A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Infinite Jest remains underread by overtalkers].

On The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s existential novel of sad little happinesses and horny ennui

I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read  his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.

The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”

Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.

Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:

It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.

That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.

Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:

“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:

I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.

But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?

Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.

I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.

From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault. 

The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.

And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.

Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.

If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.

(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)

Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (Book acquired, 19 Sept. 2020)

NRYB has a forthcoming collection of Nikolai Leskov stories (novellas, really) called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The collection features new translations from Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton. NYRB’s blurb:

Nikolai Leskov is the strangest of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His work is closer to the oral traditions of narrative than that of his contemporaries, and served as the inspiration for Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin contrasts the plotty machinations of the modern novel with the strange, melancholy, but also worldly-wise yarns of an older, slower era that Leskov remained in touch with. The title story is a tale of illicit love and multiple murder that could easily find its way into a Scottish ballad and did go on to become the most popular of Dmitri Shostakovich’s operas. The other stories, all but one newly translated, present the most focused and finely rendered collection of this indispensable writer currently available in English.

The collection includes six novellas: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Sealed Angel, The Enchanted Wanderer, The Steel Flea, The Unmercenary Engineers, and The Innocent Prudentius.

I read a few of these stories some years back in a Borzoi collection of Leskov stories called The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories; those translations were by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and included some much shorter tales).

I also highly highly recommend Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch’s 2016 film adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

William Gaddis: In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about”  

Brigitte Felix: If I may ask the same question, phrasing it differently:  Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.”  What do you think your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?

 William Gaddis: [after a long pause]  I suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of . . . In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about.”  It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what America is all about.  I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book down finally, having finished it — not after starting it, which is the case, frequently — and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and so forth . . .

From William Gaddis’s 1993 interview in with Brigitte Félix and Marc Chénetier  in La Quinzaine littéraire.

J R J R J R | Three Books

J R by William Gaddis. 2020 trade paperback edition by NYRB. Cover design by Katy Homans. Introduction by Joy Williams (xi pages). 770 pages.

J R by William Gaddis. 1993 trade paperback edition by Penguin. Cover art is a detail of an Associated Gas and Electric Company stock certificate “Courtesy of William Gaddis.” No designer credited. Introduction by Frederick R. Karl (xxi pages). 726 pages.

J R by William Gaddis. 1975 trade paperback edition by Borzoi/Knopf. Cover design by Janet Halverson. 726 pages.

On Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot

Walker Percy’s 1977 novel Lancelot opens with an invitation: “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home.”

The invitation is to both the reader and to the titular Lancelot’s audience of one, a friend from his college days he calls Percival. Percival listens to Lancelot’s increasingly-insane, unceasing monologue without interruption.

Lancelot Lamar—Lance, to friends—tells his story from his cell in the Center for Aberrant Behavior. It’s New Orleans, sometime in the mid-seventies. The dream of the sixties has curdled and soured, its failed would-be revolution of love turned to rot.

Lance’s (electrically-sexual) love for his wife Margot begins to sour, fester, and rot. He discovers by chance that he is not the father of their daughter Siobhan, and quickly comes to suspect that Siobhan is the product of Margot’s infidelity with Merlin, a filmmaker whom Margot, an always-aspiring actress, has known for years.

Merlin and his crew are filming at Lance’s ancestral manse, Bell Isle. Belle Isle was once a Great House in its parish, but modernity (and postmodernity) have a way of rotting out traditions. Margot, heiress to a new-money Texas fortune, restores the ancestral home to something-close-to its former glory. Belle Isle and the Lamar name might rub some good old fashioned Southern Aristocracy off on her. Despite those oil dollars, the Lamars still need to allow tour groups to visit Belle Isle—gawking Michiganders and Yankees and the like—in order to keep in the black.

Lancelot Lamar himself has long since stopped working. A one-time liberal who helped the NAACP, he trained as a lawyer, but latterly has taken to lust and drink. At the outset of his tale, our debauched wastrel spends his days in the pigeonnier of Belle Isle slurping bourbon and smoking cigs. His discovery that his daughter is not his own revitalizes him—it’s the revelation—nay, the apocalypse—that splits his life in two: “my life is divided into two parts, Before and After,” he tells Percival in cell.

