, Telluria is “an ode to difference….For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.”)

“We must not take anyone else’s karma upon ourselves, not even in small matters,” the brigadier continued. “Especially now in our renewed, post-war world. Take a look at the Eurasian continent: after the collapse of ideological, geopolitical, and technological utopias, it was finally plunged back into the blessèd and enlightened Middle Ages. The world returned to human scale. Nations found themselves. Man ceased to be the sum of the technology around him. Mass production is living out its final years. There aren’t two identical nails beaten into humanity’s head. Man regained a sense of the thing, started to eat healthy grub and ride horses again. Genetic engineering helps man to feel his true size. Man has regained faith in the transcendental. Regained his sense of time. We’re not rushing anywhere anymore. Most importantly–we understand that there can be no technological heaven on earth. And, and in broader terms, no heaven at all. Earth has been given to us as an island of overcoming. Everyone chooses what to overcome and how to overcome it. And they make that choice themselves!”

Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad to me. 

Telluria was my first encounter with Sorokin, and I think it makes a grand introduction. I’ve since read Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) and Blue Lard (forthcoming next year from NYRB and also translated by Max Lawton). I’m currently reading Lawton’s translation of Their Four Hearts. While I think Blue Lard is the strongest of these titles (and I look forward to/dread reviewing it in the future), Telluria is an excellent introduction to Sorokin’s work, offering an engaging taste of his methods (all through Lawton’s lively translation). The book’s energy and imagination offer a nice counter to the dour dystopian narratives that abound these days.

Telluria is Not For Everyone. Readers interested in clear “worldbuilding” or plots that tie up all the loose ends will find themselves exasperated, as will readers who actively resist the linguistic playfulness of Lawton’s translation. Similarly, readers searching for a moral analogy for contemporary Russian politics and culture will find themselves straining to apply whatever mold they’ve already forged in their minds. Neither is this book particularly interested in the Americas or Western Europe. Sorokin’s province is the vast vacillating mass of Eurasia. In his 2012 book Russia: A Very Short History, Geoffrey Hosking notes “the arduous and challenging task of building a coherent polity on the flat open plains of northern Eurasia,” arguing that although Russia “has been a remarkable success story,” it is nevertheless a country “which had its own weaknesses programmed into it.” Hoskings continues: “[Russia] rested on a tacit compact between ruler, elites, and communities of ordinary people, renewed after periods of upheaval and crisis, yet never wholly harmonious, always subject to internal strains.” Telluria is an ecstatic and jarring exploration of those upheavals, those crises, those wonderful strains, a satire on the very notion of a coherent polity.

I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

Blog about the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19

I finished the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s second book Checkout 19 a few minutes ago, or really, a few minutes before I started writing this blog.

Bennett reads the book herself.

Sometimes listening to an author read their own writing is revelatory; the author imposes a performance that the prose alone, particularly the syntax, couldn’t conjure in your mind’s ear. There’s more to the work than you’d imagined. (And then, later, when you settle down, maybe you realize: there’s less.)

And sometimes hearing the author read their own work is painful. It’s not the writer’s fault, necessarily, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to visit microphones. They ham it up, or their restraint cools the prose, or, maybe they’re just nervous. They wrote the book to be read, not audited, maybe.

The other category of audiobooks read by their authors, or one of the other categories of audibooks read by their authors, is in my estimation the optimal experience: The writer reads their book in the most natural of manners, as if reading something they’d worked on for months or years or whatever into a digital audio file was just a natural thing, a normal thing, and that the author, the reader—the author is the reader, now, of her own work—the author can read her own work without a veil of artifice, without a smirk, without hedging.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s reading of Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Checkout 19 falls into this third category. The experience is unforced, an adjective that I don’t know what to do with now that I’ve written it. I’ll retreat to summary and description for a moment then: the audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, as read by Claire-Louise Bennett, is not quite seven hours long. It is divided into seven chapters, and, generally, very generally speaking, offers a kind of early autobiography through reading and writing. It is a kind of Künstlerroman, a word I learned in college which is not really useful here. In more contemporary terms it might be called autofiction, although I don’t know what that means either.

