George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He is the second American (in a row) to win this British prize after the prize’s rules were changed in 2013 to allow U.S. authors. (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won last year).
I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories, especially those in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I did not review on this website, unlike the collections Pastoraliaand Tenth of December, which I did review on this website.
I really, really, really wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo, but I didn’t. I tried to read it at least three times earlier this year and failed to make it past the halfway mark.
I first tried via the audiobook, a gimmicky affair that caught my interest. I’m a fan of audiobooks and like most humans I crave novelty. The Lincoln audiobook features 166 readers over a relatively slim seven and a half hours, and is led by the capable Nick Offerman, along with David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, et. al. I quit the first time maybe only an hour in, assuming that the chorus of narrators was throwing me off. But then I thought, Shit, Ed, it’s not even eight hours, just knock it out. After three hours I found that I genuinely hated it. So I picked up a physical copy from the library and tried again—maybe the audiobook was the wrong media—maybe I needed to see it on the page? But: Nope.
Lincoln in the Bardo might be a really good novel and I just can’t see it or hear it or feel it. I see postmodernism-as-genre, as form; I read bloodless overcooked posturing; I feel schmaltz. I failed the novel, I’m sure. I mean, I’m sure it’s good, right? The problem is me, as usual. I’m tempted here to launch into a long rant about how little contemporary fiction seems to do for me lately, but why? Why rant?
(The last really really great contemporary American novel I read was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, a novel that does everything I think Lincoln wants to do with a real raw precise blood-coursing intensity that I’ll never forget. And (I know this because I used my Twitter timeline as a reference just now) I just realized that I picked up Preparation for the Next Life on the same day that I downloaded the audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo—so I was reading/auditing the novels at pretty much the exact same time. Look, let me very strongly recommend Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life).
In the second paragraph of this silly riff I wrote the words “I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories.” One of those stories is a perfect two-paragraph joint, “Sticks,” which he included in Tenth of December. As I wrote in my review of that collection,
…the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks”…seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections.
I figure out a way to insert “Sticks” into pretty much any literature class I teach—I love sharing it with students so I’ll share it with you:
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said, What’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, a metaphysical mist engulfs sixth-century Britain, clouding the memories of all who inhabit the land. Saxons and Britons alike cannot recall their bellicose past. Against this mist, elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice seek their long-lost son. They meet a Saxon warrior who hunts an ancient she-dragon he’s vowed to slay. He’s aided by a youth, Edwin, who’s been exiled from his village after being bitten by a mythic creature. King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lingers as a courtly protector, a figure from an already-bygone era; the mist seems to slowly rot his brain and his conscience, pushing him into paranoia and madness. There are Charonic ferrymen and awful ogres; there are mad monks and terrible pixies. A hellhound, a dragon, a poisoned goat. Rivers and mountains and crypts and villages. But most of all that mist.
Ishiguro makes the reader experience that mist. He obscures. The action that occurs—and yes, there’s action here, measured action (often measured in a literal sense)—the action that occurs in The Buried Giant is almost always oblique, shadowed, indistinct, but also very mechanical. The memory-mist renders the world treacherous, immediate, a dark, vague place that offers its travelers no purchase of reference. Deceptive.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but I think a longish passage here shows how and what Ishiguro is doing. Almost all of our principals are here, underground—note their procession, their movement—a constant motif in the novel, movement, single file or side by side—and the presence of a light, illumination—also a motif. Note the variety of interpretations of not knowing, not seeing, note the simple horror:
They went on into the tunnel, Sir Gawain leading, Axl following with the flame, Beatrice holding his arm from behind, and Edwin now at the rear. There was no option but to go in single file, the passage remaining narrow, and the ceiling of dangling moss and sinewy roots grew lower and lower until even Beatrice had to stoop. Axl did his best to hold the candle high, but the breeze in the tunnel was now stronger, and he was often obliged to lower it and cover the flame with his other hand. Sir Gawain though never complained, and his shape going before them, sword raised over his shoulder, seemed never to vary. Then Beatrice let out an exclamation and tugged Axl’s arm.
“What is it, princess?”
“Oh, Axl, stop! My foot touched something then, but your candle moved too quickly.”
“What of it, princess? We have to move on.”
