Cigarette Bunnies 1 and Cigarette Bunnies 2, 2016 by Laurie Hogin (b. 1963)
Cigarette Bunnies 1 and Cigarette Bunnies 2, 2016 by Laurie Hogin (b. 1963)
A tremendous thank you to to BLCKDGRD for sending me a copy of Anne Boyer’s strange discursive book of essays-poems-critiques-I-do-not-know-whats A Handbook of Disappointed Fates. It showed up in the mail unexpectedly, and I figured it might be from him (he posted excerpts last week). I’m really digging the book so far, although I haven’t been reading it in a straight line. I did start at the beginning though, which starts like this:
(Bartleby prefers not to arrive in this essay on “No,” but it is nevertheless rather rich in its refusals).
Thanks to my friend again.
This morning my dean told me that I needed to pack up my office over the summer as the building I’m in will be undergoing a renovation. Even though I knew this was coming, the prospect hit me as a series of big anxiety waves. My walls are covered with masks, art, pictures. I have file drawers of student work going back over a decade. And books. Lots and lots of books. Books and art and stuff that I don’t really have room for anywhere else, even for a season.
Three shelves in my office are doublestacked with old mass market paperbacks from my youth—-Vonnegut, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hemingway, Jack London, Philip K. Dick, Richard Adams, Stephen Crane, etc. Shabby books, well worn, glue splitting. Over the years I’ve acquired nicer versions of the ones I want to reread, but my sentimental attachment to this small library of paperbacks doesn’t quite fade. When I taught high school, they were the bulk of my classroom library. I insisted on their return, and was always disappointed in students who seemed interested in certain novels but never quite managed to steal them. I was always thrilled when a student would ask to borrow one “over the summer” and then forget to return it.
This sorry shabby mass-market library has been depleted over my past decade teaching community college. Every semester, a few students ask if they can borrow something they see on the shelves when they stop by to chat. It is the most wonderful feeling to give a young person a copy of Brave New World (“I’ve heard it’s good”) or Cat’s Cradle (“Is it as good as Slaughterhouse Five?”) of Studies in Classic American Literature and then insist that they keep it and not worry about returning it.
This morning, a young man approached me after class and told me he’d noticed I had a copy of Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? in my office—could he maybe borrow it? He made a point of calling it Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and not Blade Runner, despite the fact that it’s a movie tie-in. He seemed so happy when I repeated that the book was his now.
Earlier that morning I gave another student my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He’s taken a couple of classes with me, and based on our conversations and his writing, I thought he could us the book more than I could. Again—young kid so happy to get a book, to think that someone thought he should read a particular book—I recall the feeling so vividly, from the other side. I love watching the old library dwindle away. Maybe I can give away more before I have to pack it up again.
After classes and office hours I swung by my beloved bookstore. I do this a lot on Fridays, in the spare hour that I have between work and picking up kids. I had a little mission this time—buying some books for a great old friend who turns forty this weekend. He loves hiking and camping and poetry—more than I love those things, I think—so I asked twitter to throw out some recommendations, which they did. I had fun browsing the “Nature” section. I ended up getting three: Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma (a favorite of mine), Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (I had never heard of it until today), and Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Walk (I dug a few of the short essays I read in the store). I enjoyed buying books for my friend. I am almost 100% he never reads this blog so I’m sure my posting this will not spoil his present, and, if not, Happy Birthday.
While browsing the “Nature” section, I resisted Shelters Shacks and Shanties—for now. Apologies to D.C. Beard, whose hut diagrams are exquisite:
I of course selfishly picked up books for myself, although I didn’t browse for myself. I keep a silly geeky list of names to check in on, including Robert Coover. Even though I’m slogging my way through his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, I still have a desire to read its sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath. No wrath, but I picked up Plume editions of Pricksongs & Descants (which I’ve read but didn’t own) and Gerald’s Party (which I haven’t read and now own). The editions match the copy of The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. I picked last summer (and no I have not read goddamn it).
I was also thrilled to pick up a 1974 Daw Paper edition of Wendayne Ackerman’s translation of Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to Be a God. I read Olena Bormashenko’s translation as an e-book a few years ago, after seeing Aleksei German’s film adaptation. (I loved Bormashenko’s translation of Snail on the Slope, by the way).
