Gaddis Contra Carnegie | How to Win Friends and Influence People in The Recognitions

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The second episode of Part II, Ch. 5 of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions returns to the consciousness of sadsack everyman Mr. Pivner. Through milquetoast Mr. Pivner (the long-lost father of poseur-supreme Otto), Gaddis critiques the banal emptiness and rank venality of post-war life in America. In this particular section of The Recognitions, Gaddis reinforces one of his novel’s central themes: modern commerce has supplanted culture in contemporary America. Indeed, commerce is culture in America.

The episode begins as Papa Pivner prepares to meet Otto for the first time (their estrangement has not yet been explained in the narrative). They arrange to meet in a hotel restaurant, their recognition of each other secured in a promise to wear matching green scarves. Gaddis weaves this father-son plot into the schemes of the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who plans to offload his oh-so-artistic fraudulent currency to “a spreader” who will disseminate “the queer” bills. Ever the conman, Sinisterra disguises himself before heading to the meetup, which is to be held in a hotel restaurant. He dons a green scarf, by which his contact will recognize him. You get it: Sinisterra misrecognizes Otto for the spreader, Otto misrecognizes Sinisterra for his long-lost father, tragicomedy ensues, and Gaddis multiplies the strands of deferred and displaced father figures threaded through his bigass too-big too-long novel. This paternity motif is underlined even more when we remember Otto’s competition with Sinisterra’s son Chaby for the affections of Esme. But such deferrals and displacements are the material for a different riff. Let us shift back to Papa Pivner, sad soul, Gaddis’s little manikin-symbol-thing of paternal cultural authority cuckolded by commercial masscult modernity.

As he preps to meet his boy Otto, Mr. Pivner skims through Dale Carnegie’s 1936 utlrabestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help book that Gaddis beats up for nearly ten straight pages in The Recognitions(Not incidentally, Gaddis had his students at Bard College read Carnegie’s book as part of a class he taught called “The Theme of Failure in American Literature”). Carnegie’s book is the AntiRecognitions, and Gaddis delights in savaging its self-help hucksterism by setting How to Win Friends against the Western canon:

Mr. Pivner sat staring through rimless glasses at a kindly book-jacket face which returned his amorphous gaze. He was preparing to meet his son, to win him as a friend, and influence him as a person. As Odysseus had Mentor, Jesus John the Baptist, Cesare Borgia Machiavelli, Faust Mephistopheles, Descartes Father Dinet, Schopenhauer’s dog Schopenhauer, and Schiller his drawerful of rotten apples, Mr. Pivner had Dale Carnegie: he and four million other individuals, that is…

The passage’s bathos exemplifies Gaddis’s techniques in the Pivner episodes. Gaddis inflates the rhetoric with rich allusion and haughty parallelism, only to puncture the verbal balloon with the banality of middlebrow midcentury American values. For Gaddis, Carnegie’s book represented a signal synthesis of these venal values. How to Win Friends and Influence People cannibalized millennia of writings on wisdom, philosophy, ethics—and the strange mystery vibrating underneath these disciplines—and distilled it all into a self-help book centered on selling yourself to others. The contempt is palpable in another bathetic passage:

True, Mr. Pivner might have read Descartes; and, with tutelage, understood from that energetic fellow, well educated in Jesuit acrobatics (cogitans, ergo sum-ing), that everything not one’s self was an IT, and to be treated so. But Descartes, retiring from life to settle down and prove his own existence, was as ephemeral as some Roger Bacon settling down to construct geometrical proofs of God: for Mr. Pivner, a potential buyer (on page 95) who was head of the Hotel Greeters of America (and president of the International Greeters too!) was far more real.

Cribbing and re-appropriating Carnegie’s own words, Gaddis’s narrator notes that How to Win Friends “was not a book of thought, or thoughts, or ideas, but an action book.” Gaddis then ironically resituates the value of such a book:

An action book; and herein lay the admirable quality of this work: it decreed virtue not for virtue’s sake (as weary Stoics had it); nor courtesy for courtesy (an attribute of human dignity, as civilized culture would have it); nor love for love (as Christ had it); nor a faith which is its own explanation and its own justification (as any faith has it); but all of these excellences oriented toward the market place.

Gaddis posits How to Win Friends as the cynical, terminal destination for the radical transcendental values of the previous century. The values of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-making upheld by Henry David Thoreau, whose writings are alluded to in The Recognitions, are converted into self-improvement, which translates into self-selling. Art and philosophy are simply commodities. Gaddis intuits the ways that capitalism glosses its venality over with the promises of culture and transcendence. Consider this passage, which begins with a quote from Carnegie:

“Let me repeat: the principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.” That was the wonderful thing about this book [. . .] if at first its approach seemed fraught with guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice, that feeling soon disappeared, and one had . . . “Ah yes, you are attempting a new way of life.”

The litany of the huckster’s “bag of tricks” — “guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice” — doubles back to The Recognitions’ motif of counterfeiting and also bites viciously into Carnegie’s core disingenuousness.

Gaddis not only attacks the content of Carnegie’s book, but also the form and style of the book. Carnegie’s hucksterism evinces in its very rhetoric. Gaddis seems to propose his own novel as the opposite of How to Win Friends and Influence People in both content (searching quest for meaning and authenticity in a degraded commercial world) and form (an unwieldy and often abstruse polyglossic beast of a book). In the following remarkable passage he decidedly (if obliquely) situates The Recognitions as a work contra Carnegie:

Here was no promise of anything so absurd as a void where nothing was, nor so delusive as a chimerical kingdom of heaven: in short, it reconciled those virtues he had been taught as a child to the motives and practices of the man, the elixir which exchanged the things worth being for the things worth having. It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name of Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.”

