More Bolaño: A review of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction

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Roberto Bolaño died at the young age of 50 in 2003, just as his work was beginning to gain a wider audience and broader critical acclaim. It wasn’t until after his death that his work was published in English. Just a few months after Bolaño died, New Directions published By Night in Chile in translation by Chris Andrews. A year later, they published Andrews’ translation of Distant Star, and completed the loose trilogy of these short novels with the publication of Amulet in early 2007. A few months after the publication of Amulet, FS&G published Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives, which had been originally published in Spain a decade earlier. By the time Wimmer’s translation of 2666 hit the shelves in 2008, Bolaño had become a literary sensation in the U.S., only half a decade after his death.

2666 is arguably Bolaño’s masterpiece, and certainly one of the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. I read the book in a fevered rush, and then read it again, and then again. As far as I can tell, there are more essays and reviews about 2666 on Biblioklept than any other book. It was the second book I read by Bolaño—admittedly, a first reading of The Savage Detectives left me a perplexed and cold, but I’ve since returned to that novel with a broader understanding and appreciation of Bolaño’s project, a project that seemed to expand yearly after Bolaño’s demise.

Indeed, it became something of a joke in literary circles, What, another Bolaño? He drops books from beyond the grave like Tupac drops albums! There are the short story collections (translated by Andrews) that trickled out between 2007 and 2012, along with harder to classify collections, like The Secret of Evil (Andrews, 2012) and Nazi Literature in the Americas (Andrews, 2008), a jangling set of keys to the Bolañoverse. Another set of keys came in the wonderful collection The Unknown University, a compendium of Bolaño’s poetry in translation by Laura Healy published by New Directions in 2013.

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Then there are the novels that seemed to arrive every year or so: The Skating Rink (Andrews, 2009), Monsieur Pain (Andrews, 2010), Antwerp (Wimmer, 2010), The Third Reich (Wimmer, 2011), A Little Lumpen Novelita (Wimmer, 2014). Bolaño composed these pieces primarily in the 1980s, when he still thought of himself as a poet. These novels lack the vitality and vibrancy of his later work—the short story collections, the trilogy of short novels that began with Distant Star, and his big books, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?

The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.

Jan and Remo’s questing in Spirit isn’t quite as grand. Remo wants to figure out why there are so many literary magazines in Mexico City; Jan spends his days writing to American science fiction writers. They manage to get mixed up with a set of sisters and their friend—poets of course. (Everyone in the novel is a poet, even—especially—a skinny motorcycle mechanic). The sisters prefigure the Font sisters of The Savage Detectives, and much of their plot feels like a sketch for that richer work.

Their friend Laura is a more interesting figure—a bit sinister, a cipher really, an iteration of the Lisas and Lupes that we find elsewhere in Bolaño’s fiction—in particular in some of the poetry collected in The Unknown Univeristy. Indeed, the final section of The Spirit of Science Fiction, “Mexican Manifesto,” was originally published in a different form in that collection. Some of the best parts of Spirit feel like failed poems, poems that want to be prose, unpoetical, mad, howling, jolly poems. Like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, the plot of Spirit careens, splinters, dares the reader to put the fragments together.

There is structure though: The main of the novel is told in first-person perspective by Remo. He’s seventeen, and has come from Chile to Mexico City with his friend Jan to live destitute in a garret and write bad articles under a pseudonym while he pursues his poetry. He gets sidetrack by love and other matters.

Running counter to this narrative are the letters that Jan writes to American sci-fi authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Sheldon. In a metatextual nod, Jan (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) also writes to Sheldon’s alias James Tiptree, Jr. Jan’s letters are a highlight of the novel, setting youthful arrogance and romantic idealism against a kind of quasi-tragic pathos. In a letter to Philip José Farmer, Jan (alias Roberto) suggests that a literary sci-fi anthology called American Orgasms in Space be published as a means to end war and cultivate brotherhood between Latin Americans and North Americans. The punchline to the letter is hilarious. Before signing off (“Warmly”), Jan informs the author of the Riverworld series that, “A week ago, I lost my virginity.”

A third strand runs throughout Spirit. In a series of segments set in some presumable future, a female journalist interviews Jan in the middle of a bizarre drunken party somewhere in the dark woods. Jan has won a prize for a sci-fi novel that he summarizes for the journalist who listens, downing vodka after vodka. Jan’s prize-winning sci-fi novel meshes elements that will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers—apocalyptic desolation, failed communication, esoteric histories of Latin America, mystery authors. Etc. It’s even partially set in the Unknown University. The interview segments seem perched on the edge of their own sinister apocalypse, a typically-Bolañoesque move, as if a seemingly-normal situation might topple over into malevolence at any moment. Unfortunately though, these sections seem to have been abandoned.

Indeed, much of Spirit reads like a patchwork of abandoned drafts, riddled with material and ideas that will pop up in later novels—the tabletop gaming of The Third Reich, the fascination of Nazi iconography we see in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the reckoning of post-colonialism which belongs to The Savage Detectives in particular, as well as the Bolañoverse as a whole. Too, Spirit shares the ominous swells and sinister reverberations that we identify with both Bolaño’s prose and poetry—the book shows the joyful optimism of youth poised on the cusp of unnameable disaster.

