From Donald Barthelme’s 1970 short story “A Nation of Wheels.” Collected in 1974’s Guilty Pleasures.
From Donald Barthelme’s 1970 short story “A Nation of Wheels.” Collected in 1974’s Guilty Pleasures.
In 1976, Donald Barthelme oversaw a short-story contest in The New York Times. He wrote the first three paragraphs of an untitled story and asked readers “to provide the terrifying middle and the subtle, incomparably beautiful ending.” The winner, judged by Barthelme, was to receive a $250 prize and have their story published in the Times. That winner ended up being visual artist Karen Shaw, who applied an artistic process she termed “summantics” to the story.
The New York Times repeated the contest in 1996, this time with Nicholson Baker as the lead author.
BLVR: Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?
Padgett Powell: Barthelme edited the book, cutting for cleanliness and strength. In terms of my overall development as a writer, he lamented that he had found me already “fully formed.” By this he meant that I was, then, formed by my vision of realistic writing as more or less an amalgam of Faulkner and O’Connor and Williams and Percy and, say, Mailer.
I could not at the time make sense of Barthelme and Beckett and so forth. I never would have had I not, in knowing Don personally, seen that he was a red-blooded normal dude, not a wacko that the writing might suggest. Before I met him in fact I anticipated a Warhol kind of beast. He showed up in jeans and a yoked cowboy shirt a little drunk and introducing himself as Don and shaking hands firmly. We had not had a teacher to that point in our tour in Houston who would deign shake hands.
I referred to Don, as did many of the students, as Uncle Don. He did not shape Edisto beyond cleaning up, with considerable deftness, what I gave him. He could have been a professional editor of the highest caliber. He did in fact select the ten non-consecutive chapters that were sent to the New Yorker. They admitted later that they would not have seen that excerpt had they been given the entire book at first.
I assumed some influence from Don along what we’ll call surreal lines only later. Either that or I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance. I’ve swung so far in this direction now that I’m virtually unpublishable. Don himself at this age was swinging back to realism; he was a man of sense.
“The Piano Player”
by Donald Barthelme
from Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)
Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxes stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door and her hands and knees.
“Yes?” he said. “What now?”
“I’m ugly,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Our children are ugly.”
“Nonsense,” Brian said sharply. “They’re wonderful children. Wonderful and beautiful. Other people’s children are ugly, not our children. Now get up and go back out to the smokeroom. You’re supposed to be curing a ham.”
“The ham died,” she said. “I couldn’t cure it. I tried everything. You don’t love me any more. The penicillin was stale. I’m ugly and so are the children. It said to tell you goodbye.”
“The ham,” she said. “Is one of our children named Ambrose? Somebody named Ambrose has been sending us telegrams. How many do we have now? Four? Five? Do you think they’re heterosexual?”
She made a moue and ran a hand through her artichoke hair. “The house is rusting away. Why did you want a steel house? Why did I think I wanted to live in Connecticut? I don’t know.”
“Get up,” he said softly, “get up, dearly beloved. Stand up and sing. Sing Parsifal.”
“I want a Triumph,” she said from the floor. “A TR-4. Everyone in Stamford, every single person, has one but me. If you gave me a TR-4 I’d put our ugly children in it and drive away. To Wellfleet. I’d take all the ugliness out of your life.”
“A green one?”
“A red one,” she said menacingly. “Red with red leather seats.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be chipping paint?” he asked. “I bought us an electric data processing system. An IBM.”
“I want to go to Wellfleet,” she said. “I want to talk to
Edmund Wilson and take him for a ride in my red TR-4. The children can dig clams. We have a lot to talk about, Bunny and me.”
“Why don’t you remove those shoulder pads?” Brian said kindly. “It’s too bad about the ham.”
“I loved that ham,” she said viciously. “When you galloped into the University of Texas on your roan Volvo, I thought you were going to be somebody. I gave you my hand. You put rings on it. Rings that my mother gave me. I thought you were going to be distinguished, like Bunny.”
He showed her his broad, shouldered back. “Everything is in flitters,” he said. “Play the piano, won’t you?”
“You always were afraid of my piano, she said. “My four or five children are afraid of the piano. You taught them to be afraid of it. The giraffe is on fire, but I don’t suppose you care.”
“What can we eat,” he asked, “with the ham gone?”
“There’s some Silly Putty in the deepfreeze,” she said tonelessly.
“Rain is falling,” he observed. “Rain or something.”
