JG Ballard Bingo

On Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, abjection, and sublimated dreams

I forced myself through the last half of Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 novel First Love wondering if I actually liked her latest novel My Phantoms, a book I read just a few weeks ago.

(What do I mean to capture in the puny verb like?)

The material of First Love will be familiar to anyone who’s read My Phantoms, and I kept mentally underlining the similarities: first-person narrator, woman, living in London, a city she is culturally alienated from; bad parents–abusive asshole dad, narcissistic dippy mum. Vegetarian cooking.

Like My Phantoms, First Love is a slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one.

The thrust of First Love (one wouldn’t call it a plot, which isn’t a negative criticism) is something like this: Neve, a thirty-three-year-old writer (who makes some money teaching) is married to a man named Edwyn, who is a generation older from her, and suffering a heart condition. His heart condition has left him close to death at least once, but it also doubles as a symbol for his trashed spirit: Edwyn’s heart condition is that Edwyn has the heart of an asshole.

Edwyn belittles and abuses Neve, condescends her feminism, and generally bullies her. Most of the abuse is verbal, but sometimes it is physical. The abuse is always awful though—an abuse of spirit, of love.

Riley announces the themes of this awful “love” by the novel’s fourth paragraph:

We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises—little comfort noises—at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage.’ Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee. ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’

What’s the project? you might wonder, as does Neve—well, it’s not “winding up” Edwyn and “feel like shit all the time!’”

Does Edwyn actually feel abused by Neve’s behavior?

Riley certainly gives the man plenty of opportunities to vocalize his self-pitying and abusive rants. The central totem Edwyn hangs his anger on is an episode in which Neve drank alcohol excessively and vomited (apparently) all over the couple’s apartment. Riley does not depict the episode because Neve, natch, cannot recall it. The bits we get from it involve Edwyn’s violence, his anger. An ugly and true recollection of the sweaty abject reality of a hangover.

Much of First Love is mired in abjection—sweat and grime and piss and shit. Early in the book Neve and Edwyn exchange reminiscences of their young mothers on the toilet, Neve’s suffering IBS, Edwyn terrified of “The thundering waterfall of her first piss” in the early morning. “Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying.”

The abject reality of bodies and filth repulses Edwyn, and he buries his repulsion into a store of misogynistic tropes and curses that explode with more ugly frequency as First Love progresses. “You live in shit, so we all have to live in shit, is that right?” he demands of Neve, who he repeatedly accuses of slovenliness, filth. For Edwyn, Neve’s apparent uncleanliness is also related to her Northernness, underscoring the novel’s themes of class and place. Neve herself capitulates, reminiscing:

But was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show: ceilings bejewelled with pus-coloured animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an airlocked chamber smelling of bins that hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bathroom. It was there for three years.

So—I did grow up in shit. It was no slander.

Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty. (Mother looking up slyly from a crying jag.)

I did use to be sick a lot. No slander, though Edwyn didn’t know it.

Edwyn doesn’t know fucking anything. I was relieved in the novel’s final moments, where the narrative disappeared him.

But now and so I go back to the beginning of this riff and see the opening clause, I forced: I did force myself to finish First Love, poison cup. And, that second sentence up at the top: Did I like the novelNo. Reading it hurt. Riley offers up raw reality, ugly, abject, mean. The novel is well-written, which I don’t mean pejoratively: no seams show, and thematic resonance carries from minute details: dialogue, concrete imagery, minor moments that coalesce into an abject portrait of sick “love,” messy and cruel. I am so happy that I’m now outside of the thing.

Quelques Books: More of My Favorite SF Novels and Films — Moebius

Illustration for Frankenstein — Bernie Wrightson

Illustration for Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson (1948-2017)

Aw, kick him, honey | Gérard DuBois illustration for Blood Meridian

Illustration for Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian by Gérard DuBois. From the Folio Society edition of Blood Meridian.

A review of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black

In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.

At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.

The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.

I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall so much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in 2010. RIP to Hilary Mantel, who died “suddenly but peacefully” yesterday at 70.]