And there are plenty of great sections in The Spirit of Science Fiction: Jan desribing the entirety of a Gene Wolfe space novella to his friend, but mashing it into a vision of the screenwriter Thea von Harbou and her Nazi sympathies; the story of a Belgian-occupied village in the Congo that falls into a madness of woodworking, a madness that leads to general slaughter; a nervous late-night ride on a stolen motorcycle named the Aztec Princess; “the story of how Georges Perec, as a boy, prevented a duel to the death between Isidore Isou and Altagor in an old neighborhood in Paris”; a grotesque and enthralling final sequence in a semi-legal Mexico City bathhouse that channels the dark ghost of William S. Burroughs.

In short, there’s a lot of great writing in The Spirit of Science Fiction—plenty of moments that satisfy, if only temporarily, our cravings for more Bolaño. And yet the novel is clearly unfinished, which, if you’ve read Bolaño—and I’m assuming if you’ve hung out this far into this review, you’ve read Bolaño, and like, if you haven’t read Bolaño, I think he’s great, and a great starting point for reading him would be Distant Star or the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and, where was I? Okay: The Spirit of Science Fiction is clearly an unfinished piece, which, if you’ve read Bolaño, may seem like a Bolañoesque feature—his works point to an indeterminancy, an oblique, inconclusive, resolutely unfinishedness. (Think of the final lines/images of The Savage Detectives, for example).

And yet Spirit’s unfinishedness is not of a piece with the general aporia that belongs to Bolaño’s finished unfinished works—it seems, rather, an abandoned project, a draft to be repurposed later. Which, of course, it was—we already got the material that Spirit helped inspirit—in The Savage Detectives, in Nazi Literature, in 2666—in Bolaño’s best materials.

Paradoxically then, The Spirit of Science Fiction leaves the reader—by which I mean the Bolaño fan—by which I mean, let’s be honest, this Bolaño fan—Spirit leaves this reader hungry for more, for the pages to gallop on and on, to careen into more dread and manic joy and bad poetry and good poetry and pilfered stories and excessive metaphors. More: More Bolaño.

And then how could this review be a complaint? Well it isn’t. I enjoyed The Spirit of Science Fiction, was hungry for it before I even touched it, and then left hungry, wanting more: More Bolaño.

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American Orgasms in Space | Warmly, Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño

Dear Philip José Farmer:

Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days, heaven knows. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question: what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter.) This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s-land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example: legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Díaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our backup plan, and we’ll keep it in under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.

Warmly,

Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño

From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

Roberto Bolaño/Joy Williams (Books acquired, 8 Feb. 2019)

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My expectations for The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s latest the posthumous novel are somewhat measured, but I’m excited to read it nonetheless. It’s new in English translation by Natasha Wimmer, who of course translated Bolaño’s other big novels, including 2666 and The Savage Detectives. My intuition is that The Spirit of Science Fiction will read like a dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives, much in the same way that Woes of the True Policeman (also translated by Wimmer) felt like a dry run for 2666. My guess is that Spirit will simply make me want to reread 2666. 

While I was at the bookstore, I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of Joy Williams’ debut story collection Taking Care. I found it completely misshelved, or not really shelved at all, just sort of laying on a stack of unrelated books. I have a soft spot for these eighties Vintage Contemporaries editions, and after finishing Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise, I have a hankering for something in a similar vein.

Two by Robert Coover and one by Don DeLillo (Books acquired—a few plays, unexpectedly—26 Jan. 2019)

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On Friday night we watched the first Hunger Games film with our daughter, who had finished the book this week. The movie isn’t that great, as I argued when I saw it seven years ago in the theater, but she seemed to like it, although she said she would have “done a lot of things differently.” She asked me to pick up the second book for her when I got a chance, and Not at the library, I want to own it, etc. So I figured that I’d use that as an excuse to browse my favorite used bookstore, so conveniently located 1.1 miles away (I swear I didn’t move into this neighborhood because of its proximity).

I went for a walk, got bitten rather viciously by a medium-sized dog, cleaned and dressed the wound, and went to browse books.

There are over two million books in this bookstore, a lot of them not really organized. While I usual mull around general fiction, literary criticism, art and art history, sci-fi, fantasy, and a section called “literary fiction,” I like to mix it up by going into areas I don’t know as well. Strolling through stack after stack in the drama section, an outward-turned collection of plays by Robert Coover caught my eye. I’d never heard of A Theological Position, but the cover and a few minutes browsing the four plays collected here—including one called Rip Awake, about Rip Van Winkle, which especially interested me—sealed the deal. That was before I turned the book over and saw this magnificent author photo, where a young Coover looks a bit like Jacques Derrida, in lieu of a tired blurb—

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A column over I spied a copy of Don DeLillo’s play The Day Room, 1986 joint I’d never heard of. The Penguin Plays edition with a black and white cover of a production recalled to me the four years of theater and drama I took in high school—we had plenty of these in the drama room, plays by Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, etc. I was like the only one interested in these; it took me until the end of my sophomore year to realize that most of the drama kids were interested in fucking musicals and not literary drama. I probably belonged with the art kids but whatever.

