God keep me from ever completing anything | Moby-Dick reread, riff 9

I. In this riff: Chapters 28-32.

II. I just finished Ch. 32, “Cetology,” which ends with this marvelous sentiment:

God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.

III. (Ishmael makes good here on one a sentiment he expresses at the chapter’s outset: “any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be fault.”)

IV. The notion of a “draught of a draught” again points to Moby-Dick’s emerging metatextuality, a conceit Ishmael (and, of course, Melville) initiates in Chs. 23 and 24.

V. “Cetology” is Ish’s attempt to “grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing” While the likely antecedent of the pronoun “them” in the above sentence is whales, one has to search the paragraph above to find it. I think Melville here opens his metaphor. To go a’whaling is to plumb depths.

VI. (“Cetology” is likely one of the chapters that turn a lot of readers off. It appears to be mostly whale facts, although it is not. It is Ishmael riffing on what he has seen of whales, porpoises, dolphins—which is really Melville riffing on what he has seen of these creatures.)

VII. (Parenthetically: Ishmael takes “the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call[s] upon holy Jonah to back me.”)

VIII. But back to metatextuality—in “Cetology,’ Ish organizes his descriptions of whales in bookish terms:

 I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE.

Ishmael seeks to read the natural world, but also to name and comprehend it in his own terms. He’s radically open to to encountering the deepest divers, but he’s beholden to romantically translating them into a literature of his own making.

IX. Ch. 28, “Ahab.”

Ahab, who has hitherto haunted Ishmael’s consciousness, finally appears. Rather than attempting to summarize, I’ll simply cite:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.

Ahab’s physical manifestation points toward the ambiguity at the heart of Moby-Dick: Is he hero or villain; is he marked by divine intervention or scarred by his own chosen battles?

X. (Either way, our boy Ishmael is smitten.)

XI. “Ahab” is, despite its reveal of a major character, a transitional chapter. The Pequod moves from the cold waters off New England into more tropical climes and “the warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather.”

How is dour Ahab affected?

More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.

XII. (The would have there is everything. This is a novel of hints, double negatives, ambiguities.)

XIII. Ch. 29, “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

Ch. 29 initiates Melville’s Shakespearean mode; Moby-Dick seems to turn into a stage drama, players staged in Ishmael’s consciousness. We learn of Ahab’s foul moods, and his tendency to clunk around with his ivory pegleg late at night above decks while his hardworking crew sleep below:

Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck.

Stubb makes the mistake of confronting Ahab and suggesting he apply “a globe of tow…to the ivory heel” to mute its cacophony. But Ahab will not be silenced. He rebukes Stubb in violent language: “…be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”

XIV. The long final paragraph of Ch. 29, although set off in quotation marks, nevertheless reads like Stubb’s internal monologue. Other voices have taken over the narrative before now, most notably Father Mapple in Ch. 4—but Stubb’s aside marks a rhetorical move whereby Ish somehow witnesses voices that seem impossible to access—private thoughts, whispered asides.

XV. Ishmael’s ghostly powers present again in Ch. 30, “The Pipe.” He focuses in on Ahab enthroned:

In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.

Ishmael then somehow dips into Ahab’s soliloquy. Pipe smoke no longer soothes the tortured captain. He tosses his still-lit pipe into the ocean, a symbol of…something?

XVI. In Ch. 31, “Queen Mab,” Ishmael again breeches an impossible private space. This time it’s a conversation between Stubb and Flask. Conversation isn’t the right term, really — “Queen Mab” is essentially Stubb’s complaint about being slighted by Ahab, delivered in a monologue to Flask. He relates a dream, all about being kicked by the captain. The kick recalls a remembered moment earlier in the novel when Peter Coffin, proprietor of the Spouter-Inn, relates unwittingly kicking his young child Sam from the bed while the family sleeps together. The symbolic orphaning-expulsion repeats in Ch. 22, “Merry Christmas,” when Captain Peleg kicks Ishmael in the ass.

XVII. I started with Ch. 32, “Cetology.” Here are Barry Moser’s illustrations:

Humbug or bugbear | Riff 6 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Ramadan/His Mark/The Prophet)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 17, “The Ramadan,” Ch. 18, “His Mark,” and Ch. 19, “The Prophet.”

II. “The Ramadan” again underscores Moby-Dick’s theme of death and resurrection. In Ch. 16, “The Ship,” Queequeg shuts himself up in his room to undertake a “sort of Lent or Ramadan, or day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” This “Ramadan” extends much further than Ish imagined it would, and he soon grows concerned that Queequeg may have fallen into “apoplexy.” He communicates his concerns to the inn’s chambermaid, who loses her head and yells for the proprietor, Mrs. Hussey, who loses her head in turn:

‘He’s killed himself,’ she cried. ‘It’s unfort’nate Stiggs done over again—there goes another counterpane—God pity his poor mother!—it will be the ruin of my house. Has the poor lad a sister? Where’s that girl?—there, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—“no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;”—might as well kill both birds at once. Kill? The Lord be merciful to his ghost!’

The scene plays comically—Queeg is perfectly fine—but the comedy is an ironic prefiguration of Queequeg’s fate in Moby-Dick’s strange, tragic climax.

III. At the beginning of “The Ramadan,” Ishmael claims a largehearted, ecumenical open-mindedness towards “everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical. Ishmael sings a very different tune at the end of the chapter, however:

 I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

Is Ishmael’s viewpoint Melville’s authorial position? Or is Ishmael missing something in Queequeg’s mute devotions that Melville is asking us to pick up on?

