Reviews and riffs of February-May, 2016 (and an unrelated stag)

Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.


I reread William Gaddis’s big big novel J R, writing

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).


I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is

…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.

My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:

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I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.


99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:

The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.


Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.


Despite some fascinating images, I was not impressed by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise. I concluded that,

While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.


And I wrote about Ferrante, Knausgaard, and their good/bad/ironic book covers.


Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):

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Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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I just spent the past hour reading from Tom Clark’s 1980 short story collection The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. Is this the only collection of short stories by Clark? I don’t know. Maybe I prefer not knowing. I was excited to find this at the bookstore yesterday so maybe I’ll be excited to find some other phantom collection in some eventual phantom future. Stories that are like poems, or infused by poems—or dialogues, or spirit rants, ersatz music reviews for bands that may or may not exist. Heidegger complains to Hitler; Ty Cobb gets turned on to Little Orphan Annie. Tales of sex and love and other things. Find it if you can get it.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick is a riff-novel, or a thought-novel, or an I-don’t-know-what, I mean. Is it about memory? Or is it memory?  “If only one knew what to remember or what to pretend to remember”—If I remember correctly, this is the first sentence of the novel’s second paragraph.

Mahendra Singh’s American Candide is forthcoming from Rosarium. It is funny and sad and even cruel, but also sweet (and bitter and very very funny). I’ll have a full review forthcoming closer to its pub date, but the short review is: Buy it.

I wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction  a week or two ago…finished it since then and it’s a good, sad, angrifying read. I read Extinction with/against a viewing of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and then I got sick, like, the next week, which led to a big re-read of  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I’m better now, thanks to fantasy and manga.

Three Books

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Collected Stories by William Faulkner. 1977 first edition trade paperback from Vintage. This book is 900 pages, exactly, not including the ancillary pages that detail publication dates and rights, as well as Vintage’s back catalog—and yet not one of those pages manages to credit the cover designer or photographer.

I’ve been reading/re-reading this very slowly, with the loose goal of finishing this year.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol. 4 by Hayao Miyazaki. English translation by David Lewis and Toren Smith. Studio Ghibli Library edition by Viz Media, 2010. No designer credited, but the cover is by Miyazaki and I imagine we can probably credit Studio Ghibli with the design.

I started rereading Nausicaä this week after revisiting Princess Mononoke this week. Then I got horribly ill, and the only stuff I can really read when I’m really sick are comics. I scanned Vol. 4 for this week’s Three Books post; I finished it pretty late last night. Vol 5-7 remain.

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Junkets on a Sad Planet by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback by Black Sparrow Press, 1994. Cover design by Barbara Martin. The image is of Benjamin Robert Haydon’s life mask for John Keats (from a photo by Christopher Oxford).

I awoke around 1am in the middle of last week, and unable to sleep, I wandered to our den and randomly took this from the shelf to begin reading/rereading. The book (its title is a pun) is difficult to explain, a beautiful experience, rich. Here’s Clark’s own description: “…an extended reflection on the modern poet’s life, as Keats lived it. The book may be read by turns as poetic novel, biography in verse, allegorical masque, historical oratorio for several voices.”

Extinction, Gilgamesh, Miyazaki’s Wolfchild, etc. (A Riff)

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Reading the introduction to Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History this afternoon (forthcoming from OR Books), I felt a surreal yet nevertheless familiar twinge of apocalypse anxiety creeping into my right eye, where it tussled around. Is unnerved the metaphor I look for, here? Or is my response more literal? “Extinction is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole,” writes Dawson, and I nod my head. Dawson continues: “capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.” I nod some more. “Indeed, there is no clearer example of the tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction than the sixth extinction.” More nodding, more anxiety.

Chapter 2 of Extinction, “An Etiology of the Present Catastrophe,” assuages (not its intent, thank gawd) some of my anxiety by beginning with a passage from old ancient historical literature. Dawson gives us a passage from The Epic of Gilgamesh; we get Gilgamesh and his homeboy Enkidu killing the forest guardian spirit Humbaba. I’m more at home in literature, in history, outside of the awful present (I’m thinking that later in the book, in chapters titled “Anti-Extinction” and “Radical Conservation,” that Dawson might like call on me to do something other than to extol the virtues of Thoreau and Emerson to college sophomores. (And nod in agreement with him)).

But so and anyway, reading this prefatory paragraph from Gilgamesh, I made the immediate imaginative leap that literature licenses me: the episode that Dawson has invoked, this city-statesman vs. nature narrative featuring Gilgamesh straight up beheading the forest protector—well, that’s the central conflict/plot in Hayao Miyazki’s 1997 film Mononoke-hime (rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think better translated as Spirit-Monster Wolfchild or something like that, although no one asked me).

More on that in a second, but first, Dawson again, from the middle of “An Etiology of the Present Catastrophe,” wherein we move from literature to history to the present:

The violence generated by what geologists call the Holocene epoch was directed not just at other human beings but also at nature. Indeed what is perhaps humanity’s first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh (1800 BCE), hinges on a mythic battle with natural forces. In the epic, the protagonist Gilgamesh, not content with having built the walls of his city-state, seeks immortality by fighting and beheading Humbaba, a giant spirit who protects the sacred cedar groves of Lebanon. Gilgamesh’s victory over Humbaba is a pyrrhic one, for it causes the god of wind and storm to curse Gilgamesh. We know from written records of the period that Gilgamesh’s defeat of the tree god reflects real ecological pressures on the Sumerian empire of the time. As the empire expanded, it exhausted its early sources of timber. Sumerian warriors were consequently forced to travel to the distant mountains to the north in order to harvest cedar and pine trees, which they then ferried down the river to Sumer. These journeys were perilous since tribes who populated the mountains resisted the Sumerians’ deforestation of their land.

