Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

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A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

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Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (Book acquired, 9 March 2020)

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Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (in English translation by Joyce Zonana) is one of NYRB’s new titles. Their blurb:

Henri Bosco, like his contemporary Jean Giono, is one of the regional masters of modern French literature, a writer who dwells above all on the grandeur, beauty, and ferocious unpredictability of the natural world. Malicroix, set in the early nineteenth century, is widely considered to be Bosco’s greatest book. Here he invests a classic coming-of-age story with a wild, mythic glamour.

A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone (Book acquired, sometime in February 2020)

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Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is new from NYRB in English translation by Charlotte Collins. NYRB’s blurb:

West Germany, 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Jonathan Fabrizius, a middle-aged erstwhile journalist, has a comfortable existence in Hamburg, bankrolled by his furniture-manufacturing uncle. He lives with his girlfriend Ulla in a grand, decrepit prewar house that just by chance escaped annihilation by the Allied bombers. One day Jonathan receives a package in the mail from the Santubara Company, a luxury car company, commissioning him to travel in their newest V8 model through the People’s Republic of Poland and to write about the route for a car rally. Little does the company know that their choice location is Jonathan’s birthplace, for Jonathan is a war orphan from former East Prussia, whose mother breathed her last fleeing the Russians and whose father, a Nazi soldier, was killed on the Baltic coast. At first Jonathan has no interest in the job, or in dredging up ancient family history, but as his relationship with Ulla starts to wane, the idea of a return to his birthplace, and the money to be made from the gig, becomes more appealing. What follows is a darkly comic road trip, a queasy misadventure of West German tourists in Communist Poland, and a reckoning that is by turns subtle, satiric, and genuine. Marrow and Bone is an uncomfortably funny and revelatory odyssey by one of the most talented and nuanced writers of postwar Germany.

Titus Alone (Book acquired, 29 Feb. 2020)

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Not a dozen pages into Mervyn Peake’s 1959 novel Titus Alone something very strange happens: A man shows up in a car. The narrator simply uses the word “car,” and our hero Titus seems to accept the technological marvel in stride, using the word himself a bit later.

The strangeness of the car, a thing wholly banal in our own contemporary world, derives from its technological dissonance compared to the previous two Titus novels, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950).

These first two novels of the so-called “Gormenghast Trilogy” take place primarily in a strange, isolated castle called Gormenghast, and the limited terrain around it. The world of Gormenghast and environs seems medieval, stagnant, insular, but also wonderfully baroque, a world that centers on byzantine rituals that have been practiced and observed for at least seventy-seven generations. No one living knows what the rituals mean or from whence they derive; indeed, the rituals seem to be their own telos.

Tinged with fantastic and strange imagery, these first two novels are not fantasy per se, at least not in the traditional sense. They owe more to Charles Dickens’ novels than to the Nordic and Germanic myths that underwrite so much of Tolkien. The books are also wonderfully grotesque, full of weird mutants in varying stages of decay, imagery reflected in Peake’s illustrations for his books (which recall Leonardo’s caricatures). Peake’s prose style is singular as well: his syntax is thick, his vocabulary Faulknerian. Peake essentially creates an original idiom through which Gormenghast can exist. The world is so insular that it creates and sustains itself, both aesthetically and verbally.

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Young Titus Groan is stifled by all of this insularity and apparently-meaningless ritual, however, and he escapes it at the end of Gormenghast. Somehow he arrives into a new world—the narrative logic is dreamy, perhaps because Titus arrives in this new world asleep in a boat, a positively mythic image. And then he’s picked up by the motorist Muzzlehatch, who feeds him and lets him rest and recover. Titus then witnesses a terrible battle between a camel and a mule, members of Muzzlehatch’s strange menagerie. After he leaves—he’s always leaving, always more or less alone, a word that repeats throughout Titus Alone—after Titus leaves Muzzlehatch, he arrives in a technologically-advanced city of glass and steel. He escapes flying surveillance drones and soon drops into a party (quite literally), where he meets Juno, a beautiful woman twice his age who will later take him as a lover. I should stop summarizing. Titus Alone is episodic, picaresque even, with one damn thing happening after another. The chapters are short and propulsive — most are no more than the front and back of a pageIt’s just one damn thing happening after another, and happening with an energy and rapidity that seems the opposite of the methodical rhythm of the first two books. It reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide and Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, both punchy picaresques, but also Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass or even Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz.