“Axl, I thought it a child! My foot touched it and I saw it before your light passed. Oh, I believe it’s a small child long dead!”
“There, princess, don’t distress yourself. Where was it you saw it?”
“Come, come, friends,” Sir Gawain said from the dark. “Many things in this place are best left unseen.”
Beatrice seemed not to hear the knight. “It was over here, Axl. Bring the flame this way. Down there, Axl, shine it down there, though I dread to see its poor face again!”
Despite his counsel, Sir Gawain had doubled back, and Edwin too was now at Beatrice’s side. Axl crouched forward and moved the candle here and there, revealing damp earth, tree roots and stones. Then the flame illuminated a large bat lying on its back as though peacefully asleep, wings stretched right out. Its fur looked wet and sticky. The pig-like face was hairless, and little puddles had formed in the cavities of the outspread wings. The creature might indeed have been sleeping but for what was on the front of its torso. As Axl brought the flame even closer, they all stared at the circular hole extending from just below the bat’s breast down to its belly, taking in parts of the ribcage to either side. The wound was peculiarly clean, as though someone had taken a bite from a crisp apple.
“What could have done work like this?” Axl asked.
He must have moved the candle too swiftly, for at that moment the flame guttered and went out.
Ishiguro gives us mystery, interpretation, and then an incomplete, ambiguous revelation. (This is the basic structure of the novel). Beatrice never relents in her belief that she’s stumbled over a dead child. Brimming with lost children and lost parents and orphans, The Buried Giant is a novel of erasures. But an erasure leaves a trace, a violent, visceral marking into the page’s blankness. Revelation through absence.
We would have no plot, not really, without some overcoming of blankness, and Axl in particular overcomes the mist in his quest. A backstory fleshes out, in watery strokes albeit. The Buried Giant, as far as fantasy epics go, is awfully indistinct. Or rather, Ishiguro offers only mechanical and immediate glimpses into this world, a Britain on the cusp of the Middle Ages. Through Axl’s consciousness (and conscience), we see the vital precision in hand-to-hand combat, for example. Its patience, its slowness, its dependence on muscle memory. Or perhaps (dare I say) more boringly, we feel the very real peril involved in walking in the wild dark as an elderly person. The thrills in The Buried Giant come not from its sword and sorcery costumes, but from its Kafkaesque edges and gaps. This is a novel about not knowing.
And it’s here that The Buried Giant is most successful—as an evocation of not knowing. Axl and Beatrice’s quest unfolds as a series of choices and consequences severed, for the most part, from the anchor of memory. There’s an episodic vibe to the novel, a sense that it’s making itself up as it goes along. (It’s not). The novel strongly reminded me of some of the old RPGs I’d play on a Commodore 64 as a kid. The graphics weren’t great and I had to use my imagination a lot. The games were sometimes frustrating and slow. But perhaps you want a more, uh, literary comparison? Something more recent too? The Buried Giant recalls Ishiguro’s short story “A Village after Dark” a lot more than, say, A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings.It’s a fantasy novel, but one that feels etiolated, its vivid colors drained. More Gustave Doré than Gustave Moreau.
While a precise indistinctness (forgive the oxymoron) is part of The Buried Giant’s program, there’s nothing indistinct about its heroes’ love for each other. Axl and Beatrice, A & B—can I say I came to love them? Or if I didn’t quite love them, I was rooting for them, say? Rooting for their survival, but specifically their survival as a they, a shared survival. Ishiguro successfully communicates their intimacy, their romance, their love, a love threatened by both the natural world and the supernatural return of lost memory. Their relationship is the heart of the novel upon which Ishiguro fixes his themes of memory, justice, vengeance, and love. Ishiguro’s commentary on those themes ultimately may feel pessimistic to many readers, particularly in the novel’s conclusion.
Excepting the ones that we love and return to and obsess over, we retain little of the novels that we read. What memories remain are kernels—the outline of a plot, a strange lingering phrase or detail, a bright or bold character, a theme, an idea, an image. It’s the love between Axl and Beatrice that I’ll likely recall most strongly from the shadows of The Buried Giant. If we can’t remember, we can at least experience.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this review in October, 2015],
I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.
I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.
Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:
Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.
