Some books I abandoned (for now)

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Five books that I’ve made some headway into over the past few weeks, only to set aside for later—

Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a skinny hundred pages, but it’s also dense, with paragraphs that go on for pages. It’s also gloomy—it’s long intro seems like a rewrite of the introduction to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” suffocating, abject, and dulling. I intend to get back to the book, but it’s just too hot right now in Florida.

Getting a copy of The Erstwhile in the late spring was my excuse for finally reading Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, a big baroque beast of a novel. I liked The Vorrh despite (because of?) its many weird shaggy problems, but it also wore me out. (I reviewed it here). I can’t seem to get past the third chapter of The Erstwhile. I might see if there’s an audiobook of it.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas probably doesn’t belong on this list. Like Tristram Shandy, it likely belongs on a list I made last year of books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again.books I’ll probably never finish, yet return to again and again. Calling the book strange is an understatement, and its punchy, short chapters lead to me reading it in a really discontinuous fashion (I was reading it in between stories from that Leonora Carrington collection earlier this summer, which was like a perfect cocktail of weird).

Tomasso Landolfi’s collection Words in Commotion was…not quite as weird as I’d hoped it would be. I read only the shortest stories in the collection, and while I liked the Gothic tinges, I was also reading a bunch of Barry Hannah short stories at the same time. And the Hannah stories were just like, so superior, from the sentence to the paragraph to the whole tale.

I spent the first few months of 2017 gorging on Paul Bowles, with somewhat diminishing returns. I loved The Stories of Paul Bowles but was disappointed in The Sheltering Sky; I read his “lesser” novel Up Above the World and appreciated its precision a bit more—it’s something closer to a genre novel than a philosophical exercise. I’ve made it all the way to page 50 in Let It Come Down twice now, each time getting there—it’s a chapter break—and realizing I have no idea what’s going on. I read and read, but not really. I’m not comprehending anything. I’m thinking about some other thing—food or a movie or a chore I have to do or a different book, a book I’d rather be reading now than this one.

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Eli Valley’s comix collection Diaspora Boy

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Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.

Here’s O/R’s blurb:

Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.

This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.

Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.

Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:

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The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:

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The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).

Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:

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Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:

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In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.

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The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.

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If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into  hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.

Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:

The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.

 

Pierre Klossowski’s illustrations for his novel Roberte Ce Soir

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From Pierre Klossowski’s novel Roberte Ce Soir, Grove Press, 1969.

Landolfi and Klossowski but not Klise (Books acquired/not acquired 11 July 2017)

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Having a spare hour, I searched my favorite local used book store again for a copy of Thomas S. Klise’s 1974 cult novel The Last Western. I’d like to write about The Last Western more, and I only have a samizdat digital copy (clearly made by someone who deeply loves this out of print novel). It’d be nice to check the digital copy against an actual book of course. Anyway, I didn’t find the Klise, despite extending my search to, um, westerns. (I see interlibrary loan in my future). Really, any indie press that brings The Last Western back into print will find plenty of readers (and champions for the book).

I did find a hardback Viking copy of a Tommaso Landolfi collection Words in Commotion, and read one of the shorter stories, “The Werewolf,” in the shop and then picked it up. Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s 1986 review:

Little known in this country when he died in 1979, Landolfi is scarcely better recognized today, a situation this collection of 24 stories, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, is intended to remedy. Landolfi did not aspire to amuse or entertain in the usual sense; he preferred to confound and mystify. Even in his relatively conventional stories he scarcely bothered to inquire into motive or seek resolution. In “Uxoricide,” for example, a wife-murderer sets out to kill the shrew for reasons that do not seem quite sufficient, so that the act itself appears brutal and sadistic. In “A Woman’s Breast,” a man lusts after that part of a stranger until he attains it, is thereupon sickened by the sight and discovers odd morbidities within himself. Landolfi’s overriding interests–language and its literary possibilities, metaphysics, literary criticism—necessarily limit his audience. He saw the writer as one who spits words (see the title story), and he set himself against the critics who accused him of being “utterly indecipherable and mysterious.” That is, however, a challenge hurled at the reader.

