The Sisters — Ralph Peacock

The Sisters 1900 by Ralph Peacock 1868-1946

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The Sisters, 1900 by Ralph Peacock (1868–1946)

The first three paragraphs of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog

Yesterday afternoon a girl walked by the window and stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

I went to Smitty’s, a roadhouse a quarter of a mile down the beach. When I came back, she was gone. I could not sit in my room. The walls closed in on me. I could see the walls closing in on me, and my situation, if that is what it is, a situation, seemed suddenly so dull and hopeless; this cheap thrown-together guest house of imitation redwood on the California coast with its smell of mold and bad plumbing, the inane view from my window of driftwood and seaweed, flat predictable waves, corny writings in the sand, pot-bellied fishermen and bronzed godlike volleyball players. I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus. I suppose that is what there is to tell about. Then I’ll move on. Last night there was a storm, and I abandoned the octopus. I didn’t really abandon the octopus, it’s still in the bathysphere on the truck bed, and the truck bed is still up on blocks, but it’s not the same any more. I’m going to move on alone.

I have money and I can make money. I want to say that now. I’m no reprobate, nor am I a drain on anyone. My great aunt left me two thousand a year, and I have, or had, an octopus and a truck. A man sold me the octopus and truck in Oregon. I met him in a bar in one of those logging towns on the Coast where the only attractive spot is the village dump, which at least has the advantage of facing the sea. Nog, he was apparently of Finnish extraction, was one of those semi-religious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians. He was dressed in black motorcycle boots, jeans and an old army shirt with sergeant chevrons still on the sleeves. His face was lean and hatchet-edged, with huge fuzzy eyes sunk deep in his skull like bullet holes. He kept complaining about a yellow light that had lately been streaming out of his chest from a spot the size of a half dollar. We drank and talked about the spot and the small burning sensation it gave him early in the morning and about his octopus. He had become disillusioned about traveling with the octopus and had begun having aggressive dreams about it. He wanted to sell it. We bought a bottle and walked out beyond the town into logged-off hills that looked like old battlefields. A low mist hung over a struggling second growth of redwood and Douglas fir. The tracks of giant caterpillar tractors wound everywhere. Pits and ditches were scattered about like shell holes. Thousands of frogs croaked and salamanders hung suspended between lids of green slime and rotting logs. I felt vaguely elated, like a witness to some ancient slaughter.

From Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog. Reprinted from Two Dollar Radio.

Blog about some recent reading

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From the top down:

I came across a battered and beautiful copy of Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast by chance a few weeks ago and asked Twitter if the trilogy was any good. The answer was a very enthusiastic, even cultish Yes. I still can’t believe I’d never even heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy until recently—I grew up reading fantasy novels, and Lord of the Rings, the novel that Peake’s trilogy is often compared to, is and was one of my favorite novels of all time. The comparisons to Tolkien though aren’t particularly convincing, beyond the time period the novels were published, and their both being trilogies. Peake’s novels are grungier, wordier, thicker somehow; he plasters word on word on word building a baroque and grotesque world that is rich and full yet nevertheless opaque. He refuses to explain, but he shows. I read Titus Groan, the first novel in the trilogy, in a bit of a fever, feeding on its thickness. It reminded me of Dickens and T.H. White, but also Leonardo’s grotesque caricatures and Aleksei German’s film adaptation of Hard to Be a God. So much abjection! I have failed to discuss the plot: It’s a castle plot, whatever that means. There are insiders and outsiders. An outsider is trying to make his way not just in but also up: That’s Steerpike, the villainous hero of Titus Groan, and Iago-like intellect whose machinations Peake doesn’t just tell us about, but actually harnesses for us to ride around after. Little Titus Groan barely shows up in his eponymous volume, but so far in Gormenghast there’s been a lot more of him, which is cool, even if there’s been less Steerpike so far, which is not so cool. I’m about halfway through and really enjoying it. The novel vacillates between tones, dwelling just a bit-too-long on a bathetic romance before whirling again to other matters: a feral child, assassinations, an exiled retainer in the wild. Great stuff. The books are illustrated by the author:

Peake’s Gormenghast books have been my “big” read so far this year, but I’ve slipped in other texts too of course. Dmitry Samarov’s Music to My Eyes is a sort of love-letter (“love” is maybe not the right word) to the Chicago music scene; it also functions as a memoir of sorts. The vignettes and short essays make for quick and entertaining reads. The book is also illustrated by the author; here is his picture of David Berman:

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I have been slowly making my way through the stories in Anna Kavan’s collection Machines in the Head, which is available (today!) now from NYRB. I have a full review coming next week, but it’s Good Weird Stuff. If you pick it up, I recommend skipping to the later stories and working backwards—Kavan eventually absorbs the Kafka-anxieties that permeate the earlier texts and synthesizes it into something all her own. The book is not illustrated by the author.