Reading Girls — Helene Schjerfbeck

Lukevat tytöt (Reading Girls), 1907 by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946)

Ann Quin’s Tripticks (Book acquired, 15 Aug. 2022)

I’m a big fan of Ann Quin. Her last novel, Tripticks, is reissued this month from the good folks of And Other Stories. Here is their blurb:

First published in 1972, Ann Quin’s fourth and final novel was a radical break from the introspective style she had developed in Three and Passages: a declaration of independence from all expectations.

Brashly experimental, ribald, and hilarious, Tripticks maps new territories for the novel – aspiring to a form of pop art via the drawings of the artist Carol Annand and anticipating the genre-busting work of Kathy Acker through collage and gory satire.

Splattering its pages with the story of a man being chased across a nightmarish America by his ‘first X-wife’ and her ‘schoolboy gigolo’, Tripticks was ground zero for the collision of punk energy with high style.

And Other Stories seem to have preserved the original style of Tripticks—it has the look and feel of a punk zine—mimeographed, collage-oriented, pasted together: little surreal comic strips and Pop Art explosions juxtaposed against lists and riffs.

Here’s one of Carol Annand’s illustrations:

And a little list:

Read an excerpt here.

My review of Quin’s first novel Berg.

My review of Quin’s third novel Passages.

End of July blog

It is the end of July 2022 and I am on the seventh day of quarantine in my bedroom. I tested positive for COVID-19 again on Friday, and while I feel fine for the most part, the first few days of the illness were a fog. I had always thought I’d catch up on reading or watching films if I were to catch covid, but my brain didn’t work that way. Instead, I played a lot of online chess, losing a lot more than usual, with the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings films on in the background on an old laptop.

Over the past few days I’ve felt a lot better, and have been able to retain what I’ve read. A lot of that reading consisted of essay drafts for the online Summer B classes I’m teaching, which come to end very soon. But last night I was able to jump back into Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard, in translation by Max Lawton (forthcoming from NYRB next year). It is simply amazing, a totally fucked up wild ride that’s impossible to summarize. Here’s a brief description from Max (via email): “The reader should be confused and it should hurt—then feel fucking good. This isn’t gloppy OLDOSEX; when reading Sorokin, we’re fucking nostrils with forked dicks (or—getting our nostrils fucked by the same).” THE READER SHOULD BE CONFUSED AND IT SHOULD HURT—THEN FEEL FUCKING GOOD! Yes!

I have a big stack of books in the room, including several by Sorokin. They form a big stack only because I stacked them up to take the picture below to accompany this blog; previously they were in smaller stacks or strewn or in a basket to the right of my bed.

There’s a lot of Sorokin in the stack, but not Max Lawton’s Blue Lard translation, because it doesn’t exist in a hard copy in English. Day of the Oprichnik (trans. Jamey Gambrell) was good, but the language wasn’t nearly as rich as the language of Telluria—although Oprichnik felt like it could fit into Telluria, or at least the same universe. I got Their Four Hearts in the mail yesterday, and Ice a few weeks ago, but haven’t dipped into either.

Other thoughts on the stack: I felt well enough yesterday (aided by two coffees and a prednisone) to write something on Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer. I brought the Turgenev back here when I first tested positive with covid because it was on a stack on my coffee table of books I was ostensibly going to get to or needed to review. I read Blixa Barged’s Crosswise Europe back in June and couldn’t really think of anything to say about it. I had it out because I’ve been meaning to mail it to a friend.

I must’ve acquired the copy of McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses on 14 July 2022, right before I left for a week in Washington, D.C. (the trip that undoubtedly resulted in the covid). I know the date because I posted some cool book covers on twitter that day.

I had painted our living room that week, which involved cleaning, moving, and sorting three ladder bookcases. I ended up culling about forty titles, and I took maybe half of those to the used bookstore on the fourteenth and turned them into a first edition hardback of All the Pretty Horses.