I went and picked up the second Hunger Games book, and then browsed sci-fi a bit, hoping to find some more by the Strugatsky brothers or David Ohle’s Motorman, but not that day, friends! I also wanted to get a copy of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—and there were several—but they were all in these ridiculously well-kempt respectable and utterly literary cover editions that I can’t get down with. I’m sure I’ll find something I can live with sometime this year, but in the meantime, turning a corner, I found a massmarket paperback copy of Robert Coover’s novel The Origin of the Brunists, a novel I’ve been meaning to read for almost twenty years now. So.

 

Blog about some recent reading

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I finished Angela Carter’s surreal fantasia The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman a week or so ago, in a bit of a fever at its depraved horniness. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. The story is essentially a picaresque adventure—our narrator Desiderio sets out on a mission to assassinate Dr. Hoffman, a not-really-mad scientist who’s waging war on reality. Desiderio falls in love with Hoffman’s daughter Albertina though, complicating matters. All kinds of wild shit happens in each episode of the book—indeed, each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it, and it deserves a proper review, but for now I’ll lazily compare it to a bunch of other books I loved: Voltaire’s Candide, Réage’s Story of O, Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Kafka’s The Castle, Acker’s Don Quixote, any of Robert Coover’s fables, Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Oh, and video games. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

I read the first half of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord (new in English translation by Edgar Garbeletto) on Sunday. The book is seriously weird. The narrator is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist (a strange cipher of Noll himself) arrives in London in the winter on a “mission.” What that mission is is completely unclear, but it seems to involve an English university. Like the other Noll books I’ve read, Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel,  Lord moves on its own dream logic. The narrator seems unstuck in both time and space. He’s an abject voice trying to reinvent himself from the outside in—but his disintegration seems fatally imminent.

I’ve also started in on the latest Lucia Berlin collection, Evening in Paradise, reading the first three stories. The first two, “The Musical Vanity Boxes” (which I’d read before in Homesick) and “Sometimes in Summer” are memoir pieces set in Berlin’s childhood home of El Paso (or, more properly I suppose, El Paso–Juárez). There’s a frankness to these tales that’s remarkable, an artistry of storytelling that never announces itself as such. The stories read like vivid recollections, and center on a very young Lucia and her best friend Hope, a Syrian immigrant. There’s an underlying menace here, too, a sense that these two friends might fall into disaster at any given moment. (In this way, these stories recalled the young female friends at the center of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend who slowly come into consciousness of the real world around them). The third story in the collection “Andado: A Gothic Romance” is written in the third-person, although its hero “Laura” is clearly a stand-in for a teenage Lucia. Laura, like Lucia was, is an ex-pat teenager living in Chile. “Andado” too offers a slow swelling malice, as we perceive the dangers that Laura cannot. The story culminates in an impressionistic dreamlike sequence that matches Laura’s shaken psyche. I’m trying to restrain myself from reading all of these stories too fast.

I’ve poked about in Leslie Fiedler’s collection No! In Thunder, reading first his essay on Walt Whitman, and then his essay on Faulkner (it trapped me with its title: “William Faulkner, Highbrows’ Lowbrow”).

Finally, I’ve been reading Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo (translated by Margaret Carson) in bits and pieces. I really dig the book and am happy Carson translated it and Wakefield Press published it. There’s a neat section where Varo describes her paintings—like this, for example:

Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

The Earth escapes from its axis and its center of gravity to the great surprise of the astronomer, who tries to keep his balance with his left foot standing in one dimension and his right foot standing in another.

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The Count’s Tale — Angela Carter

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‘I have devoted my life to the humiliation and exaltation of the flesh. I am an artist; my material is the flesh; my medium is destruction; and my inspiration is nature.’

Now the valet moved painfully about, gathering together the dishes, and it grew light enough to make out the Count’s shape as he lolled against the desecrated altar, his head bare. His hair, a coarse and uniform grey, hung down to his shoulders.

‘I am impregnable because I always exist in a state of dreadful tension. My crises render me utterly bestial and in that state I am infinitely superior to man, as the tiger, who preys on man if he has any sense, is superior. My anguish is the price of my exaltation.’

I began to wonder if the Count was one of the Doctor’s agents and then I thought, no! This man might be the Doctor himself, under an assumed identity! The suspicion made me quiver.

I can hardly describe to you the man’s appalling, cerebral lucidity. He was like a corpse animated only by a demonic intellectual will. When he had rested a little, we climbed back into the carriage and rolled off across the green, spacious countryside, under a vertiginous arc of sky which began to clear and sparkle. The mountains dwindled behind us. The dew glittered in the budding hedgerows. A lark rose, singing. It was a beautiful morning in early spring.

