A review of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower

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Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar 

Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures  a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.

When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community,  He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.

After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.

Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.

The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.

Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.

Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.

Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.

The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.

And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,

Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.

Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:

He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”

“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”

Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”

Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.

Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.

The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”

“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in March of 2019.]

Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself

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Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.

Chief among Tracker’s  allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.

The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.

From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.

James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.

At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.

Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.

Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:

And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.

James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”

Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.

A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:

I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.

A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.

While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.

The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.

The sex is more interesting than the violence in Black Leopard, Red Wolf—and there’s plenty of both. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic urges,” our lead characters repeat to themselves. James’s novel is deeply horny, its characters fluidly shifting into all kinds of weird fucking. Tracker partners with various members of his fellowship in more ways than one. Sex is magic in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, too—only ten pages in, Tracker ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, fish eat it, and turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead.

There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.

In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf  points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.

[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in May of 2019. This novel’s sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, is out next week.]

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.

[Ed. note — Biblioklept first published this review in July of 2020.]

Unread, 2021/Hope to read, 2022

Of course there were millions and millions of books that I left unread in 2021, but here are a few I hope to carve a space for sometime in the next year:

Heimito von Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps (in translation by Vincent Kling) has been compared to Joyce and Döblin. I got a copy last month and couldn’t commit to the beast’s size. I was trying to make it through Thanksgiving and the end of the 2021 Fall term—this year I’ve favored short books and comfortable rereads I’ve bookended 2021 with rereads of Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian (such comfort!)—The Strudlhof Steps is long long long.

Also long long long (but not as compressed in its typography) is Pierre Senges’ Ahab (Sequels) (in translation is by Jacob Siefring). I’ve dipped into it a few times since I got a copy back in October, but haven’t been able to make the commitment I need to. I’ll get it in in 2022. (Sample here.)

I picked up Alan Garner’s novel Red Shift based on its cover and a blurb from Ursula K. LeGuin—also, it’s pretty short, and, like I’ve said, I’ve done well with short books this year. Hell, maybe I’ll even squeeze it in. Martin Levin’s 1973 minireview in the NYT:

Mr. Garner jump‐cuts nimbly through English history to underscore (I guess) the continuity of such commonalities as love and aggression. Macey is an early Briton, who talks Clockwork Orange style and lays about him in a hypnotic frenzy with his ceremonial stone axe. The axe‐head later becomes a talisman for Thomas Rowley (a 17th‐century citizen who cements it into his chimney) and for Tom, a young 20th‐century Now person, who sells it to the British Museum.

What links these three? Well, there is the artifact. And the place, a rural locus in Cheshire. Finally, there is selfless love —which seems to have survived the centuries. Macey is a twosome with a priestess in the corn festival, who is tender under some trying circumstances. Rowley’s wife stands by him during the bad times of Cromwell. Tom has tender bicycle outings with a student nurse.

Why three periods in time? Well, why not?

I’ve actually read a few chunks of John Berryman’s biography of Stephen Crane (which spine does not read so clearly in yon photograph above). I’ve been picking my way back through Crane, an underappreciated modernist master. I might not read the whole thing straight ever, but I will read it crooked.

Papa Hamlet showed up at the assend of the summer, by which I mean the very beginning of the Fall 2021 semester. This 1889 collaboritve novel by Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf is available in English translation via James J. Conway for the first time ever. Read an excerpt here.

W.D. Clarke’s novel She Sang to Them, She Sang is a strange shape and volume. Also, for the first time in my life, my eyes are kinda fucked up. I have to wear different cheap glasses to see smaller print. This personal fact is embedded in my encounter with Clarke’s second novel.

I read Kobo Abe’s most famous novel Woman in the Dunes, but failed to get past the first ten pages of Secret Rendezvous (in English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter). Woman in the Dunes is the sort of thing that I should’ve loved at 19, 20, 25. Maybe Rendezvous will do it for me in ’22.

 

Barthelme/Calvino/Garner/Jackson (Books acquired, 19 Nov. 2021)

Spent a spare hour this afternoon at the local used bookshop.

A few months ago I found a first edition of Donald Barthelme’s collection Forty Stories. This afternoon I picked up a first edition of my favorite Barthelme novel, The Dead Father. The jacket design–by Ruth Ansel–is really cool, which doesn’t really come through in the photograph. The back cover simply reverses the silver-black set up of the front cover; the spine reads bottom to top instead of top to bottom, like most U.S. titles.

I’ve never read Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, but I picked it up because I enjoyed rereading three by Calvino earlier this year (and it’s very short and has a cool cover by Malcolm Tarlofsky).

I’d never heard of Alan Garner’s 1973 novel Red Shift until today. I always pull NYRB spines out, and the novel’s description on the back caught my attention. Part of the description:

In second-century Britain, Macey and a gang of fellow deserters from the Roman army hunt and are hunted by deadly local tribes. Fifteen centuries later, during the English Civil War, Thomas Rowley hides from the ruthless troops who have encircled his village. And in contemporary Britain, Tom, a precocious, love-struck, mentally unstable teenager, struggles to cope with the imminent departure for London of his girlfriend, Jan.

The blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin (“A bitter, complex, brilliant book”) made me pick it up. I love the NYRB cover, which has a My Bloody Valentine feeling to it, at least to me, but I also am a big proponent of genre covers–sci-fi/fantasy covers that might not be as “respectable” as the “literary” crossover covers that adorn works that live a second life. So I trekked over to the sci-fi/fantasy section to see if I could find another edition of Red Shift. This is what I found:

I regret not looking for the artist’s name now. I dig the Ballantine cover, but the NYRB edition was far more readable in the end.

From the sci-fi/fantasy section, I somehow wandered into U.S. history, staring at an endcap titled “Salem witchcraft.” I did not know that Shirley Jackson wrote a book about Salem—or Salem Village, as she points out in her initial note—a place that is not the same place as Salem—I did not know that Jackson wrote a book about the Salem (Village) witchcraft trials. I picked it up and started in and didn’t want to stop.

Apparently it’s a children’s book.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse: Chapter the Last, featuring Thirty Stories, Fifteen Stories, and Ten Stories

Previously,

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25

Stories 24-19

Stories 18-13

Stories 12-7

Stories 6-1

I don’t know if there’s a need for a defense of Donald Barthelme, and I do know that I am not the person to mount that defense. I spent the last two months re-reading Sixty Stories along with/against Tracy Daugherty’s 2010 biography of Barthelme, Hiding Man. I read some other stuff, but most of the writing on this cursed website was about Barthelme’s stories.

Here’s the thing: these stories, even when soaked in the juices of their zeitgeist (“The Sandman,” “The Indian Uprising,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”) more than hold up. They are still fresh, funny, strange, charming. I suppose they could be more upsetting–Barthelme’s world is never raw, and always displaces the visceral through a heavy salve of ironic refinements (and a three-martini haze).

