Robert Coover’s The Enchanted Prince (Book acquired, 11 Dec. 2018, read 13 Dec. 2018)

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Robert Coover’s not-quite-novella The Enchanted Prince (or is it “The Enchanted Prince”?) was first published last year in The Evergreen Review’s Winter 2017 issue. Foxrock Books and OR Books have collaborated to release a cute little volume of the story/stories/metastory/etc. I read the book the other day during an occasion where my attention was supposed to be elsewhere; I slipped it easily into some other papers. It’s a good read to slyly read on the sly. The Enchanted Prince is a postmodern fantasy riff on film and filmmaking techniques, as well as desire and drive. The basic moves here could fit into Coover’s 1987 collection A Night at the Movie’s horny postmodernism, only with some new technological updates—as well as a more pronounced theme of aging.  As always, Coover offers meta-line after meta-line of self-description, including this parenthetical nugget, which maybe kinda yeah surely describes Coover in action: “(stimulation and frustration, fort and da: it’s only the dailies, but the old metacineast is at it again).” Here’s the publisher’s more thorough blurb, which also contains a Cooverian self-description from the novel (the B-movie bit):

Literary grandmaster Robert Coover has long been obsessed with myth, decay, sex and narrative, time and technology: and these themes come together in this short, dark fable that centers around the once-grand, now-aged Princess. Years ago a star of the classic film “The Enchanted Prince,” she has become a cult figure—with mind intact but body failing, she remains a figure of cinematic royalty, but one who cannot turn away from the persistent demands of the camera and the ever-present director, himself a flabby iteration of the wunderkind-that-was, who is filming the last remake (in a long series of remakes) of the classic that made the Princess a star.

“The world is a bad B-movie,” he says. “We try to make better ones, but it probably can’t be done. Still, we go on cranking them out. Nothing else to do.”

Coover’s sardonic, biting humor—and his deep sympathy for the players in his game, all both manipulators and manipulated—has never been more clearly on display than in this brief, intense dose of verbal subterfuge about film within film within the book, itself a two-dimensional “film.” “The book is an essentially realistic tale about two ancient survivors of the New Wave (I had in mind people like Jean Seberg, Jean-Luc Godard) in the digital age,” writes the author about this novella. “The more fanciful elements are torturous parodies of fairytale movies.”

And a sample paragraph:

The movie’s plot was a folktale cliché. Until the box office tallies came in, critics treated it as a joke. A Prince on a knightly quest to liberate an oppressed and bewitched people comes on a runaway Princess of the corrupt kingdom and they fall in love on the spot. The Queen has died and her father the King, under a spell, has been trapped in marriage by an old harpy with brutish unshaven sons who grunt like hogs. The Prince whisks the Princess back to his place, but on her wedding day she’s abducted by her badboy stepbrothers, with black-magic assistance from their mother, and forced to work in the scullery. She’s eventually rescued by the Prince, and they fall into a forever-after kiss at their wedding.

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Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers (Book acquired, 6 December 2018)

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Lina Wolff’s novel The Polyglot Lovers is forthcoming in English translation by Saskia Vogel from And Other Stories. Here’s their blurb:

‘Do you have to stare like that?’ I asked.

‘Think about the actors in porn. They’ve got no problem showing themselves off.’

‘Think about when I broke your nose,’ I replied.

Ellinor is thirty-six. She wears soft black sweatpants and a Michelin Man jacket. She fights. Smart and unsentimental, she tries her hand at online dating, only to be stranded by a snowstorm with a literary critic. Cut to Max Lamas, an author who dreams of a polyglot lover, a woman who will understand him—in every tongue. His search takes him to Italy, where he befriends a marchesa whose old Roman family is on the brink of ruin. At the heart of this literary intrigue is a handwritten manuscript that leaves no one unaffected.

The Polyglot Lovers is a fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era. Pleasure is an elusive thing, love even more so.

Read an excerpt of The Polyglot Lovers.

