From Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.
Originally published in 1906; the image is from The Peter Pauper Press’s 1958 illustrated edition, with art by Joseph Low
…I can say with all truthfulness that for me the moment of greatest understanding in which I knew spiritual reality at last came in connection with emergency root-canal irrigation, two hours in the dentist chair. And twelve hours drinking bourbon-bad bourbon at that-and simply reading Dante without listening to the stereo or eating-there was no way I could eat-and suffering, and it was all worth it; I will never forget it. I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light … and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee, and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.
So for me in a certain unusual way-for certain unusual reasons-books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together-nothing is more real than a badly infected tooth-and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding … and what did I understand? That it is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more…
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Aberrant is the début novel by Czech author Marek Šindelka. It’s new in English translation by Nathan Fields from Twisted Spoon Press, and features artwork by Petr Nikl. It’s pretty far out stuff. First pages:
The remarkable debut novel from Marek Šindelka, already the recipient of his country’s major literary awards for poetry (Jiří Orten Prize) and prose (Magnesia Litera), Aberrant is a multifaceted work that mixes and mashes together a variety of genres and styles to create a heady concoction of crime story, horror story (inspired by the Japanese tradition of kaidan), ecological revenge fantasy, and Siberian shamanism. Nothing is what it seems. What appears to be human is actually a shell occupied by an alien spirit, or demon, and what appears to be an unassuming plant is an aggressive parasite that harbors a poisonous substance within, or manifests itself as an assassin, a phantom with no real substance who pursues his victims across Europe and through a post-apocalyptic Prague ravaged by floods. The blind see, and the seeing are blind. Plants behave like animals, and animals are symbionts with plants. Through these devices, Šindelka weaves a tale of three childhood friends, the errant paths their lives take, and the world of rare plant smuggling — and the consequences of taking the wrong plant — to show the rickety foundation of illusions on which our relationship to the environment, and to one another, rests. It is a world of aberrations, anomalies, and mistake
It is like information theory; it is noise driving out signal. But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agencies call it disinformation, something the Soviet Bloc relies on heavily. If you can float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.
Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.
The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”
Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.
And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.
Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.
The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].
Denis Johnson, one of the greatest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 67.
In books including Jesus’ Son, Angels, Tree of Smoke, and Fiskadoro, Johnson created vibrant, intense worlds, simultaneously tragic and hilarious, peopled with weirdos and druggies, criminals and soldiers, those who harm and those who cure. Describing Johnson’s prose style requires employing paradox: His prose seems spare, but it’s also incredibly rich; his narratives dwell in rough realism, but this description belies the refined magic of his writing. Johnson painted a damned and fallen world again and again in his novels, but made a space for his characters to earn redemption. His characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come off as cartoonish grotesques, but Johnson’s realism extended into their psyches. The man could create souls.
I cannot understate the impact Johnson’s writing made on my development as a reader. I think I first read Johnson’s story “Emergency” in a collection of stories edited by Tobias Wolff; it was on the reading list for a creative writing class I was taking my first semester of college, and I learned more from analyzing the way Johnson put sentences together than I did from anything else. I made a friend read the story; told another friend about it and he said, “Of course,” and made the mistake of loaning me his first edition hardback copy of Jesus’ Son, which had been out for maybe four or five years at the time. I never gave it back, and it remains one of the books I’ve read the most times over the past 20 years.
Johnson’s novel-in-stories Jesus’ Son is the perfect gateway drug to hook 18-year olds on a particular kind of American literature forever. Those interested in Johnson should also check out his debut 1983 novel Angels, his perfect novella Train Dreams, or his Vietnam War opus, Tree of Smoke: All make excellent starting places.
I’ll close with one of my favorite paragraphs, the last lines of “Beverly Home,” the last story in Jesus’ Son. The lines encapsulate Johnson’s vision of his world, his characters’ place in that world, and the redemptive spirit that might guide us to create a place for people like us:
All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.
I’ll be reposting some of the stuff I’ve written on this blog about Johnson’s books all day today, but for anyone interested, here a bunch of links:
Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson (second review)
Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson (first review)
I first saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film Army of Shadows about a decade ago, when a friend brought over the Criterion Collection release and insisted we watch it. I watched it again with my uncle, a fan of French cinema and WWII films in general (and the guy who made me watch both Paths of Glory and Belle de Jour when I was like 14).
Anyway, Contra Mundum is releasing a new translation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel Army of Shadows, which Melville based his film on. The translation is by Rainer J. Hanshe. (I recently talked to Rainer about his translation of Baudelaire’s notebook My Heart Laid Bare).
Here’s Contra Mundum’s blurb:
Originally published in Algiers in 1943, Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows is one of the first books to have been written about the French Resistance. Now available in paperback, Contra Mundum Press is proud to present the first new translation in over 70 years, and the first edition since Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic 1969 film.“What, then, when it comes to recounting the story of France, an obscure, secret France, which is new to its friends, its enemies, and new especially to itself? France no longer has bread, wine, fire. But mainly it no longer has any laws. Civil disobedience, individual or organized rebellion, have become duties to the fatherland. The national hero is the clandestine man, the outlaw.
Nothing about the order imposed by the enemy and by the Marshal is valid. Nothing counts. Nothing is true any more.
