“There were many towers, just as in this world there are many perfect books” (William T. Vollmann)

So he lent her books. After all, one of life’s best pleasures is reading a book of perfect beauty; more pleasurable still is rereading that book; most pleasurable of all is lending it to the person one loves: Now she is reading or has just read the scene with the mirrors; she who is so lovely is drinking in that loveliness I’ve drunk.

Amidst the other grey, red, greenish, black and orange volumes of various heights, this white book with the black lettering was perfectly proportioned in every way, neither showy nor insignificant. It was one of his favorite books (we can’t say his favorite since his life wasn’t over yet). He mentioned it, and she was willing to accept it; she was that kind, to read the book which he loved.

At the moment that it actually passed from his hand to hers they were sitting across from each other in one of the three or four restaurants where they usually met; and she, having gazed into his face with her usual richly intelligent seriousness, studied the book she now held with the same air of happy possession which he would have hoped to find had she been looking over his body before making love with him, which she would never, ever do no matter how long they both lived, a fact which made him want to utter a sound much softer and more leaden than any scream; and then, sitting within touching distance of her beautiful hands which he could not touch, he watched her open the book to the title page with its half-calligraphic brush-rendering by an unknown artist of a Buddhist pongmalai garland, probably of jasmine flowers, which was draped across a woman’s naked thigh. This was the most intimate moment that he and she would ever have (unless of course his one percent became a hundred, and she accepted him forever). He would not be at her side when she began to actually read the book; but from their frequent conversations he thought he could keep abreast of where she’d arrived each day. She’d promised to begin it that very night, when she was home with the other man, which meant that she would at least cross the frontier of the half-title page, followed by the dramatic double plant-stalks (connected by a leaf ), of the initial letter E. And now she saw before her those wide white margins and those generous white lines-between-the-lines which encouraged every word to preen itself like the treasure that it truly was.

I should mention that this beautiful volume, which was such a pleasure to hold, began its tale with a dazzling abruptness, as if the reader had just emerged from a dark tunnel into another world, a perfect world whose ground was a hot white plain of salt upon which the words lived their eternal lives.

I need say nothing about the plot, whose involutions (it’s a tale of obsessive love) progressed like the nested terraces on a Buddha-studded tower which narrows perfectly into nothingness. Once I visited a certain wat in Bangkok where although the day was exhaustingly hot and bright I grew enthralled by the sensation of wandering on a high place somewhere in the mist, a plateau exploding with ornately weathered crags. There were many towers, just as in this world there are many perfect books.

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)

And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

“Many ideas turn into lifelong disfigurements” (Thomas Bernhard)

“Many ideas turn into lifelong disfigurements,” he said. The ideas often surprised one years later, but sooner or later they would always make the one who had had them look ridiculous. The ideas came from a place they never left. They would always remain there, in that place: it was the place of dreams. “The idea doesn’t exist that can be expunged or expunge itself. The idea is actual, and remains so.” Last night, he had been thinking about pain. “Pain doesn’t exist. A necessary illusion,” he said. Pain wasn’t pain, not in the way a cow was a cow. “The word ‘pain’ directs the attention of a feeling toward a feeling. Pain is overplus. But the illusion of it is real.” Accordingly, pain both was and was not. “But there is no pain,” he said. “Just as there is no happiness. Found an architecture on pain.” All thoughts and images were as involuntary as the concepts: chemistry, physics, geometry. “You have to understand these concepts to know something. To know everything.” Philosophy didn’t take you a single step nearer. “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.” The observations of mathematics were foundational. “Oh, yes,” he said, “in mathematics everything’s child’s play.” And just like so-called child’s play, mathematics could finish you. “If you’ve crossed the border, and you suddenly no longer get the joke, and see what the world’s about, don’t see what anything’s about anymore. Everything’s just the imagining of pain. A dog has as much gravity as a human being, but he hasn’t lived, do you understand!” One day I would cross a threshold into an enormous park, an endless and beautiful park; in this park one ingenious invention would succeed another. Plants and music would follow in lovely mathematical alternation, delightful to the ear and answering to the utmost notions of delicacy; but this park was not there to be used, or wandered about in, because it consisted of a thousand and one small and minuscule square and rectilinear and circular islets, pieces of lawn, each of them so individual that I would be unable to leave the one on which I was standing. “In each case, there is a breadth and depth of water that prevents one from hopping from one island to another. In my imagining. On the piece of grass which one has reached, how is a mystery, on which one has woken up, and where one is compelled to stay,” one would finally perish of hunger and thirst. “One’s longing to be able to walk through the whole park is finally deadly.”

