“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.
He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.
He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.
As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.
And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?
João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord is new in English translation (by Edgar Garbeletto) from Two Lines Press. I really enjoyed the last two I read by Noll, Atlantic Hotel and Quiet Creature on the Corner, so I’m looking forward to carving out time for Lord. In the meantime, Two Lines’ blurb:
As Lord begins, a Brazilian author is arriving at London’s Heathrow airport for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. Only aware that he has been invited to take part in a mysterious mission, the Brazilian starts to churn with anxiety. Torn between returning home and continuing boldly forward, he becomes absorbed by fears: What if the Englishman who invited him here proves malign? Maybe he won’t show up? Or maybe he’ll leave the Brazilian lost and adrift in London, with no money or place to stay? Ever more confused and enmeshed in a reality of his own making, the Brazilian wanders more and more through London’s immigrant Hackney neighborhood, losing his memory, adopting strange behaviors, experiencing surreal sexual encounters, and developing a powerful fear of ever seeing himself reflected in a mirror.
A novel about the unsettling space between identities, and a disturbing portrait of dementia from the inside out, Lord constructs an altogether original story out of the ways we search for new versions of ourselves. With jaw-dropping scenes and sensual, at times grotesque images, renowned Brazilian author João Gilberto Noll grants us stunning new visions of our own personalities and the profound transformations that overtake us throughout life.
—Taste changes, he went on in an irritating monotone. —Most forgeries last only a few generations, because they’re so carefully done in the taste of the period, a forged Rembrandt, for instance, confirms everything that that period sees in Rembrandt. Taste and style change, and the forgery is painfully obvious, dated, because the new period has discovered Rembrandt all over again, and of course discovered him to be quite different. That is the curse that any genuine article must endure.
Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.
From “Music for Church Organs.”
Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.
“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.
From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”
There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.
I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.
From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”
I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.
While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.
From “Stories About You.”
Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.
To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.
Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.
This afternoon, I started putting together a review of Biblioklept fave Paul Kirchner’s latest, Hieronymus & Bosch, and I realized that although I’d written a bit about it recently, I hadn’t put together one of these book acquired posts for it. So this is that post.
I really dig the book. It’s goofy and funny and has a lot of soul to it. Kirchner’s hapless hero Hieronymus seems like an extension—with difference—of the commuter, the hero of Kirchner’s bus strips. I hope to have a review up at The Comics Journal soon (where I reviewed Kirchner’s last collection, Awaiting the Collapse), but for now, here’s publisher Tanibis’s blurb:
Meet the medieval miscreant Hieronymus and his wooden duck Bosch. When Hieronymus commits yet another petty crime, things go badly wrong and both are catapulted into a cartoonish version of Hell. There, lakes are made of lava (or, more often, poop) and an army of mischievous spiky-tailed devils bully the inmates and play impish pranks. Despite many gag-filled attempts at escaping this literal hell, Hieronymus and Bosch always end up being the butt of their trident-wielding guards’ most humiliating and painful jokes.
This book puts together about a hundred one-pagers filled with hilariously surrealistic and scatological gags by American comic book artist Paul Kirchner. Kirchner drew his inspiration from the medieval depictions of Hell by Dante and Hieronymus Bosch (duh!) as well as from the zany, almost sadistic humor of Warner Bros. cartoons like the Road Runner Show. Some of the stories published in this book originally appeared on the Adult Swim website.
Hieronymus & Bosch also evokes Kirchner’s famous comic strip series the bus. However, the bus‘ main character always got out from the practical jokes played on him unharmed, even if a bit confused. Hieronymus & Bosch‘s two heroes get burnt by lava, stabbed with tridents, used as a Q-tip by Satan himself, or just covered in a torrent of poop gushing down from above. Yet they carry on, finding fun where they can and refusing to abandon all hope.