I wrote about acquiring Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais (and covid) in D.C. After I finish Blue Lard, this is on deck. Also in the stack but unread: Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night. Ugo Tognazzi’s The Injester is a cookbook from Contra Mundum. I read Anthony Michael Perri’s The Lonely Boxer earlier this month and need to write a review of it (it’s good!). The bottom three books (Powell, Lispector, O’Connor) I picked up at an estate sale two weeks ago (wrote about it here). I tried reading one of the Powell stories on Tuesday (or Wednesday?) but couldn’t focus.

Wedged in the middle there is a Grove Press edition of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that I had been destroying in office hours back in 2014. I had really been enjoying writing over it and posting pics of the pages I’d done, but someone wrote in to tell me that it was corny and for some reason that really got to me and I stopped. I was younger then (obviously); if someone did that today I’d probably ignore it completely.

I opened the book just now; I’d left off on page 24, although the last one I posted on the blog was page 22. Here is page 22:

20140626-162657-59217614.jpg

I’ll do page 25 now.

Here is page 25:

Not my best work, but I enjoyed the process!

So there’s the stack.

So, end of July, ass end of summer. There were positive times—hanging with extended family on the Fourth of July week on the beautiful Florida Gulf Coast (my now not-so-little cousins actually still wanted to play D&D). Some nice museum visits in D.C., some good reads in between. But July came in with a host of draconian Supreme Court rulings that seem to push the U.S. more steeply towards an outright autocracy in the making and closed with my spending over a week in quarantine, and the only good thing about the global heatwave that’s burned up the month might be that it seemed to wake a few people up to a future that’s already here. So, yeah, fuck July.

Blog about some books acquired, 15 July 2022

 

I live in an old neighborhood filled with old people who are dying at a reliable rate, which means that there are frequent estate sales in the neighborhood. I walk the neighborhood pretty much every day, and if I see an estate sale sign, I’ll walk toward it and go through the house, looking at the items of the recently deceased, or recently relocated, or what have you, not so much interested in purchasing anything as I am trying to piece together a little bit of a life from objects, colors, totems. Sometimes the interiors of these houses remind me of being in my own grandparents’ homes back in 1985—homes built in the 1950s with few updates, some tasteful furniture, maybe a bit of fanciful wallpaper, a pink-tiled bathroom. Sometimes I might buy a knife or a tool or a mirror, or even get lucky with an old print or painting. And of course I always look through the books.

The books you might find in the homes in the estate sales in my neighborhood are generally predictable. There are bibles, a small selection of “great books,” classics, what have you, a few books that indicate the removed persons’ hobbies, old cookbooks with few or no color pictures. Often you might find the books of the eldest or middle child, selections from their freshman English course. Westerns, mysteries, a few art books.

Today I came across an estate sale not even a block from my house and meandered in. The man running the estate sale had sold me a large signed Alexander Calder print a few years ago, not realizing its full value; he had then called me repeatedly trying to sell me three more Calder prints which he had repriced and overpriced. He didn’t recognize me. The house was much smaller inside than I had expected, but beautifully furnished. There was a large framed photograph of Winston Churchill on the fireplace mantel along with a leather-bound collection of his memoirs. On the other side was an incomplete selection of Shakespeare plays, also bound in leather. Outside was a small shallow swimming pool, clearly original to the house.

The layout of the house—a brick midcentury ranch home, like almost all of the homes in the neighborhood—was very similar to my own house’s layout, and I could even see the use of the some of the same materials (particularly in the guest bathroom, which had not been updated). The first and second bedrooms suggested a couple who at some point had had two children, a boy and a girl, probably five or ten years older than I am. The last bedroom was being used as an office or study, and it was filled with books. There was a large electric Olivetti typewriter on the desk in this room, as well as a beautiful early 1980’s Bose sound system with a strange control box.

The first row of books I saw soured my hopes of finding anything worthwhile. It was mostly conservative stuff, including stuff by Charles Murray and David Brooks. Nothing fringe exactly, but still. There were also lots of books about travel and France in particular, including several plays in French (one by Moliere). This book case also held several books about writing—style manuals, thesauruses, etc., but also a book about selling one’s writing and a book on the publishing industry. The next book case was filled with paperbacks. Someone before me had fished out A Clockwork Orange and left it unshelved; it was the same edition I had read myself almost thirty years ago. The case held lots of sci-fi paperback—at least a dozen books by John Brunner and Robert Heinlein.

