Blog about some recent reading

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I am reading too many books right now.

The big book I am reading is Marlon James’s surreal fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I am a little over half way through this long, long book, which is by turns rich, dazzling, baffling, and befuddling. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy-quest novel set in a mythical medieval Africa. The story is told by Tracker, a detective under magical protection who uses his magnificent nose to search for a missing boy, Tracker is aided (and sometimes stymied) on this quest by a strange and ever-shifting fellowship of superpowered heroes and antiheroes, including a sad, talkative giant, a mysterious witch, and the titular Leopard. Leopard is a shapeshifter, and Tracker’s erstwhile partner, both in adventures and in love. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic appetites,” he remarks at one point, summarizing the novel’s horny program. “The more you tell me, the less I know,” another character remarks, summarizing the novel’s shaggy structure. Black Leopard, Red Wolf unspools its plot in the most confounding way. Tracker is hardly a reliable narrator, but we are not even sure if he is the primary narrator. He’s telling his tale to an Inquisitor, but the tale-telling spins ever on, each story a deferral. And those deferrals often open into other storytellers, who tell stories with their own embedded stories. James’s book is like a matryoshka doll full of blood and guts and fucking and surreal ceiling-walking demons. It’s as much a detective story as a fantasy, but for all its genre troping, it makes few concessions to its various genres’ conventional forms. Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf often feels more like playing a really long game of very weird Dungeons & Dragons campaign with an inventive Dungeon Master making wild shit up as he goes along than it does a cohesive and coherent story. I’m digging the play so far.

The other long book I’m reading—crawling through, really—is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists. I loved the first 100 pages or so, but it’s turning into a slog. The novel’s climactic crisis, a mining disaster, occurs very early in the novel, an interesting gambit given that the novel is about an apocalyptic cult awaiting the end of the world. This apparent second crisis, a consequence of the first crisis, is then deferred. Coover explores this deferral and its consequences over a series of non-climaxes that we see through the eyes of the (many many too many) characters. There are little pockets of Origin that are fantastic, but too little humor to buoy the novel—it gets weighed down under its unwieldy cast and the authorial sense that This Is A Big Important Novel About Life. I will finish it though.

I loved loved loved Ann Quni’s novel Berg. I will do a full review of this marvelous weird claustrophobic novel when it comes out from And Other Stories in the U.S. this summer, but for now: Just amazing. The novel, originally published in 1964, begins like this: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” That, my friends, is basically the plot. Berg is a grisly Oedipal comedy that will make some readers’ skin crawl. Great stuff.

Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) is another strange one. It’s part memoir, part collage, part family history, often told in a dreamlike prose, but also sometimes conveyed with reportorial simplicity. Check it out.

I’ve also been reading Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a discursive collection of essays, lists, little anti-poems, etc. More thoughts to come, but I really dig the feeling of reading it.

Finally, I picked up Leslie Fiedler’s 1964 book of criticism Waiting for the End this Friday. Fiedler begins with the (then-recent) deaths of Hemingway and Faulkner. Fiedler uses the deaths of these “old men” to riff on the end of Modernism, although he never evokes the term. Neither does he use the term “postmodernism” in his book, although he edges towards it in his critiques of kitsch and middlebrow culture, and especially in his essay “The End of the Novel.” In parts of the book, he gets close to describing, or nearing a description of, an emergent postmodernist literature (John Barth and John Hawkes are favorite examples for Fiedler), but ultimately seems more resigned to writing an elegy for the avant garde. Other aspects of Waiting for the End, while well-intentioned, might strike contemporary ears as problematic, as the kids say, but Fiedler’s sharp and loose style are welcome over stodgy scholarship. Ultimately, I find the book compelling because of its middle position in its take on American literature. It’s the work of a critic seeing the beginnings of something that hasn’t quite emerged yet—but his eye is trained more closely on what’s disappearing into the past.

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

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Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A review of Taking Care, Joy Williams’ debut short story collection

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Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:

Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.

The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?

Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.

In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.

There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:

The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”

A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).

“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:

I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.

“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:

It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!

Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.

What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).

“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:

“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …

“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.

While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:

Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.

Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:

The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.

The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.

In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:

“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.

Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”

“Oh,” Dan said.

In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:

I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.

Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.

The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.

Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of Lord, João Gilberto Noll’s abject novel of dissolving identity

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João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.

That first-person voice is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist travels to cold winter London on an unspecified “mission.” Indeed, the mission remains unspecified to both reader and narrator alike, although it does seem to involve an English university. The man who arranges for the narrator to come to London is himself a shifting cipher in Lord, transforming into different entities—at least in the narrator’s (often paranoid) view. We get the sense in Lord that consciousness is always under radical duress, that a state of being might collapse at any time or give way to some other, unknown state of being.

Throughout Lord, Noll dramatizes abject consciousness in turmoil. Early on, the narrator, already feeling uncertain about why he has moved halfway across the world, arrives at a university’s Portuguese department. In a book-lined office, he attempts to stabilize himself through the textual “reality” of printed matter:

The walls were covered with books. I trailed my hand over them as if to confirm the reality I was living in. Though I knew I was not living an unreality per se—like those born out of a simple dream and ending up in a nightmare, which we can only escape from when we wake up sweaty, trembling, and confused.

The irony is that the narrator has not fully comprehended yet that he is living an unreality, that he is actually narrating the nightmare. Noll’s hero is an unfixed voice, a voice that can’t square the signifiers around him with any stable signified meaning in his consciousness.

Slowly (but not too slowly—Lord moves at a steady clip), the narrator embraces this abjection and wills the dissolution of his self and its reformation into some new other. “My tiredness did not demand sleep, but, damn!, how I craved some indistinguishability between bodies, volumes, and formats,” he tells us.

The narrator carries his project of transformation even farther, applying cosmetics and hair dye to alter his appearance and “find a new source for [his] new formation”:

My lack of definition was already greater than me, although I had lost myself and begun to suspect that even my English boss couldn’t do anything to bring me back to me. I needed to keep up this task of being every- one somehow, because without it I wouldn’t even make it as far as the corner: without asking anyone, I happened to have overcome being the individual whom I had mechanically created for other people. I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.

Lord’s narrator takes this new version of himself on various London adventures, most of which are lurid and gross, and many of which are downright horny. Our Brazilian writer (who is slowly unbecoming a Brazilian writer) visits museums and has weird sex encounters, sleeps on the streets and takes a soapy bath with a Professor of Latin American Studies. Lord moves at a rapid and occasionally bewildering pace, giving the narrator’s quest a mock-ironic urgency. In Edgar Garbeletto’s capable English translation from the Portuguese, the paragraphs go on for pages but the sentences are choppy, riddled with colons and dashes, lurches and leaps, falls and stops.

Through this turbulent rhetoric, Lord’s narrator channels other voices, sublimating them into the text proper. The narrator absorbs bits and pieces of the other voices he encounters, dissolving his consciousness into and out of them as he strives for transformation. He also absorbs bits and pieces of bodies—fluids and other detritus, other abject bits of our human borders.

Our narrator is obsessed with borders, but his transgression of them has little to do with a moral framework. For the narrator, moral semblance is simply the result of an “individual…mechanically created for other people.” Rather, the narrator is fascinated by what makes a consciousness conscious. However, he’s not yet willing to cross the ultimate border, despite his fascination. In one little episode of Lord, our hero happens upon a dying man on the street. He watches the man pass from life:

I squeezed his hand. His mouth opened, and I could see the pool of blood that had overflowed his rotten teeth. That death, in some way, in some corner of my mind, gave me tremendous satisfaction. Someone was not afraid to go all the way to the end. To do for others what everyone tried to avoid. I wished I could follow him, but I didn’t have his bravery; I lacked the necessary elements to consummate the act. I needed that hug today.

A strange hug indeed!

The apparent finality of death as cessation-of consciousness holds a certain appeal to Lord’s narrator, whose quest is perhaps to overcome abjection via transformation. But it’s not easy,

It’s not just a snap, man: it’s being stuck in this limbo between staying in England and going back to South America that made me unrecognizable to myself anymore, it didn’t let me transfigure myself, it wouldn’t let me leave this stupid little body here, vomit myself out in disgust, or turn me into someone else.

Indeed, the quest in Lord might be summarized by that phrase: “vomit myself out in disgust.” While the voice in Lord remains untethered by the normal strictures of narrative (or even moral) logic, it is hardly free or disembodied. Indeed, the relationship between bodies and consciousness is perhaps the primary problem of Lord. Our narrator’s voice has a body that can’t catch up to what’s happening in its consciousness. Hence the novel’s preoccupation with the corporeal reality of bodies: blood, urine, semen, sweat, vomit…all the leaking stuff of humanity spurting out, transgressing the apparent borders and showing those borders are but a moral fiction.

In one abject episode, our narrator attempts to dispel London himself from his consciousness:

On a corner in Bloomsbury, a totally unexpected need to vomit hit me. I wiped myself with a sheet of newspaper that was fluttering by. But I couldn’t stop; I realized it was London I was throwing up, London with its ghosts and impossible missions, already entirely unsuccessful.

Tellingly, the narrator grasps a newspaper that just happens to be “fluttering by” to clean himself, to restore the moral fiction of an arranged, presentable self. The newspaper, like the books in the university office, is another nod to Lord’s metatextual motif. The written word proves to be illusory as an anchor in Noll’s novel—it cannot codify consciousness, it cannot fix meaning. Hence, the novel’s strange, disruptive rhetorical program, which takes first-person consciousness and literally deconstructs it.

The fact that Noll’s hero is/was a writer, “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public,” suggests another metatextual nod. Lord’s narrator is a strange cipher of Noll himself. In 2004, the year Lord was published, Noll  served as writer-in-residence at the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. But the narrator is a cipher of Noll only—a voice that deconstructs and reconstructs itself, autofiction that dissolves the self.

This abject voice tries to reinvent itself from the outside in, only to vomit the inside back out again. Utter disintegration seems fatally imminent; madness seems inescapable. As one reaches the final pages of Lord, one senses that the narrative might fall apart into nothing—which, to be clear, it doesn’tLord sticks its ending a strangely and suitably satisfying way. I won’t give away the end, but instead reverse the course of my previous sentence: Lord falls apart into something.

Like Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel (the other Noll books currently available in English translation),  Lord is propelled on its own dream-nightmare logic. It’s fucked-up, gross, abject, and surreal. It’s permeated by a vague horror. Reading it might make parts of your stomach hurt. I like these particular flavors, and I particularly like a book that doesn’t just upset me with its themes and its plot, but also with its style and its rhetoric. Lord certainly isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and I think that there’s an audience of weirdos out there like me who will really dig this book too. Highly recommended.

João Gilberto Noll’s Lord is new from Two Lines Press. It is the third novel by Noll Two Lines has published. I hope they publish more. 

 

 

 

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, etc., January and February 2019 (and an unrelated fox)

I kicked of the New Year by riffing on some reading plans for 2019. (I’ve already read four of the seven books on that list—uncharacteristically on track for me).

At The Comics Journal, I reviewed NYRB’s reissue of Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth. I included The Labyrinth on my list of favorite comix of 2018, which ran as part of a feature at The Comics Journal. This is what I wrote about The Labyrinth on the list:

The Labyrinth by Saul Steinberg. (NYRB) First published in 1960 and back in print again from the NRYB this year, Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth condenses the modern and the mythic. “Steinberg was a lyricist of the metal nib—a twirler of nonverbal non sequiturs,” notes novelist Nicholson Baker in his introduction to the new volume. Steinberg’s lyrical non sequiturs evince in squiggles and dots, tangles and loops which turn into well-dressed men and staid women, cityscapes and night scenes, cocktail parties and art shows. Steinberg turns Abraham Lincoln into Don Quixote, with Santa as his Sancho Panza. He takes us out of urbane New York and into midcentury America, land of motor courts and baseball parks, a knotty chaotic chorus of life. Steinberg could seemingly do anything with ink, as the range of styles in The Labyrinth shows, but what he ultimately did was utterly-Steinbergian. The Labyrinth echoes Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which sought a century earlier, to find a new language to describe a new country. Steinberg looked at America through new eyes, and, like Whitman before him, found a new language of expression—the language of labyrinthine lines on paper.