This copy of Hard to Be a God, blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin, will end up in a stack on my shelf of massmarket paperbacks, cheap pulp editions with colorful, zany, vibrant covers. Lovely unroughed, somehow pristine copies of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem and Ishmael Reed and Ursual K. Le Guin and J.G. Ballard and etcetera that’s been building up over the years, a private collection—but another library I’m sure I’ll eventually end up giving away.
Weissmann’s Tarot is better than Slothrop’s. Here are the real cards, exactly as they came up.
Significator: Knight of Swords
Covered by: The Tower
Crossed by: Queen of Swords
Crowning: King of Cups
Beneath: Ace of Swords
Before: 4 of Cups
Behind: 4 of Pentacles
Self: Page of Pentacles
House: 8 of Cups
Hopes and Fears: 2 of Swords
What will come: The World
From page 746 of Gravity’s Rainbow.
He appears first with boots and insignia shining as the rider on a black horse, charging in a gallop neither he nor horse can control, across the heath over the giant grave-mounds, scattering the black-faced sheep, while dark stands of juniper move dreamily, death-loving, across his path in a parallax of unhurrying fatality, presiding as monuments do over the green and tan departure of summer, the dust-colored lowlands and at last the field-gray sea, a prairie of sea darkening to purple where the sunlight comes through, in great circles, spotlights on a dancing-floor.
He is the father you will never quite manage to kill. The Oedipal situation in the Zone these days is terrible. There is no dignity. The mothers have been masculinized to old worn moneybags of no sexual interest to anyone, and yet here are their sons, still trapped inside inertias of lust that are 40 years out of date. The fathers have no power today and never did, but because 40 years ago we could not kill them, we are condemned now to the same passivity, the same masochist fantasies they cherished in secret, and worse, we are condemned in our weakness to impersonate men of power our own infant children must hate, and wish to usurp the place of, and fail… . So generation after generation of men in love with pain and passivity serve out their time in the Zone, silent, redolent of faded sperm, terrified of dying, desperately addicted to the comforts others sell them, however useless, ugly or shallow, willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death.
Of 77 cards that could have come up, Weissmann is “covered,” that is his present condition is set forth, by The Tower. It is a puzzling card, and everybody has a different story on it. It shows a bolt of lightning striking a tall phallic structure, and two figures, one wearing a crown, falling from it. Some read ejaculation, and leave it at that. Others see a Gnostic or Cathar symbol for the Church of Rome, and this is generalized to mean any System which cannot tolerate heresy: a system which, by its nature, must sooner or later fall. We know by now that it is also the Rocket.
Members of the Order of the Golden Dawn believe The Tower represents victory over splendor, and avenging force. As Goebbels, beyond all his professional verbalizing, believed in the Rocket as an avenger.
On the Kabbalist Tree of Life, the path of The Tower connects the sephira Netzach, victory, with Hod, glory or splendor. Hence the Golden Dawn interpretation. Netzach is fiery and emotional, Hod is watery and logical. On the body of God, these two Sephiroth are the thighs, the pillars of the Temple, resolving together in Yesod, the sex and excretory organs.
But each of the Sephiroth is also haunted by its proper demons or Qlippoth. Netzach by the Ghorab Tzerek, the Ravens of Death, and Hod by the Samael, the Poison of God. No one has asked the demons at either level, but there may be just the wee vulnerability here to a sensation of falling, the kind of very steep and out-of-scale fall we find in dreams, a falling more through space than among objects. Though the different Qlippoth can only work each his own sort of evil, activity on the path of The Tower, from Netzach to Hod, seems to’ve resulted in the emergence of a new kind of demon (what, a dialectical Tarot? Yes indeedyfoax! A-and if you don’t think there are Marxist-Leninist magicians around, well you better think again!). The Ravens of Death have now tasted of the Poison of God… but in doses small enough not to sicken but to bring on, like the Amanita muscaria, a very peculiar state of mind… . They have no official name, but they are the Rocket’s guardian demons.
Weissmann is crossed by the Queen of his suit. Perhaps himself, in drag. She is the chief obstacle in his way.
At his foundation is the single sword flaming inside the crown: again, Netzach, victory. In the American deck this card has come down to us as the ace of spades, which is a bit more sinister: you know the silence that falls on the room when it comes up, whatever the game.