Poor Pivner. He’s really just wanting to win the friendship of the son he’s only just learned he has. Gaddis uses Pivner to indict American culture’s commercially cruel contours, where any entity might be misappropriated and misused in the market place of ideas:

Here were Barnum and the Bible, Charles Schwab, Dutch Schultz and Shakespeare, two Napoleons, Pola Negri, and the National Credit Men’s Association, Capone, Chrysler, Two-Gun Crowley, and Jesus Christ, each in his own way posting the way to the market place. Even Jehovah appeared, if only in brief reversal…

The repeated bathos in II.5 of The Recognitions is wonderfully mean humor, but Pivner doesn’t seem like Gaddis’s main mark—rather, Gaddis shows us that Pivner is Carnegie’s mark. And for all the bathos here, there’s pathos too. We can find a certain sympathy in Pivner’s mild and foiled quest to meet with his progeny. A diabetic (like Chaby Sinisterra, he too uses needles), Pivner waits too long to take his insulin and conks out in the hotel lobby. He is briefly arrested and of course fails to meet Otto.

The next chapter, II.6 is set on Christmas Eve. Pivner receives a Christmas present from Otto, a beautiful and expensive robe (Otto is now flush with plenty of the counterfeit cash). Pivner is deeply moved by the gift, and elects to head back to the hotel to try to meet Otto again. The moment he dons the robe is rendered with disarming pathos. Gaddis’s narrator describes Pivner as a man “whose world was a series of disconnected images, his life a procession of faces reflecting his own anonymity in the street, and faces sharing moments of severe intimacy in the press.” If Pivner is prey to a conman like Carnegie, it is because Pivner is lonely and alienated. The modern condition is one of anxious anonymity, where “intimacy” boils down to reading the same gruesome news that others read. Human connection is mediated through mass media.

When Pivner returns to the hotel, he actually does encounter Otto. They stand next to each other, pissing into urinals in the hotel lobby men’s room, staring straight ahead at the obscene graffiti scrawled on the wall. A pornographic drawing so alarms Pivner that he turns and lowers his head, catching a glimpse of a green scarf poking from the proximal pisser’s pocket. The recognition remains incomplete though: Otto turns his “bloodshot eyes in a desolation of contempt” upon the older man and departs into the night. Pivner is unable to find confirmation of the younger man’s identity, and retreats to the bar to drink orange juice.

The final image of the chapter resonates with sympathetic and lonely despair. It is like something from an Edward Hopper painting. On one end of the bar sits a blonde; next to her Pivner; to his right, a newly-disguised Mr. Sinisterra, hoping too to catch Otto. When the blonde pays for her drink with one of his fake bills, Sinisterra gasps in a moment of recognition. The gasp draws Pivner’s attention and he looks to Sinisterra whose

sharp eyes gleamed at something beyond him, and with such intensity that his own were drawn in a reflex to look to where the blonde paid for her drink. But all Mr. Pivner saw, in the dim light, was a crisp twenty-dollar bill exchange hands: or so it looked to him, moonblind in the tinted gloom of that landscape where the three of them hung, asunder in their similarity, images hopelessly expectant of the appearance of figures, or a figure, of less transient material than their own.

In those final words and images we see the dream behind The Recognitions—the dream of recognizing the metaphysical, the original thing itself comprised of “less transient material” than our own. The final image seems to emanate from Pivner’s consciousness, and to emanate in a moment freed from the ironic bathos the narrator dragged him through before. There’s an emergent if subdued rejection of the market place figures that Dale Carnegie blithely promises his marks can attain, replaced, if fleetingly, for a longing after something more, something mysterious and unnameable. Gaddis conjures a small moment of strange, hopeless expectation—the wish for transcendent recognition.

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Riff on some recent reading

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It seems that for the past two weeks I have been reading mostly final exams and research papers, but I have read some other things too.

I have all but finished Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, which I think is excellent contemporary fiction. Foster’s pieces do things that I did not know that I wanted contemporary fiction to do until I read the pieces. Read his story/poem/thing “Economies of Scale” to get an illustrating example. Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father deserves a proper review and I will give it one sooner rather than later. For now let me say that I am jealous of that title.

I’ve continued sifting unevenly through John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Earlier this year I tried reading one Dream Song a day and then realized I didn’t like reading one Dream Song a day. Some days I wanted to read three or five and some days I wanted to read none and some days I felt like skipping ahead to later Dream Songs and some days I got stuck on a few lines or a spare image or an oblique word and then I couldn’t move on. Here is Dream Song 30, which took me two days to read (I got hung up on “Hell talkt my brain awake” for more than a little while):

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I am still auditing/rereading William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions. I riffed on rereading it here and here and here) and hope to riff some more, but I doubt I’ll have anything comprehensible to write about the chapter I just finished, II.3 (Chapter 3 of Section II). The opening of this chapter is a stream-of-consciousness flowing so freely that it overwhelms the reader. Gaddis takes us into Wyatt’s addled brains, a space overstuffed with hurtling esoteric mythopoetic gobbledygook. (The section also strongly recalls Stephen Dedalus’s stroll on the beach in Chapter 3 of Ulyssesalthough Gaddis denied having read Joyce’s opus).

The interior of Wyatt’s skull is frustrating as hell, which is maybe half the point. Things don’t get any simpler when Wyatt goes to his childhood home where no one recognizes him. Or, rather, he is misrecognized, recognized as someone else: an acolyte of Mithras, Prester John, the Messiah. As always with The Recognitions though, there’s a radical ambiguity: Is Wyatt misrecognized? Or is there an originality under the surface that his ersatz fragmented family recognizes?

I have around 100 more pages left to read of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai. I’ve read the book at such a fast clip that I’m frankly suspicious of it. The book is 530 pages but feels like its 150 pages. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means it’s not a particularly dense novel, although it is rich in ideas—ideas about art, language, family. The book won me over when DeWitt steers the narrative into one of its first major side quests, the story of a musician named Kenzo Yamamoto. I recall reading late into the night, overtired but unable to put the book down. I stayed up too late and was too tired the next day, and then sneaked in a few sections during office hours the next morning. I think that means that I like the book very much—but I also find myself irked at times by something in DeWitt’s style—a sort of archness that veers into preciousness, a cleverness that interminably announces itself. The book tries to spin irony into earnestness, which is vaguely exhausting. I think I would have been head over heels in love with this book if I had read it ten or fifteen years ago.