But Barthelme’s rhetorical contortions vivify the forms that he parodies here—early French modernism (“Eugénie Grandet”) or Kafkaesque existentialism (“Me and Miss Mandible,” “The Sergeant”) or faux-academic essaying (“On Angels”). He transmutes the material into something more. In his introduction to the 2003 Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories that I read, David Gates remarks that,

Barthelme is a quintessential writer of the twentieth century, looking Janus-faced to both the past and future, and with a third eye turned inward. Yet he’s also an anomaly. Nobody before him really reads much like him: neither Beckett or Nabokov, nor such minimalist realists as Hemingway, nor such fabulists as Kafka and Borges…Nor has he become anyone’s Dead Father.

Gates’s appellation “Dead Father” is a nod to Barthelme’s best novel as well as the oedipal undercurrent that surges over and under his ouevre. Gates tries to situate Barthelme’s modernism, a modernism beholden to Dead Father Beckett, himself beholden to Dead Father Joyce.

But Gates never comes out and states what I think is clear after re-reading Sixty Stories (especially against Daugherty’s Barthelme biography)–Barthelme’s success is that he is a failed modernist. In his 1981 interview with J.D. O’Hara, Barthelme stated,

…my father was an architect of a particular kind—we were enveloped in modernism. The house we lived in, which he’d designed, was modern and the furniture was modern and the pictures were modern and the books were modern.

Raised a Modernist, Barthelme transcends Modernism.

And yet he was reticent of any terms that might fix him as something other. In a 1980 interview with Larry McCaffery, he called “‘postmodernism’…the least ugly, most descriptive” of the terms that had been used to pigeonhole his fiction.

He hedged more in his 1987 essay “Not Knowing,” musing that it was “not altogether clear as to who is supposed to be on the bus and who is not.” Postmodernism though is really just a descriptor. And we’re all on the bus.

Gates eventually settles on Barthelme as a “Dark Uncle” of literature, as opposed to a Dead Father. Like Nabokov, Gates suggests Barthelme may have imitators, but not true followers. (Gates does posit the potential of George Saunders to get there, and I’d argue no other living American writer (that I know of) would have at one time been fit to take up the Barthelme mantle, but kudos to Saunders for forging his own schmaltzy overly-empathetic path.)

But enough of Gates’s intro. It’s good. It’s very 2003–mentions of David Eggers, Harold Bloom, a lot of handwringing about postmodernism. (Somehow, unless I’m forgetting, Barthelme’s true contemporary Robert Coover isn’t mentioned.)

Anyway. The stuff in Sixty Stories still shines, still sings–and much of it is far more poignant than I would’ve initially credited.

So here are the silly lists.

If you want to turn Sixty Stories into Thirty Stories, here’s my edit (in reverse chronology):

“Bishop,” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“The Emerald,” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“The King of Jazz,” (Great Days, 1979)

“Cortes and Montezuma,” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Great Hug,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“I Bought a Little City,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“At the End of the Mechanical Age,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“A Manual for Sons,” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“Eugénie Grandet,” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

“Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

“Daumier” (Sadness, 1972)

“The Rise of Capitalism” (Sadness, 1972)

“The Sandman” (Sadness, 1972)

“The Glass Mountain” (City Life, 1970)

“The Policemen’s Ball” (City Life, 1970)

“Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)

“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” (City Life, 1970)

“On Angels” (City Life, 1970)

“Paraguay” (City Life, 1970)

“Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)

“The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“See the Moon?” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Report” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Game” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“A Shower of Gold” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)


If you want to turn Sixty Stories into Fifteen Stories, here’s my edit (in reverse chronology):

“The Emerald,” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“The School,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“At the End of the Mechanical Age,” (Amateurs, 1976)

“A Manual for Sons,” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“Eugénie Grandet,” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

“Daumier” (Sadness, 1972)

“Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)

“On Angels” (City Life, 1970)

“Paraguay” (City Life, 1970)

“Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)

“The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Game” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)


If you want to turn Sixty Stories into Ten Stories, here’s my edit (in reverse chronology):

“The Emerald,” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“A Manual for Sons,” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“Eugénie Grandet,” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

“Daumier” (Sadness, 1972)

“Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)

“Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)

“The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Game” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)


Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part X

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19

Stories 18-13

Stories 12-7

In this post, stories 6-1, the beginning/end.

6. “The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.

My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.

Le Ballon, 1862 by Édouard Manet

In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty spends several pages explaining allusions to Édouard Manet’s 1862 lithograph Le Ballon and the scandal that erupted when Manet showed his painting Olympia in 1865. Daugherty writes,

As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.

In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.

Daugherty’s analysis encapsulates what I take to be the signal passage of “The Balloon,” which passage you can read here.

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5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:

In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.

Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.

4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:

It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.

Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.

In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”

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3. “Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.

Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”

As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:

We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.

I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.

But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.

2. “A Shower of Gold” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:

I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.

Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.

1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:

I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.

Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”

The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:

“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”

“But…”

“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.

At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”

“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”

Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories. 

Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty StoriesFifteen Stories, and Ten Stories. 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IX

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19

Stories 18-13.

In this post, stories 12-7

12. “The Dolt” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

An odd domestic tale, “The Dolt” features the hostilities of a young married couple, Edward and Barbara. Edward is “preparing to take the National Writer’s Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate.” He squabbles with Barbara, who is “very sexually attractive…but also deeply mean.” Barbara doesn’t seem to think much of Edward’s chances at earning his “certificate.” Her lack of confidence seems to bear out as we hear the details of Edward’s entry story, a nineteenth century goof on a baron and his faithless wife:

The Baron, a man of uncommon ability, is chiefly remembered for his notorious and inexplicable blunder at the Battle of Kolin: by withdrawing the column under his command at a crucial moment in the fighting, he earned for himself the greatest part of the blame for Friedrich’s defeat, which resulted in a loss, on the Prussian side, of 13,000 out of 33,000 men. 

There’s potential in the story, and Barbara begins to be persuaded as Edgar reads the story’s “development.” However, the story is missing something crucial:

“But what about the middle?”

“I don’t have the middle!” he thundered.

There’s a pastiche of ironic biographical details here—writerly anxiety, domestic anxiety—that ultimately gives over to Barthelme’s biggest thematic concern: oedipal anxiety. In an final-act swerve, a surreal figure, “the son manqué,” asking if there’s any “grass in the house.” 

The son manqué was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios, all turned on and tuned to different stations. Just by looking at him you could hear Portland and Nogales, Mexico.

The giant figure (a strange filial prefiguration of The Dead Father), girded in an amplified cacophony of mass media, suggests an artistic rival that Edgar is unsure he can surpass—even if that rival is a mere manqué. (The word choice “manqué” here is significant in its oddity. Earlier, Edgar points out that, “You put a word like that in now and then to freshen your line…Even though it’s an old word, it’s so old it’s new.) 

The story’s final moment leave us in a limbo derivative of Barthelme’s hero Beckett:

Edgar tried to think of a way to badmouth this immense son leaning over him like a large blaring building. But he couldn’t think of anything. Thinking of anything was beyond him. I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.

11. “Report” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Report” distills one of the main themes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel: technology drives warfare; indeed, war is an excuse for the advancement of modern technologies. This is about as direct an anti-war story as we would get from Donald Barthelme. It begins:

Our group is against the war. But the war goes on. I was sent to Cleveland to talk to the engineers. The engineers were meeting in Cleveland. I was supposed to persuade them not to do what they are going to do.

Of course, the directness of those opening lines gets refracted and tangled in obliquity and fantasy, as the narrator (the “Soft Ware man”) learns of the unspeakable and unnatural practices of the engineers:

“The development of the pseudoruminant stomach for underdeveloped peoples,” he went on, “is one of our interesting things you should be interested in. With the pseudo-ruminant stomach they can chew cuds, that is to say, eat grass. Blue is the most popular color worldwide and for that reason we are working with certain strains of your native Kentucky Poa pratensis, or bluegrass, as the staple input for the p/r stomach cycle, which would also give a shot in the arm to our balance-of -payments thing don’t you know” . . . I noticed about me then a great number of metatarsal fractures in banjo splints.

“The kangaroo initiative . . . eight hundred thousand harvested last year . . . highest percentage of edible protein of any herbivore yet studied …”

“Have new kangaroos been planted?”

The engineer looked at me.

The Soft Ware man leaves with the engineer’s promise:

I confidently predict that, although we could employ all this splendid new weaponry I’ve been telling you about, we’re not going to do it.”

The Soft Ware man’s audience does not believe the engineer’s promise though.

10. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

The version of  “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” published in Sixty Stories bears a slight difference from the version first published in New American Review and then later in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Act. The Sixty Stories version is the only Barthelme story signed with a date of publication. Here, “April, 1968.”

The date is contextually significant, and something that I overlooked the first time I read ” Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” some time around the year 2000. At that time, I read the tale as a kind of hagiography. Barthelme’s Bobby Kennedy — “K,” in the story’s vernacular (a nod perhaps to Kafka’s hero?) — is a Modernist man. In the final vignette, he’s saved by the narrator who emerges in this last paragraph as an “I”:

K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping. “Thank you.”

When I first read this story, I thought it was a sympathetic attempt to save RFK — that the “line” was a metatextual reference to writing itself, an imaginative recouping of yet another assassinated Hero of the Sixties. The parodic Pop Art contours of the story were lost on me.

It wasn’t until I read Tracy Daugerty’s biography Hiding Man (and subsequently read Sixty Stories in full) that I understood that RFK was assassinated in June of 1968—two months after the story was first published. Indeed, Daugherty reports that Barthelme was working on the story as early as 1965, and likely only kept up with it after learning that Saul Bellow, whom Barthelme was competitive with, was working on a profile of RFK for LIFE (the Bellow piece never came out).

In an interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Barthelme stated,

I cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to ‘save’ him other than by reference to John Kennedy’s death; still, a second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any precision in the piece was the result of watching television and reading the New York Times.

The story’s publication in April, 1968 also coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Daugherty notes in Hiding Man,

[Comedian and activist] Dick Gregory went public with the fact that the FBI harassed King. The agency’s code name for him was “Zorro.” Don had dressed RFK in a Zorro costume, in the story’s final scene, to mock Kennedy’s heroic image. The coincidence unnerved him.

9. “Alice” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Alice” is probably the most formally challenging and experimental piece in Sixty Stories. I use the word “experimental” here in a pejorative sense—I’m not quite sure Barthelme pulls the experiment off. We get something like the stream of consciousness of an obstetrician who wants to fuck Alice, his friend’s wife. (Is the name an evocation of the Alice of the Wonderland? Stein’s beloved Alice B. Toklas?)

The inside of the narrator is a ball of sticky language:

the hinder portion scalding-house good eating Curve B in addition to the usual baths and ablutions military police sumptuousness of the washhouse risking misstatements kept distances iris to iris queen of holes damp, hairy legs note of anger chanting and shouting konk sense of “mold” on the “muff” sense of “talk” on the “surface” konk all sorts of chemical girl who delivered the letter give it a bone plummy bare legs saturated in every belief and ignorance rational living private client bad bosom uncertain workmen mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system Lord Muck hot tears harmonica rascal

There are some wonderful fragments there — “mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system” is a lovely insult from our would-be “harmonica rascal” — but the horny chaos becomes a bit of a headache over seven pages. Still, chaos is the point:

that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said

Chaos—here a disruption of both the (illusion of) prescribed linguistic order and the domestic order—offers both rejuvenation and new possibilities. It may be nourishing and durable, but in “Alice,” it’s also exhausting.

8. “Game” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

The narrator of “Game” is a first lieutenant in some unspecified branch of the military. Here is his situation:

Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird.

“Game’s” postmodern paranoia is worth of Poe. The story is full of repetitive tics, frequently about who is “well” and “not well.” While the ostensible object of “Game” is Cold War anxieties about nuclear war, the story’s evocation of paranoia continues to resonate. I won’t say too much more about “Game” here, but it’s a nice little funny horror story and well worth the ten minutes it will take you to read it.

7. “The President” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

Is strangeness alone enough?

I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough? I spoke to Sylvia: “Is strangeness alone enough?”

The titular President’s strangeness charms the nation, leading to waves of mass faintings. While there’s an absurd comedy to the faintings, they also point towards the story’s sinister, paranoid undertones. For all his charisma, the President is an oddity, an unknowable Pop representation driven by unclear, even mystical motivations. There’s a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here—the seventies one with Sutherland and Nimoy—but just a touch. The whole thing ends in the rapturous applause of an audience overwhelmed by the anachronistic spectacle of Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron.

Summary thoughts: I’m not really sure if “The President” works. “Alice” doesn’t, but is more interesting in its not working than it has any right to be. “Dolt” is good but not great. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is as good as a story so situated in a historical moment can be. “Report” is very good. “Game” is excellent.

Going forward (in reverse): The last (by which I mean first) six stories, including some of Barthelme’s Greatest Hits, “The Balloon” and “Me and Miss Mandible.”

Also, I will be happy to be done with this project. It’s better to read these stories as morsels. Better not to pig out. Better not to snort them down or shoot them up. Better to let them breathe a bit.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part VIII

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19.

This post covers stories 18-13.

18. “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” (City Life, 1970)

Barthelme’s goof on Gaston Leroux’s serialized title of the same name is a mix of sweet and mean. The narrator wonders to himself about midway through, “Why must I have him for a friend? I wanted a friend with whom one could be seen abroad.” He quickly elects though to “put these unworthy reflections behind me,” and then the narration gives way to a metatextual moment:

Gaston Leroux was tired of writing The Phantom of the Opera. He replaced his pen in its penholder. “I can always work on The Phantom of the Opera later-in the fall, perhaps. Right now I feel like writing The Secret of the Yellow Room.” Gaston Leroux took the manuscript of The Phantom of the Opera and put it on a shelf in the closet. Then, seating himself once more at his desk, he drew toward him a clean sheet of foolscap At the top he wrote the words, The Secret of the Yellow Room.

“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” lines up with Barthelme’s other experimental forays into nineteenth-century novels, but it’s less successful than “Eugénie Grandet” or “Views of My Father Weeping” or “The Dolt.” It does have a lovely conclusion though:

But when I call for the Phantom on Thursday, at the appointed hour, he is not there.

What vexation!

Am I not slightly relieved?

Can it be that he doesn’t like me?

I sit down on the curb, outside the Opera. People passing look at me. I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.

17. “On Angels” (City Life, 1970)

A pastiche of essay, fiction, found material, and even poetry, “On Angels” begins with a fundamentally postmodern position:

The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was,”What are angels?”

16. “Paraguay” (City Life, 1970)

“Creative misunderstanding is crucial,” we’re told at one point in “Paraguay.” These eruptions lead to the “Creation of new categories of anxiety which must be bandaged” — another kind of art. “Paraguay” is a strange sci-fi fable about art and creation and imagination, a story that constantly defers all available referents in favor of creating “new categories of anxiety.” Consider this early paragraph:

Where Paraguay Is

Thus I found myself in a strange country. This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2, 161,000 and a capital city named Asuncion. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. Now, moving toward the first of the “silver cities, ” I was tired but also elated and alert. Flights of white meat moved through the sky overhead in the direction of the dim piles of buildings.

Flights of white meat. Dim piles of buildings.

Great stuff.

15. “Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)

Barthelme’s oeuvre is oedipal, both in form and content, a thematic obsession best realized in his novel The Dead Father, but a theme that nevertheless haunts (haunts is not the right verb; Barthelme’s oedipal dead father is a playful mournful ironic ghost—but let’s fall on haunts for now)—nevertheless haunts (he writes again) Barthelme’s fiction proper. “Views of My Father Weeping” is a father-haunted tale—haunted by Barthelme’s own father, the modernist architect, Donald Barthelme Sr., as well as a host of literary fathers (of varying shades of modernism)—Dostoevsky, Freud, Tolstoy, and so on. The plot at first appears to be another goof on hoary nineteenth-century tropes, but Barthelme wads the material into a ball of anxiety dream nightmare stuff worthy of another dead modernist father—Kafka. I’ve neglected to summarize the plot: An aristocrat’s stagecoach runs down the narrator’s father (who may or may not have been drunk at the time). The narrator attempts to solve the case and come up with a crumb of justice. My only quibble with the tale is its failure to resolve — the final paragraph, after a devastating twist, reads simply “Etc.” — I suppose the joke is ahead of its time, but it also feels like our author reached his exhaustion before his plot did.

14. “The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

If someone asked me, Hey Ed, this Don Barthelme fellow, what should I read first—which no one ever has and likely no one ever will — I would offer up “The Indian Uprising.”

The story is a formally-challenging success, an experiment that Barthelme pulls off perhaps in spite of himself (some of the other pieces in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts are beautiful misfires). In his biography of Barthelme Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty devotes several pages to describing the agon between Barthelme and the story’s original editors in The New Yorker, Roger Angell (who advocated for Barthelme) and William Shawn (who fought Barthelme tooth and nail over commas specifically and syntax in general).

“The Indian Uprising” is a dizzying paste-up of urban American life in the  troubled 1960s. This setting is transposed to a mythical Manifest Destiny Westworld, a genocidal project that can be understood as a blackly surreal reading of the Vietnam War. It’s an ugly business. The story’s final paragraph begins with this sentence:

We killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we had killed were children and more came from the north and from the east and from other places where there are children preparing to live.

The imperial project is an infanticidal project.

“The Indian Uprising” is larded with markers of culture. The first paragraph ends with this little descriptor: “The table held apples, books, long-playing record.” The table is the central metaphor of the story—or one of the metaphors, I guess (“central” is an unfit adjective). The narrator has made the table with his own hands from a hollow core door, a symbol perhaps of the American Dream.

The Dream is a nightmare though. “The Indian Uprising” is punctuated by two torture scenes, both of which resonate just as strongly a half century after its publication. Here is the first, a waterboarding adventure:

We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept…And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.

The second scene is an ugly repetition:

We attached wires to the testicles of the captured Comanche. And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.

What is the narrator drunk on here? Torture? PainPower? And what is the object of his love? Power? Pain? Language?

The power and pain of language overflows in “The Indian Uprising,” challenging the reader to make meaning from waves of images. Barthelme, ever-beholden to the Modernist fathers and mothers, shows a bit of his Gertrude Stein stuff shot through with William Carlos Williams’ dictum, No ideas but in things. Those things:

Red men in waves like people scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricades we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes. I analyzed the composition of the barricade nearest me and found two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip; a tin frying pan; two-liter bottles of red wine; threequarter-liter bottles of Black & White, aquavit, cognac, vodka, gin, Fad #6 sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs; a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes; a red pillow and a blue pillow; a woven straw wastebasket; two glass jars for flowers; corkscrews and can openers; two plates and two cups, ceramic, dark brown; a yellow-and-purple poster; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other items. I decided I knew nothing.

I decided I knew nothing. 

Marvelous stuff.

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13. “See the Moon?” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Yes I know it’s shatteringly ingenuous,” says the narrator of “See the Moon?,” but I wanted to be a painter.”

Why does the narrator (surely a version of Barthelme) want to be a painter?

They get away with murder in my view; Mr. X. on the Times agrees with me. You don’t know how I envy them. They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lo! people crowd about and cry, “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God; what could be realer than that!” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.

The narrator pieces together bits and bytes and things and souvenirs, tacking them to a wall: “Fragments are the only forms I trust.” 

The statement “Fragments are the only forms I trust” sounds like an aesthetic mission statement from DB, but our DB ultimately rejected it in an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz:

And yet “See the Moon?” is clearly a pastiche of Barthelme biography rendered in Pop Art pastings, non sequitur, and cheap funny jokes. It’s also tinged with the notes of melancholy and regret that will heavily flavor Barthelme’s later work. Perhaps as I read backward the material will lighten.

Summary thoughts:  Everything here is good and much is great. “The Indian Uprising” is essential, and “See the Moon?” and “Views of My Father Weeping” are definitely Greatest Hits. “Paraguay” seems like a perfect Barthelme gateway drug, and “On Angels” is a fun sad jam. Even the weakest piece here, “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend,” is pretty good.

Going forward (in reverse): Our penultimate episode is chock full of pieces from 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, including classics “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Game.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

This post covers stories 42-37.

47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:

Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.

Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?

The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)

46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.

We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.

A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”

Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–

But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way.  “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.

45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)

Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.

44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.

It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.

Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.

43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.

On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).

On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.

42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)

I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.

Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.

Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part II

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here, stories collected in 1981.

This post covers stories 54-49.

54. “How I Write My Songs” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like his postmodernist contemporaries Robert Coover and William H. Gass, many of Donald Barthelme’s stories are, on at least some level, about the act of writing itself. “How I Write My Songs,” is, as its title suggests, a story about writing. Our narrator the songwriter offers tips and advice, most of it pretty straightforward, and he peppers his monologue with recitations of his own songs. Each time he offers up a song though, we’re treated to copyright notice at the end—little interjections from a faceless corporate voice. The copyright notices are ironic, especially given that the narrator’s songs are clearly based in folk traditions like blues and Appalachian music. The narrator acknowledges these traditions, positing his writing as a synthesis:

Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.

In the end, the story’s ironies don’t bite too hard—it it’s a parody of teaching creative writing, it’s loving, and full of practical advice. The narrator’s revelation of his name—Bill B. White—is also a nice punchline.

53. “The Emerald” (previously uncollected, 1981)

I love “The Emerald.”

It’s the longest story in Sixty Stories, a 29-page epic that Barthelme culled from an aborted novel, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography Hiding Man. Unless I’m wrong, it’s the only piece Barthelme published in Esquiremost of his stories showed up in The New Yorker, whose editor Roger Angell was an early champion of Barthelme. Angell rejected “The Emerald” though. In his biography, Daugherty points out that Angell initially did not like Barthelme’s turn toward stories composed entirely in dialogue.

“The Emerald” (and the other stories discussed in this riff) is such a story. Barthelme adeptly commands the various voices here, but without exposition or stage directions of any kind, the story is challenging the first time around. Repeated readings reveal a rich, funny, strange fable.

Here’s what happens: Our hero Mad Moll, a bearded witch, is impregnated by “the man in the moon,” Deus Luna (she has a three-hour orgasm). After a seven-year pregnancy, she gives birth to a sentient emerald. This strange birth attracts the attention of the news media as well as hordes of would-be kidnappers who are after the emerald. Most of the bandits after the emerald want him because, well, he’s an enormous emerald. The emerald understands that they “want to cut me up and put little chips of me into rings and bangles.” When the emerald asks Moll if she values him, she replies that he’s “Equivalent I would say to a third of a sea.” However, our villain, a mage named Vandermaster, has different designs. Vandermaster wants to imbibe the emerald to obtain a second life: “Emerald dust with soda, emerald dust with tomato juice, emerald dust with a dash of bitters, emerald dust with Ovaltine.” He’s discovered a formula, “Plucked from the arcanum,” which will let him live again—and hopefully, find love. Oh, and Vandermaster has a secret weapon: The Foot, a sentient reliquary with devastating powers.

The final moments of “The Emerald” are lovely. Hero Moll gives an exit interview to Lily (“a member of the news media”) in which the young witch states that the gods are not done with us yet:

But what is the meaning of the emerald?  asked Lily.  I mean overall?  If you can say.

I have some notions, said Moll.  You may credit them or not.

Try me.

It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.

Gods not yet done with us.

The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.

Still trafficking.  Not dead.

Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.

Thin edge of the wedge.

Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.

Desire or cupidity?

I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.

Positive attitude toward desire.

Yes.  Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.

Moll’s final questioner though is her child the emerald:

And what now?  said the emerald.  What now, beautiful mother?

We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll.  We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

52. “Aria” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another monologue, this time in two paragraphs. Like “Grandmother’s House,” (story #60), “Aria” is an oblique reflection on parenting. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme claimed that the story was a mother’s monologue, but it could just as easily be a father. The monologue condenses the parent’s experience of parenting after the children have left home into an often absurd catalog of pleas, mixed metaphors, and bits of received wisdom. Like a lot of the later work, there are tinges of an empty nester’s melancholy here.

51. “The Leap” (Great Days, 1979)

Another dialogue–however, I think that this piece can actually be read as an internal dialogue–a central consciousness engaging in self-debate. That debate centers (“centers” is a very loose verb here) on whether or not to take the titular leap of faith. As David Gates points out in his explanatory notes for Sixty Stories,

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846),
Kierkegaard rejects the notion of a ladder of logical steps to spiritual certainty in favor of a “leap of faith” toward the Absolute.

Those familiar with Barthelme will know his early deep engagement with existentialism, and with Kierkegaard in particular. (In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty makes a strong case that it was not just Kierkegaard’s ideas that informed Barthelme’s work, but Kierkegaard’s style as well—disparate voices, pseudonyms, juxtapositions, aesthetic and literary references deployed ironically, etc.)

The interlocutor(s) of “The Leap” begin by trying to catalog the glories of the creator before realizing that the task is impossible. They eventually work themselves into the existential crises of the day (some of which seem dated, and dare I say, downright lovely compared to our current, ahem, climate).

In the final moments of the story, one of the speakers—or, in my estimation, one of the singular speaker’s internal voices—declares “Can’t make it, man.” What can’t he make? The leap. And again: “Can’t make it. I am a double-minded man.” (The latter phrase underlines the notion that a single voice authors this dialogue.) And so well: “What then?” Barthelme echoes lines of one of his other heroes, Samuel Beckett:

–Keep on trying?

–Yes. We must.

The conclusion is sad and beautiful, a list of earthly consolations that can inspire the leap:

-Try again another day?

-Yes. Another day when the plaid cactus is watered, when the hare’s-foot fern is watered.

-Seeds tingling in the barrens and veldts.

-Garden peas yellow or green wrinkling or rounding.

-Another day when locust wings are baled for shipment to Singapore, where folks like their little hit of locust-wing tea.

-A jug of wine. Then another jug.

-The Brie-with-pepper meeting the toasty loaf.

-Another day when some eighty-four-year-old guy complains that his wife no longer gives him presents.

-Small boys bumping into small girls, purposefully.

-Cute little babies cracking people up.

-Another day when somebody finds a new bone that proves we are even ancienter than we thought we were.

-Gravediggers working in the cool early morning.

-A walk in the park.

-Another day when the singing sunlight turns you every way but loose.

-When you accidentally notice the sublime.

-Somersaults and duels.

-Another day when you see a woman with really red hair. mean really red hair.

-A wedding day.

-A plain day.

-So we’ll try again? Okay?

-Okay.

-Okay?

-Okay.

50. “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979)

I initially started rereading Sixty Stories in reverse order as a fluke, but I quickly found it interesting to think about Barthelme’s development as a thinker and writer by going backwards instead of forwards. I think I would have enjoyed “The Farewell” (story #55) much more if I had read it after “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” to which it is the sequel. It’s a neat little parody, but I think the sequel is even funnier, even meaner.

49. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Great Days, 1979)

A postmodern riff on Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Barthelme told an interviewer the story originated from an assignment he gave to his writing class that he ended up doing himself. We have pure monologue here; the speaker seems to be a sculptor. He crafts “welded-steel four-thousand-pound artichokes” and plays around on his “forty-three-foot overhead traveling crane which is painted bright yellow.” He occasionally breaks into song.

There are a number of references to architecture and architects in “Abduction.” Again, it’s tempting to read for autobiographical traces here. Barthelme’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr., was a modernist architect who cast a large shadow over his son’s life. But I’m not too tempted by those traces—or, rather, I’m not sure what to make of them, just as I’m not sure of what to make of “Abduction.”

Summary thoughts: “The Emerald” is a fabulous late-period Barthelme–the best in this batch for sure. It’s much, much longer than most of Barthelme’s stories though, so my other pick would be “The Leap.” I didn’t remember “The Abduction from the Seraglio” even as I was rereading it, and I reread it once more before writing about it, and I don’t really think Barthelme pulls it off here.

I’ve enjoyed these late-period dialogue stories, but I’m also looking forward to some new (older) flavors ahead (behind).