“When you graduated from the Wharton School of Business,” she said, “I thought at last! I thought now we can move to Stamford and have interesting neighbors. But they’re not interesting. The giraffe is interesting but he sleeps so much of the time. The mailbox is rather interesting. The man didn’t open it at 3:31 P.M. today. He was five minutes late. The government lied again.”
With a gesture of impatience, Brian turned on the light. The great burst of electricity illuminated her upturned tiny face. Eyes like snow peas, he thought. Tamar dancing. My name in the dictionary, in the back. The Law of Bilateral Good Fortune. Piano bread perhaps. A nibble of pain running through the Western World. Coriolanus.
“Oh God,” she said, from the floor. “Look at my knees.”
Brian looked. Her knees were blushing.
“It’s senseless, senseless,” she said. “I’ve been caulking the medicine chest. What for? I don’t know. You’ve got to give me more money. Ben is bleeding. Bessie wants to be an S.S. man. She’s reading The Rise and Fall. She’s identified with Himmler. Is that her name? Bessie?”
“What’s the other one’s name? The blond one?”
“Billy. Named after your father. Your Dad.”
“You’ve got to get me an air hammer. To clean the children’s teeth. What’s the name of that disease? They’ll all have it, every single one, if you don’t get me an air hammer.”
“And a compressor,” Brian said. “And a Pinetop Smith record. I remember.”
She lay on her back. The shoulder pads clattered against the terrazzo. Her number, 17, was written large on her chest. Her eyes were screwed tight shut. “Altman’s is having a sale,” she said, “Maybe
I should go in.”
“Listen,” he said. “Get up. Go into the grape arbor. I’ll trundle the piano out there. You’ve been chipping too much paint. ”
“You wouldn’t touch that piano,” she said. “Not in a million years.”
“You really think I’m afraid of it?”
“Not in a million years,” she said, “you phoney.”
“All right,” Brian said quietly. “All right.” He strode over to the piano. He took a good grip on its black varnishedness. He began to trundle it across the room, and, after a slight hesitation, it struck him dead.
A page of Donald Barthelme’s story “The Expedition.” From 1974’s Guilty Pleasures. Read “The Expedition” here.
I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).
This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:
When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.
The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:
“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.
In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:
They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.
James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:
The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”
At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:
When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.
I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that
Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.
She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;
The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.
That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.
The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.
And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:
Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”
Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:
From Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.
The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Pocket Books (S&S), 1976. Cover art and design uncredited.
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Bantam, 1969. Cover art and design uncredited.
I found a lovely copy of Donald Barthelme’s story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari! a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure these two guys are twin triplets with that guy. (I found Caligari under “Classic Literature” in my local favorite sweetass bookstore; found these two in “General Fiction.”) No artist credited, which is a shame. I already own a copy of The Dead Father—maybe Barthelme’s best “novel”?—but I couldn’t pass up the mass market edition. I live with myself, but. I’ve read everything in Unspeakable — I think — but again, great edition. This is probably the best starting point for Barthelme, with no fewer than five perfect or near-perfect short stories: “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “Game,” and “See the Moon?”
Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. English translation by William L. Grossman. Mass market paperback from Avon-Bard, 1978. Cover art and design uncredited.
I’m a huge fan of these Bard-Avon Latin American editions, and although this cover isn’t one of their weirdest, it’s not bad. I’m not sure if Grossman’s translation is the one to tackle, but I’m up for it.
I’m like 50 pages from the end of Fran Ross’s 1974 Oreo and I simply don’t understand how this novel is so erased or ignored in most discussions of postmodern classics. (It could be ignorance—mine for sure—or erasure, or sure, structural racism in publishing and literary criticism—I mean, I feel like every list that compels someone to read Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker and John Barth and Stanley Elkin and Ishmael Reed and Robert Coover should include Fran Ross, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, Fran Ross’s only novel Oreo, why is there only one novel by Fran Ross, Oreo? What I’m trying to say is: Why didn’t I read this until now? Although reading it now has felt like a gift of some kind.)
This thing—Oreo, that is—zapped me on like page three or four with this ditty–
I mean, c’mon!
I owe Oreo a proper write-up, if I can ever muster such a thing again, which maybe I can’t.
I also picked up, almost entirely at random, Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeeps. The spine and title struck me, I saw it was a Two Dollar Radio publication, and when I fished it from the shelf, I read Steve Erickson’s blurb and just went with it. Here’s Two Dollar’s blurb:
A girl with drug-induced ESP and an eerie connection to Patty Reed (a young member of the Donner Party who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her disappeared foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People,” stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ “Bob” and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.
Come Back, Dr. Caligari by Donald Barthelme. Mass-market paperback from Anchor Books, 1965. Cover art and design by Edward Gorey.
I’d only ever seen the Milton Glaser cover for Barthelme’s first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and was thrilled to pick up this Gorey Anchor cover the other day. I’d almost picked up the Glaser version years ago, but it wasn’t in great shape, and I was pretty sure that all of the stories in Caligari are contained in Sixty Stories and Forty Stories (I could be wrong). I love the richness of Gorey’s cover.
Nova by Samuel R. Delany. Mass-market paperback from Bantam Books, 1979. Cover art by Eddie Jones (not credited); no designer credited.
I couldn’t make it through Delany’s cult favorite Dhalgren a few years back, but Nova was easier sledding. The book is a riff on Moby-Dick, tarot, monoculture, and the grail quest. It’s jammed with ideas and characters, and if it never quite coheres into something transcendent, it’s a fun quick read (even if the ending, right from the postmodern metatextual playbook is too clever by half).
Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake. Mass-market papberback from Penguin Books, 1982. Cover art by Mervyn Peake; no designer credited.
While Mr Pye isn’t as rich, dense, or abjectly weird as Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it is wry and sharp, a strange morality play that made me laugh out loud a few times. (It also has a few shades of Wicker Man to it–but not too much). Good stuff.
From Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.
They found the Dead Father standing in a wood, slaying. First he slew a snowshoe rabbit cleaving it in twain with a single blow and then he slew a spiny anteater and then he slew two rusty numbats and then whirling the great blade round and round his head he slew a wallaby and a lemur and a trio of ouakaris and a spider monkey and a common squid. Then moving up and down the green path in his rage he dispatched a macaque and a gibbon and fourscore innocent chinchillas who had been standing idly by watching the great slaughter. Then he rested standing with the point of his sword stuck in the earth and his two hands folded upon the hilt. Then he again as if taken by a fit set about the bloody work slaying a prairie dog and a beaver and a gopher and a dingo and a honey badger and an otter and a house cat and a tapir and a piglet. Then his anger grew and he called for a brand of even greater weight and length which was brought him by a metaphorically present gillie and seizing it with his two fine-formed and noble hands he raised it above his head, and every living thing within his reach trembled and every dead thing within his reach remembered how it got that way, and the very trees of the wood did seem to shrink and step away. Then the Dead Father slew a warthog and a spotted fawn and a trusting sheep and a young goat and a marmoset and two greyhounds and a draghound. Then, kicking viciously with his noble and shapely foot at the piles of the slain, raw and sticky corpses drenching the earth in blood on every side, he cleared a path to a group of staring pelicans slicing the soft white thin necks of them from the bodies in the wink of an eye. Then he slew a cassowary and a flamingo and a grebe and a heron and a bittern and a pair of ducks and a shouting peacock and a dancing crane and a bustard and a lily-trotter and, wiping the sacred sweat from his brow with one ermine-trimmed sleeve, slew a wood pigeon and a cockatoo and a tawny owl and a snowy owl and a magpie and three jackdaws and a crow and a jay and a dove. Then he called for wine. A silver flagon was brought him and he downed the whole of it in one draught looking the while out of the corner of his ruby eye at a small iguana melted in terror against the limb of a tree. Then he tossed the silver flagon into the arms of a supposititious cupbearer sousing the cupbearer’s hypothetical white tunic with the red of the (possible) wine and split the iguana into two halves with the point of his sword as easily as one skilled in the mystery fillets a fish. Then the Dead Father resumed his sword work in earnest slaying diverse small animals of every kind, so that the heaps mounted steaming to the right and to the left of him with each passionate step. A toad escaped.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)
From the University of Houston’s collection of Barthelme’s papers. The entry’s description:
Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (turned), unidentified, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish (with patch), William Gaddis (squatting), unidentified, William Gass, unidentified, unidentified. In 1983, Barthelme arranged a “Postmodernists Dinner” for the group of writers who were often lumped together under the “postmodernist” label. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon declined the invitation.
It would be swell if anyone could identify the women in the photograph.
In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection of the “Postmodernist Dinner” from novelist Walter Abish:
Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.
Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”
Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”
I had never seen the photograph until today when Ethelmer shared it with me on Twitter. Thanks!
