I don’t think anyone has gotten closer than Thomas Pynchon to summoning the real audacity and insanity and scope of the American mind, as reflected in the American landscape. I read Pynchon all out of order, starting with Vineland, and I still remember the shock of pleasure I got at finally seeing the America I knew—strange shops and boulevards, built over former strange shops and former boulevards, all laid out there in valleys and dead-end forests, heaped on top of Indian cemeteries, peopled with nut jobs and hustlers and moral purists—actually present in a novel, and present not only in substance but in structure and language that both used and evoked the unruly, muscular complexity of the world itself.
In Pynchon, anything is fair game—if it is in the world, it can go in the book. To me there is something Buddhist about this approach, which seems to say that since the world is capable of producing an infinity of forms, the novel must be capable of accommodating an infinite number of forms. All aesthetic concerns (style, form, structure) answer this purpose: Let in the world.
This is why Pynchon is our biggest writer, the gold standard of that overused word inclusiveness: No dogma or tidy aesthetic rule or literary fashion is allowed to prefilter the beautiful data streaming in. Everything is included. No inclination of the mind is too small or large or frightening. The result is gorgeous madness, which does what great literature has always done—reminds us that there is a world out there that is bigger than us and worthy of our utmost humility and attention.
I have often felt that we read to gain some idea of what God would say about us if someone were to ask Him what we’re like. Pynchon says, through the vast loving catalogue he has made, that we are Excellent but need to be watched closely. He says there is no higher form of worship than the loving (i.e., madly attentive) observation of that-which-is, a form of prayer of which Pynchon’s work is our highest example.
Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coördinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!
And then nightfall would fall and our facility would fill with the sounds of quiet fast breathing from inside our Privacy Tarps as we all experimented per the techniques taught us in “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” and what do you suspect, you had better make sure that that little gap between the main wall and the sliding wall that slides out to make your Gender Areas is like really really small. Which guess what, it wasn’t.
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said, What’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in Decemberthat ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
I went to the bookstore on Friday afternoon to drop off some trade-ins and order a few books for my wife and kids for Valentine’s Day. I had no intention of buying anything, but a bit of random browsing led to me leaving with Ben Marcus’s collection Notable American Women (how could I resist that blurb?), a collection of George Saunders essays, and René Leys by Victor Segalen—the NYRB edition stuck out, and then the blurb sold me on this tale of a Westerner trying to access the Forbidden City of imperial China.
I’m reading Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet right now, along with some short stories by Yoko Ogawa, as well as Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus; I’m pretty sure René Leys is on deck after one of those.
“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.
What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?
An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:
They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.
They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.
The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).
It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:
When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.
When they happen, we do not exist.
In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.
The novelist John Warner (The Funny Man), in an act of incredible kindness, sent me a copy of McSweeney’s #4, which he helped to put out years ago. In one of our emails, John offers the following:
It could be the best issue ever, a kind of platonic ideal of the McSweeney’s aesthetic before people started saying that things had a McSweeney’s aesthetic, a more innocent time if you will. My memory is that we were selling them at a live event at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in Chicago that we set up to help promote Neal Pollack’s book, and somehow the leftovers wound up in my trunk and I’ve been hauling them place to place ever since. . .
It’s a sort of fun artifact of the early/carefree days of McSweeney’s before Dave was DAVE, and the whole thing was still very haphazard.
It’s difficult to overstate the range of writers here: Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, a three-act play by Denis Johnson, and much, much more:
There are also many short stories, including “On the Set” by John Warner, his second published story:
Book shelves series #7, seventh Sunday of 2012: In which I photograph a coffee table.
We have three coffee tables. This is one of them (it’s next to the unit I photographed last week). Like many folks’ coffee tables, I suppose, it gets littered with books; the books on this one tend to rotate. Pictured above: lots of recent books acquired, including the Aira on top and Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh. There’s also the new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly and, for some reason (can’t remember) George Saunders’s Pastoralia. The Kindle is also there: my daughter and I read the first three comics in a colorized version of Jeff Smith’s epic graphic novel Bone—amazing stuff, and the color adds depth and beauty to an already beautiful book. I took this photo on a Friday afternoon, or maybe Friday evening (or night). I was drinking wine.
The big book is Walton Ford’s Pancha Tantra, which my lovely wife gave me for Christmas. Some images:
I read Pastoralia, George Saunders’s 2000 collection of stories very quickly, consuming one or two of the book’s six stories a night, usually wedged between other readings. There was a flavor of respite to these readings, a sense of ease or relaxation or—dare I say it—simple pleasure. Frankly, I’m suspicious of any book that I’m able to read very quickly; perhaps I’m prejudiced against any book that doesn’t pose (or impose) its own learning curve on the reader.