João Gilberto Noll’s Lord (Book acquired, 5 Nov. 2018)

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João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord is new in English translation (by Edgar Garbeletto) from Two Lines Press. I really enjoyed the last two I read by Noll, Atlantic Hotel and  Quiet Creature on the Corner, so I’m looking forward to carving out time for Lord. In the meantime, Two Lines’ blurb:

As Lord begins, a Brazilian author is arriving at London’s Heathrow airport for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. Only aware that he has been invited to take part in a mysterious mission, the Brazilian starts to churn with anxiety. Torn between returning home and continuing boldly forward, he becomes absorbed by fears: What if the Englishman who invited him here proves malign? Maybe he won’t show up? Or maybe he’ll leave the Brazilian lost and adrift in London, with no money or place to stay? Ever more confused and enmeshed in a reality of his own making, the Brazilian wanders more and more through London’s immigrant Hackney neighborhood, losing his memory, adopting strange behaviors, experiencing surreal sexual encounters, and developing a powerful fear of ever seeing himself reflected in a mirror.

A novel about the unsettling space between identities, and a disturbing portrait of dementia from the inside out, Lord constructs an altogether original story out of the ways we search for new versions of ourselves. With jaw-dropping scenes and sensual, at times grotesque images, renowned Brazilian author João Gilberto Noll grants us stunning new visions of our own personalities and the profound transformations that overtake us throughout life.

Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth (Book acquired 27 Oct. 2018)

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Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth is new in print again from NYRB, this time with a new introduction by novelist Nicholson Baker. The book is simply gorgeous.

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My eight-year-old son immediately asked if he might read it (he has been on a sort of comix probation since I caught him reading a R. Crumb collection), and he shuttled through the thing two or three times over half an hour.

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The Labryinth is 280 or so pages of illustrations with no story or plot, and he was a bit bewildered when I told him I planned to review the thing. “How?” I’ll figure out a way.

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For now, here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth, first published in 1960 and long out of print, is more than a simple catalog or collection of drawings— these carefully arranged pages record a brilliant, constantly evolving imagination confronting modern life. Here is Steinberg, as he put it at the time, “discovering and inventing a great variety of events: Illusion, talks, music, women, cats, dogs, birds, the cube, the crocodile, the museum, Moscow and Samarkand (winter, 1956), other Eastern countries, America, motels, baseball, horse racing, bullfights, art, frozen music, words, geometry, heroes, harpies, etc.” This edition, featuring a new introduction by Nicholson Baker, an afterword by Harold Rosenberg, and new notes on the artwork, will allow readers to discover this unique and wondrous book all over again.

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Chris Power’s Mothers (Book acquired, 23 Oct. 2018)

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I’ve been reading Chris Power’s series “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” for years now at The Guardian, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a while back that he was working on his own collection of short fiction. I’ve read the first two in this collection, and so far, it’s Good Stuff. Proper review to come.

Mothers is forthcoming in the U.S. in January of 2019 from FS&G. Their blurb:

Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.

Paul Kirchner’s Hieronymus & Bosch (Book acquired, 17 Oct. 2018)

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This afternoon, I started putting together a review of Biblioklept fave Paul Kirchner’s latest, Hieronymus & Bosch, and I realized that although I’d written a bit about it recently, I hadn’t put together one of these book acquired posts for it. So this is that post.

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I really dig the book. It’s goofy and funny and has a lot of soul to it. Kirchner’s hapless hero Hieronymus seems like an extension—with difference—of the commuter, the hero of Kirchner’s bus strips. I hope to have a review up at The Comics Journal soon (where I reviewed Kirchner’s last collection, Awaiting the Collapse), but for now,  here’s publisher Tanibis’s blurb:

Meet the medieval miscreant Hieronymus and his wooden duck Bosch. When Hieronymus commits yet another petty crime, things go badly wrong and both are catapulted into a cartoonish version of Hell. There, lakes are made of lava (or, more often, poop) and an army of mischievous spiky-tailed devils bully the inmates and play impish pranks. Despite many gag-filled attempts at escaping this literal hell, Hieronymus and Bosch always end up being the butt of their trident-wielding guards’ most humiliating and painful jokes.

This book puts together about a hundred one-pagers filled with hilariously surrealistic and scatological gags by American comic book artist Paul Kirchner. Kirchner drew his inspiration from the medieval depictions of Hell by Dante and Hieronymus Bosch (duh!) as well as from the zany, almost sadistic humor of Warner Bros. cartoons like the Road Runner Show. Some of the stories published in this book originally appeared on the Adult Swim website.

Hieronymus & Bosch also evokes Kirchner’s famous comic strip series the bus. However, the bus‘ main character always got out from the practical jokes played on him unharmed, even if a bit confused. Hieronymus & Bosch‘s two heroes get burnt by lava, stabbed with tridents, used as a Q-tip by Satan himself, or just covered in a torrent of poop gushing down from above. Yet they carry on, finding fun where they can and refusing to abandon all hope.