Behind him, moving out of his life as an influence, is the 4 or Four of Pentacles, which shows a figure of modest property desperately clutching on to what he owns, four gold coins—this feeb is holding two of them down with his feet, balancing another on his head and holding the fourth tightly against his stomach, which is ulcerous. It is the stationary witch trying to hold her candy house against the host of nibblers out there in the dark.
Moving in, before him, comes a feast of cups, a satiety. Lotta booze and broads for Weissmann coming soon.
Good for him—although in his house he is seen walking away, renouncing eight stacked gold chalices. Perhaps he is to be given only what he must walk away from.
Perhaps it is because in the lees of the night’s last cup is the bitter presence of a woman sitting by a rocky shore, the Two of Swords, alone at the Baltic edge, blindfolded in the moonlight, holding the two blades crossed upon her breasts… the meaning is usually taken as “concord in a state of arms,” a good enough description of the Zone nowadays, and it describes his deepest hopes, or fears.
Himself, as the World sees him: the scholarly young Page of Pentacles, meditating on his magic gold talisman. The Page may also be used to stand for a young girl. But Pentacles describe people of very dark complexion, and so the card almost certainly is Enzian as a young man. And Weissmann may at last, in this limited pasteboard way, have become what he first loved.
The King of Cups, crowning his hopes, is the fair intellectual-king.
If you’re wondering where he’s gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisers, the token intellectuals who sit on Presidential advisers, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. He is almost surely there. Look high, not low.
His future card, the card of what will come, is The World.
The language in this post is from pages 746-49 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Elements of this post found their way into some annotations I made a few years ago on page 539 of Gravity’s Rainbow.
I was skeptical about Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf when it came out earlier this year in hardback. The novel had plenty of buzz and a big blurb from Neil Gaiman on the back—two things that often turn me off. I was also a bit skeptical about some of the novel’s marketing hype. James referred to his novel as an “African Game of Thrones,” and a lot of folks ran with that tag. James has since professed in an interview that this comparison was a joke.
A friend had read something about the book and texted me questions about it, so I thought, Hey, why not go to my favorite source of literary criticism: What did people who really hated this book have to say about it? And as usual, the one-star reviews at Amazon did not disappoint. Indeed, I was a bit optimistic about Black Leopard, Red Wolf after seeing this curve:
Just look at that! Amazon stats for big publisher/big buzz books tend to be suspiciously positive, but here I saw a sign of something that intrigued me—a book that a lot of people either loved or hated. And some of those one-star reviews?
Filled with gratuitous and rampant cursing, sexuality, violence and brutality. Too much even for fans of dark fantasy. I could not finish it.
…Confusing, nasty, all-over-the-place, just plain LOST. Sorry, but this needs a particular kind of person to stomach or understand.
…If you don’t mind being confused and unsure of the direction of a story, this book is for you. You must have patience to read this book.
…sounds like it was written by someone on hallucinogens.
I knew at this point I wouldn’t wait for the paperback.
If James’s comparing Black Leopard, Red Wolf to Game of Thrones was a joke, it’s a pretty good one, the kind of joke that could sell a lot of copies of his novel to fantasy fans who want a plot-driven tale. From the four baffling, surreal, vivid (and often lurid) chapters I’ve read so far, Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t really like Game of Thrones at all. There’s an opaqueness to James’s prose, a distancing effect to the language that alienates the reader in the most wonderful way. It’s all so terribly strange! Fans of plot-centric fantasy where the author explains and explicates what’s happening will likely be very quickly bothered by what James is doing here.
So far, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is first-person narrative of a man who may or may not be named Tracker, who is telling his story—or rather, many, many stories—to someone called Inquisitor (shades of One Thousand and One Nights?). These stories flow and roil into and out of each other. The minute James lets us find our bearings a bit, we’re out into new territory—one moment fighting “Omoluzu…Roof walkers” who seem to exist on a tangential plane to our own, and not long after running through a jungle of giant trees with a shapeshifting Leopard who leads us to a village of cursed children. Black Leopard, Red Wolf overflows with energy: the novel is kinetic, bright, and sharp, but also dark, eerie, and upsetting—it’s abject, puzzling, slippery. I love it so far.