I will keep going forward (in reverse) and resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

Witches, crimes, mutants, shape-shifting horses, feuilletonic digressions etc. | Blog about some recent reading

I read an excellent trio of novels to close out the summer: Carol Emshwiller’s Mister Boots, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (translated by Jane Gambrell). In between, I read most of Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist (translated by Matthew Spencer), described by publisher Sublunary Editions as “short fiction and feuilletonic digressions.” (I had to look up the word “feuilletonic.”)

Mister Boots seems as good an introduction to Carol Emshwilller’s writing as I’ll get. I just sort of picked it up, started reading, and kept going. (The print was larger than the edition of her more-famous novel Carmen Dog that I got around the same time. My eyes have declined more quickly in my early forties than I would have imagined.) Mister Boots is a short, fast-paced novel. It moves along like a ever-morphing picaresque. Set somewhere near the American West proximal to the Great Depression, Emshwiller’s novel is told from the first-person perspective of Bobby. Bobby is a ten-year-old girl, but the world, apart from her sister and mother, don’t know this—-her mother raises her as a boy, dresses her as a boy, addresses her as a boy. This conceit, which even young Bobby understands cannot last forever, is a defense against her malevolent father, a stage magician and conman who wants a son to perform in his act. When Bobby’s mother dies, the father returns to take her and her sister on a wild, surreal tour of performances (and other tricks). They bring with them Mister Boots, a man who sometimes turns into a horse. I loved Mister Boots and probably read it way too quickly. It’s surreal stuff, told from the perspective of a child that really captures what young consciousness is like–slippery, trying to match causes and effect, lacking the wisdom that is experience, but also teeming with the holy powers of innocence.

I then read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic satire The Slynx. The book is funny and abject, and the world Tolstoya conjures is totally gross, but also a place I was sad to leave (the general vibe reminds me of Aleksei German’s film adaptation of Hard to Be a God). The Slynx is about 300 pages but I would’ve read another 700 happily. The central hero is a lunking would-be intellectual named Benedikt; the setting is a few centuries after the Blast has reduced humanity back to the Dark Ages; most of the descendants of the pre-Blast populace endure Consequences—mutations big and small (our boy Benedikt has a cute little tail). There are also elders whose consequence is a tenuous immortality—they survive the blast and continue living (as long as they want to), an ugly curse. We first meet Benedikt as a kind of copyist, a Bartleby maybe, but one who wants more from life. He marries into a near-aristocratic family, where he has access to a huge samizdat library. More problems ensue. Ultimately, The Slynx is a postmodern fable, a book about reading itself. It’s grimy and gross and I loved it and will read it again.

I devoured Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season and then started in again. The novel’s blurb compares it to “Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 of Faulkner’s novels,” which is high and true praise. As I stated, I immediately began rereading Hurricane Season after I started it. Like a lot of Faulkner’s work, Melchor’s narrative construction obscures, hides, and even elides important events. Crimes get lost in details. The story is set in and around a podunk Mexican town. It begins with a troop of slingshot-armed youngsters finding the body of “the Witch,” a hated and celebrated icon of the town. From there, the novel moves its camera to hover over a few key characters, letting us into their consciousness to get bits and pieces that may or may not add up to a larger picture. The village is a haunted, haunting place, a cursed world vibrating with bad mojo, drugs, rape, murder…as its publishers promised, Melchor’s world recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, especially the infamous chapter “The Part about the Crimes.” (There is a fantastic moment in the fourth chapter when the third-person free indirect style slips into the language of police reports and detective inquiries.) Hurricane Season’s abjection, despair, and squalor also recalls Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, Faulkner’s A Light in August, and Bernhard’s Gargoyles. And, like Bernhard and Krasznahorkai (and his follower W.G. Sebald), Melchor crafts her novel as a brick of paragraphless text, a sometimes-flowing, sometimes-smothering miasma of words, words, words. Crimes, witches, grudges, and curses, curses, curses: Magical curses, literal curses, cursed text messages, and good old fashioned curse words. Hurricane Season is a devastating, cruel novel, but Melchor concludes it with a strange moment of grace–not for its characters, but for its readers, whom she ferries “out of this hole.” I went right back into the hole.

And—Kleist’s Anecdotes—well, I’ve kept it in my car up until this afternoon, when I finally brought it back into the house. I’ve been reading it while I wait in the carpool lane at my daughter’s school, her new school, the same high school I graduated from in fact. I read three or four as I wait for her and the other carpoolers to emerge. I’ve read a few of the anecdotes collected here before (I think I first became interested in Kleist after reading Donald Barthelme mention him as an influence). Here’s publisher Sublunary’s blurb:

Long available and celebrated in German—Kafka himself championed the 1911 Rowohlt edition of AnekdotenAnecdotes gathers the first extensive English-language collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short fiction and feuilletonic digressions that appeared in Berliner Abendblätter, the newspaper for which he served as editor from 1810 to 1811. Writing under increasingly unfriendly social and political conditions, this is arguably Kleist at his funniest and most irreverent, not shying away from dirty jokes while nevertheless displaying the same knack for the stylish prose that Rilke called “beautiful and so blind and skillful”.

And here’s a sample (in translation by Matthew Spencer):

Blog about some recent reading (Bolaño/Cain/Calvino/Dara/Johnson)

My James M. Cain discovery tour continued with Double Indemnity, which I loved loved loved. The novel’s terse, mean, a bit queasy, and zippy as hell. Over the July 4th weekend my uncle and I made plans to watch Billy Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation, but maybe heat and alcohol got in the way. I’ll get to it soon. (I stalled out in Mildred Pierce, although I did see that film—the 1945 one with Joan Crawford.)

I checked out Roberto Bolaño’s “newest” collection of novellas, Cowboy Graves, from the library. I’ll probably pick it up in paperback or used when I get the chance. It’s a fragmentary affair, and paradoxically seems more complete because of this. Other “unfinished” pieces like Woes of the True Policeman and The Spirit of Science Fiction felt like dress rehearsals to his big boys—The Savage Detectives and 2666—but the trio in Cowboy Graves fit neatly if weirdly into the Bolañoverse proper. Good stuff.

I tore through four novels by British wrtier B.S. Johnson earlier this year before taking up his most gimmicky work— his “book in a box,” 1969’s The Unfortunates. The book consists of 27 pamphlets. One is labeled “FIRST”, another “LAST,” but it’s up to the reader to shuffle and go for it. I think there is a reason most novels are not composed in this format. If you are intrested in Johnson, check out Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry or Albert Angelo.

I will give Evan Dara’s new novel Permanent Earthquake a proper review when I finish it. I will simply state here that finishing it has been a slog. This may be a rhetorical conceit–the novel is about a world, or an island, which I suppose is its own world, in a state of permanent earthquake—or really the novel is about one dude in this world island of permanent earthquakes, trying to find a still spot. It’s clearly an allegory of late capitalist whatever butting up against climate disaster, and it’s very depressing, and it’s a slog slog slog. I think Dara is an important contemporary writer and I will do a better job assessing Permanent Earthquake when I finish it.

I picked up a used copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics a couple of weeks ago, largely because of its lovely cover. I’d read the book years ago, and mostly remember being amused and frustrated by it. Shelving it, I pulled out a trio of Calvino’s I hadn’t read in ages: Invisible CitiesIf on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Baron in the Trees.

I started in on Invisible Cities (trans. William Weaver); I first read it on a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai twenty years ago. My friend loaned it to me. He spent the night drinking with Germans; I read Calvino’s prose-poem-essay-cyle-thing over a few hours. Rereading it I found so much more—more humor, more humanity, more life. As a young man I think I demanded its philosophy, its semiotics, its brains. There’s more heart there than I remembered.

I then took up If on a winter’s night a traveler (trans William Weaver). I realized that I’d never read the novel just to read it—I read it as an undergrad and then as a grad student, and both times, like a character in the novel, I read it looking for bits of evidence to support an idea I already had. Winter’s night is a bit too long; its metatextual postmodernism starts to wear thin—you can almost open the novel at random to find it describing itself—but it is probably the best postmodernist example of a novel about reading a novel I can think of. (It’s also hornier than I remember.)

And so well now I’m in the middle of Calvino’s much-earlier novel, The Baron in the Trees (trans. Archibald Colquhoun). The story of a rebellious young aristocrat who vows to live in the trees and never set foot on ground again, Baron burns with a focused narrative heat absent in Calvino’s later more self-consciously postmodern work. It’s not exactly a picaresque, but it’s still one damn thing happening after another, and I love it.

Blog about some recent reading (Süskind/Shange/Dara/Walton/Cain)

Last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading—

–(a poor substitute for meaningful reviews, blogs about recent reading—but so and in some measure of fairness to myself, the last few weeks were larded with occasions—promotional ceremonies, out-of-town graduations, visits to new schools, and a triumvirate of family birthdays. So…)—

So last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading I was about halfway through Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985, in translation by John E. Woods). The novel is kinda sorta historical magical realism, if that makes sense, although it’s really straightforward in its telling (the good ole third-person omniscient/free indirect style). It’s pre-Revolutionary France and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a magical mystical murderous sense of smell. He’s born a freak and lives a freaky life. We follow Grenouille, a bastard abandoned to a quick near-death in a pile of fish guts, from a group home for orphans to a tanner’s factory to his time as an unrecognized perfume genius, concocting enchanting scents for not just Paris’s wealthiest, but the European elite. He becomes a journeyman, an ascetic hermit, and a serial killer. The novel culminates in twin orgies, ecstatic and then thanatopic. I wonder if Woods’s translation tamed things down a bit, or if Süskind’s original German is so…clinical…there’s something about the prose that elides the lurid abject rot under it all. (Oh, and I rewatched Tom Twyker’s 2006 film adaptation after finishing Süskind’s novel—it’s a fine effort, but simply can’t do what a novel can do—namely, take us convincingly into Grenouille’s estranging consciousness. We’re let with some lovely gross set pieces. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman chew up all the scenery they can fit in their mouths.)

I picked up Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982) after finishing Perfume. It was Shange’s first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and there’s something wonderfully uneven to it. The titular trio are sisters hailing from Charleston, South Carolina and environs. The sisters (mythical muses, but also concrete people) are the daughters of Hilda Effania, a weaver. Hilda’s children appreciate her craft, but they long for newer, stranger art. Sassafrass seeks to elevate weaving into fine art; Cypress flits from classical ballet to new forms of dance; the youngest, Indigo, is part musician, part magician—her fiddle conjures all kinds of charms. Here, Shange borrows touches of Gullah-Geechee culture, and the novel’s evocations of Charleston and the coastal Sea Islands to its east will resonate with anyone familiar with the terrain. (The novel might be read with/against Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut, Edisto, a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a white male teenager living in the titular South Carolina Sea Island.) Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo doesn’t exactly have a plot, per se, which is lovely—the novel seems to sprawl out in different tangles, a kind of diffident rejection of Hilda Effania’s skilled weaving. Each daughter rebels, but returns to the hearth. Shange loads the novel with recipes, letters, journal entries, and magic spells, and if the end result is wildly uneven, it’s also lots of fun and often moving.

I got Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake (2021) on my birthday, a few days ago. I read the first 30 or so pages. I will write more later.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev  (2021) is Dawnie Walton’s debut novel. It deserves its own long review, but the short of it is—good stuff. Opal & Nev takes the form of an oral history of the fictional titular early seventies rock-freak-soul outfit: a bald Afro-punk progenitor (Opal) and a pasty ginger Brit (Nev). The narrator is S. Sunny Shelton; her father, Jimmy Curtis, played drums on the first Opal & Nev record, and “was beaten to death by a racist gang during the riot” at a label showcase, as the novel’s astonishing opening paragraph attests. Nev carries Opal out on his back in the ensuing violent aftermath, and a photographer captures the moment. The photo becomes iconic, symbolic, and the touchstone of the oral history Shelton assembles. And that oral history: Walton adroitly ventriloquizes her cast—the aging British producer, the asshole label owner, the worried Christian sister, the “Hey-I’m-not-racist-but-look-I’m-actually-racist” Southern rocker-turned Trump supporter. Nev and Opal are particularly well-defined; as the novel develops, we start to see their masks crack. The diversity of perspectives on the novel’s central event–the murder of Shelton’s father Jimmy (and the subsequent photograph of Opal on Nev’s back)—leads to a compelling twist in the novel’s climax. The twist plays out in the book’s second half, as Opal & Nev undertake a reunion show at a big festival concert (something like Bonnaroo, I guess). The novel is set right before the 2016 election, leading to a number of ironies, and Shelton—telegraphing Walton, I suspect—is not shy of editorializing (nor should she be). Opal & Nev also contains lots of footnotes. Many of these footnotes flesh out the alternate reality of Walton’s imagined musicsphere, but some offer historical girding to the narrative proper. For example, Walton, through Shelton, lets us know who Josephine Baker was, and that George Wallace was a notorious racist, and that Stephanie St. Clair was an infamous Harlem racketeer. Etc. These footnotes made me feel old in the sense that they seem designed to help a younger audience navigate the mostly-real (and real in the ugliest, realest ways possible) of Opal & Nev, while also absorbing much that American history has sought to whitewash. Ultimately, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev kept me reading because the voices were so compelling. Watson lets her subjects speak, channeling all of their flaws and glories. Recommended.

Years ago someone—who was it, was it you?—told me to read James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). I got a copy of Three Complete Novels this weekend, and read Postman over two days. Cain’s novel is visceral, gross, violent, and fast fast fast. It’s a basic stranger-comes-to-town plot, only the town is reduced to a young wife dissatisfied with her husband (and the husband in question). It’s also told from the perspective of the stranger, a quippy drifter who reminded me more of Camus’ Mersault than anything else. (I think it would be fascinating to rewrite this novel from another character’s perspective, by the way.) The novel did for me exactly what I needed—sort of zapped me, reset my reading rainbow. Cain’s prose is so economical that I found myself having to go back to previous sentences at times to make sure that I was comprehending his camera-flow. An unhealthy juvenile puma shows up in a late courtroom scene. This novel is wonderfully grotesque. I’m ashamed that I’ve never seen the 1946 film version (starring Lana Turner)—but I have seen the 1945 adaptation of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, so I look forward to reading that (and Double Indemnity). Great stuff, even if the postman never rings, not even once.