Near the bottom shelf was an oddity—a poorly-printed Clarice Lispector book, An Apprenticeship; or, The Book of Delights, published by the University of Texas in 1986. I have a matching copy of Lispector’s Family Ties.

The last shelf held mostly hardbacks, including lots of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other twentieth-century American novelists. I picked up the first-edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first collection of stories, opened it, and was surprised to find that it was signed by the author.

I wondered if I was in Cliff’s old study. Once I’d committed to taking the Lispector and Powell with me, it was easy to take the Library of America’s Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor.

I didn’t buy the beautiful deer antler knife from the kitchen, and I didn’t buy the Emory University Alumni coffee cup, although I wanted both, but I think that they are waiting for someone else.

 

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children (Book acquired, 6 July 2022)

NYRB is publishing Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children next month, in English translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. NYRB’s blurb:

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children is a masterpiece not only of the nineteenth century but of the whole of Russian literature, a book full to bursting with life. It is a novel about the relationships between the young and the old; about love, families, politics, religion; about strong beliefs and heated disagreements, illness and death. It is about the clash between liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries. At the time of its publication in 1862, the book aroused indignation in its critics who felt betrayed by Turgenev’s refusal to let his novel serve a single ideology; it also received a spirited defense by those who saw in his diffuse sympathies a greater service to art and to humanity. Fathers and Children is not a practical manifesto but a lasting work of art and a timely book for our present age, newly and ably translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater.

47 or so similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

These similes are from “The Part About Amalfitano,” the second part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

  1. It’s like a fetus
  2. he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses
  3. a doglike fervor
  4. a Turkish carpet like the threadbare carpet from the Thousand and One Nights, a battered carpet that sometimes functioned as a mirror, reflecting all of us from below
  5. standing there like a tiny and infinitely patient Amazon
  6. like pilgrims
  7. like mendicants or child prophets
  8. like someone who’s burned himself
  9. like sucking a small to medium dick
  10. like shooting a Zen arrow with a Zen bow into a Zen pavilion
  11. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird.
  12. those days were like a prolonged parachute landing after a long space flight
  13. back and forth like a sleepwalker
  14. marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers
  15. dropped down from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts
  16. the floor waxer like a cross between a mastiff and a pig sitting next to a plant
  17. like a trick photograph that isn’t a trick, floating, floating pensively in the skies of Paris, weary
  18. like a memory rising up from glacial seas
  19. The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain.
  20. It also was like an empty dance club.
  21. like a feudal lord riding out on horseback to survey his lands
  22. like provincial intellectuals
  23. like deeply self-sufficient men
  24. like a zombie
  25. like a medieval squire
  26. like a medieval princess
  27. Her hand was like a blind woman’s hand.
  28. like a cloud cemetery
  29. like a thick chili whose last simmer was fading in the west
  30. the coffinlike shadow
  31. purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death
  32. laughing in a whisper, like a fly
  33. like an endoscopy, but painless
  34. slept like a baby
  35. I feel like a nightingale, he thought happily.
  36. like a lover whose embrace maddened the horse as well as the rider, both of them dying of fright or ending up at the bottom of a ravine, or the colocolo, or the chonchones, or the candelillas, or so many other little creatures, lost souls, incubi and succubi, lesser demons that roamed between the Cordillera de la Costa and the Andes
  37. very tan, like a singer or a Puerto Rican playboy
  38. A confident, mocking smile, like the smile of a cocksure sniper.
  39. like a joke
  40. something like laughter but also something like sorrow
  41. like the Greek state
  42. like an arrowhead
  43. burst out from a corner like someone playing a bad joke or about to attack him
  44. the slight shadow, like a hastily dug pit that gives off an alarming stench
  45. Something like the smoke signals
  46. military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone,
    behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men, and diplomats behaved like cretinous cherubim, and doctors and lawyers behaved like thieves
  47. You’re like me and I’m like you. We aren’t happy.

