This afternoon I was reading, or really, I now know, rereading Gordon Lish’s 1996 interview with Rob Trucks, and while reading (rereading) this interview, I experienced terrible déjà vu, the kind of déjà vu that upsets one like a bad itch tucked away and wriggling in an unscratchable little alcove in the back of one’s mind. Only of course now I know that I wasn’t necessarily experiencing what can rightfully be called déjà vu; rather, I was simply failing to fully remember having read something several years prior—in this case, Gordon Lish’s 1996 interview with Rob Trucks.
Early bits of the interview set me tingling. Stuff about Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. Stuff about DeLillo. Lots of Lish’s anxiety about Blood Meridian. But my (non)déjà vu exploded when Lish shared the following story while discussing his (anxiety of) influences:
I read Wallace Stevens a lot, since you asked about influence. I read Stevens’s letters a lot. I’m eager to find all sorts of connections between Stevens’s life and my own, right down to, and I’ll put this to you, my extraordinary discovery not long ago that the face on the coin, on the half dollar coin, and on the dime that I gazed at so often as a child in honor o my idea of an American woman, since I come from an immigrant family, what a great American woman looked like, the one that you would have to bed in lieu of all other women you could not bed, turns out to have been modeled for a sculptor who was a landlord in Chelsea. he was, in fact, Stevens’s landlord when he and Elsie Kachel, his wife, were living in Chelsea, and the design on the coin was modeled by Stevens’s wife, so that it’s fair to make the claim that I was infatuated with Steven’s wife, or at least her profile, from the time I was five or six or seven years old. You looked at the dime, you looked at the half dollar, and you saw Stevens’s wife, amazingly.
When I read this amazingly amazing anecdote the déjà vu had passed pulsating—it was humming, whirring in the background, trying to attach to something, eventually coming up with, “David Markson? Is this something you read in a David Markson novel?” Instead of trying to search through Markson’s work (where I’m sure, or now not really sure, but rather somewhat sure, I read the anecdote of Wallace Stevens getting into a fistfight with a much younger Ernest Hemingway off the coast of Key West) for this Elsie Kachel Stevens reference, I simply did a basic internet search to get some more background on Lish’s claim that the poet Wallace Stevens’s wife served as the profile model on at least two coins of U.S. currency. The story more or less checks out (with a lot of passive voice).
Here is a photograph of the dime in question, which was designed by Adolph Weinman and minted in 1916:
And here is a photograph of Elsie Kachel Stevens:
And here is a photograph of the bust that Adolph Weinman made of Elsie Kachel Stevens:
Anyway. I went back to the interview, still tingling a little, but also a bit preoccupied—I needed to prepare our dinner of tacos, kids needed to get to piano lessons, the dog need walking, etc. And as I hurtled through the interview, I got to a moment when Lish tells his interlocutor, “I use my dick, mainly, to write the first time, and I’m using my brains to do the revisions. I mean, not my brain. I’m using rather practiced sequences of motions that have to do chiefly with mind or chiefly with know-how. I’m trying to stick it into the page the first time out.” And then, a few paragraphs later, this nugget:
Q: So Self-Imitation is still a dick book?
A: It’s a dick book. All my books are dick books.
And then I laughed out loud and then I remembered that I had not only read this interview, but I had even written about it years ago on this idiot blog of mine. And so my itch was scratched.
I read—by which I mean reread—Gordon Lish’s 1996 interview with Rob Trucks in Conversations with Gordon Lish (edited by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli), a collection chocked full of tingly bits and fat juicy morsels and etc.
On 1 April 2018 I set the silly goal of blogging about something every day of the month. I actually wound up meeting the goal, and it was fun (if sometimes exhausting). The April “Blog about” thing allowed me to just write in a way that was freeing. I have a tendency to let riffs and reviews languish, to leave my half-assed remarks on whatever I’m reading left unremarked, etc.
Anyway. Lately I’ve been Not Writing–in part because I’ve been extraordinarily busy with work and family, but also because it’s incredibly hot in Florida. (If this does not make sense to you, don’t worry. Look—sometimes it’s just too hot). So well anyway—I’m going to use 1 October 2018 as an occasion to declare my good intent to blog about something—books, film, art—every day or nearly every day. I’m not sure how it will go.
For now, some October reading goals, in no way prioritized:
Finish George Eliot’s Silas Marner.
This probably should have been the first Eliot novel I read—it’s more approachable (and let’s be honest, much, much shorter) than Middlemarch. Eliot’s major skill, it seems to me, is in evoking consciousness-in-action—that’s the impression I got after finishing Middlemarch, anyway. Like Middlemarch, Silas Marner is also a thoroughly convincing evocation of place. And, in its treatment of anxiety, it also seems to me an easy pre-Modern Modern novel.
Make a bigger dent in David R. Bunch’s Moderan.
Bunch’s Moderan stories connect into a strange novel told in a thoroughly singular voice. “Thoroughly singular voice” is a total cliché, but it’s true here: Bunch’s New Metal Man Stronghold 10 paints his plastic-coated post-apocalyptic world as if it were a perfect paradise. The language, the voice, is its own idiom—barking, visceral, phallic—perfectly suited to conjure a postnuked dystopian world. The great trick of it all is that the narrator Stronghold 10 views this dystopia as a utopia, resulting in a layer of ironic distance between author and speaker that creates a bizarre comic tension that’s ripe for misreading. The voice’s singularity though means that’s a very particular flavor; one doesn’t always want Stronghold 10 booming in one’s ear. I hope to do a few posts on Moderan this month, but if your interest is piqued, check out Rob Latham’s thorough review at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Check out Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand.
A review copy from Spurl Editions of William Weaver’s translation of Pirandello’s final novel arrived late last week but I haven’t made much time to check it out.
Finally read Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis.
It will happen.
Do a few posts on Conversations with Gordon Lish (ed. by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli).
I tried not to gobble most of these Lish interviews up too quickly—the experience of reading them is something closer to reading an essay or a transcript of a performance than a staid interview.
Read more of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe.
I unexpectedly dipped into Daniel Hoffman’s biography-criticism-memoir Poe x 7 this weekend, after randomly flicking to a page where Hoffman comments on Poe commenting on Hawthorne (all on allegory already aye?). The book is so strange and intriguing.
Return a book to a friend.
I asked a colleague, a musicologist, what he thought of Ravel’s Bolero and he loaned me Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound: The Music of Maurice Ravel, and then narrowed his eyes a bit and clarified that the book should be returned. (Hardback U of P books ain’t cheap, people). A lot of it is way over my head, but Zank’s analysis often turns to literature—Baudelaire shows up as much in the index as Debussy—so there’s that.
Try not to gobble up all of Paul Kirchner’s forthcoming collection Hieronymus & Bosch.
You might have read some of Biblioklept favorite Paul Kirchner’s comic strips Hieronymus & Bosch at Adult Swim Comics. This Fall, French publisher Tanibis Editions will release a 100-page collection of Kirchner’s comic riff on life in hell. The digital advance they sent me looks great—I’ve tried to restrain myself from eating it all up at once.
I’ve been reading somewhat at random the “interviews” with Gordon Lish collected in Conversations with Gordon Lish over the past two weeks and really enjoying them. The suspicious quotation marks around “interviews” are there to suggest that these pieces are often something closer to essays or post-fictions or metafictions—Lish extemporizing, lucidly ranting, self-interviewing himself, and just generally performing Gordon Lish. (I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Lish briefly had a career as a radio personality in the early fifties on a show called “The Gordo Lochwood Show”).
More to come, but for now here’s the blurb for Conversations with Gordon Lish, which is edited by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli:
Known as “Captain Fiction,” Gordon Lish (b. 1934) is among the most influential–and controversial–figures in modern American letters. As an editor at Esquire (1969-1977), Alfred A. Knopf (1977-1994), and The Quarterly (1987-1995) and as a teacher both in and outside the university system, he has worked closely with many of the most pioneering writers of recent times, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A prolific author of stories and novels, Lish has also won a cult following for his own fiction, earning comparisons with Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.
Conversations with Gordon Lish collects all of Lish’s major interviews, covering the entire span of his extraordinary career. Ranging from 1965 to 2015, these interviews document his pivotal role in the period’s defining developments: the impact of the Californian counterculture, the rise and decline of so-called literary “minimalism,” dramatic transformations in book and magazine publishing, and the ongoing growth of creative writing instruction. Over time, Lish–a self-described “dynamic conversationalist”– forges an evolving conversation not only with his interviewers, but with the central trends of twentieth-century literary history.
