What else? | Last scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

What else?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Versions of the phrase What else repeat throughout The Passenger, sometimes at the beginning of a sentence but more often than not as a two-word statement or question. It’s a verbal tic not unlike the plentiful instances of They rode on to be found in Blood Meridian, and like that phrase, it serves as a linguistic placeholder that both moves the action of the novel and also advances one of its central philosophical themes.

What else? here is plaintive, existential, but also human, relatable.


The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”

The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills


A small mule danced in a flowered field. He stopped to watch it. It rose on its hind legs like a satyr and sawed its head about. It whinnied and hauled at its rope and kicked and it stopped and stood splayfooted and stared at Western and then went hopping and howling. It had browsed through a nest of wasps but Western didnt know how to help it and he went on.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

This minor scene in the last pages of The Passenger seems like another previously-rare self-referential move on McCarthy’s part. Our “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage” sets up what appears, at first, a bucolic, even corny image—a mule dancing in a field of flowers. The pastoral, frolicking image comes undone under scrutiny—the mule is not at play but under duress. But the duress is not the result of a moral malice. It’s simply natural. Western cannot assuage the mule’s pain, he can only observe it, which he does so with a stoic measure of sympathy.

Detail from Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the Dead Mule, Honore Daumier, 1867

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy


The other dream was this. There was a riderless horse standing at a gate at dawn. Some other country, some other time. The news that the horse brings is a day’s ride old, no more. The horse’s dreams were once of mares and grass and water. The sun. But those dreams are no more. His is a world of blood and slaughter and the screams of men and animals all of which he has little understanding of. The horse stands at the gate with his head bowed while the day breaks. He wears a cloak of knitted steel dark with blood and he stands with one forefoot tilted upon the stones. No one comes. The news does not arrive.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The above passage was probably the saddest moment in The Passenger for me. The speaker is the ghost of Long John Sheddan, present in the consciousness of Bobby Western. It is the horse’s dream inside of Sheddan’s dream (inside of Western’s dream (McCarthy’s dream)) that I find so sad—an Edenic vision flooded with the reality of blood and violence, by the mechanics of war. The horse stalks the stones of the earth, awaiting a revelation that does not come to pass. No one comes. The news does not arrive.


I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy


I waited to hear from God and I never did.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But [in Blood Meridian] McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

Red Planet”, James Wood

Critic James Wood was unkind in his estimation of Blood Meridian. He demanded a theodicy from McCarthy—never McCarthy’s intention—and then failed to attend to any evidence in the novel that would indicate the possibility of resistance to unrepentant Darwinian malice, to an illiterate taste for mindless violence.


I don’t know if Wood has written on the latest, not last, but close-to-last, novel from McCarthy. The only review I’ve read was a short tweet from a contemporary Irish writer whose latest novel I very-much admired. He did not think The Passenger was good. I believe he wrote that it was, in fact, very bad. I really loved The Passenger, and when I finally get this last little riff out of my system, I might even read some reviews.


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 a 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.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The final moments of The Passenger, particularly Alicia Western’s words (via Bobby’s memory) seem to echo the gnostic dream that is the epilogue of Blood Meridian. Her apocalyptic final line (again, via Bobby’s consciousness) evokes the consequences of the atomic bomb, a new original sin of creation: “My father’s latterday petroglyphs and the people upon the road naked and howling.”

Alicia chooses to erase herself from the world, while Bobby stays in it, lives. The final moments of The Passenger point to a sliver of metaphysical hope:

He knew on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty with him into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue.


You have to carry the fire.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy.

 

White Meridian | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’d bought a small ruled notebook at the stationer’s in Ibiza. Cheap pulp paper that would soon yellow and crumble. He took it out and wrote in it with his pencil. Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine Sein.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

In the second paragraph of the last chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger, protagonist Bobby Western, now living on a Spanish island near Ibiza, writes in German a sentence in a cheap notebook. The sentence translates to something like, Before me there will be no time, after me there will be none.


Vor mir war keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn,
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.

Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientum, III, II, Daniel von Czepko (1655)

Western’s line appears to be cribbed from an epigram by the early seventeenth-century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Czepko’s epigram translates to something like, Before me there was no time, after me there will be none / With me she gives birth, with me she dies.


I deny, in a high number of instances, the existence of succession. I deny, in a high number of instances, contemporaneity as well.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Did McCarthy find Czepko’s in Borges’ essay “A New Translation in Time,” where I found it when I first searched the German phrase?


All language is of a successive nature: it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby


I feel like I’ve jumped into the deep end here too quickly for this riff, what with the seventeenth-century German poet and the wonky Borges essay that feels like a gimmicky (and perhaps ironic) championing of idealism in service towards forging an aesthetics of time. Let me put in a simpler substitution for Western’s (McCarthy’s (Borges’ (Czepko’s))) epigram, a favorite line from another life-and-deather with oceanic motifs:

Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.

“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane


Start again: This is a scattered mess. I finished The Passenger yesterday, punched in the face by the final chapter, where McCarthy condenses characters and tropes and symbols and allegories into a slim 19 pages that points to both infinity and death. The Passenger is possibly McCarthy’s baggiest novel, messier than Suttree, and eschewing even a glimmer of the precision of Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old MenThe Passenger is bound in genre fiction tropes—crime novels, detective novels, 1970s paranoia novels, Westerns, and so on. Like No Country, The Passenger purposefully derails reader expectations for what the genre plot should do. The refusal to go forward with the initial promised plot (Who is the missing passenger, escaped or removed from the sunken plane?) reinforces the tense ambiguity in the core of McCarthy’s worldview. The apparent abandoning of a tight plot might alienate some readers, but I suspect most fans of the trajectory of McCarthy’s work would have been disappointed if he’d stuck to a story that Makes Sense and Follows a Clear Trajectory and Ultimately Resolves. I would have been furious if the end of The Passenger gave up some kind of easy answer.


For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
“Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 479), Emily Dickinson

In her white gown carrying the barnlantern out through the trees. Holding the hem of her gown, her slender form candled in the sheeting. The shadows of the trees, then just the dark. The cold in the stone amphitheatre and the slow turning of the stars overhead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Last time I wrote about The Passenger, I wrote about its dominant incest motif. I suggested that the dummy Crandall was the dreamchild of incestuous Western union. I had not yet gotten to the episode where Bobby, on the lam in Idaho, dreams of an incestuous stillborn child, one with only the rudiments of a brain. Bobby queries the dream doctor of his dreamchild: “Does it have a soul?” Bobby’s True Love, his sister Alicia, is the barest slip of a ghost in the final chapter of The Passenger (in contrast to the ghost of Long John Sheddan, who gets a full last dialogue with Bobby), but she shows up again here—theatrical, ghostly, an echo of the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I hope we get more from Alicia Western in Stella Maris.


His father. Who had created out of the absolute dust of the earth an evil sun by whose light men saw like some hideous adumbration of their own ends through cloth and flesh the bones in one another’s bodies.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Père Western, coauthor of the atom bomb (“evil sun”/evil son, evil Adam) is a background wraith in The Passneger (although more present than Ma Western—but I’m sure the lack of mothers in McCarthy’s oeuvre has been commented on at length, perhaps in academic papers. Dude doesn’t include mothers, and mother figures, if they appear, are tangential, marginalized). Wait, where was I? Père Western, haunting the background of The Passenger, takes a bit more of the stage (just a bit) in the final chapter of The Passenger. His Big Crime seems to soak diver Bobby, even if Bobby can’t directly address it.


It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


His father spoke little to them of Trinity. Mostly he’d read it in the literature. Lying face down in the bunker. Their voices low in the darkness. Two. One. Zero. Then the sudden whited meridian. Out there the rocks dissolving into a slag that pooled over the melting sands of the desert. Small creatures crouched aghast in the sudden and unholy day and then were no more. What appeared to be some vast violetcolored creature rising up out of the earth where it had thought to sleep its deathless sleep and wait its hour of hours.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy.