In his recent review of The Last Samurai at Vulture — where the book garnered the dubious prize of being prematurely called “The Best Book of the Century” — Christian Lorentzen wrote that DeWitt’s “novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism.” But reading The Last Samurai, I am reminded of the books that Wood thought of as “hysterical realism.” Wood coined the term to describe a trend he saw in literature of the late nineties, literature that combined absurdity with social and cultural realism (at the expense of Wood’s precious psychological realism). Wood specifically applied his description to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (published, like The Last Samurai, in 2000), but slapped it down elsewhere, notably to David Foster Wallace. While I don’t endorse Wood’s scolding use of the phrase “hysterical realism,” I do think that it’s a useful (if perhaps too-nebulous) description for a set of trends in some of the major novels published in the late nineties and early 2000s: Infinite JestMiddlesexThe Corrections, A Heartbreaking Work of Something or Other, etc. And, to come in where I started: The Last Samurai shares a lot of the same features with these texts—the blending of styles and texts and disciplines, etc. DeWitt’s filtering a lot of the same stuff, I guess. I would maybe use the term post-postmodernism in place of “hysterical realism” though—although a novel need not be subsumed by any term, and maybe the best can’t really be described in language at all.

Novel factory | A passage from (and a short riff on) William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

In Ch. VII of Part I of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, the erstwhile hero of the novel, Wyatt Gwyon—who has by this point disappeared into an anonymous he—meets Basil Valentine, a somewhat ambiguous and priestly art-world contact for Recktall Brown, the arch-capitalist Mephistophelean villain of the novel. Brown uses Valentine to arrange the forgeries that Gwyon executes. Here, Valentine and Wyatt discuss Brown, who has left the room. (Brown is the initial He; Valentine speaks first):

—He would absolutely have to have Alexander Pope in a box, to enjoy him. He is beyond anything I’ve ever come upon. Honestly, I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence. Basil Valentine rested his head back, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, and watching it rise there. —Earlier, you know, he mentioned to me the idea of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production, he said, and tailored to the public taste. But not so absurd, Basil Valentine said sitting forward suddenly.

—Yes, I … I know. I know.

—When I laughed . . . but it’s not so funny in his hands, you know. Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.

—Yes, good God, imagine if … submitting paintings to them, to a cross section? You’d better take out . . . This color . . . These lines, and . . . He drew his hand down over his face, —You can change a line without even touching it. No, he went on after a pause, and Valentine watched him closely, —nothing is funny in his hands. Everything becomes very . . . real.

Do you like the passage? I do.

I continue to enjoy re-reading Gaddis’s debut novel, aided in large part by an audiobook version read by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been reading The Recognitions with/against Letters of William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive, 2013), which I do not recommend doing (especially for first-time readers). Gaddis, paraphrasing his own novel, said that the artist was simply “the dregs of his [own] work,” and much of The Recognitions reads like Gaddis polishing the material from his own early life and travels and readings, and then forcing that material—the nuggets and the morsels (and, let us be honest, the occasional duds)—into an angry demanding sustained attack on the Modern condition. But the material is good ammunition in that oh-so self-conscious attack on Modernism—an attack that in many ways engenders postmodernism, or at least builds a bridge to it, or perhaps sunders links to Modernism—

—look, I have way too many stupid metaphors cooking here, forgive me: What I mean to say, in simpler terms, is that The Recognitions diagnoses the end of big-em Modernism, that it describes something yet-to-emerge, and that it also, significantly, performs that something yet-to-emerge. Gaddis’s letters show the frustrations of a young man trying to cook up adventures in a modern world: a world already explored, mapped, tagged, and written about by other folks. And not just written about im histories and novels, but also in cheap guide books and cheap glossy magazines. This is the world after the age of mechanical reproduction, the world in which Gaddis’s hero Wyatt strives to forge a legitimate forgery of a place for himself.

Gaddis’s novel’s emergent postmodernism—more fully realized in his follow-up, J R—also presciently points to the post-postmodernist storytelling world of late capitalism. Gaddis’s villain Recktall Brown is a brute, but this philistine is perceptive, and he understands the economy of middlebrow aesthetics. As erudite Valentine laments, “I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence.” Valentine should imagine harder. But this is America, where people frequently mistake wealth and the power to create wealth with creative intelligence.

Maybe I’m too hard here on Valentine, who eventually realizes that an appeal to the lowest common denominator is “not so absurd,” after he reflects on Recktall’s business idea “of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production…tailored to the public taste.” And we then learn that Recktall has already capitalized on his vision of masscult writing: “Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.”

Reading this, I mentally annotated: Ah, Netflix-that’s the novel factory of 2018. And not just Netflix—I mean, clearly, not just Netflix, that’s simply a signal example—but rather the idea of the data-driven artefact, the non-artefact, the copy of a copy of a copy, the narrative entirely derived from atomizing the masscult nostalgia artefacts of 20, 30, 40 years ago, retrofitting them, repackaging them, and selling them as the real thing. Wyatt’s final observation in the passage laments that Recktall Brown, and the emerging late capitalism he represents, is winning a kind of war on culture and imagination. And nothing is funny in this devil’s busy hands: “Everything becomes very . . . real.” Even the fakes. Even the copies. Especially the copies.

Blog about starting the audiobook version of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions

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I downloaded the audiobook of version of William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions the other afternoon. The recording is 51 hours and 41 minutes long, and read by Nick Sullivan.

I am almost exactly six hours in, over halfway through the novel’s third chapter, an aural space that correlates to page 114 of my 956-page Penguin edition of the novel. In this particular moment, Wyatt Gwyon, the sorta-hero of The Recognitions, rants to his wife Esther about literary modernism. I stopped the book at that particular moment to find that particular passage in my copy of The Recognitions; it was particularly easy to find because I’d already dogeared that particular page.

I’m not sure if I dogeared that particular page when I first attempted The Recognitions in 2009 (I stalled out in the book’s second of three sections, somewhere around page 330 or so), or if I dogeared it on my second (and successful) reading in 2012. And while I’m tempted to focus on the passage I’ve just audited and then reread—a meta-moment where Wyatt raves about Modernism (even making a dig at Hemingway)—I’m more interested in making a few generalizations about the audiobook and the first chapter of The Recognitions.

So a few generalizations:

Nick Sullivan, who reads The Recognitions, is excellent. He’s expressive, and imbues the novel with a wonderful rhythm and vitality, differentiating the voices of each of the characters (no mean feat). I have audited Sullivan’s reading of Gaddis’s second novel JR, which is marvelous, and in many ways taught me to “read” that novel, which is told in almost entirely unattributed dialogue. I would strongly recommend anyone daunted by JR to read it in tandem with Sullivan’s audiobook version.

I would not, however, recommend using the audiobook of The Recognitions for a first go through (unless you intend to use the audiobook chapters after you’ve read the chapters yourself). The Recognitions simply contains a density of information unparalleled in almost any other novel I can think of). You’ll need to attend closely to it to parse the threads that matter in terms of the plot and the threads that are there to build the theme. And unless you’re a polyglot, hearing all the untranslated Latin, Spanish, Italian, and German read aloud does little for comprehension. No, I think The Recognitions is best read slowly, and ideally the reader should take the time to attend to its many allusions and motifs (Steven Moore’s online guide is invaluable here). This isn’t to say that readers need to get every damn little reference to enjoy and appreciate Gaddis’s novel—but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Still, there’ a lot in The Recognitions. The book is wonderful, a work of genius, and this is perhaps one of its faults—it suffers from First Novel Syndrome, the author cramming in all that he can, anxious that the audience Recognize Genius. Gaddis was young when it was published—just 34 (amazing). A much older Gaddis seemed to recognize this, saying the following in 1990:

So, in the work I’ve tried to do, in J R, especially the awful lot of description and narrative interference, as I see it now, in The Recognitions, where I am awfully pleased with information that I have come across and would like to share it with you-so I go on for two pages about, oh, I don’t know, the medieval Church,… the forgery, painting, theories of forgery and so forth, and descriptions, literally, of houses or landscapes. And when I got started on the second novel, which was J R, 726 pages, almost entirely my intention was to get the author out of there, to oblige the characters to create themselves and each other and their story, and all of it in dialogue

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The first chapter of The Recognitions, the fruit of an author awfully pleased with information that he has come across, lays out an encyclopedic range of references to literature, art, religion, history, and every other manifestation of culture you might think of. The chapter is impossibly rich, and in some ways, the rest of the novel can never quite match it. Or rather, the rest of the novel teases out the material that Gaddis offers at its outset, threading the material into cables of plot and theme. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is, The first chapter of The Recognitions might be the best first chapter of any novel I can think of.  At 62 pages, it’s almost a novella, and it can arguably stand on its own. Let me borrow my own summary of Chapter I from my 2009 write-up:

The first chapter is the best first chapter of any book I can remember reading in recent years. It tells the story of Rev. Gwyon looking for solace in the Catholic monasteries of Spain after his wife’s death at sea under the clumsy hands of a fugitive counterfeiter posing as a doctor (already, the book posits the inherent dangers of forgery, even as it complicates those dangers by asking who isn’t in some sense a phony). There’s a beautiful line Gaddis treads in the first chapter, between pain, despair, and melancholy and caustic humor, as Gwyon slowly realizes the false limits of his religion. The chapter continues to tell the story of young Wyatt, growing up under the stern care of his puritanical Aunt May, whose religious attitude is confounded by the increasingly erratic behavior of Wyatt’s often-absent father. While deathly ill, Wyatt teaches himself to paint by copying masterworks. He also attempts an original, a painting of his dead mother, but he cannot bear to finish it because, as he tells his father, “There’s something about . . . an unfinished piece of work . . . Where perfection is still possible. Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.” This problem of originality, of Platonic perfection guides much of the novel’s critique on Modernism.

(The “novel’s critique on Modernism” — well, hey, that’s sort of how I came into this riff—stopping the audiobook six hours in to go track down pages 113-14, where Wyatt attacks Hemingway’s modern prose style). There’s more to the plot of Ch. 1, including a ritual sacrifice that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying close enough attention. There are also numerous references to pipe organs, planting the seeds of The Recognitions’ strange conclusion. But now of course is not the time to write about that conclusion; instead, I’ll conclude by remarking that I saw more of the novel’s form—including its conclusion—in its introduction than I had previously thought was there. And that’s the value in rereading a big novel—recognizing what we previously did not recognize.

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Blog about some recent reading

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I ended up reading the last two chapters of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic a few times, trying to figure out exactly what happened. I then read Steven Moore’s excellent essay on the novel, “Carpenter’s Gothic or, The Ambiguities.” (If you have library access to the Infobase database Bloom’s Literature, you can find the essay there; if not, here’s a .pdf version). Moore offers a tidy summary of Carpenter’s Gothic—a summary which should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the novel. Because Carpenter’s Gothic isn’t so much about what happens but how it happens. Moore writes:

As is the case with any summary of a Gaddis novel, this one not only fails to do justice to the novel’s complex tapestry of events but also subverts the manner in which these events are conveyed. Opening Carpenter’s Gothic is like opening the lid of a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces seem to be there, but it is up to the reader to fit those pieces together. …Even after multiple readings, several events remain ambiguous, sometimes because too little information is given, sometimes because there are two conflicting accounts and no way to confirm either.

Moore then lays out the novel’s theme in clear, precise language:

Such narrative strategies are designed not to baffle or frustrate the reader but to dramatize the novel’s central philosophic conflict, that between revealed truth versus acquired knowledge. Nothing is “revealed” by a godlike omniscient narrator in this novel; the reader learns “what really happens” only through study, attention, and the application of intelligence.

