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.

The Pillow — John Currin

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The Pillow, 2006 by John Currin (b. 1962)

Blog about the first books I bought in 2020 (Books acquired, 2 Jan. 2020)

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Since the last time I’ve done one of these stupid “books acquired” posts, I’ve had at least six review copies show up at Biblioklept World Headquarters, Joy Williams’ 1988 Florida Keys novel Breaking and Entering, and a signed first-edition hardback copy of Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-hoodoo novel Flight to Canada—which I finished yesterday morning—and I’ve yet to do one of these stupid “books acquired posts” on any of them.

I had intended to do write about Flight to Canada today—a very Reedesque romp, overstuffed with characters and capers and motifs and themes, a zany satire of not just the Civil War, but also the American 1970s. Anyway, I’d intended to write about it today (or maybe riff on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which I saw last night and adored), but I ended up having to do a bunch of post-Xmas chores. The last few weeks have been busy.

In between post-Xmas chores, I dropped my daughter off at my in-law’s, which necessitates driving past my favorite used bookstore. I couldn’t resist stopping by, even though I need another book like I need another hole in my head. I mean, I had intended to start Charles Portis’s latest (and hopefully not last!) novel Gringos today. Instead, I started Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was an unexpected highlight for me in 2019—I’ll admit I’d never really thought to read anything of hers after filing her under Eighth grade lit after reading “The Lottery” (I made a similar stupid mistake with William Golding (filed under Tenth grade lit), corrected by good people who told me to read The Inheritors). I didn’t really know anything about We Have Always Lived in the Castle until today, but I love the title and really dig this Penguin edition’s cover (by comix artist Thomas Ott). Like Hill House, Castle also has a fantastic opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

The first sentence is a bit banal, a little bit of exposition, right? And then by the time you get to the “I could have been a werewolf,” well, what the hell? And then there’s a because, lovely, before a nice lists of dislikes (first!) and then likes (including a deadly mushroom, which Jackson’s narrator Mary (purposefully?) misnames as the “death-cup” instead of the death cap. The last line is a hell of a zinger.

I skipped Jonathan Lethem’s introduction of course, but I did have to go figure out if he also wrote the introduction to the edition of Hill House I read last year. (He didn’t Jonny Lethe wrote the intro to the copy of Anna Kavan’s Ice that I read last year. I’ll read J-Lethz intro after I finish.)

I also picked up a 1973 Penguin edition of a collection of Flann O’Brien’s stories and plays. (Neil Stuart’s cover was worth the two bucks.) The bulk of the collection is devoted to an unfinished novel called Slattery’s Sogo Saga and a play called Faustus Kelly, attributed to O’Brien’s pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (rendered in this edition as Myles Na Gopaleen—Flann O’Brien was actually a pseudonym too, for Brian O’Nolan).

Like the O’Brien collection, picking up a clearly-unread pristine massmarket paperback edition of J.G. Ballard’s 1965 novel The Drought was more an I have to type situation than anything else, although I’m sure I’ll read it this year (I’m always looking to scarf down a Philip K. Dick or Ballard I haven’t read, and I haven’t read The Drought). Initially, I was perplexed—I thought I knew all Ballard titles, even the ones I haven’t read—but it turns out that The Drought was initially published in 1964 as The Burning World (which I was aware of). In any case, The Drought is probably horrifyingly prescient novel as we enter the New Twenties. Happy New Year!

Annotations on a probably incomplete list of books I read or reread in full in 2019

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The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, Angela Carter

Deeply horny and deeply deprave. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. It’s a picaresque adventure with narrator Desiderio taking on titular mad scientist Hoffman and his war against reality. Wild shit happens and each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

 Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Remedios Varo (translation by Margaret Carson)

Interviewing Margaret Carson was an early highlight of 2019 for me. We talked about Varo’s letters and other writings (dreams!), and she brought up Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Pynchon, which is like, golden for me.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (translation by Clarence Brown)

I absolutely loved Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation of Zamyatin’s We. From my review:

Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.

Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover

Probably the best opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel that fails deliver after the first 100 or so pages. Coover turns it up to 11—the second chapter of Origin, describing a mine’s implosion, is some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, but the next 400 pages of the disaster’s fallout is a rhetorical trudge.

