Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’ novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine.

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering—

—okay, wait, it occurs to me now that I’ve completely neglected to offer any kind of plot description that might anchor this ostensible “review,” to set up who exactly Miss Goering is, etc., so  here goes (and I encourage you to just go ahead and skip the next long paragraph)—

A bad summary: Two Serious Ladies comprises three long chapters, each of which might stand on its own as a long short story. Part the first: Miss Goering is rich but strange. Her childhood is bizarre; alienated from others “she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a human being.” Her attempt to baptize another child luckily doesn’t end in a drowning. She grows up out of step with her peers, dresses odd, speaks odd. One day out of nowhere appears a Miss Gamelon, who becomes her (often disagreeable) companion. At a party she runs into the other serious lady, Mrs. Copperfield, whose adventures in Panama comprise the second section of the book. At the same party she meets Arnold, a would-be artist, goes home with him, meets his folks, his father. She elects to move (with Arnold and Miss Gamelon) to a run-down cottage on a drab island, forsaking her wealth, sort of. Part the second: We shift to section two, the Copperfields’ adventures in Panama. Mr. Copperfield checks the couple into a seedy hotel in the wrong part of town and promptly drops his wife off where the brothels are. She moves into a run-down hotel with a prostitute named Pacifica while her husband does God-knows-what. There’s a lot of drinking and near-madness, run-ins with bad boyfriends and snooty hoteliers. Mr. Copperfield leaves without his wife. Part the third: We return to Miss Goering and gang in the dilapidated cottage. Arnold’s father soon moves in with them. Miss Goering starts going out at night alone. She gets picked up at bar and moves in with a man named Andy. She eventually leaves him for a gangster who mistakes her for a prostitute. On a dinner date—okay, not really a dinner date but—on a dinner date with the gangster (who, like the dinner date, is never actually named as a “gangster”), Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield. Both are much changed.

—okay, so this time with (or without) some context—

A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering and her gangster:

This man, they had noticed, drove up to the saloon in a very beautiful big automobile that resembled more a hearse than a private car. Miss Goering had examined it one day when the man was drinking in the saloon. It appeared to be almost brand new. She and Andy had looked in through the window and had been a little surprised to see a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. Miss Goering was completely preoccupied now with what course to take should the newcomer be willing to make her his mistress for a little while. She was almost sure that he would, because several times she had caught him looking at her in a certain way which she had learned to recognize. Her only hope was that he would disappear before she had the chance to approach him. If he did, she would be exempt and thus able to fritter away some more time with Andy, who now seemed so devoid of anything sinister that she was beginning to scrap with him about small things the way one does with a younger brother.

And of course she gives in to her terrible desire. The plot of Two Serious Ladies might be described as a search for “anything sinister.”  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield seek the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: disasters, abysses, madness. Love?

The novel most reminded me of what I love best in the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Roberto Bolaño—that sense of perverse night-time dread, the sordid intimation of just how easily the veneer might crack, of how simple it might be for civilization to give way to the madness under the surface.

David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño suffuse their work with an absurd howling humor that percolates along with the dread, and Two Serious Ladies operates along the same horror/humor axis. The book is hilarious, but my several attempts to capture that here in a few excerpts of dialogue fail to translate into this digest form. Will you take my word? Will you take my word that the book was much funnier the second time I read it?

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review of Two Serious Ladies in February of 2015].

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Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day, Days as Night (Book acquired, 27 Feb. 2017)

Michel Leiris’s book of dream fragments, Nights as Day, Days as Night is new from Spurl Editions. Their blurb:

Translated from French by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot. Hailed as an “important literary document and contemporary pleasure” by Lydia Davis, Nights as Day, Days as Night is a chronicle of Michel Leiris’s dreams. But it is also an exceptional autobiography, a distorted vision of twentieth-century France, a surrealist collage, a collection of prose poems. Leiris, author of the seminal autobiography Manhood, here disrupts the line between being asleep and awake, between being and non-being. He captures the profound strangeness of the dreamer’s identity: that anonymous creature who stirs awake at night to experience a warped version of waking life.

Whatever the setting (from circus shows to brothels, from the streets of Paris to Hollywood silent films), Leiris concentrates on estranging the familiar, on unsettling the commonplace. Beautifully translated by Richard Sieburth, these dream records often read like an outsider’s view of Leiris’s life and epoch. This outsider is the dreamer, Leiris’s nocturnal double, whose incisors grow as large as a street, who describes the terror he feels at being executed by the Nazis, and who can say in all seriousness, “I am dead.” It is an alternate life, with its own logic, its own paradoxes, and its own horrors, which becomes alienating and intimate at once. With hints of Kafka, Pirandello, and Nerval, Nights as Day, Days as Night is one of Leiris’s finest works of self-portraiture.

