Blog about some recent reading

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I am reading too many books right now.

The big book I am reading is Marlon James’s surreal fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I am a little over half way through this long, long book, which is by turns rich, dazzling, baffling, and befuddling. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy-quest novel set in a mythical medieval Africa. The story is told by Tracker, a detective under magical protection who uses his magnificent nose to search for a missing boy, Tracker is aided (and sometimes stymied) on this quest by a strange and ever-shifting fellowship of superpowered heroes and antiheroes, including a sad, talkative giant, a mysterious witch, and the titular Leopard. Leopard is a shapeshifter, and Tracker’s erstwhile partner, both in adventures and in love. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic appetites,” he remarks at one point, summarizing the novel’s horny program. “The more you tell me, the less I know,” another character remarks, summarizing the novel’s shaggy structure. Black Leopard, Red Wolf unspools its plot in the most confounding way. Tracker is hardly a reliable narrator, but we are not even sure if he is the primary narrator. He’s telling his tale to an Inquisitor, but the tale-telling spins ever on, each story a deferral. And those deferrals often open into other storytellers, who tell stories with their own embedded stories. James’s book is like a matryoshka doll full of blood and guts and fucking and surreal ceiling-walking demons. It’s as much a detective story as a fantasy, but for all its genre troping, it makes few concessions to its various genres’ conventional forms. Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf often feels more like playing a really long game of very weird Dungeons & Dragons campaign with an inventive Dungeon Master making wild shit up as he goes along than it does a cohesive and coherent story. I’m digging the play so far.

The other long book I’m reading—crawling through, really—is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists. I loved the first 100 pages or so, but it’s turning into a slog. The novel’s climactic crisis, a mining disaster, occurs very early in the novel, an interesting gambit given that the novel is about an apocalyptic cult awaiting the end of the world. This apparent second crisis, a consequence of the first crisis, is then deferred. Coover explores this deferral and its consequences over a series of non-climaxes that we see through the eyes of the (many many too many) characters. There are little pockets of Origin that are fantastic, but too little humor to buoy the novel—it gets weighed down under its unwieldy cast and the authorial sense that This Is A Big Important Novel About Life. I will finish it though.

I loved loved loved Ann Quni’s novel Berg. I will do a full review of this marvelous weird claustrophobic novel when it comes out from And Other Stories in the U.S. this summer, but for now: Just amazing. The novel, originally published in 1964, begins like this: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” That, my friends, is basically the plot. Berg is a grisly Oedipal comedy that will make some readers’ skin crawl. Great stuff.

Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) is another strange one. It’s part memoir, part collage, part family history, often told in a dreamlike prose, but also sometimes conveyed with reportorial simplicity. Check it out.

I’ve also been reading Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a discursive collection of essays, lists, little anti-poems, etc. More thoughts to come, but I really dig the feeling of reading it.

Finally, I picked up Leslie Fiedler’s 1964 book of criticism Waiting for the End this Friday. Fiedler begins with the (then-recent) deaths of Hemingway and Faulkner. Fiedler uses the deaths of these “old men” to riff on the end of Modernism, although he never evokes the term. Neither does he use the term “postmodernism” in his book, although he edges towards it in his critiques of kitsch and middlebrow culture, and especially in his essay “The End of the Novel.” In parts of the book, he gets close to describing, or nearing a description of, an emergent postmodernist literature (John Barth and John Hawkes are favorite examples for Fiedler), but ultimately seems more resigned to writing an elegy for the avant garde. Other aspects of Waiting for the End, while well-intentioned, might strike contemporary ears as problematic, as the kids say, but Fiedler’s sharp and loose style are welcome over stodgy scholarship. Ultimately, I find the book compelling because of its middle position in its take on American literature. It’s the work of a critic seeing the beginnings of something that hasn’t quite emerged yet—but his eye is trained more closely on what’s disappearing into the past.

Blog about some recent reading

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I finished Angela Carter’s surreal fantasia The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman a week or so ago, in a bit of a fever at its depraved horniness. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. The story is essentially a picaresque adventure—our narrator Desiderio sets out on a mission to assassinate Dr. Hoffman, a not-really-mad scientist who’s waging war on reality. Desiderio falls in love with Hoffman’s daughter Albertina though, complicating matters. All kinds of wild shit happens in each episode of the book—indeed, each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it, and it deserves a proper review, but for now I’ll lazily compare it to a bunch of other books I loved: Voltaire’s Candide, Réage’s Story of O, Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Kafka’s The Castle, Acker’s Don Quixote, any of Robert Coover’s fables, Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Oh, and video games. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

I read the first half of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord (new in English translation by Edgar Garbeletto) on Sunday. The book is seriously weird. The narrator is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist (a strange cipher of Noll himself) arrives in London in the winter on a “mission.” What that mission is is completely unclear, but it seems to involve an English university. Like the other Noll books I’ve read, Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel,  Lord moves on its own dream logic. The narrator seems unstuck in both time and space. He’s an abject voice trying to reinvent himself from the outside in—but his disintegration seems fatally imminent.