The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto  Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

For completists only. A dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives. I wrote about it here.

Evening in Paradise, Lucia Berlin

Fucking loved it, didn’t I.

Taking Care, Joy Williams

Williams’ early collection contains at least three perfect short stories.

No!, Leslie Fiedler

Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is extremely important to how I think about American literature. No! is not nearly as good.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer

How serendipitous that Boyer’s collection of essays begins with a wonderful essay called “No.” Good stuff.

Kingdom, Jon McNaught

I reviewed it at The Comics Journal, writing,

Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.

,before going on to riff on John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song  a bit.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I mean like I guess I didn’t really think it was that good?

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Well I fucking loved it didn’t I?

Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

Berg, Ann Quin

Maybe the best novel I read this year.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

Did these on audiobook and loved them. The first in this tetraology, The Shadow of the Torturer was probably my favorite, but the best scene in the whole deal is in the third book, The Sword of the Lictor, when the protagonist Severian fights this were-bear thing called the Alzabo—a slow, protracted battle scene based more on strategy and tactics than on brute force.

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon

I love Thomas Pynchon but Vineland is not his best book, or his second- or third- or fourth-best book (etc.). Has a perfect paragraph nevertheless.

Don Quixote, Kathy Acker

I dig that wild gross stuff what can I say.

Slave Old Man, Patrick Chamoiseau (translation by Linda Coverdale)

Superb.

The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez

–and–

Is This How You See Me?, Jaime Hernandez

I reread The Love Bunglers to review Is This How You See Me? at The Comics Journal. From my review:

Can you ever really go home again?

This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.

Border Districts, Gerald Murnane

Great stuff.

Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore

“Lonely cows on the highway appeared as splendid Baracuda, and the dismally soaked Spanish moss luxuriant submarine vetch,” Gaddis writes his mother, in 1947, describing leaving rainy New Orleans. All the best letters are to his sweet mama, even the many many ones asking for money. God rest Mama Gaddis’s soul.

Optic Nerve, Maria Gainza (translation by Thomas Bunstead)

Maybe it was the time of year, maybe it was because I had to rush before returning the book to the library. I thought Optic Nerve was nice post-Sebald thing, but it never zapped me.

The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin

Good stuff, good experiments, not Berg.

Ice, Anna Kavan

This book is imperfectly perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago but I’m glad I read it this year. More here. (I fucking loved Ice.)

Geometry in the Dust, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

More Senges please.

Milkman, Anna Burns

Is good

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

A Little Lumpen Novelita, Roberto Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

A Little Long Short Story by dipped out of the bottom of the Bolaño barrel.

Tears of the Trufflepig, Fernando A. Flores

This review piqued my interest in Flores’s alternate timeline border novel. The novel’s premise was good, but the prose seemed uninspired.

Norwood, Charles Portis

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis

True Grit, Charles Portis

I read Norwood this summer and then promptly picked up everything I could by Portis. Can’t believe I haven’t read him until now. I wrote about his novels in a post here. I’m saving Gringos for later.

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Warner Townsend

I never would’ve thought an epic story about a backwater nunnery could be so good. More Townsend in 2020.

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware

One of the best novels I read this year. From my review at The Comics Journal

Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest novel (or, more precisely, novel-in-progress) strengthens the argument that Ware is a Serious American Novelist, one who deserves a large crossover audience. Like Jimmy Corrigan and Building StoriesRusty Brown has a central primary setting, a small private school in Nebraska. And like those novels, Rusty Brown comprises material (lightly reworked) from Ware’s Acme Novelty Library series (issues 16, 17, 19, and 20, specifically). The cast here is much larger and the themes are arguably more ambitious though.

Rusty Brown is a sprawling story about memory and perception, about minor triumphs and chronic failures, about how our inner monologues might not match up to the reality around us. In Ware’s world, life can be blurry, spotty, fragmented. His characters are so bound up in their own consciousnesses that they cannot see the bigger picture that frames them.