I wrote about a metatextual moment at the end of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.

I reviewed (again at The Comics Journal) Paul Kirchner’s collection Hieronymus & Bosch.

I riffed a little on Angela Carter’s surreal horny abject picaresque novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, along with Remedio Varo’s letters and more.

I wrote a review of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s prescient novel We, essentially arguing that it’s the ur-text of dystopian fiction.

I also reviewed Lucia Berlin’s collection Evening in Paradise.

My review of  Roberto Bolaño’s latest posthumous novel The Spirit of Science Fiction was as much a cataloging of that novel’s place (and other unreleased early novels) in the Bolañoverse as it was anything else—although I did write about the book, of course:

Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?

The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.

I also riffed a little bit on Jon McNaught’s Kingdom and the act of reading physical books.

The last longer piece I managed in February was a take on the final scenes of True Detective Season 3.

Unrelated fox by Ohara Koson, c. 1930:

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Blog about the last three scenes of True Detective Season 3

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I enjoyed Season 3 of True Detective, and thought the season finale, which aired last night on HBO, was especially good. Like the season as a whole, this eighth episode, “Now Am Found,” was rich, sad, ironic, often menacingly sinister, and ultimately ambiguous. “Now Am Found” showed that, like the two seasons that preceded it, True Detective’s third season was ultimately not about the criminal investigation purportedly at its center. Rather, True Detective is about the people who investigate the crimes, and how the investigations impact their relationships.

Three relationships drive the third season of True Detective: the relationship between Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Detective Roland West (Stephen Dorff); the relationship between Hays and his girlfriend and then wife Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo); and the strange relationship between iterations of Hays himself, primarily versions of himself from 1980, 1990, and 2015. Like Season 1 of True Detective, Season 3 employs multiple timelines, often to a purposefully confounding effect.

Looping timelines are part of True Detective’s DNA. In Season 1, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) proclaims that “time is a flat circle,” paraphrasing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Our souls will infinitely repeat everything we have ever done or will do. Season 3 dramatizes Cohle’s proclamation via its viewpoint character, Wayne Hays, who is, to borrow a phrase of Kurt Vonnegut’s “unstuck in time.” Hays is in the early stages of a creeping dementia in the 2015 timeline, and throughout the series his consciousness veers between the years.

In 1980, Hays and West begin investigating the murder of Will Purcell and the kidnapping of his sister, Julie Purcell. Hays also meets his future wife Amelia in this investigation. In 1990, a second investigation into the Purcell case is under way; Hays and West attempt to right some of the wrongs that went down in the 1980 case. In 2015, Hays and West initiate a third Purcell investigation (not letting the fact that they are no longer police officers stand in their way). True Detective Season 3 unspools, tangles, and ties these threads into a bewildering and often thrilling tapestry, ultimately depicting a man whose mind is falling apart.

Like the episodes before it, “Now Am Found” dips freely from timeline to timeline. However, this final episode is bookended by two scenes that deviate from the main 1980-1990-2015 plotlines. The opening scene seems to be set a few years after 1990—perhaps in ’94 or ’95. Amelia is teaching English at the University of Arkansas, where Hays is now the head of campus security. In an idyllic moment that restages their initial meeting in 1980, Hays sticks his head into Amelia’s classroom to hear her read a bit of Delmore Schwartz’s poem “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day.” This moment is the only glimpse we get of this timeline, a timeline that Amelia and Hays promise to create for themselves roughly half way through “Now Am Found.” In a scene that caps the end, or an end (there are no tidy ends in True Detective) to the 1990 timeline, Amelia and Hays agree that their relationship has been inextricably bound up in the Purcell case; their partnership’s genesis was rooted in murder and mystery. They elect to start anew, to write their own conclusion. The episode’s beginning delivers this conclusion, an ironic inversion that represents the season’s approach to linear time.