The chapters of Checkout 19 circulate not circularly in an elliptical rhythm, tracing and retracing foundational moments in Bennett’s, or Bennett’s narrator’s, life.

(I don’t believe for a minute that anything in Checkout 19 is false, even the embellishments, even possible lies.)

These moments are primarily connected to reading and writing, and something that I loved about Checkout 19 was how often Bennett concretized how physical and temporal reading and writing are: How we remember not just what or why we read or wrote, but also where, and when, and how: Where did we find spaces to carve out our own little stories? What were the beautiful covers of books we failed to read yet nevertheless lugged around with us? Why are some pens suited for drawing but not writing?

We get Bennett’s narrator sussing out the world of letters from a young age. Her Roald Dahl is the same Roald Dahl who wrote her mother’s copy of Switch Bitch, but he’s not the same Roald Dahl. Later, a boyfriend worries that Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton might not be good for her, and tries to keep them from her. He’s the same boyfriend who gets way too into Bukowski, embarrassing really. And even later (as a sort of capping grace on this motif in the story) Bennett’s narrator reclaims Anaïs Nin from freshman dorms everywhere, declaring her a talent to be reread later. Bennett’s book made me want to revisit Anaïs Nin, who I’ll admit I’ve compartmentalized along with Plath, Sexton, and Bukowski as writers I read in college.

There are lots of other books that pop up, full lists at times, canon-making, frankly (enough to make me order a physical copy of the book), but E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, which I have never read, is a major touchstone. Checkout 19 didn’t make me want to read A Room with a View, but I did relate very strongly to a moment when Bennett’s narrator admits to misremembering a key detail in the narrative in a way that fundamentally impacts her life.

Bennett also weaves and estimable biography of the avant garde writer Ann Quin into Checkout 19, which I hope will lead lots of people to read the novels of the avant garde writer Ann Quin. (Start with Berg.)

What else, what else? So much else—boyfriends and obsessions, mean girls and chronic boredoms, a Russian magician, bearing Nietzsche books, a hanged man at the children’s park. Bennett smuggles in a magnificent, strange story in, the life of one Tarquin Superbus, who acquires an impossible library only to find every book blank and null. Only Tarquin Superbus’s mentor assures him that there’s a magic sentence hiding somewhere in there—he just needs to hunt for it. The story is like something from Eco or Calvino, and I would’ve lapped up more of it.

What else, what else? There were parts that cracked me up to no end, as when the narrator lends her copy of a Paul Bowles novel—must’ve been The Sheltering Sky—to a guy who had had some flowers he’d bought for himself ruined while attempting to bicycle them home. She witnesses a car drive over the flowers and sees her friend, or acquaintance maybe, upset, and decides to loan him the Bowles novel when she meets him at the pub, but he’s too caught up in the story of his destroyed flowers to really take note, and he doesn’t even open the book—which Bennett’s narrator had purchased in Morocco or Algeria (look, I can’t remember right now, I don’t have a physical copy)—and he doesn’t even open The Sheltering Sky (it couldn’t have been Let It Come Down, right?), he just keeps retelling the story of his flowers destroyed, ever more tragic. Worst of all, he hates that she’s already witnessed the flowers’ ruin: he can’t tell his tragedy. She never gets the book back. And isn’t that always the way?

If you read and loved Bennett’s first book Pond like I did, you’ve probably already read Checkout 19 or put it into some stack to get to. If you haven’t read Pond, read Pond—and then check out Checkout 19. Great stuff.

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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Schrödinger’s Deer | A review of Dashiel Carrera’s surreal debut novel The Deer

Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer is puzzling, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally frustrating. Gloomy, surreal, and terse, The Deer is at its best when it’s at its most sinister—namely, on its first half, “Side A.” Taking a record album as its model, The Deer has two sides (A and B), each divided into titled Tracks  (on side A) or Lessons (side B). This unusual structure results in a genuinely experimental novel, where some elements crackle with eerie verve and others fall flat. The result is a novel that simultaneously compels and baffles readers, while challenging their notions of what a novel can—or should—do.

