The Reader, 1916 by Grace Cossington Smith (1908-1971)
The Reader, 1916 by Grace Cossington Smith (1908-1971)
I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.
I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.
Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:
Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.
Let’s look at that reigning chaos.
In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:
I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.
Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.
You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.
Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”
I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. In their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.
I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checher—To Find without Seeking.
In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.
The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.
Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?
…what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
too and it was too. It was some good.
This one looks pretty cool. The Book of Emma Reyes, an epistolary “memoir,” is new in hardback from Penguin, in English translation by Daniel Alarcón. Here’s Penguin’s blurb/bio:
Five books that I’ve made some headway into over the past few weeks, only to set aside for later—
Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a skinny hundred pages, but it’s also dense, with paragraphs that go on for pages. It’s also gloomy—it’s long intro seems like a rewrite of the introduction to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” suffocating, abject, and dulling. I intend to get back to the book, but it’s just too hot right now in Florida.
Getting a copy of The Erstwhile in the late spring was my excuse for finally reading Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, a big baroque beast of a novel. I liked The Vorrh despite (because of?) its many weird shaggy problems, but it also wore me out. (I reviewed it here). I can’t seem to get past the third chapter of The Erstwhile. I might see if there’s an audiobook of it.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas probably doesn’t belong on this list. Like Tristram Shandy, it likely belongs on a list I made last year of books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again.books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again. Calling the book strange is an understatement, and its punchy, short chapters lead to me reading it in a really discontinuous fashion (I was reading it in between stories from that Leonora Carrington collection earlier this summer, which was like a perfect cocktail of weird).
Tomasso Landolfi’s collection Words in Commotion was…not quite as weird as I’d hoped it would be. I read only the shortest stories in the collection, and while I liked the Gothic tinges, I was also reading a bunch of Barry Hannah short stories at the same time. And the Hannah stories were just like, so superior, from the sentence to the paragraph to the whole tale.
I spent the first few months of 2017 gorging on Paul Bowles, with somewhat diminishing returns. I loved The Stories of Paul Bowles but was disappointed in The Sheltering Sky; I read his “lesser” novel Up Above the World and appreciated its precision a bit more—it’s something closer to a genre novel than a philosophical exercise. I’ve made it all the way to page 50 in Let It Come Down twice now, each time getting there—it’s a chapter break—and realizing I have no idea what’s going on. I read and read, but not really. I’m not comprehending anything. I’m thinking about some other thing—food or a movie or a chore I have to do or a different book, a book I’d rather be reading now than this one.
Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.
Here’s O/R’s blurb:
Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.
This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.
Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.
Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:
The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:
The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).
Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:
Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:
In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.
The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.
If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.
Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:
The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.
From Pierre Klossowski’s novel Roberte Ce Soir, Grove Press, 1969.
Having a spare hour, I searched my favorite local used book store again for a copy of Thomas S. Klise’s 1974 cult novel The Last Western. I’d like to write about The Last Western more, and I only have a samizdat digital copy (clearly made by someone who deeply loves this out of print novel). It’d be nice to check the digital copy against an actual book of course. Anyway, I didn’t find the Klise, despite extending my search to, um, westerns. (I see interlibrary loan in my future). Really, any indie press that brings The Last Western back into print will find plenty of readers (and champions for the book).
I did find a hardback Viking copy of a Tommaso Landolfi collection Words in Commotion, and read one of the shorter stories, “The Werewolf,” in the shop and then picked it up. Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s 1986 review:
Little known in this country when he died in 1979, Landolfi is scarcely better recognized today, a situation this collection of 24 stories, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, is intended to remedy. Landolfi did not aspire to amuse or entertain in the usual sense; he preferred to confound and mystify. Even in his relatively conventional stories he scarcely bothered to inquire into motive or seek resolution. In “Uxoricide,” for example, a wife-murderer sets out to kill the shrew for reasons that do not seem quite sufficient, so that the act itself appears brutal and sadistic. In “A Woman’s Breast,” a man lusts after that part of a stranger until he attains it, is thereupon sickened by the sight and discovers odd morbidities within himself. Landolfi’s overriding interests–language and its literary possibilities, metaphysics, literary criticism—necessarily limit his audience. He saw the writer as one who spits words (see the title story), and he set himself against the critics who accused him of being “utterly indecipherable and mysterious.” That is, however, a challenge hurled at the reader.
You can read “Gogol’s Wife,” probably Landolfi’s most famous story, here.