‘The universe itself is not a sufficiently capacious stage on which to mount the grand opera of my passions. From the cradle, I have been a blasphemous libertine, a blood-thirsty debauchee. I travel the world only to discover hitherto unknown methods of treating flesh. When I first left my native Lithuania, I went at once to China where I apprenticed myself to the Imperial executioner and learned by heart a twelve-tone scale of tortures as picturesque as they are vile. When my studies were complete, I tied my tutor to the trunk of a blossoming apricot tree so the rosy petals showered down upon his increasing mutilations as, with incredible delicacy and a very sharp knife, I carved out little oysters of his living flesh – the torture known as the “slicing”, the dreaded ling ch’ih. What a terrible sight he was to behold! The apricot tree wept tears of perfumed flowers over him; that was Nature’s pity, decorative but unhelpful.

‘Subsequently I visited the rest of Asia, where, among other infamies too numerous to mention, I amputated the scarcely perceptible breasts of all the occupants of a geisha house in the exquisitely bell-haunted city of Kyoto. Then I left my crest stamped in wax plugs in all the capacious anuses of the royal eunuchs of the court of Siam. Subsequently I visited Europe where, as a reward for my villainies, I was condemned to burn at the stake in Spain, to hang by the neck in England and to break upon the wheel in a singularly inhospitable France, where, sentenced to death in absentia by the judiciary of Provence, my body was executed in effigy in the town square of Aix.

‘I fled to North America, where I knew my barbarities would pass unnoticed, and in Quebec I hired my valet, Lafleur, whose interesting nose has quite caved in under the weight of a hereditary syphilis. Young as he is, his face has already been totally obliterated by the ghastly residue of past pleasures he never tasted personally. Together we travelled the various states. I gave certain evidence in the trials at Salem, Mass., which condemned eighteen perfectly innocent persons to death by pressing. I instigated a rebellion among the slaves on a plantation in Alabama which led to bloody and wholesale retribution; they were all tied to bales of cotton and ignited by ululating Klansmen. Then, in a perfumed bordello in New Orleans, I strangled with my legs a mulatto whore just as she coaxed the incense from my member with a mouth the shape, colour and texture of an overripe plum.

But after that, I became the object of the vengeance of her enraged pimp, a black of more than superhuman inhumanity, in whom I sense a twin. And that is why I must not let him catch up with me for I know too well what he would do to me if he did so. So Lafleur and I drove over the neck of the continent, through deserts that delighted me since they were far too atrociously barren to sustain life, through jungles altogether envenomed with hatred for the brown maggots of men who dare to try to live in that green, festering meat; and then across those rearing mountains that now lie behind us than which, even in the steppes of Central Asia, I have seen nothing more arid or inimical. Refreshed, we now travel towards the coast for I feel stirring within me a strange desire to return to the peaks where I was born and perhaps I shall try to die there. Unless, that is, the vengeful pimp ensnares me first. Which is a horror beyond thought.’

From Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

Girl Seated, Wearing Hat — Grace Cossington Smith

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Girl Seated, Wearing Hat, 1908 by Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984)

We/No! | Zamyatin/Fiedler (Books acquired, 11 Jan. 2019)

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Last Friday afternoon I stalked about my favorite used bookstore for a spare hours, first looking for a copy of Joseph Tabbi’s literary biography of William Gaddis, Nobody Grew but the Business. I’ve been reading snatches of Tabbi’s Gaddis bio on Google Books (yergh) and I’d like to like really read it. I didn’t find it in the biography section, and then I didn’t find it in the literary criticism fiction, but I did find a copy of Leslie Fiedler’s No! In Thunder. I’ve been wanting to read this for awhile. In the absence of a blurb, let me cite the original Kirkus review:

His title is from a letter of Melville’s to Hawthorne and Fiedler has adapted it to emphasize his belief that to fulfill its essential moral obligation successful art must perform a negative critical function. It is, in fact, due to its ultimate No! that serious fiction has been, initially, unacceptable. In the section on The Artist there are essays on Dante, illusion in Shakespeare, Whitman, the moral duality in Stevenson, Peretz, Kafka and Malamud, Faulkner — the Highbrow’s Lowbrow, Robert Penn Warren and Cesare Pavese.

I also picked up a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal 1921 utopian/dystopian novel We, which I haven’t read in like 20 something years. I ended up getting Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation, which seemed a bit zippier zappier and weirder than the others I browsed (I skimmed the first few chapters of each). I also just like those Penguin Classic editions, as well as the cover photograph by Georgii Petrusov.

I’ll pick through the Fiedler slowly, but We might be the next novel I read after I finish up Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which I’m really digging.

Varo’s letters and dreams, four from Brooke-Rose, more Berlin, a signed Vollmann, and the art & arcana of D&D (Xmas books acquired, late December 2018)

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I neglected to do one of these dumb books acquired post for the books I got for xmas this year. I don’t really get a lot of books, believe it or not. One of my aunts gave me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. I used their (horrible, difficult-to-use) website to order three books:

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

The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels by Christine Brooke-Rose, and

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin.

I already wrote about these books a bit in a post on New Year’s Day. I’ve been trying to go through the Varo slowly, picking through a letter or dream a day or every other day. I started the “new” Berlin the other day, reading, or really rereading, the first track, “The Musical Vanity Boxes.” I had initially read the story in my copy of Homesick (Black Sparrow Press, 1991). You can read it here online, too. I still haven’t really done more than skim over the Brooke-Rose omnibus.

The most thoughtful book I received was from my wife’s parents, although really I guess it’s basically from my wife, who got it when she saw me slavering over it in a really cool bookstore on a recent trip to Asheville. It’s a first edition of The Ice-Shirt, signed by William T. Vollmann. This was the first Vollmann book I read, and although it might not be his best it remains my favorite.

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My parents gave me a Dungeons & Dragons coffee table book called Art & Arcana that has been a fun nostalgia trip. I recovered it from my son—who it seems it really belongs to, I guess, long enough to photograph it—and this pic below of Jeff Easley’s cover art for Unearthed Arcana, which was included in advertisements for the book in like every comic book I remember buying during the mideighties. Art & Arcana is a fun visual history of D&D—from what I can tell anyway. It turns out that it’s the boy’s, not mine. img_2095

The Bibliophile — Jansson Stegner

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The Bibliophile, 2017 by Jansson Stegner (b. 1972)

Blog about a metatextual moment at the end of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions

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In the epilogue of his 1955 novel The Recognitions, William Gaddis checks in on the book’s enormous background cast, tying up loose ends, but also leaving many of the characters frayed, burned out, or destroyed. There’s a remarkable metatextual moment in this epilogue in which two minor characters are revealed to be carrying copies of a book that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Recognitions itself. These characters are both literary counterfeiters—Mr. Feddle, a faker who forges book jackets with his name in the author’s position and slips them over classic novels, and “the critic in the green wool shirt,” who doesn’t bother to read the books he reviews.

Meeting at a tailor’s shop, Feddle and the critic peer at each other, “fix[ing] the book the other was carrying with a look of myopic recognition.” The passage continues with the following acerbically ironic exchange:

—You reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise. —No. I’m just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in his green wool shirt.

—A lousy twenty-five bucks. It’ll take me the whole evening tonight. You didn’t buy it, did you? Christ, at that price? Who the hell do they think’s going to pay that much just for a novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review.

The exchange here accurately anticipates exactly how The Recognitions would be received by its contemporary critics—or “hacks,” as Jack Green repeatedly calls them in his infamous 1962 screed Fire the Bastards! For almost 80 pages, Green details the failures of the 55 critics who reviewed the book upon its release. Some of these major failures include—

failing to recognize the greatness of the book

failing to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are

counterfeiting this with stereotyped preconceptions—the standard cliches about a book that is “ambitious,” “erudite,” “long,” “negative,” etc

counterfeiting competence with inhuman jargon

Green’s repeated use of the word “counterfeit” not just here but throughout his tract demonstrates the essential realism of The Recognitions: Gaddis conceived how his novel of counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks would be misread, misremembered, and misrecognized by counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks. The green-wool-shirted critic’s declaration that all he needs “is the jacket blurb to write the view” transcends its original satirical contours—it is a prophecy that comes true.

This satirical metatextual prognostication finds fruition in the review of The Recognitions published in The Louisville Courier-Journal. In Fire the Bastards!, Green details how the reviewer plagiarized his review of The Recognitions from the novel’s jacket blurb. The metatextuality here is magical: Gaddis conjures the character of an unnamed counterfeiter critic who will (not-)review a book that appears to be The Recognitions itself; this character becomes real by (not-)reviewing the book in an unsigned review in The Louisville Courier-Journal that plagiarizes the book’s blurb.

But perhaps I’ve neglected to demonstrate that the book that Feddle the faker and the critic in the green wool shirt are both not reading is in fact a version of The Recognitions itself. Here is the next paragraph in the episode:

It was in fact quite a thick book. A pattern of bold elegance, the lettering on the dust1M5vpxx wrapper stood forth in stark configurations of red and black to intimate the origin of design. (For some crotchety reason there was no picture of the author looking pensive sucking a pipe, sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie, plastered across the back.)

In his invaluable work A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Steven Moore gives the following annotation to these lines:

 the description is of the first edition of R [The Recognitions]. Martin Dworkin’s photograph of Gaddis “sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie” appeared in both the Time and Newsweek reviews.

Jack Green is more succinct in Fire the Bastards!: “the book the stubby
poet [Feddle] has is the recognitions [sic] itself.” And what is “the stubby poet” doing with such a bigass book? Reading it?

—Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike.

At least Feddle’s dislike is “intimate.” If he’d bothered to read it he might have gotten some weird alarming joy from this (meta)Recognitions. Or, even better, he might reread it—which is really the only way to read The Recognitions, I’m convinced, after my second full read. The book is more precise, more artfully constructed—more stuffed with motifs and symbols, doubled, tripled, quadrupled—than I had realized on first reading.

Jack Green made rereading The Recognitions a significant part of his life. He was an evangelist for the text, going so far as to take out a full page ad in The Village Voice in 1962 when the book was reprinted in paperback. His advertisement is five short paragraphs. The second paragraph is a proper, original blurb. The second paragraph is an argument for rereading. Here they are:

“The Recognitions” is a 956-page novel whose main theme is vanity or forgery—of Old Masters, $20 bills, slings, personality, everything. It is like a painting with a few primary figures presented in depth and an army of caricatures in the background. The main characters are unforgettable and, as is usually true, give the book most of its greatness. The minor characters, including the author himself who has a bit part, are very funny.

Like “Ulysses,” Gaddis’s book can be read the first time with enjoyment (my advice: don’t work at it) and then reread for years with increasing fascination. It has an intricate network of thousands of cross-references which give it a unique time-sense: as the connections are gradually recognized on rereading, the book appears to grow like a living being.

“Grow like a living being.” I think that’s about right.

My entry in The Comics Journal’s “Best Comics of 2018” article

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The editors of The Comics Journal have put together an extended feature called “The Best Comics of 2018.”  The full feature is pretty cool (and pretty enormous), and is a great place for anyone looking for a diverse concentration of new comix to read. Here’s my entry:

  1. Slum Wolf by Tadao Tsuge (English translation by Ryan Holmberg, NYRC) This collection of “alternative manga” (from The New York Review of Books’ NYRC imprint) showcases nine rough and seedy stories focused on the kimin, the “abandoned people” who live on the margins of Japanese society. Under Tsuge’s mean humor is a diamond-sharp kernel of pathos for all humanity, rendered in spare, even rushed art. Tsuge draws as if his ink and paper might be snatched away at any moment by some civilizing agent who would keep his slum wolves away from respectable eyes. His world isn’t pretty but it is somehow beautiful.
  1. Hieronymus & Bosch by Paul Kirchner. (Tanibus) Paul Kirchner continues his late career renaissance with Hieronymus & Bosch, a collection of over eighty comic strips set in Hell. The plot of most of these one-pagers is pretty straightforward: Hieronymus and his wooden toy duck Bosch try to escape—either Hell itself, or the boredom of Hell—and fail. Kirchner’s Hell is a slapstick paradise, and if Hieronymus is eternally doomed, at least he finds some solace in his own creative prowess.
  1. Samplerman, January 2018-December 2018 by Yvan Guillo. (Self-published) In a profile a few years back, the artist Yvan Guillo (who works under the name Samplerman) declared: “I am half the artist and half in the audience, exploring all these pages, picking the things I want to use, making a template and watching the composition being made nearly by itself.” Guillo perfectly describes his techniques of collage, amalgamation, and transformation—and also describes the pure joy that teems through his work. The Samplerman strips synthesize the history of cartooning into something transcendent and energetic, a reining-in of visual entropy into a strange new order.
  1. The Labyrinth by Saul Steinberg. (NYRB) First published in 1960 and back in print again from the NRYB this year, Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth condenses the modern and the mythic. “Steinberg was a lyricist of the metal nib—a twirler of nonverbal non sequiturs,” notes novelist Nicholson Baker in his introduction to the new volume. Steinberg’s lyrical non sequiturs evince in squiggles and dots, tangles and loops which turn into well-dressed men and staid women, cityscapes and night scenes, cocktail parties and art shows. Steinberg turns Abraham Lincoln into Don Quixote, with Santa as his Sancho Panza. He takes us out of urbane New York and into midcentury America, land of motor courts and baseball parks, a knotty chaotic chorus of life. Steinberg could seemingly do anything with ink, as the range of styles in The Labyrinth shows, but what he ultimately did was utterly-Steinbergian. The Labyrinth echoes Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which sought a century earlier, to find a new language to describe a new country. Steinberg looked at America through new eyes, and, like Whitman before him, found a new language of expression—the language of labyrinthine lines on paper.
  1. Nancy by Olivia Jaimes. (GoComics/United Feature Syndicate) I ♥ Nancy.

A review of Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth

My review of NYRB’s reissue of Saul Steinberg’s Labyrinth is up at The Comics Journal. First paragraph:

First published in 1960 and back in print again from the New York Review of Books, Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth condenses the modern and the mythic into 250 pages of strange and wonderful cartoons. The fourth of Steinberg’s seven major compilations, The Labyrinth covers his work between 1954 and 1960, loosely distilling the state of American mid-century cartooning. Quirky, obliquely intellectual, cosmopolitan, and deeply ironic, Steinberg’s modernist approach addresses many of the major cultural changes in America during the 1950s. The Labyrinth touches on urbanization and suburbanization, the expansion of ready-made mass culture, the post-War shift in the relationship between men and women, the advent of televisual mass media, and the zany paranoia of the Cold War zeitgeist.