Last day of school

Today was the last day of school for my kids. They both started new schools this year (high school and middle school). It’s been a weird few years and a bad few days. My son chose not to attend the last two days but my daughter wanted to see her friends. My mother called me the afternoon of the Ulvade murders to ask if my kids were okay and I didn’t even know how to answer. My daughter has been in two active-shooter lockdowns already in her life and she’s not even 15. They’ve spent their entire life fully inscribed in this nightmare. One of the worst memories of my early parenthood was my daughter coming home from kindergarten and describing her first active-shooter practice drill: “Some of us were weeping,” she said. It was the word weeping that really stuck with my wife and me—the odd precision of it.

I don’t want to rant on here; that’s not what this blog is for, and not what I imagine those who check in on it want to read or see. I expressed my own sense of horror and despair obliquely on here the other day, in any case.

I spent too much of today staring at screens, reading, horrified and angry, still stunned by the stupidity of the world we’ve botched together. I tried to pick up the book I’ve been trying to read, but I found I couldn’t press into it, couldn’t focus on a sentence let alone a paragraph. I ended up playing a lot of internet chess, on the smaller screen.

And then I found myself exhausted, needing to get out of the house. So I pulled the same Friday trick I always do, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I went to the used bookstore down the road.

I like to browse and handle the material there, looking for oddities and weird scores. I ended up with a hardback ex-library copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (trans. Jamey Gambrell, RIP). It’s in the stack below, a stack of books I’ve read or am (ostensibly) reading:

And so some mini-not-reviews, top to bottom:

Kou Machida’s Rip It Up (trans. Daniel Joseph): Read it back in April when I was finishing up the semester—it was a wonderful punk-psych antidote to final essay doldrums. Short, kinetic, caustic, and surreal. I wrote about the first part here.

Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat: This is the novel I attempted to start a few days ago, after finishing William Burroughs’s The Western Lands. I am having a hard time reading anything right now, let alone writing any proper review. I hope the thing I once had comes back.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria (trans. Max Lawton): The best contemporary novel I’ve read in a long time—a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Rich and dense but also loose and funny, Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad.

Antonio di Benedtto’s The Silentiary (trans. Esther Allen): The narrator of this understated Kafkaesque novel cannot abide the increasing cacophony of 20th-century life. His resistance to noise is futile though, and comes at great cost to both himself and his family. The Silentiary is good stuff, but not as achieved as Di Benedetto’s novel Zama.

I bought Sorokin’s Day of Oprichnik today.

(Parenthetically: I went to the bookstore, as I stated above, to try to decompress, get away from screens, news, etc.—but I could not.

There was a young woman standing near the “RE” area in General Fiction having the loudest possible conversation one can have on a phone without actually yelling. She was talking at her mother about all the strife she has with her brother, who is also her roommate, and her father (who is divorced from the mother). The young woman cursed in almost every sentence she spoke, damning her brother for not taking out the trash, for not doing the dishes, etc. She near-shouted about her father’s siding with her brother, and about how the whole situation necessitates more therapy for her, and how she is the sane responsible one, while her brother is not. Her brother refuses to engage with her when she addresses him, claiming that he claims he can’t talk to her when she shouts, but how can she not be emotional when she’s angry? And how does that mean that she’s not rational, just because she’s yelling? And isn’t he really the abusive one, for shutting down on her and not responding when she, a grown-ass adult, is simply trying to confront him about not doing what he should be doing?

I put this information together in waves over 45 minutes. It was like running up a caustic radio show that tuned in and out depending on my proximity to its signal. Vile.)

William S. Burroughs’s final trilogy: I haven’t read WSB in ages, but I finished up his last novel, The Western Lands a few days ago (not pictured because it’s still in my car; I’d been rereading bits during carpool pick-up).. The final three books in Burroughs’s oeuvre are maybe his best (and most-overlooked), and The Place of Dead Roads is particularly fantastic.