Back in the day when there was talk between Tom’s Sheila and my Barbara of the two squads going halvsies on a great big house in Hamptonia, we all were sitting around in said real estate after a Sunday brunchy fress—Tom’s sidekicks Eddie Hayes and Richard Merkin among the newspaperbound bagelbound boasters—and I just so happened to have launched myself into a rapsode bearing on my baseball-playing startlements, this before I was expelled from the school where I’d done the startling, and Tom said he had a couple of mitts, why didn’t we go on out onto the lawn and throw it around awhile, and I said, thanks but no thanks, I having been a catcher when I was doing my startling and would therefore require the glove worn by a catcher if I were to catch a ball thrown by a pitcher known to me to have been a farm-team pitcher for the Dodgers, unless it was the Yanks, whereupon Tom allowed as to how he had happened to have fetched out from the city to Hamptonia the very variety of mitt, and so he had and so we did, humping it out onto the lawn and just as humpily regrouping among the housebound, Tom mum as you’d want that no toss he’d lobbed at me could I, the be-mitted braggart, begin to handle.
David Winters: Literally: the act or way of leaving a place; an emergence, opening or exit. Egress is also a biannual literary magazine devoted to showcasing the most innovative writers on both sides of the Atlantic today. Our first issue features, among others, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden and Kimberly King Parsons.
Biblioklept: How long has Egress been incubating? How did the magazine come about?
DW: Incubation began in May 2017, over a lunch of okonomiyaki in Bloomsbury, London. We met through Gordon Lish. Little Island had published Lish’s White Plains, as well as books by his students Russell Perrson and Jason Schwartz. I’d also alerted Andrew to the work of David Hayden, author of Darker with the Lights On, who has two new stories in Egress #1. So, there was a sense of shared tastes. A sense, too, that UK literary magazines–despite the efforts of a few pioneers—lacked the avant-garde spirit of US publications like NOON and New York Tyrant. We both saw a space for something new. Okonomiyaki, for the benefit of your readers, are a type of savoury Japanese pancake.
Andrew Latimer: Through David and Gordon Lish, I’d discovered writers like Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte (both in Egress #1) and desperately wanted a vehicle for engaging this type of work here, in the UK. Egress – the name, the style, the design – all came about quite naturally from a desire to bring writing like this into one place.
Biblioklept: For readers unfamiliar, can you describe the Lishian aesthetic, at least as you see it?
DW: Well, in a sense, there’s no such thing. Journalists in the eighties harped on about ‘minimalism’—a stupid label, with little purchase on the writers in question. Sven Birkerts once claimed there was a ‘School of Gordon Lish’. But Lish’s influence can’t be reduced in that way. Over the decades, hundreds of very different writers have worked with him, learned from him, bounced off him, swerved away from him. What the best of them have in common is an acute sensitivity to the power of language, and a commitment to creating new and lasting art—art that stands apart from the marketplace. Those are also the qualities we prize at Egress. But they are hardly restricted to “Lishian” fiction.
Biblioklept: That “acute sensitivity to the power of language” is on display in the two fictions from Lish in Egress #1, “Jawbone” and “Court of the Kangaroo.” The first Lish story, “Jawbone,” is about this seemingly unimportant minuscule moment, but Lish turns the whole thing into a drama about language itself. There’s this line in “Jawbone” that I kept tripping over, rereading and rereading: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.” The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky—rapturous really.
AL: Rereading is the key here. We’re familiar with rereading whole stories that we like or ones with endings that puzzle us. But what Lish, and writers of this ilk, ask us to do is to reread sentences in the course of making our first reading. This assumes a reader, a listener even, with the patience to linger over the page, its construction. (Gary Lutz prefers a “page-hugging” to a page-turning reader.)
DW: “Gorgeous and ugly” — exactly, yes. Donald Barthelme once said, “every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.” Lish, when he was teaching, called this “burnt tongue”: “God only listens to those whose tongues are burnt, twisted, crippled.” Writers of fiction can achieve extraordinary power by attending to everything wrong, skewed, erratic in their natural speech — and, rather than being afraid of that wrongness, amplifying it on the page. But power of this kind needn’t be purely spontaneous; it can also be elicited by editing. The sentence you mention went through multiple revisions; Lish reworks his stories obsessively, right up to the final proof stage. When I edit fiction, in my lesser way, I often look out for those off-kilter sentences, isolate them, tweak them, try to increase their tension and pressure.