I passed a little over the half way mark of Titus Alone this afternoon. The book somehow has taken an even more surreal turn, as Titus enters the Under-River, a labyrinthine Hadean space under the city populated by outcasts and refugees. Peake’s overview of these underdwellers is cinematic and at times startling; he seems to point to a much larger universe, but one that Titus (and the reader) will never fully glimpse. And yet Titus Alone takes its hero (and the reader) into the new, into a world that must be rich and severe and stocked with lore—only Peake keeps us isolated from knowing. We are on the outside of knowing, alone.

Anasazi (Beautiful and bewildering graphic novel told in its own glyphic language, acquired 6 Feb. 2020)

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A week or so ago, Mike McCubbins offered me a review copy of Anasazi, the graphic novel that he made with Matt Bryan. He sent a link to the Anasazi’s Kickstarter page. I skimmed over the art, was impressed and immediately interested, and then read their blurb:

Anasazi is a nearly wordless 212 page, 8″ x 8.5″ full-color cloth-bound graphic novel. Its a story of war, assimilation, and cultural divisions on a colorful alien planet that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, world history, and horror.

…16 chapters. 16 words.  There is no English dialogue or exposition in Anasazi. Instead each chapter heading contains an alien language glyph along with a non-English word or phrase meaning and its literal English translation. These glyphs then appear as dialogue throughout the story.

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The art, overview, and the concept of a story told in glyphs intrigued me, and I trusted my intuition not to read the brief “What’s the story?” section of Anasazi until after I’d read the novel. I read it twice; once the night it showed up, and then again the next morning. The story synopsis (three short sentences) hardly spoils the narrative, but it offers enough context for anyone wholly lost to find their footing.

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The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. The novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

The sixteen English words in Anasazi are all chapter names, and all are loan words, as the novel’s title suggests. Some (“M’Aidez,” “Sheol,” “Melaina Chole”) were more familiar to me than others (“Zinduka,” “Gweilo,” “Shuv”), and all take on a strange tone in the novel, as if the glyphs the characters speak are rough transliterations of something far more refined than our alien ears could comprehend.

I really enjoyed Anasazi, and I aim to have a full review soon. But I plan to read it a few more times first.

 

S.D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (Book acquired, 23 Dec. 2019)

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An AR copy of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few days before Xmas. I was inundated with books, both review copies and gifts and gifts to myself, but still excited—I think Chrostowska’s novel Permission is great. (I was lucky enough to interview Chrostowska about the novel, too.)

The book’s blurb points to a kind of sci-fi or dystopian plot that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from Chrostowska (all the better):

In the near future, sleep has been banned. Our unnamed, dream-prone narrator finds himself following Chevauchet, a diplomat of Onirica, a foreign republic of dreams, to resist the prohibition. On a mission to combat the state-sponsored drugging of citizens with uppers for greater productivity, they traverse an eerie landscape in an everlasting autumn, able to see inside other people’s nightmares and dreams. As Comprehensive Illusion — a social media-like entity that hijacks creativity — overtakes the masses, Chevauchet, the old radical, weakens and disappears, leaving our narrator to take up Chevauchet’s dictum that “daydreaming is directly subversive” and forge ahead on his own.

In slippery, exhilarating and erudite prose, The Eyelid revels in the camaraderie of free thinking that can only happen on the lam, aiming to rescue a species that can no longer dream.

The Eyelid is forthcoming from Coach House Proof in April of this year.

The Complete Gary Lutz (Book acquired, 6 Jan. 2020)

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My dad slipped me a Barnes & Noble giftcard on Christmas Day; his sister had given it to him. “Never happen,” he said. “You’ll use it.” I’m pretty sure I used it that very night, after some drinks. I got a cookbook my wife had been wanting that was pretty expensive, a Joy Williams novel I still haven’t done a book acquired post on, and The Complete Gary Lutz.