More than a decade ago, I suggested on this site that the moral core of McCarthy’s best novel Blood Meridian is a sequence wherein a host of creatures coalesce into a “constellation of ignited eyes…in a precarious truce” to observe a burning tree in the desert. Witness and attendant, his own eyes presumably ignited, is the kid, the hero of Blood Meridian. The sequence rebukes the pronouncements of Judge Holden, satanic anchor of that novel, pointing towards coexistence and peace.

The whited meridian sequence in The Passenger, evoking the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, reverses McCarthy’s previous passage—blanches it, makes a ghost of it, turns its blood white. Whites it.


(I have a few more thoughts scribbled on a cheap yellow legal pad but the hour grows late and a big storm looms—so, more thoughts to come (including a kind of peace with mules?)


 

The incest thing | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on its lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher—a nightmare from which our writers do not choose to awake too soon, since it is one their readers are willing to pay to share.

Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler

 

When he woke she was leaning against his shoulder. He thought she was asleep but she was looking out the plane window. We can do whatever we want, she said.

No, he said. We cant.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

She turned to the Kid. What does it say on the trunk?

What does what say? 

There’s a sticker on the trunk.

Yeah. It says progeny of Western Union.

Progeny?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


The last in the series of quotes above is an exchange between Alicia Western and her hort/figment/projection the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid has caused to be brought to Alicia a wiseassed—cruel, even—ventriloquist dummy. The dummy is another fitting prop in the Alicia-Kid episodes that punctuate The Passenger. It again underlines the vaudevillian aspect of these interstitial pieces, while also highlighting the novel’s themes of ventriloquism—of how memory of the dead might speak through the living, as the living grapple with death.

The quips above feature another of the Kid’s malapropisms — in this case his substitution of “progeny of Western Union” for property of Western Union. The Freudian slip (never really a slip on our imp’s tongue) points to The Passenger’s incest motif. It turns out that the dummy’s name is Crandall (perhaps named for the typewriter?). It’s likely Alicia herself named Crandall, and her grandmother tailored his clothes. I think the strong implication is that handy Bobby Western built (fathered) Crandall. In this sense, Crandall is the dreamchild born of a Western union. “I was only six,” Alicia cries as he disappears back into his case.


The incest motif perforates the literary tradition. We find it in Oedipus, in Lot seduced by his daughters, in David’s children Tamar and Amnon–a tale recapitulated in Faulkner’s southern Gothic Absalom! Absalom! We find it coded in Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” or made strange but more clear in Melville’s baffling Pierre. We find it in the tawdry attic of V.C. Andrew’s lurid Dollanganger novels (likely read by many more Americans than the other novels I’ve named).

The incest thing in literature is, of course, an exploration of taboo, and is such the rightful property (or progeny) of literature. In his seminal (and often bombastic) study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler suggests that “brother-sister incest in particular comes to stand in Romantic symbology for the rebellion against paternal authority, for the spirit of revolution itself.” He continues, declaring that the “Oedipal significance” of this revolutionary spirit “projects not only the desire to revolt, but also to die; that is to say, beneath the yearning for rebellion lies hidden the wish to be punished for it.”


Le’ts follow Fiedler’s reading (ahem, rehashing of Freud) and stick it on to the Western children: What is the paternal authority they rebel against—that is, beyond the actual literal father (a marginal memory)? Père Western was one of the lead authors of the atomic bomb. He changed the American relationship to death, permanently.


I have a little under a hundred pages left to go in The Passenger, but if either Bobby or Alicia has expressed overt familiar guilt over their father’s work in engineering mass death, I’ve missed it. What does linger is a deep-seated, unspoken anxiety about their father’s deeds.


At the end of his own surreal and improbable conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, Bobby expresses the only loss of his life, the only ashes in his world:

There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None.

The emotional outburst, with its plaintive tone and cycle of repetitions, is rare for Bobby Western: for the most part, when The Passenger juts its free indirect speech into Bobby’s skull, we get simple, direct (if increasingly paranoid) language.


It’s when he thinks of his sister Alicia that Bobby’s voice gives over to passion, to a kind of Gothic romantic language that recalls Poe more than Hemingway. Consider how Gothic frills in the following passage soon give way to an archaic and obscure (yet still ornate) style that recalls the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian:

In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw half-sentient mud quivering red on the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?


(I had not intended to type out the entire passage above, but once I got going I couldn’t stop.)


Bobby’s dream begins as an erotic manifestation of his sister, a Gothic evocation in silk ribbon or Grecian garb. She takes to a “stone stage,” again underscoring the shift into high drama. “I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe,” she declares. The word shadowlane here seems like a symbolic substitution for the near homphone chatelaine, an archaic word for a woman who keeps a castle or great house (readers of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series will be familiar with the word).

A chatelaine also refers to a chain belt used for holding keys, an image that carries over into the second half of Bobby’s dream, which shifts from eroticism to terror. Shadowy figures inhabit a “dusky penetralium,” an innermost chamber, a locked place. Here, the figures labor with red “half-sentient mud” (Adamic atoms) in an “autoclave” (self-key). Amidst a litter of stillbirths, the figures toil to bring a new creature into being.

Bobby’s dream moves from brother-sister incest to the Gothic terror of a laboratory creation coming to life—an evocation of the father’s sins. Bobby’s subconscious mind transmutes the Manhattan Project into a satanic ritual presided over by a clandestine “heresiarch” — the damning father figure whose strange experiment impede Bobby’s incestuous consummation. Instead, we get another Western union. And the promise of death.


(More thoughts to come.)

You never did the Thalidomide Kid | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

The Thalidomide Kid found her in a roominghouse on Clark Street. Near North Side. He knocked on the door. Unusual for him. Of course she knew who it was. She’d been expecting him. And anyway it wasn’t really a knock. Just a sort of slapping sound.

–The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

Surely you must know who it is who cuts the ludicrous figure here.

Do I? Who you gonna ask? And don’t call me Shirley.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

What do they want? What does who want?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy [italics mine]

The wankers had a word for it.

We saw it in a book Crosseyed Ruby showed us. Phocomelia. Ruby said that’s Greek and means seal limb. Fukkin seal limb!

Skin, Peter Milligan, Brendan McCarthy, and Carol Swain


I’m a bit over halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger and enjoying it very much. I haven’t read any reviews, but I’ve seen some tweets and some other internet buzz that seems to indicate that Reviews Are Mixed. I went into the novel with minimal expectations, as I admitted in my first little riff on it. 

But so far The Passenger has done what I hoped it might do: show McCarthy venturing into new territory, but territory still anchored in his roots. It also is, at least up through its first 200 pages, McCarthy’s most accessible novel.

As I write the words “McCarthy’s most accessible novel,” I realize that it’s entirely possible that previous McCarthy novels have taught me to read The Passenger—but I don’t think that’s so. The Passenger offers a somewhat-straightforward frame of alternating strands. Numbered chapters (composed in italics) hover in the mind of the schizophrenic genius Alicia Western, whose suicide (no spoiler) initiates the novel. These short chapters then give way to the main narrative thrust of The Passenger in unnumbered chapters that focus on Alicia’s brother Bobby Western, a near-genius with an eidetic memory and a hole in his soul.

Bobby Western is a salvage diver based out of New Orleans. In his initial chapter, he searches the wreck of a small plane in the Gulf of Mexico, and quickly realizes that–gasp!–a passenger from the manifest is missing (along with a control panel) from the wreck. Bobby’s subsequent investigations into the whereabouts of the missing passenger lead to his being tailed and surveilled by a nebulous They. Paranoia!

The prose mechanics of the Bobby chapters are reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (lots of men-doing-stuff in detail), as well as the genre fictions of George V. Higgins, Chester Himes, or James Ellroy. The Bobby chapters also lend a bagginess to the novel. They often sprawl out into long conversations with his friends that amount to pleasant asides from the plot proper—a Vietnam vet, a transwoman, a college buddy turned petty thief. We also start to cobble together the Western family history. Alicia and Bobby’s father was a physicist who worked with Oppenheimer to develop the atomic bomb.