IV. In “His Mark,” Ishmael introduces Queequeg to the Quaker captains Bildad and Peleg. Alarmed at his “savage” appearance, Peleg presses the pair for Queeg’s “papers” — for documentation that he’s converted to Christianity. Ish quickly supplies a lie, claiming that Queeg is “a member of the first Congregational Church,” but when pressed harder, turns his lie into a kind of truth of Emersonian over-soulism:

‘I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.’

‘Splice, thou mean’st splice hands,’ cried Peleg, drawing nearer.

V. While the Quaker captains are impressed by Ishmael’s spiritual oratory, it’s Queequeg’s skill with the harpoon that earns the islander a place on The Pequod. After he demonstrates his acumen by harpooning a speck of tar floating on the water’s surface, Peleg offers him a job:

‘We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.’

The chapter’s comic tone culminates in Queequeg signing his mark to a misappellation:

VI. As is so often the case in Moby-Dick, comedy shifts into more serious matters. Dour Bildad asks his comrade how he could not think of death and eternity in times of peril:

‘Tell me, when this same Pequod here had her three masts overboard in that typhoon on Japan, that same voyage when thou went mate with Captain Ahab, did’st thou not think of Death and the Judgment then?’

Peleg contrasts Bildad’s morose death-obsession with a drive to survive, to live:

‘Death and the Judgment then? What? With all three masts making such an everlasting thundering against the side; and every sea breaking over us, fore and aft. Think of Death and the Judgment then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury-masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.’

VII. The next chapter is “The Prophet,” where leaving the Quaker captains, Ish and Queeg are immediately accosted by a severe-looking stranger:

 He was but shabbily apparelled in faded jacket and patched trowsers; a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck. A confluent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.

He asks if they’ve signed onto The Pequod, and tells them that they should worry about losing their souls, before mumbling that maybe a chap’s better off without one: “A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”

The stranger then warns them about Captain Ahab, who lost “his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy.” The stranger concedes that Ahab has enough soul to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps.”

Ishmael is not too alarmed by the man and asks for his name: Elijah. Named for the prophet who resisted evil Baal, Elijah is an ambiguous figure. Is he truly a prophet whose heedings should be followed, or simply a madman. Ishmael chooses to read him thus: “he was nothing but a humbug, trying to be a bugbear”; in other words, he was nothing but a hoaxer, trying to be a monster.

And yet the words Ishmael chooses phonetically splice into each other—humbugbear—pointing towards the novel’s shifting tones and ambiguous symbols. Elijah’s warnings have a strange effect on Ishmael:

…his ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk, now begat in me all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions, and all connected with the Pequod; and Captain Ahab; and the leg he had lost…and the voyage we had bound ourselves to sail; and a hundred other shadowy things.

A hundred other shadowy things to come.

No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world | Riff 4 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (A Bosom Friend/Nightgown/Biographical/Wheelbarrow)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. “A Bosom Friend” (Ch. 10)  is another one of the remarkable key early chapters of Moby-Dick. It twins Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” book-ending Ishmael’s Wild New Bedford Nights with Queequeg.

II. While Ishmael’s largehearted acceptance and quick love for Queequeg probably does not seem as eccentric to contemporary readers as it might have been to Melville’s 1851 audience, it’s nevertheless an enduring emblem of Moby-Dick’s expansive spirit.

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” Ish intones in Ch. 3; by Ch. 10, he admiringly attests that, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” In a curt but not impolite dismissal of his own culture’s moral compass, Ish declares he’ll, “try a pagan friend…since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Like Huck Finn, another American prototype who wishes to escape into the wild, Ishmael will always value raw truth over empty artifice.

III. There are so many good lines in “A Bosom Friend,” but I think this must be my favorite:

…I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.

Ishmael claims that Queequeg, a “soothing savage” has “redeemed” the world for him.

IV. It is more than possible (and so much has been written on M-D that I’m sure much has been made on the topic) that Ish (and Melville) has (have) taken what might be a complex and nuanced character in Queequeg and othered it into a flat projection screen.

Ishmael, who finds “no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits” in Queeg, might be accused of turning his bosom friend into a romanticized avatar of Ish’s own desire for a noble “savage” unconstrained by the dictates of Christian morality. However, the events of the novel and its developed characterization of Queequeg do not merit such a facile reading (or is my estimation at this point).

V. Indeed—and to jump ahead, maybe—in Ch. 12, “Biographical,” we learn Queequeg’s origin story.

Queeg is a prince of “Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South.”

Pause a moment, and look it up, seek it out.

(Wait! “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”)

Queequeg desires to travel the world in the hopes of advancing his culture, and, like so many folks in M-D, runs away to sea (to see). However, his time on whaleboats and in ports of the western world soon soon reveal to him that “it’s a wicked world in all meridians.”

He decides to “die a pagan.”

VI. Notably and necessarily, Queequeg’s “Biographical” chapter is delivered entirely in Ishmael’s voice (unlike Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” where Father Mapple overtakes the narrative).

Queequeg is always a linguistic outsider in M-D—and indeed, an outsider in general, an outsider among outsiders—but also a superhuman superhero, as the events of Ch. 13, “The Wheelbarrow,” show.

VII. I seem to be skipping around, so, fine, okay—

—in “The Wheelbarrow,” Ish and Queeg take a packet schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket, where they plan to join a whaling ship’s crew. On the schooner, one of the several “boobies and bumpkins” aboard mocks Queequeg. Queeg catches ahold of the redneck and tosses him playfully into the air, leaving him shaken but unhurt. Captain, crew, and passengers threaten the “devil” outsider, but chaos erupts when the main-sail’s boom sets loose due because of high winds. The boom knocks the redneck into the ocean. Others panic; Queeg calmly secures the spar dives into the ocean, and rescues his mocker: “The poor bumpkin was restored,” Ishmael remarks. He then tells us that “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive,” foreshadowing that not all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick.

VIII. (Or, alternately—all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick, but only through Ishmael’s wailing tale.)

IX. But I have skipped around so much—back to Ch. 10, “A Bosom Friend.” In one of the more-remarked upon moments in the book, Ish and Queeg tie the knot after a good smoke:

…he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.

X. Ishmael then, through a kind of tortuous logic, describes why he, “a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” “must turn idolator” and pray to Queeg’s pagan idol. It’s what God would want him to do, see? Ishmael’s logic is predicated on two simple principles:

–He is “to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me”

and

–“Queequeg is my fellow man”

For me, the remarkable part of Ishmael’s commitment to Queequeg isn’t the first Jesusian imperative to do unto others—it is, in other terms, to recognize the other as a fellow man.This recognition is the moral imperative of Moby-Dick.

XI. And then a sweet ending: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”

XII. “Nightgown,” Ch. 11, is a short chapter where something remarkable and likely inexplicable occurs: Ishmael and Queequeg learn to communicate.

And not just communicate at the level of base transaction or simple need, but rather share philosophical and even aesthetic viewpoints, as born out in the details of Queequeg’s story in Ch. 12, “Biographical.” Again, we might criticize Ishmael as ventriloquizing Queequeg, painting his own broad romantic visions over the possibility of a complex and nuanced character that Melville can’t muster. But I ultimately believe—or at least, I believe up until now on this reread—that Ish and Queeg’s accelerated ability to communicate points to an aspirational transcendental horizon, post-culture, post-language.

XIII. “Nightgown” also has one of my favorite moments in Moby-Dick, a little riff by Ishmael that anticipates the deconstruction of oppositions we later locate in the work of late twentieth-century language theorists:

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm.

XIV. (As a final note—I remembered this passage in Thanksgiving, 2020, after receiving a very sad text message from my aunt, who we would not be seeing that year, after having not seen her for July 4th—like so many other people feeling the smallbig losses of the year, of the absences of festival and visitation—but also feeling those traditions of festival and visitation so much dearer and warmer in their absence. Nothing exists in itself.)

Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom | Riff 2 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Carpet-Bag/The Spouter-Inn/The Counterpane)

I. Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg, and I don’t aim to add to it in any estimable way. Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick—what I take to be a key chapter, although there are probably too many supposed keys to this great big book—Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick, “The Counterpane,” begins: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.”

II. (Later Ish refers to Queeg’s “bridegroom clasp”; in the previous chapter, he tells us that he “never slept better in [his] life” — this after initially finding it impossible to fall asleep in Peter Coffin’s old bed, its mattress possibly “stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery.”)

III. Like I said, much has been made of Ish & Queeg, and I don’t know what else I can say. I just love it. I love Ishmael’s initial horror, his yelling for landlord Coffin, his quick realization that his prejudices might be undone via first-hand/eye experience. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” he tells us, even if he’s wary of Queeg smoking his tomahawk pipe in bed: “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. (M-D might be like the main American text in homosocial studies, I guess.)

V. Let’s come back to that key chapter “The Counterpane” in a moment—how about chapters 2 and 3, “The Carpet-Bag” and “The Spouter-Inn”? I guess here is a good place to be clear,

I don’t know who these riffs are for. I mean, I hope if you’ve never read Moby-Dick they make you want to read it and if you’ve read it before maybe it’ll spark you to read again. I don’t want this to just be me summarizing the book. Let me release my anxiety by leaving the italics and maybe opening a new numeral—

VI. “The Carpet-Bag”:

Ish leaves “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, although he’s too late to make it to Nantucket to join the crew of a whaler and fulfill his mission of Not Being Suicidal. The chapter ends with this remarkable paragraph:

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

The Lazarus theme twists all through M-D, right through its cataclysmic ending. It’s clearly there from the opening paragraphs—Ish’s wishes to revive himself—but this is the first overt reference.

VII. The resurrection motif is enriched in “The Counterpane.”

VIII. (Quote above—I really just love the imagery of rich boy Dives who “only drinks the tepid tears of orphans”! And the knock on his being in a temperance society!)

IX. “The Spouter-Inn”: A nice bit of worldbuilding, as the kids might say (M-D is surely a phantasy).

Proprietor Peter Coffin (“Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion”)—Peter Coffin is far funnier than I remembered. He fucks with Ish, setting him up for a night with Queeg, who’s been out selling a shrunken head. (In a marvelous little episode, he begins to sand down a dining bench for Ish to sleep on.)

Coffin (a carpenter of sorts) prefigures much of the death/rebirth theme to come in M-D. He also tiptoes the novel’s comic-tragic-something-else axis; his initial japes and jabs at Ish in this chapter give way to a heartfelt moment of near-tragedy, as he explains the origin of the bed Ish will share with Queeg:

—it’s a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There’s plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it’s an almighty big bed that. Why, afore we give it up, Sal used to put our Sam and little Johnny in the foot of it. But I got a dreaming and sprawling about one night, and somehow, Sam got pitched on the floor, and came near breaking his arm. Arter that, Sal said it wouldn’t do.

The marriage bed is spliced to infanticidal violence, to the violent exclusion of children.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

X. So let’s get to Ch. 4, to “The Counterpane,” Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg in ole Coffin’s marriage bed.

XI. I wrote “first night” above, but that’s wrong—it’s first morning I mean—the first morning after the first night. The day after.

XII. And yesterday, I wrote, in a riff on rereading M-D, that we get to know little of Ishmael’s past. I think that that statement’s true, but Ish does give us crucial information about the worst moment of his life, a kind of founding trauma that the rest of the novel’s quest might be set against.

XIII. Forgive the long quote:

My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them. When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,

—Okay I have to pause here and ask—Why chimney?

XIV. Continue, Ish:

—my mother

Wait — “my mother”? Not “stepmother”?

XV. –sorry–

…my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere. I felt dreadfully. But there was no help for it, so up stairs I went to my little room in the third floor, undressed myself as slowly as possible so as to kill time, and with a bitter sigh got between the sheets.

Our boy Ish is punished, sent to relinquish his consciousness (and any and all adventuring) on the summer solstice.

XVI. He continues (again, emphasis mine):

I lay there dismally calculating that sixteen entire hours must elapse before I could hope for a resurrection. Sixteen hours in bed! the small of my back ached to think of it. And it was so light too; the sun shining in at the window, and a great rattling of coaches in the streets, and the sound of gay voices all over the house.

Ish is without hope here. No Lazarus thing, no resurrection dealie. And all in the whitest brightest light. This in the satanic dark black white novel Moby-Dick.

XVII. Lil’ Ish’s trauma intensifies, and he begs reprieve from the wicked step-mom, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.”

XVIII. He continues; the bold-face emphasis is mine:

For several hours I lay there broad awake, feeling a great deal worse than I have ever done since, even from the greatest subsequent misfortunes.

And then Ishmael has this wild nightmare-not-epiphany:

At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.

XIX. (Melville hits on the terror of a metaphysical encounter here, a phantom moment encoded into a childhood consciousness that cannot name what is happening to it.)

XX: And then Lil’ Ish’s counterpane of days past entangles with the current counterpane of “The Counterpane” in an

My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.

XXI. (That “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom” — prefiguration of Moby-Dick? of Ahab? of the cruel wet cold world? or just a child’s small big fears?)

XXII. (In any case, this seems to be Ishmael’s epiphanic founding trauma.)

XXIII. And to bring it back to where I started,

Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg.

Let’s end on the morning after—a kind of healing epiphany, coded in otherness, exploration, and strange love:

Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.

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 forthcoming from Blank Forms Editions.

Blog about some recent reading

I have a leak in my roof and I’ve canceled my Thanksgiving plans and I’m not sure what to do about the soft coup, but, books—

Top to bottom:

I’m still scratching my head about Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini (translated by Jessica Sequeira). Sneaky strange stuff, prose-poem stuff like elastic concrete, or concrete elastic.

Started Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers last night (on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and really digging it so far. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, it seems to be about a heroin deal going sideways. Maybe the CIA is involved, maybe not. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. Reminds me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift, which I read years ago, hated, and still remember—which means I think it must be a really good novel?

I wrote Top to bottom up at the top, but Leonard Gardner’s Fat City is in line with Stone’s Dog Soldiers—Stone’s losers, I guess. The book is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader.

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from stranger stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

After I finished it, I made a list with no name of books that are “like” Motorman in their “unalikeness” to other books:

 

Blog about some recent reading

From the bottom of the stack to the top:

I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.

I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.

When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.

Blog about “Authors’ Authors,” a 1976 round up of various authors’ favorite books that year

The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”

There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.

John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:

I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.

He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:

It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.

(I had to look up the word wherry.)

Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:

I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as

The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.

Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner,  and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.

Henry Miller kept it short and sweet:

James Dickey loved something called Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith:

A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.

Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.

William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:

J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.

The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.

The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.

Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:

While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.

He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.

Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).

John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).

Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.

Blog about William Melvin Kelley’s satire Dem (book acquired 12 Aug. 2020)

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I managed to snag a cheap used copy of William Melvin Kelley’s fourth novel Dem (or, more properly, dem) yesterday. I usually just snap a pic when I do these book acquired posts, but the cover for this 1969 Collier mass-market, by Leo and Diane Dillon, was simply too good not to scan.

I read not-quite-half of dem today, and the Dillons’ cover captures Kelley’s hypercolor satire of white upper-middle-class America: the infantalized businessman, attended by a black domestic, his bored wife not-quite-off-scene; and hey—look in that mirror.

I’ll admit that the book was hard to break into for the first few moments, until a wild moment around page 20 or so, that I’m still waiting on the novel to deliver upon (or, as it seems at this point, to depart from entirely). Kelley’s style in dem is choppier, sharper, more cartoonish than his Faulknerian debut A Different Drummer and if dem skews towards absurd irony where Drummer was heroic-tragic, both novels are rooted in intense anger tempered by strange empathy.

As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

The novel I’m most interested in reading by Kelley is his last, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres, long out of print and hard (read: expensive on the internet) to find. It is, apparently, his most postmodern novel, his most polyglossic, and, if the stuff I’ve read on it is accurate, it represents his most profound satirical break/engagement with reality. Fortunately, it’s getting a reprint this fall. Looking forward to it.

Blog about acquiring a Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s Airships. (Special guest appearance by David Berman.)

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I’ve been a big fan of the Vintage Contemporaries 1980s series for ages now. The books were easily available, cheap and used, in the nineties, and I first read Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney in VC editions, later adding novels by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski to the burgeoning collection. I was thrilled to find a VC copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree years ago; I wasn’t looking for it in particular, but the spine of a Vintage Contemporaries edition is hard to miss in a used bookstore. I picked it up of course, and gave the Vintage International edition I’d read to a friend who’d just finished Blood Meridian. The dark, moody Vintage International covers strongly contrast the bright, vivid VC edition (with a surreal painting by Marc Tauss):

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In time, I’d unshelve at least one or two VC editions when browsing a used bookstore, especially if it was an author I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading and loving Joy Williams’ first collection, Taking Care, that way, as well as Charles Portis’s Norwood (which led to me reading every Portis novel I could get my hands on).

The one I really, really wanted though was the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s collection Airships. I must have seen it first–just the spine–in this great write up of VC designs at Talking Covers, and then added it to a mental list of titles to check for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Grove Press copy I have of Airships; indeed, I really dig its photorealistic cover by Hannah’s contemporary Glennray Tutor—but I guess at this point I have to admit I’m collector (of cheap eighties paperbacks).

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I read them, books, too, of course. Here’s the intro to my 2011 review of Airships:

In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

Well so and anyway:

Yesterday, browsing my beloved used bookstore, I found, while not really looking for it, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Airships. I was in the “H” section of General Fiction, looking for something by Chester Himes (which I found, but in the Mysteries section, which I really have never browsed before), and there it was, its spine singing to me from a low shelf. I was happy to note the cover is by Rick Lovell, who’s responsible for my favorite VC editions (along with, obviously, series designer Lorraine Louie). As a sort of cherry on top, my edition has a little gold sticker at the top of the inside cover, proclaiming “Square Books on the Square, Oxford Mississippi.” Hannah taught at Ole Miss for nearly three decades. Square Books is still there.

I was excited with my find and I’m a dork so I tweeted about it. The next tweet I saw in my timeline was this tweet by Christopher DeWeese (retweeted by the writer John Lingan):

(I love the blurb by Thomas Pynchon.)

David Berman was a poet, musician, and singer (and more) who died almost exactly a EemWmbXXgAAvc3zyear ago. He was kind of a hero of mine, as far as these things go, and as such I never made an attempt to contact him, even when he linked to this blog on his blog, Menthol Mountains. I absolutely love the cover he made—or did he make it? I don’t actually know—but I know that he loved Vintage Contemporaries, that they were important to him. I recall John Lingan tweeting about having to cut some of his discussion about the series with Berman in his fantastic profile of the then-not-late artist. I couldn’t find the tweet, but I reached out to John, and he told me I remembered right; he also told me he recalled seeing a copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows in Berman’s room.

I wonder if Berman and I had the same VC edition of First Love and Other Sorrows? The one with the Rick Lovell cover of butterflies on a sandcastle? Or maybe he had the one with the purple cover? I gave my copy to a good friend years ago, and have never seen one with the Lovell cover since.

I also wonder if Berman read the VC edition of Airships. I know he met Hannah, who apparently read Berman’s work. I recall now too that both men show up in The Minus Times Collected, which I never picked up. I’m going to order it now.

 

On Fran Ross’s postmodern picaresque novel Oreo

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Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Oreo is Ross’s only novel. It was met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen(New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)

Mullen gives a succinct summary of Oreo in the opening sentence of her 2002 essay “‘Apple Pie with Oreo Crust’: Fran Ross’s Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel“:

In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.

Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”

Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.

Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissueSenna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”

In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”

Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?

In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).

Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:

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Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:

 A word about weather

There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.

What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)

Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)

Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)

Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”

Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.

I haven’t written a review in sixty days–

—and even then I didn’t even label it even, the non-review, as a “review” —- what was it, sixty days ago?—a thing on Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge which I managed to pound out in time for Pynchon’s 83rd birthday on 8 May 2020, sixty odd days ago. (All these days are odd, or if not odd, then boring, and very hot humid heavy here in Florida lately, filled with smaller and bigger dreads and excuses for and away from screens, me spinning proverbial plates to distract my kids and myself from the yawning hot nothingness of a campless, socially-distant, non-vacationing summer, etc.) I signed my name, Edwin Turner, to that non-review. I also signed my name to another non-review, another thing I called a “blog about” (this is still a blog about books, isn’t it? Not sure), a blog posted about twenty-four days ago, a few days after my forty-first birthday. I let an image of a stack of books guide that post, a stupid trick I use too often, or maybe not enough, I don’t know. There were some good books and great books in the photograph in the non-review that I would like to have written proper reviews of: Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent (great), Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (good),  Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine (good/weird/good weird)—and a book I have absolutely loved, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (excellent, I think), which I have stopped in the dead middle of, for reasons that I am not sure about but which are certainly uninteresting, these reasons. There was also Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which may or may not be great, and which I loved, and which I have no interest in “reviewing.” And more Muriel Spark novels. And I bought some more Spark novels, including A Far Cry from Kensington, which is on this double-stacked shelf of books that I need to or at least want to write about or am in any case reading or have read or intend to read; look, here’s a picture, what most of you will simply scroll and scan and then move on, never having read any of this blather—

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—not in the pic is the large gorgeous alienlanguage graphic novel Anasazi by Mike Mccubbins and Matt Bryan, a really excellent and very different book that I’ve dithered around (not) reviewing for months now (starting painful starts and stabs at reviews, deleting pretentious paragraphs about Wittgenstein, deleting three word “reviews” (Get this book!), etc.): Get this book!—and etc. I’ll never finish The Complete Gary Lutz (that’s a compliment). I listened to the audiobook of Steve Erickson’s novel Zeroville (read by Bronson Pinchot of True Romance and Cousin Balki fame) and loved it and picked up another Erickson novel—Rubicon Beach. Zeroville reminded me of the fictional novel version of Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that I didn’t know I wanted. It also made me want to watch more films, and I’ve been watching at least a film a night for a while now (Can I remember the past few nights?: Princess Mononoke, Withnail & I, C.H.U.D., Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Week-End, Bringing Up Baby, Scanners, Lifeforce, The Battle for Algiers, Cutter’s Way); I listened to the audiobook of Nico Walker’s novel Cherry and liked it at first and then it really started to wear on me and then I kind of hated it by the end—my review of Cherry is “I would’ve fucking loved Cherry when I was 20″; I do not currently have an audiobook on deck. I read Claudia Rankine’s discursive memoir-poem-essay Citizen on July 3rd, and were I the kind of person who wore socks (I don’t wear socks if I can help it), they would have been knocked far, far from my hobbitfeet. I am not the right person to review Citizen but reading it was wonderful, painful, expansive. Reminded me a bit of David Markson and W.G. Sebald, but not at all like those things. Excellent stuff.

There must have been something else but I forget.

And I realize now that this post was not what I intended to write, but maybe I have to push this garbage out of me to move forward and actually write a review again (if, indeed, this is still a blog about books).

Blog about some recent reading

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From bottom to top:

I finally started Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia last week. I took the book with me to a place we rented near Black Mountain, North Carolina for a week. I purposefully took only Animalia, leaving behind two books I was in the middle of—Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent and Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine. I used the adverb purposefully in the previous sentence, although I’m not sure what my purpose was. I think I just wanted an associative break from the past few months. I read geographically, even in my own home. I read the first section of Animalia, often overwhelmed by its abject lifeforce. The novel begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on a family farm. The preceding sentence is a bad description: Animalia is, so far anyway, a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as intrigued as to how a novel was translated, either. In Frank Wynne’s English translation, Del Amo’s prose carries notes and tones evocative of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Del Amo employs precise Latinate words, using, for example, genetrix, instead of mother, as in this paragraph:

The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.

The paragraph, from early in Animalia, conveys the prose’s abject flavor. Read the rest of the excerpt at Granta.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman. I loved it.

I will be posting a proper review of Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine some time this month, so I won’t remark at length on it. I’m a little under halfway through (had to restart after returning from the mountains), and it seems to me that the plot is impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s really simple: A rural couple, Norabole and Bernard, escape from their small town and move to the big city (“Big City”). Norabole very quickly becomes the CEO of a huge company, with an eye toward creating “the world’s first Gothic conglomerate” (she plans to get an exorcist on the board, as well as having the company partake in an annual seance). Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find employment and whips up seven course meals for his Noarbole. He also has apparently contracted (contracted?!) xenoglossiaLake of Urine is energetic and very funny and so so weird. Stitch seems to be doing whatever he wants on the page and I dig it.

I really enjoyed Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan), mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself. Good stuff.

Four by Muriel Spark. I’d never read her until May, and I’ve just been gobbling these up. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is fantastic, and then read The Girls of Slender Means, which I liked even more than Prime. Slender Means unself-consciously employs some postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The novel unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany. (And the whole thing coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I then read Loitering with Intent, which is my favorite so far—just sharp as hell, and chock full of patterns and loops that I want to go back to again. I definitely will reread that one. I’m near the end of Memento Mori, a novel that concerns aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark seems to inhabit their consciousness with a level of acuity that surprises me. Memento Mori is sharp and witty, but, barring some last minute shift, it’s not been my favorite Spark—but it’s still very good, and I want to read more. Any suggestions?

Ratner’s Star | On Uncut Gems

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[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran this review in January, 2020 and is posting it again today as Uncut Gems is now streaming in the U.S. on Netflix.]

Frenetic, chaotic, and unceasingly energetic, the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems plays out like a two-hour panic attack. Uncut Gems opens in the turbulent aftermath of a mining accident. An Ethiopian mine worker is borne up by his frenzied fellows, his leg a raw mangled bloody mess. The Ethiopian workers’ voices mix into the Chinese mine operators’ attempts to calm the situation. This initial cacophony signals the babble and buzz that will continue through the rest of the film, and the camera’s lingering on the destroyed leg signals the violent cost that underwrites the material splendor at the heart of Uncut Gems.

Two Ethiopian miners take a gamble and use the chaos as an opportunity to sneak away, back into the mine to make off with a rare black opal, the titular uncut gem. One of the miners peers into the gem, and the camera follows his gaze. We are taken into a kaleidoscope of shifting colors as Daniel Lopatin’s beautiful synth score kicks in. The camera swirls through the gem and, in an opening sequence that rivals Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, eventually enters the colon of our hero, Howard Ratner.

A title card informs us it is two years later. It is 2012 in New York City and Howard Ratner is getting a colonoscopy. There is probably some metaphor here—the aesthetic journey from the gem’s dazzle of color to the interior glistening-chewing-gum-pink flesh of Howard’s colon—but I’ll avoid remarking further upon it.

Here is the film’s premise: Howard owns and runs a jewelry store in the Diamond District. His associate Demany brings rappers and athletes to him to buy unique, high-end pieces. He is flush with cash all the time, but is also severely indebted to a loan shark named Arno (among other folks). However, his debts don’t stop him from continuing to place bets. He is also in the middle of an affair with one of his employees, Julia, whom he keeps in his Manhattan apartment, barely-concealed from his wife and children in Long Island.