Blog about Jindřich Štyrský’s Dreamverse

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I have to admit that I had never heard of the Czech artist Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) until a review copy of something called Dreamverse arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters a week or so ago. I was excited when I saw the package though—the book is from Twisted Spoon Press, and their books are always gorgeous and strange and fascinating. Dreamverse is no exception, collecting Štyrský’s paintings, collages, sketches, poems, essays, and prose in a baffling (and yet simultaneously accessible) compendium translated by Jed Slast. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

Published posthumously in 1970 as Dreams, Štyrský’s dream journal spanning the interwar years comprises prose, sketches, collages, and paintings. The present volume includes the complete series of texts and full-color and halftone images based on Štyrský’s layout for its publication in the 1940s, his sole volume of poetry (also published posthumously), as well as a selection of his most important essays, articles, manifestos, and assorted other texts. This edition presents in English for the first time the broad range of Štyrský’s contribution to the interwar avant-garde and Surrealism.

Dreamverse begins with an (overly academic) introduction by the Czech avant garde artist Karel Teige dated from 1948, which argues that the Štyrský is deeply underappreciated. Teige describes Štyrský’s gradual artistic shift into surrealism, an excursion Štyrský shared with his partner Toyen.

Teige writes like an art historian, fussily constructing a place for a displaced artist. Dreamverse really takes off when we get to Štyrský’s prose. Dreams (1925-1940) comprises about half of the book, and begins with this lucidly surreal self-description:

Work birthed in the wellsprings of hypnagogic mental models, via faithful representations of dream objects and authentic dream records.

Štyrský then offers a brief introduction in which he dedicates the work to “my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT.” This particular chimera is a Freudian’s fantasy: Štyrský begins by discussing his prepubescent infatuation with “the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair” which he sees in a cheap magazine. This image somehow transmogrifies into “the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood,” its hair a “cluster of vipers, erect, ready to penetrate the woman through her mouth, nose, and ears.” Štyrský then tells us that this “ghastly horror,” this “alluring horror” haunts his dreams, and he tries to “place the head” on his mother and sister. The head fits his sister: “So I was madly in love with her.” Štyrský then details his sister’s death in strange, alarmingly sensual language. (She died in 1905 when he was a young boy). His muse then, his chimera, foregrounds the dreamverse he creates: we get a mass media image reconverted into a mythological figure, then reconverted again, through creative imagination, into a sister, who is in turn transformed again into a mythic trope of some kind—a figure like Eurydice for Štyrský to play Orpheus to. Štyrský’s dreamverse is a writhing collage of contradictions. Hope and despair, sex and death, the beautiful and the lurid are all collapsed into surrealist expression.

Take, for example, Dream XXXI:a

Štyrský’s dream—and its expression—excavates the sexuality suppressed just beneath the surface of our fairy tales. And while sexual abjection is typical in both Dreams (and in many of the poems collected in the Verse section of Dreamverse, sex is not always the dominant motif. Consider Dream VIII:

 

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The vignette is a perfect slice of dread an horror, and the accompanying illustration—humorous and grotesque—is nightmare fuel.

I’ve been reading the Dreams somewhat slowly, a handful at a time, and then dipping deeper in the book, into the Verse, reading the Dreamverse as a sort of push-pull of image and word.

Štyrský’s writing is abject, evocative of a world that decays and regenerates at the same moment. A poem with the title “In the Swamps” of course stands out to me, a Florida boy always on the look out for abject images:

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Štyrský’s imagery here is wonderful: The “fortune of blackcaps” pops out as an invented form of venery. Are the “blackcaps” actually little warblers—or just a surreal transformation of moorhens, the birds we would expect to find in the swamps? In either case, they are merely prey for “compassionate hunters,” susceptible to the arms of unseen brunettes and hunting dogs. The end of the poem is beautifully abject. The “horde of black swine” rumble in, neatly parallel to the “fortune of blackcaps” in the poems’s first line. These pigs slough through the swamp for “Sodden sacks of gold,” some kind of treasure there in the abject muck. Above it all is a speaker—a poet? Language hovers over the swamp.