—From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“Childhood is still running along beside us like a little dog” (Thomas Bernhard)

“Childhood is still running along beside us like a little dog who used to be a merry companion, but who now requires our care and splints, and myriad medicines, to prevent him from promptly passing on.” It went along rivers, and down mountain gorges. If you gave it any assistance, the evening would construct the most elaborate and costly lies. But it wouldn’t save you from pain and indignity. Lurking cats crossed your path with sinister thoughts. Like him, so nettles would sometimes draw me into fiendish moments of unchastity. As with him, my fear was made palatable by raspberries and blackberries. A swarm of crows were an instant manifestation of death. Rain produced damp and despair. Joy pearled off the crowns of sorrel plants. “The blanket of snow covers the earth like a sick child.” No infatuation, no ridicule, no sacrifice. “In classrooms, simple ideas assembled themselves, and on and on.” Then stores in town, butchers’ shop smells. Façades and walls, nothing but façades and walls, until you got out into the country again, quite abruptly, from one day to the next. Where the meadows began, yellow and green; brown plowland, black trees. Childhood: shaken down from a tree, so much fruit and no time! The secret of his childhood was contained in himself. Growing up wild, among horses, poultry, milk, and honey. And then: being evicted from this primal condition, bound to intentions that went way beyond himself. Designs. His possibilities multiplied, then dwindled in the course of a tearful afternoon. Down to three or four certainties. Immutable certainties. “How soon it is possible to spot dislike. Even without words, a child wants everything. And attains nothing.” Children are much more inscrutable than adults. “Protractors of history. Conscienceless. Correctors of history. Bringers-on of defeat. Ruthless as you please.” As soon as it could blow its own nose, a child was deadly to anything it came in touch with. Often—as it does me—it gives him a shock, when he feels a sensation he had as a child, provoked by a smell or a color, but that doesn’t remember him. “At such a moment you feel horribly alone.”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“—you see you were always lost” (Thomas Bernhard)

“You just arrive in a place,” said the painter,“ and then you leave it again, and yet everything, every single object you take in, is the sum of its prehistory. The older you become, the less you think about the connections you’ve already established. Table, cow, sky, stream, stone, tree, they’ve all been studied. Now they just get handled. Objects, the harmonic range of invention, completely unappreciated, no more truck with variation, deepening, gradation. You just try to work out the big connections. Suddenly you look into the macro-structure of the world, and you discover it: a vast ornament of space, nothing else. Humble backgrounds, vast replications—you see you were always lost. As you get older, thinking becomes a tormenting reference mechanism. No merit to it. I say ‘tree,’ and I see huge forests. I say ‘river,’ and I see every river. I say ‘house,’ and I see cities with their seas of roofs. I say ‘snow,’ and I see oceans of it. A thought sets off the whole thing. Where it takes art is to think small as well as big, to be present on every scale …”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

“Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day” (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

FOR THIS PARTICULAR STRETCH of Pacific slope, Tapachula was town— you wanted to relax or raise hell or both at the same time, you went in to Tapachula. Frank tended to spend time at a cantina called El Quetzal Dormido, drinking either maguey brandy from Comitán or the at first horrible but after a while sort of interesting local moonshine known as pox, and dancing with or lighting panatelas for a girl named Melpomene who’d drifted down from the ruins and fireflies of Palenque, first to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and then, with that boomtown certitude some young folks possess of knowing where the money is being spent least reflectively at any given season, to Tapachula, where there were cacao, coffee, rubber, and banana plantations all within an easy radius, so the town was always jumping with pickers, tree shakers, nurserymen, beanpolishers, guayuleros, and centrifuge operators, none in a mood for moderation of any kind.

Melpomene told Frank about the giant luminous beetles known as cucuji. Each night in the country around Palenque, illuminating the miles of ruins hidden among the jungle trees, you could see them by the millions, shining all over their bodies, so brightly that by the light of even one of them you could read the newspaper, and six would light up a city block. “Or so a tinterillo told me once,” grinning through the smoke of a Sin Rival. “I never learned to read, but I have a tree full of cucuji in my yard. Come on,” and she led him out the back and down a cobbled alley and into a dirt lane. All at once, ahead of them, above the tops of the trees, shone a greenish yellow light, pulsing off and on. “They feel me coming,” she said. They rounded a corner and there was a fig tree, with near as Frank could tell thousands of these big luminous beetles, flashing brightly and then going dark, over and over, all in perfect unison. He found if he stared too long into the tree, he tended to lose his sense of scale and it became almost like looking into a vast city, like Denver or the Mexican capital, at night. Shadows, depths . . .

Melpomene told him how the Indian women of Palenque captured the beetles and tamed them, giving them names which they learned to answer to, putting them into little cages to carry like lamps at night, or wearing them in their hair beneath transparent veils. Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day.

“Do all these critters here have names?”

“Most of them,” giving him a look of warning not to make fun of this. “Even one named after you, if you’d like to meet him. Pancho!”

One of the fragments of light detached itself from the tree and flew down and landed on the girl’s wrist, like a falcon. When the tree went dark, so did Pancho. “Bueno, “she whispered to it, “pay no attention to the others. I want you to light up only when I tell you. Now.” The bug, obligingly, lit up. “Ahora, apágate,” and again Pancho complied.

Frank looked at Pancho. Pancho looked back at Frank, though what he was seeing was anybody’s guess.

He couldn’t say when exactly, but at some point Frank came to understand that this bearer of light was his soul, and that all the fireflies in the tree were the souls of everyone who had ever passed through his life, even at a distance, even for a heartbeat and a half, that there existed such a tree for each person in Chiapas, and though this suggested that the same soul must live on a number of trees, they all went to make up a single soul, really, in the same way that light was indivisible. “In the same way,” amplified Günther, “that our Savior could inform his disciples with a straight face that bread and wine were indistinguishable from his body and blood. Light, in any case, among these Indians of Chiapas, occupies an analogous position to flesh among Christian peoples. It is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind.”