You can read “Gogol’s Wife,” probably Landolfi’s most famous story, here.

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I also picked up a Grove Press first edition of Pierre Klossowski’s Roberte Ce Soir & The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, two midcentury erotic novels. Austryn Wainhouse translates. Klossowski was the elder brother of the painter Balthus. Here’s the back cover, and an illustration of Klossowski’s (I’ll post the rest of the illustrations later):

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Books acquired, 27 and 28 June 2017

A highlight of an unexpected trip to Los Angeles a few weeks ago was getting to meet “in real life” with some people I’ve gotten to know over the internet. I met up with Ryan Chang, who’s written a number of excellent reviews for Biblioklept, and Adam Novy, whose novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best contemporary novels of the last decade. The weirdest part about hanging out was that it wasn’t weird at all.

After lunch and coffee, Ryan and I visited Alias Books East, a small but well-stocked book shop in Atwater Village. Plenty of books on art and film, and lots of literature in translation. I asked Ryan to pick out something for me to buy, and he chose Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, a title that had grabbed his attention when we first entered the store. Here’s NYRB’s blurb for the Hrabal:

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still contains two linked narratives by the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal, whom Milan Kundera has described as “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” “Cutting It Short” is set before World War II in a small country town, and it relates the scandalizing escapades of Maryška, the flamboyant wife of Francin, who manages the local brewery. Maryška drinks. She rides a bicycle, letting her long hair fly. She butchers pigs, frolics in blood, and leads on the local butcher. She’s a Madame Bovary without apologies driven to keep up with the new fast-paced mechanized modern world that is obliterating whatever sleepy pieties are left over from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” is told by Maryška and Francin’s son and concerns the exploits of his Uncle Pepin, who holds his own against the occupying Nazis but succumbs to silence as the new post–World War II Communist order cements its colorless control over daily life. Together, Hrabal’s rousing and outrageous yarns stand as a hilarious and heartbreaking tribute to the always imperiled sweetness of lust, love, and life.

Ryan picked up a first edition hardback of an Edward St. Aubyn novel and something else I can’t remember. The clerk also let us check out some of the signed hardbacks behind the counter, and I somehow didn’t spend sixty bucks on a copy of Ray with Barry Hannah’s signature.

I spent most of the next day wandering around downtown Los Angeles. Everyone had told me to check out The Last Bookstore, and I wasn’t disappointed. I spent over an hour browsing the huge space, wishing I had more time to linger, especially in the upstairs labyrinth and the wonderful little annex of art books and monographs.

I ended up buying the first book I handled at The Lost Bookstore, RE/Search’s 1990 oversized and illustrated edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. This is one of the first Ballard books I read, actually—a good friend of mine collected RE/Search titles throughout the nineties and let me borrow them. (I always returned them).

Opener:

And a random two-pager:

I also picked up another Ballard RE/Search title, a fat little book I’d never seen before named Quotes. Perfect airport reading. (And of course, being Ballard, there’s a whole section on airports). Random page:

I didn’t make it to the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, but, hey, save something for next time, right?

The Nobel laureate William Faulkner died in the hot July preceding the September riots (Barry Hannah)

tooThe Nobel laureate William Faulkner died in the hot July preceding the September riots. It was good he didn’t have to watch. He was a racial moderate, read nigger lover in these parts then, and left much of his estate to the United Negro College Fund. I mention him only to place this story on the map and call to memory, now I’m an old man, that not all of us were rot. I did understand much of Faulkner’s greatest books. Personally I disliked him as a snob who with no effort at all could have been kinder to the neighbors in the village we were then. He was passing strange and spiteful to many. You had to reckon with some conceit as birthright, which made him contemptuous of the very humble folk he was celebrated for taking to his heart on the page. You will often see pure words and a great wash of self-atonement, no people necessary to them.

From one of Barry Hannah’s last short stories, “Lastword, Deputy James.” Published posthumously in the collection Long, Last, Happy, the story (often evocative of Cormac McCarthy, at least to me), along with the others in the last section of the collection, reads like part of a perhaps-unfinished novel, one that answers seriously to Southern history in a way that Hannah’s earlier work obliquely evades.

William Faulkner died 6 July 1962. He dropped out of the University of Mississippi–Ole Miss—as a young man, just like my grandfather.

The Ole Miss riot of 1962, sometimes styled “the Battle of Oxford,” began the night of 30 September 1962. The riots–a battle really—were the result of racist segregationists’ opposition to the James Meredith’s enrollment in the university. Meredith, a black man, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-1960. He graduated from Ole Miss on 18 August 1963, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Books acquired in a dead mall, 26 June 2017

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I had been awake for almost twenty hours when I walked out of the Warner Center Marriott’s arctic AC into the concrete heat of the San Fernando Valley. My wife had to work for a few hours, so I was looking for a bar or something—something other than the hotel lobby (or LA traffic).

There was an enormous mall across the street, the Westfield Promenade. I entered by the AMC Theatre, one of the only five businesses remaining in the sprawling two-storied mall (it’s over half a million square feet). It was over 100 degrees outside in the Valley’s afternoon heat, and the mall was unairconditioned, stale, expansive but somehow stifling. The place appeared entirely empty except for a stray bored AMC employee scrolling through her phone. (Later, I’d see a man sleeping on a table and an inattentive security guard). A sad scatter of arcade games defined a loose threshold between the AMC’s going concern and the rest of the mall, which was clearly dead.

There’s something wonderfully Ballardian about dead malls—their vastness, the traces and ghosts of commerce stamped on them, echoes of a lost vibrancy that simultaneously suggest new and even unimagined future possibilities.

I love dead malls. I was born in 1979, and these kind of malls–the kind best summed up in their vitality in a film like Fast Times at Ridgemont High—helped to define my youth (even if I defined myself in part against the mall and mall culture): I bought the Breeders’ album Last Splash on tape at Camelot Music; I suffered through Stone’s Natural Born Killers; I ate at the weird cafeteria, cornbread squares and Jell-O squares wobbling on ugly green plastic trays.

Once, I saw Glenn Danzig browsing at the B. Dalton book store.

Of the half dozen remaining stores in the Westfield Promenade, only one is a retail space—oddly enough, a bookstore—Crown Books, a large spot that looked like it once sold new books but now seems to only sell old  books, many of them Christian. Half of the space also seems to double as a Halloween store. The power went out twice while I was in there.

The hardbacked spine of Gerhard Kopf’s novel There Is No Borges caught my attention. It was part of a large section of “clearance” books (although everything in the store seemed to be on clearance). These books were a dollar each or five for a dollar, a mathematics that screams, Please haul these away for us. (Earlier that day at the Charlotte airport, I’d paid three dollars for 16 ounces of bottled water).

Here are the covers of the books I paid not quite 22 U.S. cents for (after taxes). Please excuse the horrid hotel carpet in the background:

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(Later that night my wife and I walked a few blocks past the dead mall to the live mall—an outdoor mall, vibrant, green, bustling with children and their adults and pets, music, water, chain stores, and boutiques, and crowded restaurants. There wasn’t a bookstore there).

 

 

Politics-Prejudice (Ambrose Bierce)

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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

Bowles/Oyono/Reed (Books acquired, 30 May 2017)

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Books and reality are fused (Philip K. Dick)

…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 by Marek Šindelka (Book acquired, 25 May 2017)

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:

Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

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

Disinformation (Philip K. Dick)

 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.

A review of Angels, Denis Johnson’s first novel

AngelsDenis 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].

RIP Denis Johnson

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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’ SonAngelsTree 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.

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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:

A very short review of Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Audiobook

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Novella

Angels — Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move and the Pleasures of Postmodern Crime Fiction

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson (second review)

Essential Short Story Collections: Jesus’ Son

Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson (first review)

Army of Shadows (Book acquired 16 May 2017)

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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.”

Sunday Comics

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Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).

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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.”

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Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (Book acquired, 9 May 2017)

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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.

Here’s publisher Tyrant Books’ blurb:

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.