The Great American Novelist Charles Portis died yesterday. I pulled his books out, took a pic, wrote a post. Of his five novels, I’ve yet to read Gringos. I ended up reading the first 60-odd pages of it last night, after having pulled it down, and the sentences are too good to not keep going. Portis’s command of voice is amazing, and I love that he’s returned to the first-person here—in this case, the voice of Jimmy Burns, an American living in Merida, working as a part-time tomb raider, but mostly just helping out gringos and Mexicans alike. Gringos is both comic and ominous, cynical and joyful so far. I will keep going. The book isn’t illustrated, but here’s a taste of the prose, from a page I doggeared last night:

And so little fellowship among the writers. They shared a beleaguered faith and they stole freely from one another—the recycling of material was such that their books were all pretty much the same one now—but in private they seldom had a good word for their colleagues.

The notation is about alien-Mayan-conspiracy books, but I think it works as a take on literature in general.

The spine down there at the bottom with its own glyphs is Anasazi, a graphic novel by Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan. It’s really, really good—I’ve read it twice now, and I have a review planned for The Comics Journal next month. I wrote about it a bit here,  saying;

The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. The novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

This book is, of course, illustrated by the authors:

img_5001Blog about some recent reading

RIP Charles Portis

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RIP Charles Portis, 1933-2020

The Arkansas Times and other sources have reported that the novelist Charles Portis has died at the age of 86.

Portis published five novels in his life: NorwoodThe Dog of the SouthMasters of Atlantis, and Gringos, but he’s most likely well-known for his 1968 bestseller True Grit, which has been adapted to film twice. The first adaptation (1969), starring John Wayne, is a much broader affair than the Coen Brother’s 2010 take, which does a better job conveying the novel’s sharp humor. Neither can touch the novel, of course.

Walker Percy blurbed True Grit, comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Told in Mattie Ross’s clipped, witty, yet still-the-slightest-shade-naive voice, True Grit’s narrative voice echoes Huck’s, and is equally achieved and engrossing, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing, enduring American hero. True Grit is a novel that teens and adults alike will love, and revisit, each time finding it changed. I’m very sorry that I was forty when I first read it, but I can make sure my daughter doesn’t overlook it. True Grit is probably a perfect novel.

Portis’s first novel Norwood (1966) is the first novel I read by him. This impossibly-large but slim novel is the picaresque tale of Norwood Pratt, who kind of bumbles his way across the South after being discharged from the Marines. Portis taps into the same grotesque fount that fed Faulkner and Flannery, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers, but he converts that fuel into something more exuberant, energetic, and joyful than anything those authors ever produced.

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Eleven years after True Grit, Portis published The Dog of the South, which might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by him. This is a shaggy dog, a road trip novel, ribald, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like the novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage, a loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel with more structure and tighter refrains than Hannah’s wild jazz. Dog may have some faults, but it’s a wonderful read, and its ending reverberates with earned pathos.

1985’s Masters of Atlantis is probably the consensus favorite among Portis fans. Easily the most sprawling of his books, both in geographical scope and time, Masters is a novel of con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Despite an international cast, like Portis’s first three novels Masters is a very American novel, whatever that means. There’s a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness to Masters—the novel reminds me very much of Pynchon’s underrated Against the Day. Masters of Atlantis also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels, like Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Baum’s Oz books, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and even  The Great Gatsby. (It’s more fun to read than any of those.) Told in a third-person voice, Masters feels positively epic compared to the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Masters is a loose, shaggy epic that seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages.