In the Time of the Blue Ball, Manuela Draeger (translation by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson)

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball in two quick sittings. Draeger is one of French author Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but I had forgotten that when I picked it up. It was a Dorothy Project title, and it looked neat, so I got it. Draeger is also one of Volodine’s recurring characters, a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The three stories in Blue Ball are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

Rat Time, Keiler Roberts

I loved Rat Time! In my review, I wrote,

Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.

Negrophobia, Darius James

I had never heard of Negrophobia. I found it in a used bookstore next to something else. The title intrigued me (not to mention the NYRB imprint), and blurbs from Kathy Acker, Paul Beatty, and Kara Walker sold me on it. Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence.

Actual Air, David Berman

I wish David Berman were still alive.

The Doomed City, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky  (translation by Andrew Bromfield)

A baggy, abject, Kafkaesque riff on a utopian project’s dystopian turn, The Doomed City was not my favorite Strugatsky jam, but it was pretty good.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

I made a huge mistake by not reading Shirley Jackson earlier. I think I just associated her with that story we all have to read in like eighth grade, and never went back. Anyway. Hill House has a perfect opening (I riffed on the opening here):

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (translation by Michael Hofmann)

“Unbe-fucking-lievable”

A Mistake, Carl Shuker

I enjoyed Carl Shuker’s slim novel A Mistake. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, A Mistake is the story of Elizabeth Taylor, the only female surgeon at her hospital. Shuker’s novel reads in some ways as a critique of neoliberalism’s attempt to quantify every aspect of medical care. The novel is set against “the minister’s mistake,” a plan to publicize each surgeon’s results. And at the beginning of the novel, well, there’s a mistake, one which Elizabeth is involved with. Although the blurb describes A Mistake as a “procedural thriller,” I found it closer to a character study of an outsider who finds herself increasingly alienated by her peers and friends alike. Shuker conveys his hero edging into paranoia and depression in sharp, precise prose which occasionally recalls Don DeLillo.

The Undying, Anne Boyer

An aphoristic memoir-essay, The Undying is a discursive dive into Boyer’s diagnosis of, treatment of, and recovery from breast cancer. It’s an angry, smart book, with little bursts of mean humor, and it rips apart the ways that neoliberal late capitalism have made health care inhuman and inhumane.

Sports Is Hell, Ben Passmore

Sports Is Hell is a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness—think Walter Hill’s film The Warriors by way of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Why did I wait so long to read The Sellout?

Falstaff: An Apotheosis, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

This chapbook is 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.

Juice!, Ishmael Reed

I wrote about Juice! here.

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

I bought myself a signed first-edition hardback copy of Flight to Canada on the internet. It was like 12 bucks. I’m actually not quite finished with it, to be honest–but I’m drafting this post from the past (it’s 14:08 on 31 Dec. 2019 as I type)–but I’ve only got like fifty more pages, so I think I can get it done.

Happy 2020 to all of you!

RIP Alasdair Gray

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RIP Alasdair Gray, 1934-2019

The Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray died today, one day after his 85th birthday.

Gray’s first novel, 1981’s Lanark, is one of the strangest and most memorable novels I’ve ever read. Part dystopian fantasy, part realist autofiction, part Kafkaesque anti-quest, and part Künstlerroman, Lanark deconstructs the traditional novel, braiding multiple narratives into a complex, sharp, satirical epic.

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Lanark included original artwork by Gray, a trend that would continue over the course of his career as a novelist. Gray was trained as a muralist, and if I ever make it to Glasgow I plan to see his murals.

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Gray’s art of course adorns his follow-up to Lanark, 1984’s 1982, Janine, a challenging novel of debauchery. 1982, Janine is conceptually, formally, and typographically challenging, a kind of answer to Finnegans Wake, and like Joyce’s big weird fun hard novel, Gray’s sophomore jaunt is a jam I return to again and again without the hope of truly ever finishing. 1982, Janine also has the best blurb I think I’ve ever read—you can watch Gray read it in this 1993 STV documentary about Gray (around 15:34)—

The Gray Matter also features Gray discussing his novels and reading from them, as well as his art. It makes a neat primer to the Gray’s work, and while I’m no expert—just a big fan of those first two novels and his art, to be clear—I think it does a nice job of letting the artist speak about his art.