The novel completely won me over on its tenth page, with this wild episode:
I kept walking until I came to an old woman by a river with a tall stick sitting at the banks. Her hair white at the sides, her head bald at the top. Her face had lines like paths in the forest and her yellow teeth meant her breath was foul. The stories say she rises each morning youthful and beautiful, blooms full and comely by midday, ages to a crone by nightfall, and dies at midnight to be born again the next hour. The hump in her back was higher than her head, but her eyes twinkled, so her mind was sharp. Fish swam right up to the point of the stick but never went beyond.
“Why have you come to this place?” she asked.
“This is the way to Monono,” I said.
“Why have you come to this place? A living man?”
“Life is love and I have no love left. Love has drained itself from me, and run to a river like this one.”
“It’s not love you have lost, but blood. I will let you pass. But when I lay with a man I live without dying for seventy moons.”
So I fucked the crone. She lay on her back by the bank, her feet in the river. She was nothing but bones and leather, but I was hard for her and full with vigor. Something was swimming between my legs that felt like fishes. Her hand touched my chest and my white clay stripes turned into waves around my heart. I thrust in and out of her, unnerved by her silence. In the dark I felt she was getting younger even though she was getting older. Flame spread inside me, spread to the tips of my fingers and the tip of me inside her. Air gathered around water, water gathered around air and I yelled, and pulled out, and rained on her belly, her arms, and her breasts. A shudder ran through me five times. She was still a crone, but I was not angry. She scooped my rain off her chest and flicked it off in the river. At once fish leapt up and dived in, leapt up again. This was a night when dark ate the moon, but the fishes had a light within them. The fishes had the head, arms, and breasts of women.
“Follow them,” she said.
I followed them through day and night, and day again. Sometimes the river was as low as my ankle. Sometimes the river was as high as my neck. Water washed all the white from my body, leaving just my face. The fish- women, womenfish, took me down the river for days and days and days until we came to a place I cannot describe. It was either a wall of river, which stood firm even though I could push my hand through it, or the river had bent itself downward and I could still walk, my feet touching the ground, my body standing without falling.
So the narrator ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, and the fish who eat it turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead. There, he accomplishes on of the earliest quests in this very-questy novel. Instead of my describing the quest, I’ll point you instead to the publisher’s website–you can read the full first chapter there.
Did I mention that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has maps in it? Black Leopard, Red Wolf has maps in it.
More to come in the future. For now, I’m really digging the novel’s surreal, lurid thrusts into wild territory.
Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, “Who speaks for America today?” will have to be: the advertising agencies. They are entirely capable of showing us our unparalleled prosperity and our almost classless society, and no one has ever accused them of not being affirmative. Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time and under given circumstances; that is, as a limited revelation but revelation nevertheless.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” collected in Mystery and Manners.
Two Telegrams (Antonioni), 2013 by Jen Mazza (b. 1972)
On Friday, I went to my trusty local used bookstore to look, once again, for a copy of Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. They had four new copies, all of Grand Central Publishing’s 2000 edition, the cover of which is frankly awful. I know I shouldn’t be so shallow, but…I’ll end up checking out the ebook from my library I guess. I like sci-fi books to look like sci-fi books, not like bland approximations of “literary fiction.” I like sci-fi covers like this edition of J.G. Ballard’s novel The Crystal World which I took a pic of in the shop (I already have a mass market paperback copy of the Ballard and couldn’t bring myself to get another one)—
I unexpectedly picked up Anne Hébert’s novel Kamouraska. I’d heard P.T. Smith drop Hébert’s name a couple of times on Twitter, and she sounds interesting. (He wrote about Kamouraska here). The movie tie-in cover is awful, but for two bucks what the hell.
I also finally found another copy of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. I’ve been wanting to re-read Gray’s novel ever since I first read it five years ago. I lent my copy of the novel to someone who never gave it back. One of Gray’s illustrations for Lanark—
The previous week, I got two weird ones in the mail, Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) and 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef, an 1893 cookbook reprinted by Cow Eye Press as a kind of in-joke on indie publishing.
Originally published in 1893 as a cookbook for the American housewife, 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef: With a new Preface from the Publisher has been revised, adapted, and reissued as a new work of fiction celebrating the principles of independent publishing.
