Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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I just finished the first section of Guillermo Stitch’s new novel Lake of Urine (from indie Sagging Meniscus). The beginning of the novel has made me want to read the rest of the novel. It is weird, man, which I guess you’d expect from a novel titled Lake of Urine. So far, the book seems to run on its own comic-logic, a verbal slapstick routine that shifts in voice and tone from  paragraph to paragraph. The sentences are fantastic; Stitch’s prose so far reminds me of Barry Hannah and Donald Barthelme, but also definitely its own thing. Here’s a blurb, via the author’s site:

 Once upon a time that doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, in a place that seems awfully familiar but definitely doesn’t exist, Willem Seiler’s obsession with measuring his world—with wrapping it up in his beloved string to keep the madness out—wreaks havoc on the Wakeling family.

Noranbole Wakeling lives in the scrub and toil of the pantry, in the ashes of the cold hearth…which, come to think of it, also sounds pretty familiar…She lives, too, in the shadow of her much wooed and cosseted sister, worshipped by the madman Seiler but overlooked by everyone else.

And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

As lives are lost to Seiler’s vanity, the inattention spares her. She spots her chance to break free of the fetters that tie her to Tiny Village—and bolts.

But some cords are never really cut. In her absence, the unravelling of the world she has escaped is complete. Another madness—her mother’s—reaches out to entangle her newfound Big City freedom. The unpicked quilt-work of a life in ruins threatens to ruin her own. It will be up to Noranbole to stitch it all together, into something she can call true.

The blurb doesn’t really capture the energy and humor in Lake of Urine though (let alone its utter weirdness. Here’s an excerpt; the conversation is between Emma Wakeling (mother of Urine and Noranbole) and her tenant, William Seiler:

The melts are not long off.

. . .

Yes?

Yes.

The days grow lengthier and more detailed.

I’m not, eh . . .

You have been here for nine weeks.

Yes.

You may recall the conversation we had in November, Mr Seiler, which resulted in your entering my employ.

A bit formal.

Just answer.

I do remember, yes.

Your brief which I outlined at the time was to be of assistance to me during the winter in the monitoring of my two girls, both of whom were of marriageable age and one of whom was attractive—a siren to the lads of the county.

Yes.

I haven’t asked much else of you.

No.

Apart from the sharpening of some tools. Indeed your . . . remunerations have exceeded what we originally agreed in both nature and degree. Despite your squirreling yourself away in that shed, increasingly. I am only trying to help, you know.

Yes.

A man’s fluids require frequent liberation or they will stew.

Some of the tools are really very blunt.

I have asked for this little chat Mr Seiler because I wish to express my disappointment.

Oh?

Oh? I surprise you? Really? You are surprised? For reals? You didn’t anticipate disappointment here, today?

Well . . .

You need reminding perhaps of yesterday’s unfortunate events? The toesnappingly cold trek through wolf-infested forest? The yelling and the wailing? The gnashing? The wet clouds of breath in the grief-stricken air, the frozen-teared faces of the bereaved? A quick recap?

No, I do remember.

Excellent. You would acknowledge then that as we approach the end of your tenure here one of my girls appears to be—and I recognize that there is some evidential uncertainty here—dead?

That would appear to be the case, yes, notwithstanding the as you say murky specifics.

I am to be grateful I suppose, to be appreciative of the fact that at least it isn’t my Urine who has been lost.

Eh . . .

You give no indication, Mr Seiler, that you recognize the seriousness of the . . . the precariousness of your . . . hm?

Oh, no . . . no, no I can . . . what?

Be under no illusions, Seiler. One more dead daughter and you’re fired.

That does seem fair.

Now lie still. Stop squirming!

 

Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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A few days ago, a perhaps-not-unprecedented-yet-still-weighty crop of books arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. Five, to be clear, which is a lot of good mail in These Uncertain Trying Unprecedented Challenging Difficult Fucked the Fucked Up Times™. At first I felt electric joy, and then I felt overwhelmed, burdened even—I’m in the middle of Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge and I’m reading this really great as-yet-unpublished novel by Adam Novy and I’m still making my merry way through the voluminous volume The Complete Gary Lutz. (And how did Tyrant, the publisher, get that name? Do they plan on assassinating Lutz to ensure their book is truly complete?) I’m also doing my job, which is a bunch of reading and writing, and trying to do the homeschool thing. Is this a complaint? It is not. I am okay.

But so well and anyway—

The five books that showed up initially were a source of joy but then caused a weird panic. I picked up Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan, btw) this afternoon because it was on top of a neat stack I’d stacked. (A big part of my day is going around and stacking things and wiping down surfaces.) I started reading, and the sentences were good. The first sentence made me want to read the next sentence, a pattern that continued. I read the first eight chapters (I love short chapters, and I love short books—books should be over 700 pages or under 200), and really dig the voice Ramos channels here. Let’s take these early paragraphs, which might could maybe perhaps be the germ of its own separate novel:

Until I was eighteen, I hoed a hard roe, earning five tostoes for twelve hours’ work. That was when I committed my first act worthy of mention. At a wake that ended up in a free-for-all, I moved in on this girl, Germana—a sarara, a blond mulatta, flirty as hell—and tweaked the stern of her ass. The kid about wet herself, she love it so much. Then she flipped and made up to João Fagundes, a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses. The upshot was that I knocked Germana around and knifed João Fagundes. Sot the police chief arrested me. I was beaten with a bullwhip, took my medicine and stewed in my own juices, rotting in jail for three years, nine months, and fifteen days, where I learned to read with Joaquim the shoemaker, who had one of those tiny Bibles, the Protestant kind.