“Side A” of The Deer follows a man who may or may not be quantum physicist Henry Haverford, who may or may not have been drunk when he may or may not have hit a deer with his automobile at the beginning of the story. Henry may or may not be going back to his parents’ home to bury his father. I could keep adding may or may not to pretty much everything else that happens in The Deer, which operates on its own nightmare logic. The name Schrödinger is invoked in the fourth paragraph. The Deer reads like an attempt to apply quantum superposition theory to a novel about family trauma.

The family trauma that resonates in the first half is dark and icky—dead dogs, dead deer, Henry’s aloof brother Arthur, their sinister father, a dying (dead) mother, and a mother-figure girlfriend. In the background murmurs jazz piano, messages from the International Space Station, baseball on the radio, and the stifling threat of the police force, which Henry Haverford’s father may or may not have been a member of.

Henry’s multiple encounters with the police, who are simultaneously local law enforcement officers as well as Kafkaesque Authorities — “the Force” — showcase some of the best writing in The Deer. An early run-in with the police at the grocery store unfolds with particularly menacing grace:

“What have you got there, Mr. Haverford?”
The cops sip their coffees and grin.
“Beets,” I say. “I’ve got to bring home some beets for
dinner.”
“We heard you were sick,” says one of the cops.
“You did?”
“Yes, we heard you’ve come down with something really awful.”
“Truly awful.”
“That you’ve been asking all sorts of strange questions.”
I frown. “Well, I’ve been remembering a few things here and there. It’s been a long time since I was home.”
“Yes, but very strange things, Mr. Haverford. You haven’t been thinking straight.”
I force a chuckle.
“Is that liquor in your bag?”
I fondle the cap and lean back. The sliding glass doors open. “Yes. It’s for Arthur.”
“Oh, Arthur.” The men exchange a smile.
“Yes—I should get back to him, actually.”
“Oh, of course, Mr. Haverford. We wouldn’t want to
keep Arthur waiting.”
“Thank you. Yes, I shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I turn.
“It’s just that—well—we’d like to have you come into
the station tomorrow. For a few questions.”
“Questions?”
The other man takes off his cap. “Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Haverford. I’m sure you understand.”
“Right. Sure.”
“Wonderful.” One of the cops glances at the other.
“Well, we must be off.” He grasps my forearm and smiles.
“Great to see you again, Mr. Haverford.”
I nod. “Right. Very good to see you too, Officer.”

When he goes to his first interrogation, things get even stranger, with the police asking Henry what they believe should be done with the dead deer. The interrogation culminates with an ominous line that shouldn’t feel like a threat, but nevertheless sounds like one:

“Am I free to go?”
“Yes,” says the man in the long grey coat. “But we’ll
have you back to see the fawn.”

From there, side A of The Deer edges further into a nightmare of superimpositions and displacements—Henry seems unstuck in time and reality, he’s a boy, a teen, a man, but also a deer, even a fawn, a victim. The situation climaxes in the final track on side A, “The Deer.” It’s another interrogation scene, far more intense, and by the end of it one senses that our Henry, like a character from a David Lynch film, has shifted identities by the time he’s left the room—although nothing is permanent or stable in the world Carrera’s constructed.

Side B continues exploring the may-or-may not themes of the first half, but in an entirely different setting. We move to a first-person narrator, a woman who cares for an ailing mother with her sister. They live in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, with threats of marauding “riders,” illness, drought. Although the settings are radically different, Carrera takes pains to underscore the thematic line in his novel, invoking Schrödinger’s cat again:

Mother prepares another bowl. We eat slowly. The
kitchen light rocks back and forth. Sister leans back on the counter, popping bread in her mouth.
I read aloud to Mother. It is the Old Book, from the
Before Times. The title has long disintegrated.

I say, this is the story of a cat.

She nods slightly. Or maybe it is a rocking. Maybe her head was rocking, and I only thought it was a nod.

I say, the cat goes into a box.

I say, a man comes up to the box, and he leans down
next to it.

I say, the cat does not make a sound. Not even a scratch.

I say, the cat’s tail slowly curls around itself but the man does not know, because he cannot see the cat and the cat cannot see him.

I say, the man must decide if the cat exists.

