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.

Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Book acquired 12 Nov. 2019)

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Huge thanks to BLCKDGRD for sending me Anne Boyer’s aphoristic, poetic memoir-essay The Undying. I guess he read that I went to my bookstore to buy it a few weeks ago and came home not empty handed but nevertheless Undyingless. I wanted to read Boyer’s book after reading her essay collection (“essay” isn’t really the right word, but)  A Handbook of Disappointed Fate this summer—-also sent to me by generous Mr. BLCKDGRD

I’m about 100 pages away from finishing The Undying, a book that doesn’t so much chronicle Boyer’s 2014 diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer as it explores and explodes what cancer—a “twentieth-century disease” that we still treat with “twentieth-century” methods, in Boyer’s words—means and is and does in our neoliberal late-capitalist early twenty-first century. Boyer writes,

To become a cancer patient is to become a system-containing object inside another system that only partially allows the recognition of the rest of the systems in which one is a node and also almost wholly obscures the heaviest system of the arrangement of the world as it is, which hangs around, too, in the object that contains a system (by which I mean “me”) as part of the problem in the first place, requiring our latent unhealth just as it profits from our active one.

Later, again addressing that “latent unhealth” which is part and parcel of the system, Boyer declares: “I would rather write nothing at all than propagandize the world as is.” This is a wonderfully angry book.

This is a wonderfully angry, discursive, recursive book: literary biography, literary criticism, art history, art criticism, Foucault, John Donne, Susan Sontag, Lucretius, Virginia Woolf; a howl at the hoaxers, frauds, self-helperists and their pinkwashed platitudes. And lots of pain, expressed with sentiment that bears no trace of sentimentality.

Boyer’s aphoristic style is engrossing. Her paragraphs and one-liners bear a ludic stamp seemingly at odds with her subject matter. The work of the writing, the heavy burden of smithing those sentences is all but elided—instead we get the clarity of a focused mind drawing together seemingly-disparate threads into a cohesive and compelling memoir that transcends the personal without necessarily meaning to.

Showing is a betrayal of the real, which you can never quite know with your eyes in the first place, and if you are trying to survive for the purpose of literature, showing and not telling is reason enough to endure the disabling processes required for staying alive.

Everything here feels and reads True. 

Jiří Kolář’s A User’s Manual (Book acquired, some time in late October)

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I’ve been slowly enjoying the poems and collages that comprise Jiří Kolář’s collection A User’s Manual (in English translation by Ryan Scott). There are 52 poems and collages here. Each poem is a kind of surrealist recipe, a set of commands that I’ve been trying to follow (in my imagination, I mean).

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The book itself is beautiful—hardback with full color and black and white illustrations, it fits perfectly with the aesthetic that its publisher Twisted Spoon has been developing for ages now.

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Here’s Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

Written in the 1950s and ’60s, the “action poems” comprising a A User’s Manual were published in their complete form in 1969 when they were paired with the 52 collages of Weekly 1967, the first of Kolář’s celebrated series in which he commented visually on a major event for each week of
the year. Taking the form of directives, largely absurd, the poems mock communist society’s officialese while offering readers an opportunity to create their own poetics by performing the given directions. The collages on the facing pages to the poems are composed of layered documents, image cutouts, newspaper clippings, announcements, letter fragments, reports, or decontextualized words, oftentimes forming concrete patterns or the outlines of figures, to create a sort of “evidential” report on the year. Text and image taken together, the volume displays Kolář’s enduring interest in extracting poetry from the mundane to demolish the barrier separating art from reality, or even to elevate reality itself through this dual poetics to the level of art. What art historian Arsén Pohribný wrote about Weekly 1968 equally applies to Weekly 1967: it “shocks with its abrupt stylistic twists” and is “a Babylonian, hybrid parable of multi-reality.” The volume also includes the complete Czech text as an appendix.