Let’s look at that reigning chaos.
In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:
I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.
Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.
You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.
Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”
I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. In their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.
I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checher—To Find without Seeking.
In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.
I’m not really sure what made me pick up Carson McCullers’ 1940 début novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to read again.
Actually, writing that sentence makes me remember: I was purging books, and the edition I have is extremely unattractive; I was considering trading it in. But I started reading it, realizing that I hadn’t reread it ever, that I hadn’t read it since I was probably a senior in high school or maybe a college freshman.
So it was maybe two decades ago that I first read it. I would’ve been maybe 18, about five years younger than McCullers was when the novel was published (and not much older than its protagonist Mick Kelly). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter never stuck with me like The Ballad of the Sad Café or her short stories did, but I remember at the time thinking it far superior to Faulkner—more lucid in its description of the Deep South’s abjection. (I struggled with Faulkner when I was young, but now see his tangled sentences and thick murky paragraphs are a wholly appropriate rhetorical reckoning with the nightmare of Southern history).
And of course I preferred Flannery O’Connor to both at the time—her writing was simultaneously lucid and acid, cruel and funny. Maybe I still like her best of the three.
O’Connor, in a 1963 letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.”
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when it is at its most grotesque, which is to say, most realistic.
Here’s a sample of that grotesque dirty realism from very late in the book, as Jake Blount (an alcoholic and would-be revolutionary) departs the small, unnamed Georgia town that the novel is set in—and the narrative:
The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.
The passage showcases some of McCullers’ best and worst prose tendencies. Her evocation of the South’s rural poverty condenses wonderfully in the image of “a few fruitless, smutty fig trees” — smutty!—but there’s also an underlying resort to cliché, into placeholders — “stark naked”; “clenched his fists.”
(Maybe you think I’m picking on McCullers here, yes? Not my intention. I’ll confess I read a career-spanning compendium of Barry Hannah’s short stories, Long, Last, Happy right before I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and McCullers simply can’t match sentences with Our Barry. It’s an unfair comparison, sure. But).
But McCullers was only 23 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Stock phrases must be forgiven, yes? Yes.
And there are plenty of great moments on the page, like this one, in which (McCullers’ stand-in) Mick Kelly tries her young hand at writing:
The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.
Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?
We’re several hundred words into this riff and I’ve failed to summarize the plot of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There really isn’t a plot per se, actually—sure, there are a development of ideas, themes, motifs, characters—yep—and sure, lots of things happen (the novel is episodic)—but there isn’t really a plot.
The point above is absurd. Of course there is a plot, one which you could easily diagram in fact. Such a diagram would describe the sad strands of four misfits gravitating toward the deaf-mute, John Singer, the silent center of this sad novel. These sad strands tangle, yet ultimately fail to cohere into any kind of harmony with each other. Even worse, these strands fail to make a true connection with Singer. The misfits all essentially use him as a sounding board, a mute confessional booth. They think they love him, but they love his silence, they love his listening. They don’t learn about his own strange love and his own strange sadness.
Or, if you really want to oversimplify plot: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about growing up. In a novel with a number of tragic trajectories, it’s somehow the ending of the Mick Kelly thread that I found most affecting. She still dreams of making great grand music, of writing songs the world would love—but McCullers leaves her standing on her feet working overtime in Woolworth’s to get her family out of the hole. This is the curse of adulthood, of grasping onto dreams even as the world flattens them out into a big boring nothing. The final lines McCullers gives her, via the novel’s free indirect style, strike me as ambiguous:
…what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
too and it was too. It was some good.
Is Mick’s self-talk here a defense against disillusionment—one haunted by the truth of life’s awful boring ugliness—or a genuine earnest rallying against the ugliness—or perhaps a mix of both? “Some good” can be read both ironically and earnestly.
Its navigation of irony and earnestness is where I find the novel most off balance. There’s a clumsy cynicism to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—a justified cynicism, to be sure, given its themes of racism, classicism, modern alienation—but McCullers’ approach to sussing out her big themes is often heavy-handed. Too often characters’ speeches and dialogues—particularly those of the working-class socialist Blount and Dr. Copeland, a black Marxist—feel forced. Entire dialectics that seem lifted from college lecture notes are shoved into characters’ mouths. Still: if I sometimes found such moments insufferable, McCullers nevertheless reminded me that she was pointedly addressing suffering.