I’ll close by reiterating that Lanark has stuck with me in a way that most novels don’t. It might seem a daunting read at nearly 600 pages (not to mention its four-book structure, which begins with Book Three before going to Books One and Two and then concluding with Four—and, oh the books are formally/stylistically varied)—but Lanark might be the cult novel you’ve been missing from your life.

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Complaint to God (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

Interior: Girl Reading — Mary McEvoy

Interior: Girl Reading 1901 by Mary McEvoy 1870-1941

Interior: Girl Reading, 1901 by Mary McEvoy (1870–1941)

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!

 

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas is here, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

New Accursed Art Club — Nigel Cooke

New Accursed Art Club 2007 by Nigel Cooke born 1973

New Accursed Art Club, 2007 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics — Mike Davis

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Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics by Mike Davis

Woman Reading with Peaches — Henri Matisse

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Woman Reading with Peaches, 1923 by– Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Untitled (Le Quai des brumes) — Francine van Hove

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Untitled by Francine van Hove (b. 1942)

The Artist’s Wife — Henry Lamb

The Artist's Wife 1933 by Henry Lamb 1883-1960

The Artist’s Wife, 1933 by Henry Lamb (1883–1960)

Robert Musil’s Agathe, or The Forgotten Sister (Book acquired like probably the last week of November 2019)

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In his introduction to Robert Musil’s Agathe, or The Forgotten Sister, NYRB editor Edwin Frank writes that,

Essay, in this quintessentially essayistic novel, is the mode for depicting a mind so active that it nearly constitutes a character independent of the man whose mind it is. That man is a thirty-two-year-old Austrian mathematician known to the reader only by his first name, Ulrich, who, disillusioned in his quest for intellectual glory after reading a newspaper about a racehorse of genius, decides to take a year-long ‘vacation from life,’ which he conceives of as an experiment in pure philosophic contemplation — ‘living essayistically,’ he calls it — in the hope of perhaps, by that pathless route, discovering an occupation better suited to his abilities. If he does not find it within a year, he will put an end to his life, because, to his fanatically logical and consequent mind, an unjustified life is not worth living.

I’ll confess I’ve never read Musil, despite two lukewarm milquetoast attempts, but I liked Frank’s introduction. Seems like I need to read The Man without Qualities before this. Here’s the NYRB blurb:

Agathe is the sister of Ulrich, the restless and elusive “man without qualities” at the center of Robert Musil’s great, unfinished novel of the same name. For years Agathe and Ulrich have ignored each other, but when brother and sister find themselves reunited over the bier of their dead father, they are electrified. Each is the other’s spitting image, and Agathe, who has just separated from her husband, is even more defiant and inquiring than Ulrich. Beginning with a series of increasingly intense “holy conversations,” the two gradually enlarge the boundaries of sexuality, sensuality, identity, and understanding in pursuit of a new, true form of being that they are seeking to discover.

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is perhaps the most profoundly exploratory and unsettling masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction. Agathe; or, The Forgotten Sister reveals with new clarity a particular dimension of this multidimensional book—the dimension that meant the most to Musil himself and that inspired some of his most searching writing. The outstanding translator Joel Agee captures the acuity, audacity, and unsettling poetry of a book that is meant to be nothing short of life-changing.

Agathe’s English translation is by Joel Agee.

A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

Three Books

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Don Quixote by Kathy Acker. Grove Press trade paperback, 1986. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Catherine Denvir.

A messy punkpostmodern cartoon, a big long jazz howl at the moon.

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The Egghead Republic by Arno Schmidt; English translation by Michael Horowitz. Marion Boyars trade paperback, 1982. Cover design by Imre Reiner, who likely drew the illustration (although he is not explicitly credited).

I found the first 50 pages utterly exhausting, and there were 100 more. I tried. The cover designer Imre Reiner is most famous for his font designs, but he also illustrated many many books, including a 1941 edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

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Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz; English translation by Celina Wieniewska. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Bruno Schultz. (The novel includes thirty black and white illustrations by Schultz.)

A gross, surreal, dispiriting nightmare. I recall “enjoying” it.