I’ve also started in on the latest Lucia Berlin collection, Evening in Paradise, reading the first three stories. The first two, “The Musical Vanity Boxes” (which I’d read before in Homesick) and “Sometimes in Summer” are memoir pieces set in Berlin’s childhood home of El Paso (or, more properly I suppose, El Paso–Juárez). There’s a frankness to these tales that’s remarkable, an artistry of storytelling that never announces itself as such. The stories read like vivid recollections, and center on a very young Lucia and her best friend Hope, a Syrian immigrant. There’s an underlying menace here, too, a sense that these two friends might fall into disaster at any given moment. (In this way, these stories recalled the young female friends at the center of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend who slowly come into consciousness of the real world around them). The third story in the collection “Andado: A Gothic Romance” is written in the third-person, although its hero “Laura” is clearly a stand-in for a teenage Lucia. Laura, like Lucia was, is an ex-pat teenager living in Chile. “Andado” too offers a slow swelling malice, as we perceive the dangers that Laura cannot. The story culminates in an impressionistic dreamlike sequence that matches Laura’s shaken psyche. I’m trying to restrain myself from reading all of these stories too fast.

I’ve poked about in Leslie Fiedler’s collection No! In Thunder, reading first his essay on Walt Whitman, and then his essay on Faulkner (it trapped me with its title: “William Faulkner, Highbrows’ Lowbrow”).

Finally, I’ve been reading Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo (translated by Margaret Carson) in bits and pieces. I really dig the book and am happy Carson translated it and Wakefield Press published it. There’s a neat section where Varo describes her paintings—like this, for example:

Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

The Earth escapes from its axis and its center of gravity to the great surprise of the astronomer, who tries to keep his balance with his left foot standing in one dimension and his right foot standing in another.

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We/No! | Zamyatin/Fiedler (Books acquired, 11 Jan. 2019)

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Last Friday afternoon I stalked about my favorite used bookstore for a spare hours, first looking for a copy of Joseph Tabbi’s literary biography of William Gaddis, Nobody Grew but the Business. I’ve been reading snatches of Tabbi’s Gaddis bio on Google Books (yergh) and I’d like to like really read it. I didn’t find it in the biography section, and then I didn’t find it in the literary criticism fiction, but I did find a copy of Leslie Fiedler’s No! In Thunder. I’ve been wanting to read this for awhile. In the absence of a blurb, let me cite the original Kirkus review:

His title is from a letter of Melville’s to Hawthorne and Fiedler has adapted it to emphasize his belief that to fulfill its essential moral obligation successful art must perform a negative critical function. It is, in fact, due to its ultimate No! that serious fiction has been, initially, unacceptable. In the section on The Artist there are essays on Dante, illusion in Shakespeare, Whitman, the moral duality in Stevenson, Peretz, Kafka and Malamud, Faulkner — the Highbrow’s Lowbrow, Robert Penn Warren and Cesare Pavese.

I also picked up a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal 1921 utopian/dystopian novel We, which I haven’t read in like 20 something years. I ended up getting Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation, which seemed a bit zippier zappier and weirder than the others I browsed (I skimmed the first few chapters of each). I also just like those Penguin Classic editions, as well as the cover photograph by Georgii Petrusov.

I’ll pick through the Fiedler slowly, but We might be the next novel I read after I finish up Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which I’m really digging.

Blog about Blog about 4

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On 1 Oct. 2018 on this foolish blog I foolishly wrote about my foolishgood intent to blog about something—books, film, art—every day or nearly every day.” I added, ” I’m not sure how it will go,” although I was a little bit sure about how it would go, which was, not great. Like, I knew that I would stumble in writing every day this month, which I have. October has snuck up (or sneaked up) on me like a thief or a serpent or a hobbit or a pick-your-simile—I even somehow missed taking my kid to her dentist appointment yesterday, and will almost surely get a bill from them over that. October sneaked/snuck up on me, and here we are 16 of 31 days in, and I have only managed 10 of these posts (including this one), which is like, 10 of 16, or 62.5%. (10/16 is also today’s date though, so like, uh, so like nothing).