Michel Leiris (1901–1990) was an author, ethnographer, art critic, and former surrealist who pioneered a unique form of autobiographical writing. Praised by Susan Sontag, Maurice Blanchot, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, he made powerful contributions to modern French literature. His autobiographical works include Manhood, The Rules of the Game, and Nights as Day, Days as Night.

I’ve nibbled a little bit—something like microfictions, or unfinished fables, Leiris’ fragments are often funny and often unsettling.

An erotic(ish) one:

Spurl also enclosed some nice postcards.

I like postcards.

They make lovely bookmarks.

The Erstwhile, B. Catling’s sequel to The Vorrh (Book acquired, 17 Feb. 2017)

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B. Catling’s sequel to The Vorrh arrived last week, reminding me that I still need to read The Vorrh. 

Publisher Vintage’s blurb:

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

Map of Days (Beautiful book acquired, 2.04.2017)

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Robert Hunter’s graphic novel Map of Days is new from Nobrow. It’s gorgeous.

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I’ll write a proper review soon, but for now, here’s Nobrow’s blurb:

Richard can’t stop thinking about the clock. He lies in bed each night listening to its tick-tocking, to the pendulum’s heavy swing. Why does his grandfather open its old doors in secret and walk into the darkness beyond?

One night, too inquisitive to sleep, Richard tiptoes from his bed, opens the cherry wood door of the grandfather clock, and steps inside. There, in a strange twilight, he sees the Face the Earth, locked forever in a simulated world, where green things seem to grow in the semblance of trees and plants, from unreal soil…

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Lacemaker — Gerrit Dou

G.Dou, Spitzenkloepplerin - G.Dou, Lace maker -

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Sunday Comics 

A Krazy Kat strip by George Herriman. The scan is from Krazy Kat by George Herriman, Henry Holt and Company, 1946.

FALLOUT PROTECTION FOR…

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My wife’s grandmother recently passed away and my wife took a bunch of her old photos and papers, including this DOD pamphlet from 1966. The scan above is the back cover/front cover. Here’s the first inside page, with a cheerful note from LBJ:

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Here’s my favorite section:

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Le Guin/Abish/Farber (Books 2.03.2017)

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I picked up this handsome hardback collection of early Ursula K. LeGuin stories last Friday when I went to my local used bookshop. I was there looking for something else.

I wasn’t looking for stories by Walter Abish (and I can’t remember how or why I picked this up, but I read part of it in the store…I mean I can’t recall why I was in the “A’s” for Atwood or Abish):

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And I wasn’t looking for essays by Jerry Farber (this weird mass market paperback was crammed into a completely wrong section—misshelved as if someone was trying to hide it. The font on the spine prompted me to pull it out, and I knew that the guy had written “The Student as Nigger”….I started reading “Why People Love Capitalism” and decided to pick it up):

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What I was looking for was Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which is prominent on my to-read list after devouring The Stories of Paul Bowles. But I simply couldn’t come to terms with these covers:

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I mean, look, I know I shouldn’t care about the cover, but these are dreadful, and it this point if I’m going to own a paper book, it needs to have some aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit like the cover for this collection:

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(I didn’t pick it up because the seven stories are in The Stories of Paul Bowles).

A last thought on covers:

“There’s quite a bit of schmaltz in Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Caleb Crain reviews George Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo

First paragraph:

George Saunders’s new novel—his first, after four collections of short stories and a novella—takes place in the afterlife. Or rather, it takes place in the “bardo,” a term that Saunders has borrowed from Buddhism for what might be called the “justafterlife”—the interval between a ghost’s separation from its body and its departure for whatever comes next. As in The Sixth Sense and other movies and television shows, the ghosts imagined by Saunders linger in our world because they either don’t know they’re dead or aren’t yet resigned to leaving. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they are told by browbeating angels who visit intermittently, but they refuse to listen.

Crain doesn’t exactly eviscerate Lincoln in the Bardo in his review (which also situates the novel in context with Saunders’s previous stories and essays), but he does make a strong case for passing on it.

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

Girl Reading at Window — Henry Moore

Girl Reading at Window 1977-8 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses (William H. Gass)

Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses. Our enemies are always spying, undermining, arming, plotting, seizing the high ground, inventing new horrors, inventing flashier weapons. This mole, or that rat, is smarter than we ever”“imagined, and it is working day and night against us—cunning and conniving—out of sight, in secret—because beneath deep undergarments it holds a gun, a knife, a bomb, or a book full of dreadful ideas. We must monitor our phones, watch our neighbors—note, film, record, trace, follow, measure every movement, scrutinize every public meeting, overhear every private one, rifle records, ponder every purchase, search through garbage, twist dumb tongues till they scream with the pain of prying pliers.

Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions: there is Mother’s heart you mustn’t break or Father’s hopes you dare not dash; there are the reprisals taken by society because you sniffed when you should have sneezed; there are all those looks delivered like blows from someone sitting on his high horse and wielding his scorn like a whip. It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.

Of course, what we believe is important, but that we believe it freely, that we can speak of it openly, that we fear neither disapproval nor contradiction, is essential to the humanness of our being. This freedom—if it is to be freedom and not another fraud—comes at a cost. It is a cost that those who have rarely been free are often reluctant to pay, because they are as unused to the presence of liberty in others as they are of freedom when granted to themselves.

We can be real only when others are allowed to play their radios. It’s odd, but our liberty lies in the liberty of our neighbors. They will be rude; they will cross the street against the light; they will eat offal; they will entertain tyrants at tea; they will be tasteless; they will be other; they will be … That’s it … they will be. They will speak strangely, dress oddly, live quaintly, worship a deity they found in a dime store. Worse: they won’t like Bach or Henry James. Worse: they will live like gnats in annoying clouds. Worse: for us they will have no particular esteem. Worst: they will want us to be nice to them, share our rights, give them room. Worse than worst: they will deny us our desires if they can; they will blame us for their plights; they will give evidence, everywhere, of the same mean-spirited insecurities that have soiled our souls from our birth.

When we deny to others their interior life, we deny ourselves all knowledge of it.

From William H. Gass’s essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These.” Collected in Life Sentences.

The Window, Chiswick — Mary Potter

The Window, Chiswick 1929 by Mary Potter 1900-1981

Reader — Francine Van Hove

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Reading/Have Read/Should Write About (Paul Bowles, Robert Coover, Pierre Senges, Antonio di Benedetto)

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I’ve had a hard time reading much (let alone writing anything) since November 8th.

A Klimt puzzle has been soothing though.

And I’ve found audiobooks, which I’ve always loved, particularly wonderful lately. They have provided a kind of anti-noise, antidote, anti-?—against the NPR news and punditry I might normally adhere to in the car (and especially potent against my own thoughts at night before I fall asleep).

My pattern with audiobooks has long been to reread at night the chapters or passages I audited that day, or to audit after I had read—or to mix it all up, going back and forth. I like this method because it allows me, essentially, to reread.

I’ve been listening to The Stories of Paul Bowles, read by like a dozen different performers (not a full-cast group read, but rather different voices for different tales). Then (mostly at night but occasionally very early in the morning), I’ve been rereading some of the stories that are collected in Collected Stories. (My local bookshop had copies of the more-complete The Stories of, but hell, who can pass up a Black Sparrow Press edition? Plus—parenthetically—the BSP edition collects the more essential stories).

Anyway, I’m coming to the end of The Stories of Paul Bowles and I’m almost a bit sad about it. The sadness come partially from the fact that the stories are presented chronologically, and, simply put, the later tales are sadder than the earlier ones. Not in content, but in tone—Bowles’s later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also stylistically. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

But my sadness is also the feeling of Oh I want more. (Plus like, the aforereferenced general post-election malaise). This is all easily remedied by my plan to listen to the first two-thirds of these stories again—but probably after I take a crack at his novels.

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at The Sheltering Sky—16 I think. I was reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, William Burroughs, et al. But I couldn’t click with Bowles, which makes sense to me two decades later. His stories are spare but sharp, wild but obscure. His fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them; they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Often, the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together. Anyway, I’ll trek through again, for sure.

A late Bowles story, the epistolary “Unwelcome Words” (many of the later stories are epistolary affairs), offers me a neat transition to the audiobook I’ve been drifting off into unconsciousness the past few evenings with. Here’s Bowles’s narrator (a version of Bowles his-goddamn-self):

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself.

Bowles here licenses my transition to Robert Coover’s latest, Huck Out West, a sorta-sequel to Twain’s problematic American masterpiece. Sure, Coover’s not rewriting the end of Huck Finn so much as he’s carrying out the mission of the novel’s final lines: “…I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” So Coover sets Huck out in the Territory, away from the maternal bodies that would otherwise sivilize him. I’ve gotten maybe two hours into the audiobook (it’s short, fewer than ten hours), but I keep launching in to different points, and only auditing late at night. I need a physical copy.

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Physical copies report:

I’m crawling through Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation (Eng. trans. by Jacob Siefring), mostly because I have to look up names, look for images, get lost in early depictions of “The New World” (and, uh, the refutation of the New World). . So far, it reminds me of the kind of fantasy-based literary criticism that I love: Eco, Borges, Calvino. Excerpt here.

A friend loaned me his copy of Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel Zama (Eng. translation by Esther Allen) last week, insisting I read it, and informing me that Bolaño based the titular figure of his story “Sensini” on di Benedetto. I read the first four chapters this afternoon; they were very short and I want to keep reading. Short chapters are working for me right now.