The BFG, Roald Dahl’s love letter to his lost daughter

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).

The BFG does not have an especially complex plot: Young Sophie, up late at night, is snatched away to a strange country by a giant whom she spies blowing dreams into a room of sleeping children (she does not of course know at the time that he is blowing dreams into the room). Luckily, this is the Big Friendly Giant. Unluckily, she’s stuck in his cave, where he must hide her from nine awful giants (including the Fleshlumpeater, the Meatdripper, and the aptly named Childchewer), who set off into the world each night to guzzle “human beans” (they especially love to eat children). The BFG, smaller than the other giants, refuses to partake in their infanticidal, anthropophagic practices, dining instead on stinky snozzcumbers. While the other giants are out gobbling up humans, the BFG is in Dream Country collecting dream blobs, which he mixes into wonderful visions and blows into children’s homes at night. Sophie and the BFG concoct a special dream for the Queen of England and through this scheme manage to capture the nine terrible giants. Sophie and The BFG live happily ever after.

Dahl’s command of language in The BFG marks the book as one of his strongest achievements. The most obvious and endearing aspect of the book’s language is the voice of the BFG, who invents, inverts, and generally twists up nouns, verbs, and adjectives into a fine mess. He tells Sophie:

Words . . . is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.

That squiff-squiddling though is what gives the giant’s voice such power. The tinges of nonsense actually reify and amplify what the BFG intends to say. There’s a sing-songy, burbling, bubbling rhythm to the BFG’s speech, which I took great joy in performing aloud for my daughter. Dahl clearly understood that his prose would be read aloud.

The BFG’s trouble with “correct” language derives from the fact that he never got to go to school. In fact, he’s learned everything he knows from one book: Nicholas Nickleby, “By Dahl’s Chickens,” the BFG tells Sophie. The underlying problem that governs the plot of Nicholas Nickleby is the unexpected death of Nicholas’s father. Dahl might have picked any of Charles Dickens’s novels here, but I believe he chose this one to thematically answer to The BFG’s secret plot: A missing father to match a missing daughter.

Dahl also not-so-subtly inserts his own name into the authorial position in this scene, which occurs about half way into the novel. This insertion happens again in the novel’s final chapter, which is appropriately titled “Author.” The book ends with the nine awful giants captured and held in a pit deep in the earth (shades of the Titans), their infanticidal violence contained and suspended, but still alive, still potential. The Queen has an enormous house built for the BFG right by her own palace, with a small cottage for Sophie in-between. The vision, rendered in Quentin Blake’s marvelous wobbly inks, suggests a fairy tale ending, as Sophie finds an ersatz family in the Queen (more of a fairy godmother) and the BFG, her new father.

And yet Sophie too takes on something of a parental role, teaching the BFG to read and write. He soon “started to write essays about his own past life.” Sophie reads these and urges him to become “a real writer … Why don’t you start by writing a book about you and me?”

Reading this chapter the other night devastated me and delighted my daughter. She cackled in glee and I found myself unable to perform the BFG’s voice through my tears. I finished the novel in my own, regular voice, doing my best not to let the sharp cracks of the emotion I felt break into those final lines, where we learn that the BFG, too modest to put his own name on his book (published by the Queen to bring joy to children), has chosen a pseudonym—the one on the spine of the book, Roald Dahl.

The BFG was of course always an author, even before he was literate; his medium was the dream, and he used dreams to tell stories to bring joy to children. He gave these dreams as protest, resistance, and counterattack to the consuming violence of his nine awful brothers.

Dahl’s rhetorical trick at the end of The BFG—claiming his own name as the pseudonym for the book’s real author, the Big Friendly Giant—is far less whimsical than a surface glance suggests. Rather, I find in it something sad, dark, and sincere, a moment of deep love and deep pain. The transposition—the squiff-squiddling, if you will—of the two names signals Dahl’s recasting of himself as the eternal BFG, bringing joy to children all over the world. The BFG gets to live happily ever after with his dream-daughter Sophie (the recast Olivia), their home and family sanctioned and provided for by the land’s highest authority.

But even before the Queen grants the father-daughter pair their own homestead, Sophie has already found her place by the giant—behind his ear, where she whispers to him. Is this not the fantasy of a consciousness that communicates beyond time, beyond death, directly and without the intermediary of a physical body?

Did Dahl hear Olivia’s voice in his own ear decades after her death? Did her spirit speak to him? Speculation of that sort is not my place or intention, and as I type it out, the suggestion appears far more lurid than I wish. I do know that the image was inescapable for me as I finished The BFG with my own daughter.

Our love and care for our children is shaded and intensified by an understanding of their fragility, their mortality, their susceptibility to disease, accident, chaos, the carelessness of others…factors easily metaphorized into child-eating giants. Our love for our own children precludes an equal love for children who are not our own, despite whatever ethical systems we claim to practice and subscribe to.

And this is what I find so moving about The BFG: Dahl converts the personal (and infinite) loss of his own daughter into a loving gift he seeks to share with all children. He shared that gift with me when I was a child, when I never imagined that I would grow up to be an adult with a child of my own to whom I would read that gift again, in a new, strange, sad, dark, joyous way.

Maybe all I am trying to say here, in this long, long-winded way, is Thank you.

[Ed. Note. Biblioklept ran a version of this review in July of 2014. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The BFG is in wide release this week].

 

Dissolving boundaries | Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.

The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.

I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.

The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:

No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.

There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.

Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):

The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.

In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.

Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.

If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):

She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.

It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.

Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.

Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).

The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:

I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

A review of João Gilberto Noll’s surreal novella Quiet Creature on the Corner

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Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner is new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press.

The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.

Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.

So…what’s it about?

For summary, I’ll lazily cite the back of the book:

Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?

There’s a lot more going on than that.

So…what’s it about? What’s the “a lot more”?

Okay then.

Maybe let’s use body metaphors. Maybe that will work here.

We are constantly leaking. Blood, sweat, tears. Piss, shit, decay. Cells sloughing off. Snot trickling. Vomit spewing. Shuffling of this mortal etc.

(—Are we off to a bad start? Have I alienated you, reader, from my request that you read Noll’s novella?—)

What I want to say is:

We are abject: there are parts of us that are not us but are us, parts that we would disallow, discard, flush away. We are discontinuous, rotten affairs. Bodies are porous. We leak.

We plug up the leaks with metaphors, symbols, tricks, gambits, recollections,  reminiscences. We convert shame into ritual and ritual into history. We give ourselves a story, a continuity. An out from all that abjection. An organization to all those organs. We call it an identity, we frame it in memory.

What has this to do with Noll’s novella?, you may ask, gentle reader. Well. We expect a narrative to be organized, to represent a body of work. And Quiet Creature on the Corner is organized, it is a body—but one in which much of the connective tissue has been extricated from the viscera.

We never come to understand our first-person narrator, a would-be poet in the midst of a Kafkaesque anti-quest. And our narrator never comes to understand himself (thank goodness). He’s missing the connective tissue, the causes for all the effects. Quiet Corner exposes identity as an abject thing, porous, fractured, unprotected by stabilizing memory. What’s left is the body, a violent mass of leaking gases liquids solids, shuttling its messy consciousness from one damn place to the next.

Perhaps as a way to become more than just a body, to stabilize his identity, and to transcend his poverty, the narrator writes poems. However, apart from occasional brusque summaries, we don’t get much of his poetry. (The previous sentence is untrue. The entirety of Quiet Creature on the Corner is the narrator’s poem. But let’s move on). He shares only a few lines of what he claims is the last poem he ever writes: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth.” Perhaps Quiet Creature is condensed in these two lines: A violent, mysterious milieu and the artist who wishes to record, describe, and analyze it—yet, lacking the necessary tools, he resorts to implementing a finger for a crude pencil.  Marks in the dirt. An abject effort. A way of saying, “I was here.” A way of saying I.

Poetry perhaps offers our narrator—and the perhaps here is a big perhaps—a temporary transcendence from the nightmarish (un)reality of his environs. In an early episode, he’s taken from jail to a clinic where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:

I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.

Rest, dream, create. Our hero moves from a Porto Alegre slum to a hellish jail to a quiet clinic and into a dream, which he converts into a pastoral semi-paradise. The narrator lives a full second life here with his horses, his farm, a wife and kids. (He even enjoys a roll in the hay). And yet sinister vibes reverberate under every line, puncturing the narrator’s bucolic reverie. Our poet doesn’t so much wake up from his dream; rather, he’s pulled from it into yet another nightmare by a man named Kurt.

Kurt and his wife Gerda are the so-called “captors” of the poet, who is happy, or happyish, in his clean, catered captivity. He’s able to write and read, and if the country manor is a sinister, bizarre place, he fits right in. Kurt and Gerda become strange parent figures to the poet. Various Oedipal dramas play out—always with the connective tissue removed and disposed of, the causes absent from their effects. We get illnesses, rapes, corpses. We get the specter of Brazil’s taboo past—are Germans Kurt and Gerda Nazis émigrés? Quiet Creature evokes allegorical contours only to collapse them a few images later.

What inheres is the novella’s nightmare tone and rhythm, its picaresque energy, its tingling dread. Our poet-hero finds himself in every sort of awful predicament, yet he often revels in it. If he’s not equipped with a memory, he’s also unencumbered by one.

And without memory the body must do its best. A representative passage from the book’s midway point:

Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.

Here, we see the body as its own theater, with consciousness not a commander but a bewildered prisoner, abject, awakened into reality by a puddle of piss and threatened by external authorities, those who call themselves cops.  Here, a theatrical seizure conveys meaning in a way that supersedes language.

Indeed our poet doesn’t harness and command language with purpose—rather, he emits it:

No, I repeated without knowing why. Sometimes a word slips out of me like that, before I have time to formalize an intention in my head. Sometimes on such occasions it comes to me with relief, as though I’ve felt myself distilling something that only once finished and outside me, I’ll be able to know.

And so, if we are constantly leaking, we leak language too.

It’s the language that propels Noll’s novella. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Adam Morris’s translation rockets along, employing comma splice after comma splice. The run-on sentences rhetorically double the narrative’s lack of connecting tissue. Subordinating and coordinating conjunctions are rare here. Em dashes are not.

The imagery too compels the reader (this reader, I mean)—strange, surreal. Another passage:

Our arrival at the manor.

The power was out. We lit lanterns.

I found a horrible bug underneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman. I was on my knees and I smashed it with the base of my lantern. The moon was full. The low sky, clotted with stars, was coming in the kitchen window. December, but the night couldn’t be called warm—because it was windy. I was crawling along the kitchen tiles with lantern in hand, looking for something that Kurt couldn’t find. I was crawling across the kitchen without much hope for my search: he didn’t the faintest idea of where I could find it.

What was the thing Kurt and the narrator searched for? I never found it, but maybe it’s somewhere there in the narrative.

Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly.

I reach the end of this “review” and realize there are so many little details I left out that I should have talked about–a doppelgänger and street preachers, an election and umbanda, Bach and flatulence, milking and mothers…the wonderful crunch of the title in its English translation—read it out loud! Also, as I reach the end of this (leaky) review, I realize that I seem to understand Quiet Creature less than I did before writing about it. Always a good sign.

João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and look forward to future English translations—Two Lines plans to publish his 1989 novel Atlantic Hotel in the spring of next year. I’ll probably read Quiet Creature again before then. Hopefully I’ll find it even weirder.

Ghostly moves (From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child)

We locked ourselves in her office and sat at the computer, a kind of television with a keyboard, very different from what she had showed me and the children some time before. She pressed the power button, she slid dark rectangles into gray blocks. I waited, bewildered. On the screen luminous tremors appeared. Lila began to type on the keyboard, I was speechless. It was in no way comparable to a typewriter, even an electric one. With her fingertips she caressed gray keys, and the writing appeared silently on the screen, green like newly sprouted grass. What was in her head, attached to who knows what cortex of the brain, seemed to pour out miraculously and fix itself on the void of the screen. It was power that, although passing for act, remained power, an electrochemical stimulus that was instantly transformed into light. It seemed to me like the writing of God as it must have been on Sinai at the time of the Commandments, impalpable and tremendous, but with a concrete effect of purity. Magnificent, I said. I’ll teach you, she said. And she taught me, and dazzling, hypnotic segments began to lengthen, sentences that I said, sentences that she said, our volatile discussions were imprinted on the dark well of the screen like wakes without foam. Lila wrote, I would reconsider. Then with one key she erased, with others she made an entire block of light disappear, and made it reappear higher up or lower down in a second. But right afterward it was Lila who changed her mind, and everything was altered again, in a flash: ghostly moves, what’s here now is no longer here or is there. And no need for pen, pencil, no need to change the paper, put another sheet in the roller. The page is the screen, unique, no trace of a second thought, it always seems the same. And the writing is incorruptible, the lines are all perfectly straight, they emit a sense of cleanliness even now that we are adding the filthy acts of the Solaras to the filthy acts of half of Campania.

From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

There’s a lot going on in this passage, in which the heroines of the so-called Neapolitan Novels, Elena and Lila, write an essay together using a personal computer’s word processing program (it’s the first time for Lila; I haven’t done the math here, but I think this episode might happen around 1982 or ’83). From the outset, from the earliest pages of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s heroines have been preoccupied by writing, and in many ways these novels perform their own metatextual self-critiques. Not only does this passage show the experience of writing refreshed by a new technology, it also shows shows that authorship  is a shared, collaborative process, a synthesis (and fracture)—and not the act of a solitary genius. And in its final sentence, the passage points to a willed purity of writing, a stable resistance to the abjection and filth and evil that unceasingly threaten our narrator’s existence.

Extinction, Gilgamesh, Miyazaki’s Wolfchild, etc. (A Riff)

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Reading the introduction to Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History this afternoon (forthcoming from OR Books), I felt a surreal yet nevertheless familiar twinge of apocalypse anxiety creeping into my right eye, where it tussled around. Is unnerved the metaphor I look for, here? Or is my response more literal? “Extinction is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole,” writes Dawson, and I nod my head. Dawson continues: “capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.” I nod some more. “Indeed, there is no clearer example of the tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction than the sixth extinction.” More nodding, more anxiety.

Chapter 2 of Extinction, “An Etiology of the Present Catastrophe,” assuages (not its intent, thank gawd) some of my anxiety by beginning with a passage from old ancient historical literature. Dawson gives us a passage from The Epic of Gilgamesh; we get Gilgamesh and his homeboy Enkidu killing the forest guardian spirit Humbaba. I’m more at home in literature, in history, outside of the awful present (I’m thinking that later in the book, in chapters titled “Anti-Extinction” and “Radical Conservation,” that Dawson might like call on me to do something other than to extol the virtues of Thoreau and Emerson to college sophomores. (And nod in agreement with him)).

But so and anyway, reading this prefatory paragraph from Gilgamesh, I made the immediate imaginative leap that literature licenses me: the episode that Dawson has invoked, this city-statesman vs. nature narrative featuring Gilgamesh straight up beheading the forest protector—well, that’s the central conflict/plot in Hayao Miyazki’s 1997 film Mononoke-hime (rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think better translated as Spirit-Monster Wolfchild or something like that, although no one asked me).

More on that in a second, but first, Dawson again, from the middle of “An Etiology of the Present Catastrophe,” wherein we move from literature to history to the present:

The violence generated by what geologists call the Holocene epoch was directed not just at other human beings but also at nature. Indeed what is perhaps humanity’s first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh (1800 BCE), hinges on a mythic battle with natural forces. In the epic, the protagonist Gilgamesh, not content with having built the walls of his city-state, seeks immortality by fighting and beheading Humbaba, a giant spirit who protects the sacred cedar groves of Lebanon. Gilgamesh’s victory over Humbaba is a pyrrhic one, for it causes the god of wind and storm to curse Gilgamesh. We know from written records of the period that Gilgamesh’s defeat of the tree god reflects real ecological pressures on the Sumerian empire of the time. As the empire expanded, it exhausted its early sources of timber. Sumerian warriors were consequently forced to travel to the distant mountains to the north in order to harvest cedar and pine trees, which they then ferried down the river to Sumer. These journeys were perilous since tribes who populated the mountains resisted the Sumerians’ deforestation of their land.

Dawson goes on to to detail how the Sumerians’ short-sighted, expansion-oriented agricultural methods led to the downfall of their empire: A scarcity of timber and farming practices that led to a “salt-soaked earth” led to Iraq’s modern deserts.

Before my eye starts twitching again let me return (retreat) to Miyazaki—

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—well, I watched Princess Mononoke just this Saturday, the Saturday before Easter—for like the first time in a decade. (We watch his films all the time with our kids (PonyoTotoro, and Spirited Away especially), but not Mononoke, which is too abject and violent yet for their tender years. And not Porco Rosso, which isn’t really for kids. Or The Wind Rises).

Anyway: So: Mononoke, I was thinking, rewatching it, was/is this wonderfully, beautiful, aesthetically astonishing take on the beginning of industrialization, and the weaponization of industry, and, like man vs nature, in a primordial sense. It’s also a Japanese Western, a meditation on purity and defilement, and a study of sorts on a feral child. Not having seen it in some time, I was perhaps most struck by how complex, brave, and intriguing I found the industrialist arms-designer/manufacturer Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver). She fights against the forest gods, she destroys and pollutes nature, she creates new weapons capable of killing people with a proficiency not yet seen on this earth. And yet at the same time, she finds a home for lepers and prostitutes—and not just a home, but a reason to be, an agency, an existential calling outside of the feudal system that would otherwise reject them. She’s the most human character in the film, perhaps. Miyazaki’s villains are rarely absolute. They are gray, human. And in their complicated, seemingly realistic humanity, I find the consolation of fantasy, yes?

So in viewing Mononoke this Easter eve—well maybe it was the wine I drank transubstantiating (or do I mean consubstantiating?) my blurred vision toward something more (an aesthetic illusion)—

—or and but anyway, so in Mononoke, I found some kind of synthesis, some kind of reconciliation between the wolfchild (Princess Mononoke, human-divine emissary of the old gods, the human not in nature but of and for nature) and the film’s protagonist (the self-exiled marked man Ashitaka—a cursed wanderer like Cain).

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But no redemption. Or maybe only aesthetic redemption—which is ultimately anaesthetic, no? The rebirth in Mononoke—spoilers, maybe sorry—well the rebirth is predicated on the same sacrifices (same same but different) detailed in the Easter story.  Self-sacrifice: Obliteration of self. The tree-god-guardian—as in Gilgamesh—is beheaded. But Miyazaki contrives a heroic restoration of the godhead, one that turns the literal megafauna creature into a metaphor, an idea—a concept of nature to be attended to—stewarded by—humankind. This is wish-fulfillment, of course.

But hey and so: that fantastic wonderful megafauna, eh? They range and lumber and speak and act and assert agency throughout Mononoke. Boars, wolves, elk. A kirin. Hell, apes. In Extinction, Dawson takes us through the mass extinction of the megafauna that once trudged and bounded over the earth, detailing the “Pleistocene wave of megadeath.” (Should I note that saber tooth tigers and giant sloths and wooly mammoths populated my childhood fantasies more than any T-rex or triceratops?). We—that is humans—we are the big animals now, elephants be damned! (Dawson opens his book with the shocking line “His face was hacked off.” This, in reference to the elephant Satao, felled by poachers). Is it my dreams and fantasies that I find consolation in? In aesthetics? In the crusty rime of religion that sticks to my consciousness?

Extinction frightens me—wait, I said that already, forgive me, I’ve been applying anaesthetics, okay—Dawson’s take is realurgentvital. It makes me face that I prefer my ecological criticism couched in the fantasy of the fantasy-past (Mononoke) or the doomed-but-hey-maybe-not-so-doomed-future (I’ll call here on Mononoke’s twin, Miyazaki’s 1984 epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Windas an example). But prefer is not the right mode/verb here (and neither is the spirit of this riff, a solipsistic navel-gazing blog of myself). This failure is my failure.

Maybe skip ahead, eh?— “The struggle to preserve global biodiversity must be seen as an integral part of a broader fight to challenge an economic and social system based on feckless, suicidal, expansion,” Dawson writes later. And skimming ahead more, I see notes on regenesis, ideas toward rewilding. Dawson’s last paragraphs—damn me, I skipped way ahead, looking for rhetorical solace—point toward “a human capacity to dream and to build a more just, more biologically diverse world.” A rhetorical flourish is easy but Dawson’s claim here is real—a future requires imagination, but an imagination beyond solace, beyond consolation. Miyazaki’s ecoverses perhaps point toward an imaginative collective future—or perhaps don’t. I don’t have a rhetorical flourish to finish off this riff.

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From J.A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin, 1979)

Riff on Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip

Untitled, Zdislav Beksinski
  1. A colleague dropped by today, burst in my office really, if you’ll forgive the cliché, animated, ecstatic almost—Read this!—he commanded, thrusting a big fat hardbacked Gore Vidal volume in front of me. Read this, his finger pointing to the last paragraph of the 1981 essay “Pink Triangle and Gold Star” (ostensibly a review of Renaud Camus’ novel Tricks).  So I read it. See? It’s just like today! my colleague declared. Vidal’s essay ends with a call for the unity of marginalized people to resist “our ruling class” — the banks, The Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon — and “their kindly voice,” Ronald Reagan. We then had a brief discussion about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, something I have until now refused to talk about at all because it’s all just too weird.
  2. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Thomas Pynchon novel.
  3. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a J.G. Ballard short story.
  4. I sometimes feel like I’m living in some distorted, slipped timeline.
  5. Reading Philip K. Dick’s novel  Martian Time-Slip, I kept wanting to burst into someone’s office, animated, pointing to a paragraph, crying, Read this! See? It’s just like today!
  6. Not that we’ve colonized Mars but—
  7. —colonial metaphors, yes? Cowboys and Indians…
  8. But also, that we’d want the final frontier to be just like home: Desert Mars with green lawns, irrigated flower gardens. Swimming pools. Dick’s Mars is California 1964 and California 2015. And: a water-scarce environment to come.
  9. Did I mention that the novel is set in 1994?
  10. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Don DeLillo novel.
  11. But where was I? I launched into this riff with a long anecdote, so—What my colleague and I worked into was, ultimately, a discussion of the sheer irreality of modern life—the paranoia that permeates American culture, the sense that the last two decades seem like a bad repetition of Bad Times that outdated textbooks told us had been conquered.
  12. (Or maybe I’m just getting old).
  13. (Sorry for the scatterbrainededness of this ordeal. I finished the novel this afternoon and if I don’t get this down now it seems I won’t get anything down).
  14. So obviously you can find alienation, instability, and repetition right there in the title Martian Time-Slip.
  15. And Dick loads the novel with images and props and ideas to evoke those themes of alienation, instability, and repetition: autism, primitivism, schizophrenia.
  16. Colonies, camps, U.N. as World Police.
  17. Health food.
  18. And land speculation.
  19. And abjection.
  20. And abjection erupts in paranoia and irreality, pointing to a People Who Aren’t People:
  21. He saw, through the man’s skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs, which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs­—­everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man’s voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system.

    Possibly at some time in the past the man had been real and alive, but that was over, and the stealthy replacement had taken place, inch by inch, progressing insidiously from one organ to the next, and the entire structure was there to deceive others.

  22. —so the sense that the contemporary person is just a technological mediation, a deception, inauthentic. (Dear reader, attach this passage to what you will, but it seems to me surpassing prescient).
  23. I’ve done a poor job of outlining the plot, right? Sorry. But look, it’s a Philip K. Dick novel, and certainly one of his better ones—and if you’re a more-than-casual reader, you know it, I think, and if you’ve read his finest—VALISThe Man in the High CastleUbikA Scanner DarklyPalmer Eldritch—you might should could read Time-Slip.
  24. But so plot, well: Here’s Lawrence Sutin on the novel, from Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick:
  25. Life in the bleak Martian colonies bears a striking resemblance to business as usual on modern-day Earth…In the parched Martian colonies, grasping Arnie Kott is the chief of the powerful plumber’s union (based on the fifties Berkely Co-op Phil despised for its wrangling politics). The little guy, repairman Jack Bohlen, is a onetime schizophrenic who still lives with schizophrenia’s aftereffects. An autistic kid, Manfred Steiner, slipslides helplessly forward and backward in time, into realms of entropy and death.

  26. Arnie seeks to capitalize on Manfred’s timeslipping, and Dick—who, let’s just admit it, isn’t always the most writerly writer (whatever that means) handles the time slippage with rhetorical aplomb, making the reader slip-slide through time with Manfred, Arnie, and Jack. I shared an extended passage a few days ago as an example; it shows us (a version of) Manfred decaying in a future Martian slum. The imagery is abject and pitiful, evoking again the notion of a human’s decay into machination:
  27. He lay there for a hundred and twenty­three years and then his artificial liver gave out and he fainted and died. By that time they had removed both his arms and legs up to the pelvis because those parts of him had decayed.

    He didn’t use them anyhow. And without arms he didn’t try to pull the catheter out, and that pleased them.

  28. Time-Slip rockets into rhetorical reverberation, cycling its final chapters into a strange decay. The timeslips jar the reader’s narrative perception—Hey wait, didn’t I already read this?—unsettling expectations, and ultimately suggesting that this Martian Time-Slip is just one version of Martian Time-Slip. That there are other timelines, distorted, slipped.
  29. And there are threads—wires, if we want to borrow one of the novel’s motifs—that don’t fully connect. There are short circuits, misfires, gaps. Dick tears into the real stuff, the inner material, and pulls it up to the surface without putting it all back together too neatly.
  30. There’s even a slippiness to the Dick’s resolved wires (if you’ll excuse my torturing the metaphor). The novel concludes in a strange jolt of domestic restoration, a kind of farce of the traditional comedic and tragic conventions where all returns to normal—there is no normal, never—and so No normal never is, paradoxically, paranoically, normal.
  31. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Philip K. Dick novel.

A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow

I’m safe here at my office, away from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I almost certainly would not dare to write about it were it proximal. If the book were here with me, its text would infect me, and I’d replicate it in chunks here for you, dear reader, to sort out (or not sort out) as you wish (or do not wish).

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I’m almost finished with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is how I know that I’m not finished with Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m going to have to read it again. (I want to read it again).

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I’m about fifty pages from the last page—just got through/endured/delighted in/icked and acked at the Gross Suckling Conference, or, as I like to think of it, the alliterative abject dinner party.

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Gravity’s Rainbow is filled with more abject imagery than any novel I’ve ever read.

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I mean abjection here in the general sense of degradation, etc., but also in the specific sense that Julia Kristeva uses in Powers of Horror:

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

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Forgive me for citing at such length, but perhaps Kristeva summarizes some aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow that deeply interests me: The core of the novel (the core that Pynchon atomizes, decentralizes, scatters like his main man Tyrone Slothrop)—the core of the novel rests on love and death, me and not-me: “How can I be without border?” The war and its corpses and rockets and dissolutions. Continue reading “A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow”

Reading There Will Be Blood as the expanded epilogue to Blood Meridian

Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.

I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.

The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.

Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?

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So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood  a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?

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We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.

And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”

Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.

Transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

“If one did not wish to suffer Horror directly,” comments the Revd in his Day-Book, “one might either transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally,— the sex Entrepreneurs reasoning that the combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc’d intimacy might be Pleasurable,— that therefore might some dramatiz’d approach to death under such circumstances be pleasurable as well, with all squirming together in a serpent’s Nest of Limbs and Apertures and penises, immobiliz’d in a bondage of similarly bound bodies, lubricated with a gleaming mixture of their own shar’d sweat, piss, and feces, nothing to breathe but one another’s exhausted breaths, moving toward some single slow warm Explosion. . . .”

An abject passage from Ch. 14 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The entire chapter seems with unseemliness, as Cornelius Vroom forces Dixon to witness the debauchery of the Cape Dutch.

A Too Many Cooks Riff, Focusing on The Killer, Who Is There Right from the Beginning

If you haven’t yet seen Too Many Cooks, Casper Kelly’s short film for Adult Swim, here it is:

 

Too Many Cooks compels and rewards/punishes its audience not because of its comedic elements, but rather for its horror. Kelly has made one of the finest little horror films I’ve ever seen.

The central techniques of Too Many Cooks–repetition, collage, and genre parody—are fairly obvious and wonderfully synthesized. The film relies on an understanding that its audience has a particular way of seeing. The intended audience of Too Many Cooks has:

1) An understanding and acceptance of the postmodern tradition of repeating a punchline (or set-up) past the point of humor. And–

2) A particular ironic vision that delights in seeing commercial TV genre conventions of yore skewered.

Too Many Cooks succeeds by disrupting both ways of seeing. Its audiovisual repetitions (oh my lord the song!) become insane tics in a horror story that the viewer did not expect to happen—despite a number of early clues.

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe suggests that when “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.” Let us substitute “Horror” for “Beauty” (Poe would not mind, I think) and we have a fair description of what the filmmakers behind Too Many Cooks have created: A short piece of art that, by its arrangement, editing, of particulars—including its audience’s preconceptions—creates the effect of horror.

That horror emanates from the secret protagonist of Too Many Cooks, a mad-eyed killer who haunts the film first from its peripheries before eventually overtaking it. (He bears a slight resemblance to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek).

The Killer is the organizing principle of Too Many Cooks. He’s right there from the beginning, a specter whose agency throughout the piece subverts audience expectations. It’s not the uber-Father (who begat too many Cooks) who is the film’s central figure, but the infanticidal Killer.

Here is the first time we see The Killer, just 20 seconds in. He’s there on the right, sweater-vested (like a dad):

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And then a few seconds later, lurking on the Brady/Cosby/Bundy stairs, still obscure:

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The Killer next shows up about 90 seconds in; this is, unless I’m wrong, the first time we see his visage. It’s also the moment when Too Many Cooks’s early joke on corny nineties sitcom intros really starts to wear thin—the filmmakers offer us repeated images of cooks as if to underscore the tedious point.

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And there’s The Killer in the second family photo:2andhalf

Continue reading “A Too Many Cooks Riff, Focusing on The Killer, Who Is There Right from the Beginning”

Stephen Collins’s Allegorical Fable The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil Reviewed

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Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.

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Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:

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Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.

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Poor Dave.

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The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.

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The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.

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In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.

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The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.

I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.

L’abjection is something that disgusts you (Julia Kristeva)

CaptureJulia Kristeva, defining abjection, in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffmann Baruch.

What I could no longer stand was laughter (Michel Houellebecq)

My attraction to film as a medium—i.e., a dead medium, as opposed to what they pompously called at the time a living spectacle—had undoubtedly been the first sign in me of a disinterest in, even a disgust for, the general public—and probably for mankind in general. I was working at that time on my sketches with a small video camera, fixed on a tripod and linked to a monitor on which I could control in real time my intonations, funny expressions, and gestures. I had always had a simple principle: if I burst out laughing at a given moment, it was this moment that had a good chance of making the audience laugh as well. Little by little, as I watched the cassettes, I became aware that I was suffering from a deeper and deeper malaise, sometimes bordering on nausea. Two weeks before the premiere, the reason for this malaise became clear to me: what I found more and more unbearable wasn’t even my face, nor was it the repetitive and predictable nature of certain standard impersonations that I was obliged to do: what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity. If man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centeredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.

The three-week run was a permanent calvary; for the first time, I truly experienced those notorious, atrocious tears of the clown; for the first time, I truly understood mankind. I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire sheet of Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces those, hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.

From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page. 

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever). Continue reading “The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter”

To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)

And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

Goodness makes me want to vomit (Clarice Lispector)

Yes, she could feel within herself the presence of a perfect animal. She resisted the idea of unleashing this animal one day. Perhaps for fear of causing some embarrassment or because she was afraid of some revelation… No, no — she repeated to herself- one mustn’t be afraid of being creative. Deep down, the animal probably repelled her because she still felt anxious to please and to be loved by someone as powerful as her dead aunt. Even if only to humiliate her afterwards and disown her without giving it another thought. For the best saying, as well as being the most recent was: goodness makes me want to vomit. Goodness was lukewarm and weak, it stank of raw meat that had been lying around for a long time without, however, becoming completely rotten. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned sufficiently to preserve it, a lump of lukewarm, stagnating meat.

From Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.

I have to move through Near to the Wild Heart very slowly—Lispector’s representation of her narrator’s shifts in consciousness is slippery, abstract, terrifying at times, often beautiful, alienating, complex. As in The Hour of the Star, there’s an intense vein of abjection that unifies the work—its narrator’s navigation of internal and external worlds—that simultaneously attracts and compels me.