Three Books

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Negrophobia by Darius James. Cover design by Katy Homans, employing All Cats Are Black in the Dark by Natasha Xavier. Trade paperback, NYRB, 2019.

Darius James’s Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence. I loved it and am too much of a coward to attempt a real review.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Cover photograph by W. Eugene Smith; designer uncredited. Penguin Classics US trade paperback, 2006.

Jackson’s spooky 1959 novel has some of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve read in recent years. Hills’ final section answers to its weird opening, dramatizing fraught consciousness in turmoil, disintegrating in a ping-pong free indirect style that leaves the reader stunned, puzzled, and wishing for an extra chapter against his better judgment.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.

I picked up Döblin’s 1929 Berlin Alexanderplatz on a whim a while ago at a bookstore and picked it up off the shelf today on a different whim and laughed in sympathy through the first two chapters. It’s a long book but I think I’ll keep going.

 

 

Faulkner/Gass (Two Williams acquired, 4 Oct. 2019)

 

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Friday is a day in which I have a few rare spare hours to myself after lunch, and I often like to browse my beloved labyrinthine used bookstore in one of those hours. Last week, I managed to leave without picking anything up, but today I couldn’t resist these two Williams.

Wiliam H. Gass’s last collection of fiction Eyes jumped out at me. I struggled with his bigass opus The Tunnel last year, hardly making a dent, but I loved Middle C as well as the novellas in Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellasso maybe Eyes will be more manageable.

I wasn’t actually browsing the Faulkner section, simply walking past it, but the orange spine of a 1960 Penguin edition of Go Down, Moses jumped out at me. I’m a sucker for these Penguin editions, and Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner (I haven’t read everything Faulkner wrote but I doubt he wrote anything as great as “The Bear”). This edition makes a nice partner with the copy of Intruder in the Dust I picked up a few years ago, too. img_4014

Intruder is a really underrated Faulkner novel in my estimation, and Clarence Brown’s 1949 film adaptation is pretty strong as well.

I was attracted to another orange book, an English-language Japanese publication of Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry, but I had to pass on it—the print was tiny and my forty-year-old eyes aren’t as strong as they used to be. The cover is gorgeous though:

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Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake (Book acquired 27 Sept. 2019)

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Carl Shuker’s fourth novel A Mistake is new from Counterpress. Their blurb–

Elizabeth is a gifted surgeon—the only female consultant at her hospital. But while she operates on a young woman with life-threatening blood poisoning, something goes horribly wrong. In the midst of a new scheme to publicly report surgeons’ performance, her colleagues begin to close ranks, and Elizabeth’s life is thrown into disarray. Tough and abrasive, Elizabeth has survived and succeeded in this most demanding, palpably sexist field. But can she survive a single mistake?

A Mistake is a page-turning procedural thriller about powerful women working in challenging spheres. The novel examines how a survivor who has successfully navigated years of a culture of casual sexism and machismo finds herself suddenly in the fight of her life. When a mistake is life-threatening, who should ultimately be held responsible?

Carl Shuker has produced some of the finest writing on the physicality of medical intervention, where life-changing surgery is detailed moment by moment in a building emergency. A Mistake daringly illustrates the startling mix of the coolly intellectual and deeply personal inherent in the life and work of a surgeon.

Three Books

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I haven’t read every Italo Calvino novel, but of the ones I’ve read, If on A Winter’s Night a TravelerInvisible Cities, and The Baron in the Trees are my favorites. I have a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich three-volume in slipcase edition designed by Louise Fili. The illustration on the slipcase is uncredited.

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Fili’s design for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler features Giorgio de Chirico’s 1915 painting Autumnal Melancholy. English translation by William Weaver.

This was the second Calvino novel I read. I was in my early twenties, still very much enamored of John Barth and David Foster Wallace, and Traveler’s formal postmodernism did something electric to me.

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Fili’s cover features a woodcut of a seventeenth-century drawing screen. English translation by William Weaver.

Invisible Cities was the first Calvino novel I read. I read it in 2002 when I was 22, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A friend who met me in Bangkok had brought it with him in his backpack. I couldn’t find more Calvino in Chiang Mai, but I did manage a copy of Pynchon’s V. 