Quite frankly, Moore has written an essay that I wish I had written myself. I had been sketching parallels between Carpenter’s Gothic and Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel all throughout my reading; Moore ends up citing Fiedler a few times in his essay, in particularly working from Fiedler’s idea of how Gothicism manifests in American writing. (Moore does not bring up Fiedler’s critique of masculinity though, which opens up an occasion for me to write—once I’ve reread the puzzle though).

Anyway—I loved loved loved Carpenter’s Gothic, and I read it at just about the right time: It’s a Halloween novel. Great stuff.

In line with the Halloween theme: I had been working on a post about horror, about how I love scary films, grotesque literature, and weird art, because fantasy evocations of terror offer a reprieve from anxiety, from true dread, etc. Like, you know, a climate change report—I mean, that’s genuinely horrifying. But scary films and scary stories almost never really scare me. So I was thinking about literature that does produce dread in me, anxiety in me, and listing out examples in my draft, and so well anyway I reread Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Last Evenings on Earth.” I wrote about the collection named for the story almost a decade ago on this blog, focusing on the “ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism” in the tales:

In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)

I’m not sure if I’ll get the essay I was planning together any time soon, but I’m glad I reread “Last Evenings.”

There’s a strange background plot in “Last Evenings” in which Bolaño’s stand-in “B” dwells over a book of French surrealist poets, one of whom disappears mysteriously. Jindřich Štyrský isn’t French—he’s Czech—but he was a surrealist poet (and artist and essayist and etc.), so I couldn’t help inserting him into Bolaño’s story. I’ve been reading Dreamverse, which ripples with sensual horror. I wrote about it here. Here’s one of Štyrský’s poems (in English translation by Jed Slast); I think you can get the flavor from this one:

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And here’s a detail from his 1937 painting Transformation:

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I’ve finished the first section of David Bunch’s Moderan, which is a kind of post-nuke dystopia satire on toxic masculinity. While many of the tropes for these stories (most of which were written in the 1960s and ’70s) might seem familiar—cyborgs and dome homes, caste systems and ultraviolence, a world of made and not born ruled by manunkind (to steal from E.E. Cummings)—it’s the way that Bunch conveys this world that is so astounding. Moderan is told in its own idiom; the voice of our narrator Stronghold-10 booms with a bravado that’s ultimately undercut by the authorial irony that lurks under its surface. I will eventually write a proper review of Moderan, but the book seems equal to the task of satirizing the trajectory of our zeitgeist.

I started Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman last night and the first chapter is amazing.

Finally, I got a hard copy of Paul Kirchner’s new collection, Hieronymus & Bosch which finds humor in the horror of hell. The collection is lovely—I should have a post about it here later this week and hopefully a review at The Comics Journal later this month. For now though, a sample strip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to someone else)

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

(to someone else, jauntily)

Well, you know what they say…

(to someone else)

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

(to someone else, laughing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOSE: But the doctor – the doctor recommended medicine!

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

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

(reads the paper)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SWIRL MEMBER: This will vastly increase our linguistic productivity—

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

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

MOSE: But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

I PayPal’d Aurora $11.11.

Blog about not seeing Darren Aronofsky’s seventh film Mother! in the theater

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I did not see Darren Aronofsky’s seventh feature film Mother! in the theater.

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I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi at the Reitz Union theater at the University of Florida in the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. In my four years attending the University of Florida, I always made a point to go watch the free films the Union’s theater screened. I saw The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas there. I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Memento there, and Harmony Korine’s follow-up to Gummo, the unfortunate Julien Donkey-Boy (Chloe Sevigny ice-skating to Oval’s skittering soundtrack left a permanent mark on my memory). I saw Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me there. I saw a hypnotist there, also. (It was all free, in the sense that no money was required). And, like I said, I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi there.

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I saw Pi with my girlfriend and her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend, who I was starting to be friends with. We—by which I mean my girlfriend and I—loved it; roommate and roommate’s boyfriend hated it. We found this out minutes after leaving the theater. I might have argued for it, using terms like claustrophobia and paranoia and German expressionism; I am the kind of asshole who might have brought up, like, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at this point of my life. The roommate’s boyfriend—who turned out to be and remains to this day one of the greatest friends I’ve ever made—pointed out that the film was silly–self-important, muddled, vague. He may or may not have used the word histrionic.

(He could be entirely right. I’ve never rewatched Pi).

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(I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

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The same roommate’s boyfriend, at this point broken up with the roommate (also no longer the roommate) would have been present at the small-screen screening of Requiem for a Dream held in The House Where We Always Drank Excessively some time in the fall of 2000. We–the ten or maybe twelve of us—did not Drink Excessively during the film, leaving bottles and bongs and etc. largely untouched after the first half hour, our horror slowly growing. This was No Fun. We didn’t talk after, slinking off in the humid Gainesville night. We tacitly agreed not to see each other for at least a week or two.

***

Aronofsky’s film The Fountain arrived in the mail on DVD via the mail-DVD service Netflix some time at my house in 2007. The film had a certain mystique to it—it was a boondoggle, an interesting failure, a trial balloon that popped. I recall liking it quite a bit, as I told my wife after she woke up after having fallen asleep thirty minutes into the film.

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(I might have actually watched The Fountain a few times).

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My daughter was an infant when The Wrestler was in theaters. I watched it too via a mail-ordered DVD from Netflix, and thought it was Pretty Good, but no My Cousin Vinny or By the Time the Devil Knows You’re Dead. (Marisa Tomei Forever).

***

My son was an infant when Black Swan was in theaters. So again: Netflix DVD, no big screen. My wife liked this one—we both laughed and laughed. At some point, maybe, one of us, getting up to pee or pour another glass of wine or check that a child was tidily asleep—well, I guess we took to it as a kind of histrionic comedy, a comedy-horror. This could be an entirely wrong take, but I don’t know. (I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

***

By the time I watched Aronofsky’s sixth film Noah, I had essentially given up on him: I found his films a remarkable mix of camp, melodrama, and repulsion—hard to read, searingly original, visually compelling areas I couldn’t wait to leave. I reviewed Noah on this blog, writing,

Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

***

When Mother! (or mother!, as it is sometimes stylized) came out last year I was intrigued, first by the film’s marvelous posters (by James Jean), and then by the advance word on it. Mother! sounded Rosemary’s Baby, but also something like Salo or Irreversible or even Ichi the Killer—something scary and a bit psychotic and divisive and depraved. Something that some folks would certainly hate. But two kids and a job and etc. make a movie hard to grab on the go, and we wanted to see PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread, of course, which is what I think we ended up seeing instead of Mother! Maybe a week or two later at a party, a friend immediately asked me if I had seen Mother! yet. She wanted to talk about it very much. She told me to go see it.

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Mother!: I should have gone to the theater to see Mother!

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We watched Mother! via a streaming service in a very dark room on the largest TV we have ever owned, and I’m sure that this is not even close to what it was like to see the film in the theater. It was great. Great! I should have gone to see Mother! in the theater.

***

This blog began with the bestest of best intentions. I was going to write a proper review of Mother!, or not a review so much as a riff, or not so much a riff, really, but rather an appreciation, a take on the feeling of watching Mother!—but when I started writing I realized that I had these other thousand words to write first. And now that I’ve written them, I hate to just delete them—and anyway, it’s only blog. But I mostly see that I’d like to  watch Mother! again before I write about it again.

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On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

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

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

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

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

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

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a painter yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

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Lady Bird (Summer Film Log)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry”

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  1. I listened to an audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2016 book Pond a few weeks ago, and then wound up getting a digital copy so that I could reread the stories in it.
  2. Pond did something electric to me.
  3. I audited most of it over the course of a weekend. This particular weekend was the first weekend of March. We had an unusually cold February in North Florida, and I’d more or less let my lawn and gardens go to hell. I audited most of Pond while gardening—cutting back dead branches, pulling thorny vines, clipping bushes, etc. I even dug a hole or two.
  4. I had not read a review of Pond before auditing and then reading it; I’d just heard (probably on Twitter) that it was good and odd. I point out that I did not know anything about Pond before getting in to it because I mistakenly thought that Pond was a novel for most of the auditing experience. I realized only toward the end that it was not, properly speaking, a novel—or at least not a novel in the sense that we think of novels as “novels.” Pond is more like a series of related vignettes about a young woman’s life in a remote village in Ireland. And I’m not even sure what I mean by “young woman’s life” in that previous sentence. Let it stand that the book won me over very quickly with “Morning, Noon & Night,” an episode that begins with the aesthetics of breakfast, includes an ill-advised gardening adventure, a hostile academic conference, some sexy emails, and culminates in chopping. It’s wonderful.
  5. Pond does so many things that I always want a book to do, by which I mean that Pond does things that I didn’t know I wanted a book to do until the book has done them.
  6. Pond is unique (are we allowed to use that word?) and thus reminds me of other innovative prose I love: William Carlos Williams’ poetry, Lydia Davis’s stuff, the fictions Jason Schwartz and Gary Lutz, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
  7. But the title of this post is “Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story ‘Stir-fry,'” and I have produced a few hundred words thus far, none about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry.”
  8. (I chose to blog about “Stir-fry” not because it is my favorite in the collection or because it is an especially representative sample of Bennett’s prose, but because it is short. The longer piece “Morning, Noon & Night” offers a richer sample of Bennett’s powers and you can click on that link and read it for free and see for yourself).
  9. Okay, “Stir-fry.”
  10. The story is a title and two sentences.
  11. The title specifies the ostensible subject of the story, dinner.
  12. But the story is not about dinner; the story is about throwing dinner away.
  13. But is the story even about throwing dinner away?  I suppose that’s the central action that takes place in “Stir-fry” — tossing food away — but the story is also about consciousness in the creative process.
  14. Our narrator creates something that she knows she intends to throw away immediately after its creation.
  15. Hence, the key line to the story is the one that begins with the coordinating conjunction soBennett emphasizes the line by typographically isolating it; the effect on the page approximates poetry rather than traditional prose.
  16. “so I put in it all the things I never want to see again”: A stir-fry is usually made at least in part from leftovers or food that must be eaten soon or tossed. If we read the story literally (which we should of course), we can fill in the details with our sympathetic imaginations: A bit of rice from three days ago. That last onion. A solitary carrot going to rubber. A stub of ginger. Two small peppers, their skin now papery. The last bit of Sunday’s roast chicken. Etc.
  17. There is something deeply satisfying for some of us in using all the food in our refrigerator.
  18. But I think our sympathetic imagination could extend that phrase “things I never want to see again” even farther than the last few stray vegetables or half of a leftover pork loin or an egg clearly reaching its expiration: What else might have our narrator mixed into her stir-fry? The last little bits of blackberry jam that cling to a jar? Pickles she made two years ago? A questionable yogurt? Pine nuts past their prime? Those turnips? Why did we buy those turnips?
  19. And we can push the phrase even farther if we want: If we are creating something that we know that we will immediately discard and not use for its ostensible purpose (in this case, sustenance, life force), what else might we stir in there? What are all the things we “never want to see again”? All our feeble faults and deficiencies? Our terrible creeping anxieties? Even the bad ambitions we so often trip over? Could we throw war, prejudice, avarice into our stir-fry, and then throw those away too?
  20. Maybe I have pushed an interpretation of “Stir-fry” far too far. But I do read the vignette as a fantasy of sorts. Our narrator consciously creates something she intends to uncreate. This creative uncreation allows her to eliminate all the things she never wants to see again. The fantasy here is about opening up a new way of seeing, one unencumbered by the stale, the musty, the rancid. The desire I see is to see and taste with a fresh spirit.
  21. Or maybe “Stir-fry” is just about throwing away dinner.