“I Wrote a Letter…”
I wrote a letter to the President of the moon, asked him if they had towaway zones up there. The cops had towed away my Honda and I didn’t like it. Cost me seventy-five dollars to get it back, plus the mental health. You ever notice how the tow trucks pick on little tiny cars? You ever seen them hauling off a Chrysler Imperial? No, you haven’t.
The President of the moon replied most courteously that the moon had no towaway zones whatsoever. Mental health on the moon, he added, cost only a dollar.
Well, I needed mental health real bad that week, so I wrote back saying I thought I could get there by the spring of ’81, if the space shuttle fulfilled its porcelain promise, and to keep some mental health warm for me who needed it, and could I interest him in a bucket of ribs in red sauce? Which I would gladly carry on up there to him if he wished?
The President of the moon wrote back that he would be delighted to have a bucket of ribs in red sauce, and that his zip code, if I needed it, was 10011000000000.
I cabled him that I’d bring some six-packs of Rolling Rock beer to drink with the ribs in red sauce, and, by the way, what was the apartment situation up there?
It was bad, he replied by platitudinum plate, apartments were running about a dollar a year, he knew that was high but what could he do? These were four-bedroom apartments, he said, with three baths, library, billiard room, root cellar, and terrace over- looking the Sea of Prosperity. Maybe he could get me a rent abatement, he said, ’cause of me being a friend of the moon.
The moon began to sound like a pretty nice place. I sent a dollar to the Space Shuttle Hurry-Up Fund.
Drumming fiercely on a hollow log with a longitudinal slit tuned to moon frequencies, I asked him about employment, medical coverage, retirement benefits, tax shelterage, convenience cards, and Christmas Club accounts.
That’s a roger, he moonbeamed back, a dollar covers it all, and if you don’t have a dollar we’ll lend you a dollar through the Greater Moon Development Mechanism.
What about war and peace? I inquired by means of curly little ALGOL circuits I had knitted myself on my Apple computer.
The President of the moon answered (by MIRV’D metaphor) that ticktacktoe was about as far as they’d got in that direction, and about as far as they would go, if he had anything to say about it.
I told him via flights of angels with special instructions that it looked to me like he had things pretty well in hand up there and would he by any chance consider being President of us? Part-time if need be?
No, he said (in a shower of used-car asteroids with blue-and-green bumper stickers), our Presidential campaigns seemed to damage the candidates, hurt them. They began hitting each other over the head with pneumatic Russians, or saying terminally silly things about the trees. He wouldn’t mind being Dizzy Gillespie, he said.
From The Teachings of Don B. (Via.)
My family and I spent a wonderful week in Oregon at the end of July. We visited friends who live in Portland, where we based our stay, and we drove to the coast, to Mount Hood, and to all kinds of beautiful places. It was really fucking lovely.
Among all the gardens and forests and breweries and record shops, we managed to fit in some bookstores too, of course.
The first was Melville Books, right off of Alberta Street, tucked away just a bit. Our rental house was a block from Alberta, and we got there early in the afternoon and took a stroll. Melville Books is pretty new. The owner-proprietor was making a wooden “Open” sign while he chatted with me about his stock and his experiences scouting and buying used books. He was really friendly, and the small store was very well curated.
I picked up Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood there on something of a whim. I’ve never read Portis, but I know his fans love his stuff, and I couldn’t pass up the Vintage Contemporaries cover. There was also a hardback copy of True Grit in stock at Melville that I now regret not having picked up. Norwood is hilarious, and has evoked in me a need to read more Portis.
I actually went to my local used book store today to get some stuff for my kids (and maybe just to get out of the house), but the only copy of True Grit they had in stock was a Coen Brothers film adaptation tie in. I did pick up copies of Masters of Atlantis (in hardback) and The Dog of the South though.
We also visited Powell’s, of course. I wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it was. Powell’s is a very well-stocked general bookstore, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find more weird or rare stuff there (I think my local place, Chamblin Bookmine, has spoiled me).
I picked up a first-edition hardback of Donald Barthelme’s “nonfiction” collection Guilty Pleasures for just a few bucks.
It includes one of my favorite Barthelme pieces, “Eugenie Grandet.” It also includes quite a bit of his collage work.
I also picked up a hardback copy of Barry Hannah’s High Lonesome. I’ve read a lot of the stories in here (collected in Long Lost Happy), but some are unfamiliar. Also, the cover is by the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor, a Southern contemporary of Hannah’s. Tutor did the covers for several other Hannah volumes.