Okay, I’m out of juice. I hope the summer is better for most of us, although there’s not much force in that verb, hope.

Percy’s Ruins, Reed’s Spring (Books acquired, 5 May 2022)

A few years ago I passed up on a hardback first-edition copy of Walker Percy’s weird dystopian Southern Gothic Love in the Ruins, and have regretted it ever since, or at least ever since I read a run of his novels back in 2020. I wound I’m reading a digital copy of Love from my local library, loved it, and would put it up there with Lancelot as his best, knowing damn well I still haven’t read The Last Gentleman or The Thanatos Syndrome. (The Thanatos Syndrome sounds like the name of a bad novel in a dystopian parody novel or film.) The cover for this edition of Love in the Ruins is by Janet Halverson.

I’ve read nine of Ishmael Reed’s first ten novels, but I still haven’t read Japanese by Spring, his ninth work, a campus novel that parodies America’s ever-ongoing culture wars. I picked up this first-edition hardback today. Before I even opened the copy, I wondered if it belonged to the same dude who I’ve managed to cop so many used postmodern novels of the past three decades. This guy—I won’t write his name out here—this guy put stamps or stickers of his name and address in the books he bought, I guess, and I ended up picking up a lot of them used over the years: Ishmael Reed, Stanley Elkin, Don DeLillo…I was thinking about maybe writing the guy? Anyway, sure enough, this copy of Japanese by Spring included a sticker bearing this guy’s name and the same address. I did a basic internet search and it looks like he’s moved, but not far, and that he’s (probably) eighty years old. I guess I’d just want to say Thanks is all.

Sunday equinox blog | Atlanta, Di Benedetto, a Paley poem, ghosting William S. Burroughs, etc.

My spring break, which is to say the spring break of the community college which employs me to teach English, rarely coincides with my children’s spring break, but this year it did, and we took full advantage, spending a week in Atlanta. We stayed in Inman Park, enjoying the BeltLine and the city’s vibe in general. Airport aside, I hadn’t been to Atlanta in twenty years, and I took pleasure in our week there. (I dug the High Museum in particular, and shared some favorites from our visit on Twitter.)

I can’t remember the last time I visited a city and didn’t buy a book. A Capella Books was a short walk from our place; it’s a small, well-curated bookshop with a limited selection. A Capella offered a number of signed books by musicians, including Billy Bragg and Chris Frantz. I thought I might regret not picking up a signed copy of Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love (which I read last year), but I feel no regret as I type this sentence. I also visited Posman Books at Ponce Market. It veers close to something like a tasteful gift shop/stationery joint, but the small fiction and poetry selection is pretty good, even if a lot of it is shelf candy. I think if I’d been willing to drive farther out I might’ve found some deeper cuts. (My wife pointed out that our local used bookstore, 1.1 miles away, has utterly spoiled me.)

Anyway: No books acquired in Atlanta. (I did buy some records though: Fat Mattress’s debut and Fleetwood Mac’s Heroes Are Hard to Find.)

I brought Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary with me to reread on the trip. I read it back in January, dogeared it, and started a review, but found that I wanted to let it settle a bit. I liked it the first time round, but the reread revealed a sadder, deeper novel than I had initially estimated.

Other stuff I’ve been reading:

Grace Paley’s late collection of poems, Fidelity. Grand stuff. Sample:

I’ve also been picking through Helen Moore Barthelme’s biography Donald Barthelme: Genesis of a Cool Sound, although there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.

I picked up the Paley and Barthelme when I swung by our campus library to get Don’t Hide the Madness, a series of conversations between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is getting pretty close to the end of his life here, and Ginsberg seems to want to get him to further cement a cultural legacy through a late oral autobiography. Burroughs repeatedly derails these attempts though, which is hilarious. Burroughs talks about whatever comes to mind (often his guns). The cover by Robert Crumb is worth sharing:

I initially requested the Burroughs book because I’ve been rereading Cities of the Red Night—and absolutely loving it—and I was trying to figure out who it was who may or may not have played a role in ghostwriting the book with Burroughs. Cities is straighter than much of Burroughs’ work—but it’s still thoroughly Burroughsian. It’s entirely possible that a straighter hand cobbled Burroughs’ images and fragments together, at least to some extent, although I think it’s erroneous to refer to the novel as ghostwritten. As far as I can tell, the claim originates with Dennis Cooper’s obituary in the October 1997 issue of Spin:

My initial guess was that Cooper here insinuates that Victor Bockris helped arrange Cities of the Red Night. Bockris was around Burroughs a lot when Burroughs was working on Cities; however, Bockris suggests that it was Burroughs who corrected his prose:

From 1979 to 1981, I had the privilege of working with William Burroughs (aged sixty-five to sixty-seven) editing two books: my portrait With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (St. Martins, 1996), and his selected essays, The Adding Machine (Arcade, 1996). At the same time, Burroughs was finishing his long-awaited novel, Cities of the Red Night (Holt, 1981), which would inaugurate a whole new person and period in his career, opening the doors to sixteen highly productive, positive years (1981-97) writing, painting, acting, performing, recording. Consequently, I suppose I am one of the ten to twelve people who ever got close enough to Bill professionally to see into his writing center. When I gave him the manuscript of With William Burroughs (75 percent of which was taped dialogue of conversations between Burroughs and fifteen other celebrities), he not only corrected the sometimes atrocious writing, he added a handful of precious inserts.

More digging seems to suggest that it was the artist Steven Lowe who helped Burroughs arrange Cities. Rick Castro’s appreciation of Lowe goes as far as to assert that, Lowe “was a ghostwriter for Burroughs, assisting on Cities of the Red NightJunkie, and a few other titles.”

Ultimately, I agree with Jamie Russell in Queer Burroughs (2001), that

The rumor that the post-Red Night trilogy texts were partly ghostwritten is perhaps…more of a compliment than the criticism it was intended to be, since it highlights Burroughs’ central theme of the 1980s and 1990s texts: the creation of a post-corporeal real. Who needs a body to write with anyway?

Typing that out, I realize that I’ve inserted an entirely different post into this Sunday equinox post. Oh well.

I love Cities of the Red Night—it’s funny and gross and oddly sweet and even sentimental, an ironic pastiche of the so-called “boys books” genre, as well as a howl against war, conformity, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. The novel it most reminds me of (apart from other Burroughs’ novels) is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

I’m also, thanks to the audiobook, into the third section of Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King. The second section focused on the protagonist Sogolon’s domestic life. Frankly, the section sags, although I understand that it likely girds the emotional core of the events to come. The novel pivots dramatically in section three, “Moon Witch.” Sogolon has lost her memory, and is in a strange sunken city centuries in the future. That’s the good shit. More thoughts to come.

 

“Fore!” — William S. Burroughs

“Fore!”

from

Cities of the Red Night

by

William S. Burroughs


The liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier. Here is a quote from Under the Black Flag by Don C. Seitz:

Captain Mission was one of the forbears of the French Revolution. He was one hundred years in advance of his time, for his career was based upon an initial desire to better adjust the affairs of mankind, which ended as is quite usual in the more liberal adjustment of his own fortunes. It is related how Captain Mission, having led his ship to victory against an English man-of-war, called a meeting of the crew. Those who wished to follow him he would welcome and treat as brothers; those who did not would be safely set ashore. One and all embraced the New Freedom. Some were for hoisting the Black Flag at once but Mission demurred, saying that they were not pirates but liberty lovers, fighting for equal rights against all nations subject to the tyranny of government, and bespoke a white flag as the more fitting emblem. The ship’s money was put in a chest to be used as common property. Clothes were now distributed to all in need and the republic of the sea was in full operation.

Mission bespoke them to live in strict harmony among themselves; that a misplaced society would adjudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and not a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who should close their ports to them. “I declare such war and at the same time recommend to you a humane and generous behavior towards your prisoners, which will appear by so much more the effects of a noble soul as we are satisfied we should not meet the same treatment should our ill fortune or want of courage give us up to their mercy.…” The Nieustadt of Amsterdam was made prize, giving up two thousand pounds and gold dust and seventeen slaves. The slaves were added to the crew and clothed in the Dutchman’s spare garments; Mission made an address denouncing slavery, holding that men who sold others like beasts proved their religion to be no more than a grimace as no man had power of liberty over another.…

Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diégo-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic—erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation. Continue reading ““Fore!” — William S. Burroughs”

See the girl | A report from Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King

One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl.