D.H. Lawrence’s The Bad Side of Books (Book acquired 16 Oct. 2019)

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NRYB has compiled a collection of essays from D.H. Lawrence entitled The Bad Side of Books. I’ve always appreciated Lawrence’s nonfiction (particularly Apocalypse) more than his fiction, so this collection (with its great title) piques my interest. NYRB’s blurb:

You could describe D.H. Lawrence as the great multi-instrumentalist among the great writers of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant, endlessly controversial novelist who transformed, for better and for worse, the way we write about sex and emotions; he was a wonderful poet; he was an essayist of burning curiosity, expansive lyricism, odd humor, and radical intelligence, equaled, perhaps, only by Virginia Woolf. Here Geoff Dyer, one of the finest essayists of our day, draws on the whole range of Lawrence’s published essays to reintroduce him to a new generation of readers for whom the essay has become an important genre. We get Lawrence the book reviewer, writing about Death in Venice and welcoming Ernest Hemingway; Lawrence the travel writer, in Mexico and New Mexico and Italy; Lawrence the memoirist, depicting his strange sometime-friend Maurice Magnus; Lawrence the restless inquirer into the possibilities of the novel, writing about the novel and morality and addressing the question of why the novel matters; and, finally, the Lawrence who meditates on birdsong or the death of a porcupine in the Rocky Mountains. Dyer’s selection of Lawrence’s essays is a wonderful introduction to a fundamental, dazzling writer.

Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek

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I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.

Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.

The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.

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Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.

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Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.

I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.

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Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake (Book acquired 27 Sept. 2019)

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Carl Shuker’s fourth novel A Mistake is new from Counterpress. Their blurb–

Elizabeth is a gifted surgeon—the only female consultant at her hospital. But while she operates on a young woman with life-threatening blood poisoning, something goes horribly wrong. In the midst of a new scheme to publicly report surgeons’ performance, her colleagues begin to close ranks, and Elizabeth’s life is thrown into disarray. Tough and abrasive, Elizabeth has survived and succeeded in this most demanding, palpably sexist field. But can she survive a single mistake?

A Mistake is a page-turning procedural thriller about powerful women working in challenging spheres. The novel examines how a survivor who has successfully navigated years of a culture of casual sexism and machismo finds herself suddenly in the fight of her life. When a mistake is life-threatening, who should ultimately be held responsible?

Carl Shuker has produced some of the finest writing on the physicality of medical intervention, where life-changing surgery is detailed moment by moment in a building emergency. A Mistake daringly illustrates the startling mix of the coolly intellectual and deeply personal inherent in the life and work of a surgeon.

Howard Jacobson’s Live a Little (Book acquired, some time near the end of August, 2019)

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Howard Jacobson’s Live a Little is new in hardback in the US this month from Penguin Random House. Their blurb–

At the age of ninety-something, Beryl Dusinbery is forgetting everything – including her own children. She spends her days stitching morbid samplers and tormenting her two long-suffering carers, Nastya and Euphoria, with tangled stories of her husbands and love affairs.

Shimi Carmelli can do up his own buttons, walks without the aid of a frame and speaks without spitting. Among the widows of North London, he’s whispered about as the last of the eligible bachelors. Unlike Beryl, he forgets nothing – especially not the shame of a childhood incident that has hung over him ever since.

There’s very little life remaining for either of them, but perhaps just enough to heal some of the hurt inflicted along the way, and find new meaning in what’s left. Told with Jacobson’s trademark wit and style, Live a Little is equal parts funny, irreverent and tender – a novel to make you consider all the paths not taken, and whether you could still change course.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Ecstasy and Terror (Book acquired, some time last week)

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I got a review copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection Ecstasy and Terror some time early last week. I’ve read a few of the pieces in here before (“A Critic’s Manifesto” is one that I recalled in particular). Ecstasy and Terror is out in October from NYRB. Their blurb:

This collection of essays exemplifies the range, depth, and erudition that have made Daniel Mendelsohn “required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture” (The Daily Beast). Here Mendelsohn once again casts an eye at literature, film, television, and the personal essay, filtering his insights through his training as a scholar of classical antiquity in surprising and illuminating ways.

Many of these essays examine how we continue to look to the Greeks and Romans as models: some argue for the surprising modernity of canonical works (Bacchae, the Aeneid), while others detect a “Greek DNA” in our responses to the Boston Marathon bombings and the assassination of JFK. Modern topics are treated, too, from the “aesthetics of victimhood” in Hanya Yanagihara’sA Little Life to the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and from Game of Thrones to recent films about artificial intelligence—a subject, Mendelsohn reminds us, that was already of interest to Homer.

The collection also brings together for the first time a number of Mendelsohn’s personal essays, including his “critic’s manifesto” and a touching memoir of his boyhood correspondence with the historical novelist Mary Renault.

Blog about Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (Book acquired, 7 Aug 2019)

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I finally dug into Chris Ware’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rusty Brown yesterday. A finished review copy arrived on August 7th, 2019, the day that David Berman died.

I had spent some time simply looking at the book’s exquisite book jacket, which unfolds into a kind of two-sided poster thing, complete with notes and suggestions how the reader might personalize the jacket by folding it in different ways. The spine section of the jacket is also quite amusing—a sort of TV Guide goof that stages Rusty Brown as a television special (in four parts, including comedy, western, sci-fi, and drama). There’s also a crossword puzzle, a maze, and other minutiae. If you’ve read Ware, you’ll know that his work is often crammed with little details like this. Here are two pictures that fail to capture how gorgeous this thing is:

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Here’s the inside cover, too:

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So well and anyway. I tooled around with the cover for a half hour or so on that Wednesday then started in on making dinner, the making of which was interrupted by a text from a friend telling me about Berman’s suicide.

If you’ve read Chris Ware—maybe you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Building Stories, both of which are exceptional—hell, Building Stories is like the invention of a new genre of reading itself—if you’ve read Chris Ware you likely know that his work can be really fucking sad.

I have not wanted to read anything really fucking sad for the past few days.

(I’ve been rereading Berman’s collection Actual Air and reading Charles Portis’s comic picaresque The Dog of the South.)

On Sunday afternoon I decided to dig in. I met the cast of Rusty Brown:

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–and picked up the setting:

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The introduction of Rusty Brown runs over a 100 pages and intertwines several of the characters’ perspectives. If there’s a lead though, it’s Woody Brown, a miserable son of a bitch who hates his life (wife, kid, teaching job) and daydreams about running away or even killing himself.

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Woody’s poor son, the titular Rusty, daydreams as well, fantasizing that he’s gained superpowers (well, a superpower—incredible hearing) and fixating on his Supergirl action figure, who enters his bored mind when he’s at school. School is bad for Rusty, too; he’s bullied terribly. Ware depicts these scenes with honesty and pathos, but also humor. Consider this little cut scene:

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The comic timing frequently leavens the first part of Rusty Brown. The thought bubble here cracked me up:

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We also meet Alison and Chalky White, a brother and sister who are starting their first day at a new school. They’ve moved in with their grandmother; they’re new to Nebraska, and they’re miserable. Ware runs their story concurrently with the Browns’ story, and the two occasionally sync up in wonderful little plays on perspective.

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Ware also inserts a version of himself into the story. Mr. Ware is the art teacher at Rusty’s school. Ware’s depiction of Mr. Ware is a kind of mean self-parody, but also very funny and even warm at times.

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Mr. Ware has been working on a series of Pop Art paintings that he hopes will achieve “an intuitive transcendence of culture and corpus.”

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Ware has been working on Rusty Brown for over a decade and a half now (you might’ve read bits of it here and there over the years), and the depth of storytelling here shows. Full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s publisher Pantheon’s blurb:

Rusty Brown is a fully interactive, full-color articulation of the time-space interrelationships of three complete consciousnesses in the first half of a single midwestern American day and the tiny piece of human grit about which they involuntarily orbit. A sprawling, special snowflake accumulation of the biggest themes and the smallest moments of life, Rusty Brown literately and literally aims at nothing less than the coalescence of one half of all of existence into a single museum-quality picture story, expertly arranged to present the most convincingly ineffable and empathetic illusion of experience for both life-curious readers and traditional fans of standard reality. From childhood to old age, no frozen plotline is left unthawed in the entangled stories of a child who awakens without superpowers, a teen who matures into a paternal despot, a father who stores his emotional regrets on the surface of Mars and a late-middle-aged woman who seeks the love of only one other person on planet Earth.

 

 

William Burroughs’ Nova Express (Book acquired sometime last week)

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So I couldn’t pass up this first edition hardback Grove Press edition of William Burroughs’ 1964 novel Nova Express (with cover design by Grove Press stalwart Roy Kuhlman) that I found a few hot days ago, wandering decomposing stacks of pressed leaves here in North Florida. It ate up half of my credit at this particular used bookstore and yet was still cheaper than a new hardback NYT bestseller. Haven’t read the damn thing sense college, and don’t own a copy so. Here’s the back cover with an author photo of Burroughs in which he looks like a goddamn baby (how did he live so long?):

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“[T]he greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”! I’m sure Jack Kerouac wouldn’t like hyperbolize even a smidge. What was Burroughs satirizing? Like modernism, modern machine life, etc. Control, as in all Burroughs.