At times the choppy, etiolated first-person voice of side B didn’t resonate as fully-realized in my ear, and I found some of the genre-bound descriptors (like “Before Times”) too on-the-nose in a book that is otherwise full of compelling obliquities. Other moments are stronger, like in the following passage, which again underscores the book’s theme of quantum superposition:

Read to me in the book how everything is shaking. Read to me how all the objects are composed of molecules and these molecules are fluid in structure. Read to me how all things twirl in recombination and the existence of objects is confirmed only through collective patterns of sensory perception. Read to me about how we must stay in sync, how these objects which we know to be real must be kept afloat by a rhythm of agreement, how this Earth which tilts so slowly pulls us all in the same direction. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only feel the cool of the ink and the scratch of the parchment. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only see the glimmers of this world.

It’s a remarkable paragraph, which feels both timely and timeless, for are we not always in a crisis of the “rhythm of agreement”?

Carrera studied writing under both Jason Schwartz and Evan Lavender-Smith, and the imprint of those writers, as well as the tree from which their own fiction might be said to extend, bears influence on The Deer. In his masterful John the Posthumous, Schwartz found sinister power in the vignette, in the cruel detail, which Carrera evokes in his novel as well. The Deer’s engagement with radical ambiguity also brings to mind Lavender-Smith’s novella Avatar, a study in untethered consciousness. Beyond that, Carrera branches from the Kafka tree, and The Deer will appeal to those who can hang in the surreal abject worlds of, say, João Gilberto Noll or Kōbō Abe or Anna Kavan or Hiroko Oyamada, without collapsing into goo. Good stuff.

The Deer is available from Dalkey Archive.

 

 

Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat is a funny, ludic novel about trauma and art

A book should be like a lot of spit. But who would publish me? Who publishes a person who’s sort of soaking in pain, who can’t always walk, employed only pretty much in name?

Did writing exist in books anyway these days? I thought perhaps defensively. Maybe it didn’t.

Writing does exist in books these days, despite what Iris, the narrator of a book of writing that exists, a book by Caren Beilin entitled Revenge of the Scapegoat, thinks perhaps defensively.

Iris, who will later transform into Vivitrix Marigold, thinks these defensive thoughts after receiving a package from her estranged father. The package contains two letters her father wrote to her when she was a teenager and a play she began but never finished composing when she was 17. The play had a title though: Billy the Id.

And why does Iris need defensive thoughts to defend her against this offensive package? Well, it turns out she was the designated scapegoat of her family, the atavistic locus for her father’s animus and her terminally-ill mother’s helplessness.

Mom’s dead now and Iris has escaped to Philadelphia, where she’s an underemployed adjunct teaching creative writing to overworked kids. She’s been “re-parented by the crucial cosmos, if poorly,” living in a house her mother left to her “like a moldy letter, black botches all over, and all over the counters.” Her mother had bought the house as an escape plan for Iris and her brother, but she never escaped (“She died of staying”). Iris lives in the moldy old house with her alcoholic husband. He lies about being a recovering alcoholic (“He told me that microdosing heroin was helping him in his recovery”). It’s clear that the marriage is failing.

But this isn’t a marriage story. It’s not her husband’s unremarkable departure, but rather the arrival of the packaged writing, that sparks Iris’s transformation. This transformation occurs over four distinct sections.

The first section is mostly a dialogue between Iris and her friend Ray, who is transitioning between genders. Like Iris, Ray was the designated scapegoat of their family, and the pair bonds and shares their trauma at a coffee shop called Good Karma. There’s a zaniness to Scapegoat that frequently veers into absurd humor and even outright surrealism (as when, for example, Iris punctuates her conversation with this observation: “The sun was going down. Holograms of dead parrots flopped in the road,” which I take to be Beilin’s oblique approximation of the old chestnut, “Somewhere in the distance a dog barked”). But the zaniness in Scapegoat is never precious or cloying; rather, the verbal quirks and eccentric images are anchored in the concrete pain and real trauma that Iris is trying to process.

Inspired by her conversation with Ray, Iris offers them her house in exchange for their boxy old Subaru. Iris drives and drives and drives, out into the New England countryside, repeatedly playing the same cassingle, one “SCAR” by Vivitrix Marigold. The poor Subaru, which “had more than 700,000 miles” on it, eventually gives out, and Iris finds herself stranded “out in the middle of a New England nowhere” — but not a poor nowhere, “No, this was all richie rich.”

It’s in this second section that Iris transforms into Vivitrix, and the narrative becomes even more surreal. It begins with our hero outside of an obscure art museum called The mARTin. There is a heart-stepping cow, of old Nazi stock, stepping on her heart. From there things get even weirder, and it would be a shame to spoil more of the plot. I don’t actually care about plot too much, but a lot of wild stuff: a curator who may or may not have murdered her husband, cowherding, a patricidal pervert, kale marmalade made from bull semen, castration conversation, a queasy dinner party (with a forced table reading of Billy the Id!) and more.

There’s also a very cathartic end, which I wasn’t anticipating. But it was lovely.

Perhaps ultimately the plot of Revenge of the Scapegoat is about transforming trauma into art, but as I write this sentence out, it seems like something Iris would tell her students not to do in their writing. Iris scatters her writing advice into the narrative and then breaks it: “Do not italicize foreign words”; “I told students there could be no rain or scenes on benches”; “Don’t write about food in an inventive way”. And my favorite: “Don’t make adult women reconcile or admit anything in your writing.”

In addition to this metatextual conceit, Beilin also employs the strange rhetorical device of turning Iris’s poor arthritic feet into Bouvard and Pécuchet, characters from Flaubert’s unfinished satire Bouvard et Pécuchet. At one point the pair bicker over which kind of precious metal or gem a witch might prefer. They are the not-quite-chorus of Revenge of the Scapegoat.

Beilen also lards her tale with similes that wonderfully strain credulity. On the first page, Iris compares the vegan leather of shoes to “a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin.” Iris will often then puncture the artifice of the simile with rough reality: “I was shaking in the grass like an Etch-a-Sketch a higher power was trying to erase wholesale. Fuck that. I stopped shaking.” Or consider the surreal swell and bathetic pop in this passage, where Iris (now Vivitrix) compares her first encounter with The mARTin museum to the narrator of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” seeing the titular house for the first time:

Like that narrator, that man, so too I, Vivitrix, first looked at the reflective water rather than at a real building, weird, so I first saw The mARTin upside down. Its pink door stretched tall on morning’s mandible, as though it were flocked in flamingo leather, a pink surpassing the high heat of “hot,” a flamingo ultravinegar spilled all over something like a primed bookcover of a welcome new monograph on someone like Sade, or Wilde, someone such as Rimbaud or O’Hara, or Keats, men with honorary vaginas who castrated by love and the system, Flaubert, Adorno or Baldwin. It was a very pink door.

I’ve shared a taste of Beilin’s prose at length, and while I think it’s representative of the novel’s style, it can’t replace the feeling of how her sentences flow and build and ebb and swell. Initially, some of the verbal tics in Scapegoat irritated me, but it was the kind of irritation that makes you want to keep reading. And, a few pages after the lovely strange passage I’ve quoted above, our hungry hungry hero declares, “I needed some beef like you wouldn’t beleef.”

I laughed out loud and that initial irritation resolved into something like love. Highly recommended.

Revenge of the Scapegoat is available now from Dorothy.

Not toward peace | On Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary

“I don’t live well,” the unnamed narrator of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary tells the young woman he will soon marry. “The excuse isn’t clear to her, though she tries to follow its meaning,” he continues, this time to the reader. While the narrator seems, on the surface, a man with a good job as a clerk who lives in a respectable house with his mother, he doesn’t live well—the adverb modifies the verb live in a literal, visceral sense: our hero is an anxious wreck who cannot tune in to the modern condition. He “can’t sleep or eat or read or speak in the chaos of sound” that is the modern, post-war condition.

And that is the central problem of The Silentiary: the chaos of sound. Set in an unnamed, rapidly-growing Latin American city in the early 1950s, Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel belongs to the same canon of Kafkaesque, existentialist postwar novels like Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Like those novels, The Silentiary follows the nonadventures of a disaffected young man out of tune with his society.

There’s no need to summarize The Silenciary at length. The narrator works in an office, has a crush on his neighbor but ends up marrying her friend, and converses with his flighty philosophical foil, Besarion. He also dreams of completing a novel (to be called The Roof), but alas can never set about even getting started because of the “chaos of sound” that ever encroaches upon him. And that is the real plot of The Silentiary: our poor hero is ever retreating from modernity’s cacophony, only to find new, louder sounds piercing his repose.

His attempts to evade noise are simultaneously mundane and absurd. At one point, he’s schlepping around an old piano that no one can play (symbol of his mother’s middle-class respectability) like a giant anchor, trying to jam it into small quarters. Another sequence finds him moving to a small town, only to end up with a tragic punchline. He’s moved next door to a blacksmith: “Forge and bellows, the anvil and its hammers.”

The narrator’s wife loves him without understanding him, but he finds a confessor in his friend Besarion. This enigmatic character pops in and out of the novel, engaging in puzzling dialogues with the narrator, who is wary and possibly jealous of his friend: “He’s free. He has managed to make his life a long digression, or a kind of multiple metaphor.” Years ago, before the narrator had married and before Besarion had gone on a series of religious travels, he had diagnosed the narrator thusly: “Your quest against noise is metaphysical.” Upon return though, Besarion ironizes that diagnosis, stating that even though his friend believes that his “adventure is metaphysical,” it is actually “physiological, or psychic, or nervous.” This can’t relieve the narrator’s pain though: the chaos of noise “won’t let me exist,” he protests. Besarion solemnly tells him, “Bear up. Make do.”

For all its seriousness, The Silentiary is often a funny, wry novel. Consider the narrator’s description of the automechanics who’ve moved next door: “They seem to have abandoned themselves entirely to their passion for the hygiene of all that has four wheels and an engine.” Or our anxious guy getting dyspepsia: “The food I ingest at lunch does not resign itself to its destiny.”

The phrasing in such moments recalls Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, also ably translated by Esther Allen. Again, Allen captures something crisp and wry, subtle and precise that is surely native to Di Benedetto’s prose. The results are often beautiful, like in a strange little haiku-like moment early in the novel:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

Or the beautiful phrasing of another strange moment:

…I come across a photo of the lion tamer we dined with after the circus performance.

The tamer’s mane is as untamed as ever, in all the dishevelment of bad nights to which no comb can offer a morning remedy. He’s under double guard.

Lovely!

Yet for all its humor and beauty, The Silentiary is ultimately a sad, though never dour, read. The novel does not wax elegaic for a romanticized, quieter past, nor does it call to make peace with cacophony. There’s only Besarion’s stern intonation to “Bear up [and] Make do.” We’ve the portrait of one man who cannot escape or mute the chaos of sound. Ultimately, he cannot bear up and make do. So he resists, becoming a martyr for silence…but it doesn’t end well. The novel concludes darkly: “The night flows on…and not toward peace.” Recommended.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Toni Morrison’s Beloved

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Toni Morrison’s complex, abject, disturbing, wonderful novel Beloved.

I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


Sex

Too Strange

bodily fluids

rather depressing

unlikable characters

on my book club list

Another slavery book

grotesque & obscene gestures

repulsive scenes of voyeurism

Critics fall all over themselves

perverted-ghost-baby-women

literature is one of my passions,

Slavery, filicide and a poltergeist

Slavery was awful for blacks and whites

I can’t believe this crap is considered literature

must have won the Pullizter for political reasons

some litteray qualities, which the litteraty people dig

granted, no one can possibly fathom the horrors of slavery

relavent in today’s world only as a “politically correct” theme

graphic innuendo that I found offensive, although the language was clean

I got busted for buying as intially it was in the syllabus and later removed

As a graduate student of the School of Education in University of Connecticut,

The setting is some black guys who are slaves in the middle of the 19th. century

Black history is so important but I was looking for more of a mental health narrative

I completely understand the need to ‘remember’ the horrors that happened during the American slave trade