These four sentences open Marlon James’s novel Moon Witch, Spider King, the not-exactly sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red WolfThat novel centered on Tracker and his quest to recover a missing child of enormous importance. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a bizarre beast, a post-postmodern fantasy that queered its genre conventions and consistently contested the very notion that a story could ever be told straight. In it, Tracker segues between ever-shifting fellowships and nebulous nemeses–including the Moon Witch Sogolon, the protagonist of Moon Witch, Spider King.

Moon Witch, Spider King takes Sogolon as its viewpoint character, and the first seven chapters of this long, long novel (about a quarter of its 600ish pages) read far more straightforward than its predecessor. The narrative gambit of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that Tracker, captured, is telling his story to an inquisitor—and that telling is a repeated deferral, teleporting through time and space (much like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport between city-states). Tracker does all he can do to tell any truth aslant. So far, James’s new novel follows a less demanding trajectory. The repeated invocation to “See the girl” follows our hero as her circumstances rise—although Sogolon experiences her rise in a picaresque, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire spirit.

We first find her an orphan of sort, a neglected witch-child more-or-less imprisoned in a termite hill by three cruel brothers, who blame her for killing their mother, who died birthing her. Sogolon even has to name herself. She escapes only to find herself in new peril, the house of Miss Azora. It’s a whorehouse, but Sogolon mixes potions to protect herself from its patrons–excepting one. The motif of male predation repeats in Moon Witch, as well as Sogolon’s resistance against those who would take her and take from her. In time, Sogolon finds herself into the house of a fallen aristocrat. Master Komwono may hold the title, but its Mistress Komwono who runs the show. Sogolon continues to spy and absorb, to play dumb, to use how others perceive her apparent weakness as an actual strength.

After Master Komwono dies under mysterious circumstances (take a guess!), Mistress Komwono is summoned back to the kingdom of Fasisi, from which she had previously been banished. A soldier named Keme is part of the caravan to bring the Komwono household to the capital, and Sogolon finds herself taken with the man. When they arrive at the palace, things take an even more sinister turn: the King is dying and his sister has disappeared (or been disapperead).

Here is where the plot machinations of Moon Witch truly kick in, shifting into a novel of political court intrigue. Mistress Komwono gives poor Sogolon to the princess of Fasisi, and she is drawn into all sorts of machinations. We begin to see the plotting of the Aesi (another of Tracker’s antagonists), whose Machiavellian moves are yet oblique to the young girl. In the meantime, witches are being burned, and Keme meets with his own fellowship (of griots and warriors and sentient lions) in a floating city. There’s a lot going on.

There’s a lot going on, but it’s a fun going on. See the girl, the narrator repeatedly intones, and James’s prose is marvelously vivid, setting strange scene after strange scene. And while the narrative voice, focused on Sogolon, is a removed third-person, I can’t help but now notice that the book opens with an I: “One night I was in the dream jungle”…who is this I, who so quickly disappears after a few sentences, replaced by the dream-memory incantation: See the girl.

(Parenthetically—while there are no Blood Meridian vibes so far to Moon Witch, Spider King, that incantation See the girl nevertheless seems to echo that McCarthy’s novel’s opening line, See the child (itself perhaps an echo of Melville’s Call me Ishmael.))

Anyway–I’m digging Moon Witch thus far. I’ve been auditing the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin) and then rereading bits for clarification. So far, I think that anyone interested in what Marlon James is doing with this so-called Dark Star trilogy would be absolutely fine starting with this one. The line is straighter than Black Leopard, the thread is easier to follow, and it’s not necessary to know the contours or details of the plot of that “first” novel. But it still points to the wonderful queer weirdness of that novel. More to come.