I’m perhaps off to a very bad start in this review, veering on the appearance of condescension (when, to be clear, I think that Pastoralia is sharp and wise and wicked and well-written and very, very funny)—but I feel like I have to get this out of the way up front: George Saunders’s prose, plots, and dialogue all reminded me very much of the prose, plots, and dialogue of David Foster Wallace.
A bit of objective data: DFW and Saunders are/were of a similar age (born in ’62 and ’58, respectively) and Infinite Jest and Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline were published the same year (’96). But, because of the simple mechanical truth that I read Wallace much, much earlier than Saunders, I find his influence unduly there. No doubt that when I detect Wallacian curves and contours and rhythms in Saunders—the coupling of officialese with imaginary slang, the depiction of a postmodern America which is slightly (but only slightly) not our own, the analyses of power and fear and duty—when I find these points of comparison, what I am really finding is the shared influences of Wallace and Saunders (no doubt postmodernists like Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, et al). In short, if I find a suspicious ease or comfort in Saunders, it’s because Wallace already taught me to read him. But like I said before, this is not a great start. I should just review the book.
Short review: the six tales in Pastoralia are hilarious, tender, and depressingly predictive of the decade that came after their composition (not to mention the strange dark horizon ahead of us). The long opener “Pastoralia” features a hapless man who works long hours apart from his wife and children in a failing history park. His job is to simulate a caveman, but his partner, an older woman with a troubled son, makes the job difficult to perform with any level of, uh, historical accuracy. When employees must be downsized, one of the managers tries to convince the narrator to rat out his partner’s shortcomings. “Pastoralia” is a study in how corporate power uses dehumanizing tactics to exploit workers. The communications the narrator receives from a nebulous plurality of managers are both hilarious and horrific, each one a contortion of logic that serves to strip the rights (and self-worth) of the workers. The story, depressingly, is more relevant than ever. (Readers familiar with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline will recognize “Pastoralia” as a revision of sorts to that earlier collection’s title story).
The next tale, “Winky,” moves along the same lines, exploring the clash between the Darwinian drives of self-protection and self-satisfaction set against the needs of others. In this story, the protagonist attends a self-help seminar (the scene is something so contemporaneous with Wallace that I’s tempted to write “straight out of DFW”), where the psychobabble and rationalizing of the speaker persuades him to ditch his weird, needy sister. Like the complex and funny managerial rhetoric we find in “Pastoralia,” the motivational lingo lulls and persuades not just the protagonist, but also the reader, into the easy trap of contemporary consumerism that centers the self as the ultimate telos of existence.
“Sea Oak” is the possible high point in the collection. It depicts an ersatz family living in a housing project that at one point we might have described as “on the margins of America” — only in Saunder’s vision (a vision increasingly realized) such housing projects are the reality for the majority of Americans. The middle class is not the norm. The (male) narrator strips to help bring money into the crappy apartment he shares with his aunt and two cousins and their two kids. A sample—
Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I’d move everybody up to Canada. It’s nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner.
The hyperbolic vision of a Canada that cares for all of its citizens stands in sharp relief to the predatory Darwinism of the Sea Oak projects. As the story unfolds, Saunders uses his characters to examine just what exactly economic struggle in American is for—what does the American Dream mean when subsistence living alone is so difficult?
“The End of FIRPO in the World” is perfection, a sad, funny, rambling stream of consciousness that plumbs the mind of an alienated boy who imagines his future glories and the revenge that he will have for all the slights done him. “FIRPO,” sitauted in the middle of collection, moves the book from the familial and corporate to the individual, as the last few tales (“The Barber’s Unhappiness” and “The Falls”) inhabit the strange sad consciousness of ordinary, awful people. These are beautiful portraits, ones that explore the gravity of failure and the small glowing sparks of redemption that might be available to us.
If, as I remarked earlier, there’s a comfort in Saunders’s prose, it’s the strange uncomfortable comfort that there’s a perceptive and wise intelligence out there that can apprehend and satirize the sheer horrific injustice that pervades the modern condition. Pastoralia is great, and I picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline right after finishing it, so there’s an endorsement. Recommended.
Swung by my favorite local bookstore this afternoon (and, for regular readers who wonder why I seem to do this so often, I might point out that said bookstore is like, 7/10ths of a mile from my house). I picked up George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline after numerousreader suggestions and more or less enjoying his later collection, Pastoralia (review this week?).