Anyway.

have been reading, and the initial blog I wrote about even included some specific goals, along with this picture, which semi-summarized those goals:

From bottom to top—

did, as I promised I would, return (and not steal) the Ravel book, Irony and Sound, which was frankly over my head.

I have not returned to Hoffman’s Poe book, but I haven’t shelved it.

I’ve been reading the Gordon Lish interviews. Like, the book is good—it’s sort of almost like a book of Lish stories. I blogged about it a bit even.

I’ve absolutely loved reading William Gaddis’s third novel Carpenter’s Gothic. It’s turned out to be a perfect Halloween novel, too. I’ll finish the last of its seven chapters tonight—I would’ve finished last night, but I got sidetracked by some lines that reminded me of Leslie Fiedler’s 1960 analysis of American literature, Love and Death in the American Novel. Gaddis’s book in many ways performs a similar analysis to Fiedler’s—they both trace the weight of American guilt. As if anticipating Gaddis’s postmodern postGothic Gothic novel, Fiedler writes, a quarter century before Carpenter’s Gothic’s publication,

…in the United States, certain special guilts awaited projection in the gothic form. A dream of innocence had sent Europeans across the ocean to build a new society immune to the compounded evil of the past from which no one else in Europe could ever feel himself free. But the slaughter of the Indians, who would not yield their lands to the carriers of utopia, and the abominations of the slave trade, in which the black man, rum, and money were inextricably entwined in a knot of guilt, provided new evidence that evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind—but stayed alive in the human heart, which had come the long way to America only to confront the horrifying image of itself.

(I have stalled out on writing a stupid “Blog about” blog post these past few days because I have been cobbling together notes on something about Fiedler and Gaddis. But, like, really—I need to finish Gaddis’s book first).

No dent in the Pirandello.

I’ll return to David Bunch’s Moderan after finishing Carpenter’s Gothic. Bunch’s work is, so far, a perfectly-pitched pitch black satire of toxic (like nuclearly-toxic) masculinity. Horror-as-comedy, weird and undelightful.

I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner pretty quickly in October, and enjoyed it. I’m glad I read Middlemarch first though. What Eliot next, reader?

So—what next? The picture at the top is the stack I’ve been stacking and unstacking and restacking. Gaddis and Fiedler feel like the thing I really want to write about—gender roles, Gothic promises, domesticity vs. adventure, the house vs. the frontier, the collapse of self into fragments of language, etc. I’m also loving Dreamverse, a collection of poems, art, and prose by Jindřich Štyrský’ that Twisted Spoon Press has put together.  Its insides look like this, at least in one place—

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I think the next novel I will read will be Angela Carter’s The Infernal Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

A last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror

The enemy of society on the run toward “freedom” is also the pariah in flight from his guilt, the guilt of that very flight; and new phantoms arise to haunt him at every step. American literature likes to pretend, of course, that its bugaboos are all finally jokes: the headless horseman a hoax, every manifestation of the supernatural capable of rational explanation on the last page—but we are never quite convinced. Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror. Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park “fun house,” where we pay to play at terror, and are confronted in the innermost chamber with a series of inter-reflecting mirrors which present us with a thousand versions of our own face.

From the introduction to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

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How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began

But why, one is driven to ask, why has the tale of terror so special an appeal to Americans? Surely its success must be derived in part from the failure of love in our fiction; the death of love left a vacuum at the affective heart of the American novel into which there rushed the love of death. The triumph of the genteel sentimental incapacitated even our most talented writers, left them incapable of dealing with the relations of men and women as subtly and convincingly as the prose writers in the great novelistic tradition of France. Our novelists, deprived of the subject that sustained Stendhal or Constant, Flaubert or Proust, that seemed indeed to them the subject of the novel, turned to fables of loneliness and terror.

Moreover, in the United States, certain special guilts awaited projection in the gothic form. A dream of innocence had sent Europeans across the ocean to build a new society immune to the compounded evil of the past from which no one else in Europe could ever feel himself free. But the slaughter of the Indians, who would not yield their lands to the carriers of utopia, and the abominations of the slave trade, in which the black man, rum, and money were inextricably entwined in a knot of guilt, provided new evidence that evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind—but stayed alive in the human heart, which had come the long way to America only to confront the horrifying image of itself. Finally, there was the myth of Faust and of the diabolic bargain, which, though not yet isolated from gothic themes of lesser importance (that isolation was to be the word of American writers!), came quite soon to seem identical with the American myth itself.

How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began; they held in common the hope of breaking through all limits and restraints, of reaching a place of total freedom where one could with impunity deny the Fall, live as if innocence rather than guilt were the birthright of all men. In Huck’s blithe assertion, “All right, I’ll go to Hell,” is betrayed a significant undermeaning of the Faustian amor fati, at least in its “boyish” American form: the secret belief that damnation is not all it is cracked up to be.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

Terms like space-warp, telekinesis, teleportation give to that latest avatar of the gothic, science fiction

Terms like space-warp, telekinesis, teleportation give to that latest avatar of the gothic, science fiction (even its name adapted to modern times), the most respectable of cachets. The blasphemous hope of Faustian man: the re-ordering of nature, the canceling out of the effects of original sin, the creation of life become the daily business of the laboratory, if not on today’s agenda, at least on tomorrow’s. Why should magic seem a problem when nothing is more magical than radar or earth satellites or the transistor, and when these are explained monthly in Scientific American? The wildest imaginings of ancient sorcery become the staples of science fiction (defended by reminding cavilers that the atomic bomb itself was only yesterday a mere fantasy of neo-gothic writers): dybbuk and golem, demons who possess and artificial men who remember and make choices, finally contest with their creators the rule of this world; such legendary creatures are called, however, “invaders from outer space” and “android robots,” so that no reader need feel his sense of fact offended by what thrills his nerves.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.

The gothic is an avant-garde genre

…the gothic is an avant-garde genre, perhaps the first avant-garde art in the modern sense of the term. A pursuit, half serious enterprise, half fashionable vice, of the intellectuals of the end of the 18th century, it remained highbrow enough to tempt the Shelleys and Byron, for instance, to try their hands at it. The popular success of Frankenstein, perpetuated still in movies, and known in its essence to children in the street, obscured the fact that it was launched as an advanced book; and that it belongs to a kind, one of whose functions was to shock the bourgeoisie into an awareness of what a chamber of horrors its own smugly regarded world really was. If some examples of the early gothic strike us now is comical, this is only in part the result of changing taste; such books were from the beginning intended to be, in part at least, a joke on the middle class reader who would inevitably find them too funny or not funny enough!

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction

The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction. The titillation of sex denied, it offers its readers a vicarious participation in a flirtation with death—approach and retreat, approach and retreat, the fatal orgasm eternally mounting and eternally checked. More than that, however, the gothic is the product of an implicit aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess. Aristotle’s guides for achieving the tragic without falling into “the abominable” are stood on their heads, “the abominable” itself being made the touchstone of effective art. Dedicated to producing nausea, to transcending the limits of taste and endurance, the gothic novelist is driven to seek more and more atrocious crimes to satisfy the hunger for “too-much” on which he trades.

It is not enough that his protagonist commit rape; he must commit it upon his mother or sister; and if he himself is a cleric, pledged to celibacy, his victim a nun, dedicated to God, all the better! Similarly, if he commits murder, it must be his father who is his victim; and the crime must take place in darkness, among the decaying bodies of his ancestors, on hallowed ground. It is as if such romancers were pursuing some ideal of absolute atrocity which they cannot quite flog their reluctant imaginations into conceiving…

Some would say, indeed, that the whole tradition of the gothic is a pathological symptom rather than a proper literary movement, a reversion to the childish game of scaring oneself in the dark, or a plunge into sadist fantasy, masturbatory horror. For Wordsworth, for instance, heir of the genteel sentimentality of the eighteenth century, gothic sensationalism seemed merely a response (compounding the ill to which it responded) to the decay of sensibility in an industrialized and brutalized world—in which men had grown so callous that only shock treatments of increasing intensity could move them to react.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.

Making patent to all men the ill-kept secret that the codes by which they live are archaic survivals without point or power

Don Juan and Faust alike are former villains of the orthodox mind made heroes in an age of unorthodoxy, Promethean or Satanic figures; and both come to stand for the lonely individual (the writer himself!) challenging the mores of bourgeois society, making patent to all men the ill-kept secret that the codes by which they live are archaic survivals without point or power.