Percival says all of thirteen words in the novel. Or, really, two words: twelve yeses and one no. It’s never quite clear if Percival is a failed psychiatrist or a failed priest or some hybrid of both, but we do know that Lancelot has long admired Percival since their school days, when the austere intellectual literally jumped ship to swim to a deserted island for a Thoreau-inspired think. Percival, or Lancelot’s ideation of Percival, serves not only as a confessor’s ear, but also as Lancelot’s avatar of intellectual spirituality. In contrast, visceral once-virile Lance (with his oh-so-phallic mantle) rests on his most vibrant college laurels: he once ran 110 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

But back to Lancelot of the Before and After. Specifically, the After. After discovering his wife’s apparent infidelity (infidelities?), Lance enlists the help of his retainer Elgin, the son of Belle Isle’s Black housekeepers. Elgin is an MIT student and a technical genius, a figure whose ascendancy Lancelot can understand but perhaps not fully appreciate. A scion of the South and a one-time “liberal,” Lancelot is unable to fully understand his own racism, even as he understands Elgin’s intellectual and technocratic superiority.

Still, Lancelot comprehends the failure of the 1960’s liberalism to fully follow through on its utopian promise. He relies on Elgin’s gratitude to him, but admits,

…in truth I had done very little for him, the kind of easy favors native liberals do and which are almost irresistible to the doer, if not to the done to, yielding as they do a return of benefit to one and a good feeling to the other all out of proportion to the effort expended. That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our sense of virtue and what we took to be their gratitude. Maybe that was why it didn’t last very long. Who can stand gratitude?

Driven by his own motives, tech-whiz Elgin sets up secret cameras all around Belle Isle as part of Lancelot’s movie-making scheme: our monologist plans to catch his wife in the act, either with Merlin or another lover. Percy’s postmodernism is subtle but effective here. We see Belle Isle through layers, a Gothic playground of both real and imaginary depravities, some staged, some extemporaneous, all set against the backdrop of the sins of the Gothic South.

Like William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, Percy’s Lancelot is a work of Gothic postmodernism. Belle Isle has been converted to a theme park version of its aristocratic past, glossed up for tourists and film crews. It’s certainly not the scene of domestic bliss.

Lancelot’s monologue starts to boil over into crazed horror, taking the reader (and his auditor Percival) into strange new spaces. Belle Isle becomes a haunted house, scene of repeated debaucheries on the cusp of disaster. The film crew prepares a massive weather machine to simulate a hurricane for their fantasy even as a massive hurricane approaches to destroy the real world. But maybe Lance, in his perverted quest, will destroy that world first.

Lancelot’s Gothic quest is for the anti-Grail, the Unholy Grail. As the novel unravels towards its crazed ending, Lancelot’s consciousness ping-pongs about in philosophical ranting. Our hero stands against postmodernity, against the nascent eighties, against the collapse of the Romantic sixties and its failed revolution. He plans a third Revolution, the final part in the trilogy initiated by the American Revolution and the Civil War. Lancelot’s increasingly unhinged screeds disturb both Percival and the reader. His apocalyptic urge for a great cleansing veers into strange, misogynistic territory.

A failed knight who cannot see his own failure, he becomes obsessed with the woman celled next to him, Anna, victim of a gang rape whom he both fetishizes and idealizes. Lancelot reads like a Southern companion to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Lance reminds one of Travis Bickle: both are strange, nihilistic, optimistic idealists, would-be knights seeking to save damsels in a fallen world, praying for some great rain to come and cleanse the filth of sin away. 

And like Taxi Driver, Percy’s novel—released around the same time, of course—seems like an early analysis of the failure of the sixties. It’s the burn out, the hangover, the realization that the dream was just a dream, and that the business of reality is cruel and cold and dirty. Perhaps insanity is the proper response.

There’s so much in Lancelot I’ve failed to unpack: Its analysis of America–North, South, and West–its treatment of Hollywood, its strange gnostic tinges, its weird tangled and often colliding philosophies. Lancelot Lamar is an enthralling monologist, witty, severe, pathetic and sympathetic, simultaneously cartoonish and ferociously real. I’ve also failed to convey how funny this novel is—Percy’s prose crackles and zaps, zips and dips, turns into weird little unexpected nooks. I ate it up.

Lancelot was the first Walker Percy novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Great stuff.

Conrad/Hughes (Books acquired, 2 Aug. 2020)

So my son finished Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on Tuesday night, giving me a nice excuse to swing by the used bookstore on Wednesday to pick up the next two entries in the series, The Restaurant at the End of The Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything. I managed to find the same editions I read when I was his age. I gave my copies to one of my students some time in the early 2000s, back when I was teaching high school.