Blog about some recent reading

The last little bit of Spring trickles away here in North Florida, where beautiful days with highs of 82℉ promise to turn into burning sweaty hell in the next week or two. The Spring 2021 semester is behind me, and I’ve found a lot more time to read. So, re: pic, bottom to top:

Paul Kirchner’s latest collection Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delerium is dope goofy gorgeousness. I’ve been taking it a page a day or so and am about to run out of the stash. I hope to have a review of it soon (maybe in The Comics Journal, where I reviewed Kirchner’s last collection, Hieronymus & Bosch).

Paul Kirchner

I also read some comix by Drew Lerman, and wrote about them here.

Drew Lerman

I picked up Rachel Cusk’s much-lauded novel Outline a few weeks ago at a Friends of the Library Sale. It was not for me. The flat, “tell-don’t-show” style didn’t bother me—indeed the prose is very “readable” (whatever that means)—but I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. A lot of smart people like this novel (and the trilogy it initiates), so maybe I fundamentally misread it. And in fairness, the whole contemporary autoficiton thing has left me cold, with the possible exception of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neopolitan Novels, which I loved.

I read four B.S. Johnson novels in something of a blur. Johnson was an English avant-gardiste writing primarily in the 1960s. I wrote a bit about some of the novels hereChristie Malry’s Own Double-Entry ended up being my favorite, with Albert Angelo a close second. I thought Trawl was extremely tedious. I broke down and ordered a copy of his “novel in a box,” The Unfortunates—maybe I’ll muster the energy for something bigger on Johnson.

I’m a little over half way through Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (trans. by John E. Woods), and I really dig it—it feels like a long time since I’ve read a good ole fashioned historical novel told in the third-person omniscient/free indirect style. Set in France in the mid-1700’sPerfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a perfume genius, a freak, a murderer. I’d seen Tom Twyker’s film adaptation years ago, but the novel is richer, taking us deeper into Grenouille’s strange mind. Great stuff.

I recently finished Norah Lange’s fragmentary memoir, Notes from Childhood (trans. by Charlotte Whittle). It’s a propulsive and rich read, a loving but unsentimental, magical without a trace of whimsy. I wrote about it a bit here.

Four novels by the sixties avant-garde novelist B.S. Johnson (Books acquired the first week of May, 2021)

I think the first time I heard of the British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson was some time around 2008 or so, when New Directions republished his “book in a box,” The Unfortunates (1969). I thought it sounded like a cool but maybe gimmicky idea at the time, and then Johnson dropped off my radar until more recently. I started to see his name pop up when I’d search out more information about the British avant-garde novelist Ann Quin, whose novel Berg I consider perfect.

So I asked around and ended up finding an online copy of Picador’s omnibus reissue of three of Johnson’s novels: Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), and House Mother Normal (1971). I also ordered Johnson’s penultimate novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) (as well as a copy of The Unfortunates which has yet to arrive).

I tucked into the omnibus last week, starting with Albert Angelo, which I think is the superior of the three novels the edition collects (I’ve still got a final third of Trawl to go, but I can’t see it turning a corner). AA is an experimental pastiche, a bildungsroman that ironizes the künstlerroman. Our hero Albie, trained as an architect, makes his so-called living as a substitute teacher in some of London’s rougher schools. His narrative is an assemblage of stream-of-consciousness, dramatic dialogues, advertisements, and other rhetorical techniques—including literally cutting out parts of a few pages.

Albie is angry and witty and generally good company throughout the brief novel. Albert Angelo will resonate with teachers who remember those rough first years—sympathy with the students, anger at the system, but also a realization that they are in a kind of battle to earn the respect of their pupils. (Near the end of the novel, we get a litany of student essays that Albie has assigned. The subject: Albie himself. Student reviews are, for the most part, scathing.) Johnson’s assemblage is impressive, energetic, and still feels fresh over fifty years later.

House Mother Normal is also a lively novel, with an energy we might not expect in a novel subtitled A Geriatric Comedy. The novel takes place over a few hours in a single day in a nursing homes, telling the same “narrative” from the viewpoint of eight residents—as well as the titular house mother. Each resident (and the house mother) gets twenty-one pages to relate their version of the days events. Or, more accurately, we dwell in their consciousness for those twenty-one pages. Some residents are of clearer minds than others, but together, they offer a fragmented minor Sadean saga that is both abject and occasionally moving.

Trawl is a more “traditional” novel, at least in the modernist sense. Unlike House Mother Normal and Albert AngeloTrawl takes a straightforward, stream-of-consciousness first-person tack, detailing three weeks the narrator—a version of Johnson himself—spent on a deep-sea trawler in the Barents Sea. It’s a sort of memoir, loosely figured around the various women that the narrator has successfully or unsuccessfully bedded, with dips into his childhood billeted away from his London family in World War II. In between, we get snapshots of life on the trawler. The unifying theme of the book is shame, paralleled with the narrator’s desire to create a work of Great Art. The narrator peppers his memoir with interjections that the whole thing is boring, worthless, and meaningless. Like I mentioned above, I haven’t gotten to the end of Trawl, but it became a slog about a third of the way in. Johnson’s narrator hems and haws, hedges and defers—and comments on his hemming and hawing. It seems to approach the confessional style of American poetry in the l950s and 1960s without revealing too much. I don’t know. There’s something guarded about it, even as it tries to be a naked affair. I’m hoping I like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry more. Here’s publisher New Direction’s blurb:

In a brief but productive career, B.S. Johnson (1933-73) was recognized as the most original of the English experimental writers of his generation. Combining a bellicose avant-gardism with pointed social concerns, he won the praise of critics and fellow writers as well as a readership not usually gained by a literary maverick. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is Johnson’s most broadly humorous book, though as readers will discover, his humor has a bite. Christie is a simple man. His job in a bank puts him next to but not in possession of money. He encounters the principles of Double-Entry Bookkeeping and adapts them in his own dramatic fashion to settle his account with society. Under the column headed “Aggravation” for offenses received from society (the unpleasantness of the bank manager is the first on an ever-growing list), debit Christie; under “Recompense,” for offenses given back (scratching the façade of an office block), credit Christie. All accounts are to be settled in full, and they are — in the most alarming way.

A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2021, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 84th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. Last year, that weird pandemic year, I finally finished all of Pynchon’s novels. I’d been “saving” Bleeding Edge for a while, but broke down and read it that spring. Having read all eight Pynchon novels (a few more than once), I’ll offer some quick scattershot thoughts.

V. (1963)

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

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

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

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

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

Vineland (1990)

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

Mason & Dixon (1997)

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

Against the Day (2006)

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

Inherent Vice (2009)

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

Bleeding Edge (2013)

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