The original 99 Practical Methods was by a pseudonymous author named “Babet,” and purported to be translated from the French by one “A.R.” After reading publisher Natalie Zeldner’s preface and the “New Preface from the Intern,” I wasn’t quite sure that Babet’s original book ever existed. It turns out it does exist, but the prefaces by Zeldner and the (now-supposedly-ex-)intern point to the project as something closer to an aburdist joke about publishing than a recipe book. There are recipes here, though—100 of them, actually—like this one:
Cow Eye’s edition includes pictures, like this one of Samuel Beckett, with each recipe, that are often little oblique jokes, I guess. The edition does not include King Henry the Fourth’s Recipe for Stewed Chicken, which is included in the 1893 edition.
In her preface, publisher Zeldner laments that,
All anyone cares about anymore, it seems, is boiled beef. Boiled beef with the satisfying plot arc. Boiled beef with a light dash of novelty. Boiled beef prepared by celebrity chefs. Boiled beef with a titillating message and eminently discoverable hashtag.
So here you go, my friends: here’s your boiled beef.
Poet Anthony Howell’s Consciousness is another strange one. It actually includes another narrative in it, a novella by Mamdouh Adwan called Mutilation. In an author’s note, Howell points to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as his work’s predecessor, and the collage technique has led me quite randomly through the book. Here’s Howell’s blurb:
Consciousness (with Mutilation) is a non-fiction novel. Every sentence that begins any paragraph within it also serves as the concluding sentence of another paragraph. The trigger for the text is an epileptic seizure the author experienced in April 2018. This event prompted an investigation of the meaning of continuity in individuals, families and states. Could we have been somebody else yesterday, or become somebody else tomorrow? Consciousness annexes a Syrian novella – Mutilation – within its pages; a novella by Mamdouh Adwan, first published in Damascus in 1971. Reading this book is to be drawn into whirlpools, perhaps to drown. It is self-analysis, but, since the author’s lineage is both Jewish and Quaker, it evolves into an analysis of Zionism, of which Howell’s grandfather was a proponent, and of the role of the British in the Middle East. Having experienced sudden lapses of consciousness, the author senses that “life is not a river. Life is a collage.” This book takes The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs and Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet for its literary forbears. In the way of ancient tragedy, the dilemma of the individual becomes the dilemma of the state, in this case Israel, and the author carries the reader into a world of smoke and mirrors, sustained by collage mediated through its formal constraint.
The Cow Eye Press people may wish to know that there is some small mention of cows in Consciousness, including the theft of an Arnesby Brown painting.
Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:
Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.
The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?
Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.
In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:
The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.
There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:
The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”
A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).
“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:
I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.
“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:
It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!
Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.
What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).
“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:
“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …
“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.
While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:
Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.
Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:
The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.
The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.
In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:
“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.
Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”
“Oh,” Dan said.
In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:
I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.
Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.
The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.
Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.
I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.
He was a blonde. He lay in the bed, tossing turning. his room. What was that odor? The pungent odor of middle-class perfume making the air misty. He didn’t feel right. His hair. What on earth was the matter with his hair? It was long and was covering the pillow. The pillows? They had a flower print and were pink. Pink? He rose in his bed and his breasts jiggled. BREASTS? THE BREASTS?? He looked back into the mirror next to the bed and his mouth made a black hollow hole of horror. “O MY GOD. MY GOD.” He was a woman. You know what he said next, don’t you, reader? He’s from New York and so . . . you guessed it! “Kafka. Pure Kafka,” he said. A feeling crept over him. Tingly. What could he do? He felt like screaming, but he couldn’t scream. Was that someone coming coming down the hall? He ran and jumped back into the bed, pulled the covers up to his neck and pretended to be asleep.
From Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red.
I got a physical copy of Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom last week. Here is publisher Nobrow’s blurb for the book, which will serve as a rough plot summary:
A family sets off for a long weekend at a caravan park on the British coast. We follow them through the familiar landscapes of a summer holiday: motorway service stations, windswept cliffs, dilapidated museums and tourist giftshops. In this atmospheric and contemplative work, Jon McNaught explores the rhythms of nature, the passing of time, and the beauty and boredom of a summer holiday.