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Fili’s design for The Baron in the Trees features a detail from on of Pablo Picasso’s drawings for La Guerre et la paix. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

Baron is probably my favorite Calvino novel, which is maybe strange because it’s not a very Calvinoesque (Calvinoish?) novel—it’s funny, absurd, and witty, true, but it’s not formally postmodern. It reads very much like a picaresque novel, jaunty and romantic, with an intriguing lead in the rebellious and charismatic hero Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo. Writing this makes me want to read it again.

 

Miss Auras, The Red Book — John Lavery

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Miss Auras, The Red Book, c. 1892 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

The Green Hammock — John Lavery

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The Green Hammock, c. 1905 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Ecstasy and Terror (Book acquired, some time last week)

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I got a review copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection Ecstasy and Terror some time early last week. I’ve read a few of the pieces in here before (“A Critic’s Manifesto” is one that I recalled in particular). Ecstasy and Terror is out in October from NYRB. Their blurb:

This collection of essays exemplifies the range, depth, and erudition that have made Daniel Mendelsohn “required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture” (The Daily Beast). Here Mendelsohn once again casts an eye at literature, film, television, and the personal essay, filtering his insights through his training as a scholar of classical antiquity in surprising and illuminating ways.

Many of these essays examine how we continue to look to the Greeks and Romans as models: some argue for the surprising modernity of canonical works (Bacchae, the Aeneid), while others detect a “Greek DNA” in our responses to the Boston Marathon bombings and the assassination of JFK. Modern topics are treated, too, from the “aesthetics of victimhood” in Hanya Yanagihara’sA Little Life to the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and from Game of Thrones to recent films about artificial intelligence—a subject, Mendelsohn reminds us, that was already of interest to Homer.

The collection also brings together for the first time a number of Mendelsohn’s personal essays, including his “critic’s manifesto” and a touching memoir of his boyhood correspondence with the historical novelist Mary Renault.

Blog about some recent reading, some books acquired, Hurricane Dorian, etc.

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I am on my second or maybe third dark and stormy and I have cleaned the house twice from top to bottom two days in a row now and I am ready for my kids to go back to school, which was cancelled through Thursday for Hurricane Dorian. My own school, by which I mean my employer, cancelled classes throughout the week, but I’ve been emailing students and trying to maintain some kind of continuity after this weird disruption. We have power here in NE Florida and all seems well. This ride has been a lot easier than Irma.

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I finished Charles Portis’s famous novel True Grit this afternoon and I must confess it might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by the maestro. I shed a little tear for Little Blackie at the end, and also maybe for Rooster Cogburn. My thought is that I wish I’d read the book years ago, before I’d seen the two film adaptations, both of which are, like, fine, but neither of which capture the pure voice of Mattie Ross. Great stuff. I need to read Gringos next, but maybe I’ll wait a bit.

I have been switching between True Grit and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s nuns-in-the-English-fens-in-the-age-of-the-Black-Death The Corner That Held Them and I love both—both are funny, dry (and wet when they need to be). The Corner That Held Them packs in so much storytelling; pages go on for decades with a sprightly and imaginative and droll clip. I’ve been enjoying it so much I went up to my favorite used bookstore, big box of old books in tow, to find more. I picked up Lolly Willowes, which I understand is excellent, and which I will get to posthaste.

I had burned up most of my credit at this particular bookstore, but the box I done brung afforded me enough trade to not only pick up Lolly Willowes but also a first-edition hardback of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

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I also got copies of Antoine Volodine’s Writers and Bardo or Not Bardo in the in the mail this week. I don’t rightly recall buying them online, but I know that after finishing In the Time of the Blue Ball by Volodine’s pseudo-pseudonym Manuela Draeger, I went through my Volodines for references to Draeger. I found references in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, but couldn’t find my copy of Writers and then remembered that I gave it to a friend who seemed to promptly move a hundred miles away afterward. (He said he thought it was good.) Anyway: Bardo soon or not soon.

I read Keiler Roberts’ graphic memoir Rat Time yesterday and loved it so much I wrote about it immediately.

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The hurricane is not so bad for us.

Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool — John Lavery

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Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool, 1887 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby | An excerpt from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel The Corner That Held Them

In 1194 a wandering scholar, very old and shrill, came begging for a meal. As he sat munching his bread and a salt herring he talked to the wicket-nun about the properties of numbers, and of how Abbot Joachim, analysing the arithmetic of the prophecies, had discovered that the end of the world was at hand. He himself expected much of the year 1221, a date whose two halves each added up to three. In such a year, he said, one might look for the reign of Antichrist to be fulfilled, or else it might betoken the coming of the kingdom of the Holy Ghost, as the number six expressed a completion of two-thirds of the Trinity. Something, at any rate, he said, might be expected. Under his arm he carried a monochord. To make himself clearer to the nuns (for several of them had gathered to pity the old man, so wise and so witless), he explained to them about the Proportion of Diapason, the perfect concord which is at once concord and unity, and showed them how, by placing the bridge of the monochord so as to divide the string into a ratio of one and two, the string will sound the interval of the octave. Thus, he mumbled, was the nature of the Godhead perceptible to Pythagoras, a heathen; for it lies latent in all things. He sat on a bench in the sun, but overhead the wind howled, tormenting the willows along the Hog Trail and clawing the thatch, and the nuns could scarcely hear his demonstration of how the Godhead sounded to Pythagoras. It was really no loss, for his hand, shaking with cold and palsy, had failed to place the bridge correctly, and the diapason of the Trinity was out of tune. Then, brushing the crumbs out of his beard and plucking a sprig of young wormwood to stick behind his ear, he sang a lovesong to entertain the ladies and went on his way toward Lintoft. The lovesong had a pretty, catchy tune: for some days every nun and novice was humming it. Then Dame Cecilia began to have fits and to prophesy. This infuriated Richenda de Foley, to whom any talk of the end of the world after she had worked so hard and successfully to put the convent on a good footing for the next century seemed rank ingratitude. But the itch is not more contagious than illuminations, and throughout that summer Oby resounded with excited voices describing flaming bulls, he-goats of enormous size floating above the lectern, apparitions of the founder and shooting pains. In a fury of slighted good intentions and outraged common sense Richenda de Foley packed up and went away, but as she was generous as well as authoritarian she left a great deal of household stuff and provisions behind her. The community, after one universal gasp at finding itself unclasped from that strong and all-arranging hand, settled down to enjoy an unregulated prosperity and comfort; and prosperity and comfort wielding their usual effect, the spirit of prophecy flickered out, and by the close of the year they were looking for nothing more remarkable than improvements to the fish-pond.

In 1208 came the Interdict.

In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary.

In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale. It was decided that the masons who came to build the new should also build on a proper chapter-house. When it was half-built a spring rose under it. Rather than throw money away, the head mason suggested, why not finish the new building as a dovecot, a wet floor being no inconvenience to doves, and convert the old dovecot, so solid and weatherproof, into a chapter-house? This suggestion, too hastily accepted, led to discomfort all round. The pigeons refused to settle in their new house. Some flew away for good, the others remained in the lower half of the old dovecot, whose upper storey, remodelled with large windows and stone benches, made a very unpersuasive place of assembly. However, the arrangement was allowed as a temporary expedient, and as such it became permanent.

In 1270 there were disastrous floods, and this happened again seven years later. In 1283 hornets built in the brewhouse roof and the cellaress was stung in the lip and died. In 1297 the convent’s bailiff was taken in the act of carnality with a cow. Both he and the cow were duly executed for the crime, but this was not enough to avert the wrath of heaven. That autumn and for three autumns following there was a murrain among the cattle. After the murrain came a famine, and the bondwomen of the manor broke through the reed-fence into the orchard where the nuns were at recreation and mobbed them, snatching at their wimples and jeering at such plump white breasts and idle teats. For this a fine was laid on the hamlet, and the last remnants of the pax Richenda broke down. Tithes and dues were paid grudgingly or not at all, and going along the cloisters to sing the night office the nuns would strain their ears for the footsteps of marauders or the crackle of a fired thatch.