I have yet to read Portis’s final novel Gringos (1991), which centers on expatriate Americans living in Merida who raid Mayan tombs and hunt UFOs (this may be an inaccurate description). I secured a copy when I was on my Portis binge, but when I finished Masters of Atlantis, I had to pause. Like many readers who fall in love with an author—especially an author with such a slim oeuvre—I tend to read greedily, voraciously, as the cliche goes. Finding Portis at forty felt like a bizarre gift from nowhere (a gift from the author himself, of course). I read all of Cormac McCarthy in my late twenties, an act I now regret. It’s not that I can’t re-read McCarthy—I do all the time—but unless we get another novel, it’s like, That’s it. When I truly fell in love with Pynchon and Gaddis, in my thirties, I consumed their novels, of course, re-reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow an J R—but also leaving one, y’know, in my back pocket, metaphorically: Bleeding Edge and A Frolic of His Own, respectively. Gringos is on the same mental shelf as those volumes, but I’ve taken it down from the actual shelf it was just-until-now resting upon, a to-be-read stack.  I used the adjective final in the first sentence of the previous paragraph to describe Portis’s 1991 novel Gringos. It’s possible that there are more novels, of course, finished or otherwise, and I have to admit that I’ll look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, I’ll start Gringos.

 

Prospectors — Nigel Cooke

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Prospectors, 2013 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Book Painting No. 6 — Liu Ye

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Book Painting No. 6, 2015 by Liu Ye (b. 1964)

Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing (Book acquired 13 Jan. 2020)

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I got an email from an independent bookseller a few days ago confirming that I bought a copy of  Ishamel Reed’s 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing. I had no recollection of purchasing the novel online, although this kind of thing has happened more than once. It was a Saturday night; I may or may not have had a few tumblers of scotch, and was probably jonesing for more Reed after having finished Flight to Canada. Anyway, it showed up today. Here is the back cover:

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And here is the first paragraph of Larry McCaffery’s contemporary review of the novel in The Los Angeles Times:

Early on in “Reckless Eyeballing,” one of the book’s many beleaguered black men observes that “throughout history when the brothers feel that they’re being pushed against the wall, they strike back and when they do strike back it’s like a tornado, uprooting, flinging about, and dashing to pieces everything in its path.” This passage provides a perfect entryway into Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, for like many other black men, Reed obviously feels that “the brothers” are catching it from all sides–and not just from the usual sources of racial bigotry, but from ‘60s liberals now turned neo-conservatives, from white feminists who propagate the specter of the black men as phallic oppressor, from other racial minorities anxious to wrest various monkeys off their own backs.

The Pillow — John Currin

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The Pillow, 2006 by John Currin (b. 1962)

Blog about the first books I bought in 2020 (Books acquired, 2 Jan. 2020)

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Since the last time I’ve done one of these stupid “books acquired” posts, I’ve had at least six review copies show up at Biblioklept World Headquarters, Joy Williams’ 1988 Florida Keys novel Breaking and Entering, and a signed first-edition hardback copy of Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-hoodoo novel Flight to Canada—which I finished yesterday morning—and I’ve yet to do one of these stupid “books acquired posts” on any of them.

I had intended to do write about Flight to Canada today—a very Reedesque romp, overstuffed with characters and capers and motifs and themes, a zany satire of not just the Civil War, but also the American 1970s. Anyway, I’d intended to write about it today (or maybe riff on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which I saw last night and adored), but I ended up having to do a bunch of post-Xmas chores. The last few weeks have been busy.

In between post-Xmas chores, I dropped my daughter off at my in-law’s, which necessitates driving past my favorite used bookstore. I couldn’t resist stopping by, even though I need another book like I need another hole in my head. I mean, I had intended to start Charles Portis’s latest (and hopefully not last!) novel Gringos today. Instead, I started Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was an unexpected highlight for me in 2019—I’ll admit I’d never really thought to read anything of hers after filing her under Eighth grade lit after reading “The Lottery” (I made a similar stupid mistake with William Golding (filed under Tenth grade lit), corrected by good people who told me to read The Inheritors). I didn’t really know anything about We Have Always Lived in the Castle until today, but I love the title and really dig this Penguin edition’s cover (by comix artist Thomas Ott). Like Hill House, Castle also has a fantastic opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

The first sentence is a bit banal, a little bit of exposition, right? And then by the time you get to the “I could have been a werewolf,” well, what the hell? And then there’s a because, lovely, before a nice lists of dislikes (first!) and then likes (including a deadly mushroom, which Jackson’s narrator Mary (purposefully?) misnames as the “death-cup” instead of the death cap. The last line is a hell of a zinger.

I skipped Jonathan Lethem’s introduction of course, but I did have to go figure out if he also wrote the introduction to the edition of Hill House I read last year. (He didn’t Jonny Lethe wrote the intro to the copy of Anna Kavan’s Ice that I read last year. I’ll read J-Lethz intro after I finish.)

I also picked up a 1973 Penguin edition of a collection of Flann O’Brien’s stories and plays. (Neil Stuart’s cover was worth the two bucks.) The bulk of the collection is devoted to an unfinished novel called Slattery’s Sogo Saga and a play called Faustus Kelly, attributed to O’Brien’s pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (rendered in this edition as Myles Na Gopaleen—Flann O’Brien was actually a pseudonym too, for Brian O’Nolan).

Like the O’Brien collection, picking up a clearly-unread pristine massmarket paperback edition of J.G. Ballard’s 1965 novel The Drought was more an I have to type situation than anything else, although I’m sure I’ll read it this year (I’m always looking to scarf down a Philip K. Dick or Ballard I haven’t read, and I haven’t read The Drought). Initially, I was perplexed—I thought I knew all Ballard titles, even the ones I haven’t read—but it turns out that The Drought was initially published in 1964 as The Burning World (which I was aware of). In any case, The Drought is probably horrifyingly prescient novel as we enter the New Twenties. Happy New Year!

Annotations on a probably incomplete list of books I read or reread in full in 2019

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The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, Angela Carter

Deeply horny and deeply deprave. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. It’s a picaresque adventure with narrator Desiderio taking on titular mad scientist Hoffman and his war against reality. Wild shit happens and each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

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

Interviewing Margaret Carson was an early highlight of 2019 for me. We talked about Varo’s letters and other writings (dreams!), and she brought up Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Pynchon, which is like, golden for me.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (translation by Clarence Brown)

I absolutely loved Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation of Zamyatin’s We. From my review:

Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.

Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover

Probably the best opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel that fails deliver after the first 100 or so pages. Coover turns it up to 11—the second chapter of Origin, describing a mine’s implosion, is some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, but the next 400 pages of the disaster’s fallout is a rhetorical trudge.

The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto  Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

For completists only. A dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives. I wrote about it here.

Evening in Paradise, Lucia Berlin

Fucking loved it, didn’t I.

Taking Care, Joy Williams

Williams’ early collection contains at least three perfect short stories.

No!, Leslie Fiedler

Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is extremely important to how I think about American literature. No! is not nearly as good.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer

How serendipitous that Boyer’s collection of essays begins with a wonderful essay called “No.” Good stuff.

Kingdom, Jon McNaught

I reviewed it at The Comics Journal, writing,

Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.

,before going on to riff on John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song  a bit.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I mean like I guess I didn’t really think it was that good?

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Well I fucking loved it didn’t I?

Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

Berg, Ann Quin

Maybe the best novel I read this year.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

Did these on audiobook and loved them. The first in this tetraology, The Shadow of the Torturer was probably my favorite, but the best scene in the whole deal is in the third book, The Sword of the Lictor, when the protagonist Severian fights this were-bear thing called the Alzabo—a slow, protracted battle scene based more on strategy and tactics than on brute force.

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon

I love Thomas Pynchon but Vineland is not his best book, or his second- or third- or fourth-best book (etc.). Has a perfect paragraph nevertheless.

Don Quixote, Kathy Acker

I dig that wild gross stuff what can I say.

Slave Old Man, Patrick Chamoiseau (translation by Linda Coverdale)

Superb.

The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez

–and–

Is This How You See Me?, Jaime Hernandez

I reread The Love Bunglers to review Is This How You See Me? at The Comics Journal. From my review:

Can you ever really go home again?

This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.

Border Districts, Gerald Murnane

Great stuff.

Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore

“Lonely cows on the highway appeared as splendid Baracuda, and the dismally soaked Spanish moss luxuriant submarine vetch,” Gaddis writes his mother, in 1947, describing leaving rainy New Orleans. All the best letters are to his sweet mama, even the many many ones asking for money. God rest Mama Gaddis’s soul.

Optic Nerve, Maria Gainza (translation by Thomas Bunstead)

Maybe it was the time of year, maybe it was because I had to rush before returning the book to the library. I thought Optic Nerve was nice post-Sebald thing, but it never zapped me.

The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin

Good stuff, good experiments, not Berg.