I don’t think the lousy iPhone pic conveys how aesthetically pleasing this tpb version of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale is. It’s an oversized version, really. I used to own the book but a student permanently “borrowed” it (yes, a guy who posts under the scaredynym “Biblioklept” shouldn’t complain about book theft, but still . . .), and anyway, the version I owned was a cheap mass market paperback copy that I got my mom to buy for me at an airport years ago in Australia, so of course it had no special sentimental value, right?
I ordered David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I’ve been meaning to read for yonks but had never found used. Horrible, horrible cover
Bernhard’s Correction: Thomas Bernhard came recommended by a number of readers in the aforelinkedto post; dipping into Correction immediately recalled Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn for some reason.
George Saunders: another reader recommendation. I actually read Pastoralia this week. I love short stories. Anyway, full review forthcoming. Short version: good stuff, but DFW casts a pretty big shadow.
Georges Perec was another reader rec, but it was his novel Life: A User’s Manual that kept popping up. I found Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, his collection of essays and other stray bits, by sheer chance. I think I was looking for something by De Sade, actually. Anyway, I love, love, love this book—it kinda reminds me of Bolaño’s Between the Parentheses or even the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden—the kind of book I see myself dipping into again and again, a little mini-labyrinth of ideas.
I also picked up Faulkner’s last novel, The Reivers; been wanting to read it for a long time now. I’ll try to get it in over the Christmas break.
Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
“Get in here, you,” Ma said.
Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was as usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall above the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.
“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.
I looked at her funny.
“Beeping?” I said.
“Beep you,” she said. “They been on my case at work.”
It was true Ma had a pretty good potty mouth. And was working at a church now, so.
We stood there looking at each other.
Then some guy came tromping down the stairs: older than Ma even, in just boxers and hiking boots and a winter cap, long ponytail hanging out the back.
“Who’s this?” he said.
“My son,” Ma said shyly. “Mikey, this is Harris.”
“What’s your worst thing you ever did over there?” Harris said.
“What happened to Alberto?” I said.
“Alberto flew the coop,” Ma said.
“Alberto showed his ass,” Harris said.
“I hold nothing against that beeper,” Ma said.
“I hold a lot against that fucker,” Harris said. “Including he owes me ten bucks.”
“Harris ain’t dealing with his potty mouth,” Ma said.
“She’s only doing it because of work,” Harris explained.
“Harris don’t work,” Ma said.
“Well, if I did work, it wouldn’t be at a place that tells me how I can talk,” Harris said. “It would be at a place that lets me talk how I like. A place that accepts me for who I am. That’s the kind of place I’d be willing to work.”
“There ain’t many of that kind of place,” Ma said.
“Places that let me talk how I want?” Harris said. “Or places that accept me for who I am?”
“Places you’d be willing to work,” Ma said.
“How long’s he staying?” Harris said.
“Long as he wants,” Ma said.
“My house is your house,” Harris said to me.
“It ain’t your house,” Ma said.
“Give the kid some food at least,” Harris said.
“I will but it ain’t your idea,” Ma said, and shooed us out of the kitchen.
“Great lady,” Harris said. “Had my eyes on her for years. Then Alberto split. That I don’t get. You got a great lady in your life, the lady gets sick, you split?”
“Ma’s sick?” I said.
“She didn’t tell you?” he said.
He grimaced, made his hand into a fist, put it upside his head.
“Lump,” he said. “But you didn’t hear it from me.”
Ma was singing now in the kitchen.
“I hope you’re at least making bacon,” Harris called out. “A kid comes home deserves some frigging bacon.”
“Why not stay out of it?” Ma called back. “You just met him.”
“I love him like my own son,” Harris said.
“What a ridiculous statement,” Ma said. “You hate your son.”
“I hate both my sons,” Harris said.
“And you’d hate your daughter if you ever meet her,” Ma said.
Harris beamed, as if touched that Ma knew him well enough to know he would inevitably hate any child he fathered.
Ma came in with some bacon and eggs on a saucer.
“Might be a hair in it,” she said. “Lately it’s like I’m beeping shedding.”
“You are certainly welcome,” Harris said.
“You didn’t beeping do nothing!” Ma said. “Don’t take credit. Go in there and do the dishes. That would help.”
“I can’t do dishes and you know that,” Harris said. “On account of my rash.”
“He gets a rash from water,” Ma said. “Ask him why he can’t dry.”
“On account of my back,” Harris said.
“He’s the King of If,” Ma said. “What he ain’t is King of Actually Do.”
“Soon as he leaves I’ll show you what I’m king of,” Harris said.
“Oh, Harris, that is too much, that is truly disgusting,” Ma said.
Harris raised both hands over his head like: Winner and still champ.