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Three things happen on the day we meet Howard: Arno’s henchmen come to prove good on their threats of violence towards him if he does not pay back his loans; Demany brings Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett to Howard’s shop; and Howard receives the titular uncut black opal, which he plans to sell at auction for at least a million dollars. Seeking to impress Kevin Garnett (“KG!”), the jeweler shows off his opal, Ratner’s star. In one of the film’s most extraordinary visual sequences, KG gazes into the opal and undergoes a seismic epiphany. He demands to buy the gem, but Howard refuses—he needs the money from the auction to get clean of debt. However, Howard allows KG to borrow the gem for the night, taking Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral for its return. KG is convinced that the gem will lead to his success in that night’s Eastern Conference Semifinals game against the Philadelphia ’76ers (it does).

From this early point in the film Howard goes on to make a series of increasingly-nerve-wracking decisions against the backdrop of his loan shark’s enforcers’ increasingly-violent promises of retribution. I will not spoil any more of the plot—my “premise” paragraph seems too long as it is—I’ll simply say that there were moments that I (and other audience members) audibly gasped (in shock, in exasperation, in frustrated disbelief) at Howard’s choices.

Uncut Gems never really lets up. There are a few moments of respite as well as moments of comedy, but they mostly serve to suspend the anxiety the film creates, not release it. Uncut Gems is a horror film posing as a crime thriller, an anxiety film equal to Aronofsky’s mother! or Polanski’s Repulsion. The Safdies conjure a hectic, bustling world in Uncut Gems, a world of babble and noise and beauty and ugliness. Characters crowd the frames, their voices colliding in a way reminiscent of the films of Altman, Cassavetes, or early Scorsese.

Under and through the noise of voices in Uncut Gems floats Daniel Lopatin’s wonderful score. Waves of synths swing between between evocations of romance and horror; menacing swells and whimsical melodies, simultaneously busy and calming, cascade over the film. Lopatin, better known as the electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, is a highlight of this film.

Another highlight of Uncut Gems is Darius Khondji’s cinematography. The saturated shots are reminiscent of his work on Wong Kar-Wai’s under-rated 2007 film My Blueberry Nights (as well as his work the same year on Haneke’s equally-anxiety-producing black comedy/horror Funny Games). Khondji conjures a candy-colored Manhattan, lush and opulent. The painterly frames are seductive but also dangerous, recalling the neon-noir of films by Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn.

And of course the acting. I have spent close to 800 words not pointing out that this is an Adam Sandler film. Sandler inhabits his role as Howard Ratner with a vibrating energy that is hard to capture in words. It’s hard to imagine any one else playing the part. Sandler’s Howard is a degenerate gambler, addicted to the thrills of his own confidence games, a trickster blowing up his life in real time. He’s in love with his own chaos, and it’s hard not to root for him, even as he destroys everything around him.

Kevin Garnett is fantastic as himself. His eyes are especially expressive, and his screen presence is utterly natural. His final scene with Sandler’s Howard is a highlight of the film, as he seems to deliver any sane person’s remarks to the gambling addict. Lakieth Stanfield is also excellent in the film as Demany, Howard’s procurer. He both balances and matches Howard’s energetic chaos, even if he can’t ground his erstwhile partner. Eric Bogosian brings ballast to the role of Arno, Howard’s loan shark, as does Judd Hirsch, playing his father-in-law. Idina Menzel plays Howard’s (soon-to-be-ex-) wife with an unflinching meanness that the character deserves. Newcomer Julia Fox is a standout as Julia, Howard’s mistress. She enables Howard, but in some ways she’s also the hero of the film.

Uncut Gems is a very good film and I was very relieved when it was over. The Safdie brothers have created something that sustains a feeling that many of us take SSRIs to avoid. “Wow, I really hated that,” the young woman next to me remarked to her date as the closing credits began. I can understand that reaction. Uncut Gems will not be entertaining for most folks, but I thought it was great. Its initial evocations of worldly violence as the cost of worldly pleasures are answered in its final moments. Catch it in the theater if you can.

Melville/Ishiguro (Books acquired, 13 May 2020)

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My beloved bookstore reopened this Monday. This past Wednesday, I donned my finest mask, got into the car for the first time in a while, and drove the 1.1 miles to my beloved bookstore, which reopened this Monday. I had done curbside pickup on a few books for my kids sometime early in April, but I hadn’t been into a bookstore since the middle of March.

The staff were all wearing masks, as were the few customers in the store (with the exception of two elderly patrons). The store is a sprawling maze of stacks covering close to 25,000 (very irregular, bendy, weird) square feet (it’s not a small space), and the stacks were marked for distancing.

I managed to find all the books on my list—two dystopian teen novels for my not-quite-yet-teen daughter, novels by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman for the boy (who’s already finished both), a copy of My Brilliant Friend for my wife, who loved the filmic teevee adaptation (I gave my copy to my department head years ago, thinking she’d love it, but she never mentioned anything about it to me, and I don’t press), and two books for me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and Herman Melville’s fourth novel Redburn (which I’ve been meaning to read for awhile after reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s literary biography of Melville a few weeks ago). Edward Gorey did the Redburn cover, by the way.

Despite already being into four other novels, I started in on The Unconsoled. The novel reads like a hallucinatory series of side quests in the strangest first-person video game ever made–a novel of absurdity and art and time and memory, wherein the first-person narrator Ryder, on a mission he can never quite name or even possibly remember, constructs and deconstructs his (always-deferred) present “reality” on a moment-to-moment basis. The book is weird in the best way—it reminds me a lot of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Anna Kavan’s Ice, João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, and pretty much everything by Kafka. I imagine it will frustrate many readers with its refusal to cohere or to settle on a plot, but I’m digging it big time.

Blog about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge

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I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.

Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.

Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…

Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:

She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.

Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.

And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.

Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.

The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.

That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).

The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.

Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoiainvisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.

Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.

Indeed, many of the characters in Bleeding Edge come off as mouthpieces for Pynchon’s own viewpoints, whether it’s Ernie riffing on ARPANET or the decline of labor in the US, or Maxine’s zen therapist Shawn, who rails that late capitalism is a scam headed towards its own exhaustion at the price of our planet. It’s the arrangement of these voices that makes the novel strong though—Pynchon shows the complicity of each voice, even as he shows their resistance to the ideological machine they were born into.

It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.

Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.

I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.  But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.

There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.

Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.

A lazy riff on Rudolph Wurlitzer’s novel Slow Fade, as read by Will Oldham (the novel, not the riff–this is an audiobook review)

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So I just finished auditing Drag City’s audiobook version of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade. I finished on yet-another-walk-around-the-block, this time for the express reason of ending it. The novel is read by Will Oldham with actor D.V. DeVincentis (who perhaps unfairly got left out of the headline—but no offense to DeVincentis, he has not been a hero of mine since I was like fourteen).

I read Rudolph Wurlitzer’s first novel Nog a few weeks ago and didn’t really like it.

I read it because one of my heroes Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (do you sense a terrible propensity toward hero worship in me?). A bit of googling-it-up revealed that one of Wurlitzer’s later novels Slow Fade was reprinted by Drag City back in 2011, along with an audiobook version recorded by the singer/songwriter/actor/guy Will Oldham. This kind of shocked me—I’ve been a fan of Will Oldham and Drag City since 1994, when I and three other dudes pooled our money to order CDs, LPs, and 7″s from the fledgling label and tape the music for each other. (I got the Hey Drag City comp. I guess it must’ve been sophomore year of high school. I ended up using a line from “For the Mekons et. al.” by Will Oldham’s band Palace Brothers as my senior quote. (The quote was “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a good teacher,” which I thought was like, super zen, but the yearbook staff fucked it up and rendered it as “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a teacher.” My parents bought the yearbook declaring I would love to pore over it; I threw it away maybe 18 years ago and should’ve thrown it away years before that.))

Man! I’ve really gotten far without discussing the novel. Good for me. I started with the headline instead of the content, which seems a terrible thing to do to the reader. (Look, I’ve been drinking, which is not a good idea.)

Every one in Slow Fade is drinking (and drugging and fucking, and trying to get rock’n’rolling—but mostly they are despairing, grieving, blowing up what’s left of their lives.) The novel centers around a megalomaniac film director, Wesley Hardin, a kind of totemic holdover of Old Hollywood-into-New-Hollywood, a maker of rough Westerns likened to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Sam Peckinpah. (Wurlitzer wrote the script for Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Everything meaningful in this riff is probably parenthetical at this point.)

I marked the audiobook to quote from it but in the spirit of Wurlitzer’s novel and Our Uncertain Times I’m on my third tequila drink and I really can’t be bothered. He can turn a phrase or two or three, but there are some crutches in there, some clunkers. (And maybe some zappers: Okay—in the spirit of the parentheses doing the real work: Wurlitzer gives us the image of “a thin slice of moon that hung up in the sky like a whore’s earring,” a simile that is simultaneously terrible and great.)

Ah! But what is it about? you ask.

In the words of Hardin’s (much younger) wife Eveyln—

“It’s about a man and his wife looking for the man’s sister who has disappeared in India. So far they haven’t found her.

Well—okay—that’s actually Evelyn’s description of the screenplay that Wesley Hardin’s son Walker Hardin is writing with the opportunistic roadie/keyboardist/hustler AD Ballou (Assistant Director Balloo?), who gets shot in the eye with an arrow when he rides a stolen horse into Wesley Hardin’s current film at the beginning of Slow Fade. (Wesley and Walker both go on to blow up their lives after this moment, while AD saves his.)

In the meantime, opportunistic folk opportune around Wesley, who flames out in spectacular, globetrotting fashion. The novel plays out as a series of bad decisions, oedipal impulses, and drug-addled romps. Wesley’s treacherous cameraman Sidney tries to make his own film about the aging auteur’s implosion, leading to a postmodern film-within-a-film-within-a-film-script-within-a-novel structure that is hardly as cute as I might’ve just posited. There are heroes and villains, but mostly villains.

(Slow Fade mostly made me think of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and HBO’s Succession. My mental eye couldn’t decide if Wesley was Brian Cox or John Huston.)

Will Oldham’s narration is fantastic—honest and raw, unaffected but also acted with the achieved naturalism of a narrator who understands the novel and doesn’t need to ham it up. D.V. DeVincentis reads the sections of the novel that take the form of the film script that AD and Walker are writing, a production device that adds dynamism to the auditing experience.

I liked Slow Fade a lot more than Wurlitzer’s first novel Nog, which oozed with the abject excess of the sixties, always gazing inward. Slow Fade isn’t without its problems—the women have agency but are underwritten, and the sex scenes are at best plot points and at worst embarrassing. The novel seems a companion pieces to Pynchon’s Vineland, a riff on the failure of the Western SixtiesAnd also like NogSlow Fade reads like an encomium for the American Dream of the West. Here though, the Western dream of space, expansion, and destiny manifesting itself into the Hollywood dream seeks an Eastern outlet, a metaphysical escape hatch into India, Nepal, exotic enlightenment. But that’s all on the characters. Wurlitzer’s ultimate viewpoint sings far more cynical. Slow Fade depicts a world of opportunists trying to drape dreams over any dupe that steps in their general direction. The results are tragic, ugly, and cynical. Recommended.