Biblioklept: How much and what kind of editing did you guys do with Egress #1. I mean, were the authors submitting finished pieces, or were you working with them through the process?
DW: It varies. Some stories are, with the authors’ approval, heavily edited. Some authors come to us in such command of their material that no editing is necessary. Sometimes, editing is simply about discovery: finding the new. Sometimes it’s about reinvention: getting stuck in and making it new. Between these extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of interventions.
Biblioklept: I’ll admit that I opened Egress with the idea that I’d probably go straight to Lish and then maybe read Christine Schutt or Evan Lavender-Smith—some of the writers I’d already read before—before reading ones that were new to me. However, the first story in Egress #1, which is by Kimberly King Parsons had a title that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Corpulent Wants Polaroid Proof.” So I started there, and all the sentences made me want to keep reading, and then read into her second story. Then I read the next story, Grant Maierhofer’s “Everybody’s Darling.” (The opening line “I suppose I took to mother’s unders when the end became too sure” sort of insisted Keep going). How important is sequencing the stories (and essays) of Egress and what was that process like? How much of your editorial mission involves opening up a place for newer voices?
DW: Openings are important. Andrew and I share the view that stories should command attention from their very first sentence–what some would call the ‘attack’. Again, though, an attack doesn’t have to be nailed down straight away; it can emerge in the process of revision. However they’re made, the best openings astonish, seduce, compel us, as you say, to ‘keep going’.
And if literary art is about attention, so too is the art of the literary magazine. Drawing attention to unknown writers has long been the mission of little magazines, ever since the heyday of modernism. Incidentally, this has also been my mission as a critic. When I started writing about Christine Schutt, Evan Lavender-Smith and others, they were largely overlooked and unpublished in the UK. Both in mainstream literary journalism and in the academy, critical attention often fixates on the famous and commercially successful. This is especially true of prose fiction, which inhabits a different institutional ecosystem to, say, poetry. With the current renaissance of small presses, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Even so, the writers who make the Booker Prize shortlist or get reviewed in The Guardian are not, by and large, the writers who’ll be remembered decades from now. The market exerts a powerful pull on our collective attention. Good publishing, like good criticism, resists that pull. The task is to look away from what everyone else is looking at–look at what they’re not looking at–and then make them see.
AL: Absolutely – and the sequencing of the stories and essays plays a huge part in showcasing those new voices. As a reader, there is always that pull to go to the names you know and love first. (It’s part of why you pick up a magazine.) But, as an editor, you can’t just rely on the big names; you’ve got to be in the business of making new ones. You have a responsibility to disrupt the reader’s expectations, to put things in their way. Beyond names and reputations, there’s also a careful and deliberate counterpointing of the work in Egress. David and I think about how one story or essay speaks to another, how it’s placement can enrich another’s meaning, its rhythms. This kind of editorial work, the imposition of an overarching rhythm to the issue, wills the reader to ‘keep going’. Catrin Morgan’s illustrations (of various egresses – trapdoors and staircases) are a neat visual cue to the reader to push on, to explore what’s round the corner.
Biblioklept: Some of this blog’s readers might know Catrin Morgan from her illustrated version of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. How did you get her involved with Egress? Do you plan for each issue to have a different artist?
AL: Originally we asked her for an image for the front cover, but she ended up drawing all these bizarre stairs and exits that were so compelling I just had to use them. I’d like to continue using her illustrations throughout the text for the future, but there will be a new artist featured in the colour plates each issue. The “artist” for this issue is Hob Broun.
Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?
DW: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.
Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?
DW: Cardinal Numbers, without a doubt. Open Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.
Biblioklept: Maybe Egress could get a hold of a few pages.
DW: We’ve been looking at some of his unpublished work, yes.
Biblioklept: Why is it necessary to publish Egress in a physical, print form?
AL: Why is Egress in print? There are so many reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The role of curation has never been more important as it is now. We are distracted: information, entertainment, stuff causes our attention to bleed from one thing to the next. Egress, like all the best journals and mags, is a highly curated affair. David and I wanted there to be a palpable sensation derived from receiving and reading each issue of the magazine. The style of writing, the artwork, the design. Much of that effect relies on all the pieces being enclosed between covers – simultaneously held together and also cut off, if only briefly, from everything else that’s going on. It’s hard, likely impossible, to get that same sense of quietude, to enforce focus, when reading on a screen as infinite worlds suggest themselves merely clicks away. As well as this, there’s an indispensable sense of occasion one gets from a print magazine: ‘when is it out?’ The magazine, as a format, craves temporality.
Biblioklept: Do you envision future issues of Egress publishing some of the authors featured in the first issue?
AL: Yes, definitely.
Biblioklept: There’s an obvious aesthetic value to a literary journal or magazine publishing the same authors frequently, but are there any risks?
DW: There are risks and rewards. Magazines like Egress serve two roles in the culture. Our primary role is to discover and promote new writers. Often unpublished, unagented, and lacking industry connections, these writers reside at the margins. But we believe in them, fervently, and we believe they deserve to be heard. This gives rise to a second role. You might even call it a moral responsibility. Newness needs to be nurtured, protected, given a space in which it can grow. One contributor to Egress #1 only began writing fiction six months ago. She’d published nothing before she came to us. But what she’s doing is truly unique. Will we publish her again? You bet. We’ll do everything in our power to support her work. The same goes for any writer we believe in. If you do that and keep doing it–if you keep bringing new writers together–you become something more than a magazine. You become a community. Look at the best literary magazines of recent decades–from The Quarterly through to elimae, NOON, Tyrant and Unsaid–and that’s what you’ll see: artistic communities. Temporary autonomous zones; bubbles in which innovation can flourish. The risk, of course–and here I could name several lesser litmags–is that such communities can solidify into coteries, stables, ‘closed shops’. We’ll champion writers as long as they need us, but we’ll never close ourselves off in that way. After all, the real thrill is when someone comes to you from out of nowhere–no publications, no social media accounts, no ‘platform’, fuck, even no cover letter–just power on the page.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
DW: Sure, when they’re overpriced or out of print. Worse, I’ve had others steal them for me. Years ago, a friend went to great lengths to liberate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ Order Out of Chaos from a university library for me. And a contributor to Egress #2 once smuggled an exorbitantly priced theology monograph out of a bookshop on my behalf. (Sorry Julie—see you in prison!)
AL: I’m bad for stealing books from places I’m staying at — friends’, hostels, BnBs — especially if I think I’d appreciate the book more myself. My favourite steal so far has been Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, which I’ve read the covers off so can’t return that now (not that I would).
The first issue of Egressis out now in the UK. It will be available in the US on 21 June 2018.
David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing a book about Gordon Lish. He co-edits both Egress and 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.
A new literary magazine called Egressdebuts in the UK this month and in the US next month. I have read an advance copy and it is Very Good. Egress features, for lack of a better term (although there are better terms; I’m just being lazy) experimental short fiction. It might be better just to list some of the authors featured in the inaugural issue: Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, David Hayden, Sam Lipsyte, Evan Lavender-Smith, and Gordon Lish (there are more).
There are two shorties by Lish in the collection. Both are Very Good and Very Funny. One of them, “Jawbone,” is about a narrator killing two bugs.
Have I spoiled Lish’s “Jawbone” by revealing its intricate plot (i.e., the murder (murders?) of a pair of (possibly copulating) bugs)? No, not really—for the story is really about language itself (which like so a lot of Lish’s fictions are ultimately about, yes?)
There’s a sentence in “Jawbone” that I could not leave alone. I kept reading it and rereading it, and then read it aloud almost rapturously:
Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.
The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky, elevated and base, smooth and harsh. The alliteration is at once sumptuous and unbearable–ells and kays fray into esses and zees; tittering alveolar touches stutter throughout the thirty-six syllables. The repetitions clip along, cleverer in the end than they at first seem: “was there in there on duty on the nightbeat” builds with a force that shuttles into not one but two “last nights,” a bit of redundant fun. Should a sentence of 27 words contain so many prepositions? I guess this one should. I would go on about the hyperbolic brilliance of the line but maybe that’s pinning it down a bit too much, which is not what one should really do with such a clean upstanding decent ugly sentence. (“Crapper”!).