In 1332 a nun broke her vows and left the convent for a lover. Misfortunes always go in threes, was the comment of the prioress: they might expect two more to play the same game. But after a second apostasy there was a painful Visitation by the bishop, when the prioress was deposed and Dame Emily, the novice-mistress, a better disciplinarian, nominated to be her successor. Unfortunately Dame Emily was unpopular, being both arrogant and censorious. Dreading the rule of such a prioress, the nuns refused to elect her and chose instead, out of bravado, Dame Isabella Sutthery, the youngest and silliest nun among them. The young and silly can become great tyrants. Dame Isabella proved fanatically harsh and suspicious, scourging the old nuns till they fainted for anguish and inventing such unforeseeable misdemeanours that no one could steer clear of offending. The convent waited, languishing, for the next Visitation, when each nun in her private interview with the bishop could make her report. But though the bishop came and heard, he was still nursing his wrath about their rejection of Dame Emily whom he had nominated, and though Dame Emily herself was the greatest sufferer under Prioress Isabella he answered every plea for a fresh election by saying that the convent having chosen must abide by its choice. It was not till 1345, when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone, that peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars.

In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.

From the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them, newly reissued by NYRB.

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The Ledger — F. Scott Hess

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The Ledger, 2009 by F. Scott Hess (b. 1955)

Blog about some recent reading

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Let’s start with the meat in the middle: Charles Portis. Why hadn’t I read Charles Portis until 2019? Maybe I initially dismissed the idea after first seeing True Grit (1969) with John Wayne. I know I was a bit more interested after seeing True Grit (2010), but I still didn’t quite realize that Portis is like Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah, picaresque and hilarious, a scion of the dirty south. I picked up his first novel Norwood at a tiny wonderful little bookstore in Portland Oregon this summer, prompted by its being in a Vintage Contemporaries edition more than anything else. I loved its energy and humor, and picked up copies of The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis, and promptly read them. (I couldn’t find a decent looking copy of True Grit and ended up ordering one on AbeBooks for four bucks.) I’ve heard Masters of Atlantis referred to as the masterpiece, and I thought it was very funny and even Pynchonesque (and also really relevant in its evocation of con artists and scammery), but Dog of the South was the most affecting of the three novels. A kind of bizarre road trip novel, Dog is told in first person narration by an asshole loser who, like most asshole losers, doesn’t realize that he’s an asshole loser. By the end of the novel he won me over though, and even grew as a person (I hate that I wrote that sentence). Dog’s shagginess is a small virtue; Master’s shagginess is unexpectedly grand. Norwood seems like a trial run at both, but also wonderful and grotesque. I read the first part of True Grit yesterday and loved the voice. I need to do a proper Thing on Portis, but for now, color me a Portishead.

I read Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel Tears of the Trufflepig last month, which I picked up after reading J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The concept of the book—a very-near future where drugs are legal and cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” (genetically-altered) animals is fascinating—but the prose and structure left something to be desired. Trufflepig suffered perhaps from its proximity to my reading Anna Kavan’s Ice and Portis’s Norwood.

I read the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 historical novel The Corner That Held Them today. Amazing stuff: Ironic, mordant, energetic, and surprising. Set primarily in a spare humble corner of 14th century England, Corner starts with a cuckold murdering his wife’s lover, “sparing” her, and then founding a nunnery in her honor when she dies. Warner’s prose shuttles her nuns into the Black Death plague with bathos and wit. Really loved what I read.

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger this weekend and loved it too. There are three tales in the collection, translated by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson. Draeger is one of Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but also one of his characters—a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The stories are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

I continue nibbling at Chris Ware’s forthcoming opus Rusty Brown. “Nibbling” is not the right verb—look, I’m gobbling this thing up. It’s astounding: funny, painful, gorgeous, maybe the best thing he’s done to date.

Kilian Eng’s Object 10 simply happens to be at the bottom of the pile. It too is gorgeous.

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The Chess Players — John Lavery

The Chess Players 1929 by Sir John Lavery 1856-1941

The Chess Players, 1929 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

Blog about Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (Book acquired, 7 Aug 2019)

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I finally dug into Chris Ware’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rusty Brown yesterday. A finished review copy arrived on August 7th, 2019, the day that David Berman died.

I had spent some time simply looking at the book’s exquisite book jacket, which unfolds into a kind of two-sided poster thing, complete with notes and suggestions how the reader might personalize the jacket by folding it in different ways. The spine section of the jacket is also quite amusing—a sort of TV Guide goof that stages Rusty Brown as a television special (in four parts, including comedy, western, sci-fi, and drama). There’s also a crossword puzzle, a maze, and other minutiae. If you’ve read Ware, you’ll know that his work is often crammed with little details like this. Here are two pictures that fail to capture how gorgeous this thing is:

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Here’s the inside cover, too:

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So well and anyway. I tooled around with the cover for a half hour or so on that Wednesday then started in on making dinner, the making of which was interrupted by a text from a friend telling me about Berman’s suicide.