One changes home, name, every day. Officials and police officers are helping insurgents. One finds accomplices even in ministries. Prisons, getaways, tortures, bombings, scuffles. One dies and kills as if it’s natural. France lives, bleeds, in all its depths. It is toward the shadow that its true and unknown face is turned.In the catacombs of revolt, people create their own light and find their own law. Never has France waged a nobler and more beautiful war than in the basements where it prints its free newspapers, in its nocturnal lands, and in its secret coves where it received its free friends and from where its children set out, in torture cells where, despite tongs, red-hot pins, and crushed bones, the French died as free men.”
Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).
I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”
The things that compelled my interest in Atticus Lish’s debut novel Preparation for the Next Life were the same things that made me initially wary. First, the book got a lot of buzz when it was published in 2014. Second, and bigger, Lish’s father Gordon Lish is a literary hero of mine. Indeed, Lish the Elder recommends his son’s talents in his (Gordon’s) last “novel,” Cess:
Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.
Lish the Elder has impeccable taste, but, you know, c’mon. We all tend to think our kids are great at everything.
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Preparation for the Next Life a few days ago. I wasn’t looking for it; I was looking for another “L” novelist, but the spine popped out. I took it home and read the first few paragraphs. Then I just kept reading, consuming the first third in hungry gulps.
Lish’s prose is amazingly concrete. He renders New York City (and the other settings) with seemingly effortless thoroughness; the evocation of place is vivid and refined in its attention to detail, but reads raw somehow. There’s a flavor of prime Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo here, but these comparisons aren’t fair: Lish is original—the prose reads thoroughly real, real to and from the author. The novel so far strikes me as one of the most authentic “post-9/11” novels I’ve read. There’s almost something sci-fi to Preparation—Lish shows us our world through alien eyes that suck in every detail. I wish I’d read it sooner.
Skinner hitchhikes to New York, newly returned from Iraq, hoping to exorcise his demons. Zou Lei, an undocumented immigrant from Central Asia, catches a bus into the city, searching for a way to get by—or at least stay out of jail. Their unlikely love story becomes the heart of one of the most compelling and widely acclaimed novels in years.
A clear-eyed illustration of life in New York City’s margins, Preparation For the Next Life evokes the unsettling realities of the American Dream for U.S. immigrants and unsupported veterans in stark, vivid detail. At once a nightmare and a love letter to New York City (a place one loves partly for its host of nightmares), Lish’s prose is disciplined yet always alive and taut with danger, rendered with the voice of a new and natural talent.
I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.
These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as
….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.
Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.
There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh. Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.
The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.
In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.
If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.
[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The Vorrh. In addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].
The review copy I got of Cow Eye Press’s Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess doesn’t bear author A.J. Perry’s name anywhere on the cover, spine, or back cover. His name does appear on the title page though. A.J. Perry is probably Adrian Jones Pearson, author of Cow Country, also published by Cow Eye. Adrian Jones Pearson is probably not Thomas Pynchon. Here’s Cow Eye’s blurb:
When an eager American moves to Moscow to teach Russians the difference between the and a, he begins what will ultimately become a six-and-a-half-year descent into the murky entrails of language, culture, and the world’s greatest metro system. Part surrealistic travelogue, part historical serendipity, Twelve Stories is at its most enduring as a fanciful rumination on the elusiveness of words.
Twelve Stories of Russia was originally published in Moscow by the independent publisher GLAS, where it quietly gained a following among expats and locals alike. Unique in its appeal to both sides of the linguistic and cultural divide, the work has remained largely unknown beyond Russia. Now, almost a generation after its narrator’s lively quest for the word that changes and is changed, this emphatic “novel, I guess” is being released to a wider audience for the first time, its subject matter as universal and its themes as timely as ever.
A page (and some details) from Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.
I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me?
… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.
From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook.
[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. (For the record, I think The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty great).
I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].
anti male story
boring and odd
futuristic yet dated
no good verses evil
socialist point of view
Too many adjectives!!
It all-around too much
tries to be all futuristic
I’m not a Christian, but
Overuse of punctuation
Sorry but no one liked it
a lot of words were used
twisted grossness and blah
Not a feminist novel for sure
Actually, it is about infertility
Written by a 12-year-old shut in
It’s hard to glean what happened
Not realistic as a futuristic fantasy
pointless exercise in self-contempt
annoying stream-of-consciousness style
these fertile women aren’t treated badly
an academic’s paranoid bondage fantasy
a lot of sexual situations and foul language
The reader is always in a confused state of mind
The main character doesn’t grow or learn anything
The author created a lot of terms but didn’t explain them
literally fills the pages by talking about grocery shopping
obviously has an ax to grind with Judeo-Christian principle
There isn’t much focus on what women are not allowed to do
Mostly just someone running errands in an American dystopia
an author who obviously doesn’t understand the passages from the Bible
main character is weak, conviction less and incapable of making any exciting moves
I’m going to bury it in the ground and let the worms eat all those words unfit for human consumption
drones on and on about brick sidewalks and rays of sunlight and tulips and blue stripes on kitchen towels
Is this supposed to be 1984, Brave New World, or even Hunger Games? If you compare it to any of those books, it is utter fail.
I admit that I picked up Miguel Ángel Asturias’s 1963 novel Mulata de Tal because of the cover and blurb alone. This 1982 translation is by Gregory Rabassa, and part of a series of Latin American authors that Avon/Bard put out in really cool attractive mass market paperbacks in the 1980s. The titles can be hit or miss, but I like the energy of the first two chapters of Mulata. Back cover blurb: