Blog about some recent reading

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It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.

I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.

I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.

I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.

I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.

I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.

I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.

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I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.

Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of  W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.

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Blog about acquiring some books (Books acquired, 3 May 2019)

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Yesterday marked both my wedding anniversary and the end of my spring semester, so I celebrated by spending a spare hour browsing my beloved used bookshop. I had dropped by last week to drop off a box of trade books—mostly old instructor editions of textbooks no longer in use—but I didn’t pick anything up. I did, however, snap a few photographs of the covers of the old 1980s Latin American authors series that Avon Bard put out. I love these covers, and have bought a few over the years.

I ended up picking up two yesterday: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s In Evil Hour and Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro. The cover for Dom Casmurro is pretty bad, actually, but I want to read it.

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Near the Machado de Assis, I found a used copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, which I couldn’t resist. I also found a Grove edition of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, which I haven’t read since college.

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I also got a book in the mail. I loved Ann Quin’s novel Berg so much that I had to get more Quin, so I ordered The Unmapped Country from publisher And Other Stories. Very excited for this one.

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Cells tighter than shells, you spinning into spirals, quick-silver, thrashing the water, making stars scatter (Ann Quin)

Beyond these, illuminated by past summers, one summer remained that stayed the sun long into the night after you had watched the others; others with their fathers knee-deep, belly-button unconcerned, roly-poly mothers stretching out of the sea. Whiter than starch hands on bat and ball, you failed to catch. Tents, buckets, spades; others that went on digging barricades. You castle-bound, spying on princesses, honey-gold, singing against the blue, if touched surely their skin would ooze? Aware of own smell, skin-texture, sun in eyes, lips, toes, the softness underneath, in between, wondering what miracle made you, the sky, the sea. Conscious of sound, gulls hovering, crying, or silent at rarer intervals, their swift turns before being swallowed by the waves. Then no sound, all suddenly would be soundless, treading softly, dividing rocks with fins, and sword-fish fingers plucking away clothes, that were left with your anatomy, huddled like ruffled birds waiting. A chrysalis heart formed on the water’s surface, away from the hard-polished pebbles, sand-blowing and elongated shadows. Away, faster than air itself, dragon-whirled. Be given to, the sliding of water, to forget, be forgotten; premature thoughts—predetermined action. In a moment fixed between one wave and the next, the outline of what might be ahead. On your back, staring into space, becoming part of the sky, a speckled bird’s breast that opened up at the slightest notion on your part. But the hands, remember the hands that pulled your legs, that doubled you up, and dragged you down? Surprised at non-resistance. Voices that called, creating confusion. Cells tighter than shells, you spinning into spirals, quick-silver, thrashing the water, making stars scatter. Narcissus above, staring at a shadow-bat spreading out, finally disappearing into the very centre of the ocean. They were always there waiting by the edge, behind them the cliffs extended. Your head disembodied, bouncing above the separate force of arms and legs, rhythmical, the glorious sensation of weightlessness, moon-controlled, and far below your heart went on exploring, no matter how many years came between, nor how many people were thrust into focus. That had surely been the beginning, the separating of yourself from the world that no longer revolved round you, the awareness of becoming part of, merging into something else, no longer dependent upon anyone, a freedom that found its own reality, half of you the constant guardian, watching your actions, your responses, what you accepted, what you might reject.

From Ann Quin’s novel Berg.

Blog about some recent reading

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I am reading too many books right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Quin’s Berg (Book acquired,15 Feb. 2019)

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Ann Quin’s 1964  novel, Berg, is in print again from And Other Stories. I’m psyched for this one—Quin is a writer I’ve wanted to read for a while now. Here is And Other Stories’ blurb:

‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . .’

So begins Ann Quin’s madcap frolic with sinister undertones, a debut ‘so staggeringly superior to most you’ll never forget it’ (The Guardian). Alistair Berg hears where his father, who has been absent from his life since his infancy, is living. Without revealing his identity, Berg takes a room next to the one where his father and father’s mistress are lodging and he starts to plot his father’s elimination. Seduction and violence follow, though not quite as Berg intends, with Quin lending the proceedings a delightful absurdist humour.

Anarchic, heady, dark, Berg is Quin’s masterpiece, a classic of post-war avant-garde British writing, and now finally back in print after much demand.

Here are the first four paragraphs:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . .

Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room—dimensions rarely touched by the sun—Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dance hall opposite. Shall I go there again, select another one? A dozen would hardly satisfy; consolation in masturbation, pornographic pictures hanging from branches of the brain. WANTED one downy, lighthearted singing bird to lay, and forget the rest. A week spent in an alien town, yet no further progress—the old man not even approached, and after all these years, the promises, plans, the imaginative pursuit as static as a dream of yesterday. The clean blade of a knife slicing up the partition that divides me from them. Oh yes I have seen you with her—she who shares your life now, fondles you, laughs or cries because of you. Meeting on the stairs, at first the hostile looks, third day: acknowledgment. A new lodger, let’s show him the best side. Good morning, nice day. Good afternoon, cold today. His arm linked with hers. As they passed Berg nodded, vaguely smiled, cultivating that mysterious air of one pretending he wishes to remain detached, anonymous. Afterwards their laughter bounced back, broke up the walls, split his door; still later the partition vibrated, while he paced the narrow strip of carpet between wardrobe and bed, occasionally glimpsing the reflection of a thin arch that had chosen to represent his mouth. Rummaging under the mattress Berg pulled out the beer-stained piece of newspaper, peered at the small photograph.

Oh it’s him Aly, no mistaking your poor father. How my heart turned, fancy after all this time, and not a word, and there he is, as though risen from the dead. That Woman next to him Aly, who do you suppose she is?

He had noticed the arm clinging round the fragile shoulders; his father’s mistress, or just a friend? hardly when—well when the photo showed their relationship to be of quite an affectionate nature. Now he knew. It hadn’t taken long to inveigle his way into the same house, take a room right next to theirs. Yes he had been lucky, everything had fallen into place. No hardship surely now in accepting that events in consequence, in their persistent role of chance and order, should slow down?

JG Ballard on on Psychoactive Drugs and William Burroughs

From JG Ballard’s interview with The Paris Review; the Martin Bax novel he mentions, The Hospital Ship, is worth your time if you can find it:

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of stimulation, did any of the psychoactive drugs of the sixties give you any clues for your writing?

BALLARD

I suppose I’m a medium-to-heavy drinker, but I haven’t taken any drugs since one terrifying LSD trip in 1967. A nightmarish mistake. It opened a vent of hell that took years to close and left me wary even of aspirin. Visually it was just like my 1965 novel, The Crystal World, which some people think was inspired by my LSD trip. It convinced me that a powerful and obsessive enough imagination can reach, unaided, the very deepest layers of the mind. (I take it that beyond LSD there lies nothing.) Imagination is the shortest route between any two conceivable points, and more than equal to any physical rearrangement of the brain’s functions.

INTERVIEWER

Back in the sixties, Martin Bax and yourself, as editors of Ambit magazine, ran a drug competition.

BALLARD

Dr. Bax and I ran a competition in Ambit for the best prose or poetry written under the influence of drugs, and it produced a lot of interesting material. In general, cannabis was the best stimulant, though some good pieces came out of LSD. In fact, the best writing of all was done by Ann Quin, under the influence of the contraceptive pill.

INTERVIEWER

Dr. Bax is a novelist as well, isn’t he?

BALLARD

Martin is a physician, a research pediatrician, and consultant to a London hospital, and his book The Hospital Ship (published in the States by New Directions) is the most remarkable and original novel I’ve come across since reading William Burroughs.

INTERVIEWER

Burroughs wrote an eccentric and laudatory, in its way, introduction to the American edition of Atrocity Exhibition. Do you know him?

BALLARD

Burroughs, of course, I admire to the other side of idolatry, starting with Naked Lunch, then Ticket, Soft Machine, and Nova Express. I’m less keen on his later books. In his way he’s a genius. It’s a pity that his association with drugs and homosexuality has made him a counterculture figure, but I suppose his real links are with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beats. Still, I think he’s much more of an establishment figure, like Dean Swift, with a despairing disgust for the political and professional establishments of which he is a part. I have met Burroughs quite a few times over the last fifteen years, and he always strikes me as an upper-class Midwesterner, with an inherent superior attitude towards blacks, policemen, doctors, and small-town politicians, the same superior attitude that Swift had to their equivalents in his own day, the same scatological obsessions and brooding contempt for middle-class values, thrift, hard work, parenthood, et cetera, which are just excuses for petit-bourgeois greed and exploitation. But I admire Burroughs more than any other living writer, and most of those who are dead. It’s nothing to do with his homosexual bent, by the way. I’m no member of the “homintern,” but a lifelong straight who prefers the company of women to most men. The few homosexual elements in Crash and Atrocity Exhibition, fucking Reagan, et cetera, are there for reasons other than the sexual—in fact, to show a world beyond sexuality, or, at least beyond clear sexual gender.