I also picked up a Grove Press first edition of Pierre Klossowski’s Roberte Ce Soir & The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, two midcentury erotic novels. Austryn Wainhouse translates. Klossowski was the elder brother of the painter Balthus. Here’s the back cover, and an illustration of Klossowski’s (I’ll post the rest of the illustrations later):
A highlight of an unexpected trip to Los Angeles a few weeks ago was getting to meet “in real life” with some people I’ve gotten to know over the internet. I met up with Ryan Chang, who’s written a number of excellent reviews for Biblioklept, and Adam Novy, whose novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best contemporary novels of the last decade. The weirdest part about hanging out was that it wasn’t weird at all.
After lunch and coffee, Ryan and I visited Alias Books East, a small but well-stocked book shop in Atwater Village. Plenty of books on art and film, and lots of literature in translation. I asked Ryan to pick out something for me to buy, and he chose Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, a title that had grabbed his attention when we first entered the store. Here’s NYRB’s blurb for the Hrabal:
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still contains two linked narratives by the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal, whom Milan Kundera has described as “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” “Cutting It Short” is set before World War II in a small country town, and it relates the scandalizing escapades of Maryška, the flamboyant wife of Francin, who manages the local brewery. Maryška drinks. She rides a bicycle, letting her long hair fly. She butchers pigs, frolics in blood, and leads on the local butcher. She’s a Madame Bovary without apologies driven to keep up with the new fast-paced mechanized modern world that is obliterating whatever sleepy pieties are left over from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” is told by Maryška and Francin’s son and concerns the exploits of his Uncle Pepin, who holds his own against the occupying Nazis but succumbs to silence as the new post–World War II Communist order cements its colorless control over daily life. Together, Hrabal’s rousing and outrageous yarns stand as a hilarious and heartbreaking tribute to the always imperiled sweetness of lust, love, and life.
Ryan picked up a first edition hardback of an Edward St. Aubyn novel and something else I can’t remember. The clerk also let us check out some of the signed hardbacks behind the counter, and I somehow didn’t spend sixty bucks on a copy of Ray with Barry Hannah’s signature.
I spent most of the next day wandering around downtown Los Angeles. Everyone had told me to check out The Last Bookstore, and I wasn’t disappointed. I spent over an hour browsing the huge space, wishing I had more time to linger, especially in the upstairs labyrinth and the wonderful little annex of art books and monographs.
I ended up buying the first book I handled at The Lost Bookstore, RE/Search’s 1990 oversized and illustrated edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. This is one of the first Ballard books I read, actually—a good friend of mine collected RE/Search titles throughout the nineties and let me borrow them. (I always returned them).
And a random two-pager:
I also picked up another Ballard RE/Search title, a fat little book I’d never seen before named Quotes. Perfect airport reading. (And of course, being Ballard, there’s a whole section on airports). Random page:
I didn’t make it to the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, but, hey, save something for next time, right?
tooThe Nobel laureate William Faulkner died in the hot July preceding the September riots. It was good he didn’t have to watch. He was a racial moderate, read nigger lover in these parts then, and left much of his estate to the United Negro College Fund. I mention him only to place this story on the map and call to memory, now I’m an old man, that not all of us were rot. I did understand much of Faulkner’s greatest books. Personally I disliked him as a snob who with no effort at all could have been kinder to the neighbors in the village we were then. He was passing strange and spiteful to many. You had to reckon with some conceit as birthright, which made him contemptuous of the very humble folk he was celebrated for taking to his heart on the page. You will often see pure words and a great wash of self-atonement, no people necessary to them.
From one of Barry Hannah’s last short stories, “Lastword, Deputy James.” Published posthumously in the collection Long, Last, Happy, the story (often evocative of Cormac McCarthy, at least to me), along with the others in the last section of the collection, reads like part of a perhaps-unfinished novel, one that answers seriously to Southern history in a way that Hannah’s earlier work obliquely evades.
William Faulkner died 6 July 1962. He dropped out of the University of Mississippi–Ole Miss—as a young man, just like my grandfather.
The Ole Miss riot of 1962, sometimes styled “the Battle of Oxford,” began the night of 30 September 1962. The riots–a battle really—were the result of racist segregationists’ opposition to the James Meredith’s enrollment in the university. Meredith, a black man, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-1960. He graduated from Ole Miss on 18 August 1963, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.