Joaquim the shoemaker died and Germana was ruined. When I got, she’d gone downhill—had an open-door policy and the clap.

(lmao — “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses.”)

Our narrator is a charming brute who brutally charms his way into ownership of São Bernardo, a ranch gone to seed.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Paulo Honório is a sometime field hand who has kicked and clawed and schemed his way to prosperity, becoming master of the decrepit estate São Bernardo, where once upon a time he toiled. He is ruthless in his exploitation of his fellow man, but when he makes a match with a fine young woman, he is surprised to discover that this latest acquisition, as he sees it, may be somewhat harder to handle. It is in Paulo Honório’s own rough-hewn voice that the great Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos, often compared to William Faulkner, tells this gritty and dryly funny story of triumph and comeuppance, a tour de force of the writer’s art that is beautifully captured in Padma Viswanathan’s new translation.

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (Book acquired 21 April 2020)

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A number of people whose literary taste I admire and have learned from (including this guy) have told me to read Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia. (English translation is by Frank Wynne, by the way.)

I avoided any reviews or descriptions (although a bit of chatter and stray lines have led me to believe the book has an abject grimy grittiness to it—and the back of this copy compares it to Cormac McCarthy), but trips to my beloved bookstore never yielded a copy over the past six months or so. I was looking for the Fitzcarraldo Editions edition, which was probably a mistake. Those are hard to come by in the States.

A few weeks—days? —I don’t know man, time has been weird, we all know that right? Like this virus, a post-postmodern moment, has shifted again our human relationship with time/space, revealing that the modernist schedules and movements and timelines and tics that we’d been following, perhaps even believing in, were fictions—which of course, those of us birthed in the postmodern era understood, either fully or at least intuitively—but we had to subscribe to those fictions to like, survive—but now, now, hey, now what is our relationship to time and space?—does anyone else wake up at 3am and then go back to sleep at 7am?—has anyone else ordered a book off the internet, possibly drunk, or possibly in a weird mix of sleep aids and melatonin, or possibly just a bit crazed?—these aren’t real questions—

So—

At some point in the recent past, Fitzcarraldo Editions tweeted about an ebook sale that reminded me to get Animalia. (A basic twitter search reveals that my previous paragraph is as idiotic as you no doubt took it to be, if you bothered to even read it. This happened on 30 March 2020.) Of course, I could not get the ebook in the States.

I’m not sure when exactly I ordered a copy of Animalia from an indie bookseller online. When it showed up the other day I was a bit surprised: first that I’d ordered it, second that it was an uncorrected proof. But I was happy that some idiot version of myself from the past sent me this gift, the first physical book I’ve gotten in what seems like a long time.

From an excerpt of the novel at Granta:

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

One October morning, alone in the sty, tending to the sow about to farrow, the genetrix is felled by a pain and, without even a cry, falls to her knees on the freshly scattered straw whose pale, perfumed dust is still rising in whorls. Her breaking waters drench her undergarments and her thighs. The sow, also in the throes of labour, trots in circles, making high whining sounds, her huge belly jiggling, her teats already swollen with milk, her swollen vulva dilated; and it is here, on her knees, and later on her side, that the genetrix gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed with sweat. Slipping a hand between her thighs, she feel the viscid mass tearing her apart. She buries her fingers in the fontanelle, rips out the stillborn foetus and flings it far from her. She grips the bluish umbilical cord attached to it and from her belly pulls the placenta which falls to the ground with a spongy sound. She stares at the tiny body covered in vernix caseosa, it looks like a yellowish worm, like the grey and golden larva of a potato beetle ripped from the rich soil and the roots on which it feeds. Daylight filters between loose boards, streaking the sour, dusty air, the bleak half-light that reeks of a knacker’s yard, and falls on the lifeless form lying on the straw. The genetrix gets to her feet, split in two, one hand under her skirt touching the swollen lips of her sex. She steps back, horrified, and leaves the sty, careful to latch the door, leaving to the sow the afterbirth and its fruit. For a long time she leans against the wall of the sty, motionless, gasping for breath. Bright blurred shapes float in her field of vision. Then she leaves the farm and takes the road towards Puy-Larroque, limping through a heavy drizzle that washes her face and the skirt stained brown with lochia. Without a glance at anyone, she crosses the village square. Those who see her notice the soiled skirt she is gripping in one fist, the pallid face, the lips pressed so tightly that the mouth is white as an old scar. Her brown hair has escaped her scarf and is plastered to her face and neck. She pushes open the church door and falls to her knees before the crucifix.

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.