Biologic Agent K9 called for his check and picked up supersonic imitation blasts of The Death Dwarfs — “L’addition — Laddition — Laddittion — Garcon — Garcon — Garcon” — American tourist accent to the Nth power — He ordered another coffee and monitored the café — A whole table of them imitating word forms and spitting back at supersonic speed — Several patrons rolled on the floor in switch fits — These noxious dwarfs can spit out a whole newspaper in ten seconds imitating your words after you and sliding in suggestion insults — That is the entry gimmick of The Death Dwarfs: supersonic imitation and playback so you think it is your own voice — (do you own a voice?) they invade The Right Centers which are The Speech Centers and they are in the right — in the right — in thee write — “RIGHT” — “I’m in the right — in the right — You know I’m in the right so long as you hear me say inside your right centers ‘I am in the right’” — While Sex Dwarfs tenderize erogenous holes — So The Venusian Gook Rot flashed round the world —

Read the rest of the death dwarf routine.

Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts (Book acquired, 20 May 2019

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I picked up a hardback copy of Gerald Murnane’s latest novel Border Districts on something of a whim today. It’s only 120 pages in hardback, and, despite Murnane’s metamodernist mode, is probably a bit more cohesive than the last few novels I’ve read (Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, and Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf). First two paragraphs—

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

I got some of my schooling from a certain order of religious brothers, a band of men who dressed each in a black soutane with a bib of white celluloid at his throat. I learned by chance last year, and fifty years since I last saw anyone wearing such a thing, that the white bib was called a rabat and was a symbol of chastity. Among the few books that I brought here from the capital city is a large dictionary, but the word rabat is not listed in it. The word may well be French, given that the order of brothers was founded in France. In this remote district, I am even less inclined than I was in the suburbs of the capital city to seek out some or another obscure fact; here, near the border, I am even more inclined than of old to accept as well founded any supposition likely to complete a pattern in my mind and then to go on writing until I learn the meaning for me of such an image as that of the white patch which appeared just now against a black ground at the edge of my mind and will not be easily dislodged.

 

Pynchon in Public Post, 2019

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Today is the 82nd birthday of the American author Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, which a lot of jokers on the internet have turned into Pynchon in Public Day.

The spirit of Pynchon in Public Day is zany fun, and mostly centers around reading Pynchon’s works in public and spreading the muted post horn symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 around as much as possible. I am the last person in the world who will read a book in a coffee shop, but I did don my second 49 shirt today—-

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—and head to the bookstore to pick up the only Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. More on that in second, but—no real recognition on the shirt today, although I’ve gotten some reactions to the other muted post horn shirt I own over the years, mostly from booksellers (not that interesting I know).

A few years ago though, wandering around downtown Los Angeles (wearing a muted post horn shirt), a stranger passing opposite me on the sidewalk hailed me with this question: “Are you the Trystero, guy?” At least that’s what I thought I said. I looked confused, asked, “What?” and he repeated — “Are you the Trystero guy?”

This particular moment struck me with a neat silly wave of minor paranoia, a Pynchonian moment, maybe—was this some kind of call sign for me to repeat, a password in a game of good fun? So I did the only thing that seemed sensible and replied, “Yes, I am the Trystero.”

The guy then proceeded to tell me that he loved my coffee. This confused me, so I told him that loved his coffee. Then he looked confused. After a few minutes on the hot July L.A. sidewalk we finally figured out a few things: He was referring to Trystero Coffee, which he showed me all about on his iPhone, and I was referring to The Crying of Lot 49, which he promised to read at the end of our exchange.

So anyway I went to the bookstore and picked up Bleeding Edge (and a few other books too, I admit). Along with Vineland, it’s the only Pynchon novel I haven’t read (despite two attempts on each). I’ll read Bleeding Edge before May 8th, 2020 though.

I started a retry of Vineland though. I had hoped to get past the farthest I remember going in—like the first 90 pages—before this post—-but I only made it through the first five chapters these past two days (through page 67). Still, I’d forgotten all about Ch. 5, the “Kahuna Airlines” chapter, which steers the book into new territory, and even though it still hasn’t hooked me yet (unlike the other Pynchons at this point), I’m starting to appreciate it for what I guess it is: Pynchon’s analysis of the eighties, of the absorption of the counterculture into culture, of nostalgia. The jokes are often hilarious and terrible, sometimes simultaneously. Pynchon sets up a Loony Tunes diner bit to deliver the execrable punchline, “Check’s in the mayo” for example. Pynchon names a lawn care company “The Marquis de Sod.” There’s a moment where protagonist Zoyd Wheeler pays for a ludicrous psychedelic party dress with “a check both he and the saleslady shared a premonition would end up taped to this very cash register after failing to clear,” a wonderful little throwaway line that shows Zoyd’s brokeassedness and empathy (and also highlights the Lebowski-Pynchon overlap, if you like). The line that’s cracked me up each time I’ve read it though is Zoyd’s daughter Prairie’s punker boyfriend being described as “the NBA-sized violence enthusiast who might or might not be fucking his daughter.” It’s just so dumb and poetic. I had also missed a few things — the night manager of Bodhi Dharma Pizza is named “Baba Havabananda,” a reference I’m thinking to Gravity’s Rainbow (“Have a banana”). There’s also a reference to the Vulcan hand salute, which shows up improbably in Pynchon’s next novel, Mason & Dixon (more on that here). And there’s the whole Bigfoot motif too, which Pynchon would echo in Inherent Vice, with Zoyd and Zuniga prefigurations of Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen. And like every Pynchon novel, I’m sure I’ve already missed a ton of stuff.

Anyway, more on Vineland to come. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Pynchon–why not check him out?

Baudelaire/Musil (Books acquired, mid-April 2019)

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Contra Mundum has two new ones in translation.

Robert Musil’s Unions, translated by Genese Grill, comprises two early stories, “The Completion of Love” and “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica.” From Contra Mundum’s blurb.

 

The stories in Unions, drawn from Martha’s [Marcovaldi, Musil’s wife] life, explode conventional morality; explore questions of self, union, and dissolution of self; and approximate exceptional sensations of erotic and intellectual perception in a shimmering and exceedingly dense proliferation of metaphors. The images, Musil tells us in a note, are the bone, not just the skin, of these carefully crafted stories. Each word is as motivated as the internal and external moments it attempts to embody in language. Although Musil did not continue to work in this experimental style in his later writing, in a late note he affirmed that Unions, the fruit of much artistic struggle and deep personal engagement, was the only one of his books that he sometimes still read from.

Belgium Stripped Bare is bad boy Baudelaire’s bad-mood visit to Belgium in the mid-1860s. This translation by Rainer J. Hanshe is comprised of Baudelaire’s journal entries, observations, and clippings of his time in Belgium, the place he left Paris for in 1864 in self-imposed exile. The entries, like this one, are fucking mean:

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And I have no idea what to make of this—

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I have yet to read Hanshe’s lengthy introduction for context, though—but from the blurb:

 Belgium Stripped Bare is an aesthetico-diagnostic litany of often vitriolic observations whose victory is found in the act of analysis itself, in the intoxication of diagnosis, just as great comedians exult in caustic and biting observations of society, a slap in the face of the status quo.

Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Book acquired, 8 April 2019)

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A tremendous thank you to to BLCKDGRD for sending me a copy of Anne Boyer’s strange discursive book of essays-poems-critiques-I-do-not-know-whats A Handbook of Disappointed Fates. It showed up in the mail unexpectedly, and I figured it might be from him (he posted excerpts last week). I’m really digging the book so far, although I haven’t been reading it in a straight line. I did start at the beginning though, which starts like this:

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(Bartleby prefers not to arrive in this essay on “No,” but it is nevertheless rather rich in its refusals).

Thanks to my friend again.

Blog about starting Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Book acquired, 23 March 2019)

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I was skeptical about Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf when it came out earlier this year in hardback. The novel had plenty of buzz and a big blurb from Neil Gaiman on the back—two things that often turn me off. I was also a bit skeptical about some of the novel’s marketing hype. James referred to his novel as an “African Game of Thrones,” and a lot of folks ran with that tag. James has since professed in an interview that this comparison was a joke.

A friend had read something about the book and texted me questions about it, so I thought, Hey, why not go to my favorite source of literary criticism: What did people who really hated this book have to say about it? And as usual, the one-star reviews at Amazon did not disappoint. Indeed, I was a bit optimistic about Black Leopard, Red Wolf after seeing this curve:

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Just look at that! Amazon stats for big publisher/big buzz books tend to be suspiciously positive, but here I saw a sign of something that intrigued me—a book that a lot of people either loved or hated. And some of those one-star reviews?

Filled with gratuitous and rampant cursing, sexuality, violence and brutality. Too much even for fans of dark fantasy. I could not finish it.

…Confusing, nasty, all-over-the-place, just plain LOST. Sorry, but this needs a particular kind of person to stomach or understand.

If you don’t mind being confused and unsure of the direction of a story, this book is for you. You must have patience to read this book. 

sounds like it was written by someone on hallucinogens.

I knew at this point I wouldn’t wait for the paperback.

If James’s comparing Black Leopard, Red Wolf to Game of Thrones was a joke, it’s a pretty good one, the kind of joke that could sell a lot of copies of his novel to fantasy fans who want a plot-driven tale. From the four baffling, surreal, vivid (and often lurid) chapters I’ve read so far, Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t really like Game of Thrones at all. There’s an opaqueness to James’s prose, a distancing effect to the language that alienates the reader in the most wonderful way. It’s all so terribly strange! Fans of plot-centric fantasy where the author explains and explicates what’s happening will likely be very quickly bothered by what James is doing here.

So far, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is first-person narrative of a man who may or may not be named Tracker, who is telling his story—or rather, manymany stories—to someone called Inquisitor (shades of One Thousand and One Nights?). These stories flow and roil into and out of each other. The minute James lets us find our bearings a bit, we’re out into new territory—one moment fighting “Omoluzu…Roof walkers” who seem to exist on a tangential plane to our own, and not long after running through a jungle of giant trees with a shapeshifting Leopard who leads us to a village of cursed children. Black Leopard, Red Wolf overflows with energy: the novel is kinetic, bright, and sharp, but also dark, eerie, and upsetting—it’s abject, puzzling, slippery. I love it so far.

The novel completely won me over on its tenth page, with this wild episode:

I kept walking until I came to an old woman by a river with a tall stick sitting at the banks. Her hair white at the sides, her head bald at the top. Her face had lines like paths in the forest and her yellow teeth meant her breath was foul. The stories say she rises each morning youthful and beautiful, blooms full and comely by midday, ages to a crone by nightfall, and dies at midnight to be born again the next hour. The hump in her back was higher than her head, but her eyes twinkled, so her mind was sharp. Fish swam right up to the point of the stick but never went beyond.

“Why have you come to this place?” she asked.

“This is the way to Monono,” I said.

“Why have you come to this place? A living man?”

“Life is love and I have no love left. Love has drained itself from me, and run to a river like this one.”

“It’s not love you have lost, but blood. I will let you pass. But when I lay with a man I live without dying for seventy moons.”

So I fucked the crone. She lay on her back by the bank, her feet in the river. She was nothing but bones and leather, but I was hard for her and full with vigor. Something was swimming between my legs that felt like fishes. Her hand touched my chest and my white clay stripes turned into waves around my heart. I thrust in and out of her, unnerved by her silence. In the dark I felt she was getting younger even though she was getting older. Flame spread inside me, spread to the tips of my fingers and the tip of me inside her. Air gathered around water, water gathered around air and I yelled, and pulled out, and rained on her belly, her arms, and her breasts. A shudder ran through me five times. She was still a crone, but I was not angry. She scooped my rain off her chest and flicked it off in the river. At once fish leapt up and dived in, leapt up again. This was a night when dark ate the moon, but the fishes had a light within them. The fishes had the head, arms, and breasts of women.

“Follow them,” she said.

I followed them through day and night, and day again. Sometimes the river was as low as my ankle. Sometimes the river was as high as my neck. Water washed all the white from my body, leaving just my face. The fish- women, womenfish, took me down the river for days and days and days until we came to a place I cannot describe. It was either a wall of river, which stood firm even though I could push my hand through it, or the river had bent itself downward and I could still walk, my feet touching the ground, my body standing without falling.

So the narrator ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, and the fish who eat it turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead. There, he accomplishes on of the earliest quests in this very-questy novel. Instead of my describing the quest, I’ll point you instead to the publisher’s website–you can read the full first chapter there.

Did I mention that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has maps in it?  Black Leopard, Red Wolf has maps in it.

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More to come in the future. For now, I’m really digging the novel’s surreal, lurid thrusts into wild territory.

The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (Book acquired, 28 Jan. 2019)

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The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies is a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the work of David Foster Wallace. The Journal is published by the DFW Society.

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Here is the table of contents for Vol. 1, issue 1;

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I enjoyed Nash’s essay on boredom and attention in The Pale King, and found Saylor’s piece on race in Wallace’s fiction—focusing on Wallace’s whiteness within the context of his overall project of literary empathy–especially interesting.

I’m glad to see the journal finally in print after a few years of chatter about its creation. Perhaps there might be a future article or two that takes on the current wave of anti-Wallace think pieces that have been floating around lately.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the first four paragraphs:

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

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

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

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