Over in the sci-fi section of Powell’s I found some books by the Strugatsky brothers, which I’ve been into lately. I’ve heard Monday Starts on Saturday is good, but the cover for this edition is so godawful bad that I couldn’t go for it. That’s what library e-books are for, I guess. (Really though, a blank white cover would have been better.)
I ended up picking up The Doomed City instead, which I might try to squeeze in before the end of summer.
I was impressed with the art books collection at Powell’s but also disappointed not to find anything by Remedios Varo or Leonora Carrington, other than recent editions of their fiction—no real art books though. I was happy though to see a shelf recommendation for Margaret Carson’s recent translation of Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings though. I sent a pic to Margaret, who was really generous to me with her time in recent interview about her translation.
I visited a few other bookshops, not so much as destinations, but rather in happy accidents in the neighborhoods we visited—but I restrained myself from picking anything else up. (And no, I didn’t make it to Mother Foucault’s, unfortunately, although many folks told me to. Next time.)
We visited Floating World Comics the same day as Powell’s, where I picked up a copy of Kilian Eng’s Object 10. I’ve been a fan of Eng’s for years, sharing his images on the blog and following him on Instagram. I hadn’t realized though that Floating World was his publisher. Object 10 is lovely.
I also picked up a pack of 1993 Moebius trading cards there for a dollar. I haven’t opened them yet though. Saving it for a treat later. It was neat to see copies of Anders Nilsen’s Tongues in the wild, too. I had reviewed the title awhile back for The Comics Journal, but I hadn’t realized that Nilsen lived in Portland. We also checked out Bridge City Comics on Mississippi, which had a nice selection of dollar comics that I indulged my kids in.
Portland was fantastic in general. The only real disappointment came when we visited the Portland Art Museum expecting to see a major Frida Kahlo exhibit. Unfortunately, we misread the dates—the show starts next summer. The museum has a nice collection though. Just a few pics of some pieces I liked:
Rip Van Winkle (1945) by William Gropper:
The Fair Captive (1948) by Rene Magritte
and The Femminiello (1740-60) by Giuseppe Bonito.
Here’s the museum’s description of this unusual painting:
Owing to widespread social prejudice, cross-dressing was rarely depicted in European art until the modern era. This recently discovered painting from the mid-eighteenth century is a testament to the exceptional and long-standing acceptance of cross-dressers known as femminielli in the great Italian city of Naples. The term, which might be translated “little female-men,” is not derogatory, but rather an expression of endearment. Femminielli come from impoverished neighborhoods, as is evidenced by this individual’s missing tooth and goiter, a common condition among the poor in the Neapolitan region. Although femminiellicross-dress from an early age, they do not try to conceal their birth sex completely. Rather than being stigmatized, they are deemed special and are accepted as a “third sex” that combines the strengths of both males and females. In particular, femminielli are thought to bring good luck, so Neapolitans often take newborn babies to them to hold. Femminielli are also popular companions for an evening of gambling. This association is represented by the necklace of red coral, which is similarly thought to bring good fortune. Neapolitan genre paintings (images of everyday life) frequently feature a grinning figure to engage the viewer. Here, we are invited to consider the artist’s playful inversion of traditional views of gender, which contrasts the pretty young male with the more masculine femminiello.
Maybe we’ll get back to the Pacific Northwest next summer and see the Kahlo then.
Anyway so well—
Like I said, I went to the bookstore today, not looking for myself (promise!) except that I did stop and browse Portis briefly, picking up the aforementioned copies. When I got home, I had a package from NYRB containing The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It immediately interested me when I flicked through it—seems like a weird one. NYRB’s blurb below; more to come.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them is a historical novel like no other, one that immerses the reader in the dailiness of history, rather than history as the given sequence of events that, in time, it comes to seem. Time ebbs and flows and characters come and go in this novel, set in the era of the Black Death, about a Benedictine convent of no great note. The nuns do their chores, and seek to maintain and improve the fabric of their house and chapel, and struggle with each other and with themselves. The book that emerges is a picture of a world run by women but also a story—stirring, disturbing, witty, utterly entrancing—of a community. What is the life of a community and how does it support, or constrain, a real humanity? How do we live through it and it through us? These are among the deep questions that lie behind this rare triumph of the novelist’s art.
It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.
I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.
I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.
I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.
I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.
I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.
I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.
I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.
Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.