–From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

This passage illustrates some of the novel’s grand themes—the visible and invisible worlds; the tangible, the real and the metaphysical something that might be behind it—and light, of course. I don’t know if I can muster anything else to say about it right now—I’ve enjoyed Against the Day—it’s funny, erudite, sprawling, etc.—but it’s very very long (part of the pleasure too, no doubt). Happy to be in the homestretch.


Tintoretto’s Abduction of the Body of St. Mark / Kid Jesus the Hellraiser (Thomas Pynchon)

One day, strolling in the Piazzetta, Hunter motioned her under the arcade and into the Library, and pointed up at Tintoretto’s Abduction of the Body of St. Mark. She gazed for some time. “Well, if that ain’t the spookiest damned thing,” she whispered at last. “What’s going on?” she gestured nervously into those old Alexandrian shadows, where ghostly witnesses, up far too late, forever fled indoors before an unholy offense.

“It’s as if these Venetian painters saw things we can’t see anymore,” Hunter said. “A world of presences. Phantoms. History kept sweeping through, Napoleon, the Austrians, a hundred forms of bourgeois literalism, leading to its ultimate embodiment, the tourist—how beleaguered they must have felt. But stay in this town awhile, keep your senses open, reject nothing, and now and then you’ll see them.”

A few days later, at the Accademia, as if continuing the thought, he said, “The body, it’s another way to get past the body.”

“To the spirit behind it—” “But not to deny the body—to reimagine it. Even”—nodding over at the Titian on the far wall—“if it’s ‘really’ just different kinds of greased mud smeared on cloth—to reimagine it as light.”

“More perfect.”

“Not necessarily. Sometimes more terrible—mortal, in pain, misshapen, even taken apart, broken down into geometrical surfaces, but each time somehow, when the process is working, gone beyond. . . .”

Beyond her, she guessed. She was trying to keep up, but Hunter didn’t make it easy. One day he told her a story she had actually already heard, as a sort of bedtime story, from Merle, who regarded this as a parable, maybe the first on record, about alchemy. It was from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, one of many pieces of Scripture that early church politics had kept from being included in the New Testament.

“Jesus was sort of a hellraiser as a kid,” as Merle had told it, “the kind of wayward youth I’m always finding you keepin company with, in fact, not that I’m objecting,” as she had sat up in bed and looked for something to assault him with, “used to go around town pulling these adolescent pranks, making little critters out of clay, bringing them to life, birds that could fly, rabbits that talked, and like that, driving his parents crazy, not to mention most of the local adults, who were always coming by to complain—‘You better tell ’at Jesus to watch it.’ One day he’s out with some friends looking for trouble to get into, and they happen to go by the dyer’s shop, where there’s all these pots with different colors of dye and piles of clothes next to them, all sorted and each pile ready to be dyed a different color, Jesus says, ‘Watch this,’ and grabs up all the clothes in one big bundle, the dyer’s yelling, ‘Hey Jesus, what’d I tell you last time?’ drops what he’s doing and goes chasing after the kid, but Jesus is too fast for him, and before anybody can stop him he runs over to the biggest pot, the one with red dye in it, and dumps all the clothes in, and runs away laughing. The dyer is screaming bloody murder, tearing his beard, thrashing around on the ground, he sees his whole livelihood destroyed, even Jesus’s lowlife friends think this time he’s gone a little too far, but here comes Jesus with his hand up in the air just like in the paintings, calm as anything—‘Settle down, everybody,’ and he starts pulling the clothes out of that pot again, and what do you know, each one comes out just the color it’s supposed to be, not only that but the exact shade of that color, too, no more housewives hollerin ‘hey I wanted lime green not Kelly green, you colorblind or something,’ no this time each item is the perfect color it was meant to be.”

“Not a heck of a lot different,” it had always seemed to Dally, “in fact, from that Pentecost story in Acts of the Apostles, which did get in the Bible, not colors this time but languages, Apostles are meeting in a house in Jerusalem, you’ll recall, Holy Ghost comes down like a mighty wind, tongues of fire and all, the fellas come out and start talking to the crowd outside, who’ve all been jabbering away in different tongues, there’s Romans and Jews, Egyptians and Arabians, Mesopotamians and Cappadocians and folks from east Texas, all expecting to hear just the same old Galilean dialect—but instead this time each one is amazed to hear those Apostles speaking to him in his own language.”

Hunter saw her point. “Yes, well it’s redemption, isn’t it, you expect chaos, you get order instead. Unmet expectations. Miracles.”

Another amazing passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.


“The Unswerving Punctuality of Chance” (And Other Citations from William Gaddis’s Novel JR)


In JR, the sprawling novel of capitalism and art by William Gaddis, Jack Gibbs loads his pockets with crumpled newspaper clippings, racing forms, and citations for a book he’s working on. “More trash,” he mutters about this list (which appears on page 486 of my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition).