Titus Blindfolded — Mervyn Peake

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Interference — Nigel Cooke

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Interference, 2011 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Everything Bartleby says in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby”

Everything Bartleby says in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby”:

“I would prefer not to.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

“What is wanted?”

“I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.

“I would prefer not to.”

“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flute-like tone.

“I would prefer not to.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“I prefer not.”

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.

“I would prefer not to.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“At present I prefer to give no answer,” he said, and retired into his hermitage.

“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

“I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.

“No more.”

“Do you not see the reason for yourself,” he indifferently replied.

“I have given up copying,” he answered, and slid aside.

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“Not yet; I am occupied.”

“I would prefer not to quit you,” he replied, gently emphasizing the not.

“Sitting upon the banister,” he mildly replied.

“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”

“There is too much confinement about that. No, I would not like a clerkship; but I am not particular.”

“I would prefer not to take a clerkship,” he rejoined, as if to settle that little item at once.

“I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular.”

“No, I would prefer to be doing something else.”

“Not at all. It does not strike me that there is any thing definite about that. I like to be stationary. But I am not particular.”

“I know you,” he said, without looking round,—”and I want nothing to say to you.”

“I know where I am,” he replied, but would say nothing more, and so I left him.

The 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

Maybe you’re bored, maybe you’re stuck inside, missing NCAA March Madness, watching the world’s madness through a screen. Maybe this will be a diversion. (I’m hoping it’s a diversion for me.)

I came up with a list of 64 writers that have written novels or stories that either anticipate, reflect, or otherwise describe our zeitgeist. (I realize now that I’ve forgotten a bunch, but, hey.) After a certain point, there wasn’t much thought put into seeding the tournament.

I’ll be doing running polls on Twitter for the next few days, starting today, with brackets 1-4 launching today.

Here are the brackets for Round 1:

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Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

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A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

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Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

“Herman Melville” — W.H. Auden

“Herman Melville”

by

W.H. Auden


Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.

Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge.
His terror had to blow itself quite out
To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him
Past the Cape Horn of sensible success
Which cries: “This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.”

But deafened him with thunder and confused with lightning:
–The maniac hero hunting like a jewel
The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex,
The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare–
All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple.

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day,
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,
But wears a stammer like a decoration:

And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

For now he was awake and knew
No one is ever spared except in dreams;
But there was something else the nightmare had distorted–
Even the punishment was human and a form of love:
The howling storm had been his father’s presence
And all the time he had been carried on his father’s breast.

Who now had set him gently down and left him.
He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened:
And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood
“All, all is vanity,” but it was not the same;
For now the words descended like the calm of mountains–
–Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish–
Reborn, he cried in exultation and surrender
“The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.”

And sat down at his desk and wrote a story.

Wild Sunflowers — Denis Sarazhin 

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Wild Sunflowers, 2015 by Denis Sarazhin (b. 1982)

Who Are We Now? — Gregory Ferrand

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Who Are We Now?, 2017 by Gregory Ferrand (b. 1975)

D’Audieu — Jonathan Leaman

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D’Audieu, 2017 by Jonathan Leaman (b. 1954)

Troubadour — Remedios Varo

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Troubadour, 1959 by Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

Bad trip | Blog about Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog

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I don’t know man.

I think I should have loved Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel.

Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.

Nog reads like a hallucinatory accounting of the American literature before it, starting with a narrator who aims for transcendentalism, but is “wrenched out of two months of calm” by the sight of a young woman walking the beach:

There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant.

Right in the first paragraph, Wurlitzer announces themes of travel (feet) and weird oedipal angles (those “large breasts”) that will pulsate throughout the novel. The image of the young lady zaps our narrator:

I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus.

Nog is larded with comparisons and lists and octopuses (or octopi, if you prefer—our (un-)helpful narrator points out both are acceptable). The narrator lists beaches, lakes, and rivers, a motif of travel and horizons that underscores the novel’s surreal critique of Manifest Destiny. The octopuses fit more neatly with Nog’s pscyhosphere of bodies wrangling bodies, possessed limbs wriggling willy-nilly, groping, prodding, promising. Wurlitzer uses similes and metaphors that repeatedly compare both people and situations to squid or octopuses, and also evokes the image without naming it in imagery (including a really gross menage a trois).

I have not described the plot of Nog yet. Describing the plot would not be impossible, I guess, but it would involve typing out most of the novel. Nog is a surreal picaresque fueled on All Of The Drugs and All Of The Sex, both a product and critique of the End Of The Sixties that birthed it. (Forgive all that capitalization.) Here is the slim blurb from indie Two Dollar Radio, which republished the novel a decade ago:

In Wurlitzer’s signature hypnotic and haunting voice, Nog tells the tale of a man adrift through the American West, armed with nothing more than his own three pencil-thin memories and an octopus in a bathysphere.

Nog is certainly a surreal Western, one organized around three memories that Our Hero keeps reinventing (memories often anchored by an octopus).

There are characters, of course, but the characterization is vague, hazy, slip-sliding. Wurlitzer sticks to Narrator and his foils Meridith and Lockett for the most part. The pair are Ur-Parents and Ur-Partners who his narrator fucks, fucks over, and gets fucked over by. At times, the narrator—who may or may not be Nog his damnself—even becomes iterations of Meridith or Lockett. In an effort to share Wurlitzer’s prose style in Nog, here is a paragraph from late in the novel that comes close to summarizing it, but not really summarizing it, due to its surreal aporia:

I’m not cold or warm. I might be approaching both. I don’t remember when I’ve last fallen asleep. I’m not asleep or awake. I first met Meridith over a jar of artichoke hearts. But it’s Lockett now… There’s no possibility of an erection. The supermarket was crowded. The colors were warm. Lockett’s hands moved easily over the frozen-meat packages, slipping them into his army overcoat. We discovered each other stealing. I had four jars of artichoke hearts in my pocket. Lockett kept me from being busted. He straightened me out. He sold me a doctor’s bag and gave me connections.

“There’s no possibility of an erection” ! — of course Thomas Pynchon blurbed Nog. Wurlitzer’s novel is an unmediated riff on Manifest Destiny’s ugly horniness (or is it hornyness — Wurlitzer and other authorities won’t sing on this matter). There are buffalo shoots, rapes, and all that westward expansion. But by the Space Age Nineteen-Sixties, where were the borders? As the narrator comments/laments:

Nothing for it but to plunge on to the manufactured end. The Pacific is gone.

No place to go but into the surreal.

But Nog also exemplifies everything wrong with the late sixties—a kind of self-indulgent, (literally-)masturbatory psychoromp that frequently tests the patience of its audience. (By “its audience” I mean “me.”)

Nog is dark and foul, poisonous, an indictment of the End Of A Big Dream (forgive my capitalization). It’s not fun, nor did I find it funny—maybe because I read it right after Charles Wright’s much funnier novel The Wig (1966), a novel that collapses the horror and humor of the Dream Of The Sixties (eh, capitalization) into something far sharper, funnier, surrealer, and ecstaicer (or is it ecstackier—authorities diverge on this matter).

Or maybe I didn’t dig Nog the way I wanted to because I read it during The Weirdest Spring Break Of My Life, in the quarantine that we’re all going through, uncomforted by its abject digressions, its plasticity, its refusal to mean in a healthy, wholesome, unvirused way.

Maybe I should read it again, in Healthier Times.

Nog for now reads a bit-too-disturbing, which I guess is actually Good, according to the traditional rubric that I’ve used to measure novels—the whole disturb the comfortable model, right? Maybe I’m disturbed, anxious, agoraphobic, hypochondriac. But this is a Bad Trip.

Nog reads like a bad trip right to its end. Near the novel’s end, our narrator (who may-or-may-not-be Nog, or Lockett — or locket or lock it) takes a bad trip on a ship to “the manufactured end” — to Manifest Destiny Done Run Out. Here’s the authoritarian captain:

“The main thing,” he says, “is to be obedient for a long time, and in one and the same direction. Keep to the same space. Don’t try to go to new ports. Eight hundred Chinese were imported to build a railroad alongside the Canal. They committed suicide when they were deprived of their opium. They strangled or hanged themselves or sat down on the beach and waited for the tide to drown them. Let that be a lesson to you. Be kind to her.”