If you’ve read Chris Ware—maybe you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Building Stories, both of which are exceptional—hell, Building Stories is like the invention of a new genre of reading itself—if you’ve read Chris Ware you likely know that his work can be really fucking sad.

I have not wanted to read anything really fucking sad for the past few days.

(I’ve been rereading Berman’s collection Actual Air and reading Charles Portis’s comic picaresque The Dog of the South.)

On Sunday afternoon I decided to dig in. I met the cast of Rusty Brown:

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–and picked up the setting:

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The introduction of Rusty Brown runs over a 100 pages and intertwines several of the characters’ perspectives. If there’s a lead though, it’s Woody Brown, a miserable son of a bitch who hates his life (wife, kid, teaching job) and daydreams about running away or even killing himself.

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Woody’s poor son, the titular Rusty, daydreams as well, fantasizing that he’s gained superpowers (well, a superpower—incredible hearing) and fixating on his Supergirl action figure, who enters his bored mind when he’s at school. School is bad for Rusty, too; he’s bullied terribly. Ware depicts these scenes with honesty and pathos, but also humor. Consider this little cut scene:

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The comic timing frequently leavens the first part of Rusty Brown. The thought bubble here cracked me up:

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We also meet Alison and Chalky White, a brother and sister who are starting their first day at a new school. They’ve moved in with their grandmother; they’re new to Nebraska, and they’re miserable. Ware runs their story concurrently with the Browns’ story, and the two occasionally sync up in wonderful little plays on perspective.

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Ware also inserts a version of himself into the story. Mr. Ware is the art teacher at Rusty’s school. Ware’s depiction of Mr. Ware is a kind of mean self-parody, but also very funny and even warm at times.

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Mr. Ware has been working on a series of Pop Art paintings that he hopes will achieve “an intuitive transcendence of culture and corpus.”

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Ware has been working on Rusty Brown for over a decade and a half now (you might’ve read bits of it here and there over the years), and the depth of storytelling here shows. Full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s publisher Pantheon’s blurb:

Rusty Brown is a fully interactive, full-color articulation of the time-space interrelationships of three complete consciousnesses in the first half of a single midwestern American day and the tiny piece of human grit about which they involuntarily orbit. A sprawling, special snowflake accumulation of the biggest themes and the smallest moments of life, Rusty Brown literately and literally aims at nothing less than the coalescence of one half of all of existence into a single museum-quality picture story, expertly arranged to present the most convincingly ineffable and empathetic illusion of experience for both life-curious readers and traditional fans of standard reality. From childhood to old age, no frozen plotline is left unthawed in the entangled stories of a child who awakens without superpowers, a teen who matures into a paternal despot, a father who stores his emotional regrets on the surface of Mars and a late-middle-aged woman who seeks the love of only one other person on planet Earth.

 

 

The moral here is wonderfully fine | Melville annotates Hawthorne

Herman Melville’s markings and annotations on the last page of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birth-mark.” From Melville’s Marginalia Online.

The problems of Bartleby

What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?

This question seems like a bad starting place.

Let me share an anecdote instead.

—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”

At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).

Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.

So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.

I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:

“I would prefer not to.”

—While we’re here—

“I would prefer not to”

So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?

Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.

But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”

Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:

At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.

I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.

“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.

These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.

We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.

We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.

And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.

Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.

Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).

—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:

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I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.

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Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).

I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:

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So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?

—Slight shift:

The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.

I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?

First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”

The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.

Now, to shift back (perhaps):

Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?

Should they?

—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.

The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”

Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?

Should it?

—Well. No. And then no.

I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?

“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.

—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).

And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellowthe idea of a fellowa ghost.

So, look, here’s a take on it:

The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.

Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).

And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.

Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint.  But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.

Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s  “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.

And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).

So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).

Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.

And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.

Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.

Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.

Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.

Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.

So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.

— And the epilogue:

We all recall the epilogue, yes?

Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.

Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.

We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

?

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally posted this riff in November of 2012. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday.]