The earnestness there is mature, but the cynicism isn’t. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this—the cynicism isn’t deep? The cynicism is a pose, a viewpoint not fully, but nevertheless freshly, lived in. The cynicism is the cynicism that some of us like to try on when we’re 18, 19, 20, 21.
And re: the point above—that’s good, right? I mean it’s good that McCullers channeled this pure and very real anger into her novel. Maybe I failed the novel, this time, in rereading it twenty years later and thinking repeatedly, But that’s the way the world is: Often awful and almost always unfair. Blount and Copeland are interesting but essentially paralyzed characters; they howl against injustice but McCullers can only make them act in modes of ineffective despair.
Despair. This is a sad novel—a realistically sad novel, a grotesquely sad novel—sympathetic but never sentimental. (We Southerners love sugar and sentiment; bless her heart, McCullers cuts any hint of the latter out. And if Mick Kelly enjoys an ice cream sundae for her last dinner in the novel, note that she chases it with a bitter beer that gets her just drunk enough to keep going).
But some of us like to laugh at and with despair, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter serves up a big bitter brew without a heady or hearty laugh to help you swallow it down. The novel’s humorlessness was perhaps by design—these characters dwell in absurd abjection. But absurdity often calls for a laugh, and laughter is not always sugar sweetness, but rather can be a reveling in bitterness—perhaps what I mean here, is that laughter is a sincere and deep reckoning with mature cynicism.
I quoted O’Connor above, in point six; in the same lecture, she warned against writers (particularly Southern writers) giving into the need of the “tired reader…to be lifted up.” O’Connor often forced her characters into moments of radical redemption, moments that complicate her “tired reader’s” desire to have his “senses tormented or his spirits raised.” This modern reader, according to O’Connor, “wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” For O’Connor, the modern reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Restoration in O’Connor’s fiction is always purchased at a heavy cost—many readers can only see the cost, and not the redemption in her calculus.
And restoration in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its lack of sentimentality, its unwillingness to restore its characters to a mythical Eden. Indeed, McCullers’ setting never even posits a grace from which her characters might fall. Instead, the novel’s final moments leave us “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” Any restoration is impermanent, as the final line suggests: “And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” If the morning sun promises a new tomorrow, a futurity, that futurity is nevertheless conditioned by the need to repeatedly “compose” oneself into a new being, always under the duress of “bitter irony and faith.” McCullers’ plot might side with bitter irony, but her belief in her characters’ beliefs—belief in the powers of art, politics, and above all love—point ultimately to an earnest faith in humanity to compose itself anew.
Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.
In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:
The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.
In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by
…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.
Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,
The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.
The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.
Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.
Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.
In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:
…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:
The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.
The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”
I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.
I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.
These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as
….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.
Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.
There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh. Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.
The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.
In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.
If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.
[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The Vorrh. In addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].
We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.
But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.
Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.
‘…I thought trees stood up straight … I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them. … Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’
What’s peculiar about the novel, apart from the quiet horror of Kang’s prose, the quiet violence of Yeong-hye’s world and its casual presentation thereof, and actually a lot of things that are wonderfully disquieting, is that none of its three acts are narrated by Yeong-hye herself. I expected more time with and inside Yeong-hye in a book about the murderously aloof self-satisfaction of the men in power that orchestrate her destruction. But I even wince at the word “inside” of Yeong-hye. It sounds like I’m participating in a certain kind of violence. The important thing to remember is that Yeong-hye’s perceived disability is only so in the eyes of the narrators, Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Her family insists, and then demands, that Yeong-hye provide a rational reason for her vegetarianism, but they only want to hear her say that it’s for the sake of her health, or for her appearance. They might even tolerate an ethical argument. Instead, Yeong-hye only offers, like our Bartleby, a frustration. Drunk and sleepy, Yeong-hye’s husband finds his wife staring intently into the white light of the fridge.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my moth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto skin.
