We’ve gotten used to death | from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

So, wanting the thick feeling and flavor of a long book but committed to so many skinny books, I started listening to the audiobook of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 this week. I’m about twelve hours in (it’s something like forty hours), and it’s activated so many memories and thoughts. I don’t think I’d recommend 2666 as an audiobook on the first read—it helps to know the novel’s abyssal shapes and strategies. I’ve read 2666 three times, including a back-to-back reading, and so much of the novel has stuck with me more than many other novels I’ve read. This morning—early for me—I went for a walk and listened in the baking Florida heat, sun blazing, and, in the book titled “The Part About Fate,” I heard a passage that resonated with me. I pulled my chunky body ‘neath a magnolia’s shade and opened up a note app on my phone to type some of the language, thinking I’d share it on this blog. When I got home I googled the phrases I’d recorded, and realized that I’d shared the passage on this blog eleven years ago.

I’ll put together some thoughts on revising 2666 after a decade, but here’s the passage.

From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:

“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.

“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.

A hiatus of disinterest | Burroughs meet Beckett (again)

I recall a personal visit to Beckett. John Calder, my publisher and Beckett’s, was the intermediary for a short, not more than half an hour audience. This was in Berlin. Beckett was there directing one of his new plays. Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag and myself were there for a reading. Also present in the visiting party were Fred Jordan and Professor Hoellerer, a professor of English literature at Berlin University.

Beckett was polite and articulate. It was, however, apparent to me at least that he had not the slightest interest in any of us, nor the slightest desire to ever see any of us again. We had been warned to take our own liquor as he would proffer none. So we had brought along a bottle of whisky. Beckett accepted a small drink which he sipped throughout the visit. Asking the various participants first what Beckett said, and what the whole conversation was about seems to elicit quite different responses. Nobody seems to remember at all clearly. It was as if we had entered a hiatus of disinterest. I recall that we did talk about my son’s recent liver transplant and the rejection syndrome. I reminded Beckett of our last meeting in Maurice Girodias’ restaurant On this occasion we had argued about the cut-ups, and I had no wish to renew the argument. So it was just ‘yes’, ‘Maurice’s restaurant’. Allen, I believe, asked Beckett if he had ever given a reading of his work. Beckett said ‘No’.

There was some small talk about the apartment placed at his disposal by the Academy: a sparsely furnished duplex overlooking the Tiergarten. I said the zoo was very good, one of the best, with nocturnal creatures in dioramas, like their natural habitat. They even have flying foxes. Beckett nodded, as if willing to take my word for this. I think there was some discussion of Susan Sontag’s cancer. I looked at my watch. Some one asked Allen or Fred for the time. We got up to go. Beckett shook hands politely.

From William S. Burroughs’ essay “Beckett and Proust.” Collected in The Adding Machine. 

Photographic portrait of Donald Barthelme at his drum kit, taken by his father Donald Barthelme, Sr.

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How to Read James Joyce’s Ulysses (and Why You Should Avoid “How-to” Guides Like This One)

[Editorial note: What follows is an edit of a piece I first posted on June 16, 2010–Bloomsday. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. I tried to come up with something original, but I found I had nothing to say that I hadn’t already said here, which essentially amounts to, Read Ulysses. It’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation might suggest. And it’s really funny.]

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a celebrated and praised novel. However, the book’s reputation for density, erudition, and inscrutability still daunts many readers–leading to a glut of guidebooks, summaries, and annotations. Ironically, rather than inviting first-time readers to the text, the sheer volume of these guides to Ulysses can paradoxically repel. Their very existence seems predicated on an intense need, and although some of the guides out there can be helpful, others can get in the way. This need not be. Ulysses deserves its reputation as one the best books in the English language. It generously overflows with insight into the human experience, and it’s very, very funny. And, most importantly, anyone can read it.

Here are a few thoughts on how to read Ulysses, enumerated–because people like lists:

1. Ignore all guides, lists, maps, annotations, summaries, and lectures. You don’t need them; in fact, they could easily weigh down what should be a fun reading experience. Jump right into the text. Don’t worry about getting all the allusions or unpacking all the motifs.

Pretty soon though, you’ll get to the third chapter, known as “Proteus.” It’s admittedly hard to follow. You might want a guide at this point. Or you might just want to give up. (Of course, you might be a genius and totally get what Stephen is thinking about as he wanders the beach. Good for you). If frustration sets in, I suggest skipping the chapter and getting into the rich, earthy consciousness of the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom in chapter four, “Calypso.” It’s great stuff. You can always go back to chapter three later, of course. The real key, at least in my opinion, to reading (and enjoying) Ulysses is getting into Bloom’s head, matching his rhythm and pacing. Do that and you’re golden.

I’ve already advised you, gentle reader, not to follow any guides, so please, ignore the rest of my advice. Quit reading this post and start reading Ulysses.

For those who wish to continue–

2. Choose a suitable copy of the book. The Gabler edition will keep things neat and tidy and it features wide margins for all those clever game-changing annotations you’ll be taking. Several guides, including Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book align their annotation to the Gabler edition’s pagination.

3. Make a reading schedule and stick to it. The Gabler edition of Ulysses is nearly 700 pages long. That’s a long, long book–but you can read it in just a few weeks. There are eighteen episodes in Ulysses, some longer and more challenging than others, but reading one episode every two days should be no problem. If you can, try to read one episode in one sitting each day. As the book progresses, you’ll find yourself going back to previous chapters to find the figures, motifs, and traces that dance through the book.

4. So you’ve decided you need a guide. First, try to figure out what you want from the guide. Basic plot summary? Analysis? Explication? There’s plenty out there–too much really–so take the time to try to figure out what you want from a guide and then do some browsing and skimming before committing.

The most famous might be Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dour book that manages to suck all the fun out of Joyce’s work. In a lecture on Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov warned “against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and minor adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey,” noting that “it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every character and every scene in the book.” Nabokov scathingly continued: “One bore, a man called Stuart Gilbert, misled by a tongue-in-cheek list compiled by Joyce himself, found in every chapter the domination of one particular organ . . . but we shall ignore that dull nonsense too.” It’s perhaps too mean to call Gilbert’s guide “nonsense,” but it’s certainly dull. Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book is a line-by-line annotation that can be quite helpful when Joyce’s stream of consciousness gets a bit muddy; Blamire’s explications maintain a certain analytical neutrality, working mostly to connect the motifs of the book but letting the reader manage meaning. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated is an encyclopedia of minutiae that will get in the way of any first time reader’s enjoyment of the book. Gifford’s notes are interesting but they can distract the reader from the text, and ultimately seem aimed at scholars and fanatics.

Most of the guidebooks I’ve seen for Ulysses share a common problem: they are obtrusive. I think that many readers who want some guidance or insight to aid their reading of Ulysses, rather than moving between books (what a chore!), should listen to some of the fantastic lectures on Joyce that are available. James Heffernan’s lectures for The Teaching Company provide a great overview of the book with some analysis; they are designed to be listened to in tandem with a reading of the book. The best explication I’ve heard though is a series of lectures by Joseph Campbell called Wings of Art. Fantastic stuff, and probably the only guide you really need. It’s unfortunately out of print, but you can find it easily via extralegal means on the internet. Speaking of the internet–there’s obviously a ton of stuff out there. I’ll withhold comment–if you found this post, you can find others, and have undoubtedly already seen many of the maps, schematics, and charts out there.

5. Another strategy: read, but listen to an audiobook as well. This will give you a chance to “reread” the novel. I highly, highly, highly recommend RTÉ’s 1982 full cast production. I reviewed it here some years back.

6. Keep reading. Reread. Add time to that reading schedule you made if you need to. But most of all, have fun. Skip around. If you’re excited about Molly’s famous monologue at the end of the book, go ahead and read it. Again, the point is to enjoy the experience. If you can trick a friend into reading it with you, so much the better. Have at it.

A Blood Meridian Christmas

Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I once argued was the novel’s moral core).

Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–

The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.

No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.

The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first ran a version of this post in 2010. I’m currently rereading Blood Meridian and the strange rare pockets of peace and goodness stand out to me more–the woman who tends the kid’s gunshot wound early in the novel, the cattle drovers who feed him and give him a Green River knife—and maybe even the weirdo hermit who offers him shelter. I’ll look for more moments of peace in all the violence.]