New from indie TyrantThe Complete Gary Lutz collects all five of Lutz’s story collections to date, including Partial List of People to Bleach, the only one I’ve read. How long will the title of the book remain true? Will Lutz bow out? How long until this is The Incomplete Gary Lutz?

The collection is about 500 pages, and I’ve been dipping into randomly, reading one or two of the shorter stories a day, like “Grounds”:

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Tyrant’s blurb:

For nearly three decades, Gary Lutz has been writing quietly influential, virtuosic short fictions of antic despair. In barbed sentences of startling originality, Lutz gives voice to outcasts from conventional genders and monogamies—and even from the ruckus of their own bodies. Making their rounds of daily humiliations, Lutz’s self-unnerving narrators find themselves helplessly trespassing on their own lives.

This omnibus volume, with an introduction by Brian Evenson, gathers all five of Lutz’s sometimes hard-to-find collections and features sixty pages of previously uncollected stories—including his two longest.

Another shorty:

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Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing (Book acquired 13 Jan. 2020)

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I got an email from an independent bookseller a few days ago confirming that I bought a copy of  Ishamel Reed’s 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing. I had no recollection of purchasing the novel online, although this kind of thing has happened more than once. It was a Saturday night; I may or may not have had a few tumblers of scotch, and was probably jonesing for more Reed after having finished Flight to Canada. Anyway, it showed up today. Here is the back cover:

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And here is the first paragraph of Larry McCaffery’s contemporary review of the novel in The Los Angeles Times:

Early on in “Reckless Eyeballing,” one of the book’s many beleaguered black men observes that “throughout history when the brothers feel that they’re being pushed against the wall, they strike back and when they do strike back it’s like a tornado, uprooting, flinging about, and dashing to pieces everything in its path.” This passage provides a perfect entryway into Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, for like many other black men, Reed obviously feels that “the brothers” are catching it from all sides–and not just from the usual sources of racial bigotry, but from ‘60s liberals now turned neo-conservatives, from white feminists who propagate the specter of the black men as phallic oppressor, from other racial minorities anxious to wrest various monkeys off their own backs.

Varlam Shalamov’s Sketches of the Criminal World (Book acquired sometime in Dec. 2019)

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A collection of Varlam Shalamov’s work, called Sketches of the Criminal World, is new from NYRB this week (translated by Donald Rayfield). I finally had a chance to dip into some of Shalamov’s Gulag tales this afternoon, and it’s probably not the right comparison at all, but something about what I read reminded me of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction, or some of his fiction. NYRB’s blurb:

n 1936, Varlam Shalamov, a journalist and writer, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Soviet Gulag. He survived fifteen years in the prison camps and returned from the Far North to write one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the years he spent in the Gulag. Sketches of the Criminal World is the second of two volumes (the first, Kolyma Stories, was published by NYRB Classics in 2018) that together constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.

In this second volume, Shalamov sets out to answer the fundamental moral questions that plagued him in the camps where he encountered firsthand the criminal world as a real place, far more evil than Dostoyevsky’s underground: “How does someone stop being human?” and “How are criminals made?” By 1972, when he was writing his last stories, the camps were being demolished, the guard towers and barracks razed. “Did we exist?” Shalamov asks, then answers without hesitation, “I reply, ‘We did.’”

The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 2 (Book acquired, 9 Dec. 2019)

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I finally had a bit of time to properly dip into the second issue of The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies this afternoon. (I brought it to work with me and read from it between classes.)

This issue essentially came out of a 2015 conference at the University of Bristol called David Foster Wallace and the Short Things. Issue 2 contains six essays on Wallace’s “short things” — short stories, sure, but also the vignettes and bits and pieces and fragments that make up The Pale King (and Infinite Jest).

After skimming around a bit, I read the last one, Jeffrey Severs’ “‘Listen’: Wallace’s Short Story Endings and the Art of Falling Silent.” Severs explores Wallace’s endings as a kind of series of revisions to the conclusion of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (Wallace later called the ending “shitty and dissatisfying”). Severs discusses Girl with Curious Hair extensively, but also touches on The Pale King and Infinite Jest. (And Wittgenstein, silence, and meditative listening.)

There are also two reviews of recent books on Wallace in this issue, just as in the previous issue, one for Marshall Boswell’s The Wallace Effect: David Foster Wallace and the Contemporary Literary Imagination, and one for Ralph Clare’s The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace.

A few of the other essays piqued my interest; Tim Groenland has a thing on fragments, The Pale King, and ancient Rome, and Pia Masiero has a thing on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is maybe my favorite Wallace book.

 

Lars Iyer’s Nietzsche and the Burbs (Book acquired, sometime in Dec. 2019)

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Lars Iyer’s latest is Nietzsche and the Burbs, out now from Melville House. Their blurb:

In a work of blistering dark hilarity, a young Nietzsche experiences life in a metal band & the tribulations of finals season in a modern secondary school

When a new student transfers in from a posh private school, he falls in with a group of like-minded suburban stoners, artists, and outcasts—too smart and creative for their own good. His classmates nickname their new friend Nietzsche (for his braininess and bleak outlook on life), and decide he must be the front man of their metal band, now christened Nietzsche and the Burbs.

With the abyss of graduation—not to mention their first gig—looming ahead, the group ramps up their experimentations with sex, drugs, and…nihilist philosophy. Are they as doomed as their intellectual heroes? And why does the end of youth feel like such a universal tragedy?

And as they ponder life’s biggies, this sly, elegant, and often laugh-out-loud funny story of would-be rebels becomes something special: an absorbing and stirring reminder of a particular, exciting yet bittersweet moment in life…and a reminder that all adolescents are philosophers, and all philosophers are adolescents at heart.

 

Blog about Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-slave narrative Flight to Canada

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I read Ishmael Reed’s 1976 novel Flight to Canada over the last few days of 2019. I enjoyed the book tremendously, even as it made me dizzy at times with its frenetic, zany  achronological satire of the American Civil War.

What is it about?

Flight to Canada features a number of intersecting plots. One of these plots follows the ostensible protagonist of the novel, former slave Raven Quickskill, who escapes the Swille plantation in Virginia. Along with two other former slaves of the Swille plantation, Quickskill makes his way far north to “Emancipation City” where he composes a poem called “Flight to Canada,” which expresses his desire to escape America completely. The aristocratic (and Sadean) Arthur Swille simply cannot let “his property run off with himself,” and sends trackers to find Quickskill and the other escapees, Emancipation Proclamation be damned. On the run from trackers, Quickskill jumps from misadventure to misadventure, eventually reconnecting his old flame, an Indian dancer named Quaw Quaw (as well as her husband, the pirate Yankee Jack). Back at Swille’s plantation Swine’rd, several plots twist around, including a visit by Old Abe Lincoln, a sadistic episode between Lady Swille and her attendant Mammy Barracuda, and the day-to-day rituals of Uncle Robin, a seemingly-compliant “Uncle Tom” figure who turns out to be Reed’s real hero in the end.

(And oh, Quickskill makes it to Canada in the end. Now, whether or not he wants to stay there after he gets there…)

There’s a whole lot more in the book, too. It’s difficult to summarize—like the majority of the other seven novels I’ve read by Reed, Flight to Canada isn’t so much a work of plot and character development as it is a jazzy extemporization of disparate themes and motifs. Reed’s novel is about slavery and freedom, war and aesthetics, perspective and time, and how history gets told and taught to future.

As a means to satirize not just the Civil War but also how we read and write and portray the Civil War, Reed collapses time in Flight to Canada. As novelist Jerome Charyn points out in his contemporary review of the novel in The New York Times,

Reed has little use for statistical realities. He is a necromancer, a believer in the voodoos of art. Time becomes a modest, crazy fluid in Reed’s head, allowing him to mingle events of the last 150 years, in order to work his magic. We have Abe Lincoln and the Late Show, slave catchers and “white ‐ frosted Betty Crocker glossy cake,” Jefferson Davis and Howard K. Smith. Every gentleman’s carriage is equipped with “factory climate‐control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power‐lock doors, six‐way power seat, power windows, whitewall wheels, door‐edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and softglass.”

Reed’s achronological gambit allows him to bring figures from any time period into the narrative, no questions asked. Edgar Allan Poe is there, even though he died over a decade before the war began. No matter. Our narrator claims early on that Poe was “the principal biographer of that strange war…Poe got it all down. Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians.” Lord Byron shows up too, as do Charles I of England and the Marquis de Sade. There are contemporary figures of the Civil War era there too, of course—Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Reed takes to task repeatedly), Frederick Douglass, and the writer William Wells Brown, whom Quickskill meets in a surprisingly moving scene (Quickskill says that Brown is his hero and that his novel Clotel was the inspiration for “Flight to Canada”). The fictional characters of Flight to Canada discuss or interact with these historical figures in such a way to continually critique not just the words and deeds of the historical figures, but the very way we frame and narrativize those words and deeds.

2020-01-03_152112_1The technological anachronisms of Flight to Canada also serve to critique our framing of history. Our American Cousins plays live on broadcast TV, assassination and all:

Booth, America’s first Romantic Assassin. They replay the actual act, the derringer pointing through the curtains, the President leaning to one side, the FIrst Lady standing, shocked, the Assassin leaping from the balcony, gracefully, beautifully, in slow motion. They promise to play it again on the Late News. When the cameras swing back to the Balcony, Miss Laura Keene of Our American Cousins is at Lincoln’s side “live.” Her gown is spattered with brain tissue. A reporter has a microphone in Mary Todd’s face.

“Tell us, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you feel having just watched your husband’s brains blow out before your eyes?”

(In a very Reedian move, the live assassination plays out during a sex scene between Quickskill and Quaw Quaw. The TV is always on in America, even during sex.)

Reed’s rhetorical distortions in depicting the Lincoln assassination are both grotesque and comic. Not only can we imagine a reporter doing the same in 1976, when Flight to Canada was published, we can imagine the same crass, exploitative handling today. Technology might have changed but people really haven’t

In his review, Jerome Charyn, begins by pointing out that 1976 is the American Bicentennial, something that simply did not entire my mind while reading Flight to Canada. Reed’s novel’s publication is appropriate and timely, and breaks “through the web of historical romance” (in the words of Charyn) that hangs over the “chicanery, paranoia and violence underlying most of our ‘democratic vistas.'”

Concluding his review, Charyn writes,

Flight to Canada could have been a very thin book, an unsubtle catalogue of American disorders. But Reed has the wit, the style, and the intelligence to do much more than that. The book explodes. Reed’s special grace is anger. His own sense of bewilderment deepens the comedy, forces us to consider the sad anatomy of his ideas. Flight to Canada is a hellish book with its own politics and a muscular, luminous prose. It should survive.

Books don’t survive of course; rather, they are always in the process of surviving. Books are either read, or not read. Flight to Canada should be read because it is witty and angry and unique and smart, and its critique of American history (and how we narrativize and aestheticize American history) is as vital and necessary today as it was nearly a half century ago.

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Two Sublunary Editions (Books acquired, 16 Dec. 2019)

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I was pysched to get to Sublunary Editions titles the other week.

I read the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis on 19 Dec. 2019. The story, a wonderful riff on Henry IV Part I, V.iv—the part where Falstaff flops on the battlefield, faking his death in an act of cowardly heroism—is by the French author Pierre Senges. It is the third translation of Senges’ work by Jacob Siefring that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it very much, reading it surreptitiously on the back of the dais, cloaked by my colleagues during our fall commencement. (I had to tune out the ramblings of the commencement speaker, a local judge afflicted with a conservative streak.) Here’s novelist S.D. Chrostowska’s blurb:

Like Falstaff’s coffin in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Pierre Senges’s erudite fragments are broader than most, their depth befitting Shakespeare’s original. Here’s Falstaff the master thespian, never wiser or more human than when he plays dead to save his skin and takes a nap. Well-served by this limpid translation, Senges resurrects him as a hero for our time. Bravo!

I also got 926 Years, and intriguing title by Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson. Here’s Sublunary’s blurb:

Through twenty-two linked stories, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson explore the creative potential of people’s native estrangement from themselves and each other. Two writers who have never met, who live on opposite sides of the globe—one in Australia, the other in the United States—tracking the pattern of probable lives and fates that co-exist between them, from Korea to England, Senegal to Argentina. Their conclusion/suspicion: imagination is stronger, and subtler, than God, and offers more than mere consolation for the difficulties of living.

And here’s what novelist Gary Lutz has to say:

The intimate, globe-spanning microportraits of human crisis in 926 Years are at once sobering and uplifting, clarifying and mystifying. Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson’s collaboration is a nonpareil of short-form virtuosity.

More thoughts forthcoming!

 

Blog about Ishmael Reed’s novel Juice! (Book acquired, 10 Dec. 2019)

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I was having a hard time getting into any of the books piled up around my house after I finished Paul Beatty’s fantastic and scathing satire The Sellout a few weeks ago, so I picked up Ishmael Reed’s 2011 novel Juice! It did the trick.

Here’s Reed describing the novel in a short Paris Review interview he did to promote the novel:

I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.

Juice! is told in first-person by an aging cartoonist who goes by “Bear” whose obsession with the O.J. Simpson case(s) begins to cost him his friends, family, and career. Reed’s narrator bears more than a passing similarity to Reed himself, and the style of Juice! is decidedly different from Reed’s earlier, zanier novels like Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and The Terrible Twos. However, the novel, like every novel I’ve read by Reed, diagnoses and dissects the American zeitgeist with howling humor and wild anger. There’s something of a reactionary flavor to Juice! though—its aging narrator has an ugly misogynistic/homophobic/transphobic streak, which the other characters, as well as the narrative construction, continually critique. Juice! creates a strange space of self-satire and self-critique that’s really…ugly—but also reflective and even elegiac in a way. Our narrator “Bear” paces through the realizations of someone whose ideological complaints remain unanswered, outpaced. His story is a howl against a system that, by design, cannot amend itself with its own tools.

While “Bear” is certainly a version of Reed, he is not Reed (an “Ishmael Reed” actually shows up late in the novel, in fact). “Bear” may in fact be a cartoonized Reed, Reed’s self-caricature. Supposedly-well-meaning white women are a favorite target in Juice! In his short Paris Review interview, Reed addressed accusations against him of sexism:

In the 1960s, when black nationalism was in vogue, all black characters had to be portrayed in a positive way, and when the feminist movement was born out of black nationalism, so did all black women. Since the mid-1970s, white feminists have had great influence over which black fiction gets marketed. I’ve gotten a lot of heat from some women in parts of academia, publishing, and book reviewing. On some occasions, they’ve censored my work. The late Joe Wood asked me to write a piece about Oakland politics for The Village Voice. He said that a feminist editor at the time wouldn’t even read it on the grounds that I was a “notorious sexist.”

In that same interview, Reed discussed the cartoons he did (as “Bear”) for Juice!–

A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco…

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Reed’s cartoons are sharp and grotesque, and several of them are major plot points in the novel. One of the cartoons (also the novel’s cover illustration), featuring O.J. Simpson taking a direct snap from the US of A (a blonde, natch) is misunderstood—or perhaps understood too well—and Bear nearly loses his job.

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I haven’t finished Juice! yet—I’m about 50 or so pages from the end—but it’s fascinating both in its structure (discursive, achronological reportorial collage) and its tone (a kind of push-pull of an aging obsessive in crisis). Juice! isn’t my favorite Reed novel, but I’m thankful for this late work’s diagnosis of the Clinton years and beyond.

Jonathan Buckley’s The Great Concert of the Night (Book acquired, sometime early December 2019)

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Jonathan Buckley’s novel The Great Concert of the Night is forthcoming from NYRB early next year (like, in a few weeks). NYRB’s blurb:

David has just spent New Year’s Eve alone, watching Le Grand Concert de la Nuit, a film in which his former lover Imogen starred. In the early hours of the new year, consoled and tormented by her ethereal presence, he begins to write. What follows is a brilliantly various journal, chronicling a year in the life of a thinking man. David works as a curator at the ailing Sanderson-Perceval Museum in southern England, whose small collection of porcelain, musical instruments, crystals, velvet mushrooms, and glass jellyfish is as eccentric and idiosyncratic as the long-dead collectors’ tastes. David himself is a connoisseur of the derelict and nonutilitarian, of objects removed from the flow of time. Refusing the imposed order of a straightforward chronology, his journal moves fluidly back and forth in time, filled with fragments of life remembered, imagined, and recorded, from memories of his past life with Imogen or with his ex-wife, Samantha, to reflections on the lives and relics of female saints or the history of medicine. There are quotations from Seneca, Meister Eckhart, and the Goncourt brothers mixed in with the equally compelling imagined words of fictional film directors, actors, and, always, the fascinating Imogen, who is alive now only “in the perpetual present of the sentence.” In The Great Concert of the Night, Jonathan Buckley expertly interweaves sexual despair, cultural critique, the plot lines of one man’s quietly brilliant life, and the problems and paradoxes of writing, especially writing about and to the dead.

John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (Book acquired, 30 Nov. 2019)

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I couldn’t pass up on this used first edition of John Barth’s 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy when I visited Haslam’s Book Store in downtown St. Petersburg over the Thanksgiving break. Here’s the back cover:

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From Eliot Fremont-Smith’s 1966 review of Giles Goat-Boy in The New York Times:

There follows the novel proper, which tells how George Giles was born (possibly a computer accident) into a goat herd, made his way into New Tammany College (the world of men), became Grand Tutor and prophet of the West Campus (the Western world as opposed to the Eastern) and, like Don Quixote, Candide, Leopold Bloom, etc., sought the meaning of good and evil, innocence and existence, action and identity, passion and thought.

The message of the syllabus is ambiguous — except perhaps that absolutes are noncognizable, that thinking is a passion and most passionately expressed in humor, and that, except for these, the world is going to hell. Fortunately, it won’t get there because — Mr. Barth proves once more — old jokes never die, they just lie in wait for resurrection. The jokes here — sexual, scatological, gastronomical, existential, political, linguistic, literary conventions and parodies — can be traced to Rabelais, “Tristram Shandy,” Lewis Carroll, Joyce, Nabokov, the Beatles and Bennett Cerf, among others, which should given an idea of the truly astonishing flavor of this lemon meringue pie of a book.

Machines in the Head: Selected Stories of Anna Kavan (Book acquired, 18 Nov. 2019)

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I’m really excited about this one. Anna Kavan’s novel Ice is one of the best books I read this year (I blogged about it here and here and here. T Machines in the Head: Selected Short Stories of Anna Kavan is out early next year from NYRB. Their blurb:

Anna Kavan is one of the great originals of twentieth-century fiction, comparable to Leonora Carrington and Jean Rhys, a writer whose stories explored and plumbed the depths of her long addiction to heroin. This anthology of Kavan’s stories draws together a selection of her best writing from across her long career. Stories from across her collections show the range of her style: oblique and elegiac tales of breakdown and asylum incarceration from Asylum Piece (1940), moving evocations of wartime from I Am Lazarus (1945), fantastic and surrealist pieces from A Bright Green Field (1958), and stories of addiction from Julia and the Bazooka. Her late sci-fi stories will appeal to fans of her last novel, Ice. “Five Days to Countdown,” first published in Encounter (1968) and later collected in My Soul in China, is preoccupied with Cold War concerns and the sartorial aesthetics of the 1960s, and, published here for the first time, “Starting a Career” is a futuristic spy thriller, whose protagonist sets out to become the world’s greatest enigma.

Kavan was determined to experiment throughout her writing career, and this collection is moving, funny, bizarre, poignant, often unsettling, but always distinctive and often unique. And even though better known as a writer than an artist, Kavan painted throughout her life.