A few weeks ago, I’d been sent a digital reader’s copy of Kingdom to review for The Comics Journal, so I’d already read it, but getting a physical copy was like reading it anew. Nobrow’s books are, in general, lovely. They look lovely, are large and colorful and printed on rich thick paper. They smell great too.
Reading Kingdom in print was a much more pleasurable aesthetic experience than reading it on an iPad. The story was the same, of course, but my eyes went across it differently, working with my fingers, lingering, moving backwards and forwards, shuffling pages. The feeling of the story came across stronger, somehow, than it did on a screen–McNaught’s themes of boredom, nature, and our ways of seeing nature resonated more when I could rub my hands on the pages themselves. I do not have a simple explanation for this. There’s an intangibility I’m pointing toward, but one that has to do with tangibility of course: reading as a tactile process.
I’m not a Luddite. I like ebooks, and I generally like to have an ebook of any novel that I’m reading so that I can read it late at night. (Digital copies also make quoting at length for reviews much easier). But I find that screens dampen or mute or hinder something of the aesthetic experience in reading highly-visual narratives, like comics and poetry.
That last phrase, “comics and poetry”—I think that that’s what McNaught does by the way. His comics are visual poems, moods, feelings, evocations of time and space bounded not in words but in sounds, not in symbols and signs but in the objects themselves. The feeling of feeling of his comics is hard to pin down: tranquil and soothing with tinges of melancholy, gentle touches of pleasant boredom, waves of recognition: recognition of spirit, of impulse, of fellow feeling: etc. We see his characters seeing the world, being in the world, and seeing themselves seeing and being in the world. And we also see them mediating that world—on screens.
I liked Kingdom the first time I read it on a screen. I loved it the second time I read it on paper. Full review soon at The Comics Journal.
Twins, 2011 by Falk Gernergross (b. 1973)
Roberto Bolaño died at the young age of 50 in 2003, just as his work was beginning to gain a wider audience and broader critical acclaim. It wasn’t until after his death that his work was published in English. Just a few months after Bolaño died, New Directions published By Night in Chile in translation by Chris Andrews. A year later, they published Andrews’ translation of Distant Star, and completed the loose trilogy of these short novels with the publication of Amulet in early 2007. A few months after the publication of Amulet, FS&G published Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives, which had been originally published in Spain a decade earlier. By the time Wimmer’s translation of 2666 hit the shelves in 2008, Bolaño had become a literary sensation in the U.S., only half a decade after his death.
2666 is arguably Bolaño’s masterpiece, and certainly one of the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. I read the book in a fevered rush, and then read it again, and then again. As far as I can tell, there are more essays and reviews about 2666 on Biblioklept than any other book. It was the second book I read by Bolaño—admittedly, a first reading of The Savage Detectives left me a perplexed and cold, but I’ve since returned to that novel with a broader understanding and appreciation of Bolaño’s project, a project that seemed to expand yearly after Bolaño’s demise.
Indeed, it became something of a joke in literary circles, What, another Bolaño? He drops books from beyond the grave like Tupac drops albums! There are the short story collections (translated by Andrews) that trickled out between 2007 and 2012, along with harder to classify collections, like The Secret of Evil (Andrews, 2012) and Nazi Literature in the Americas (Andrews, 2008), a jangling set of keys to the Bolañoverse. Another set of keys came in the wonderful collection The Unknown University, a compendium of Bolaño’s poetry in translation by Laura Healy published by New Directions in 2013.
Then there are the novels that seemed to arrive every year or so: The Skating Rink (Andrews, 2009), Monsieur Pain (Andrews, 2010), Antwerp (Wimmer, 2010), The Third Reich (Wimmer, 2011), A Little Lumpen Novelita (Wimmer, 2014). Bolaño composed these pieces primarily in the 1980s, when he still thought of himself as a poet. These novels lack the vitality and vibrancy of his later work—the short story collections, the trilogy of short novels that began with Distant Star, and his big books, The Savage Detectives and 2666.
Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?
The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.
Jan and Remo’s questing in Spirit isn’t quite as grand. Remo wants to figure out why there are so many literary magazines in Mexico City; Jan spends his days writing to American science fiction writers. They manage to get mixed up with a set of sisters and their friend—poets of course. (Everyone in the novel is a poet, even—especially—a skinny motorcycle mechanic). The sisters prefigure the Font sisters of The Savage Detectives, and much of their plot feels like a sketch for that richer work.
Their friend Laura is a more interesting figure—a bit sinister, a cipher really, an iteration of the Lisas and Lupes that we find elsewhere in Bolaño’s fiction—in particular in some of the poetry collected in The Unknown Univeristy. Indeed, the final section of The Spirit of Science Fiction, “Mexican Manifesto,” was originally published in a different form in that collection. Some of the best parts of Spirit feel like failed poems, poems that want to be prose, unpoetical, mad, howling, jolly poems. Like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, the plot of Spirit careens, splinters, dares the reader to put the fragments together.
There is structure though: The main of the novel is told in first-person perspective by Remo. He’s seventeen, and has come from Chile to Mexico City with his friend Jan to live destitute in a garret and write bad articles under a pseudonym while he pursues his poetry. He gets sidetrack by love and other matters.
Running counter to this narrative are the letters that Jan writes to American sci-fi authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Sheldon. In a metatextual nod, Jan (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) also writes to Sheldon’s alias James Tiptree, Jr. Jan’s letters are a highlight of the novel, setting youthful arrogance and romantic idealism against a kind of quasi-tragic pathos. In a letter to Philip José Farmer, Jan (alias Roberto) suggests that a literary sci-fi anthology called American Orgasms in Space be published as a means to end war and cultivate brotherhood between Latin Americans and North Americans. The punchline to the letter is hilarious. Before signing off (“Warmly”), Jan informs the author of the Riverworld series that, “A week ago, I lost my virginity.”
A third strand runs throughout Spirit. In a series of segments set in some presumable future, a female journalist interviews Jan in the middle of a bizarre drunken party somewhere in the dark woods. Jan has won a prize for a sci-fi novel that he summarizes for the journalist who listens, downing vodka after vodka. Jan’s prize-winning sci-fi novel meshes elements that will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers—apocalyptic desolation, failed communication, esoteric histories of Latin America, mystery authors. Etc. It’s even partially set in the Unknown University. The interview segments seem perched on the edge of their own sinister apocalypse, a typically-Bolañoesque move, as if a seemingly-normal situation might topple over into malevolence at any moment. Unfortunately though, these sections seem to have been abandoned.
Indeed, much of Spirit reads like a patchwork of abandoned drafts, riddled with material and ideas that will pop up in later novels—the tabletop gaming of The Third Reich, the fascination of Nazi iconography we see in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the reckoning of post-colonialism which belongs to The Savage Detectives in particular, as well as the Bolañoverse as a whole. Too, Spirit shares the ominous swells and sinister reverberations that we identify with both Bolaño’s prose and poetry—the book shows the joyful optimism of youth poised on the cusp of unnameable disaster.
And there are plenty of great sections in The Spirit of Science Fiction: Jan desribing the entirety of a Gene Wolfe space novella to his friend, but mashing it into a vision of the screenwriter Thea von Harbou and her Nazi sympathies; the story of a Belgian-occupied village in the Congo that falls into a madness of woodworking, a madness that leads to general slaughter; a nervous late-night ride on a stolen motorcycle named the Aztec Princess; “the story of how Georges Perec, as a boy, prevented a duel to the death between Isidore Isou and Altagor in an old neighborhood in Paris”; a grotesque and enthralling final sequence in a semi-legal Mexico City bathhouse that channels the dark ghost of William S. Burroughs.
In short, there’s a lot of great writing in The Spirit of Science Fiction—plenty of moments that satisfy, if only temporarily, our cravings for more Bolaño. And yet the novel is clearly unfinished, which, if you’ve read Bolaño—and I’m assuming if you’ve hung out this far into this review, you’ve read Bolaño, and like, if you haven’t read Bolaño, I think he’s great, and a great starting point for reading him would be Distant Star or the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and, where was I? Okay: The Spirit of Science Fiction is clearly an unfinished piece, which, if you’ve read Bolaño, may seem like a Bolañoesque feature—his works point to an indeterminancy, an oblique, inconclusive, resolutely unfinishedness. (Think of the final lines/images of The Savage Detectives, for example).
And yet Spirit’s unfinishedness is not of a piece with the general aporia that belongs to Bolaño’s finished unfinished works—it seems, rather, an abandoned project, a draft to be repurposed later. Which, of course, it was—we already got the material that Spirit helped inspirit—in The Savage Detectives, in Nazi Literature, in 2666—in Bolaño’s best materials.
Paradoxically then, The Spirit of Science Fiction leaves the reader—by which I mean the Bolaño fan—by which I mean, let’s be honest, this Bolaño fan—Spirit leaves this reader hungry for more, for the pages to gallop on and on, to careen into more dread and manic joy and bad poetry and good poetry and pilfered stories and excessive metaphors. More: More Bolaño.
And then how could this review be a complaint? Well it isn’t. I enjoyed The Spirit of Science Fiction, was hungry for it before I even touched it, and then left hungry, wanting more: More Bolaño.
Dear Philip José Farmer:
Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days, heaven knows. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question: what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter.) This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s-land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example: legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Díaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our backup plan, and we’ll keep it in under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.
Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),
Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.
The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.
Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.
We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:
She was simply enveloped.
This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.
In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:
It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.
The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:
Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.
The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”
The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.
“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.
Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).
The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:
Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.
The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:
“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.
“You need a screw up your ass.”
The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.
Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.
My expectations for The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s latest the posthumous novel are somewhat measured, but I’m excited to read it nonetheless. It’s new in English translation by Natasha Wimmer, who of course translated Bolaño’s other big novels, including 2666 and The Savage Detectives. My intuition is that The Spirit of Science Fiction will read like a dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives, much in the same way that Woes of the True Policeman (also translated by Wimmer) felt like a dry run for 2666. My guess is that Spirit will simply make me want to reread 2666.
While I was at the bookstore, I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of Joy Williams’ debut story collection Taking Care. I found it completely misshelved, or not really shelved at all, just sort of laying on a stack of unrelated books. I have a soft spot for these eighties Vintage Contemporaries editions, and after finishing Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise, I have a hankering for something in a similar vein.
On Friday night we watched the first Hunger Games film with our daughter, who had finished the book this week. The movie isn’t that great, as I argued when I saw it seven years ago in the theater, but she seemed to like it, although she said she would have “done a lot of things differently.” She asked me to pick up the second book for her when I got a chance, and Not at the library, I want to own it, etc. So I figured that I’d use that as an excuse to browse my favorite used bookstore, so conveniently located 1.1 miles away (I swear I didn’t move into this neighborhood because of its proximity).
I went for a walk, got bitten rather viciously by a medium-sized dog, cleaned and dressed the wound, and went to browse books.
There are over two million books in this bookstore, a lot of them not really organized. While I usual mull around general fiction, literary criticism, art and art history, sci-fi, fantasy, and a section called “literary fiction,” I like to mix it up by going into areas I don’t know as well. Strolling through stack after stack in the drama section, an outward-turned collection of plays by Robert Coover caught my eye. I’d never heard of A Theological Position, but the cover and a few minutes browsing the four plays collected here—including one called Rip Awake, about Rip Van Winkle, which especially interested me—sealed the deal. That was before I turned the book over and saw this magnificent author photo, where a young Coover looks a bit like Jacques Derrida, in lieu of a tired blurb—
A column over I spied a copy of Don DeLillo’s play The Day Room, 1986 joint I’d never heard of. The Penguin Plays edition with a black and white cover of a production recalled to me the four years of theater and drama I took in high school—we had plenty of these in the drama room, plays by Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, etc. I was like the only one interested in these; it took me until the end of my sophomore year to realize that most of the drama kids were interested in fucking musicals and not literary drama. I probably belonged with the art kids but whatever.
I went and picked up the second Hunger Games book, and then browsed sci-fi a bit, hoping to find some more by the Strugatsky brothers or David Ohle’s Motorman, but not that day, friends! I also wanted to get a copy of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—and there were several—but they were all in these ridiculously well-kempt respectable and utterly literary cover editions that I can’t get down with. I’m sure I’ll find something I can live with sometime this year, but in the meantime, turning a corner, I found a massmarket paperback copy of Robert Coover’s novel The Origin of the Brunists, a novel I’ve been meaning to read for almost twenty years now. So.