He’d bought a small ruled notebook at the stationer’s in Ibiza. Cheap pulp paper that would soon yellow and crumble. He took it out and wrote in it with his pencil. Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine Sein.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
In the second paragraph of the last chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger, protagonist Bobby Western, now living on a Spanish island near Ibiza, writes in German a sentence in a cheap notebook. The sentence translates to something like, Before me there will be no time, after me there will be none.
Vor mir war keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn,
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.
Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientum, III, II, Daniel von Czepko (1655)
Western’s line appears to be cribbed from an epigram by the early seventeenth-century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Czepko’s epigram translates to something like, Before me there was no time, after me there will be none / With me she gives birth, with me she dies.
I deny, in a high number of instances, the existence of succession. I deny, in a high number of instances, contemporaneity as well.
“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby
Did McCarthy find Czepko’s in Borges’ essay “A New Translation in Time,” where I found it when I first searched the German phrase?
All language is of a successive nature: it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.
“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby
I feel like I’ve jumped into the deep end here too quickly for this riff, what with the seventeenth-century German poet and the wonky Borges essay that feels like a gimmicky (and perhaps ironic) championing of idealism in service towards forging an aesthetics of time. Let me put in a simpler substitution for Western’s (McCarthy’s (Borges’ (Czepko’s))) epigram, a favorite line from another life-and-deather with oceanic motifs:
Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.
“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane
Start again: This is a scattered mess. I finished The Passenger yesterday, punched in the face by the final chapter, where McCarthy condenses characters and tropes and symbols and allegories into a slim 19 pages that points to both infinity and death. The Passenger is possibly McCarthy’s baggiest novel, messier than Suttree, and eschewing even a glimmer of the precision of Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old Men, The Passenger is bound in genre fiction tropes—crime novels, detective novels, 1970s paranoia novels, Westerns, and so on. Like No Country, The Passenger purposefully derails reader expectations for what the genre plot should do. The refusal to go forward with the initial promised plot (Who is the missing passenger, escaped or removed from the sunken plane?) reinforces the tense ambiguity in the core of McCarthy’s worldview. The apparent abandoning of a tight plot might alienate some readers, but I suspect most fans of the trajectory of McCarthy’s work would have been disappointed if he’d stuck to a story that Makes Sense and Follows a Clear Trajectory and Ultimately Resolves. I would have been furious if the end of The Passenger gave up some kind of easy answer.
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
“Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 479), Emily Dickinson
In her white gown carrying the barnlantern out through the trees. Holding the hem of her gown, her slender form candled in the sheeting. The shadows of the trees, then just the dark. The cold in the stone amphitheatre and the slow turning of the stars overhead.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
Last time I wrote about The Passenger, I wrote about its dominant incest motif. I suggested that the dummy Crandall was the dreamchild of incestuous Western union. I had not yet gotten to the episode where Bobby, on the lam in Idaho, dreams of an incestuous stillborn child, one with only the rudiments of a brain. Bobby queries the dream doctor of his dreamchild: “Does it have a soul?” Bobby’s True Love, his sister Alicia, is the barest slip of a ghost in the final chapter of The Passenger (in contrast to the ghost of Long John Sheddan, who gets a full last dialogue with Bobby), but she shows up again here—theatrical, ghostly, an echo of the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I hope we get more from Alicia Western in Stella Maris.
His father. Who had created out of the absolute dust of the earth an evil sun by whose light men saw like some hideous adumbration of their own ends through cloth and flesh the bones in one another’s bodies.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
Père Western, coauthor of the atom bomb (“evil sun”/evil son, evil Adam) is a background wraith in The Passneger (although more present than Ma Western—but I’m sure the lack of mothers in McCarthy’s oeuvre has been commented on at length, perhaps in academic papers. Dude doesn’t include mothers, and mother figures, if they appear, are tangential, marginalized). Wait, where was I? Père Western, haunting the background of The Passenger, takes a bit more of the stage (just a bit) in the final chapter of The Passenger. His Big Crime seems to soak diver Bobby, even if Bobby can’t directly address it.
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
His father spoke little to them of Trinity. Mostly he’d read it in the literature. Lying face down in the bunker. Their voices low in the darkness. Two. One. Zero. Then the sudden whited meridian. Out there the rocks dissolving into a slag that pooled over the melting sands of the desert. Small creatures crouched aghast in the sudden and unholy day and then were no more. What appeared to be some vast violetcolored creature rising up out of the earth where it had thought to sleep its deathless sleep and wait its hour of hours.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy.
More than a decade ago, I suggested on this site that the moral core of McCarthy’s best novel Blood Meridian is a sequence wherein a host of creatures coalesce into a “constellation of ignited eyes…in a precarious truce” to observe a burning tree in the desert. Witness and attendant, his own eyes presumably ignited, is the kid, the hero of Blood Meridian. The sequence rebukes the pronouncements of Judge Holden, satanic anchor of that novel, pointing towards coexistence and peace.
The whited meridian sequence in The Passenger, evoking the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, reverses McCarthy’s previous passage—blanches it, makes a ghost of it, turns its blood white. Whites it.
(I have a few more thoughts scribbled on a cheap yellow legal pad but the hour grows late and a big storm looms—so, more thoughts to come (including a kind of peace with mules?)
Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:
For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.
At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—
“What are you knotting there, my man?”
“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.
“So it seems; but what is it for?”
“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…
This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.
Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.
Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.
Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.
Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:
At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.
For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…
These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.
The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).
Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer is puzzling, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally frustrating. Gloomy, surreal, and terse, The Deer is at its best when it’s at its most sinister—namely, on its first half, “Side A.” Taking a record album as its model, The Deer has two sides (A and B), each divided into titled Tracks (on side A) or Lessons (side B). This unusual structure results in a genuinely experimental novel, where some elements crackle with eerie verve and others fall flat. The result is a novel that simultaneously compels and baffles readers, while challenging their notions of what a novel can—or should—do.
“Side A” of The Deer follows a man who may or may not be quantum physicist Henry Haverford, who may or may not have been drunk when he may or may not have hit a deer with his automobile at the beginning of the story. Henry may or may not be going back to his parents’ home to bury his father. I could keep adding may or may not to pretty much everything else that happens in The Deer, which operates on its own nightmare logic. The name Schrödinger is invoked in the fourth paragraph. The Deer reads like an attempt to apply quantum superposition theory to a novel about family trauma.
The family trauma that resonates in the first half is dark and icky—dead dogs, dead deer, Henry’s aloof brother Arthur, their sinister father, a dying (dead) mother, and a mother-figure girlfriend. In the background murmurs jazz piano, messages from the International Space Station, baseball on the radio, and the stifling threat of the police force, which Henry Haverford’s father may or may not have been a member of.
Henry’s multiple encounters with the police, who are simultaneously local law enforcement officers as well as Kafkaesque Authorities — “the Force” — showcase some of the best writing in The Deer. An early run-in with the police at the grocery store unfolds with particularly menacing grace:
“What have you got there, Mr. Haverford?”
The cops sip their coffees and grin.
“Beets,” I say. “I’ve got to bring home some beets for
“We heard you were sick,” says one of the cops.
“Yes, we heard you’ve come down with something really awful.”
“That you’ve been asking all sorts of strange questions.”
I frown. “Well, I’ve been remembering a few things here and there. It’s been a long time since I was home.”
“Yes, but very strange things, Mr. Haverford. You haven’t been thinking straight.”
I force a chuckle.
“Is that liquor in your bag?”
I fondle the cap and lean back. The sliding glass doors open. “Yes. It’s for Arthur.”
“Oh, Arthur.” The men exchange a smile.
“Yes—I should get back to him, actually.”
“Oh, of course, Mr. Haverford. We wouldn’t want to
keep Arthur waiting.”
“Thank you. Yes, I shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I turn.
“It’s just that—well—we’d like to have you come into
the station tomorrow. For a few questions.”
The other man takes off his cap. “Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Haverford. I’m sure you understand.”
“Wonderful.” One of the cops glances at the other.
“Well, we must be off.” He grasps my forearm and smiles.
“Great to see you again, Mr. Haverford.”
I nod. “Right. Very good to see you too, Officer.”
When he goes to his first interrogation, things get even stranger, with the police asking Henry what they believe should be done with the dead deer. The interrogation culminates with an ominous line that shouldn’t feel like a threat, but nevertheless sounds like one:
“Am I free to go?”
“Yes,” says the man in the long grey coat. “But we’ll
have you back to see the fawn.”
From there, side A of The Deer edges further into a nightmare of superimpositions and displacements—Henry seems unstuck in time and reality, he’s a boy, a teen, a man, but also a deer, even a fawn, a victim. The situation climaxes in the final track on side A, “The Deer.” It’s another interrogation scene, far more intense, and by the end of it one senses that our Henry, like a character from a David Lynch film, has shifted identities by the time he’s left the room—although nothing is permanent or stable in the world Carrera’s constructed.
Side B continues exploring the may-or-may not themes of the first half, but in an entirely different setting. We move to a first-person narrator, a woman who cares for an ailing mother with her sister. They live in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, with threats of marauding “riders,” illness, drought. Although the settings are radically different, Carrera takes pains to underscore the thematic line in his novel, invoking Schrödinger’s cat again:
Mother prepares another bowl. We eat slowly. The
kitchen light rocks back and forth. Sister leans back on the counter, popping bread in her mouth.
I read aloud to Mother. It is the Old Book, from the
Before Times. The title has long disintegrated.
I say, this is the story of a cat.
She nods slightly. Or maybe it is a rocking. Maybe her head was rocking, and I only thought it was a nod.
I say, the cat goes into a box.
I say, a man comes up to the box, and he leans down
next to it.
I say, the cat does not make a sound. Not even a scratch.
I say, the cat’s tail slowly curls around itself but the man does not know, because he cannot see the cat and the cat cannot see him.
I say, the man must decide if the cat exists.
At times the choppy, etiolated first-person voice of side B didn’t resonate as fully-realized in my ear, and I found some of the genre-bound descriptors (like “Before Times”) too on-the-nose in a book that is otherwise full of compelling obliquities. Other moments are stronger, like in the following passage, which again underscores the book’s theme of quantum superposition:
Read to me in the book how everything is shaking. Read to me how all the objects are composed of molecules and these molecules are fluid in structure. Read to me how all things twirl in recombination and the existence of objects is confirmed only through collective patterns of sensory perception. Read to me about how we must stay in sync, how these objects which we know to be real must be kept afloat by a rhythm of agreement, how this Earth which tilts so slowly pulls us all in the same direction. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only feel the cool of the ink and the scratch of the parchment. Read it to me again, Sister, because I can only see the glimmers of this world.
It’s a remarkable paragraph, which feels both timely and timeless, for are we not always in a crisis of the “rhythm of agreement”?
Carrera studied writing under both Jason Schwartz and Evan Lavender-Smith, and the imprint of those writers, as well as the tree from which their own fiction might be said to extend, bears influence on The Deer. In his masterful John the Posthumous, Schwartz found sinister power in the vignette, in the cruel detail, which Carrera evokes in his novel as well. The Deer’s engagement with radical ambiguity also brings to mind Lavender-Smith’s novella Avatar, a study in untethered consciousness. Beyond that, Carrera branches from the Kafka tree, and The Deer will appeal to those who can hang in the surreal abject worlds of, say, João Gilberto Noll or Kōbō Abe or Anna Kavan or Hiroko Oyamada, without collapsing into goo. Good stuff.
I picked up a copy of Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais last week, in translation by Sophie Hughes, who also translated Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season, possibly my favorite contemporary read of last year. Here’s publisher New Directions’ blurb:
Inside a luxury housing complex, two misfit teenagers sneak around and get drunk. Franco, lonely, overweight, and addicted to porn, obsessively fantasizes about seducing his neighbor—an attractive married woman and mother—while Polo dreams about quitting his awful job as the gated community’s gardener and fleeing his overbearing mother and their narco-controlled village. Faced with the impossibility of getting what they think they deserves, Franco and Polo hatch a mindless and macabre scheme.
I picked up Paradais at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C., where I spent a humid, often-aggravating week with my family, or most of my family. My daughter was attending a sleep-away camp there, so my wife and son and I took on that week as a vacation; he lost his fifth-grade trip to D.C. in 2020, one of so many things cancelled by Covid.
East City was the best of the handful of bookshops I got to go to in D.C. — clean and well-curated with a nice contemporary selection. All new, no used, but cool stuff. I went there after visiting Capitol Hill Books, which has a nice selection of second-hand stuff, but I’ve been spoiled by the place right by my house. I also enjoyed lunch at the Busboys and Poets on K Street, and browsed their small but-well-curated inventory without purchasing anything. I also walked a block out of my way to go to Reiter’s Books, which seemed to be more of a coffee stand/passport photo booth with some used economics books strewn about.
I didn’t expect the bookstores to be a highlight of D.C. and they weren’t. It was the museums we spent most of our time at, our son making most of the calls. My favorite thing was Laurie Anderson’s exhibit The Weather at the Hirschorn: immersive, bold, moving, the right mix of playfulness and pretension. I got to see it twice, the second time in the morning as we waited to view the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, and this time it was mostly empty, and I could really “see” it and feel it.
I also enjoyed my visit to the National Gallery of Art, which was chock full of great stuff, but a strange highlight were the huge, scrolling Joan of Arc paintings by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, which stood out, so-called “children’s illustrations” in a gallery full of fine art where nothing else looked like them.
There were plenty of other highlights, as well as wonderful little moments of revelation, like seeing a Jacob Lawrence hanging in the White House, or a random Whistler in the Freer, but as everyone who tries to attend to art museums overmuch, one’s sensitivity becomes dulled.
This was by my reckoning my seventh trip to D.C. and the city seems more blocked up than ever—the vibe is stifled, stuck, barriers literal and figurative everywhere. Along with Las Vegas, D.C. is the only major American city I can think of that I am happy to leave in contrast to, say, L.A. or NYC or Key West or Atlanta or New Orleans, where I always want just one more day.
At the end of it all I finally got Covid, which has fortunately passed over my family. I’ve been fine, just a little sick, mostly bored of being quarantined in my bedroom. Today was the first day I actually felt able to, like, write, although I’ve had a hard time reading anything to be honest (I pass my eyes over the words, but nothing attaches). But finally getting Covid feels like the appropriate conclusion to a week in the capital at the end of the awful summer of 2022.
I’ll end with a quote that’s always stuck in my head from an obscure Pavement song, “Brink of the Clouds”: “And the capital sucks / Like a capital should.”
I listened to Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666 on audiobook (in English translation by Natasha Wimmer) over the last month,
I listened while I took long early walks in my neighborhood before the big sun burned me back home; I listened while I gardened; I listened while I undertook a list of summer chores that included painting the interior of the house.
I was listening to the book when our fire alarm gave alarum to an accidental fire in our kitchen, which I put out quickly (I was hearing but not listening to the book during this exercise). I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when I started getting texts from friends about the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe. I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when my neighbor waved me down, approached me, told me while crying (she was walking her dog) that her ex-husband, who I was very close to, loved, frankly, a kind man who I spent a few hours a week drinking wine and discussing x and y and z, but especially discussing literature and civics film and local raptors, this man, my friend, had died unexpectedly the previous morning. I turned the audiobook off, finished my walk, and drove four hours to the Gulf shore, a nice place I take every July 4th holiday with my extended family. I took a week off 2666.
I finished the 2666 audiobook yesterday. This audiobook is 39 hours and 15 minutes long. A different reader reads each of the novel’s five distinct parts. (The readers are John Lee, Armando Durán, G. Valmont Thomas, Scott Brick, and Grover Gardner.)
Should someone who hasn’t read 2666 before try it on audiobook first?
I have no idea.
(Try it and tell me.)
I don’t think it would have worked for me, an audiobook on the first go around, for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that there are so so so many voices in the novel, and not all of the five readers necessarily fully capture those voices. (G. Valmont Thomas and Grover Gardner do; Armando Durán gets close; John Lee fares well for the most part; Scott Brick tries too hard at times and not hard enough at others).
Some people are pretty good at auditing audiobooks; other people have a difficult time zoning in. Forty hours is a long time, and if I opened with a list of “I” statements, related to the book, it was because it felt like a sharp chunk of life passed as I listened to 2666. (Sorry.)
I probably also connected 2666 in some way to many, many other things while writing on this blog over the past thirteen years. I think it’s great, more than great, grand, gargantuan, giant stuff. I felt all sad and hollowed out when I got to the end yesterday, deflated, punctured, the final images of Archimboldi eating Neapolitan ice cream with a descendant of its creator, Fürst Pückler, kinda breaking my brain.
Put forty more hours in my ears.
If you follow this blog semi-regularly, you might’ve seen (and I hope read) excerpts I’ve posted from 2666 over the past few weeks. Something that initially caught me off guard, but that I soon came to predict, was that I would audit a section, and jot down notes, something like, Post this as an excerpt on the blog—and then it would turn out that I’d posted the same excerpt a decade ago.
I also remembered specific moments where I’d read some of the selections — on airplanes, or in hotel beds, or even on the beach of the Gulf, ten or eleven years ago over a July 4th vacation that wasn’t set against such a oh-wow-we’re-sliding-into-overt-authoritarian-oligarchy-dang backdrop. But also in blank or banal places, a black couch a now-dead cat clawed up, a chair my wife threatened to axe. Two different beds. And so much of what I audited the past month is blended into my experiences of the past month. (I will never ever forget that the moment when I found out about Roe, I was listening to a painful litany of misogynistic “jokes” told by a crooked cop to an audience of other cops in “The Part About the Crimes” — the section goes on and on, a little echo or prefiguration of the litany of rapes that formalize that particular section. I am looking for a way to use the word indelible here.)
(And while I’m in parentheses: Something I would have tuned out while reading 2666 that I certainly noticed while auditing it is how often Bolaño (and his translator Wimmer, of course) uses the phrase Around this time to begin a new paragraph.)
And so well anyway: A few remarks on the readers, translators all in their own right of the material:
John Lee reads “The Part About the Critics.” His posh British twang is well-suited to conveying the semi-serious/semi-ironic tone of this section, and if he sounds annoying as shit at times, that can be forgiven. Lee, who is often too arch, shows more restraint than in other audiobooks I’ve audited that he’s read.
Armando Durán reads “The Part About Amalfitano.” He’s perfect when conveying Amalfitano’s voice, as well as consciousness, but centers too closely to that consciousness. This is a very specific and petty criticism that is more about how I hear certain other voices in the novel. Great voice.
G. Valmont Thomas reads “The Part About Fate.” He inhabits the various voices the journalist Fate speaks to with aplomb, characterizing each voice with its own unique phrasing while staying true to the tone of the “Fate” section, which tip-toes to full-blown abject madness. My only gripe, and it’s not really even a gripe, is that he voices Fate himself as a total weirdo, a weirdo who simultaneously realizes he’s out of sync with everyone around him, but also doesn’t see to register that fact as a functioning human being might. Good interpretation, I guess, but still a bit of a bold choice.
Scott Brick reads “The Part About the Crimes.” Brick has the longest and arguably most-arduous section of 2666. I think the direction he takes (or the direction he was given) is a bit too intense — again this is a case of my own reading of the voices in the novel — I think the main narrative voice of “The Part About the Crimes” should be flat, affectless, reportorial, and that all drama and verve in that section should come from characters who ventriloquize the narrative — and Brick does a good job there.
Grover Gardner reads “The Part About Archimboldi” and I loved what he did, but I’m a big fan of his voice in general. And I love that particular section.
If I have quibbled with these voices it comes from a place of love—I loved getting to reread 2666 through their voices. And, like I said above, they are ultimately translators too of the work. So I’ll close with Bolaño himself on translation (via his 2666 translator, Natasha Wimmer, from his essay “Translation Is an Anvil,” collected in Between Parentheses):
How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
Is David Shields’ new book The Last Interview indeed an “autobiography in question form, with the reader working to supply answers based on the questions that follow,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?
Is it “Brilliant,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?
My last report from Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King found the novel’s political machinations kicking in after its first seven chapters. Our hero Sogolon finds herself in the Northern Kingdom’s capital Fasisi. The capital is soaked in paranoia. The king is dying, a fact that cannot be admitted publicly or even privately (“The King is about his business,” courtiers and officials repeat). According to custom, it is the son of the king’s daughter who will take up his crown—only Princess Emini has been unable to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her brother Prince Lukid plots a coup, assisted (and likely designed, really), by the Aesi, a Machiavellian who may or may not have magic powers. The Aesi has engineered a literal witch hunt, accusing, arresting, and executing any woman who threatens his hold on power, with the aid of the Sangomin, a band of children necromancers with mutant powers (there’s a two-headed boy, a “razor boy,” a lizard girl, etc.)
The Aesi takes special note of Sogolon, recognizing an emerging power in her that others overlook. She’s wary of him, a feeling that only intensifies as she strikes up an odd friendship with Commander Ulu, a former commander of the Royal Guard who has no memories. Sogolon intuits that it’s likely that the Aesi is responsible for the memory loss, a suspicion that solidifies later in the novel. In an attempt to retain his memories, Ulu writes them down, filling every surface of his living quarters, and even writing in blood. Over time, Sogolon learns to read, with Ulu as a kind if unwitting teacher. Sogolon’s relationship with Keme also deepens, although she learns he has a wife and family.
The relative stability of Sogolon’s life ends when the king dies and Prince Likud claims the throne, taking up the mantle Kwash Moki. The Aesi’s schemes bear fruit-in a sequence that foregrounds the novel’s background trope of witch hunting, princess Emini is put on a trial for adultery. She’s exiled to a walled city of nuns, where she is to spend the rest of her life, and Sogolon is sent with her.
They never make it to the nunnery though. Presumably at the secret command of the Aeisi, the Sangomin attack their caravan killing everyone except Sogolon. She escapes, but the Sangomin track her down. As they attack, she seems to black out. She awakes to a scene of devastating violence she has no memory of. She appears to be in a giant crater, a “smooth bowl that she will have to climb out of.” There, she sees
…them floating, first the top half of the razor finger boy, his entrails dangling, his eyes gazing into nothing, and his legs nowhere to be seen. Slabs of loose white rock and cut white stone—the big man shattered in a multitude of pieces. She climb out and walk past the red and blue girl with the lizard tongue, her hands and legs swaying as if underwater, her face sleepy, the back of her head exploded with all of her shooting out. Perplexing it be, all three floating in air like they underwater, but everything stuck as if whatever happen don’t finish.
Sogolon comes to realize that she was the author of this destruction. When her life is threatened, Sogolon musters a telekinetic force that she refers to sometimes as “wind” or as the “push”–but she can’t control it (yet).
After wandering in the wilderness and cold, she’s found by Keme and other former members of the royal guard who are now part of the Red Army—the king Kwash Moki’s army. Keme has no memory of Sogolon. He brings her back to Fasisi, despite her protest (“They sent us on a fact finding mission, and you are the fact that we found”). Thus ends part one of Moon Witch, Spider King.
I’ve cobbled together a plot summary here, but I’m sure there are many gaps (and maybe some mistakes). In Moon Witch, we’re only privy to what Sogolon sees and hears, and while she’s a curious and perceptive girl, she’s also quite young and lacks any formal education. Much of our understanding of the plot is filtered through Sogolon’s intuition, and a major motif that emerges in these chapters is memory loss, as well as the power that controlling a narrative confers. The Aesi is able to rewrite history, to make people believe things that they witnessed first-hand could not be true.
At the same time the first part of Moon Witch, subtitled “No Name Woman,” is about a consciousness creating itself. Sogolon grew up imprisoned first in a termite mound, then in a whorehouse, then in the home of a fallen aristocrat. She had to name herself, teach herself to read, to scrape together her memories into a slim personal history. In the final sections of “No Name Woman,” the narrator repeats an attribution each time Sogolon enters into a dialogue with her emerging consciousness, as in the following example:
Wake up early girl, will yourself, say a voice in her head that sound like her.
This “voice in her head that sound like her” is Sogolon’s self-making, a consciousness reaching toward the “I” that disappears after the novel’s opening sentences:
One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl.
After that second sentence, the first-person narrator disappears—only to reappear in the beginning of part two, “A Girl Is a Hunted Thing.” More thoughts to come.
Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.
In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”
The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.
Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,
When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.
Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:
Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”
As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:
Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….
The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.
As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.
Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.
Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.
This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.
Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.
When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:
He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.
So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.
Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this review in March, 2019.]
Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.
When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community, He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.
After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.
Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.
The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.
Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.
Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.
Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.
The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.
And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,
Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.
Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:
He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”
“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”
“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”
Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”
Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.
Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.
The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”
“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in March of 2019.]
Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).
The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.
I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.
Chief among Tracker’s allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.
The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.
From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.
James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.
At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.
Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.
Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:
And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.
James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”
Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.
A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:
I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.
A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.
While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.
The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.
There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.
In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in May of 2019. This novel’s sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, is out next week.]
Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”
The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.
After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid,Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:
We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.
The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.
Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,
a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.
Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.
Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.
Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.
The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).
Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:
O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.
So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.
Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:
Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?
The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.
That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.
And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.
Through all its anger,Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again.The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in February of 2017.]
Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.
Oreo is Ross’s only novel. Itwas met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen. (New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)
In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.
Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”
Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.
Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissue. Senna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”
In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”
Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?
In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).
Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:
Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:
A word about weather
There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.
What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)
Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)
Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)
Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”
Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in July of 2020.]
I read Italo Calvino’s posthumous collection Under the Jaguar Sun over the past three days (in William Weaver’s 1988 translation). When I bought it last month I had no idea that it was a collection of stories (and not a novella), nor posthumous. I didn’t read the summary on the back. I just knew it was a thin Calvino I hadn’t read and I’ve been into thin reads lately. (I have two fat novels in translation staring me down from across the room as I write this. Their accusations linger.)
But Under the Jaguar Sun is posthumous, and it is a collection–a thin collection, sure, but the stories are strong. In her note at the end of the book, Esther Calvino offers the following:
In 1972 Calvino started writing a book about the five senses. At his death, in 1985, only three stories had been completed: “Under the Jaguar Sun,” “A King Listens,” and “The Name, the Nose.” Had he lived, this book would certainly have evolved into something quite different.
Esther Calvino suggests that Italo “would have provided a frame, as in If on a winter’s night a traveler, a frame that amounts to another novel, virtually a book in itself,” but concludes that the book should be read “simply as three stories written in different periods of his life.” That conclusion was the last thing I read in the book, which I think is fortunate–my reading wasn’t colored by a sense of lack, a sense of what could have been.
The first story, “Under the Jaguar Sun” (1982), is the strongest. The unnamed narrator and his companion Olivia (presumably his wife) are traveling through the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. They visit temples, soak in history, but mostly enjoy the food. “Under the Jaguar Sun” is the “taste” episode of Calvino’s would-be five senses novel, and at times the story reads like a gourmand’s travelogue. The couple, led by Olivia, seek newer, stranger flavors. Calvino’s narrator renders the gustatory titillation in fatty detail. Our boy gets his first taste of guac:
… we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate — the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of “avocado” — is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavors, pretending to have none); then guajolote con mole poblano — that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesa-dillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).
The real flavor the pair (again, led by Olivia) seems to truly hanker after though is, uh, human flesh. There’s a light parody of tourism happening in “Under the Jaguar Sun,” but the story’s core is cannibalism, victors and victims, the predatory past. Olivia repeatedly seeks to learn about “that flavor” — the flavor of humans sacrificed by Aztecs through ritual sacrifice. She even asks if the priests who oversaw the sacrifices left any recipes.
The cannibal motif slithers into the couple’s (perhaps-failing) relationship. The narrator imagines himself as a willing victim to his partner:
It was the sensation of her teeth in my flesh that I was imagining, and I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines. I sat there facing her, but at the same time it was as if a part of me, or all of me, were contained in her mouth, crunched, torn shred by shred. The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body. I was the one who aroused her every vibration — it was a reciprocal and complete relationship, which involved us and overwhelmed us.
“Under the Jaguar Sun” is unusually dark for Calvino. The sinister pulse in the background and the enthralling unresolved mystery recall the work of one of Calvino’s descendents, Roberto Bolaño—or really any descendent of the Marquis de Sade.
The next story, “A King Listens” (1984) is also uncharacteristically dark for Calvino, although it is composed in the master’s standby, the second-person perspective. Here, the you is a king. Despite its shadowy contours, “A King Listens” finds Calvino in familiar territory, playing with semiotics:
A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.
That core anxiety—holding onto the attributes of rule, of the symbols and signs of kingness—form the backbone of the fevered plot. The You-King finds himself imperiled by the ever-present specter of a coup. And the ever-present threat of a coup is, of course, part and parcel of the kingness of being king.
“A King Listens” plays out like something out of Poe:
Your every attempt to get out of the cage is destined to fail: it is futile to seek yourself in a world that does not belong to you, that perhaps does not exist. For you there is only the palace, the great reechoing vaults, the sentries’ watches, the tanks that crunch the gravel, the hurried footsteps on the staircase which each time could be those announcing your end. These are the only signs through which the world speaks to you; do not let your attention stray from them even for an instant; the moment you are distracted, this space you have constructed around yourself to contain and watch over your fears will be rent, torn to pieces.
With its paranoid court intrigues and shadowy dream-logic, “A King Listens” reminded me very much of a sketch that might find its way into Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
The last piece in Under the Jaguar Sun is “The Name, The Nose” is the shortest and earliest (1972). I imagine Calvino might have expanded (and improved on) it had he lived to see (taste smell feel hear) his five senses book to completion. The narrative trick behind the “The Name the Nose” is a fairly straightforward postmodern conceit: three narrators from different eras tell stories that are archetypically identical. Their stories are all versions of Cinderella, only told from the prince’s perspective. Oh, and that glass slipper is a very specific scent. We get a 17th. century French dandy, a 1960s rock star, and a caveman (had Calvino read William Golding’s The Inheritors?) all sniffing after a particular lady’s singular scent. Calvino’s conceit allows him to riff on anthropology and biology, and the conclusion seems to be that all of the manners, modes, and airs that we might put on doesn’t change the fact that we are beings who sense, who smell to survive and procreate. Our caveboy:
Odor, that’s what each of us has that’s different from the others. The odor tells you immediately and certainly what you need to know. There are no words, there is no information more precise than what the nose receives.
The dark trajectory of each male pursuant is again Edgar Allan Poe territory, gothic ground. In the end, the odor that haunts them is death. (I wonder if Patrick Süskind read this story, which seems like a condensation of his novel Perfume.)
Under the Jaguar Sun is probably the darkest thing I’ve read by Calvino. The stories here suggest that human perception is inexorably linked to death and sex, and that attempts to turn those links into signs and symbols are survival mechanisms. There might not be a soul in this world. But perhaps the darker sensations here are really just senses evading signs, senses just sensing. The world is dark without sense; sensation illuminates darkness. That’s what Calvino has done here.
I don’t think this collection is the best introduction to Calvino for those interested (although I think anyone interested probably knows to start with If on a winter’s night a traveler or Invisible Cities—or, hey, listen to me, start with The Baron in the Trees). I think Under the Jaguar Sun does offer a different flavor, or scent, or tone to Calvino’s oeuvre, though, and I enjoyed my time in these tales.
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.
[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012. Happy Halloween!]
I don’t know if there’s a need for a defense of Donald Barthelme, and I do know that I am not the person to mount that defense. I spent the last two months re-reading Sixty Stories along with/against Tracy Daugherty’s 2010 biography of Barthelme, Hiding Man. I read some other stuff, but most of the writing on this cursed website was about Barthelme’s stories.
Here’s the thing: these stories, even when soaked in the juices of their zeitgeist (“The Sandman,” “The Indian Uprising,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”) more than hold up. They are still fresh, funny, strange, charming. I suppose they could be more upsetting–Barthelme’s world is never raw, and always displaces the visceral through a heavy salve of ironic refinements (and a three-martini haze).
But Barthelme’s rhetorical contortions vivify the forms that he parodies here—early French modernism (“Eugénie Grandet”) or Kafkaesque existentialism (“Me and Miss Mandible,” “The Sergeant”) or faux-academic essaying (“On Angels”). He transmutes the material into something more. In his introduction to the 2003 Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories that I read, David Gates remarks that,
Barthelme is a quintessential writer of the twentieth century, looking Janus-faced to both the past and future, and with a third eye turned inward. Yet he’s also an anomaly. Nobody before him really reads much like him: neither Beckett or Nabokov, nor such minimalist realists as Hemingway, nor such fabulists as Kafka and Borges…Nor has he become anyone’s Dead Father.
Gates’s appellation “Dead Father” is a nod to Barthelme’s best novel as well as the oedipal undercurrent that surges over and under his ouevre. Gates tries to situate Barthelme’s modernism, a modernism beholden to Dead Father Beckett, himself beholden to Dead Father Joyce.
But Gates never comes out and states what I think is clear after re-reading Sixty Stories (especially against Daugherty’s Barthelme biography)–Barthelme’s success is that he is a failed modernist. In his 1981 interview with J.D. O’Hara, Barthelme stated,
…my father was an architect of a particular kind—we were enveloped in modernism. The house we lived in, which he’d designed, was modern and the furniture was modern and the pictures were modern and the books were modern.
Raised a Modernist, Barthelme transcends Modernism.
And yet he was reticent of any terms that might fix him as something other. In a 1980 interview with Larry McCaffery, he called “‘postmodernism’…the least ugly, most descriptive” of the terms that had been used to pigeonhole his fiction.
He hedged more in his 1987 essay “Not Knowing,” musing that it was “not altogether clear as to who is supposed to be on the bus and who is not.” Postmodernism though is really just a descriptor. And we’re all on the bus.
Gates eventually settles on Barthelme as a “Dark Uncle” of literature, as opposed to a Dead Father. Like Nabokov, Gates suggests Barthelme may have imitators, but not true followers. (Gates does posit the potential of George Saunders to get there, and I’d argue no other living American writer (that I know of) would have at one time been fit to take up the Barthelme mantle, but kudos to Saunders for forging his own schmaltzy overly-empathetic path.)
But enough of Gates’s intro. It’s good. It’s very 2003–mentions of David Eggers, Harold Bloom, a lot of handwringing about postmodernism. (Somehow, unless I’m forgetting, Barthelme’s true contemporary Robert Coover isn’t mentioned.)
Anyway. The stuff in Sixty Stories still shines, still sings–and much of it is far more poignant than I would’ve initially credited.
So here are the silly lists.
If you want to turn Sixty Stories into Thirty Stories, here’s my edit (in reverse chronology):
“Bishop,” (previously uncollected, 1981)
“The Emerald,” (previously uncollected, 1981)
“The King of Jazz,” (Great Days, 1979)
“Cortes and Montezuma,” (Great Days, 1979)
“The Great Hug,” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The School,” (Amateurs, 1976)
“I Bought a Little City,” (Amateurs, 1976)
“At the End of the Mechanical Age,” (Amateurs, 1976)
“A Manual for Sons,” (The Dead Father, 1975)
“Eugénie Grandet,” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)
“Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)
“Daumier” (Sadness, 1972)
“The Rise of Capitalism” (Sadness, 1972)
“The Sandman” (Sadness, 1972)
“The Glass Mountain” (City Life, 1970)
“The Policemen’s Ball” (City Life, 1970)
“Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)
“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” (City Life, 1970)
“On Angels” (City Life, 1970)
“Paraguay” (City Life, 1970)
“Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)
“The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)
“See the Moon?” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)
I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.
My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.
As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.
In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.
5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:
In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.
Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.
4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:
It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.
“Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.
In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”
“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:
Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.
Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”
As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:
We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.
I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.
But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.
In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.
Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.
1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:
I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.
Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”
The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:
“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”
“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.
At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”
“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”
Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories.
Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty Stories, Fifteen Stories, and Ten Stories.
An odd domestic tale, “The Dolt” features the hostilities of a young married couple, Edward and Barbara. Edward is “preparing to take the National Writer’s Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate.” He squabbles with Barbara, who is “very sexually attractive…but also deeply mean.” Barbara doesn’t seem to think much of Edward’s chances at earning his “certificate.” Her lack of confidence seems to bear out as we hear the details of Edward’s entry story, a nineteenth century goof on a baron and his faithless wife:
The Baron, a man of uncommon ability, is chiefly remembered for his notorious and inexplicable blunder at the Battle of Kolin: by withdrawing the column under his command at a crucial moment in the fighting, he earned for himself the greatest part of the blame for Friedrich’s defeat, which resulted in a loss, on the Prussian side, of 13,000 out of 33,000 men.
There’s potential in the story, and Barbara begins to be persuaded as Edgar reads the story’s “development.” However, the story is missing something crucial:
“But what about the middle?”
“I don’t have the middle!” he thundered.
There’s a pastiche of ironic biographical details here—writerly anxiety, domestic anxiety—that ultimately gives over to Barthelme’s biggest thematic concern: oedipal anxiety. In an final-act swerve, a surreal figure, “the son manqué,” asking if there’s any “grass in the house.”
The son manqué was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios, all turned on and tuned to different stations. Just by looking at him you could hear Portland and Nogales, Mexico.
The giant figure (a strange filial prefiguration of The Dead Father), girded in an amplified cacophony of mass media, suggests an artistic rival that Edgar is unsure he can surpass—even if that rival is a mere manqué. (The word choice “manqué” here is significant in its oddity. Earlier, Edgar points out that, “You put a word like that in now and then to freshen your line…Even though it’s an old word, it’s so old it’s new.)
The story’s final moment leave us in a limbo derivative of Barthelme’s hero Beckett:
Edgar tried to think of a way to badmouth this immense son leaning over him like a large blaring building. But he couldn’t think of anything. Thinking of anything was beyond him. I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.
“Report” distills one of the main themes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel: technology drives warfare; indeed, war is an excuse for the advancement of modern technologies. This is about as direct an anti-war story as we would get from Donald Barthelme. It begins:
Our group is against the war. But the war goes on. I was sent to Cleveland to talk to the engineers. The engineers were meeting in Cleveland. I was supposed to persuade them not to do what they are going to do.
Of course, the directness of those opening lines gets refracted and tangled in obliquity and fantasy, as the narrator (the “Soft Ware man”) learns of the unspeakable and unnatural practices of the engineers:
“The development of the pseudoruminant stomach for underdeveloped peoples,” he went on, “is one of our interesting things you should be interested in. With the pseudo-ruminant stomach they can chew cuds, that is to say, eat grass. Blue is the most popular color worldwide and for that reason we are working with certain strains of your native Kentucky Poa pratensis, or bluegrass, as the staple input for the p/r stomach cycle, which would also give a shot in the arm to our balance-of -payments thing don’t you know” . . . I noticed about me then a great number of metatarsal fractures in banjo splints.
“The kangaroo initiative . . . eight hundred thousand harvested last year . . . highest percentage of edible protein of any herbivore yet studied …”
“Have new kangaroos been planted?”
The engineer looked at me.
The Soft Ware man leaves with the engineer’s promise:
I confidently predict that, although we could employ all this splendid new weaponry I’ve been telling you about, we’re not going to do it.”
The Soft Ware man’s audience does not believe the engineer’s promise though.
The version of “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” published in Sixty Stories bears a slight difference from the version first published in New American Review and then later in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Act. The Sixty Stories version is the only Barthelme story signed with a date of publication. Here, “April, 1968.”
The date is contextually significant, and something that I overlooked the first time I read ” Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” some time around the year 2000. At that time, I read the tale as a kind of hagiography. Barthelme’s Bobby Kennedy — “K,” in the story’s vernacular (a nod perhaps to Kafka’s hero?) — is a Modernist man. In the final vignette, he’s saved by the narrator who emerges in this last paragraph as an “I”:
K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping. “Thank you.”
When I first read this story, I thought it was a sympathetic attempt to save RFK — that the “line” was a metatextual reference to writing itself, an imaginative recouping of yet another assassinated Hero of the Sixties. The parodic Pop Art contours of the story were lost on me.
It wasn’t until I read Tracy Daugerty’s biography Hiding Man (and subsequently read Sixty Stories in full) that I understood that RFK was assassinated in June of 1968—two months after the story was first published. Indeed, Daugherty reports that Barthelme was working on the story as early as 1965, and likely only kept up with it after learning that Saul Bellow, whom Barthelme was competitive with, was working on a profile of RFK for LIFE (the Bellow piece never came out).
In an interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Barthelme stated,
I cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to ‘save’ him other than by reference to John Kennedy’s death; still, a second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any precision in the piece was the result of watching television and reading the New York Times.
The story’s publication in April, 1968 also coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Daugherty notes in Hiding Man,
[Comedian and activist] Dick Gregory went public with the fact that the FBI harassed King. The agency’s code name for him was “Zorro.” Don had dressed RFK in a Zorro costume, in the story’s final scene, to mock Kennedy’s heroic image. The coincidence unnerved him.
“Alice” is probably the most formally challenging and experimental piece in Sixty Stories. I use the word “experimental” here in a pejorative sense—I’m not quite sure Barthelme pulls the experiment off. We get something like the stream of consciousness of an obstetrician who wants to fuck Alice, his friend’s wife. (Is the name an evocation of the Alice of the Wonderland? Stein’s beloved Alice B. Toklas?)
The inside of the narrator is a ball of sticky language:
the hinder portion scalding-house good eating Curve B in addition to the usual baths and ablutions military police sumptuousness of the washhouse risking misstatements kept distances iris to iris queen of holes damp, hairy legs note of anger chanting and shouting konk sense of “mold” on the “muff” sense of “talk” on the “surface” konk all sorts of chemical girl who delivered the letter give it a bone plummy bare legs saturated in every belief and ignorance rational living private client bad bosom uncertain workmen mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system Lord Muck hot tears harmonica rascal
There are some wonderful fragments there — “mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system” is a lovely insult from our would-be “harmonica rascal” — but the horny chaos becomes a bit of a headache over seven pages. Still, chaos is the point:
that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said
Chaos—here a disruption of both the (illusion of) prescribed linguistic order and the domestic order—offers both rejuvenation and new possibilities. It may be nourishing and durable, but in “Alice,” it’s also exhausting.
The narrator of “Game” is a first lieutenant in some unspecified branch of the military. Here is his situation:
Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird.
“Game’s” postmodern paranoia is worth of Poe. The story is full of repetitive tics, frequently about who is “well” and “not well.” While the ostensible object of “Game” is Cold War anxieties about nuclear war, the story’s evocation of paranoia continues to resonate. I won’t say too much more about “Game” here, but it’s a nice little funny horror story and well worth the ten minutes it will take you to read it.
7. “The President” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)
Is strangeness alone enough?
I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough? I spoke to Sylvia: “Is strangeness alone enough?”
The titular President’s strangeness charms the nation, leading to waves of mass faintings. While there’s an absurd comedy to the faintings, they also point towards the story’s sinister, paranoid undertones. For all his charisma, the President is an oddity, an unknowable Pop representation driven by unclear, even mystical motivations. There’s a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here—the seventies one with Sutherland and Nimoy—but just a touch. The whole thing ends in the rapturous applause of an audience overwhelmed by the anachronistic spectacle of Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron.
Summary thoughts: I’m not really sure if “The President” works. “Alice” doesn’t, but is more interesting in its not working than it has any right to be. “Dolt” is good but not great. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is as good as a story so situated in a historical moment can be. “Report” is very good. “Game” is excellent.
Going forward (in reverse): The last (by which I mean first) six stories, including some of Barthelme’s Greatest Hits, “The Balloon” and “Me and Miss Mandible.”
Also, I will be happy to be done with this project. It’s better to read these stories as morsels. Better not to pig out. Better not to snort them down or shoot them up. Better to let them breathe a bit.