I had been awake for almost twenty hours when I walked out of the Warner Center Marriott’s arctic AC into the concrete heat of the San Fernando Valley. My wife had to work for a few hours, so I was looking for a bar or something—something other than the hotel lobby (or LA traffic).
There was an enormous mall across the street, the Westfield Promenade. I entered by the AMC Theatre, one of the only five businesses remaining in the sprawling two-storied mall (it’s over half a million square feet). It was over 100 degrees outside in the Valley’s afternoon heat, and the mall was unairconditioned, stale, expansive but somehow stifling. The place appeared entirely empty except for a stray bored AMC employee scrolling through her phone. (Later, I’d see a man sleeping on a table and an inattentive security guard). A sad scatter of arcade games defined a loose threshold between the AMC’s going concern and the rest of the mall, which was clearly dead.
There’s something wonderfully Ballardian about dead malls—their vastness, the traces and ghosts of commerce stamped on them, echoes of a lost vibrancy that simultaneously suggest new and even unimagined future possibilities.
I love dead malls. I was born in 1979, and these kind of malls–the kind best summed up in their vitality in a film like Fast Times at Ridgemont High—helped to define my youth (even if I defined myself in part against the mall and mall culture): I bought the Breeders’ album Last Splash on tape at Camelot Music; I suffered through Stone’s Natural Born Killers; I ate at the weird cafeteria, cornbread squares and Jell-O squares wobbling on ugly green plastic trays.
Once, I saw Glenn Danzig browsing at the B. Dalton book store.
Of the half dozen remaining stores in the Westfield Promenade, only one is a retail space—oddly enough, a bookstore—Crown Books, a large spot that looked like it once sold new books but now seems to only sell old books, many of them Christian. Half of the space also seems to double as a Halloween store. The power went out twice while I was in there.
The hardbacked spine of Gerhard Kopf’s novel There Is No Borges caught my attention. It was part of a large section of “clearance” books (although everything in the store seemed to be on clearance). These books were a dollar each or five for a dollar, a mathematics that screams, Please haul these away for us. (Earlier that day at the Charlotte airport, I’d paid three dollars for 16 ounces of bottled water).
Here are the covers of the books I paid not quite 22 U.S. cents for (after taxes). Please excuse the horrid hotel carpet in the background:
(Later that night my wife and I walked a few blocks past the dead mall to the live mall—an outdoor mall, vibrant, green, bustling with children and their adults and pets, music, water, chain stores, and boutiques, and crowded restaurants. There wasn’t a bookstore there).
…I can say with all truthfulness that for me the moment of greatest understanding in which I knew spiritual reality at last came in connection with emergency root-canal irrigation, two hours in the dentist chair. And twelve hours drinking bourbon-bad bourbon at that-and simply reading Dante without listening to the stereo or eating-there was no way I could eat-and suffering, and it was all worth it; I will never forget it. I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light … and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee, and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.
So for me in a certain unusual way-for certain unusual reasons-books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together-nothing is more real than a badly infected tooth-and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding … and what did I understand? That it is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more…
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Aberrant is the début novel by Czech author Marek Šindelka. It’s new in English translation by Nathan Fields from Twisted Spoon Press, and features artwork by Petr Nikl. It’s pretty far out stuff. First pages:
The remarkable debut novel from Marek Šindelka, already the recipient of his country’s major literary awards for poetry (Jiří Orten Prize) and prose (Magnesia Litera), Aberrant is a multifaceted work that mixes and mashes together a variety of genres and styles to create a heady concoction of crime story, horror story (inspired by the Japanese tradition of kaidan), ecological revenge fantasy, and Siberian shamanism. Nothing is what it seems. What appears to be human is actually a shell occupied by an alien spirit, or demon, and what appears to be an unassuming plant is an aggressive parasite that harbors a poisonous substance within, or manifests itself as an assassin, a phantom with no real substance who pursues his victims across Europe and through a post-apocalyptic Prague ravaged by floods. The blind see, and the seeing are blind. Plants behave like animals, and animals are symbionts with plants. Through these devices, Šindelka weaves a tale of three childhood friends, the errant paths their lives take, and the world of rare plant smuggling — and the consequences of taking the wrong plant — to show the rickety foundation of illusions on which our relationship to the environment, and to one another, rests. It is a world of aberrations, anomalies, and mistake
It is like information theory; it is noise driving out signal. But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agencies call it disinformation, something the Soviet Bloc relies on heavily. If you can float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.
Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.
The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”
Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.
And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.
Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.
The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].