The repetition of the word meat has a certain violence to it, and metaphorizes the ways in which the category of “meat” is embedded even in the writing itself, how deeply it penetrates. Yeong-hye is treated like meat; pigs and cattle raised for consumption are referred to as pork and beef, even before they’re slaughtered; meat is a violently rendered, aestheticized experience. Soon, Yeong-hye does remember the places that are lost in her dreams inside of actual memories. The haunting repetition of the word “meat” transforming what was once familiar into paralyzing strangeness.
While Father ties the dog to the tree and scorches it with a lamp, he says it isn’t to be flogged. He says he heard somewhere that driving a dog to keep running until the point of death is considered a milder punishment. The motorcycle engine starts, and Father begins to drive in a circle. […] Once it has gone five laps, the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground.
Punishment and thus justice isn’t swift, but an exercise in pushing one’s ability to endure physical shame. Like when her father, incredulous and domineering, forces her family to hold Yeong-hye back as he shoves a “lump of meat” into Yeong-hye’s wailing body. Or when Yeong-hye is forced to endure the public shaming at an obligatory business dinner. Her vegetarianism unhinges the normative narrative of her family’s reality, and they take it personally. To them, it is an invitation to rape, to control, and to punish.
But it was no easy thing for a man in the prime of his life, for whom married life had always gone entirely without a hitch, to have his physical needs go unsatisfied for such a long period of time. So yes, one night when I returned home late and somewhat inebriated after a meal with colleagues, I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor. Pinning down her struggling arms and tugging off her trousers, I became unexpectedly aroused. She put up a surprisingly strong resistance and, spitting out vulgar curses all the while, it took me three attempts before I managed to insert myself successfully. Once that had happened she lay there in the dark staring up at the ceiling, her face blank, as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.
Rape doesn’t apply to Yeong-hye because she is called a wife, her refusal to play the role erases the violence of rape in the rules of this reality. Yeong-hye’s renunciation of subservience, and the subsequent violence, highlights the underlying rage of male culture presented in this novel. More striking than the appalling behavior of Yeong-hye’s husband is his nonchalance, a result of Kang’s cool, distending prose, brilliantly translated by into English by Deborah Smith. We’re not meant to be unhinged by the drapes of meat in Yeong-hye’s dreams, but the coolness in which Yeong-hye’s family preclude empathy and default to insult and violence. Even before empathy, they preclude curiosity—their questions only seek answers for which they are already disappointed. What we are supposed to be horrified by is how bereft they are of compassion.
Where they shame a woman supposedly acting out of character, Yeong-hye simply wants the dreams to stop. But where do the dreams come from? This tension sustains the entirety of the novel, and drives Yeong-hye deeper into plant-like behavior. Yeong-hye is eventually committed to a mental hospital after the staff find her shirtless, looking up into the sun with eyes clenched, as if in the grip of photosynthesis. Later, after a divorce, in a second mental hospital, something akin to the sanatoriums of Kafka’s and Bernhard’s worlds, far away from Seoul, she refuses to eat and spends hours in a hand-stand, emulating the trees of the mountains. Yeong-hye can’t do anything about the dreams because they are the signature of her conscription into humanity.
Yeong-hye cut her off. ‘They say my insides have all atrophied, you know.’ In-hye was lost for words. Yeong-hye moved her emaciated face closer to her sister. ‘I’m not an animal anymore, sister,’ she said, first scanning the empty ward as if about to disclose a momentous secret. ‘I don’t need to eat, now now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.’
Becoming vegetarian isn’t a choice, but a last resort. Yeong-hye is compelled towards plant-like existence because it’s her only method of control and, ironically, affirming her humanity. Yeong-hye doesn’t elect vegetarianism; her family conditioned her for this transformation, her refusal to play this version of humanity. But this is the humanity under which all of us are prescribed. When Yeong-hye recoils at the sight of meat, she sees herself. Yeong-hye turns to vegetarianism because she projects onto plants a freedom of being non-human, non-woman, non-sexualized. The possibility of existing without violence or domination, of being in the world without the risk of knowing what one is, but just being. Vegetarianism in The Vegetarian isn’t a religious requirement, nor the fancy of first-world privilege, but anti-human. It is an affirmation that says not only is the culture a problem, but people are the problem.
[Ed. note: Ryan Chang’s review of The Vegetarian was originally published by Biblioklept in May of 2015].
I surprised myself by picking up and rapidly reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 Soviet satire The Heart of a Dog this week. I read Michael Glenny’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1968) at a quick clip, finding the novel propulsive and zany. I didn’t know anything about the plot beforehand, which I think helped me to enjoy the novel all the more. I liked The Heart of a Dog more than Bulgakov’s posthumously-published classic, The Master and Margarita. I had a rough idea of Master’s plot, whereas my ignorance of the events in The Heart of a Dog allowed me to ride along its zany track without loaded expectations. Perhaps this first paragraph is a way of saying: The Heart of a Dog is a quick, fun, funny read, probably better read without too much foregrounding.
A bit of foregrounding—not too much—The Heart of a Dog begins with the sad howl of a street mutt in Moscow. We’ll first get to know this dog as Sharik, and then later Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. Sharik opens the novel: “Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The line is prescient and ironic: Our pup will, in time, be reborn as a human. The basic plot of The Heart of a Dog is a riff on Frankenstein. Eminent surgeon (and vocal critic of the Communist Party) Dr. Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky finds the poor beast and restores him to the fattest health. Dr. Phil’s scheme though is a bit nefarious though. The not-quite-mad scientist, securing a thief’s corpse, trepans his poor dog’s skull and inserts the rogue’s pituitary gland. He then transplants the human’s testicles into the dog. Hormones and testes turn Sharik into a terrible shape-shifting speechifying brute, a mannerless boor who cannot be trained and who will not abstain from vodka. In time, Sharik (in the guise of Poligraf Poligrafovich) makes Dr. Phil’s life hell, leading the brief novel to its zany climax.
As with The Master and Margarita, I’m sure there was a lot that I missed in The Heart of a Dog. Undoubtedly, some of Bulgakov’s allusive jokes and jabs couldn’t land on my ignorant skull. What did come through though was a mean-but-fun satirical streak, a howling and yapping and biting at power, groupthink, philistinism, and hypocrisy. I liked the book.
I’ve just now (after having written that paragraph) gone back and read Michael Glenny’s April 1968 introduction to the novel (I always skip prefaces and intros). His final paragraph is far finer analysis than I can muster—but I can share it with you:
Like all the best satire, The Heart of a Dog can be read and relished in several ways: On one level it is a comic story of splendid absurdity; it also pokes fun at the discomforts, shortages, and anomalies of life in the Moscow of the twenties. But it has more profound meanings. It is a fierce parable about the Russian Revolution. The “dog” of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries—treated, in fact, like animals instead of human beings. The weird surgeon, a specialist in rejuvenation (for “rejuvenation” read “revolution”), is the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps of Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation that he performs in order to transform the dog into the simulacrum of a human being is the revolution itself. In the story this modern Frankenstein is so appalled by the unredeemable beastliness of the creature he has conjured up that he reverses the process and turns his “new man” back into a dog. With this ending Bulgakov implies that he would like to see the whole ghastly experiment of the Revolution canceled out; unfortunately, successful revolutionaries, even when they realize their mistake, cannot reverse history by a stroke of the pen as an artist can with his fictional creatures. The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution, is hence-forth doomed to live with—and eventually be ruled by—the crude, unstable, and potentially brutal race of hominids—homo sovieticus—which it has called into being. Bulgakov saw the Revolution as a hideously misguided attempt to achieve the impossible—to change humankind. Man is brutish by nature, and “Soviet man,” he warns, is little more than a lout who has been led to believe he is the very pinnacle of creation. The results of giving power to such men will be disastrous; in fact, Stalin’s terror was carried out ten years later by exactly the sort of callous, brutal cretins that Bulgakov satirizes in this grimly prophetic story.
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.
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:
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.
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”).
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.
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:
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.
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):
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.
I 1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9
1 The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.
Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”
Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”
Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—
Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.
Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.
Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:
It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.
The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.
Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):
In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.
3 The Elect. The baddies.
4 Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.
Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.
A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:
The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.
6 If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.
The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.
7 In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Seems like a Preterite Sermon.
8 Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.
9 Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?
Kekulé 1 dreams 2 the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World 3. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used 4. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” 5 is to be delivered into a system 6 whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process 7 . The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply 8 , dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes 9 back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg 10 here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ 11 well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” 12 u.s.w. 13 On you 14 roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing 15 —castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups 16 and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use 17 : he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers 18 , and it’s the wands of enterprise 19 that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity 20 —but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” 21 One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT? 22
From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Friedrich August Kekulé, 1829–1896, German chemist—the “father of organic chemistry.” (Our arts and sciences must be fathered, it seems).
, 397-433. This long chapter, consisting mostly of one long recollection, narrated in the past tense, tells the story of Franz Pökler […] Pökler dreamed about the history of Friedrich August Kekulé, father of organic chemistry (410-13), and about Kekulé’s dream: a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We learn how this dream was misused by the System, as the foundation for understanding the benzine ring. All this is lectured on by “Pökler’s old prof,” Laszlo Jamf.
A neat little summary, yes.
Kekulé’s most notable contribution to chemistry—and capitalism!—is in his work on describing the structure of that valuable petrochemical benzene.
Kekulé’s dream-image-symbol is clearly compelling for both the reader and, I think, for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is very much about the overlap between physical and metaphysical, and Kekulé’s vision points to the convergence of dream and experience, magic and science.
3Ouroboros is literally tail-devouring in Greek, but through surreal etymological phonological dream-time leaps, we can get to tale-devouring (why not?—okay, I guess maybe that’s mythosboros or something like that, but hell—–).
In any case, the serpent, or Serpent, here strikes me as one of Pynchon’s Moves Against Them—he taps into an older myth, one that elevates the Scaly and Low—the Preterite?—into an Elect position that the Christian Tradition simply doesn’t care for, what with the Tempting Serpent and all. No, no shedding of the skin, no eternal return…no, no return at all. Cf. a few lines later in the passage cited above: “No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean.”
Horapollo, referring to the serpent symbol, says of it:— ‘When the Egyptians would represent the Universe they delineate a serpent bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the Universe. The animal is extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water, moreover, it every year puts off its old age with its skin, as in the Universe the annual period effects a corresponding change and becomes renovated, and the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever, which are generated by divine providence in the world, undergo a corruption into them again.’
4 Used by Them.
Gravity’s Rainbow is clearly about paranoia of Them, and as such (necessarily), Pynchon’s targets are…nebulous. (Although technology and the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex that technology works through might be a manifest if not wholly concrete villain in GR.). Pynchon’s big novel Against the Day offers a more specific locus for everything wrong with Them in its awful villain Scarsdale Vibe and his henchmen and lackeys.
12 A wooden mallet for opening the bung of a cask (or wine or beer). I visited Heidelberg when I was 16 and drank copious quantities of ale.
13 “u.s.w.” — German acronym for und so weiter; translates to etcetera. Pynchon allows the tape to roll on in his reader’s head.
14 Always beware Gravity’s Rainbow’s shifts into second-person! Look at this ride that Pynchon’s put us on…but wait…we’re already on the ride.
15 A rainbow image.
16 Tarot references abound in Gravity’s Rainbow.
17 The preterite’s complaint: Wisdom shall not be found, order will not reveal itself, meaning will be suspended indefinitely.
18 Our wacky busdriver is actually “the Lord of the Night,” an ominous and perhaps self-explanatory title (and one that resonates with the passage’s mythological overtones and tarot motif). The Lords of the Night are figures in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars, but I’m not sure if Pynchon’s referencing them here—although this passage is deeply concerned with the apprehension and management of time. This Lord of the Night, you’ll note—a stickler for paperwork—is awfully bureaucratic.
19 Oligarchial capitalism. The wands are another suit in the tarot deck. (The upright three of wands is associated with enterprise).
20 The strange trip here echoes Gravity’s Rainbow’s bewildering opening “evacuation” sequence, and the line I’ve noted recalls to me a line I’ve cited at least twice now in these annotations.
From the novel’s sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
21 In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Weisenburger provides the following context for the Rilke quote:
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).
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).
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.
Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.
That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:
Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.
Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).
“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.
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.”
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.
Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2 fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3
Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11
From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.
3 What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.
But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.
4Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”
The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before:Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.
Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:
“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”
5I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb—
“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”
(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).
Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).
6Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).
Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.
(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—
The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).
Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!
Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”
8Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.
9One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?
10Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.
Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.
Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”