I have no idea what to make of the captain’s advice to the narrator. On one hand, it seems antithetical to the spirit of the novel—of movement, of going in new directions and mooring in new ports. At the same time, it highlights the cruelty of the American Project of Manifest Destiny (goddamn dude, all those Capital Letters!) as a kind of murder-suicide.

Or maybe I just want to end on those words:

Be kind to her.

 

 

Butterfly Stories — Falk Gernergross

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Butterfly Stories, 2012 by Falk Gernergross (b. 1973)

Blog about some recent reading (Spring break/quarantine (?) edition)

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Left to right:

I used interlibrary loan to check out a copy of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography. It’s pretty neat, and includes some photos of Our Reclusive Favorite that I’d never seen before, like this one:

I read Charles Wright’s 1966 novel The Wig last weekend. The novel is amazing—a picaresque, burlesque, Black black comedy that made me want to reread Invisible Man and read all the Ishmael Reed that I’ve left unread. And more Charles Wright. The energy of The Wig enraptured me; Wright’s cartoon vision of 1960’s Harlem is poised just on the edge of horror. I loved loved loved this novel, and aim for a full review sometime this week.

To its right is The Complete Gary Lutz, which I’ve been nibbling at for a few months. It’s like a rich cheese block or a lovely single malt—not something to inhale all at once, but wonderful in moderation.

I’ve also been picking through Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, mostly reading the journalism at the front end. (I’m saving the play, Delray’s New Moon for…I don’t know…like a quarantine or something?)

This afternoon, I dipped into Marrow and Bone, Walter Kempowski’s satirical road novel set in Germany and Poland right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte Collins’s translation renders Kempowski’s prose as frank, funny, and often ironic.

I’m a little over halfway through Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult classic Nog. The novel is far more abject and despair-inflected than I had imagined, and so far, anyway, the despair and abjection isn’t leavened with any humor that’s registered with me. I dig the absurdity, but I’ve got to admit that the book isn’t working for me. I wanted to love it—-blurbed by Pynchon, right? features an imaginary octopus, right?—but something’s missing for me. (The vague something in the previous sentence is humor—there are maybe some jokes or japes I’m missing, to be fair, but…) The book’s strengths bleed over with its weaknesses. Wurlitzer does an admirable job portraying a consciousness dissolving and resolving, only to desire to not desire consciousness at all, only static, Buddhist peace. Nog is essentially a narrative voice, a howl disintegrating in on itself, bubbling down, and revivifying itself via verbal goo to speak anew. There are Big Western Themes, too—Wurlitzer’s critique of America’s favorite myth of Manifest Destiny is subtle but sharp. The novel’s druggy haze recalls William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, but a bit more focused. It so far makes me think of better novels by João Gilberto Noll, though. I very much love two films that Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; dir. Monte Hellman) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973; dir. Sam Peckinpah). I’d love to see two others he wrote: America (1986; dir. Robert Downey Sr.) and Walker (1987; dir. Alex Cox).

Nog also has some really gross sex scenes.

(I think I might be enjoying Wurlitzer’s debut novel more if I hadn’t read The Wig immediately before it.)

The last two skinny volumes there on the right are new joints from Sublunary Editions. Vik Shirley’s Corpses is like a thirty-paragraph prose-poem, part comic, part morbid.  The blurb for Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm describes the tract:

This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem.

To the right of Palms is a pothos plant that was formerly thriving on the window sill of my office. Our college’s spring break starts tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be coming back after it, so I brought my plants home. It turns out we’ll come back, sans students. I brought my textbooks home too, but I forgot my copy of  S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid, which I’d brought to work to snack on. So it isn’t in this blog, except it is.

Hothouses I — Léon Spilliaert

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Hothouses I, 1917 by Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946)

Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment — Duncan Grant

Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment c.1909 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment, c. 1909 by Duncan Grant (1885–1978)

Sleep outside at night and not take fright

Sugar and Milk — Chitra Ganesh

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Sugar and Milk, from Her Nuclear Waters by Chitra Ganesh (b. 1975)