Blog about some 2019 reading plans

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Here are some books I aim to read in 2019, sooner rather than later:

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo (translated by Margaret Carson). I’m really digging this so far—I got it a week ago and have been skimming around in it. Varo is one of my favorite modern painters, and I love that we’re getting some of her prose now—it seems to trend with the recent revival of the writings of her friend and fellow painter Leonora Carrington.

Lord by João Gilberto Noll (translated by Edgar Garbeletto). I hope this as surreal and upsetting as Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner.

Mothers by Chris Power. The US release for Power’s collection of subtle stories is later this month, and the book has already been very well-received in the UK. I’ve read the first four stories and dig what Power is doing.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter. I picked this up late last year and stalled after the first fifty pages—I was reading three other books at the same time. I’ll make a proper commitment though in 2019.

The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels by Christine Brooke-Rose. Brooke-Rose wasn’t really on my radar until I read this intriguing essay about her “difficult” novels a few weeks ago.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin. A Manual for Cleaning Women was one of my favorite books of the past few years. Should I gobble all of these stories up at once? Or pace myself?

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. I will finally read Vineland. (Although I got a real hankering to reread Gravity’s Rainbow as I was finishing up The Recognitions—but maybe that project is best saved for later in the year).

Happy New Year!

A year in reading | Annotations on a probably incomplete list of books I read or reread in full in 2018

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Boring preamble you’ll likely skim if not outright skip:

I was never going to get a full year end list thing together. Yesterday I put together a list of books I read in full this year, or at least books I remember reading in full. In full and books are terms that should be placed under suspicion. For example, it took me far longer to get eighty pages into William H. Gass’s The Tunnel—a novel I soon after abandoned—than it did to read Robert Coover’s micronovella The Enchanted Prince or Dave Cooper’s graphic novel Mudbite. Etc. As usual I abandoned more novels than I finished, and read more short stories than I could or should bother listing.


Annotations on a probably incomplete list of books I read or reread in full in 2018:

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

A sad and important book, too long unpublished. I reviewed it here.

Conversations with Gordon Lish edited by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli (2018)

One of the best things I read in 2018. Lish performing Lish throughout the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. As good, if not better, than his short fiction.

Dreamverse by Jindřich Štyrský (2018 English translation by Jed Slast; original Czech-language publication in 1970)

Abject horny surrealist art and poetry. I wrote about it here.

The Enchanted Prince by Robert Coover (2018)

Going for a Beer: Selected Short Fictions by Robert Coover (2018)

The Enchanted Prince is a quick read, and wouldn’t be out of place in an extended edition of Going for a Beer. I failed to write about Going for a Beer, after mucking around with several drafts. I had a big thing on “The Babysitter” that I was working on—it being a perfect nexus of horror and comedy, a writhing, icky pop opera of channel changing. I kept thinking of “The Babysitter” during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and managed to write absolutely nothing in my disgust. Going for a Beer is a perfect starting place for Coover, although some of the moves in it grow tiresome. The metamagician takes us aside a bit too often to show us how he did the trick, only to tell us that his showing us how he did the trick was actually the trick itself.

Hieronymus & Bosch by Paul Kirchner (2018)

The Labyrinth by Saul Steinberg (2018; originally published in 1960)

Both wonderful “graphic novels,” or not really “novels,” but something else. I should have reviews of these posted at The Comics Journal in early 2019.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018)

A perfect farewell to Johnson. I read it twice, and wrote about the title story,  second story, “The Starlight on Idaho,” and the third,“Strangler Bob.”

Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father by Tristan Foster (2018)

Great stuff. I finished a bigass novel yesterday so now I can reread Foster’s strange fictions and write a proper review.

Moderan by David R. Bunch (2018; originally published in incomplete form in 1971)

I’ll admit I’d never heard of Bunch’s dystopian cult Moderan stories until NYRB reprinted them in a complete volume this year. Moderan works as a post-nuke dystopian satire on toxic masculinity. The tropes here might seem familiar—cyborgs and dome homes, caste systems and ultraviolence, a world of made and not born ruled by manunkind (to steal from E.E. Cummings)—it’s the way that Bunch conveys this world that is so astounding. Moderan is told in its own idiom; the voice of our narrator Stronghold-10 booms with a bravado that’s ultimately undercut by the authorial irony that lurks under its surface. The book seems equal to the task of satirizing the trajectory of our zeitgeist in a way that some contemporary satirists have failed to.

Mudbite by Dave Cooper (2018)

Lurid, abject, horny, gross. I dug it. I reviewed it at The Comics Journal.

Narcotics by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (2018 English translation by Soren Gauger)

Another oddball from the good folks at Twisted Spoon Press. I reviewed it here.

On Doing Nothing by Roman Muradov (2018)

Muradov’s riffs on literature, art, and philosophy to add to the American tradition of leaning and loafing at one’s ease, observing a summer spear of etc.

Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins by Evan Dara (2018)

An overlooked work by an overlooked writer, Provisional Biography isn’t quite as persuasive as its predecessor, Flee, but it’s nevertheless a strong argument for communication in/against the age of late capitalism. I reviewed it here.