To Kill A Mockingbird was an excellent book about racism, and Amy Tan writes a lot of great books

reviewed as part of a book club that I attend and not one person liked it

People do things with farm animals that they shouldn’t

I was pleased that nobody liked the book

incomprehensible style

the book is super think

too much supernatural

extremely triggering

As a mother myself,

rape and bestiality

definitely R-rated

I must be stupid

jumped around

impenetrable

fright a minute

Very well written

food on the cover

jumped around

I’m troubled right now

finer feelings are diminished

If racism is going to end, it needs to go both ways

down right salacious in content & depressing as well

I am currently an undergraduate at Princeton University

a great story if it were only written in the normal manner

There is also the added element of a ghost, so what she’s up to, I don’t know

that stinky cheese you find after like a year, and its rock hard…. just like me ;)

I read books because I want to read a story with gripping characters, not so an author can try to be clever and symbolic

Every book she writes involves crude, explicit sexuality that is completely unnecessary, and is focused on black people.

We can never understand how horrible slavery is, I understand. Reading 324 pages about people getting tortured and subsequent consequences sincerely will not help you be any happier, gain any form of important insight on life, or become a better person

because it’s about slavery and nobody is allowed to knock books about slavery, it gets all these plaudits

I read many classics and modern classics as opposed to popular novels

quite possibly the worst book that I have ever read

I consider myself fairly intelligent

on my grandaughter’s reading list

Worst book I have ever read

violent and depressing

overboard & weird!

dark and rambled

gush and gaa-gaa

struts and preens

Grotesque content

literary snobbism

Uhhhh…. Huh??

shock value

Hated it

an slog

jibber jabber

an “okay” writer

I’m an avid reader

I’ve read a lot of books

eat dirt & watch the grass grow

I can deal with thick slang but

the hardships of colored people

I don’t care if she was black or white

Having seen part of the movie on TV,

I have to say not a lot of things shock me

overdone, overused, overwritten, overhyped

constant and excructiatingly graphic descriptions of brutality and suffering

I think this book was awful and did not deserve a prize of any kind. I wrote the author years ago and told her so.

We have read about the disgusting things slaves suffered at the hands of their ‘masters’ it was horrible but why do we need another book?

graphic sexual descriptions that are so overwhelmingly uncalled for?

There are so many other things to write about. why pain and anger?

You name it, this book does it wrong

confusing, disgusting, disturbing

cuss words every few sentences

horse (expletive deleted)

Why so much disgust

violence

insanity

race

mud

sex

A review of Ishmael Reed’s sharp satire The Last Days of Louisiana Red

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Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.

In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”

The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.

Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,

When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.

Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:

Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”

As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….

The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.

As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.

Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.

Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.

This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.

Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.

When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:

He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.

So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.

Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this review in March, 2019.]

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

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Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally been published. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Barracoon went previously unpublished due in part to Hurston’s refusal to revise the prose into a “standard” English. Hurston wrote Barracoon in a phonetic approximation of Cudjo’s voice. While this vernacular style may pose (initial) challenges for many readers, it is the very soul of the book in that it transmits Cudjo’s story in his own voice, tone, and rhythm. Hurston used vernacular diction throughout her work, but Cudjo’s voice is singular; it bears a distinctly different sound than the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel. It is hard to conceive a more compelling version of Barracoon than this one, the one Hurston refused to compromise, with its intense, vital orality.

What is Barracoon about? I shall liberally borrow my summary from the book’s introduction, penned by Hurston scholar and biographer Deborah G. Plant:

On December 14, 1927, Zora Neale Hurston took the 3:40 p.m. train from Penn Station, New York, to Mobile, to conduct a series of interviews with the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda. His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was held as a slave for five and a half years in Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free. Kossola lived out the rest of his life in Africatown (Plateau). Hurston’s trip south was a continuation of the field trip expedition she had initiated the previous year.

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely un-Reconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression. Within the magnitude of world events swirled the momentous events of Kossola’s own personal world.

Zora Neale Hurston, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist, was eager to inquire into his experiences. “I want to know who you are,” she approached Kossola, “and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” Kossola absorbed her every question, then raised a tearful countenance. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

Those final sentences should give you a quick taste of Barracoon’s central rhetorical conceit. After her own introductory chapter (which details the historical circumstances of the Clotilda’s illegal journey to West Africa), Hurston lets Cudjo inspirit the text, telling his own story in his own voice. Hurston, who spent three months with Cudjo, initially interposes herself in the story, as we see early in the book’s first chapter:

“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”

I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”

He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?