The second scene that deviates from the 1980-1990-2015 plotlines is the very last shot, which I will come to momentarily. First though, let me address the third-to-last and second-to-last scenes (which, after all, is what this blog’s title promised).

The season’s third-to-last scene comes after Hays follows one last lead as to where Julie Purcell might be. The lead comes from a vision of Amelia (prompted by reading a snippet of the true crime book she wrote about the case, which Hays has never fully read). The vision is a phantom, a ghost emanating from his own consciousness, and it directs him to write another conclusion in the Purcell case—a happy ending with a family restored. However, when Hays finally makes it to the woman whom he believes is Julie Purcell, his dementia undoes him. He calls his son, who arrives along with Hays’ daughter, to bring the old man home. Hays hands over the last clue to the Purcell case—the address he drove to—to his son, who is also a detective. The loop remains open.

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Hays and his grown children return to Hays’ son’s house. This third-to-last scene plays out as a glowing, bright fantasy of familial reconciliation, extending that reconciliation to Hays’ once-estranged partner West. The family (including West) gaze on their children from the porch, iced teas in hand, rocking softly, their hands touching. It’s almost too godddamn corny for words.

The scene swells with menace though. The sun promises to set, and we pan to a shot of Hays’ grandchildren, boy and girl on bikes. The shot echoes the first episode’s shots of Will and Julie Purcell riding their bikes into the night, into peril. Hays will never get outside of the circle in which his consciousness is circumscribed.

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Through Hays’ consciousness we depart the scene entirely. In a fantastic shot, we see Hays’ face submerge into time. Mahershala Ali is excellent in True Detective Season 3, and his eyes are especially expressive, signalling shifts in consciousness, in realization and unrealization.

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The third-to-last scene transitions to the second-to-last scene through Hays’ eyeball. We end up at the VFW bar, all the way back in 1980, to reconcile with the person missing from the family reunion depicted in 2015: Amelia.

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Amelia, like West, was both partner and rival to Hays. Their partnership seemed doomed after the fallout of the 1980 investigation. Amelia, also a true detective, authors an article that damns Hays’ career. This point of resentment boils throughout the season, particularly during the 1990 strands; resentment and competition are seeded into their partnership. And yet when Amelia arrives at the VFW bar, searching for a resolution, a conclusion if not a reconciliation, she opens something new in Hays, who cries before her and then asks her to marry him. The two exit into a glowing light, off to repeat their parts in a circle to which the viewers have already borne witness. This scene too is coded in subtle irony. Their new beginning will not set them free from the arc of their circle.

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The light resolves into darkness, and we find ourselves some place utterly new yet wholly recognizable. Amelia is gone; the family is gone. This scene is Hays alone, somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s likely some time around 1965. Hays turns and looks directly toward the camera, but also, perhaps, directly at some version of himself, some version from 1980, 1990, 2015. He seems to gaze forward at the eye that gazed backward at him from half a century in the future.

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Wayne Hays then turns and walks into the enveloping jungle. He disappears. Season 3 of True Detective is over.

The moment that Hays disappears into a Vietnamese jungle is ambiguous, sure. But given True Detective’s formal thesis that “time is a flat circle,” we can also read this ending as a suggestion that Hays is bound to repeat his arc. The Vietnam War is in many ways the founding unaddressed trauma of Hays’ life, and the series in a bleakly ironic gesture puts him right back there at the ending.

The title of “Now Am Found” clearly alludes to “Amazing Grace,” but the episode’s events ironically show that Hays can never be found. True, there are momentary gestures of reconciliation, of “being found” — by his son and daughter, by Amelia, by his partner West — but Hays is a consciousness in fragments, a kind of damned loop of a person suffering through a purgatory he doesn’t fully have the language to describe, let alone communicate to another person.

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Some viewers may have found the final shot of “Now Am Found” bewildering, inexplicable, or unnecessary. I thought it was a sad, rich image that provided a vital coda for a sad, rich television show. The final image serves to reinforce the series’ trope of eternal recurrence, undoing (or, more charitably simply complicating) the episode’s opening scene, in which we saw a peaceful, happy Hays and Amelia. But if the final scene in Vietnam undoes the domestic bliss that Hays and Amelia authored for themselves, it also points to the promise of futurity, of a future that goes on and on and on.

 

A riff on starting Robert Coover’s first novel, Origin of the Brunists

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Origin of the Brunists is Robert Coover’s first novel. First published in 1966, this long novel tells the story of an apocalyptic religious cult that forms around the sole survivor of a mining accident. The novel begins with the Brunists prepping for the upcoming end of the world (doomsday is scheduled for the weekend). After this somewhat bewildering prologue, the novel shifts back a few months in time, to lay out the cult’s genesis, a fatal mining accident.

Origin of the Brunist’s early chapters are an engrossing and unexpectedly smooth launch into a 500+ page novel. I read the first 70 pages in one night, rapt in the weird world of West Condon, the fictional midwesternish mining town where the Brunist cult originates. I woke up the next morning and continued to read in bed. I was, and am, enthusiastic. 

The second chapter of Origin of the Brunists is especially enthralling. Propulsive and engaging, the chapter zooms through the various consciousnesses of West Condon on the night of the novel’s originating disaster, the horrific mining collapse that imperils hundreds of miners. Coover inhabits the voices and minds of his characters with an easy if often grimy grace here. Evocation of consciousness has marked much of Coover’s work, from the early short story “The Brother” (1962) to his recent novel Huck Out West  (2017). The man can throw his voice around.  Origin of the Brunists overflows with voices. In small snatches of dialog and free-indirect speech, we get an aural and vivid picture of the miners, their children and spouses, as well as the other residents of West Condon.

The mining disaster chapter shuttles along with a filmic quality. Coover intercuts scenes of the miners escaping (or failing to escape) with a highschool basketball game, teenage lust in a parked car, and other odds and ends of West Condon life. The chapter builds in tension, reminding one of the climax of an epic movie, but one wedged unexpectedly at the narrative’s outset.

Indeed, Coover’s contest with film is something of a trademark. A signal example of this style can be found in the stories in his 1987 collection A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This. Stories like “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Lap Dissolves” wrestle with film as a medium, deconstructing author and text, filmmakers and audiences, film reels and book pages. In the Night stories (and elsewhere, always elsewhere), Coover employs a host of metatextual techniques, dissolving one narrative into another, overlapping archetypes and synthesizing tropes, blending fables and history and commercial culture into a critique of American Pop mythology.

Coover’s metafiction always points back at its own origin, its own creation, a move that can at times take on a winking tone, a nudging elbow to the reader’s metaphorical ribs—Hey bub, see what I’m doing here? Coover’s metafictional techniques often lead him and his reader into cartoon landscapes, where postmodernly-plastic characters bounce manically off realistic contours. The best of Coover’s metafictions (like “The Babysitter,” 1969) tease their postmodern plastic into a synthesis of character, plot, and theme. However, in  large doses Coover’s metafictions can tax the reader’s patience and will—the simplest example that comes to mind is “The Hat Act” (from Pricksongs & Descants, 1969), a seemingly-interminable  Möbius loop that riffs on performance, trickery, and imagination. (And horniness).

I’m dwelling on Coover’s metafictional myth-making because I think of it as his calling card. And yet Origin of the Brunists bears only the faintest traces of Coover’s trademark metafictionalist moves (mostly, so far anyway, by way of its erstwhile hero, the journalist Tiger Miller). Coover’s debut reads rather as a work of highly-detailed, highly-descriptive realism, a realism that pushes its satirical edges up against the absurdity of modern American life. It reminds me very much of William Gass’s first novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and John Barth’s first two novels, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958). (Barth heavily revised both of the novels in 1967). There’s a post-Faulknerian style here, something that can’t rightly be described as modern or postmodern. These novels distort reality without rupturing it in the way that the authors’ later works do. Later works like Barth’s Chimera (1973), Gass’s The Tunnel (1995), and Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) dismantle genre structures and tropes and rebuild them in new forms. (I might contrast here with the first novels of William Gaddis (The Recognitions, 1955), Thomas Pynchon (V., 1963), and Ishmael Reed (The Freelance Pallbearers, 1967), all of which employ postmodern and metafictional techniques right out of the gate—but that’s perhaps appropriate material for another riff).