HECATE, the Grecian goddess of the infernal regions, presided over magic and enchantment, and may fairly be styled the goddess, queen, and patroness of Witches and sorcerers. She was acquainted with the properties of every herb, and imparted this knowledge to her daughters Medea and Circe. To this trio of classical Witches were specially consecrated the following herbs:—The Mandrake, the Deadly Nightshade, the Common Nightshade, the Wolfs-bane, the Pontic Azalea, the Cyclamen, the Cypress, Lavender, Hyssop-leaved Mint, the Poley or Mountain Germander, the Ethiopian Pepper, the Corn Feverfew, the Cardamom, the Musk Mallow, the Oriental Sesame, the rough Smilax, the Lion’s-foot Cudweed (a love philtre), and Maidenhair, a plant particularly dear to Pluto. Medea was specially cognisant of the qualities of the Meadow Saffron, Safflower, Dyer’s Alkanet, the clammy Plantain or Fleawort, the Chrysanthemum, and the brown-berried Juniper. All these plants are, therefore, persistently sought for by Witches, who have not only the power of understanding and appreciating the value of herbs, but know also how to render harmless and innocuous plants baleful and deadly. Thus we find that an Italian Witch, condemned in 1474, was shown to have sown a certain noxious powder amidst the herbage near her dwelling, and the unfortunate cows, stricken at first with the Evil Eye, were at length attacked with a lingering but deadly malady. So, again, in the ‘Tempest,’ Shakspeare tells us that in the magic rings traced on the grass by the dance of the Elves, the herbage is imbued with a bitterness which is noisome to cattle. These rings, which are often to be met with on the Sussex Downs, are there called Hag-tracks, because they are thought to be caused by hags and Witches who dance there at night.
It is recorded that, during the period of the Witch persecutions, whoever found himself unexpectedly under an Elder-tree was involuntarily seized with such horror, that he in all probability fell into an ecstatic or hysterical state. Although not one of the trees dedicated to Hecate and her Witch progeny, the Elder appears to have invariably possessed a certain weird attraction for mischievous Elves and Witches, who are fond of seeking the shelter of its pendent boughs, and are wont to bury their satanic offspring, with certain cabalistic ceremonies, beneath its roots.
These satanic children of Witches are elfish creatures, sometimes butterflies, sometimes bumble bees, sometimes caterpillars or worms. They are called good or bad things—Holds or Holdikens. The Witches injure cattle with them; conjure them into the stem of a tree; and, as we have seen, bury them under the Elder-bushes; then, as the caterpillars eat the foliage of the tree, the hearts of those people are troubled of whom the Witches think.
The ill-omened Cercis Siliquastrum, or Judas Tree, is reputed to be specially haunted by Witches, who experience a grim pleasure in assembling around the tree on which the traitorous disciple is said to have hung himself. Perhaps it is they who have spread the tradition that death overtakes anyone who is unfortunate enough to fall into one of these trees.
The Witches of the Tyrol are reputed to have a great partiality for Alder-trees.
Witches are fond of riding about through the air in the dead of night, and perform long journeys to attend their meetings. Matthison tells us that
I have to admit that I had never heard of the Czech artist Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) until a review copy of something called Dreamverse arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters a week or so ago. I was excited when I saw the package though—the book is from Twisted Spoon Press, and their books are always gorgeous and strange and fascinating. Dreamverseis no exception, collecting Štyrský’s paintings, collages, sketches, poems, essays, and prose in a baffling (and yet simultaneously accessible) compendium translated by Jed Slast. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb:
Published posthumously in 1970 as Dreams, Štyrský’s dream journal spanning the interwar years comprises prose, sketches, collages, and paintings. The present volume includes the complete series of texts and full-color and halftone images based on Štyrský’s layout for its publication in the 1940s, his sole volume of poetry (also published posthumously), as well as a selection of his most important essays, articles, manifestos, and assorted other texts. This edition presents in English for the first time the broad range of Štyrský’s contribution to the interwar avant-garde and Surrealism.
Dreamverse begins with an (overly academic) introduction by the Czech avant garde artist Karel Teige dated from 1948, which argues that the Štyrský is deeply underappreciated. Teige describes Štyrský’s gradual artistic shift into surrealism, an excursion Štyrský shared with his partner Toyen.
Teige writes like an art historian, fussily constructing a place for a displaced artist. Dreamverse really takes off when we get to Štyrský’s prose. Dreams (1925-1940) comprises about half of the book, and begins with this lucidly surreal self-description:
Work birthed in the wellsprings of hypnagogic mental models, via faithful representations of dream objects and authentic dream records.