A very short riff on a compelling Stephen Crane character (and six marvelous paragraphs of Crane’s prose)

I took a few paperback books with me when I went camping two weeks ago, but I didn’t actually read from them. Instead, I wound up reading (or rereading in some cases) a few of the tales in Stephen Crane’s collection The Open Boat and Other Stories, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg onto my iPad thanks to a data connection from my phone. Rain was pouring down on my tent and for some reason, I want to reread “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” popped into my head, so I made it happen. I don’t know how these details are germane to anything I am trying to say here.

What I am trying to say here is that I didn’t read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” right away. Instead, I read a story I’d never read before, “A Man and Some Others.” This tale contains some of the most fantastic sentences I’ve read in ages. (This is what I’m trying to say here: That “A Man and Some Others” contains some magical fucking prose).

Here is the opening paragraph:

Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dim, of the substance of a spectre’s veil, appeared in the south-west, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.

I confess that I might have had some beers and Bushmills that evening, but I read and reread the opening sentences of “A Man and Some Others” in a little loop, hypnotized by the way Crane’s prose collapses human agency into an overwhelming naturalism—a naturalism with just the slightest Romantic touch of “a spectre’s veil.” (In “The Open Boat,” Crane demonstrates a more masterful and more complete grappling of naturalism resisting (and perhaps ultimately synthesizing) the Romantic traces of his transcendentalist forebears. But that’s a topic for another riff).

“A Man and Some Others” is about a cowboy named Bill. Threatened off a range that he claims as his own by Mexican ranchers who see otherwise, Bill retaliates. Along the way he meets a stranger—a stand-in for Crane, perhaps—who bears witness to the whole fandango. As a story, “A Man and Some Others” is slight, a thin premise that exists primarily as a space for Bill to swagger around in for a few pages. Sure, there could be a critique of Manifest Destiny somewhere in there, but Crane’s tale never coheres into a fully realized allegory or satire (as the poet John Berryman pointed out in his study of Crane, “Crane‘s humor, finally, and his irony are felt as weird or incomprehensible.” Berryman was referring to War Is Kind, but the description fits here as well).

Crane’s humor and irony are on vivid display in the six paragraphs that make up the second short chapter of “A Man and Some Others.” In this section, we get the improbable and wild life story of Bill, which reads on the one hand as a hyperbolic archetype of American machoism, a kind of fabulous legend of Manifest Destiny. On the other hand, Bill’s bio strikes the reader as so thoroughly and lovingly true that it seems Crane must have wholly plagiarized the life of a real individual (or at least combined a few wild but true stories from a handful of folks).

I won’t comment any further, but instead offer those six paragraphs, which I simply could never improve upon:

Bill had been a mine-owner in Wyoming, a great man, an aristocrat, one who possessed unlimited credit in the saloons down the gulch. He had the social weight that could interrupt a lynching or advise a bad man of the particular merits of a remote geographical point. However, the fates exploded the toy balloon with which they had amused Bill, and on the evening of the same day he was a professional gambler with ill-fortune dealing him unspeakable irritation in the shape of three big cards whenever another fellow stood pat. It is well here to inform the world that Bill considered his calamities of life all dwarfs in comparison with the excitement of one particular evening, when three kings came to him with criminal regularity against a man who always filled a straight. Later he became a cow-boy, more weirdly abandoned than if he had never been an aristocrat. By this time all that remained of his former splendour was his pride, or his vanity, which was one thing which need not have remained. He killed the foreman of the ranch over an inconsequent matter as to which of them was a liar, and the midnight train carried him eastward. He became a brakeman on the Union Pacific, and really gained high honours in the hobo war that for many years has devastated the beautiful railroads of our country. A creature of ill-fortune himself, he practised all the ordinary cruelties upon these other creatures of ill-fortune. He was of so fierce a mien that tramps usually surrendered at once whatever coin or tobacco they had in their possession; and if afterward he kicked them from the train, it was only because this was a recognized treachery of the war upon the hoboes. In a famous battle fought in Nebraska in 1879, he would have achieved a lasting distinction if it had not been for a deserter from the United States army. He was at the head of a heroic and sweeping charge, which really broke the power of the hoboes in that country for three months; he had already worsted four tramps with his own coupling-stick, when a stone thrown by the ex-third baseman of F Troop’s nine laid him flat on the prairie, and later enforced a stay in the hospital in Omaha. After his recovery he engaged with other railroads, and shuffled cars in countless yards. An order to strike came upon him in Michigan, and afterward the vengeance of the railroad pursued him until he assumed a name. This mask is like the darkness in which the burglar chooses to move. It destroys many of the healthy fears. It is a small thing, but it eats that which we call our conscience. The conductor of No. 419 stood in the caboose within two feet of Bill’s nose, and called him a liar. Bill requested him to use a milder term. He had not bored the foreman of Tin Can Ranch with any such request, but had killed him with expedition. The conductor seemed to insist, and so Bill let the matter drop.

He became the bouncer of a saloon on the Bowery in New York. Here most of his fights were as successful as had been his brushes with the hoboes in the West. He gained the complete admiration of the four clean bar-tenders who stood behind the great and glittering bar. He was an honoured man. He nearly killed Bad Hennessy, who, as a matter of fact, had more reputation than ability, and his fame moved up the Bowery and down the Bowery.

But let a man adopt fighting as his business, and the thought grows constantly within him that it is his business to fight. These phrases became mixed in Bill’s mind precisely as they are here mixed; and let a man get this idea in his mind, and defeat begins to move toward him over the unknown ways of circumstances. One summer night three sailors from the U.S.S. Seattle sat in the saloon drinking and attending to other people’s affairs in an amiable fashion. Bill was a proud man since he had thrashed so many citizens, and it suddenly occurred to him that the loud talk of the sailors was very offensive. So he swaggered upon their attention, and warned them that the saloon was the flowery abode of peace and gentle silence. They glanced at him in surprise, and without a moment’s pause consigned him to a worse place than any stoker of them knew. Whereupon he flung one of them through the side door before the others could prevent it. On the sidewalk there was a short struggle, with many hoarse epithets in the air, and then Bill slid into the saloon again. A frown of false rage was upon his brow, and he strutted like a savage king. He took a long yellow night-stick from behind the lunch-counter, and started importantly toward the main doors to see that the incensed seamen did not again enter.

The ways of sailormen are without speech, and, together in the street, the three sailors exchanged no word, but they moved at once. Landsmen would have required two years of discussion to gain such unanimity. In silence, and immediately, they seized a long piece of scantling that lay handily. With one forward to guide the battering-ram, and with two behind him to furnish the power, they made a beautiful curve, and came down like the Assyrians on the front door of that saloon.

Mystic and still mystic are the laws of fate. Bill, with his kingly frown and his long night-stick, appeared at precisely that moment in the doorway. He stood like a statue of victory; his pride was at its zenith; and in the same second this atrocious piece of scantling punched him in the bulwarks of his stomach, and he vanished like a mist. Opinions differed as to where the end of the scantling landed him, but it was ultimately clear that it landed him in south-western Texas, where he became a sheep-herder.

The sailors charged three times upon the plate-glass front of the saloon, and when they had finished, it looked as if it had been the victim of a rural fire company’s success in saving it from the flames. As the proprietor of the place surveyed the ruins, he remarked that Bill was a very zealous guardian of property. As the ambulance surgeon surveyed Bill, he remarked that the wound was really an excavation.

A passage from (and a short riff on) Iris Murdoch’s The Bell

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Dora got into the train. It was now very full indeed and people were sitting four a side. Before she sat down she inspected herself quickly in the mirror. In spite of all her awful experiences she looked good. She had a round well-formed face and a large mouth that liked to smile. Her eyes were a dark slaty blue and rather long and large. Art had darkened but not thinned her vigorous triangular eyebrows. Her hair was golden brown and grew in long flat strips down the side of her head, like ferns growing down a rock. This was attractive. Her figure was by no means what it had been.

She turned towards her seat. A large elderly lady shifted a little to make room. Feeling fat and hot in the smart featureless coat and skirt which she had not worn since the spring, Dora squeezed herself in. She hated the sensation of another human being wedged against her side. Her skirt was very tight. Her high-heeled shoes were tight too. She could feel her own perspiration and was beginning to smell that of others. It was a devilish hot day. She reflected all the same that she was lucky to have a seat, and with a certain satisfaction watched the corridor fill up with people who had no seats.

Another elderly lady, struggling through the crush, reached the door of Dora’s carriage and addressed her neighbour. ‘Ah, there you are, dear, I thought you were nearer the front.’ They looked at each other rather gloomily, the standing lady leaning at an angle through the doorway, her feet trapped in a heap of luggage. They began a conversation about how they had never seen the train so full. Dora stopped listening because a dreadful thought had struck her. She ought to give up her seat. She rejected the thought, but it came back. There was no doubt about it. The elderly lady who was standing looked very frail indeed, and it was only proper that Dora, who was young and healthy should give her seat to the lady who could then sit next to her friend. Dora felt the blood rushing to her face. She sat still and considered the matter. There was no point in being hasty. It was possible of course that while clearly admitting that she ought to give up her seat she might nevertheless simply not do so out of pure selfishness. This would in some ways be a better situation than what would have been the case if it had simply not occurred to her at all that she ought to give up her seat. On the other side of the seated lady a man was sitting. He was reading his newspaper and did not seem to be thinking about his duty. Perhaps if Dora waited it would occur to the man to give up his seat to the other lady? Unlikely. Dora examined the other inhabitants of the carriage. None of them looked in the least uneasy. Their faces, if not already buried in books, reflected the selfish glee which had probably been on her own a moment since as she watched the crowd in the corridor. There was another aspect to the matter. She had taken the trouble to arrive early, and surely ought to be rewarded for this. Though perhaps the two ladies had arrived as early as they could? There was no knowing. But in any case there was an elementary justice in the first comers having the seats. The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

‘How very kind of you!’ said the standing lady. ‘Now I can sit next to my friend. I have a seat of my own further down you know. Perhaps we can just exchange seats? Do let me help you to move your luggage.’

Dora glowed with delight. What is sweeter than the unhoped-for reward for the virtuous act?

From Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell.

Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell hooked me with its astonishing opening sentences: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”

Those two simple, precise sentences foreground one of the major conflicts of The Bell, and also point towards the novel’s anxiety/comedy axis. There’s a comic beat to Murdoch’s rhythm that, paradoxically, simultaneously belies and highlights the terror under those two sentences. The rest of The Bell’s first chapter fills in the gaps between sentence one and sentence two, detailing the relationship between young Dora and her older husband Paul. The details of their troubled marriage reverberate with the same radical ambiguity we see in the first two sentences, a constant push-pull of desire and repulsion.

What’s most compelling for me here is Murdoch’s command of irony and free indirect speech. Murdoch inhabits Dora’s consciousness in a way that shows how the conflict between thought and emotion germinates, mutates, terminates, and often blooms into actions quite divorced from initial intention or desire. When Paul decides to send his departed wife an “allowance,” we get a wonderful syntactic example of how Murdoch captures the ambiguous disjunctions of thought and action: “Dora decided to refuse the money but accepted it.” Murdoch gives us one complete thought here, tacking on the key idea (“but accepted it”) in a dependent clause.

The long passage I’ve excerpted above (part of Chapter One, by the way) shows the same disjunction of thought and action, but at greater length. Not only did it make me laugh aloud, it also made me recognize part of myself in Dora—the extreme social anxiety, the narcissistic sense that others do not see what is happening within a social setting, the sense of selfish entitlement, etc.

The punchline in the episode is worth repeating: “She decided not to give up her seat. She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.'” But that punchline is followed by a second punchline—the woman already has a seat. The episode culminates in a kind of callow but sincere moral victory.

I’m about half way through The Bell right now and loving it. As Murdoch layers the novel with perspective characters other than Dora, the overall picture gains depth, breadth, and complexity. Her sentences convey a psychological complexity that seems both raw and truthful, and yet those sentences are polished, refined, and quite funny. More thoughts to come.