The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

sleep of reason

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.


Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013]. 

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Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

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Illustration for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by Nancy Martinez

Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.

I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.

To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:

We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).

Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”

Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.

And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.

But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).

Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.

So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.

The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.

I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:

This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.

O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.

The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.

When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:

‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’

‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.

The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:

. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’

This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.

And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.

This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:

I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.

Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.

Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .

But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.

But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in May of 2012].

Sunday Comics (A riff on FX’s show Legion)

I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.

Bill Sienkiewicz is my favorite comic book artist of all time.

I like Sienkiewicz so much I can spell his last name correctly without looking it up. I like Sienkiewicz so much that he was the first artist I featured when I first started this silly Sunday Comics thing last year.

Sienkiewicz, along with Chris Claremont, created the character of David Haller (“Legion,” Professor X’s son). David first appeared in the last page of The New Mutants #25, Marvel Comics, March, 1985. (The issue is about the underrated duo Cloak & Dagger).

The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book. (By which I mean: Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book).

Here’s David’s début:

The next three issues of The New Mutants (27-29) tell the Legion story line.

I recall liking the Legion story of The New Mutants, although it never stood out as strongly as The Demon Bear Saga, or the issues where Magneto took over The New Mutants’ leadership. But that isn’t why I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.

I had no interest in watching the Legion television show because every single Marvel television show that I’ve seen so far has been boring, or garbage, or boring garbage. And don’t even get me started on the execrable X-Men films, which have squandered so many good storylines. (Although I thought Deadpool was great, which sort of counts as an X-Men film, and I do have an interest in seeing Logan).

Anyway, after a few critics and authors I admire tweeted that Legion was, like, actually really good/excellent/thrilling/etc., I looked up the show, and saw that the showrunner and creator is Noah Hawley. That’s the dude who did FX’s Fargo, another TV show I was also wary of which also turned out to be excellent.

So, over the past four nights, I’ve watched the first four episodes of Legion. (I’ll watch the fifth tonight).

The show is fantastic.

It’s the first “superhero” show I’ve seen that succeeds not just in its script, casting, and themes, but aesthetically as well. Hawley smuggles in references to the original New Mutants run in a way that doesn’t feel like fanservice—but the other reference points here go past comic books and into film: Legion openly steals from Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, and Wes Anderson. (I mean this as a compliment). Hell, there’s something Pynchonesque about the show too, in its themes of paranoia, its treatment of the concept of reality, its streak of dark but somehow zany humor, and its subversive sexiness.

The casting for Legion is pretty great too. The guy who played the guy who died in the car crash on Downton Abbey so he could leave that show and get better shows does an admirable job as David. The temptation would be to play David as batshit crazy, but the portrayal is measured, often archly comical, and ultimately sympathetic. (Shit, I just looked that guy’s name up—I saw him on a web episode of High Maintenance as a stay-at-home dad who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes and thought he was great, but also thought, Damn, hope Matthew Crawley can get some higher-profile gigs—anyway, that dude, Dan Stevens, is in that new Disney live action Beauty and the Beast film with Hermione Hogwarts, so I guess he’s doing fine).

Where was I? Oh, casting—yeah, there are solid performances here. Aubrey Plaza plays a dead junkie who may or may not be a ghost in David’s head. Jean Smart (aka my least favorite Designing Woman) plays the not-Moira MacTaggart/not-Prof. X character Melanie Bird. Smart was smart in the second season of Hawley’s other FX show, Fargo, which also featured Rachel Keller, who is basically the second lead on Legion as Sydney Barrett (not subtle, I know), David’s untouchable girlfriend. And the show basically had me when Bill Irwin showed up. Like I said, it’s great stuff.

Probably my favorite thing about the show so far though is that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in being anyone’s franchise. It stays true to the paranoid spirit of mid-eighties Claremont X-Men, and seamlessly combines plot and aesthetics in a way that a show about a telepathic and telekinetic mutant would have to to succeed. It’s also dark without being self-serious or self-important. (So many superhero films and shows fail utterly here).

Anyway, I’ve loved the first few episodes, and even if the showrunners fuck it all up, hey, it’s just TV, right?

Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’ novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine.

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering—

—okay, wait, it occurs to me now that I’ve completely neglected to offer any kind of plot description that might anchor this ostensible “review,” to set up who exactly Miss Goering is, etc., so  here goes (and I encourage you to just go ahead and skip the next long paragraph)—

A bad summary: Two Serious Ladies comprises three long chapters, each of which might stand on its own as a long short story. Part the first: Miss Goering is rich but strange. Her childhood is bizarre; alienated from others “she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a human being.” Her attempt to baptize another child luckily doesn’t end in a drowning. She grows up out of step with her peers, dresses odd, speaks odd. One day out of nowhere appears a Miss Gamelon, who becomes her (often disagreeable) companion. At a party she runs into the other serious lady, Mrs. Copperfield, whose adventures in Panama comprise the second section of the book. At the same party she meets Arnold, a would-be artist, goes home with him, meets his folks, his father. She elects to move (with Arnold and Miss Gamelon) to a run-down cottage on a drab island, forsaking her wealth, sort of. Part the second: We shift to section two, the Copperfields’ adventures in Panama. Mr. Copperfield checks the couple into a seedy hotel in the wrong part of town and promptly drops his wife off where the brothels are. She moves into a run-down hotel with a prostitute named Pacifica while her husband does God-knows-what. There’s a lot of drinking and near-madness, run-ins with bad boyfriends and snooty hoteliers. Mr. Copperfield leaves without his wife. Part the third: We return to Miss Goering and gang in the dilapidated cottage. Arnold’s father soon moves in with them. Miss Goering starts going out at night alone. She gets picked up at bar and moves in with a man named Andy. She eventually leaves him for a gangster who mistakes her for a prostitute. On a dinner date—okay, not really a dinner date but—on a dinner date with the gangster (who, like the dinner date, is never actually named as a “gangster”), Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield. Both are much changed.

—okay, so this time with (or without) some context—

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering and her gangster:

This man, they had noticed, drove up to the saloon in a very beautiful big automobile that resembled more a hearse than a private car. Miss Goering had examined it one day when the man was drinking in the saloon. It appeared to be almost brand new. She and Andy had looked in through the window and had been a little surprised to see a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. Miss Goering was completely preoccupied now with what course to take should the newcomer be willing to make her his mistress for a little while. She was almost sure that he would, because several times she had caught him looking at her in a certain way which she had learned to recognize. Her only hope was that he would disappear before she had the chance to approach him. If he did, she would be exempt and thus able to fritter away some more time with Andy, who now seemed so devoid of anything sinister that she was beginning to scrap with him about small things the way one does with a younger brother.

And of course she gives in to her terrible desire. The plot of Two Serious Ladies might be described as a search for “anything sinister.”  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield seek the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: disasters, abysses, madness. Love?

The novel most reminded me of what I love best in the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Roberto Bolaño—that sense of perverse night-time dread, the sordid intimation of just how easily the veneer might crack, of how simple it might be for civilization to give way to the madness under the surface.

David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño suffuse their work with an absurd howling humor that percolates along with the dread, and Two Serious Ladies operates along the same horror/humor axis. The book is hilarious, but my several attempts to capture that here in a few excerpts of dialogue fail to translate into this digest form. Will you take my word? Will you take my word that the book was much funnier the second time I read it?

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review of Two Serious Ladies in February of 2015].

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.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

A review of John Berger’s Pig Earth

People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!  Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.

Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth.  Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life.  Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.

Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength.  Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck).  In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal:  mucus, barn, salt, and sense.  The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty.  When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.

He sat on a milking stool in the dark.  With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal.  Breath, water, cud were entering it:  wind, piss, shit were leaving.

Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry.  They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy.  In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete.  This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created.  Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”

The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast.  While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard.  When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice.  Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review of Pig Earth in 2011. We run it again in appreciation of John Berger, who died today at the age of 90].

A review of Philip K. Dick’s last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death?  Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel.  Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.

The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight.  The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost.  The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine.  Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient.  The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters.  They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.

Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters.  She’s tough, articulate, and well-read.  While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory.  She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life.  She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them.  Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar?  Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth.  Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words.  “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.”  When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”

Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship.  Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness.  He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story.  Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real.  His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse.  This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide.  A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in 2011. Today is PKD’s birthday].

Roman Muradov’s graphic novella Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art reviewed

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Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.

There’s more of course.

In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:

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Okay.

Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).

But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?

Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).

The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders. 

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The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805).  Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.

Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.

These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).

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It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.

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So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).

Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).

Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:

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Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.

Do you follow Muradov on Twitter?

I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).

But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).

Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):

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The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness. 

And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.

Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).

But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).

That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.

 

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Sunday Comics (From Hell)

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From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper story, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise as a means to cover up an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more. The murders are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.

One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder.

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From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel. Gull goes backwards (William Blake sees him in a vision and turns that vision into Ghost of Flea) and Gull goes forwards: he sees London at the end of the twentieth century, and receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect.

From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism.

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Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure.

From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on Halloween day in 2010].

Wherein I Suggest Dracula Is a Character in Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

I. Here’s my thesis:

Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s dark opus 2666.

Specifically, I’m suggesting that Dracula (like, the Count Dracula) is the unnamed SS officer in “The Part About Archimboldi” who hosts a strange party in a Romanian castle.

II.  I’m willing to concede that my idea is probably full of holes and more than a little silly, but I think there’s some textual support for such a claim.

III. I’ve already suggested on this blog that 2666 is full of lycanthropic transformations, and in that earlier essay, I linked werewolves to vampires (using the work of mythologist Sabine Baring-Gould).

I also suggested on this blog that 2666 is a dark ventriloquist act, full of forced possessions and psychic hauntings.

It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.

IV. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .

V. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:

At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.

Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.

VI. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:

“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.

“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.

He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.

(I love Popescu’s line here).

VII. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):

Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.

So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.

He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.

When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.

Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

VIII. Then, supper time:

That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.

Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).

IX. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:

The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.

Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.

X. Then conversation turns to culture:

The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.

I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.

XI. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:

The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.

XII. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):

First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.

The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).

We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.

So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:

Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.

(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).

(I’m also suggesting, again, that 2666 be read intertextaully).

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

XIII. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).

I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).

One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)

XIV. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:

The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.

Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).

They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:

And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.

XV. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):

Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.

I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.

XVI. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:

Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.

(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).

XVII. Here, his last appearance:

The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.

Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.

Curation and creation in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive

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Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive is excellent. 

Moody, sometimes funny, always gorgeous, and largely plotless, the film centers on two vampires—Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton—who fill their long lives with music, literature, and love. At its core, the film is an elegiac love song to aesthetic originary creation in the age of the curator.

As Mike D’Angelo points out in his smart review

What really interests Jarmusch is immortality, or at least longevity. How would we behave if we lived for centuries, and were free to do pretty much anything we wanted? What sort of aesthetes and collectors might we become? … In this world, the vampire’s primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted; they’re much more like curators than monsters.

 

Eve’s curatorial powers are enviable—she merely has to touch an object to know its age (and quality). She touches Adam’s beloved Gibson guitar, declaring “1905.” As she packs her suitcase full of books (Don QuixoteInfinite Jest, and Kafka all make the cut), she scrolls her fingers through pages briskly but lovingly, seeming to absorb each one instantly.

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Adam’s curatorial impulses manifest in his collection of antique musical and electronic equipment, his claustrophobic crumbling mansion a mad scientist’s lab of sight and sound. Adam creates plodding dirges, death songs, elegies for the end of romance. Reclusive cult hero, he hides in the outskirts of Detroit from his growing fanbase who demand to know who made this music. Like Wyatt, the masterful forger of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, Adam wonders what people want from the person that they couldn’t get from the work of art. Still, as he mournfully complains to Eve, Adam wants a reflection, something to echo back to him. His fans—the “zombies”—are not enough.

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Eve’s library and Adam’s studio allow Jarmusch to perform his own curatorial impulses. On one wall in a room of Adam’s mansion hang the portraits of dozens of writers and musicians, including Blake, Poe, Twain, and Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe it turns out is a vampire—and the real author of Shakespeare to boot. 

It might be tempting to accuse Jarmusch of merely providing fan service for hipsters, but there’s more going on here than simple name-checking. Adam’s wall isn’t simply a shrine for hero-worship. Instead, it feels like a gallery of family portraits.  Continue reading “Curation and creation in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive”

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is an elegant collection of creepy intertextual tales

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In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in the spring of 2013; we republish it here in the spooky spirit of Halloween].

Phantoms and ghosts in David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King

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The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”

Okay.

So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?

Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.

The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.

(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).

In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”

In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.

“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”

The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:

Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.

(Thank you, narrator—who are you?!—for mediating the phantom’s speech and Dean’s misauditing of that speech). Continue reading “Phantoms and ghosts in David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King”

“A wild dream of a witch-meeting” | Westworld episode two reviewed

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Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” was thrumming through my head the second time I watched “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, a naive youth ventures into the dark evil woods—for reasons never fully expressed—and witnesses his community’s Satanic inversion: Witches and wizards and a “devilish Indian behind every tree.” The narrator’s gambit (Was it all just a dream?) doesn’t ultimately matter—Brown’s experience irrevocably change him. He crosses the threshold of his domestic door, traipses into unknown terrors, and becomes a new person.

Last week, in my review of Westworld’s pilot, I wrote that the series engages “that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would ‘sivilize’ him.” For Twain the territory is freedom; for dark Hawthorne the frontier is freedom’s dark twin terror. We find a bit of both in this episode of Westworld. (Along with wizards and Indians).

Our naive youth here is William (Jimmi Simpson). William arrives at Westworld for the first time, “guided” by his loutish friend Logan, who chooses to “go straight evil” (if I may echo a guest’s line from last week). Westworld’s pilot episode pulled a bait-and-switch last week, presenting Teddy Flood (James Marsden) as the naive youth, new to town, only to reveal that he is actually an automaton, a “host.” William provides a more traditional audience surrogate, and his opening sequences are closer to what we might expect from a traditional pilot episode. William’s entering Westworld also feels a bit like the beginning of a video game. (Westworld often feels like a video game. I mean that as a compliment).

We enter the Westworld with William; we savor the bespoke attire he’s offered; we glance with apprehension and desire at the guns on display. In a pivotal shot, William—and perhaps the audience—must make an important choice: White hat—or black?

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William chooses white, and much of his narrative in “Chestnut” is spent establishing his contrast to his “friend” Logan, who has donned a black hat, of course. William shows empathy, restraint, and civil humanity to the park’s automaton hosts, whereas Logan uses and abuses them with sadistic abandon. While Logan engages in an orgy (thanks HBO!), William rejects sex, declaring that he has “someone real waiting at home.” William hence represents a “family man” archetype. Perhaps he’s like Young Goodman Brown who just wanted to get home to his wife Faith.

Will crossing the threshold change William too? Yes. Of course. It’s a television show. For Hawthorne’s hero the results were dire: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” Maybe Westworld will find a more optimistic path for William.

But this isn’t a show that’s generally optimistic about domesticity. In the pilot episode, we saw that one android father can simply be swapped out for another android father. (Mothers, android or otherwise, remain absent). In the one glimpse of a full family we get in that episode, we hear the father advise that crossing the river is “too adult” for the son. The Territory is a wild space ripe for masculine domination. Westworld continues the American fantasia of exploration and destiny-manifestin’.

“Chestnut” continues Westworld’s breaking down of familial order in two plot lines that seem to converge. In one such plot, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills the cousins and then the wife of a host he claims is an “old friend.” (More on the Man in the Black in a moment). In a second plot line, told mostly in nightmare-flashback mode, Thandie Newton’s character Maeve is a mother whose family is apparently killed by Indians. (More on the convergence of these plotlines in a moment too).

I was happy to see Maeve get screentime this week. Her nightmares throughout “Chestnut” echo Hawthorne’s observation that our dreams alter our realities, that our night-consciousness is vital, real. (Perhaps this is Dr. Ford’s design when he injects “reveries” into his automaton’s new programming system in Westworld’s pilot). Maeve’s dreams begin to affect her work performance, so she’s hauled repeatedly into Westworld’s underground body shop for reconditioning—and a possible decommissioning. Maeve delivers the same monologue three times to different guests in the episode. Each segment feels like a separate audition, the producers leering offstage. Westworld again draws attention to its own form, its metatextuality, its “TV-showness,” as it were.

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Maeve’s “truest” performance comes underground—she somehow bypasses “sleep mode” and wakes up in the middle of the (real) nightmare: the Westworld labs and body shops. In an echo of the scalping motif that slices through the episode, Maeve grabs a scalpel and takes off, running deeper into the nightmare. The sequence is aesthetically arresting, wonderfully weird, and ultimately devastating when she finally happens upon the heaped bodies of her android fellows. Maeve’s underground odyssey furthers the Big Plot of Westworld thus far: How much consciousness–and self-consciousness –do these androids have? I’m digging how the series takes on memory, dream, and reality.

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Maeve’s performance is under pressure specifically because Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director (ahem, head writer), wants to cull dead weight to make room for his new campaign, “Odyssey on the Red River.” Sizemore, who we’re invited to view as a kind of Hollywood hack asshole, assures the assembled management team that this new storyline’s grotesque savagery (meta meta meta) will make it look like “”Hieronymous Bosch was doodling kittens.” Sizemore’s smugly assured that Dr. Ford, who hasn’t commented on the story in years, won’t interfere. So of course Ford shoots him down.

Ford is the true magician of Westworld. He regards Sizemore as a huckster, a fraud peddling cheap tricks. Ford blasts Sizemore’s claim that Westworld will “tell the guests who they are,” arguing that Westworld’s true potential is to transform and transmute the guests into what they can be. Ford notes at one point in the episode that the guests crave nuance, subtlety, mystery. They want witchcraft; they want a spell that transmogrifies chaos into magic.

Where does Ford’s magic come from? Boredom! In a wonderful discussion with (what I’m assuming simply has to be) a replicant version of himself as a child, Ford twists the old idiom and suggests that “only boring people cannot conceive of boredom.” He guides the replicant child to a desert vision of the “Town with the White Church,” pointing to the imaginative possibility of the Territory—to the frontier’s magic. The Black Sabbath in the wilderness is all in the wizard’s mind. “You see what a bored mind can conjure,” Ford tells the boy, and then charms a snake, declaring, perhaps a bit glumly, that, “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.” Ford dismisses the boy, and later brings Bernie Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) up to the surface to survey the desert terrain, the rocks where he will build this church. (Bernie dons a brown baseball cap. No black or white stetson for Bernie).

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But The Man in Black: He’s pure Black Hat. Compellingly, Dr. Ford’s thoughts on subtlety and magic parallel The Man in Black’s. (White wizard/Black wizard?). “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real” he snarls at an automaton he’s interrogating, echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of agony / Because I know it’s true.”

The Man in Black’s back in town, not a stranger, in search of something called The Maze, willing to scalp androids, smash families, kill cousins, wives, daughters, etc. to get clues—ah but wait, I’m forgetting, They’re just androids, right?

Is The Man in Black an android too?

“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” he reminds us. (Westworld  wants us to remember this three-decade benchmark—recall that the last time the park faced trouble was thirty years ago). But then, and perhaps without much of that magic subtlety, he tells us: “In a sense, I was born here.” Egads! 

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Black’s plot converges with Maeve’s nightmare in a Satanic reverie. Indian marauders have chased Maeve and her (dream)daughter into a cabin corner; one enters and shape-shifts into The Man in Black, knife out, ready to scalp her.

Is this now? Is this then? Is this real? Is this dream?

I started with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” so I’ll end with it. The Man in Black—but also Dr. Ford, perhaps—recall to me Brown’s traveling companion into the woods (lovely dark and deep), an old wizard who bears “a considerable resemblance” to the young (good?)man. The old mage steers YGB deeper into the Frontier, into the Territory, into the Weird, and he protests about going over the line:

“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”

Hawthorne here lays out an American history of religious persecution, the murder of indigenous peoples, and hypocrisy, themes that find their echo in Westworld’s continuation of the American myth.

Or maybe it’s the Territory itself, the dream/nightmare of the Frontier:

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.

Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)