With the specter of a They and the haunted past of the Bomb, The Passenger drifts into Pynchon territory. The Alicia chapters go a step beyond superficial connections, unexpectedly approaching Pynchonian prose, particularly in the figure of Alicia’s interlocutor, the Thalidomide Kid (usually simply called The Kid, an echo perhaps of Blood Meridian).

(Parenthetically–The Thalidomide Kid, who shows up almost immediately in The Passenger, is only the second so-called “thalidomide baby” that I’ve seen appear in a work of fiction. The first was Martin Atchet in the graphic novel Skin, written by Peter Milligan, with art by Brendan McCarthy, and colors by Carol Swain. Track it down if you dare.)

The Thalidomide Kid presides over the “horts,” the cohort of intelligences and personalities that vie for space in Alicia’s troubled mind. The Kid is part carny, part philosopher, slipping on malapropisms and dealing in corny jokes and bad puns. He could have walked right out of a Pynchon novel. He dons costumes, performs parlor tricks, and runs vaudeville routines. In one bit, wearing “frockcoat and frightwig,” he mocks modern psychiatry, playing false Freud to Alicia’s patient (she’s recently returned from analysis, soon on her way to electroshock therapy). Elsewhere, they discuss the philosophy of math. Or maybe the math of philosophy–these bits might be beyond my ken (and beyond McCarthy’s ken). The Thalidomide Kid episodes are simultaneously hallucinatory and lucid, zany and sinister, comic and tragic. The mode, again, strikes me as more Pynchonian than what we might think of as classic McCarthy (Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy).

I’ve overemphasized (and foregrounded, both in the title of this post and the quotes I’ve pulled) a connection between The Passenger and Pynchon’s fiction, but to be clear, there is no sense that McCarthy is aping Pynchon. Indeed, I’d be surprised if McCarthy has ever read Pynchon. What I see in common between the fiction of these two old masters (just five years apart in age) is a kind of filtering of the twentieth century, a distillation of not just themes, but also style. Pynchon has always made his ventriloquist act clear to his audience, (even as he ironizes it). In The Passenger, McCarthy finally seems a bit looser, more relaxed, more willing to let the genres and voices bend and refract. It might not be as cutting and heavy as Blood Meridian or Suttree, but it’s every bit as vibrant and inventive. More thoughts to come.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

Last Friday of no-school summer blog

Our air conditioner broke this week. Specifically, the fan motor broke, after a big power surge that left us without electricity for about six hours.

I read most of Fernanda Melchor’s novel Paradais (in Sophie Hughes’ translation) that day. While it’s not as rich and full (and really, just long) as her novel Hurricane Season, it’s cut from the same abject cloth. Two kids working towards becoming full-time alcoholics in an upscale development somewhere in Mexico ruin their lives. It’s a grimy glowing postmodern gothic, part of the Nothing Good Happens genre of what I think of as the Nothing Good Happens genre, reminiscent of Handke’s Funny Games, Bolaño’s myth crimes, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon romance terrors. Good stuff.

But our air conditioner is still broken, and school starts for the kids this Monday, and Florida is burning hot, like a lot of the northern hemisphere. It’s pretty bad! I taped foil to the skylights, where the infrared thermometer was hitting over a hundred today, even though it was cloudy. It’s likely that the twenties might offer some of the best years this century will yield,. Dour thought.

I had covid for a nice-not-nice chunk of July. I still have a cough from it, although I never got really sick. I went to the used bookstore maybe a week ago. It was the first place I went to after I recovered and cleared quarantine. I  picked up Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice “trilogy” (BroIce, and 23,000), in translation by Jame Gambrell. I also picked up a Vintage Contemporaries edition of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. I didn’t read those this week; I read Vladimir Sorokin’s Blue Lard (trans. Max Lawton), a true mindfuck, and Melchor’s Paradais. 

Some dirty motherfucker stabbed Salman Rushdie today. Antarctic heatwave. The US DOJ is investigating a former president of the United States of America for espionage related to selling nuclear secrets. I went to the bookstore again.

I picked up a thin novel published by New Directions, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, in translation by Elisabeth Jaquette. Here is ND’s jacket copy:

Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba—the catastrophe that led to the displacement and exile of some 700,000 people—and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and among their victims they capture a Palestinian teenager and they rape her, kill her, and bury her in the sand.

Many years later, in the near-present day, a young woman in Ramallah tries to uncover some of the details surrounding this particular rape and murder, and becomes fascinated to the point of obsession, not only because of the nature of the crime, but because it was committed exactly twenty-five years to the day before she was born. Adania Shibli masterfully overlays these two translucent narratives of exactly the same length to evoke a present forever haunted by the past.

I ran into a former student today at the bookstore. Always feels good. So I guess I’ll end on that, a positive note, a little hope.

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:

For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…

This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.

Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.

Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.

Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.

Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:

At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.

For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…

These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.

The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).

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End of July blog

It is the end of July 2022 and I am on the seventh day of quarantine in my bedroom. I tested positive for COVID-19 again on Friday, and while I feel fine for the most part, the first few days of the illness were a fog. I had always thought I’d catch up on reading or watching films if I were to catch covid, but my brain didn’t work that way. Instead, I played a lot of online chess, losing a lot more than usual, with the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings films on in the background on an old laptop.

Over the past few days I’ve felt a lot better, and have been able to retain what I’ve read. A lot of that reading consisted of essay drafts for the online Summer B classes I’m teaching, which come to end very soon. But last night I was able to jump back into Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard, in translation by Max Lawton (forthcoming from NYRB next year). It is simply amazing, a totally fucked up wild ride that’s impossible to summarize. Here’s a brief description from Max (via email): “The reader should be confused and it should hurt—then feel fucking good. This isn’t gloppy OLDOSEX; when reading Sorokin, we’re fucking nostrils with forked dicks (or—getting our nostrils fucked by the same).” THE READER SHOULD BE CONFUSED AND IT SHOULD HURT—THEN FEEL FUCKING GOOD! Yes!

I have a big stack of books in the room, including several by Sorokin. They form a big stack only because I stacked them up to take the picture below to accompany this blog; previously they were in smaller stacks or strewn or in a basket to the right of my bed.

There’s a lot of Sorokin in the stack, but not Max Lawton’s Blue Lard translation, because it doesn’t exist in a hard copy in English. Day of the Oprichnik (trans. Jamey Gambrell) was good, but the language wasn’t nearly as rich as the language of Telluria—although Oprichnik felt like it could fit into Telluria, or at least the same universe. I got Their Four Hearts in the mail yesterday, and Ice a few weeks ago, but haven’t dipped into either.

Other thoughts on the stack: I felt well enough yesterday (aided by two coffees and a prednisone) to write something on Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer. I brought the Turgenev back here when I first tested positive with covid because it was on a stack on my coffee table of books I was ostensibly going to get to or needed to review. I read Blixa Barged’s Crosswise Europe back in June and couldn’t really think of anything to say about it. I had it out because I’ve been meaning to mail it to a friend.

I must’ve acquired the copy of McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses on 14 July 2022, right before I left for a week in Washington, D.C. (the trip that undoubtedly resulted in the covid). I know the date because I posted some cool book covers on twitter that day.

I had painted our living room that week, which involved cleaning, moving, and sorting three ladder bookcases. I ended up culling about forty titles, and I took maybe half of those to the used bookstore on the fourteenth and turned them into a first edition hardback of All the Pretty Horses.

I wrote about acquiring Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais (and covid) in D.C. After I finish Blue Lard, this is on deck. Also in the stack but unread: Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night. Ugo Tognazzi’s The Injester is a cookbook from Contra Mundum. I read Anthony Michael Perri’s The Lonely Boxer earlier this month and need to write a review of it (it’s good!). The bottom three books (Powell, Lispector, O’Connor) I picked up at an estate sale two weeks ago (wrote about it here). I tried reading one of the Powell stories on Tuesday (or Wednesday?) but couldn’t focus.

Wedged in the middle there is a Grove Press edition of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that I had been destroying in office hours back in 2014. I had really been enjoying writing over it and posting pics of the pages I’d done, but someone wrote in to tell me that it was corny and for some reason that really got to me and I stopped. I was younger then (obviously); if someone did that today I’d probably ignore it completely.

I opened the book just now; I’d left off on page 24, although the last one I posted on the blog was page 22. Here is page 22:

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I’ll do page 25 now.

Here is page 25:

Not my best work, but I enjoyed the process!

So there’s the stack.

So, end of July, ass end of summer. There were positive times—hanging with extended family on the Fourth of July week on the beautiful Florida Gulf Coast (my now not-so-little cousins actually still wanted to play D&D). Some nice museum visits in D.C., some good reads in between. But July came in with a host of draconian Supreme Court rulings that seem to push the U.S. more steeply towards an outright autocracy in the making and closed with my spending over a week in quarantine, and the only good thing about the global heatwave that’s burned up the month might be that it seemed to wake a few people up to a future that’s already here. So, yeah, fuck July.

Last day of school

Today was the last day of school for my kids. They both started new schools this year (high school and middle school). It’s been a weird few years and a bad few days. My son chose not to attend the last two days but my daughter wanted to see her friends. My mother called me the afternoon of the Ulvade murders to ask if my kids were okay and I didn’t even know how to answer. My daughter has been in two active-shooter lockdowns already in her life and she’s not even 15. They’ve spent their entire life fully inscribed in this nightmare. One of the worst memories of my early parenthood was my daughter coming home from kindergarten and describing her first active-shooter practice drill: “Some of us were weeping,” she said. It was the word weeping that really stuck with my wife and me—the odd precision of it.

I don’t want to rant on here; that’s not what this blog is for, and not what I imagine those who check in on it want to read or see. I expressed my own sense of horror and despair obliquely on here the other day, in any case.

I spent too much of today staring at screens, reading, horrified and angry, still stunned by the stupidity of the world we’ve botched together. I tried to pick up the book I’ve been trying to read, but I found I couldn’t press into it, couldn’t focus on a sentence let alone a paragraph. I ended up playing a lot of internet chess, on the smaller screen.

And then I found myself exhausted, needing to get out of the house. So I pulled the same Friday trick I always do, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I went to the used bookstore down the road.

I like to browse and handle the material there, looking for oddities and weird scores. I ended up with a hardback ex-library copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (trans. Jamey Gambrell, RIP). It’s in the stack below, a stack of books I’ve read or am (ostensibly) reading:

And so some mini-not-reviews, top to bottom:

Kou Machida’s Rip It Up (trans. Daniel Joseph): Read it back in April when I was finishing up the semester—it was a wonderful punk-psych antidote to final essay doldrums. Short, kinetic, caustic, and surreal. I wrote about the first part here.

Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat: This is the novel I attempted to start a few days ago, after finishing William Burroughs’s The Western Lands. I am having a hard time reading anything right now, let alone writing any proper review. I hope the thing I once had comes back.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria (trans. Max Lawton): The best contemporary novel I’ve read in a long time—a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Rich and dense but also loose and funny, Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad.

Antonio di Benedtto’s The Silentiary (trans. Esther Allen): The narrator of this understated Kafkaesque novel cannot abide the increasing cacophony of 20th-century life. His resistance to noise is futile though, and comes at great cost to both himself and his family. The Silentiary is good stuff, but not as achieved as Di Benedetto’s novel Zama.

I bought Sorokin’s Day of Oprichnik today.

(Parenthetically: I went to the bookstore, as I stated above, to try to decompress, get away from screens, news, etc.—but I could not.

There was a young woman standing near the “RE” area in General Fiction having the loudest possible conversation one can have on a phone without actually yelling. She was talking at her mother about all the strife she has with her brother, who is also her roommate, and her father (who is divorced from the mother). The young woman cursed in almost every sentence she spoke, damning her brother for not taking out the trash, for not doing the dishes, etc. She near-shouted about her father’s siding with her brother, and about how the whole situation necessitates more therapy for her, and how she is the sane responsible one, while her brother is not. Her brother refuses to engage with her when she addresses him, claiming that he claims he can’t talk to her when she shouts, but how can she not be emotional when she’s angry? And how does that mean that she’s not rational, just because she’s yelling? And isn’t he really the abusive one, for shutting down on her and not responding when she, a grown-ass adult, is simply trying to confront him about not doing what he should be doing?

I put this information together in waves over 45 minutes. It was like running up a caustic radio show that tuned in and out depending on my proximity to its signal. Vile.)

William S. Burroughs’s final trilogy: I haven’t read WSB in ages, but I finished up his last novel, The Western Lands a few days ago (not pictured because it’s still in my car; I’d been rereading bits during carpool pick-up).. The final three books in Burroughs’s oeuvre are maybe his best (and most-overlooked), and The Place of Dead Roads is particularly fantastic.

Okay, I’m out of juice. I hope the summer is better for most of us, although there’s not much force in that verb, hope.

A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2022, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 85th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. To celebrate, here are short riffs on Pynchon’s eight novels:

V. (1963)

I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last year and found it far more achieved than I had remembered. For years I’ve always recalled it as a dress rehearsal for the superior and more complex Gravity’s Rainbow. And while V. certainly points in GR’s direction, even sharing some characters, it’s nevertheless its own entity. I first read V. as a very young man, and as I recall, thought it scattershot, zany, often very funny, but also an assemblage of set pieces that fail to cohere. Rereading it two decades later I can see that there’s far more architecture to its plot, a twinned, yoyoing plot diagrammed in the novel’s title. The twin strands allow Pynchon to critique modernism on two fronts, split by the world wars that mark the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a perfect starting point for anyone new to Pynchon, and its midpoint chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” is as good as anything else he’s written.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Pynchon’s shortest novel is not necessarily his most accessible: Crying is a dense labyrinth to get lost in. At times Pynchon’s second novel feels like a parody of L.A. detective noir (a well he’d return to in Inherent Vice), but there’s plenty of pastiche going on here as well. For example, at one point we are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy, which serves as a kind of metatextual comment on the novel’s plot about a secret war between secret armies of…letter carriers. The whole mailman thing might seem ridiculous, but Pynchon’s zaniness is always doubled in sinister paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49 is a story about how information is disseminated, controlled, and manipulated. Its end might frustrate many readers. We never get to hear the actual crying of lot 49 (just as we never discover the “true” identity of V in V.): fixing a stable, centered truth is an impossibility in the Pynchonverse.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Unbelievably rich, light, dark, cruel, loving, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding, Pynchon’s third novel is one of a handful of books that end up on “difficult novel” lists that is actually difficult. The difficulty though has everything to do with how we expect a novel to “happen” as we read—Gravity’s Rainbow is an entirely new thing, a literature that responds to the rise of mass media as modernist painters had to respond to the advent of photography and moving pictures. The key to appreciating and enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow, in my estimation, is to concede to the language, to the plasticity of it all, with an agreement with yourself to immediately reread it all.

Vineland (1990)

It took Pynchon a decade and a half to follow up Gravity’s Rainbow. I was a boy when Vineland came out—it was obviously nowhere on my radar (I think my favorite books around this time would probably have been The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and likely a ton of Dragonlance novels). I do know that Vineland was a disappointment to many fans and critics, and I can see why. At the time, novelist David Foster Wallace neatly summed it up in a letter to novelist Jonathan Franzen: “I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV.” Vineland is angry about the Reagan years, but somehow not angry enough. The novel’s villain Brock Vond seems to prefigure the authoritarian police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon’s condemnation of Vond never quite reconciles with his condemnation of the political failures of the 1960s.  Vineland is ultimately depressing and easily my least-favorite Pynchon novel, but it does have some exquisite prose moments.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

If Mason & Dixon isn’t Pynchon’s best book, it has to be 1A to Gravity’s Rainbow’s 1. The novel is another sprawling epic, a loose, baggy adventure story chronicling Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Enlightenment effort to survey their bit of the Western World. Mason & Dixon presents an initial formal challenge to its reader: the story is told in a kind of (faux) 18th-century vernacular. Diction, syntax, and even punctuation jostle the contemporary ear. However, once you tune your ear to the (perhaps-not-quite-so-trustworthy) tone of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (who tells this tall tall tale), Mason & Dixon somehow becomes breezy, jaunty, even picaresque. It’s jammed with all sorts of adventures: the talking Learned English Dog, smoking weed with George Washington, Gnostic revelations, Asiatic Pygmies who colonize the missing eleven days lost when the British moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…Wonderful stuff. But it’s really the evocation of a strange, hedged, incomplete but loving friendship that comes through in Mason & Dixon.

Against the Day (2006)

Oof. She’s a big boy. At over a thousand pages, Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel. Despite its size, I think Against the Day is the best starting point for Pynchon. It offers a surprisingly succinct and clear summation of his major themes, which might be condensed to something like: resist the military-industrial-entertainment-complex, while also showing off his rhetorical power. It’s late period Pynchon, but the prose is some of his strongest stuff. The songs are tight, the pastiche is tighter, and the novel’s epic sweep comes together in the end, resolving its parodic ironies with an earnest love that I believe is the core of Pynchon’s worldview. I forgot to say what it’s about: It’s about the end of the nineteenth century, or, more accurately, the beginning of the twentieth century.

Inherent Vice (2009)

Inherent Vice is a leaner work than its two predecessors, but could stand to be leaner still. The book pushes towards 400 pages but would probably be stronger at 200—or 800. I don’t know. In any case, Inherent Vice is a goofy but sinister stoner detective jaunt that frags out as much as its protagonist, PI Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation finds its way through those fragments to an end a bit different from Pynchon’s original (which is closer to an echo of the end of The Crying of Lot 49)—PTA’s film finds its emotional resolution in the restoration of couple—not the main couple, but adjacent characters—an ending that Pynchon pulled in his first novel V.

Bleeding Edge (2013)

While Bleeding Edge was generally well received by critics, it’s not as esteemed as his major works. I think that the novel is much, much better than its reputation though (even its reputation among Pynchon fans). Pynchon retreads some familiar plot territory—this is another detective novel, like Crying and Inherent Vice—but in many ways he’s doing something wholly new here: Bleeding Edge is his Dot Com Novel, his 9/11 Novel, and his New York Novel. It’s also probably his domestic novel, and possibly (dare I?) his most autobiographical, or at least autobiographical in the sense of evoking life with teenagers in New York City, perhaps drawing on material from his own life with wife and son in the city. It’s good stuff, but I really hope we get one more.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2021.]

A few thoughts on John Williams’ brilliant historical novel Augustus

At the beginning of April, an old friend (who wrote some excellent reviews on this site in the past) told me that I needed to read John Williams’ 1972 novel Augustus. I loved Williams’ Stoner, which I read (and reviewed) a decade ago, when its cult status seemed to explode thanks to a new edition from NYRB. After Stoner, I tried a few times to read Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, but never got too deep into it. I handled copies of Augustus a few times at bookstores, but the subject didn’t appeal to me. But my friend recommended it, and he’s never steered me wrong, so I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open.

I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open and didn’t put it down that much, unless I had to, until I’d finished it. The novel tells a life story of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, grand nephew Julius Caesar, who suceeds and avenges his assassinated great uncle (and adoptive father) to become the first Emperor of Rome. I was surprised at how much Roman history I remembered—some of it through two Shakespeare plays, some of it through an old HBO show, but most of it from, like, school. And this is one of the most fascinating elements of Augustus—Williams takes an old story and revivifies it.

Essentially an epistolary novel, Augustus features a rotating cast of voices. Prominent among these voices are Augustus’ — or really, Octavian’s — core group of friends, Maecenas, Agrippa, and Virgil. We also hear from notables including Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, and Ovid, as well as many other voices, both invented and historical. There’s something addictive about Williams’ lucid prose, which imbues each character’s voice with its own distinctive style without falling into rhetorical gimmickry.

The early parts of the novel focus on young Octavian’s rise—the assassination of Julius Caesar, the warring Triumvirate, the political intrigue which overlaps with familial duty. We see Octavian/Augustus from multiple perspectives, but Williams’ withholds his hero’s voice until late in the novel. It’s Augustus’ daughter Julia who emerges, slowly, as the novel’s most sympathetic (and ultimately tragic) hero. Her sections of the book are particularly poignant, and recall from Stoner the doomed relationship between William Stoner and his daughter Grace.

Augustus is sad and wise but never dour. Williams harnesses the intellect and soul of his characters, who are simultaneously mortal and timeless. So many passages seem to describe life in the present-day United States (as well as other Western democracies). Consider the lines Williams attributes to Augustus’ intellectual adviser Maecenas, writing late in his life to the historian Livy:

What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.

The complacency, the greed, the cynical failure to not just live up to its expressed ideals, but to take for suckers those who would still believe in those ideals—there’s something heartbreaking about the way Augustus anticipates contemporary democracy in peril to spectacle, hypocrisy, and avarice.

The titular character takes over in the brilliant last act of Augustus. Our Emperor is an old man, melancholy, reflective, but ultimately hopeful that he’s left the empire in good hands (he hasn’t). His final letter echoes Maecenas’ concerns about the corruption of Roman ideals:

. . . I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world. Julius Caesar had come to power in a world that was corrupt beyond your understanding. No more than six families ruled the world; towns, regions, and provinces under Roman authority were the currencies of bribery and reward; in the name of the Republic and in the guise of tradition, murder and civil war and merciless repression were the means toward the accepted ends of power, wealth, and glory. Any man who had sufficient money could raise an army, and thus augment that wealth, thereby gaining more power, and hence glory. So Roman killed Roman, and authority became simply the force of arms and riches. And in this strife and faction the ordinary citizen writhed as helplessly as the hare in the trap of the hunter.

And yet Williams’ Augustus is a realist, but one who tempers his perceptions of reality in a compassionate idealism:

Do not mistake me. I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.

I haven’t done enough to convey how wonderful Augustus is. Very highly recommended.

Hiroko Oyamado’s subtle novel The Hole captures the banal surreal loneliness of modern life

Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Hole is a subtle, slim, slow-burn low-stakes horror story that tiptoes neatly between banality and surrealism. Our first-person narrator is Asahi, a young, recently-married woman. Asahi–or Asa, as she thinks of herself–is a part-time employee in a large city somewhere in Japan. She doesn’t really have any friends or hobbies, let alone any ambitions. When her husband Muneaki gets a job transfer to the countryside, Asa’s mother-in-law Tomiko offers the young couple the house next to hers, rent-free. The young couple’s economic situation means they can’t refuse, so they don’t. Asa’s only real acquaintance, a work buddy, remarks how lucky she is to be a housewife, but Asa is ambivalent.

That ambivalence radiates throughout The Hole. In David Boyd’s spare, direct translation, Oyamada pushes her hero into a stifling, stuffy, overheated summer. The skinny novel is an exercise in boredom-as-horror: Even before Asa arrives in her husband’s rural hometown, everything’s just a wee bit off. The cicadas vibrate at a different pitch; the locals seem to come from a different era; time seems to run backwards and forwards.

Without a car or job, Asa is essentially stranded, spending her days guilty over running the AC, and unable to communicate with her husband’s grandfather, who mutely gardens his hours away.

Her only cultural landmark is a 7-Eleven convenient store, where mother-in-law Tomiko sends her on an errand one day. The banal errand becomes a bizarre Carollonian quest—but a quest without a clear object. On her route to the convenience store (what could be more boring and inconvenient?) Asa spies a large, strange, dark-furred creature:

 It had wide shoulders, slender and muscular thighs, but from the knees down, its legs were as thin as sticks. The animal was covered in black fur and had a long tail and rounded ears. Its ribs were showing, but its back was bulky, maybe with muscle or with fat.

Frantically following it, she falls into a hole that fits her nearly perfectly (like a proscribed role, or a coffin, or like, whatever):

As I tried to move, I realized how narrow the hole really was. The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me. The bottom of the hole was covered with something dry, maybe dead grass or straw. Looking toward the river through a break in the grass, all I could see was white light.

A mysterious white-clad neighbor named Sera (who calls Asa “the bride”) pulls her out from the hole, and she makes her way to the 7-Eleven, where a gang of strange children block her mission. She also meets an oddball who later claims to be the white rabbit to her lost Alice. He claims to be an unacknowledged mystery brother-in-law who lives in a shed, having relinquished adult responsibility. There are centipedes and bug bites and other strange goings on—and Asa  talks about absolutely none of it with her husband or mother-in-law.

The Hole captures the stifling omnipresence of loneliness. Asa is a sympathetic character, and while many of the details of her circumstance are particular to Japanese culture, the narrative resonates with the larger absurdities of contemporary life. Asahi’s loneliness burns all the more real for the novel’s surrealism. Her loneliness is the realest thing in The Hole, its presence never acknowledged because it cannot fully be named. The “loneliness” is more real than the quasi-mystical hole-digging creature that plagues the countryside, or the manic brother-in-law-who-lives-in-a-shed-in-the-backyard whom no one ever mentions. But unlike these surreal entities, Asa’s loneliness is never directly invoked.

The Hole will be somewhat familiar with anyone who’s climbed about in the Kafka tree. While Oyamada directly evokes Carroll’s Alice stories, her story is far less fanciful, its dire core obscured with a thin veneer of the banal. The Hole recalls the tone and mood of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, where the protagonist comes to be in an uncanny scenario that becomes uncannier by the moment. But Oyamada’s narrator doesn’t seem to demarcate the separation into unreality; rather, the novel absorbs its narrator into a new unreal-real reality.

The Hole is wonderfully dull at times, as it should be. It’s layered but brittle, with notes of a freshness just gone sour. It’s a quick, propulsive read—a thriller, even, perhaps—but its thrills culminate in sad ambiguity. Recommended.

Is this a review of David Shields’ “autobiography” The Very Last Interview?

Is David Shields’ new book The Last Interview indeed an “autobiography in question form, with the reader working to supply answers based on the questions that follow,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?

Is it “Brilliant,” as Bret Easton Ellis’ blurb attests?

(Is this the same David Shields who authored Reality Hunger?)

Does, as Chris Kraus’ blurb states, Shields remix and reimagine “2,000 of the most annoying questions he’s been asked during his forty-year writing life”?

Is it really an “operatic tragic sojourn across American cultural life” (Kraus)?

Does The Very Last Interview confirm “Shields as the most dangerously important American writer since William S. Burroughs,” as Kenneth Goldsmith claims in his blurb?

(Is this the same Kenneth Goldsmith who was called out seven years ago for a publicly reading Michael Brown’s autopsy under the guise of “conceptual poetry”?)

Is it actually “very funny,” as Sheila Heti’s blurb contends?

Should I flip it over and actually dig in?

Is that a Richard Diebenkorn painting adorning the cover?

Are there actually five more blurbs once one opens the book?

Does Shields organize this “remix: of questions he’s (supposedly) been asked into chapters with titles like “Process,” “Truth,” “Art,” “Failure,” “Criticism,” and “Suicide”?

Does Shields open each chapter with epigraphs?

Does he attribute the authors of the epigraphs?

Is there an epigraph from Nietzsche?

Why doesn’t he attribute any of the interviewers at any point in The Very Last Interview?

Does David Shields believe he is a genius?

Does he believe that his audience will find delight or joy or even a momentary reprieve from reading The Very Last Interview?

When Jonathan Lethem (whose blurb makes the inside but not the back cover) claims he “blasted through it in one night,” is it possible that by “night” he means a thin hour or two?

Is the book skinnier than its 150 pages might suggest?

Are there any bits of the book that are, as Heti blurbed, “Very, very funny”?

How about this trio?

“When we are not sure, we are alive” — are you sure this is something that Graham Green said?

Can you prove it?

Do you know what “JSTOR” stands for?

Does this little blip skate closer to mildly amusing as opposed to very very funny?

But is there a general undertone of contempt that radiates in Shields’ curation of questions?

What about these?

Do you share my contempt for Greenpoint hipsters who look and act cool but whose work is about as challenging as a Toblerone bar?

Did you every study with Gordon Lish?

What did he like about your bracelet-cum-watch?

(What would we get if we removed the hyphens from the phrase bracelet-cum-watch?)

Is it possible that David Shields overestimates how interesting he is?

Does he really want us to empathize at points, to provide answers for questions, such as the ones below?

What’s the matter with you?

No, seriously. What is your underlying impasse?

Why can’t you feel?

What’s buried beneath that seeming numbness?

Anything?

Is The Last Interview pretentious, solipsistic, shallow, bathetic, and also very readable?

Is The Last Interview available in paperback from NYRB next month?

Are we done?

Are we?

Sunday equinox blog | Atlanta, Di Benedetto, a Paley poem, ghosting William S. Burroughs, etc.

My spring break, which is to say the spring break of the community college which employs me to teach English, rarely coincides with my children’s spring break, but this year it did, and we took full advantage, spending a week in Atlanta. We stayed in Inman Park, enjoying the BeltLine and the city’s vibe in general. Airport aside, I hadn’t been to Atlanta in twenty years, and I took pleasure in our week there. (I dug the High Museum in particular, and shared some favorites from our visit on Twitter.)

I can’t remember the last time I visited a city and didn’t buy a book. A Capella Books was a short walk from our place; it’s a small, well-curated bookshop with a limited selection. A Capella offered a number of signed books by musicians, including Billy Bragg and Chris Frantz. I thought I might regret not picking up a signed copy of Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love (which I read last year), but I feel no regret as I type this sentence. I also visited Posman Books at Ponce Market. It veers close to something like a tasteful gift shop/stationery joint, but the small fiction and poetry selection is pretty good, even if a lot of it is shelf candy. I think if I’d been willing to drive farther out I might’ve found some deeper cuts. (My wife pointed out that our local used bookstore, 1.1 miles away, has utterly spoiled me.)

Anyway: No books acquired in Atlanta. (I did buy some records though: Fat Mattress’s debut and Fleetwood Mac’s Heroes Are Hard to Find.)

I brought Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary with me to reread on the trip. I read it back in January, dogeared it, and started a review, but found that I wanted to let it settle a bit. I liked it the first time round, but the reread revealed a sadder, deeper novel than I had initially estimated.

Other stuff I’ve been reading:

Grace Paley’s late collection of poems, Fidelity. Grand stuff. Sample:

I’ve also been picking through Helen Moore Barthelme’s biography Donald Barthelme: Genesis of a Cool Sound, although there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.

I picked up the Paley and Barthelme when I swung by our campus library to get Don’t Hide the Madness, a series of conversations between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is getting pretty close to the end of his life here, and Ginsberg seems to want to get him to further cement a cultural legacy through a late oral autobiography. Burroughs repeatedly derails these attempts though, which is hilarious. Burroughs talks about whatever comes to mind (often his guns). The cover by Robert Crumb is worth sharing:

I initially requested the Burroughs book because I’ve been rereading Cities of the Red Night—and absolutely loving it—and I was trying to figure out who it was who may or may not have played a role in ghostwriting the book with Burroughs. Cities is straighter than much of Burroughs’ work—but it’s still thoroughly Burroughsian. It’s entirely possible that a straighter hand cobbled Burroughs’ images and fragments together, at least to some extent, although I think it’s erroneous to refer to the novel as ghostwritten. As far as I can tell, the claim originates with Dennis Cooper’s obituary in the October 1997 issue of Spin:

My initial guess was that Cooper here insinuates that Victor Bockris helped arrange Cities of the Red Night. Bockris was around Burroughs a lot when Burroughs was working on Cities; however, Bockris suggests that it was Burroughs who corrected his prose:

From 1979 to 1981, I had the privilege of working with William Burroughs (aged sixty-five to sixty-seven) editing two books: my portrait With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (St. Martins, 1996), and his selected essays, The Adding Machine (Arcade, 1996). At the same time, Burroughs was finishing his long-awaited novel, Cities of the Red Night (Holt, 1981), which would inaugurate a whole new person and period in his career, opening the doors to sixteen highly productive, positive years (1981-97) writing, painting, acting, performing, recording. Consequently, I suppose I am one of the ten to twelve people who ever got close enough to Bill professionally to see into his writing center. When I gave him the manuscript of With William Burroughs (75 percent of which was taped dialogue of conversations between Burroughs and fifteen other celebrities), he not only corrected the sometimes atrocious writing, he added a handful of precious inserts.

More digging seems to suggest that it was the artist Steven Lowe who helped Burroughs arrange Cities. Rick Castro’s appreciation of Lowe goes as far as to assert that, Lowe “was a ghostwriter for Burroughs, assisting on Cities of the Red NightJunkie, and a few other titles.”

Ultimately, I agree with Jamie Russell in Queer Burroughs (2001), that

The rumor that the post-Red Night trilogy texts were partly ghostwritten is perhaps…more of a compliment than the criticism it was intended to be, since it highlights Burroughs’ central theme of the 1980s and 1990s texts: the creation of a post-corporeal real. Who needs a body to write with anyway?

Typing that out, I realize that I’ve inserted an entirely different post into this Sunday equinox post. Oh well.

I love Cities of the Red Night—it’s funny and gross and oddly sweet and even sentimental, an ironic pastiche of the so-called “boys books” genre, as well as a howl against war, conformity, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. The novel it most reminds me of (apart from other Burroughs’ novels) is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

I’m also, thanks to the audiobook, into the third section of Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King. The second section focused on the protagonist Sogolon’s domestic life. Frankly, the section sags, although I understand that it likely girds the emotional core of the events to come. The novel pivots dramatically in section three, “Moon Witch.” Sogolon has lost her memory, and is in a strange sunken city centuries in the future. That’s the good shit. More thoughts to come.

 

A voice in her head that sound like her voice | Another report from Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King

My last report from Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King found the novel’s political machinations kicking in after its first seven chapters. Our hero Sogolon finds herself in the Northern Kingdom’s capital Fasisi. The capital is soaked in paranoia. The king is dying, a fact that cannot be admitted publicly or even privately (“The King is about his business,” courtiers and officials repeat). According to custom, it is the son of the king’s daughter who will take up his crown—only Princess Emini has been unable to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her brother Prince Lukid plots a coup, assisted (and likely designed, really), by the Aesi, a Machiavellian who may or may not have magic powers. The Aesi has engineered a literal witch hunt, accusing, arresting, and executing any woman who threatens his hold on power, with the aid of the Sangomin, a band of children necromancers with mutant powers (there’s a two-headed boy, a “razor boy,” a lizard girl, etc.)

The Aesi takes special note of Sogolon, recognizing an emerging power in her that others overlook. She’s wary of him, a feeling that only intensifies as she strikes up an odd friendship with Commander Ulu, a former commander of the Royal Guard who has no memories. Sogolon intuits that it’s likely that the Aesi is responsible for the memory loss, a suspicion that solidifies later in the novel. In an attempt to retain his memories, Ulu writes them down, filling every surface of his living quarters, and even writing in blood. Over time, Sogolon learns to read, with Ulu as a kind if unwitting teacher. Sogolon’s relationship with Keme also deepens, although she learns he has a wife and family.

The relative stability of Sogolon’s life ends when the king dies and Prince Likud claims the throne, taking up the mantle Kwash Moki. The Aesi’s schemes bear fruit-in a sequence that foregrounds the novel’s background trope of witch hunting, princess Emini is put on a trial for adultery. She’s exiled to a walled city of nuns, where she is to spend the rest of her life, and Sogolon is sent with her.

They never make it to the nunnery though. Presumably at the secret command of the Aeisi, the Sangomin attack their caravan killing everyone except Sogolon. She escapes, but the Sangomin track her down. As they attack, she seems to black out. She awakes to a scene of devastating violence she has no memory of. She appears to be in a giant crater, a “smooth bowl that she will have to climb out of.” There, she sees

…them floating, first the top half of the razor finger boy, his entrails dangling, his eyes gazing into nothing, and his legs nowhere to be seen. Slabs of loose white rock and cut white stone—the big man shattered in a multitude of pieces. She climb out and walk past the red and blue girl with the lizard tongue, her hands and legs swaying as if underwater, her face sleepy, the back of her head exploded with all of her shooting out. Perplexing it be, all three floating in air like they underwater, but everything stuck as if whatever happen don’t finish.

Sogolon comes to realize that she was the author of this destruction. When her life is threatened, Sogolon musters a telekinetic force that she refers to sometimes as “wind” or as the “push”–but she can’t control it (yet).

After wandering in the wilderness and cold, she’s found by Keme and other former members of the royal guard who are now part of the Red Army—the king Kwash Moki’s army. Keme has no memory of Sogolon. He brings her back to Fasisi, despite her protest (“They sent us on a fact finding mission, and you are the fact that we found”). Thus ends part one of Moon Witch, Spider King.

I’ve cobbled together a plot summary here, but I’m sure there are many gaps (and maybe some mistakes). In Moon Witch, we’re only privy to what Sogolon sees and hears, and while she’s a curious and perceptive girl, she’s also quite young and lacks any formal education. Much of our understanding of the plot is filtered through Sogolon’s intuition, and a major motif that emerges in these chapters is memory loss, as well as the power that controlling a narrative confers. The Aesi is able to rewrite history, to make people believe things that they witnessed first-hand could not be true.

At the same time the first part of Moon Witch, subtitled “No Name Woman,” is about a consciousness creating itself. Sogolon grew up imprisoned first in a termite mound, then in a whorehouse, then in the home of a fallen aristocrat. She had to name herself, teach herself to read, to scrape together her memories into a slim personal history. In the final sections of “No Name Woman,” the narrator repeats an attribution each time Sogolon enters into a dialogue with her emerging consciousness, as in the following example:

Wake up early girl, will yourself, say a voice in her head that sound like her.

This “voice in her head that sound like her” is Sogolon’s self-making, a consciousness reaching toward the “I” that disappears after the novel’s opening sentences:

One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl.

After that second sentence, the first-person narrator disappears—only to reappear in the beginning of part two, “A Girl Is a Hunted Thing.” More thoughts to come.

See the girl | A report from Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King

One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl.

These four sentences open Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King, the not-exactly sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red WolfThat novel centered on Tracker and his quest to recover a missing child of enormous importance. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a bizarre beast, a post-postmodern fantasy that queered its genre conventions and consistently contested the very notion that a story could ever be told straight. In it, Tracker segues between ever-shifting fellowships and nebulous nemeses–including the Moon Witch Sogolon, the protagonist of Moon Witch, Spider King.

Moon Witch, Spider King takes Sogolon as its viewpoint character, and the first seven chapters of this long, long novel (about a quarter of its 600ish pages) read far more straightforward than its predecessor. The narrative gambit of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that Tracker, captured, is telling his story to an inquisitor—and that telling is a repeated deferral, teleporting through time and space (much like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport between city-states). Tracker does all he can do to tell any truth aslant. So far, James’s new novel follows a less demanding trajectory. The repeated invocation to “See the girl” follows our hero as her circumstances rise—although Sogolon experiences her rise in a picaresque, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire spirit.

We first find her an orphan of sort, a neglected witch-child more-or-less imprisoned in a termite hill by three cruel brothers, who blame her for killing their mother, who died birthing her. Sogolon even has to name herself. She escapes only to find herself in new peril, the house of Miss Azora. It’s a whorehouse, but Sogolon mixes potions to protect herself from its patrons–excepting one. The motif of male predation repeats in Moon Witch, as well as Sogolon’s resistance against those who would take her and take from her. In time, Sogolon finds herself into the house of a fallen aristocrat. Master Komwono may hold the title, but its Mistress Komwono who runs the show. Sogolon continues to spy and absorb, to play dumb, to use how others perceive her apparent weakness as an actual strength.

After Master Komwono dies under mysterious circumstances (take a guess!), Mistress Komwono is summoned back to the kingdom of Fasisi, from which she had previously been banished. A soldier named Keme is part of the caravan to bring the Komwono household to the capital, and Sogolon finds herself taken with the man. When they arrive at the palace, things take an even more sinister turn: the King is dying and his sister has disappeared (or been disapperead).

Here is where the plot machinations of Moon Witch truly kick in, shifting into a novel of political court intrigue. Mistress Komwono gives poor Sogolon to the princess of Fasisi, and she is drawn into all sorts of machinations. We begin to see the plotting of the Aesi (another of Tracker’s antagonists), whose Machiavellian moves are yet oblique to the young girl. In the meantime, witches are being burned, and Keme meets with his own fellowship (of griots and warriors and sentient lions) in a floating city. There’s a lot going on.

There’s a lot going on, but it’s a fun going on. See the girl, the narrator repeatedly intones, and James’s prose is marvelously vivid, setting strange scene after strange scene. And while the narrative voice, focused on Sogolon, is a removed third-person, I can’t help but now notice that the book opens with an I: “One night I was in the dream jungle”…who is this I, who so quickly disappears after a few sentences, replaced by the dream-memory incantation: See the girl.

(Parenthetically—while there are no Blood Meridian vibes so far to Moon Witch, Spider King, that incantation See the girl nevertheless seems to echo that McCarthy’s novel’s opening line, See the child (itself perhaps an echo of Melville’s Call me Ishmael.))

Anyway–I’m digging Moon Witch thus far. I’ve been auditing the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin) and then rereading bits for clarification. So far, I think that anyone interested in what Marlon James is doing with this so-called Dark Star trilogy would be absolutely fine starting with this one. The line is straighter than Black Leopard, the thread is easier to follow, and it’s not necessary to know the contours or details of the plot of that “first” novel. But it still points to the wonderful queer weirdness of that novel. More to come.

Behind God’s back | On Thulani Davis’s poetry collection Nothing but the Music

Here are the first lines of Thulani Davis’s 1978 poem “Mecca Flats 1907”:

On this landscape

Like a thin air

Hard to breathe

Behind God’s back

I see the doors

I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back—such an image! But the book itself is so pretty, lithe, lovely. Better to leave it unmarked?

The book is Nothing but the Music, a new collection of Thulani Davis’s poems. Its subtitle Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls, & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar: 1974-1992 is a somewhat accurate description of the content here. These are poems about music—about Cecil Taylor and The Commodores and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and Bad Brains and more. “About” is not really the right word, and of course these poems are their own music; reading them aloud reveals a complexity of rhyme and rhythm that might be lost to the eye on the page.

But where was I—I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back, but I didn’t. I didn’t even dogear the page. Instead, I went back to read Davis’s acknowledgements, a foreword by Jessica Hagedorn, and an introduction by Tobi Haslett. The material sets the stage and provides context for the poems that follow. Davis’s acknowledgments begin:

I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist, opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, DC as well as on Goree Island and in Harare, Zimbabwe. Some of it was in lofts in lower Manhattan now inhabited by millionaires, crowded bistros in Paris that are close, and legendary sites like Mandel Hall and the Apollo, radio studios, recording studios, and my many homes.

Acknowledging the weird times that have persisted (behind God’s back or otherwise), Davis touches on the COVID-19 lockdown that took the joy of live music from her—and then returned it in the strange form of “masked protesters massed in the streets singing ‘Lean on Me'” during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Poems in Nothing but the Music resonate with the protests against police violence and injustice we’ve seen this year. The speaker of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)” (surely Davis herself?) repeats throughout the poem that “I was gonna talk about a race riot,” but the folks around her are absorbed in other, perhaps more minute affairs:

They all like to hang out

Thinking is rather grim to them.

Composed in 1980, the poem documents an attempt to attempt to address the riots in May of the same year in Miami, Florida, after several police officers were acquitted in the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a black man.

The speaker of the poem embeds a poetic plea, a poem-within-a-poem:

I said, ‘they’re mad, they’re on the the bottom going down/

stung by white justice in a white town

and then there’s other colored people

who don’t necessarily think they’re colored people

taking up the middle/leaving them the ground.’

But her would-be audience is weary:

I am still trying to talk about this race riot.

Minnie looked up and said, ‘We don’t have anywhere

to put any more dead.’

Snake put on his coat to leave, ‘We never did,

we never did.’

1992’s “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue” takes for its erstwhile subject the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. The subject is far more complex though—the speaker of the poem desires joy of course, not violence:

did they acquit somebody in LA?

will we burn it down on Saturday

or dance to the Rhythm Revue

the not too distant past

when we thought we’d live on?

Is God’s back turned—or do the protagonists just live behind it?:

…I clean my house

listening to songs from the past

times when no one asked anyone

if they’d seen a town burn

cause baby everybody had.

In Nothing but the Music, music is part and parcel of the world, entangled in the violence and injustice of it all, not a mere balm or solace but lifeforce itself, a point of resistance against it all. In “Side A (Sir Simpleton/Celebration), the first of two poems on Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album X-75, Vol. I, Davis’s narrator evokes

at the turning of the day

in these winters/in the city’s bottomless streets

it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back

we/the life blood

of forgotten places/unhallowed ground

sometimes in these valleys

turning the corner of canyons now filled with blinding light streams caught between this rock & a known hard place

sometimes in utter solitude

a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost

And again there that line, a note from a previous jam—it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back—I’ll dogear it here, digitally, underline it in my little blog scrapbook.

I think seems is the right verb though, above. Does the star of “Lawn Chair on the Sidewalk” not remain in God’s gaze?

there’s a junkie sunning himself

under my front tree

that tree had to fight for life

on this Brooklyn street

disease got to its limbs

while still young

Typing the lines out, I wonder who I meant by star above.

Nothing but the Music is filled with stars. Here’s avant-piano great Cecil Taylor in “C.T. at the Five Spot”:

this is not about romance & dream

it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts

of time & space & air

In a synesthestic moment, the speaker merges her art with its subject:

the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays

delicate separate licks of poems

brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space

In the end it’s one art:

I have heard this music

ever since I can remember/I have heard this music

There are plenty more famous musicians, of course, but more often than not minor players emerge with the greatest force. There’s the unknown hornplayer whose ecstatic playing inspired 1975’s “He Didn’t Give Up/He Was Taken.” In “Leaving Goree” there are the “two Bambara women…gold teeth gleaming” who “sit like mountains” and then explode in song.

Davis crafts here characters with deft economy. Here’s the aforementioned couple of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)”:

Snake & Minnie

who love each other dearly

drink in different bars,

ride home in separate cars.

They like to kiss goodnight

with unexplored lips.

They go out of town

to see each other open.

Or the hero of 1982’s “Bad Brains, A Band”—

the idea that they think must scare people to death

the only person I ever met from southeast DC

was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen

she was tone deaf and had no ear for French

she once burned her partner in bid whist

for making a mistake

At the core of it all is Davis’s strong gliding voice, pure and clean, channeling miracle music and synthesizing it into new sounds. The speaker of “C.T. at the Five Spot” assessed Taylor’s performance as a work of physics, a transcendence beyond “romance & dream,” but the speaker of 1982’s “Zoom (The Commodores)” gets caught up in the aural romance of The Commodore’s pop magic:

zoom I love you

cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go

cause it’s so cruel without love

give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City

on the Fourth of July

the corny promises of Motown

give me the romance & the Zoom.

I love those corny promises too. The romance and the zoom are not, at least in my estimation, behind God’s back, but rather, if you believe in that sort of thing, might be God’s special dream. Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.

Nothing but the Music is available from Blank Forms Editions.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this review in Nov. 2020.]