Slum Wolf by Tadao Tsuge (2018 English translation by Ryan Holmberg)

This collection of “alternative manga” (from The New York Review of Books’ NYRC imprint) showcases nine rough and seedy stories focused on the kimin, the “abandoned people” who live on the margins of Japanese society. Under Tsuge’s mean humor is a diamond-sharp kernel of pathos for all humanity, rendered in spare, even rushed art. Tsuge draws as if his ink and paper might be snatched away at any moment by some civilizing agent who would keep his slum wolves away from respectable eyes. His world isn’t pretty but it is somehow beautiful.

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (2018 English translation by Olena Bormashenko; original Russian-language translation, 1972)

An impossibly strange book, an utter revelation, just so astoundingly weird. I wrote about it here.

Stream System by Gerald Murnane (2018)

Murnane made a dent into an American mainstream audience this year with Stream System (complete with a fascinating feature in The New York Times). The early stories are particularly affecting. I wrote about one here.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (2015)

Pond was one of the best things I read this year. I wrote about it here.

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (2015 English translation by Harry Morales; original Spanish-language publication, 1960)

Benedetti’s The Truce is good old fashioned mannered modernism. I couldn’t really get into it, although the novel’s voice is authentic. It reminded me of Williams’ Stoner a bit.

Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine (2015 English translation by J. T. Mahany; original French-language publication, 1998)

Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (2014 English translation by Antonina Bouis; original Russian-language translation, 1974)

Writers by Antoine Volodine (2014 English translation by Katrina Rogers; original French-language publication, 2010)

Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine (2008 English translation by Jordan Stump; original French-language publication, 2004)

I’ve arranged this list by year, and the Volodines are almost grouped together, with the Strugatskys interposing. Definitely Maybe is okay but not excellent—it’s a fun and ultimately tense read, evocative of hot drunken times and philosophical murders.

Antoine Volodine wrote some of the best stuff I read this year. Post-Exoticism or Writers would make excellent starting places for anyone interested in his grim, stark (and often unexpectedly funny) world. I wrote about Writers here and here.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)

I didn’t really like Lightning Rods and I wished I hadn’t paid twenty bucks for Some Trick in hardback, but enough people I respect have been telling me (directly and indirectly) to read DeWitt’s cult novel debut that I didn’t hesitate to pick up a copy when I found it used in my favorite bookshop. I read The Last Samurai faster than any book I can remember. For a book often described as “experimental” or “formally challenging” it’s extraordinarily accessible and very “readable.” DeWitt’s rhetoric teaches the reader how to read the book; she creates a formula, essentially (Lighting Rods did the same, come to think of it). The Last Samurai has moments that are as transcendent as any of the other great books I read this year, but I’m not sure that it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I enjoyed the reading experience though.

Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis (1985)

I had never read Carpenter’s Gothic until this year (I still need to read A Frolic of His Own). I reread The Recognitions, and while its certainly a richer, denser, and frankly more overwhelming work, it isn’t as formally neat as Carpenter’s Gothic, which I think is ultimately the better book. I wrote about it here, here, and here.

The Names by Don DeLillo (1982)

Only a few fragments stick with me now—the end in particular—but also, the general impression that Don DeLillo wrote the first post-9/11 novel way back in 1982. I wrote about it here.

The Plains by Gerald Murnane (1982)

The first fifty or so pages of The Plains was as good as anything I read this year. I felt like I was hungry for more at the end though, but good authors sometimes leave us unsatisfied.

77 Dream Songs by John Berryman (1964)

I needed these.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch (1958)

This book has some excellent sentences, and Dora Greenfield is one of the more memorable characters I read this year. The Bell also prompted me to reread Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and I’m thankful to it for that. My first Murdoch. I’ll read more of hers in 2019. I wrote about The Bell here.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955)

Reread the thing in tandem with an audiobook recording; the audiobook is pretty good, but mostly useful in the sense that it allows you to reread (or first read) as you go through. I think The Recognitions can’t be read—it can only be reread. I wrote about it here and here and here and here and here.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

A reading highlight of 2018. Dorothea Brooke is the most memorable character of my 2018 reading. I wrote about Middlemarch here and here.

Silas Marner by George Eliot (1861)

I liked this one a lot. I reviewed it here.

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (1855)

The Confidence-Man remains a novel that I think I won’t ever fully “get.” Rereading it this year it seemed as puzzling as ever. We’ll see what happens when I read it again. Benito Cereno might have been my favorite reread of 2018; I wrote a long thing on it here. 2019 seems like a good year to go through Moby-Dick again.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)

Another really enjoyable reread, with correspondences to Middlemarch and The Bell. I wrote a lot about Blithedale, including this post.


 

What is happening here is obvious: that lady who is knitting fisherman’s rib is making animated characters who leave through the window.

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What is happening here is obvious: that lady who is knitting fisherman’s rib is making animated characters who leave through the window.

Remedios Varo’s description of her painting The Knitting Woman of Verona (1956). From the collection Letters, Dreams & Other Writings. Translated by Margaret Carson. From Wakefield Press.