I found the Adams books almost immediately and had an hour to kill, so I strolled around, aiming not to buy anything. I’d been to the shop not a week before and picked up John Brunner’s 600+ page novel Last Stand on Zanzibar—but I thought I’d look for some interesting covers and maybe share them on twitter. And I did:

In the end though, I couldn’t pass up two books. First, I found a pristine first-edition Signet paperback of Joseph Conrad’s second novel An Outcast of the Islands with a striking Milton Glaser cover:

Then I came across a hardback first edition of Langston Hughes’ second novel Tambourines to Glory. At thirty bucks, it ate up the rest of my store credit, but it’s in excellent condition with no damage to the jacket and foxing only on the front flyleaf. It’s an old library book, but was fortunately spared any ugly WITHDRAWN stamps and appears never to have had a pocket in the back. Indeed, I’m not sure if the book was ever even read by anyone. Besides a few stamps identifying the library it once belonged to, the only mark in the book is on the front flyleaf:

Lincolnville is an historic black neighborhood founded by ex-enslaved people in the late 1860s. Famously, St. Augustine (and the “St. Augustine movement”) was a key location in the Civil Rights movement, and protests in the summer of 1964 when demonstrators jumped into the “whites-only” pool at the Monson Motor Lodge. Journalists captured racist motel owner James Brock pouring muriatic acid into the pool during the swim-in. A day after the world saw these images, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act.

I wonder whose handwriting that is?

 

The Golden Section — Alejandro Pasquale

The Golden Section, 2018 by Alejandro Pasquale (b. 1984)

Sátántangó dance scene

A (perhaps titular) scene from Bela Tarr’s film Sátántangó (1994). Based on the novel of the same name by László Krasznahorkai.

“The one-man band doesn’t look too happy,” Mathilda observed | Donald Barthelme

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From Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Book acquired, 14 Aug. 2020)

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is a collection of 27 essays that each take a single sentence as their starting point. Organized chronologically by author dates, the collection begins with Shakespeare and Donne and works its way to Anne Carson and Anne Boyer (with Eliot, Stein, Beckett, Bowen et al along the way). When it showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters last week I was intrigued, and admittedly jumped to the end to read the pieces on Carson and Boyer. In subsequent days I read the pieces on Shakespeare (Dillon takes his sentence “O, o, o, o” from Hamlet, but finds the vowels reputation throughout the playwright’s oeuvre) and Robert Smithson (in the middle of the book). I’ve decided to settle down and read in order at a leisurely pace—a chapter a day?

In the meantime, NYRB’s blurb

In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, whom John Banville has called “a literary flâneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,” has written a sequel of sorts to Essayism, his roaming love letter to literature. In this new book Dillon turns his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence—from Shakespeare to Janet Malcolm, John Ruskin to Joan Didion—the book explores style, voice, and language, along with the subjectivity of reading. Both an exercise in practical criticism and a set of experiments or challenges, Suppose a Sentence is a polemical and personal reflection on the art of the sentence in literature. Whether the sentence in question is a rigorous expression of a state of vulnerability, extremity, even madness, or a carefully calibrated arrangement, Dillon examines not only how it works and why but also, in the course of the book, what the sentence once was, what it is today, and what it might become tomorrow.

Blog about acquiring a Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s Airships. (Special guest appearance by David Berman.)

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I’ve been a big fan of the Vintage Contemporaries 1980s series for ages now. The books were easily available, cheap and used, in the nineties, and I first read Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney in VC editions, later adding novels by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski to the burgeoning collection. I was thrilled to find a VC copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree years ago; I wasn’t looking for it in particular, but the spine of a Vintage Contemporaries edition is hard to miss in a used bookstore. I picked it up of course, and gave the Vintage International edition I’d read to a friend who’d just finished Blood Meridian. The dark, moody Vintage International covers strongly contrast the bright, vivid VC edition (with a surreal painting by Marc Tauss):

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In time, I’d unshelve at least one or two VC editions when browsing a used bookstore, especially if it was an author I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading and loving Joy Williams’ first collection, Taking Care, that way, as well as Charles Portis’s Norwood (which led to me reading every Portis novel I could get my hands on).

The one I really, really wanted though was the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s collection Airships. I must have seen it first–just the spine–in this great write up of VC designs at Talking Covers, and then added it to a mental list of titles to check for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Grove Press copy I have of Airships; indeed, I really dig its photorealistic cover by Hannah’s contemporary Glennray Tutor—but I guess at this point I have to admit I’m collector (of cheap eighties paperbacks).

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I read them, books, too, of course. Here’s the intro to my 2011 review of Airships:

In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

Well so and anyway:

Yesterday, browsing my beloved used bookstore, I found, while not really looking for it, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Airships. I was in the “H” section of General Fiction, looking for something by Chester Himes (which I found, but in the Mysteries section, which I really have never browsed before), and there it was, its spine singing to me from a low shelf. I was happy to note the cover is by Rick Lovell, who’s responsible for my favorite VC editions (along with, obviously, series designer Lorraine Louie). As a sort of cherry on top, my edition has a little gold sticker at the top of the inside cover, proclaiming “Square Books on the Square, Oxford Mississippi.” Hannah taught at Ole Miss for nearly three decades. Square Books is still there.

I was excited with my find and I’m a dork so I tweeted about it. The next tweet I saw in my timeline was this tweet by Christopher DeWeese (retweeted by the writer John Lingan):

(I love the blurb by Thomas Pynchon.)

David Berman was a poet, musician, and singer (and more) who died almost exactly a EemWmbXXgAAvc3zyear ago. He was kind of a hero of mine, as far as these things go, and as such I never made an attempt to contact him, even when he linked to this blog on his blog, Menthol Mountains. I absolutely love the cover he made—or did he make it? I don’t actually know—but I know that he loved Vintage Contemporaries, that they were important to him. I recall John Lingan tweeting about having to cut some of his discussion about the series with Berman in his fantastic profile of the then-not-late artist. I couldn’t find the tweet, but I reached out to John, and he told me I remembered right; he also told me he recalled seeing a copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows in Berman’s room.

I wonder if Berman and I had the same VC edition of First Love and Other Sorrows? The one with the Rick Lovell cover of butterflies on a sandcastle? Or maybe he had the one with the purple cover? I gave my copy to a good friend years ago, and have never seen one with the Lovell cover since.

I also wonder if Berman read the VC edition of Airships. I know he met Hannah, who apparently read Berman’s work. I recall now too that both men show up in The Minus Times Collected, which I never picked up. I’m going to order it now.

 

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Unwitting Street (Book acquired, 29 July 2020)

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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Unwitting Street is new in English translation by Joanne Turnbull from NYRB. I loved the first collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories that I read, Memories of the Future (also translated by Joanne Turnbull) and wrote about it here, comparing  his weird fables to Kafka, Borges, and Philip K. Dick, among others. (I also really enjoyed the collection Autobiography of a Corpse (another Turnbull translation).

There are eighteen tales in Unwitting Street, most of them rather short. A few of the pieces are fragments or sketches. I read the opener this morning, “Comrade Punt,” which was a bit wacky and unexpectedly whimsical.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb for Unwitting Street, which is out in August:

When Comrade Punt does not wake up one Moscow morning—he has died—his pants dash off to work without him. The ambitious pants soon have their own office and secretary. So begins the first of eighteen superb examples of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s philosophical and phantasmagorical stories. Where the stories included in two earlier NYRB collections (Memories of the Future and Autobiography of a Corpse) are denser and darker, the creations in Unwitting Street are on the lighter side: an ancient goblet brimful of self-replenishing wine drives its owner into the drink; a hypnotist’s attempt to turn a fly into an elephant backfires; a philosopher’s free-floating thought struggles against being “enlettered” in type and entombed in a book; the soul of a politician turned chess master winds up in one of his pawns; an unsentimental parrot journeys from prewar Austria to Soviet Russia.

“Books are made out of books” | Blood Meridian and Samuel Chamberlain

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, as many critics have noted, is made of some of the finest literature out there–the King James Bible, Moby-Dick, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, Faulkner, and Shakespeare. While Blood Meridian echoes and alludes to these authors and books thematically, structurally, and linguistically, it also owes much of its materiality to Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.

Chamberlain, much like the Kid, Blood Meridian’s erstwhile protagonist, ran away from home as a teenager. He joined the Illinois Second Volunteer Regiment and later fought in the Mexican-American War. Confession details Chamberlain’s involvement with John Glanton’s gang of scalp-hunters. The following summary comes from the University of Virginia’s American Studies webpage

According to Chamberlain, John Glanton was born in South Carolina and migrated to Stephen Austin’s settlement in Texas. There he fell in love with an orphan girl and was prepared to marry her. One day while he was gone, Lipan warriors raided the area scalping the elderly and the children and kidnapping the women- including Glanton’s fiancee. Glanton and the other settlers pursued and slaughtered the natives, but during the battle the women were tomahawked and scalped. Legend has it, Glanton began a series of retaliatory raids which always yielded “fresh scalps.” When Texas fought for its independence from Mexico, Glanton fought with Col. Fannin, and was one of the few to escape the slaughter of that regiment at the hands of the Mexican Gen. Urrea- the man who would eventually employ Glanton as a scalp hunter. During the Range Wars, Glanton took no side but simply assassinated individuals who had crossed him. He was banished, to no avail, by Gen. Sam Houston and fought as a “free Ranger” in the war against Mexico. Following the war he took up the Urrea’s offer of $50 per Apache scalp (with a bonus of $1000 for the scalp of the Chief Santana). Local rumor had it that Glanton always “raised the hair” of the Indians he killed and that he had a “mule load of these barbarous trophies, smoke-dried” in his hut even before he turned professional.