Let’s close by connecting Lish’s ironic hyperbolic sentence to what I take to be the namesake of his short vengeful tale, an episode in the book of Judges. After tying together 300 fox tails and lighting them on fire, the great (and eventually-blinded) hero Samson kills a bunch of Philistines (Philistines!) with the jawbone of an ass. He then gets thirsty and God Provides Some Water from yon jawbone. Here is Judges 15:16, King James Version on this matter: “And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.”
And here—I mean, I hope I’m not being too tacky in revealing the last line but, Lish, but—
Well, fuck, bugs – I mean, what can anyone really do?
Get lost for two hours. Go read Jacques Derrida or the like, something to break your brain on and convince you that mind is nothing in the comfort department compared to the things of the spirit, which is what is going on in back in the kitchen. And down’t worry about setting a timer. The fevers sailing the ethers will call you back the instant you’re wanted.
From “Not Just Any Soup,” Gordon Lish’s recipe for chicken noodle soup, published in TheNew York Times in 1977.
Before you can get lost in Derrida (or the like) for a few hours, you’ve got to fill an 11″ by 5″ pot with three inches of water and inch of beer. Set the heat to low and add “scrubbed carrots…chopped chive, slivered celery, sliced onion, minced garlic, ground dill, paprika, Dijon mustard, pepper, salt, a dash of cinnamon.”
How much of each? Lish is unwilling to list amounts: “Amounts is for the insurance business…The heart with good posture doesn’t stoop to check amounts.”
Add the chicken (sans fat and skin), cover, lower to a simmer, and get lost for two hours.
After you’ve read Derrida (or the like) for two hours, add the noodles — “the slenderest money can buy” — and take another hour off. To kill the time, Lish prescribes Jack Gilberts’ Views of Jeopardy — “the last poems the English language needed”).
Once that hour’s passed, stir the mixture again, thoroughly: “Lid off, the eucharist rolled over in his languid waters so that the bottom shall be the top.” Put the lid back on and wait for eight hours. Lish advises using the time to think.
Huge thanks to David Winters for sharing the recipe with me; David found the piece as part of a great big important research thing he’s doing on Lish (he also interviewed Lish for the project, so we’ll have that to look forward to—but it’s not going to be in his new book, Infinite Fictions, new from Zero this January).
The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.
What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements).
So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.
Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:
The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.
Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.
A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.
Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.
Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.
Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that
The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.
Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”
Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.
At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.
Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:
The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means stranger, villain, enemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.
The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?
I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.
The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.
Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):
In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.
I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.
The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.
There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.
I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.
Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. It was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.
The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:
I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!
And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—
I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read. Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.
Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.
Lish the Elder has impeccable taste, but, you know, c’mon. We all tend to think our kids are great at everything.
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Preparation for the Next Life a few days ago. I wasn’t looking for it; I was looking for another “L” novelist, but the spine popped out. I took it home and read the first few paragraphs. Then I just kept reading, consuming the first third in hungry gulps.
Lish’s prose is amazingly concrete. He renders New York City (and the other settings) with seemingly effortless thoroughness; the evocation of place is vivid and refined in its attention to detail, but reads raw somehow. There’s a flavor of prime Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo here, but these comparisons aren’t fair: Lish is original—the prose reads thoroughly real, real to and from the author. The novel so far strikes me as one of the most authentic “post-9/11” novels I’ve read. There’s almost something sci-fi to Preparation—Lish shows us our world through alien eyes that suck in every detail. I wish I’d read it sooner.
Skinner hitchhikes to New York, newly returned from Iraq, hoping to exorcise his demons. Zou Lei, an undocumented immigrant from Central Asia, catches a bus into the city, searching for a way to get by—or at least stay out of jail. Their unlikely love story becomes the heart of one of the most compelling and widely acclaimed novels in years.
A clear-eyed illustration of life in New York City’s margins, Preparation For the Next Life evokes the unsettling realities of the American Dream for U.S. immigrants and unsupported veterans in stark, vivid detail. At once a nightmare and a love letter to New York City (a place one loves partly for its host of nightmares), Lish’s prose is disciplined yet always alive and taut with danger, rendered with the voice of a new and natural talent.
Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville. First edition hardback, Harper Collins, 1995. Color illustrations, many blatantly erotic, including the cover, by Maurice Sendak (in the mood of Billy Blake). Design by Cynthia Krupat. The editor Hershel Parker has reconstructed the original, shorter version of Pierre that Melville sabotaged (according to Parker) by adding convoluted subplots (in revenge against the Harper brothers who did not wish to publish the book). This is the so-called “Kraken Edition”; the title comes from a letter Melville sent to Hawthorne. If Moby-Dick was the whale, Pierre was his giant monstrous squid.
My Romance by Gordon Lish. 1993 Norton trade paperback. Cover design by R.D. Scudellari. There are two paragraphs in this 142-page novel; the first starts on page 1 and ends on page 142; the second begins and ends on page 142 and is all of one sentence.
Erotic Poems, an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection. Borzoi/Knopf, tiny hardback 1994. Jacket design by Barbara de Wilde. Happy Valentine’s.
-Okay. I’ll try. The narrator is Gordon Lish—a version of Gordon Lish, of course (Gordon!), who tells us about a cryptographic “test” his aunt, an agent for the National Reconnaissance Office, sent him in 1963.
-Why did she send him this test?
-Poor Gordon was jobless and had a wife and kids to support and-
-You mean his kid the novelist Atticus Lish?
-Please don’t interrupt; no, these, these are other kids; Atticus comes later, but Lish does write about him in Cess. Anyway-
-What does he say about Atticus?
-He writes that “Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.” Okay?
-So: The narrator gets this “test” from his aunt and-
-What does it look like? What is it?
-It’s a long list of esoteric words.
-May I see?
-It’s a pretty long list.
-About 170 pages, about 22 words per page.
-May I see a section then?
-That’s what I thought too! In fact, I first got a digital copy from publisher OR—so I was just reading, you know, on an iPad—which is, I mean, if you can imagine, I wasn’t doing the flicking through thing, the physical browsing thing—so I had no idea that there would be this big long list of words as like, the main course. I was shocked. It was electric. Continue reading “A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess”→
I only wrote a few riffs and reviews in August, failing to write at length about Gordon Lish’s Cess and Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Also: Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, which I audited the audiobook of—great stuff, a novel that posits the book as a primary and insuperable technology. And some films too—Michael Mann’s Thief (amazing); Quest for Fire (why were the Baby Boomers so obsessed with cave people?); Ex Machina (a well-acted design-porn riff on Bluebeard that has no real ideas about its central theme, human consciousness).
I also watched and loved and didn’t write about the second season finale of True Detective—loved it—a tragic hyperbole, a big exclamation point, a sympathetic punchline to the season’s paternal anxieties. I found the final shot unexpectedly moving—the season’s female leads moving through the traffic of humanity, strapped with a child, knives, the future.
Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.
Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass
So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.
The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink
I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:
Finished rereading INFINITE JEST this afternoon and I feel exhausted and sad.
Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because I didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):
…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even thoughthe cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?
It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.
From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…
There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…
I’ll try to muster more.
Cess, Gordon Lish
AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.
The Spectators,Victor Hussenot
Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.
Ready? I take my tea bag (or you take your teaspoon), one bag or one spoon for each five ounces of water, which is cold when I start and boiling up a rumpus before I pour, which I do, into a teapot that’s already hot, which condition of temperature is crucial.
So I pour furiously boiling water into good and hot teapot over bags or over loose tea or over bags or over tea bomb, slam top down, wrap entire business in dish towel, which is what I saw my mother do during the blizzard of ’46 and it made a tremendous impression on me, she being my mother and all. I understand some people are willing to buy a tea cosy—but, so far as I’m concerned, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
Anyhow, it sits for five minutes—you know, it steeps. If the waiting makes you edgy, go fold some paper bags. The next step is the last step, which is to hurry up and divide the product from its makings. Well, truth to tell, there is one more step—but that’s drinking it, drinking tea—which is a step I’m going to get around to, all in good time. When coffee scoots up over a sawbuck a can.
From Gordon Lish’s 1977 piece in The New York Times, “A Teaser on Tea, with a Footnote on Bags.” By way of context for that last line: the price of coffee soared in 1977 after a harsh freeze killed Brazilian crops. High coffee prices led to a coffee boycott. And tea drinking.