Štyrský then offers a brief introduction in which he dedicates the work to “my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT.” This particular chimera is a Freudian’s fantasy: Štyrský begins by discussing his prepubescent infatuation with “the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair” which he sees in a cheap magazine. This image somehow transmogrifies into “the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood,” its hair a “cluster of vipers, erect, ready to penetrate the woman through her mouth, nose, and ears.” Štyrský then tells us that this “ghastly horror,” this “alluring horror” haunts his dreams, and he tries to “place the head” on his mother and sister. The head fits his sister: “So I was madly in love with her.” Štyrský then details his sister’s death in strange, alarmingly sensual language. (She died in 1905 when he was a young boy). His muse then, his chimera, foregrounds the dreamverse he creates: we get a mass media image reconverted into a mythological figure, then reconverted again, through creative imagination, into a sister, who is in turn transformed again into a mythic trope of some kind—a figure like Eurydice for Štyrský to play Orpheus to. Štyrský’s dreamverse is a writhing collage of contradictions. Hope and despair, sex and death, the beautiful and the lurid are all collapsed into surrealist expression.
Take, for example, Dream XXXI:
Štyrský’s dream—and its expression—excavates the sexuality suppressed just beneath the surface of our fairy tales. And while sexual abjection is typical in both Dreams (and in many of the poems collected in the Verse section of Dreamverse, sex is not always the dominant motif. Consider Dream VIII:
The vignette is a perfect slice of dread an horror, and the accompanying illustration—humorous and grotesque—is nightmare fuel.
I’ve been reading the Dreams somewhat slowly, a handful at a time, and then dipping deeper in the book, into the Verse, reading the Dreamverse as a sort of push-pull of image and word.
Štyrský’s writing is abject, evocative of a world that decays and regenerates at the same moment. A poem with the title “In the Swamps” of course stands out to me, a Florida boy always on the look out for abject images:
Štyrský’s imagery here is wonderful: The “fortune of blackcaps” pops out as an invented form of venery. Are the “blackcaps” actually little warblers—or just a surreal transformation of moorhens, the birds we would expect to find in the swamps? In either case, they are merely prey for “compassionate hunters,” susceptible to the arms of unseen brunettes and hunting dogs. The end of the poem is beautifully abject. The “horde of black swine” rumble in, neatly parallel to the “fortune of blackcaps” in the poems’s first line. These pigs slough through the swamp for “Sodden sacks of gold,” some kind of treasure there in the abject muck. Above it all is a speaker—a poet? Language hovers over the swamp.
Jed Slast deserves much praise for his translation, which seems tonally perfect and consistent over both the Dreams and the Verse sections. I’ll admit I haven’t gotten into any of the Writings at the end, which include lectures, essays, manifestos, and other fragments, but that gives me something to look forward to. So far though, Dreamverse has been an unexpected and strange joy, a dark and often perverse collection that plants its own dreamseeds in its reader.
In its sixth (and penultimate chapter), William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic includes a rare scene. Our heroine Elizabeth Booth exits the house she spends most of the book confined in and actually looks at it from the outside. With her is the house’s owner, the mysterious Mr. McCandless:
—I’ve never really looked at it.
—At what… looking where she was looking.
—At the house. From outside I mean.
Carpenter’s Gothic is a novel of utter interiority—the reader never makes it but a few feet out of the house, and only then on rare occasions. This postmodern Gothic novel tingles with a smothering claustrophobia, its insularity underscored by continual references to other spaces outside the house. The possibility of an outside world waiting for Elizabeth is realized through dialogue with her husband Paul, her brother Billy, and mysterious Mr. McCandless, as well as the non-stop (and, from the reader’s perspective, one-sided) telephone conversations that make up so much of the novel’s material. And yet with all its references to traveling away to California, Africa, New York City, Acapulco, etc., Carpenter’s Gothic keeps Elizabeth locked away in the old house, tethered to the umbilical phone cord at the novel’s center.
McCandless is off in his own interior space—the shifting tortured howl of his own consciousness—when Elizabeth remarks that she has never really seen the house from the outside. Her observation raises him “to the surface” of concrete reality:
—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork.
The house is built in the Carpenter Gothic style (sometimes called Rural Gothic style), which essentially amounts to an American imitation of European Gothic’s forceful elegance. McCandless continues:
That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull’s eyes underneath?
McCandless, stand-in for Gaddis, performs a metatextual interpretation for the reader. The Carpenter Gothic is Carpenter’s Gothic, the American postGothic reinterpreation of the European form—namely, the Gothic novel. The materials Gaddis uses to build his book are the materials of mass media and mass textuality. He condenses high literature, lurid newspaper clippings, mail, textbook pages, scraps of illegible notes, pornographic centerfolds, and every other manner of paper into a postGothic synthesis. And not just paper, but also the telephone (always ringing) and the radio (always on, always tuned to inhuman human voices). And the television too, tuned to Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943), a film which weaves its way in and out of Elizabeth’s consciousness in the beginning of the novel, planting seeds of romance and locked rooms and secrets and fire.
But I’ve cut off McCandless, who was just about to give us another neat description of the Carpenter Gothic, which is to say another neat description of Carpenter’s Gothic:
He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it’s stood here, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years…
Carpenter’s Gothic is more than just a hodgepodge or patchwork; it is more than a ridiculous effort; it is more than the sum of its foolish inventions. Gaddis gives us something new, a postmodern Gothic analysis of the end of the American century.
McCandless, Gaddis’s stand-in, wants to put all the pieces together. He echoes Jack Gibbs, the (anti-)hero (and fellow Gaddis stand-in) of J R, and he prefigures the narrator of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, who, like Gibbs, strives to stitch together something from the atomized scraps and remnants of the 20th century. Gaddis’s protagonists contend with entropy and attempt to get the detritus of the modern world “sorted and organized.” The push-pull of hope and despair drives these protagonists, but often drives them too far.
And McCandless’s reverie takes him too far, again into the interiority of his skull:
…breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It’s like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted, it’s the…
In a moment of self-speech, McCandless realizes that the Carpenter Gothic is “like the inside of [his] head,” underscoring his connection to his creator, Gaddis, as well as the connection between the house and the novel.
The (always) ringing phone punctures the scene:
—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it’s a hard house to hide in…
Elizabeth’s lines here emphasize Carpenter’s Gothic’s central Gothicism—the Carpenter Gothic and Carpenter’s Gothic is a hard place to hide in. Secrets will out.
And so well where does our hodgepodge of good intentions lead?
On 1 Oct. 2018 on this foolish blog I foolishly wrote about my foolish “good intent to blog about something—books, film, art—every day or nearly every day.” I added, ” I’m not sure how it will go,” although I was a little bit sure about how it would go, which was, not great. Like, I knew that I would stumble in writing every day this month, which I have. October has snuck up (or sneaked up) on me like a thief or a serpent or a hobbit or a pick-your-simile—I even somehow missed taking my kid to her dentist appointment yesterday, and will almost surely get a bill from them over that. October sneaked/snuck up on me, and here we are 16 of 31 days in, and I have only managed 10 of these posts (including this one), which is like, 10 of 16, or 62.5%. (10/16 is also today’s date though, so like, uh, so like nothing).
I have been reading, and the initial blog I wrote about even included some specific goals, along with this picture, which semi-summarized those goals:
From bottom to top—
I did, as I promised I would, return (and not steal) the Ravel book, Irony and Sound, which was frankly over my head.
I have not returned to Hoffman’s Poe book, but I haven’t shelved it.
I’ve been reading the Gordon Lish interviews. Like, the book is good—it’s sort of almost like a book of Lish stories. I blogged about it a bit even.
I’ve absolutely loved reading William Gaddis’s third novel Carpenter’s Gothic. It’s turned out to be a perfect Halloween novel, too. I’ll finish the last of its seven chapters tonight—I would’ve finished last night, but I got sidetracked by some lines that reminded me of Leslie Fiedler’s 1960 analysis of American literature, Love and Death in the American Novel. Gaddis’s book in many ways performs a similar analysis to Fiedler’s—they both trace the weight of American guilt. As if anticipating Gaddis’s postmodern postGothic Gothic novel, Fiedler writes, a quarter century before Carpenter’s Gothic’s publication,
…in the United States, certain special guilts awaited projection in the gothic form. A dream of innocence had sent Europeans across the ocean to build a new society immune to the compounded evil of the past from which no one else in Europe could ever feel himself free. But the slaughter of the Indians, who would not yield their lands to the carriers of utopia, and the abominations of the slave trade, in which the black man, rum, and money were inextricably entwined in a knot of guilt, provided new evidence that evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind—but stayed alive in the human heart, which had come the long way to America only to confront the horrifying image of itself.
(I have stalled out on writing a stupid “Blog about” blog post these past few days because I have been cobbling together notes on something about Fiedler and Gaddis. But, like, really—I need to finish Gaddis’s book first).
No dent in the Pirandello.
I’ll return to David Bunch’s Moderan after finishing Carpenter’s Gothic. Bunch’s work is, so far, a perfectly-pitched pitch black satire of toxic (like nuclearly-toxic) masculinity. Horror-as-comedy, weird and undelightful.
I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner pretty quickly in October, and enjoyed it. I’m glad I read Middlemarch first though. What Eliot next, reader?
So—what next? The picture at the top is the stack I’ve been stacking and unstacking and restacking. Gaddis and Fiedler feel like the thing I really want to write about—gender roles, Gothic promises, domesticity vs. adventure, the house vs. the frontier, the collapse of self into fragments of language, etc. I’m also loving Dreamverse, a collection of poems, art, and prose by Jindřich Štyrský’ that Twisted Spoon Press has put together. Its insides look like this, at least in one place—
I think the next novel I will read will be Angela Carter’s The Infernal Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
—but did you ever think? She was up on that elbow again, turned to him so his hand fell still on the white of the sheet, —about light years?
—I mean if you could get this tremendously powerful telescope? and then if you could get far enough away out on a star someplace, out on this distant star, and you could watch things on the earth that happened a long time ago really happening? Far enough away, he said, you could see history, Agincourt, Omdurman, Crécy… How far away were they she wanted to know, what were they, stars? constellations? Battles he told her, but she didn’t mean battles, she didn’t want to see battles, —I mean seeing yourself… Well as far as that goes he said, get a strong enough telescope you could see the back of your own head, you could —That’s not what I meant. You make fun of me don’t you.
—Certainly not, why would…
—I mean seeing what really happened back when…
—All right, set up a mirror on Alpha Centauri then, you’d sit right here with your telescope watching yourself four, about four and a half years ago is that what you…
—But I thought…
—Because I don’t want to see that! She pulled away, pulled up the sheet, staring up at the ceiling. —But you’d just see the outside though, wouldn’t you. You’d just see the mountain you’d see it go down and you’d see all the flames but you wouldn’t see inside, you wouldn’t see those faces again and the, and you wouldn’t hear it, a million miles away you wouldn’t hear the screams… What screams, he wanted to —No, no that one’s too close, find one further away… and he subsided, looking at the sheet clenched to her throat and the length of her gone under it, recommending Sirius, setting up business on the Dog Star, the brightest of them all, watching what happened eight and a half? nine years ago? —I told you what happened… the sheet clenched firm, —I told you last night no, twenty, twenty five years away when it was all still, when things were still like you thought they were going to be?
From the beginning of the fifth chapter of William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic. I’d never heard of this thought experiment until now.
I went to the book store this afternoon to pick up a copy of the latest graphic novel in by Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series for my kids, and of course I browsed a while. Looking for a copy of Anne Carson’s Plainwater, I ended up finding Angela Carter’s 1972 novel Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. It’s a British edition, 1985, Penguin, with a lovely Boschian cover by James Marsh. Here’s a detail from the cover:
I’ve wanted to pick up Carter’s novel since I read about it on a silly good dystopian fiction list last year, and I’m thrilled that I was able to get one with a Marsh cover. This particular cover, along with Marsh’s cover for The Bloody Chamber, are included in Phil Baines lovely book Penguin by Design.
Baines’s book doesn’t include any of Marsh’s fantastic covers of J.G. Ballard novels, opting instead to include Dave Pelham’s versions. I love both Pelham and Marsh’s Ballard covers, and would love to get my mitts on one at some point. I always browse for old mass market paperbacks of sci-fi authors I like — Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, the Strugatsky Brothers, J.G. Ballard — hoping to find an interesting cover, something inventive and fun, something from before their works were, under the cloak of awful respectability, given safe, boring literary covers. I didn’t find any Ballard editions with Marsh or Pelham covers, but I did come across this lovely pair of mass market paperback:
They’re US Vintage versions, 1985, with covers by Chris Moore. There’s like a proto-Cherry 2000 thing going on here that I kinda love, but I already own these novels, and I don’t love the covers quite enough. So instead, this post. Here are the covers of my copies of Crash and Concrete Island:
While Henry Sene Yee’s cover design for my copy of Concrete Island (using a photograph by Kevin Laubacher) isn’t terrible, it is a good example of what I mean by boring respectable literary covers. Still, this trade edition (Picador, 2001) is really readable—I mean, it’s easy to read. The pages are nice, the typeset is great, etc. (And the book is killer). I actually like the cover of my copy of Crash, a lot (design by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden), but it’s also trying just a little too hard. (Again—very readable version from FS&G’s Noonday Press imprint, 1994).
While I had to pass today on the mass market copies of Crash and Concrete Island today—not because they would have set me back five bucks in store credit, but because I don’t need them, because I hope some kid goes in there and picks them up—while I had to pass on those lurid beauties, I did pick up a mass market 1967 copy of The Crystal World. Publisher Berkley Medallion didn’t bother to name the cover designer/artist, and I haven’t been able to track it down, but it is, I admit, a bit disappointing—an early pulp bid for literary respectability. At least I can be on the look out for a weirder one in the future.
The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.
A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:
He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…
The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.
Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:
She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.
What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.
Here is the next paragraph:
Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.
The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.
Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:
The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!
Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.
Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.
The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”
So, in the work I’ve tried to do, in J R, especially the awful lot of description and narrative interference, as I see it now, in The Recognitions, where I am awfully pleased with information that I have come across and would like to share it with you-so I go on for two pages about, oh, I don’t know, the medieval Church,… the forgery, painting, theories of forgery and so forth, and descriptions, literally, of houses or landscapes. And when I got started on the second novel, which was J R, 726 pages, almost entirely my intention was to get the author out of there, to oblige the characters to create themselves and each other and their story, and all of it in dialogue.
An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990.
In any case, reading J R has taught me how to read Carpenter’s Gothic, which is told in the same style. Carpenter’s Gothic is a smaller novel though, both literally (around 250 pages) and figuratively. While J R sports a large cast, sprawling and interlinked plots, divergent tones, and a wide array of themes, Carpenter’s Gothic is restrained to a few talking characters, whom Gaddis keeps confined to an isolated house somewhere in New England. (It is from this house’s architectural design that the novel gets its title).
The central character is Elizabeth Booth, 33, an heiress locked out of her inheritance. Elizabeth is married to an awful abusive man named Paul, a racist Vietnam Veteran who embodies almost every characteristic of what we now think of as toxic masculinity. Elizabeth is recovering from an as-yet-unspecified accident, and spends most of her time confined to her rented house, fielding phone calls. Some of these phone calls are from folks related to her husband’s latest scheme with a televangelist. Other calls are from her friend Edith who has run off to sunny Jamaica—a prospect of escape that entices Elizabeth. Even more calls come for the mysterious owner of the house, McCandless, who eventually shows up in the third chapter.
McCandless’s visit sparks something in Elizabeth. She gets to glance into his locked study, crammed with papers and books and even a piano, and she takes him for a writer, but he claims he’s a geologist. His short visit inspires Elizabeth to dig up the draft of a book, or something like a book, she’s been working on, and add a few notes. The romantic impulse is eventually punctured by her husband’s return.
Carpenter’s Gothic’s relentless interiority and inherent bitterness can give the novel a claustrophobic feeling, and reading it often reminds me of the scenes in J R that are set in the ramshackle 96th Street apartment shared by Bast and Gibbs. And yet its interiority always branches outward, evoking an exotic and pulsating world that Elizabeth might love to experience. There’s Montego Bay, there’s Orson Welles in Jane Eyre, there’s the nomadic Masai of central east Africa. Etc. But Elizabeth’s experiences are mediated by newspapers, magazine articles, phone calls, and old movies on television. It’s quite sad and frustrating.
So many 19th and 20th century American writers seemed unsure of what to do with their heroines, even after they had freed them (Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier is a particularly easy go-to example, but again: there are more). Carpenter’s Gothic seems set on a tragic track, but Gaddis has a way of making his readers recognize the farcical contours in tragedy.
I haven’t given a taste of Gaddis’s prose yet. I will share, as a closing, the novel’s opening two-sentence paragraph, which I think is simply marvelous, and which I had to read at least three times before I could turn to the novel’s second page. Here it is:
The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she’d found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she’d taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of the boys out there wiping mud from his cheeks where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they’d end up that time of day.