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s turkey leftovers

From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks

TURKEY REMAINS AND HOW TO INTER THEM WITH NUMEROUS SCARCE RECIPES
At this post holiday season the refrigerators of the nation are overstuffed with large masses of turkey, the sight of which is calculated to give an adult an attack of dizziness. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to give the owners the benefit of my experience as an old gourmet, in using this surplus material. Some of the recipes have been in my family for generations. (This usually occurs when rigor mortis sets in.) They were collected over years, from old cook books, yellowed diaries of the Pilgrim Fathers, mail order catalogues, golfbags and trash cans. Not one but has been tried and proven—there are headstones all over America to testify to the fact.
Very well then: Here goes:

1. Turkey Cocktail
To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.

2. Turkey at la Francais.
Take a large ripe turkey, prepare as for basting and stuff with old watches and chains and monkey meat. Proceed as with cottage-pudding.

3. Turkey and Water
Take one turkey and one pan of water. Heat the latter to the boiling point and then put in the refrigerator When it has jelled drown the turkey in it. Eat. In preparing this recipe it is best to have a few ham sandwiches around in case things go wrong.

4. Turkey Mongole
Take three butts of salami and a large turkey skeleton from which the feathers and natural stuffing have been removed. Lay them out on the table and call up some Mongole in the neighborhood to tell you how to proceed from there.

5. Turkey Mousee
Seed a large prone turkey, being careful to remove the bones, flesh, fins, gravy, etc. Blow up with a bicycle pump. Mount in becoming style and hang in the front hall.

6. Stolen Turkey
Walk quickly from the market and if accosted remark with a laugh that it had just flown into your arms and you hadn’t noticed it. Then drop the turkey with the white of one egg-well, anyhow, beat it.

7. Turkey a la Creme.
Prepare the creme a day in advance, or even a year in advance. Deluge the turkey with it and cook for six days over a blast furnace. Wrap in fly paper and serve.

8. Turkey Hash
This is the delight of all connoisseurs of the holiday beast, but few understand how really to prepare it. Like a lobster it must be plunged alive into boiling water, until it becomes bright red or purple or something, and then before the color fades, placed quickly in a washing machine and allowed to stew in its own gore as it is whirled around.
Only then is it ready for hash. To hash, take a large sharp tool like a nail-file or if none is handy, a bayonet will serve the purpose—and then get at it! Hash it well! Bind the remains with dental floss and serve.
And now we come to the true aristocrat of turkey dishes:

9. Feathered Turkey.
To prepare this a turkey is necessary and a one pounder cannon to compell anyone to eat it. Broil the feathers and stuff with sage brush, old clothes, almost anything you can dig up. Then sit down and simmer. The feathers are to be eaten like artichokes (and this is not to be confused with the old Roman custom of tickling the throat).

10. Turkey at la Maryland
Take a plump turkey to a barber’s and have him shaved, or if a female bird, given a facial and a water wave. Then before killing him stuff with with old newspapers and put him to roost. He can then be served hot or raw, usually with a thick gravy of mineral oil and rubbing alcohol. (Note: This recipe was given me by an old black mammy.)

11. Turkey Remnant
This is one of the most useful recipes for, though not, “chic”, it tells what to do with the turkey after the holiday, and extract the most value from it.
Take the remants, or if they have been consumed, take the various plates on which the turkey or its parts have rested and stew them for two hours in milk of magnesia. Stuff with moth-balls.

12. Turkey with Whiskey Sauce.
This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest.
The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.

13. For Weddings or Funerals. Obtain a gross of small white boxes such as are used for bride’s cake. Cut the turkey into small squares, roast, stuff, kill, boil, bake and allow to skewer. Now we are ready to begin. Fill each box with a quantity of soup stock and pile in a handy place. As the liquid elapses, the prepared turkey is added until the guests arrive. The boxes delicately tied with white ribbons are then placed in the handbags of the ladies, or in the men’s side pockets.

There I guess that’s enough turkey to talk. I hope I’ll never see or hear of another until—well, until next year.

Wherein I suggest Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

I. Here’s my thesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I love Popescu’s line here).

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

VIII. Then, supper time:

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

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

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

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

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

X. Then conversation turns to culture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.

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

XVII. Here, his last appearance:

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

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

[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012. Happy Halloween!]

RIP Norm Macdonald

RIP Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021

The Canadian humorist Norm Macdonald died today from cancer.

Macdonald’s dry, loose, deadpan style of humor was not for everyone, but I loved it. He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live when I was in high school, serving as the Weekend Update anchor and doing impressions on the show until 1998, when he was fired.

I got to see him live that year, at the University of North Florida’s homecoming thing. He was an ill-cast headliner, and the show seemed to simultaneously tank and soar as droves walked out to his postmodern/postdroll riffs on dropping acid and pigfucking. (He managed to offend the university president to the point where the dude up and left within about 10 minutes of the set.) Watching Norm Macdonald live was like an unedited extension of watching him on TV—this was a guy leading you out into some weird weeds, dropping non sequitur breadcrumbs as you went. The frustration for much of Macdonald’s audience, was, Hell, hey, where are we going?–what is this all adding up to, where’s the punchline, what’s the point? The point is the wandering of course, a sentiment that Macdonald would roast I think.

Years ago, at one of those stupid Comedy Central roasts—maybe it was Bob Saget or William Shatner?—the comedian Jim Norton described Macdonald’s loose, shuffling set as “like watching Henry Fonda pick blueberries.” Macdonald’s response is perfect:

The looseness never added up to anything like stardom (when I saw Macdonald live, still bitter from his firing at NBC, he complained that “they fucking hate me there”), but he did star in the 1998 Bob Saget-directed comedy Dirty Work (great silly stuff)as well as 2000’s Screwed (which isn’t that great). He also starred in an ABC sitcom called Norm opposite Laurie Metcalf. (I watched it sometimes over antenna TV my last years of college; at its best it was a send up of TV tropes and audience expectations, but it was hardly ever at its best.)

Norm Macdonald did plenty of voice over stuff and small role appearances, but his best stuff was his stand-up comedy and his late night appearances. He was a staple on both Letterman and Conan O’Brien, a postmodern Charles Grodin, making me sneeze beer through my nose way too late at night in the late nineties and beyond.

In the last decade of his too-short life—

—and here I just have to say, I always thought of the guy as old, old, impossibly, cantankerously old, and I now see he died way too young at 61, that he’s only two decades older than me, but I guess that’s how life works, old is just some goal posts we push away—-

In the last decade of his too-short life, Norm Macdonald continued to do his thing—stand-up and voice gigs and standby late night spots. Like every other motherfucker in the past two decades, he had a podcast, Norm Macdonald Live. This “The Aristocrats!” style bit on the serial murderer Albert Fish is one of my favorites from that era:

It wasn’t until last year, during Early Lockdown Times, that I watched his 2018 “interview” show Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix. The series surpasses cringe comedy or anti-comedy or whatever you want to call it. It reads like someone who genuinely doesn’t care if the project gets renewed (which it didn’t). The best episodes are the first, with David Spade, and the fourth, with David Letterman. Spade is not bright enough to figure out that the show is a goof on showbiz, a big fuckyou to the idea of careerism in comedy; Letterman figures it out immediately and plays along, to a point. Calling what he did “anti-comedy” misses the point. He and his sidekick Adam Eget were laughing plenty.

Macdonald’s legacy might be complicated. His jokes were often very, very dark, and in the past few years, out of step with the zeitgeist. But I always found something simultaneously and impossibly oblique and sharp in what Norm Macdonald did. He wasn’t for everyone, but he spoke to me, and I’ll miss him.

A gathering impossible/General merriment (From Pynchon’s Against the Day)

A DAY OR TWO LATER, Lew went up to Carefree Court. The hour was advanced, the light failing, the air heated by the Santa Ana wind. Palm trees rattled briskly, and the rats in their nests up there hung on for dear life. Lew approached through a twilit courtyard lined with tileroofed bungalows, stucco archways, and the green of shrubbery deepening as the light went. He could hear sounds of glassware and conversation.

From the swimming pool came sounds of liquid recreation—feminine squeals, deep singlereed utterances from high and low divingboards. The festivities here this evening were not limited to any one bungalow. Lew chose the nearest, went through the formality of ringing the doorbell, but after waiting a while just walked in, and nobody noticed.

It was a gathering impossible at first to read, even for an old L.A. hand like Lew—society ladies in flapper-rejected outfits from Hamburger’s basement, real flappers in extras’ costumes—Hebrew headdresses, belly-dancing outfits, bare feet and sandals—in from shooting some biblical extravaganza, sugar daddies tattered and unshaven as street beggars, freeloaders in bespoke suits and sunglasses though the sun had set, Negroes and Filipinos, Mexicans and hillbillies, faces Lew recognized from mug shots, faces that might also have recognized him from tickets long cold he didn’t want to be reminded of, and here they were eating enchiladas and hot dogs, drinking orange juice and tequila, smoking cork-tip cigarettes, screaming in each others’ faces, displaying scars and tattoos, recalling aloud felonies imagined or planned but seldom committed, cursing Republicans, cursing police federal state and local, cursing the larger corporate trusts, and Lew slowly began to get a handle, for weren’t these just the folks that once long ago he’d spent his life chasing, them and their cousins city and country? through brush and up creek-beds and down frozen slaughterhouse alleyways caked with the fat and blood of generations of cattle, worn out his shoes pair after pair until finally seeing the great point, and recognizing in the same instant the ongoing crime that had been his own life—and for achieving this self-clarity, at that time and place a mortal sin, got himself just as unambiguously dynamited.

He gradually understood that what everybody here had in common was having survived some cataclysm none of them spoke about directly—a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the U.S. government. . . .

“No it wasn’t Haymarket.”

“It wasn’t Ludlow. It wasn’t the Palmer raids.”

“It was and it wasn’t.” General merriment.

—Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

 

Donald Barthelme — Elaine de Kooning

Donald Barthelme, 1965 by Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)

Bloomsday budget

An economic summary (perhaps) of Ulysses. From “Ithaca”–

Compile the budget for 16 June 1904. DEBIT
1 Pork Kidney
1 Copy FREEMAN’S JOURNAL
1 Bath And Gratification
Tramfare
1 In Memoriam Patrick Dignam
2 Banbury cakes
1 Lunch
1 Renewal fee for book
1 Packet Notepaper and Envelopes
1 Dinner and Gratification
1 Postal Order and Stamp
Tramfare
1 Pig’s Foot
1 Sheep’s Trotter
1 Cake Fry’s Plain Chocolate
1 Square Soda Bread
1 Coffee and Bun
Loan (Stephen Dedalus) refunded

BALANCE

L. s. d.
0—0—3
0—0—1
0—1—6
0—0—1
0—5—0
0—0—1
0—0—7
0—1—0
0—0—2
0—2—0
0—2—8
0—0—1
0—0—4
0—0—3
0—0—1
0—0—4
0—0—4
1—7—0
0-17—5
2-19—3
CREDIT
Cash in hand
Commission recd. Freeman’s Journal
Loan (Stephen Dedalus)

L. s. d.
0—4—9
1—7—6
1—7—0

2-19—3

Too late to be any of the things I never wanted to be | William Gaddis

From “How Writers Live Today,” and article curated by Tom Jenks in the August, 1985 “Summer Reading” issue of Esquire.

The article also features Joy Williams, Gordon Lish, Tom Wolfe, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and many, many other writers. Gaddis got the last word though.

Flannery O’Connor congratulates Walker Percy

From The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Wells Tower on tubing the Ichetucknee

Today, I plan to tube a portion of the Ichetucknee River, a cherished aorta of north Florida’s freshwater vasculature. It’s far and away the most vaunted tubing destination in the state, and I feel considerable pressure to get the tube into maximum spruceness and tumescence before my voyage.

In the town of Fort White, 35 miles northwest of Gainesville at the edge of Ichetucknee Springs State Park, we pull over at a tube-rental place to attend to maintenance and then install the Tube Pro booster saddle I’d thought unnecessary but, luckily, brought along anyway. My craft’s improved ergonomics should help undo the damage to my back.

The proprietress of the Ichetucknee Tube Center is a pretty woman named Linda Soride, and we chat for a moment before a purple, circa-1987 Camaro, pulsing with megabass, pulls up. As she turns away to diagnose the occupants’ needs, I fall a little bit in love with Linda. My mind drifts and I see myself, having patented the tube design, return to the ITC to license it exclusively to her. Revenues soar, and we soon depart the run-down filling station for a grand neon showroom. I’m the muscle of the operation—keeping the compressors shipshape, manning the patch kit—while Linda remains its comely public face. At the close of business each day, we head to the Ichetucknee and go floating off together, accompanied only by cool waters, cheering egrets, and some Riunite on ice.