Jed Slast deserves much praise for his translation, which seems tonally perfect and consistent over both the Dreams and the Verse sections. I’ll admit I haven’t gotten into any of the Writings at the end, which include lectures, essays, manifestos, and other fragments, but that gives me something to look forward to. So far though, Dreamverse has been an unexpected and strange joy, a dark and often perverse collection that plants its own dreamseeds in its reader.

Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (Book acquired, 21 Sept. 2018)

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Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (English translation by William Weaver) is new in print again from Spurl Editions. Their blurb:

Translated from Italian by William Weaver, who wrote of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, “The definition of madness, the problem of identity, the impossibility of communicating with others and with being (or knowing) one’s self … Nowhere are these themes more intensely and wryly treated than in this spare, terse novel.”

Luigi Pirandello’s extraordinary final novel begins when Vitangelo Moscarda’s wife remarks that Vitangelo’s nose tilts to the right. This commonplace interaction spurs the novel’s unemployed, wealthy narrator to examine himself, the way he perceives others, and the ways that others perceive him. At first he only notices small differences in how he sees himself and how others do; but his self-examination quickly becomes relentless, dizzying, leading to often darkly comic results as Vitangelo decides that he must demolish that version of himself that others see.

Pirandello said of his 1926 novel that it “deals with the disintegration of the personality. It arrives at the most extreme conclusions, the farthest consequences.” Indeed, its unnerving humor and existential dissection of modern identity find counterparts in Samuel Beckett’s Molloy trilogy and the works of Thomas Bernhard and Vladimir Nabokov.

Conversations with Gordon Lish (Book acquired, 19 Sept. 2018)

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I’ve been reading somewhat at random the “interviews” with Gordon Lish collected in Conversations with Gordon Lish over the past two weeks and really enjoying them. The suspicious quotation marks around “interviews” are there to suggest that these pieces are often something closer to essays or post-fictions or metafictions—Lish extemporizing, lucidly ranting, self-interviewing himself, and just generally performing Gordon Lish. (I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Lish briefly had a career as a radio personality in the early fifties on a show called “The Gordo Lochwood Show”).

More to come, but for now here’s the blurb for Conversations with Gordon Lish, which is edited by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli:

Known as “Captain Fiction,” Gordon Lish (b. 1934) is among the most influential–and controversial–figures in modern American letters. As an editor at Esquire (1969-1977), Alfred A. Knopf (1977-1994), and The Quarterly (1987-1995) and as a teacher both in and outside the university system, he has worked closely with many of the most pioneering writers of recent times, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A prolific author of stories and novels, Lish has also won a cult following for his own fiction, earning comparisons with Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.

Conversations with Gordon Lish collects all of Lish’s major interviews, covering the entire span of his extraordinary career. Ranging from 1965 to 2015, these interviews document his pivotal role in the period’s defining developments: the impact of the Californian counterculture, the rise and decline of so-called literary “minimalism,” dramatic transformations in book and magazine publishing, and the ongoing growth of creative writing instruction. Over time, Lish–a self-described “dynamic conversationalist”– forges an evolving conversation not only with his interviewers, but with the central trends of twentieth-century literary history.

 

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Book acquired, 21 Sept. 2018)

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After flirting with the thing after first spying it a few weeks ago, I finally broke down and picked up Daniel Hoffman’s 1972 biography Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. It is too weird not to be mine. Here is a good review of the book.

I spied but did not pick up this biography of JRR Tolkien, but its cover is utterly charming.

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David R. Bunch’s Moderan (Book acquired, 13 Sept. 2018)

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I’ve enjoyed dipping into the first few stories in NYRB’s collection of David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories over the past few days. Bunch’s weird world has meshed nicely with the Strugatsky’s The Snail on the Slope, which I finished today. More to come on Moderan, but here’s NRYB’s blurb for now:

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.

Camus, Eliot, and Kuper’s Kafka (Books acquired, 31 Aug. 2018)

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I went to my favorite used bookshop on Friday afternoon to browse, order another Gerald Murnane novel, and pick up a copy of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.

I spied a late fifties mass market copy of Albert Camus’ novel Exile and the Kingdom from Vintage Books. I fell in love with the cover (by George Giusti) and ended up picking it up, although I’ll admit I haven’t read a Camus novel since college (it was The Plague if memory serves).