This brief “cutting in” is one of the last moments in the narrative that Hurston attempts to steer Cudjo in a particular direction. Instead, she befriends the old man, bringing him watermelons, hams, peaches, and other treats. These little gifts serve to frame Cudjo’s narrative as he moves from one episode to the next. Otherwise, Hurston disappears into the background, an ear for Cudjo’s voice, a witness for his story.

Cudjo’s story is astounding. He describes life in his own West African village and the terrible slaughter of his people at the hands of “de people of Dahomey,” a tribe that eventually sells Cudjo and the other young people of his village to white men. Cudjo describes his early enslavement in Alabama, which took place in secret until the Civil War, and his eventual freedom from bondage. He tells Hurston about the founding of Africatown, a community of West Africans. He describes his life after capture and slavery—his marriage, his children, his near-fatal railroad accident. Cudjo’s life and his children’s lives were incredibly difficult. They were always othered:

“All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time. Me and dey mama doan lak to hear our chillun call savage. It hurtee dey feelings. Derefo’ dey fight. Dey fight hard. When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, ‘Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”

Somehow most devastating in a narrative full of devastation are the deaths of Cudjo’s children. After his daughter dies in infancy, his namesake is killed by a sheriff, a scene that resonates with terrible pain in 2018:

Nine year we hurtee inside ’bout our baby. Den we git hurtee again. Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.

He say he de law, but he doan come ’rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man. If he mad wid my Cudjo ’bout something den he oughter come fight him face to face lak a man. He doan come ’rest him lak no sheriff and he doan come fight him lak no man.

Another of his sons is decapitated in a railroad accident. A third son, angry with the injustice of the world, simply disappears: “My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery.”

Cudjo, ever the survivor, went on to outlive his wife and all of his children.  In her foreword to Barracoon, Alice Walker captures the pain and pathos of this remarkable position:

And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis’s life after Emancipation. His happiness with “freedom,” helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis’s case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving.

I cannot improve on Walker’s phrase here. Hurston brings that “nobility of soul” to life via Cudjo’s own rich language.

While Barracoon is of a piece with Hurston’s anthropological collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, it does not read like an autoethnography. It is rather a compelling first-person narrative. Hurston collecteed stories from Cudjo–fables, parables, games—but these are included as an appendix, a wise narrative choice as any attempt to integrate them into the main narrative would hardly be seamless. The appendix adds to the text’s richness without imposing on it, and links it to Hurston’s work as a folklorist.

I’ve noted some of the additional material already—Walker’s foreword, the appendix of folklore, as well as Plant’s introduction. Included also is an afterword by Plant that contextualizes Barracoon within Hurston’s academic career, a list of the original residents of Africatown, a glossary, a bibliography, and a lengthy compendium of endnotes. This editorial material frames the historic and academic importance of Barracoon, and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to study the subject more. However, Cudjo’s narrative stands on its own as a sad, compelling, essential story. It’s amazing it took this long to reach a wider audience. Recommended.

[Ed. note–this review originally ran in May, 2018.]

A review of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower

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Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar 

Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures  a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.

When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community,  He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.

After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.

Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.

The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.

Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.

Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.

Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.

The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.

And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,

Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.

Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:

He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”

“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”

Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”

Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.

Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.

The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”

“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in March of 2019.]

Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself

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Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.

Chief among Tracker’s  allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.

The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.

From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.

James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.

At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.

Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.

Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:

And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.

James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”

Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.

A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:

I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.

A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.

While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.

The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.

The sex is more interesting than the violence in Black Leopard, Red Wolf—and there’s plenty of both. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic urges,” our lead characters repeat to themselves. James’s novel is deeply horny, its characters fluidly shifting into all kinds of weird fucking. Tracker partners with various members of his fellowship in more ways than one. Sex is magic in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, too—only ten pages in, Tracker ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, fish eat it, and turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead.

There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.

In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf  points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.

[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in May of 2019. This novel’s sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, is out next week.]

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in February of 2017.]