 

Chamberlain’s Confession also describes a  figure named Judge Holden. Again, from U of V’s summary–

Glanton’s gang consisted of “Sonorans, Cherokee and Delaware Indians, French Canadians, Texans, Irishmen, a Negro and a full-blooded Comanche,” and when Chamberlain joined them they had gathered thirty-seven scalps and considerable losses from two recent raids (Chamberlain implies that they had just begun their careers as scalp hunters but other sources suggest that they had been engaged in the trade for sometime- regardless there is little specific documentation of their prior activities). Second in command to Glanton was a Texan- Judge Holden. In describing him, Chamberlain claimed, “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung;” Holden was well over six feet, “had a fleshy frame, [and] a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression” and was well educated in geology and mineralogy, fluent in native dialects, a good musician, and “plum centre” with a firearm. Chamberlain saw him also as a coward who would avoid equal combat if possible but would not hesitate to kill Indians or Mexicans if he had the advantage. Rumors also abounded about atrocities committed in Texas and the Cherokee nation by him under a different name. Before the gang left Frontreras, Chamberlain claims that a ten year old girl was found “foully violated and murdered” with “the mark of a large hand on her throat,” but no one ever directly accused Holden.

 

It’s fascinating to note how much of the Judge is already there–the pedophilia, the marksmanship, the scholarship, and, most interesting of all, the lack of hair. Confession goes on to detail the killing, scalping, raping, and raiding spree that comprises the center of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain even describes the final battle with the Yumas, an event that signals the dissolution of the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s novel.

Content aside, Chamberlain’s prose also seems to presage McCarthy’s prose. In his book Different Travelers, Different Eyes, James H. Maguire notes that, “Both venereal and martial, the gore of [Chamberlain’s] prose evokes Gothic revulsion, while his unschooled art, with its stark architectural angles and leaden, keen-edged shadows, can chill with the surreal horrors of the later Greco-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.” Yes, Chamberlain was an amateur painter (find his paintings throughout this post), and undoubtedly some of this imagery crept into Blood Meridian.

You can view many of Chamberlain’s paintings and read an edit of his Confession in three editions of Life magazine from 1956, digitally preserved thanks to Google Books–here’s Part I, Part II, and Part III. Many critics have pointed out that Chamberlain’s narrative, beyond its casual racism and sexism, is rife with factual and historical errors. He also apparently indulges in the habit of describing battles and other events in vivid detail, even when there was no way he could have been there. No matter. The ugly fact is that books are made out of books, after all, and if Chamberlain’s Confession traffics in re-appropriating the adventure stories of the day, at least we have Blood Meridian to show for his efforts.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first ran this post in September of 2010.]

An Allegory — Domenico Guidobono

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An Allegory, c. 1720 by Domenico Guidobono (1668–1746)

Five bookmarks

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Business card for the NC-based artist Hannah Dansie, likely obtained at an arts fair in Asheville, NC, late 2018. Inside Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, pages 106-07. Did I finish The Dog of the South? Yes I did.

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An actual bookmark from the indie publisher Two Dollar Radio, obtained in 2020 when I purchased their edition of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog. Inside Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog, between the cover and the first page. Did I finish Nog? Yes I did.

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Entrance ticket for Wat Pho, obtained in Bangkok, Thailand, in the fall of 2002. Found inside Thomas Pynchon’s V., pages 228-29 (the beginning of “Mondaugen’s Story.” Did I finish V.? Yes I did.

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Postcard from the Greek indie publisher Pilotless Press celebrating Allen Kechagiar’s chapbook The Mundane History of Lockwood HeightsObtained via the publisher in 2012. Inside of Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy, page 254-55. Did I finish The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights? Yes I did.

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Card #30 (from Airtight Garage) of a set of Moebius collector cards, circa 1993. Obtained in a pack of Moebius Collector Cards purchased from Floating World Comics in Portalnd, Oregon, in July of 2019. Inside Jim Dodge’s Fup, pages 24-25. Did I finish Fup? No I did not.

My Father — George Adolphus Storey

My Father 1868 by George Adolphus Storey 1834-1919

My Father, 1868 by George Adolphus Storey (1834–1919)