Browsing copies of Silas Marner, I found this monstrosity:

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I don’t even know where to start with this cover. I mean, even the colors seem to clash. It doesn’t really come across in the photo, but this hardback has a cheap greasy feel to it. I initially assumed that it was some kind of TV or film tie in, but as far as I can tell…no. Horrifying. I ended up going with the Oxford edition with Ferdinand Hodler’s painting Unemployed on the cover.

When I got home, the mail had come. It included a copy of Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque, which collects 14 of Kuper’s illustrated Kafka translations. Publisher Norton’s blurb:

Award-winning graphic novelist Peter Kuper presents a mesmerizing interpretation of fourteen iconic Kafka short stories.

Long fascinated with the work of Franz Kafka, Peter Kuper began illustrating his stories in 1988. Initially drawn to the master’s dark humor, Kuper adapted the stories over the years to plumb their deeper truths. Kuper’s style deliberately evokes Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, contemporaries of Kafka whose wordless novels captured much of the same claustrophobia and mania as Kafka’s tales. Working from new translations of the classic texts, Kuper has reimagined these iconic stories for the twenty-first century, using setting and perspective to comment on contemporary issues like civil rights and homelessness.

Longtime lovers of Kafka will appreciate Kuper’s innovative interpretations, while Kafka novices will discover a haunting introduction to some of the great writer’s most beguiling stories, including “A Hunger Artist,” “In The Penal Colony,” and “The Burrow.” Kafkaesque stands somewhere between adaptation and wholly original creation, going beyond a simple illustration of Kafka’s words to become a stunning work of art.

Novels by Acker, Orlovitz, and Murnane (Books acquired 1 and 6 Aug. 2018)

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I went by my favorite used bookshop to purge a bunch of books I’ll never read again and order Gerald Murane’s 1982 novel The Plains. I had finished most of Murnane’s collection Stream System, leaving only the longest story in the collection (“Velvet Waters”) unread.

I browsed the store a bit too, of course, and found a used copy of Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, which I’ve never read. Years ago, this particular book store had almost every Acker book used and I didn’t pick any up, which I’ve regretted for awhile. So.

I also picked up Gil Orlovitz’s 1967 novel Milkbottle H, which I’d never heard of until I saw @PierreMenard tweet about it last month—

The book is 500+ pages. I found the first 10 utterly bewildering. You can read more about Milkbottle H here.

My copy of The Plains came in a few days later so my son and I went and picked it up (he got an Asterix comic). I read Part I this week and really got a strange thrill out of it. The Plains is a kind of speculative fiction with mythological touches. The slim novel reimagines an Australia the plainsmen of the interior define themselves (aesthetically, above all else) against the coastal areas of “Outer Australia.” The narrator is a (would-be) film director who wants to a make a movie called The Interior that will capture the essence of the plains (a task that is plainly impossible). The Plains is a very strange and I’m really digging it so far.

Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick (Book acquired 27 July 2018)

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I spent a week in Charleston, SC at the end of July. The city’s veneer of “historical charm” doesn’t quite cover over a past that it recognizes but seems not wholly reconciled to, but the grits were very good.

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I visited Blue Bicycle Books while I was there, where I was allowed to fondle a signed Faulkner with my unwashed hands. I picked up Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick in hardback there, despite not really liking Lightning Rods. I would’ve picked up her cult novel The Last Samurai instead, but they didn’t have it—and anyway, I’ve been reading mostly short stories and short novels (Murnane, Volodine, Melville) since getting through Eliot’s big fat novel Middlemarch last month.

Here’s publisher New Direction’s blurb—

For sheer unpredictable brilliance, Gogol may come to mind, but no author alive today takes a reader as far as Helen DeWitt into the funniest, most yonder dimensions of possibility. Her jumping-off points might be statistics, romance, the art world’s piranha tank, games of chance and games of skill, the travails of publishing, or success. “Look,” a character begins to explain, laying out some gambit reasonably enough, even if facing a world of boomeranging counterfactuals, situations spinning out to their utmost logical extremes, and Rube Goldberg-like moving parts, where things prove “more complicated than they had first appeared” and “at 3 a.m. the circumstances seem to attenuate.” In various ways, each tale carries DeWitt’s signature poker-face lament regarding the near-impossibility of the life of the mind when one is made to pay to have the time for it, in a world so sadly “taken up with all sorts of paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination.”

Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Book acquired, 27 June 2018)

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I had no intention of getting another book when I went to the bookstore yesterday. Swear. I had a few boxes of books my uncle gave me, and I was going to trade most of them in. Even this Carl Hiaasen novel that had a cool Charles Burns cover:

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Anyway, I browsed the store a bit, killing half an hour before I had to pick my kids up, and I was tempted by a Richard Hughes’ novel called In Hazard simply because of its magnificent cover (here, I put two copies together—the back is on the left, the front is on the right):

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As an afterthought, I went through the new fiction section—something I hardly ever do—looking for Helen DeWitt’s new collection Some Trick, just to thumb through it. They didn’t have it, but they did have Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (in hardback and for half price). I ended up reading the first little vignette in the first story in the collection, and then remembered that I’d read the story (the title track) a few years ago in The New Yorker. In particular I remembered the vignette called “Accomplices,” a near-perfect two-paragraph punch that features a Mardsen Hartley painting and too much bourbon. Here it is:

“Accomplices”

by

Denis Johnson


Another silence comes to mind. A couple of years ago, Elaine and I had dinner at the home of Miller Thomas, formerly the head of my agency in Manhattan. Right—he and his wife, Francesca, ended up out here, too, but considerably later than Elaine and I—once my boss, now a San Diego retiree. We finished two bottles of wine with dinner, maybe three bottles. After dinner, we had brandy. Before dinner, we had cocktails. We didn’t know one another particularly well, and maybe we used the liquor to rush past that fact. After the brandy, I started drinking Scotch, and Miller drank bourbon, and, although the weather was warm enough that the central air-conditioner was running, he pronounced it a cold night and lit a fire in his fireplace. It took only a squirt of fluid and the pop of a match to get an armload of sticks crackling and blazing, and then he laid on a couple of large chunks that he said were good, seasoned oak. “The capitalist at his forge,” Francesca said.

At one point we were standing in the light of the flames, I and Miller Thomas, seeing how many books each man could balance on his out-flung arms, Elaine and Francesca loading them onto our hands in a test of equilibrium that both of us failed repeatedly. It became a test of strength. I don’t know who won. We called for more and more books, and our women piled them on until most of Miller’s library lay around us on the floor. He had a small Marsden Hartley canvas mounted above the mantel, a crazy, mostly blue landscape done in oil, and I said that perhaps that wasn’t the place for a painting like this one, so near the smoke and heat, such an expensive painting. And the painting was masterful, too, from what I could see of it by dim lamps and firelight, amid books scattered all over the floor. . . . Miller took offense. He said he’d paid for this masterpiece, he owned it, he could put it where it suited him. He moved very near the flames and took down the painting and turned to us, holding it before him, and declared that he could even, if he wanted, throw it in the fire and leave it there. “Is it art? Sure. But listen,” he said, “art doesn’t own it. My name ain’t Art.” He held the canvas flat like a tray, landscape up, and tempted the flames with it, thrusting it in and out. . . . And the strange thing is that I’d heard a nearly identical story about Miller Thomas and his beloved Hartley landscape some years before, about an evening very similar to this one, the drinks and wine and brandy and more drinks, the rowdy conversation, the scattering of books, and, finally, Miller thrusting this painting toward the flames and calling it his own property, and threatening to burn it. On that previous night, his guests had talked him down from the heights, and he’d hung the painting back in its place, but on our night—why?—none of us found a way to object as he added his property to the fuel and turned his back and walked away. A black spot appeared on the canvas and spread out in a sort of smoking puddle that gave rise to tiny flames. Miller sat in a chair across the living room, by the flickering window, and observed from that distance with a drink in his hand. Not a word, not a move, from any of us. The wooden frame popped marvellously in the silence while the great painting cooked away, first black and twisted, soon gray and fluttering, and then the fire had it all.

On Doing Nothing (Book acquired, 12 June 2018)

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Roman Muradov’s On Doing Nothing is new from Chronicle Books. Instead of the blurb, here’s the intro:

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Robert Coover/Barry Hannah/Antoine Volodine (Books acquired, 7 June 2018)

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I had ordered Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels through my favorite bookstore, and it came in yesterday. It’s slim but expensive (ah! university presses!) and ate up all of my store credit, but still I picked up used copies of Robert Coover’s second novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and Barry Hannah’s Boomerang b/w Never Die (some of the only Hannah I’ve yet to read). I was tempted also by the title and cover of Daniel Hoffman’s 1971 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe—but I was not tempted enough to acquire it.

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