Dawson goes on to to detail how the Sumerians’ short-sighted, expansion-oriented agricultural methods led to the downfall of their empire: A scarcity of timber and farming practices that led to a “salt-soaked earth” led to Iraq’s modern deserts.

Before my eye starts twitching again let me return (retreat) to Miyazaki—

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—well, I watched Princess Mononoke just this Saturday, the Saturday before Easter—for like the first time in a decade. (We watch his films all the time with our kids (PonyoTotoro, and Spirited Away especially), but not Mononoke, which is too abject and violent yet for their tender years. And not Porco Rosso, which isn’t really for kids. Or The Wind Rises).

Anyway: So: Mononoke, I was thinking, rewatching it, was/is this wonderfully, beautiful, aesthetically astonishing take on the beginning of industrialization, and the weaponization of industry, and, like man vs nature, in a primordial sense. It’s also a Japanese Western, a meditation on purity and defilement, and a study of sorts on a feral child. Not having seen it in some time, I was perhaps most struck by how complex, brave, and intriguing I found the industrialist arms-designer/manufacturer Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver). She fights against the forest gods, she destroys and pollutes nature, she creates new weapons capable of killing people with a proficiency not yet seen on this earth. And yet at the same time, she finds a home for lepers and prostitutes—and not just a home, but a reason to be, an agency, an existential calling outside of the feudal system that would otherwise reject them. She’s the most human character in the film, perhaps. Miyazaki’s villains are rarely absolute. They are gray, human. And in their complicated, seemingly realistic humanity, I find the consolation of fantasy, yes?

So in viewing Mononoke this Easter eve—well maybe it was the wine I drank transubstantiating (or do I mean consubstantiating?) my blurred vision toward something more (an aesthetic illusion)—

—or and but anyway, so in Mononoke, I found some kind of synthesis, some kind of reconciliation between the wolfchild (Princess Mononoke, human-divine emissary of the old gods, the human not in nature but of and for nature) and the film’s protagonist (the self-exiled marked man Ashitaka—a cursed wanderer like Cain).

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But no redemption. Or maybe only aesthetic redemption—which is ultimately anaesthetic, no? The rebirth in Mononoke—spoilers, maybe sorry—well the rebirth is predicated on the same sacrifices (same same but different) detailed in the Easter story.  Self-sacrifice: Obliteration of self. The tree-god-guardian—as in Gilgamesh—is beheaded. But Miyazaki contrives a heroic restoration of the godhead, one that turns the literal megafauna creature into a metaphor, an idea—a concept of nature to be attended to—stewarded by—humankind. This is wish-fulfillment, of course.

But hey and so: that fantastic wonderful megafauna, eh? They range and lumber and speak and act and assert agency throughout Mononoke. Boars, wolves, elk. A kirin. Hell, apes. In Extinction, Dawson takes us through the mass extinction of the megafauna that once trudged and bounded over the earth, detailing the “Pleistocene wave of megadeath.” (Should I note that saber tooth tigers and giant sloths and wooly mammoths populated my childhood fantasies more than any T-rex or triceratops?). We—that is humans—we are the big animals now, elephants be damned! (Dawson opens his book with the shocking line “His face was hacked off.” This, in reference to the elephant Satao, felled by poachers). Is it my dreams and fantasies that I find consolation in? In aesthetics? In the crusty rime of religion that sticks to my consciousness?

Extinction frightens me—wait, I said that already, forgive me, I’ve been applying anaesthetics, okay—Dawson’s take is realurgentvital. It makes me face that I prefer my ecological criticism couched in the fantasy of the fantasy-past (Mononoke) or the doomed-but-hey-maybe-not-so-doomed-future (I’ll call here on Mononoke’s twin, Miyazaki’s 1984 epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Windas an example). But prefer is not the right mode/verb here (and neither is the spirit of this riff, a solipsistic navel-gazing blog of myself). This failure is my failure.

Maybe skip ahead, eh?— “The struggle to preserve global biodiversity must be seen as an integral part of a broader fight to challenge an economic and social system based on feckless, suicidal, expansion,” Dawson writes later. And skimming ahead more, I see notes on regenesis, ideas toward rewilding. Dawson’s last paragraphs—damn me, I skipped way ahead, looking for rhetorical solace—point toward “a human capacity to dream and to build a more just, more biologically diverse world.” A rhetorical flourish is easy but Dawson’s claim here is real—a future requires imagination, but an imagination beyond solace, beyond consolation. Miyazaki’s ecoverses perhaps point toward an imaginative collective future—or perhaps don’t. I don’t have a rhetorical flourish to finish off this riff.

Problems begin the moment we’re born (Hayao Miyazaki)

 From The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. The speaker is Hayao Miyazaki.

Cursed (Hayao Miyazaki)

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From The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

Then, as promised, the mononoke came for his bride (Hayao Miyazaki)



A storyboard from Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Wind Rises

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Via/more.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — Hayao Miyazaki

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Nausicaä

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Tyler Stout’s Studio Ghibli Posters

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — Hayao Miyazaki

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — Amélie Fléchais

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The Simpsons Riff on Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki Through an Art Nouveau Lens

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(More/via/about).

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New Trailer for Hayao Miyazaki’s Forthcoming Film, The Wind Rises

This one’s a lot more substantive than the teaser that came out earlier this year.

Trailer and Posters for Hayao Miyazaki’s Next Film, The Wind Rises

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I don’t know how I missed this—the teaser came out a few weeks ago—but a new Miyazaki is always promising. The Wind Rises is out in Japan in two weeks, out in the rest of the world, who knows when…but I’ve never minded watching his films sans subtitles or dubbing. Read more about The Wind Rises here; read my review of Ponyo, the last Studio Ghibli film that Miyazaki directed.

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