While Origin of the Brunists doesn’t tip into Coover’s metatextual mode, it points towards his mythic style, but in a subtle, restrained way, as in this description of the moments preceding a high-school basketball game:

A ritual buzzer alerts the young athletes on the West Condon court and strikes a blurred roar from the two confronting masses of spectators. In a body, all stand. The mute patterns of run-pass-leap-thrust dissolve, congealing into two tight knots on either extremity of the court, each governed by a taut-faced dark-suited hierarch. Six young novices in black, breasts ablaze with the mark of their confession, discipline the brute roars into pulsing chants with soft loops of arm and skirt, while, at their backs, five acolytes of the invading persuasion pressed immodestly into sleek diabolic red, rattle talismans with red and white paper tails, seeking to neutralize the efficacy of the West Condon locomotive. Young peddlers circulate, selling condiments indiscriminately to all. A light oil of warm-up perspiration anoints the shoulders of the ten athletes chosen as they explode out of their respective rings to confront each other. Some of them cross themselves, some clap and cry oaths, others tweak their genitals.

These mythical touches are rare in the first section of Origin of the Brunists though. Instead, Coover seems to tease out the West Condoners’ building of their own mythology, one cobbled from the apocalyptic strands of rural American Christianity, a religion divined through signs and wonders.

Such signs have much of their origin in Ely Collins, a miner-cum-preacher who meets his fate in the disaster. In a shocking scene that plays out with frank realism, Collins loses his leg:

“It’s okay, boys,” Collins whispered up at them. “I kin take it.” And he took to praying again.

Strelchuk lifted the ax in the air and thought: Jesus! what if I miss, I’ve never swung a goddamn ax much, what if I hit the wrong leg, or—?

“Goddamn you, Mike!” Jinx screamed, losing control. “Quit messing around! This gas is knocking me out, man! We got to get us out of here!”

And while he was screaming away like that, Strelchuk came down with the ax, caught the leg right where he aimed, true and clean, just below the knee, and the blood flew everywhere, and Juliano was crying like a goddamn baby, and Bruno, his face blood-sprayed, went dumb, mouth agape, and broke away in a silent fit, but the leg was still hooked on, they couldn’t get him free. Preach was still praying to beat hell and never even whimpered. Mike raised the ax again and drove down with all the goddamn strength he had, felt the bone this time, heard the crack, felt the sickening braking of the ax in tough tissue, and he turned and vomited. He was gagging and hacking and crying and the blood was everywhere, and still that goddamn leg was hooked on. Mario ripped away Collins’ pant leg, took the wedge he had in his pocket, pressed it up against Collins’ thigh. Strelchuk whipped off his leather belt and, using it as a tourniquet against the wedge, they stopped the heavy bleeding. Pontormo whined Italian. Strelchuk grabbed up the ax once more. His hands were greasy with blood and it was wet on his chest and face. He was afraid of missing or losing hold, and the shakes were rattling him, so he took short hacking strokes, and at last it broke off. They dragged him free. And Preacher Collins, that game old sonuvabitch, he was still praying.

I’ve quoted at such length to give a sense of Coover’s meticulousness in Origin of the Brunists. The novel is thick with life, thick with voices, mimetic detail, shapes, smells, colors, sounds. West Condon feels utterly real, making the novel’s dramatic absurdities all the more pronounced. The characters tell stories, weep and pray, bury their desires. Coover’s command of character isn’t absolute, but if his West Condoners sometimes teeter on the edge of grotesquerie they are nevertheless real, or as real as words on a page can be. More to come.

 

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.

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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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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