Minutes later, I trot my tube—freshly inflated, booster seat in place—over to Linda. “This is just the prototype,” I rave proudly. “Once I get the kinks out, maybe you and me could do some business together.”

She shies away, cooing, “Maybe so, maybe so,” in a quiet, suspicious voice imparting the suggestion that I might be a little bit insane. (As Cheever’s story progresses, Neddy shows signs that he is not in command of his senses. The echo is unsettling.)

After I recover from this minor slight, Miss Bennett, who has to skip this portion of the journey to drive the car down, drops me at a designated embarkation point on the Ichetucknee. This river would inspire ecstasies in anyone with a pulse, but my ardor for spectacular scenery has reached a point of diminishing returns. I feel like a competitive eater tucking in to his 47th foie gras tart. The Ichetucknee offers more of the pellucid water and old-growth forests slung with buntings of Spanish moss. But while I’m relieved to discover, as advertised, no gators in sight, there’s also a disappointing shortage of amazing birdlife. Just the odd egret and heron, skulking on the bank like underpaid park employees. Plenty of people, though.

While my own capacity for amazement is waning, my superb invention, I would like to inform the proprietress of the ITC, is so enthusiastically admired by my fellow tubers that I’m to have no peace for the entire four-mile float. Seconds into the ride, two young women from St. Augustine beckon me into their flotilla. We enjoy a cozy interlude until a thickly built friend of theirs comes by and says “I want that tube” in a manner that is not unmenacing. I break away and into the path of a kayaking lady who pronounces mine “the Cadillac of tubes.” (A bespectacled professor following behind her describes it, a touch sneeringly, as “an interesting contraption.”) Even a fearsome river stud in a straw cowboy hat—reclining on a little inflatable yacht, trailing a miasma of marijuana fumes, a zaftig beauty on his arm—pauses to tell me that he deems the tube “a pretty badass setup.”

At last, I am among my people.

In this newfound fame and bliss, I drift on for hours. Toward the end, as I glide to the pullout, having made it halfway across Florida, the sky darkens. I struggle up the dock, where Miss Bennett waits for me in a shower of pelting rain.

From Wells Tower’s long essay, “The Tuber,” published in 2009 in Outside.

After reading Wells Tower’s short story “Opportunity Knocks!” in The Minus Times Collected the other day, I (again) poked around on the internet hoping to find any other uncollected stories by Tower. “Opportunity Knocks!” was first published in The Minus Times #29, back in 2009—the same year as Tower’s first (and so far, only) collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. (I liked it a lot.)

I’ve appreciated the journalism and essayism that Tower has done over the past decade, but I somehow missed “The Tuber” until now. The essay is sort of a riff on John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” with Tower traversing the springs and rivers of my home, North Florida, in a super-tube of his own devising. The section above details his time on the Ichetucknee River, my favorite tubing spot, and the scene of many of my favorite college days.

“Books are made out of books” | Blood Meridian and Samuel Chamberlain

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, as many critics have noted, is made of some of the finest literature out there–the King James Bible, Moby-Dick, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, Faulkner, and Shakespeare. While Blood Meridian echoes and alludes to these authors and books thematically, structurally, and linguistically, it also owes much of its materiality to Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.

Chamberlain, much like the Kid, Blood Meridian’s erstwhile protagonist, ran away from home as a teenager. He joined the Illinois Second Volunteer Regiment and later fought in the Mexican-American War. Confession details Chamberlain’s involvement with John Glanton’s gang of scalp-hunters. The following summary comes from the University of Virginia’s American Studies webpage

According to Chamberlain, John Glanton was born in South Carolina and migrated to Stephen Austin’s settlement in Texas. There he fell in love with an orphan girl and was prepared to marry her. One day while he was gone, Lipan warriors raided the area scalping the elderly and the children and kidnapping the women- including Glanton’s fiancee. Glanton and the other settlers pursued and slaughtered the natives, but during the battle the women were tomahawked and scalped. Legend has it, Glanton began a series of retaliatory raids which always yielded “fresh scalps.” When Texas fought for its independence from Mexico, Glanton fought with Col. Fannin, and was one of the few to escape the slaughter of that regiment at the hands of the Mexican Gen. Urrea- the man who would eventually employ Glanton as a scalp hunter. During the Range Wars, Glanton took no side but simply assassinated individuals who had crossed him. He was banished, to no avail, by Gen. Sam Houston and fought as a “free Ranger” in the war against Mexico. Following the war he took up the Urrea’s offer of $50 per Apache scalp (with a bonus of $1000 for the scalp of the Chief Santana). Local rumor had it that Glanton always “raised the hair” of the Indians he killed and that he had a “mule load of these barbarous trophies, smoke-dried” in his hut even before he turned professional.

 

Chamberlain’s Confession also describes a  figure named Judge Holden. Again, from U of V’s summary–

Glanton’s gang consisted of “Sonorans, Cherokee and Delaware Indians, French Canadians, Texans, Irishmen, a Negro and a full-blooded Comanche,” and when Chamberlain joined them they had gathered thirty-seven scalps and considerable losses from two recent raids (Chamberlain implies that they had just begun their careers as scalp hunters but other sources suggest that they had been engaged in the trade for sometime- regardless there is little specific documentation of their prior activities). Second in command to Glanton was a Texan- Judge Holden. In describing him, Chamberlain claimed, “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung;” Holden was well over six feet, “had a fleshy frame, [and] a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression” and was well educated in geology and mineralogy, fluent in native dialects, a good musician, and “plum centre” with a firearm. Chamberlain saw him also as a coward who would avoid equal combat if possible but would not hesitate to kill Indians or Mexicans if he had the advantage. Rumors also abounded about atrocities committed in Texas and the Cherokee nation by him under a different name. Before the gang left Frontreras, Chamberlain claims that a ten year old girl was found “foully violated and murdered” with “the mark of a large hand on her throat,” but no one ever directly accused Holden.

 

It’s fascinating to note how much of the Judge is already there–the pedophilia, the marksmanship, the scholarship, and, most interesting of all, the lack of hair. Confession goes on to detail the killing, scalping, raping, and raiding spree that comprises the center of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain even describes the final battle with the Yumas, an event that signals the dissolution of the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s novel.

Content aside, Chamberlain’s prose also seems to presage McCarthy’s prose. In his book Different Travelers, Different Eyes, James H. Maguire notes that, “Both venereal and martial, the gore of [Chamberlain’s] prose evokes Gothic revulsion, while his unschooled art, with its stark architectural angles and leaden, keen-edged shadows, can chill with the surreal horrors of the later Greco-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.” Yes, Chamberlain was an amateur painter (find his paintings throughout this post), and undoubtedly some of this imagery crept into Blood Meridian.

You can view many of Chamberlain’s paintings and read an edit of his Confession in three editions of Life magazine from 1956, digitally preserved thanks to Google Books–here’s Part I, Part II, and Part III. Many critics have pointed out that Chamberlain’s narrative, beyond its casual racism and sexism, is rife with factual and historical errors. He also apparently indulges in the habit of describing battles and other events in vivid detail, even when there was no way he could have been there. No matter. The ugly fact is that books are made out of books, after all, and if Chamberlain’s Confession traffics in re-appropriating the adventure stories of the day, at least we have Blood Meridian to show for his efforts.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first ran this post in September of 2010.]

The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

jgb_complete_ss4003111

I. “Manhole 69” (1957)

II. “Chronopolis” (1960)

III.  “The Voices of Time” (1960)

IV. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)

V. “Billennium” (1961)

VI. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

VII. “The Subliminal Man” (1963)

VIII. “End-Game” (1963)

IX. “Time of Passage” (1964)

X. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

XI. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)

XII. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)

XIII. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

XIV.  “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

XV. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

XVI. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976)

XVII. “The Index” (1977)

XVIII. “The Dead Time” (1977)

XIX. “News from the Sun” (1981)

XX. “Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

XXI. “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

XXII. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

XXIII. “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

At 1200 pages and just under 100 stories, The Complete Short Stories is frankly too complete—but I read them all anyway. The list above is my suggestion for a volume I’d call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Each selection on the list is linked to a riff I wrote; in several cases, links to the full text of the story can be found at the riff.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eleventh Riff: The Nineties)

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

The eighties

IN THIS RIFF:

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

“A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” (1992)

“Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992)

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

“The Dying Fall” (1996)

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

By the 1990s Ballard had written essentially the same stories over and over—with diminishing returns. Some of the weakness in the later entries in the Complete Short Stories can be attributed to Ballard’s prescience. The world caught up to him at some point, blunting his satire into something goofier, more cartoonish, but also sharpening the reactionary streak that always glowed under the surface of his writing. At his peak, Ballard used his stories to provoke readers into looking at their culture in a new way, and the best of those stories still retain a futurist power. However, many of the late period stories blazon their moral outrage in a wearisome didactic streak.

1990’s “Dream Cargoes” is paint-by-numbers Ballard: Themes of time, sleep, mutation, ecological disaster, birds, etc. The plot anticipates one of Ballard’s weaker novels, Rushing to Paradise (1994), a day-glo nightmare about misguided attempts to steward the forces of nature. And like Rushing to Paradise, the prose here is weak—Ballard relies on the stock phrases that litter his earliest stories.

“The Message from Mars” (1992) / “Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992) / “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” anticipates public disinterest in astronomy (and science in general), the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, and China’s emerging dominance as a world power with space flight capability. So there you go. (It also posits the horror of a President Quayle!). Ballard sends a group of astronauts on a Mars mission, refuses to share their findings with us, and then leaves them, once they land, in their space shuttle, where they live on for decades, silent, incommunicado, alienated from humanity in their self-imposed exile. Ballard’s cynicism is balanced by his refusal to overstate any kind of moral here—the story succeeds in its evocation of mystery.

“Report from an Obscure Planet” is another riff on millennial anxieties, written in the perspective of a “we” condemning the human race for its shortsighted, disastrous treatment of the planet. Ballard doesn’t seem to keen on the future wonders promised by computers:

Driven by the need for a more lifelike replica of the scenes of carnage that most entertained them, the people of this unhappy world had invented an advanced and apparently interiorised version of their television screens, a virtual replica of reality in which they could act out their most deviant fantasies. These three–dimensional simulations were generated by their computers, and had reached a stage of development in the last years of the millennium in which the imitation of reality was more convincing than the original. It may even have become the new reality to the extent that their cities and highways, their fellow citizens and, ultimately, themselves seemed mere illusions by comparison with the electronically generated amusement park where they preferred to play. Here they could assume any identity, create and fulfill any desire, and explore the most deviant dreams.  

While “Report from an Obscure Planet” uses a didactic narrator and a heavy hand to telegraph its message, its companion piece “A Guide to Virtual Death” is far more fun, wicked, and shockingly accurate (if wildly hyperbolic). Sure, yes, okay—another list from Ballard, and okay, yes, sure—I tend to be keen on his lists (“The Index,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”)—but they also tend to be his strongest pieces. As usual with his list-stories, Ballard feels obligated to begin with a note:

For reasons amply documented elsewhere, intelligent life on earth became extinct in the closing hours of the 20th Century. Among the clues left to us, the following schedule of a day’s television programmes transmitted to an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere on December 23, 1999, offers its own intriguing insight into the origins of the disaster.

6.00 am Porno–Disco. Wake yourself up with his–and–her hard–core sex images played to a disco beat.

7.00 Weather Report. Today’s expected micro–climates in the city’s hotel atriums, shopping malls and office complexes. Hilton International promises an afternoon snow–shower as a Christmas appetiser.

7.15 News Round–up. What our news–makers have planned for you. Maybe a small war, a synthetic earthquake or a famine–zone! charity tie–in.

7.45 Breakfast Time. Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.

Brief but Essential. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

“The Dying Fall” (1996) / “The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

The American edition of Complete Stories is more complete than the British volume, including two extra stories. “The Dying Fall” (read it here if you like) is an unfortunate last entry, a weak note in a grand tome. It’s not bad; it’s simply not good, yet another revenge tale with a bad wife, etc. It feels like a frame for Ballard to riff on architecture and psychoanalysis.

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” is much stronger (you can read it here), although it was also composed at his peak and republished (“rediscovered”) after his death. The final lines would have made a fitting end for the entire collection:

When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel, and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station, he assembled a small armory of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.

But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on his lawn and on those of his former neighbors. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.

Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

On the horizon:

I am done! Sort of. One more post—I’ll revisit these riffs and select the tales that I would include in a collection I would call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]