Ice, Anna Kavan

This book is imperfectly perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago but I’m glad I read it this year. More here. (I fucking loved Ice.)

Geometry in the Dust, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

More Senges please.

Milkman, Anna Burns

Is good

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

A Little Lumpen Novelita, Roberto Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

A Little Long Short Story by dipped out of the bottom of the Bolaño barrel.

Tears of the Trufflepig, Fernando A. Flores

This review piqued my interest in Flores’s alternate timeline border novel. The novel’s premise was good, but the prose seemed uninspired.

Norwood, Charles Portis

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis

True Grit, Charles Portis

I read Norwood this summer and then promptly picked up everything I could by Portis. Can’t believe I haven’t read him until now. I wrote about his novels in a post here. I’m saving Gringos for later.

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Warner Townsend

I never would’ve thought an epic story about a backwater nunnery could be so good. More Townsend in 2020.

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware

One of the best novels I read this year. From my review at The Comics Journal

Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest novel (or, more precisely, novel-in-progress) strengthens the argument that Ware is a Serious American Novelist, one who deserves a large crossover audience. Like Jimmy Corrigan and Building StoriesRusty Brown has a central primary setting, a small private school in Nebraska. And like those novels, Rusty Brown comprises material (lightly reworked) from Ware’s Acme Novelty Library series (issues 16, 17, 19, and 20, specifically). The cast here is much larger and the themes are arguably more ambitious though.

Rusty Brown is a sprawling story about memory and perception, about minor triumphs and chronic failures, about how our inner monologues might not match up to the reality around us. In Ware’s world, life can be blurry, spotty, fragmented. His characters are so bound up in their own consciousnesses that they cannot see the bigger picture that frames them.

In the Time of the Blue Ball, Manuela Draeger (translation by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson)

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball in two quick sittings. Draeger is one of French author Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but I had forgotten that when I picked it up. It was a Dorothy Project title, and it looked neat, so I got it. Draeger is also one of Volodine’s recurring characters, a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The three stories in Blue Ball are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

Rat Time, Keiler Roberts

I loved Rat Time! In my review, I wrote,

Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.

Negrophobia, Darius James

I had never heard of Negrophobia. I found it in a used bookstore next to something else. The title intrigued me (not to mention the NYRB imprint), and blurbs from Kathy Acker, Paul Beatty, and Kara Walker sold me on it. Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence.

Actual Air, David Berman

I wish David Berman were still alive.

The Doomed City, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky  (translation by Andrew Bromfield)

A baggy, abject, Kafkaesque riff on a utopian project’s dystopian turn, The Doomed City was not my favorite Strugatsky jam, but it was pretty good.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

I made a huge mistake by not reading Shirley Jackson earlier. I think I just associated her with that story we all have to read in like eighth grade, and never went back. Anyway. Hill House has a perfect opening (I riffed on the opening here):

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (translation by Michael Hofmann)

“Unbe-fucking-lievable”

A Mistake, Carl Shuker

I enjoyed Carl Shuker’s slim novel A Mistake. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, A Mistake is the story of Elizabeth Taylor, the only female surgeon at her hospital. Shuker’s novel reads in some ways as a critique of neoliberalism’s attempt to quantify every aspect of medical care. The novel is set against “the minister’s mistake,” a plan to publicize each surgeon’s results. And at the beginning of the novel, well, there’s a mistake, one which Elizabeth is involved with. Although the blurb describes A Mistake as a “procedural thriller,” I found it closer to a character study of an outsider who finds herself increasingly alienated by her peers and friends alike. Shuker conveys his hero edging into paranoia and depression in sharp, precise prose which occasionally recalls Don DeLillo.

The Undying, Anne Boyer

An aphoristic memoir-essay, The Undying is a discursive dive into Boyer’s diagnosis of, treatment of, and recovery from breast cancer. It’s an angry, smart book, with little bursts of mean humor, and it rips apart the ways that neoliberal late capitalism have made health care inhuman and inhumane.

Sports Is Hell, Ben Passmore

Sports Is Hell is a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness—think Walter Hill’s film The Warriors by way of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Why did I wait so long to read The Sellout?

Falstaff: An Apotheosis, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

This chapbook is wonderful riff on Henry IV Part I, V.iv—the part where Falstaff flops on the battlefield, faking his death in an act of cowardly heroism.

Juice!, Ishmael Reed

I wrote about Juice! here.

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

I bought myself a signed first-edition hardback copy of Flight to Canada on the internet. It was like 12 bucks. I’m actually not quite finished with it, to be honest–but I’m drafting this post from the past (it’s 14:08 on 31 Dec. 2019 as I type)–but I’ve only got like fifty more pages, so I think I can get it done.

Happy 2020 to all of you!

RIP Alasdair Gray

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RIP Alasdair Gray, 1934-2019

The Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray died today, one day after his 85th birthday.

Gray’s first novel, 1981’s Lanark, is one of the strangest and most memorable novels I’ve ever read. Part dystopian fantasy, part realist autofiction, part Kafkaesque anti-quest, and part Künstlerroman, Lanark deconstructs the traditional novel, braiding multiple narratives into a complex, sharp, satirical epic.

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Lanark included original artwork by Gray, a trend that would continue over the course of his career as a novelist. Gray was trained as a muralist, and if I ever make it to Glasgow I plan to see his murals.

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Gray’s art of course adorns his follow-up to Lanark, 1984’s 1982, Janine, a challenging novel of debauchery. 1982, Janine is conceptually, formally, and typographically challenging, a kind of answer to Finnegans Wake, and like Joyce’s big weird fun hard novel, Gray’s sophomore jaunt is a jam I return to again and again without the hope of truly ever finishing. 1982, Janine also has the best blurb I think I’ve ever read—you can watch Gray read it in this 1993 STV documentary about Gray (around 15:34)—

The Gray Matter also features Gray discussing his novels and reading from them, as well as his art. It makes a neat primer to the Gray’s work, and while I’m no expert—just a big fan of those first two novels and his art, to be clear—I think it does a nice job of letting the artist speak about his art.

I’ll close by reiterating that Lanark has stuck with me in a way that most novels don’t. It might seem a daunting read at nearly 600 pages (not to mention its four-book structure, which begins with Book Three before going to Books One and Two and then concluding with Four—and, oh the books are formally/stylistically varied)—but Lanark might be the cult novel you’ve been missing from your life.

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Complaint to God (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

Interior: Girl Reading — Mary McEvoy

Interior: Girl Reading 1901 by Mary McEvoy 1870-1941

Interior: Girl Reading, 1901 by Mary McEvoy (1870–1941)

Two Sublunary Editions (Books acquired, 16 Dec. 2019)

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I was pysched to get to Sublunary Editions titles the other week.

I read the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis on 19 Dec. 2019. The story, a wonderful riff on Henry IV Part I, V.iv—the part where Falstaff flops on the battlefield, faking his death in an act of cowardly heroism—is by the French author Pierre Senges. It is the third translation of Senges’ work by Jacob Siefring that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it very much, reading it surreptitiously on the back of the dais, cloaked by my colleagues during our fall commencement. (I had to tune out the ramblings of the commencement speaker, a local judge afflicted with a conservative streak.) Here’s novelist S.D. Chrostowska’s blurb:

Like Falstaff’s coffin in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Pierre Senges’s erudite fragments are broader than most, their depth befitting Shakespeare’s original. Here’s Falstaff the master thespian, never wiser or more human than when he plays dead to save his skin and takes a nap. Well-served by this limpid translation, Senges resurrects him as a hero for our time. Bravo!

I also got 926 Years, and intriguing title by Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson. Here’s Sublunary’s blurb:

Through twenty-two linked stories, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson explore the creative potential of people’s native estrangement from themselves and each other. Two writers who have never met, who live on opposite sides of the globe—one in Australia, the other in the United States—tracking the pattern of probable lives and fates that co-exist between them, from Korea to England, Senegal to Argentina. Their conclusion/suspicion: imagination is stronger, and subtler, than God, and offers more than mere consolation for the difficulties of living.

And here’s what novelist Gary Lutz has to say:

The intimate, globe-spanning microportraits of human crisis in 926 Years are at once sobering and uplifting, clarifying and mystifying. Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson’s collaboration is a nonpareil of short-form virtuosity.

More thoughts forthcoming!

 

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas is here, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

New Accursed Art Club — Nigel Cooke

New Accursed Art Club 2007 by Nigel Cooke born 1973

New Accursed Art Club, 2007 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics — Mike Davis

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Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics by Mike Davis