Often the two archetypes are blended in a single literary character, as in the lover-scientist Goethe calls by the name of Faust. But there is a real difference between the rebel whose life style is cued by passion and the one whose life style is compounded out of pride and terror—between the seducer and the black magician. Faust challenges the limitations set upon experience not in the name of pleasure but of knowledge; he seeks not to taste life without restraint but to control it fully; and his essential crime (or glory!) is, therefore, not seduction but the Satanic bargain: to sell one’s soul to the Devil. But what does it mean to sell one’s soul? The symbol is immensely complex, its significances multiple; they can be summed up, however, in the single phrase to choose to be damned, whatever damnation is. Not to fall into error out of a passionate loss of self-control, not even to choose to sin at a risk of damnation; but to commit oneself to it with absolute certainty for “as long as forever is.”

Damnation itself means various things to men of varying belief: a commitment to the vagaries of the unconscious; an abandonment of the comforts of social life—of marriage and the family, wealth and recognition; a rejection of all bonds of love and sympathy, of humanity itself; a deliberate plunge into insanity; and acceptance of eternal torment for the soul. When Huck Finn cries out, “all right, I’ll go to Hell,” and Ahab, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”; when Hester Prynne tears off her scarlet letter, they are Faustian heroes; but so, too (in all modesty and moral elegance), is Henry James’s Strether when he rejects Mrs. Newsome and Maria Gostrey alike, refuses all rewards from life; and so, too, is Hawthorne when confiding to a friend, after the composition of The Scarlet Letter, that he had written a “hell-fired book.” Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven (what everyone says heaven is) for the endurance of hell (what everyone knows hell to be) has entered into a pact with Satan; and the very act, therefore, of writing a gothic novel rather than a sentimental one, of devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love, is itself a Faustian commitment.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.

The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art”

As practical men, the new middle classes found literature frivolous; as pious ones, they found it idolatrous; as class-conscious citizens, they felt it too committed to court and salon. Yet they could not live without it; a lust for images of their own lives, projections of their own dreams and nightmares moved them obscurely. They demanded a form that would be really their own, a mass-produced commodity to be bought or rented in the marketplace like other goods, a thick and substantial item to be placed on the table with other evidence of their wealth and taste. The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art.” It is quite different from “folk art,” with its handmade appearance and its air of knowing its place, for folk art is rooted in the country and in agriculture; it changes slowly and almost imperceptibly, its chief appeal being its resemblance to what has come before. “Mass art,” on the other hand, is urban art, changing with the rapid changes of fashion, and seeming as much the product of new advances and technique as in any profound shift in the imagination. Like the wood-block engravings of 18th-century Japan, or the movies later on, or jazz on records, its triumphs depend chiefly on developments in manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. Like other mass-produced products, it tends to drive out of existence craft objects, which cannot survive the class structures which demand them and the class-consciousness which defines their consumers. Just as the spectacular rise of the novel is inconceivable without the perfection of printing, its final victory is inconceivable without the invention of the circulating library; mass-produced, it is also mass-circulated like any commodity in an expanding mercantile economy.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

A last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror

The enemy of society on the run toward “freedom” is also the pariah in flight from his guilt, the guilt of that very flight; and new phantoms arise to haunt him at every step. American literature likes to pretend, of course, that its bugaboos are all finally jokes: the headless horseman a hoax, every manifestation of the supernatural capable of rational explanation on the last page—but we are never quite convinced. Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror. Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park “fun house,” where we pay to play at terror, and are confronted in the innermost chamber with a series of inter-reflecting mirrors which present us with a thousand versions of our own face.

From the introduction to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

Three Books

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Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie A. Fiedler. First edition hardback published by Criterion in 1960. Cover design by Sidney Feinberg. I was dismayed when I first found Fiedler—he’d arrived at his thesis—and supported it with a big fat book—decades before me. I was hipped to this by a kindly professor in graduate school, who suggested I read and then credit Fiedler. I pulled this book out to help me in an American lit course I’m teaching this fall.

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Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. First edition trade paperback published by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; cover photo illustration by Marc Tauss. I’ve already written about my love of Vintage Contemporaries covers, and finding this copy of Suttree a few years ago was glorious. I’ve been rereading the novel—auditing it, really, through a superb reading by Michael Kramer. I’ve had this edition out as I go. Suttree, by the way, fits nicely neatly perfectly into Fielder’s thesis about American lit.
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Grooks by Piet Hein. Cute little pocket-sized paperback. Second-edition published by the M.I.T. Press. Cover illustration is by Hein; I can’t find a credit for the designer. I found this in the bookstore the other day when I was looking for something else in the poetry section. Hein’s grooks can be clever, but also occasionally a bit too pithy, if that makes sense. Still.

Typical male protagonist

The figure of Rip Van Winkle presides over the birth of the American imagination; and it is fitting that our first successful homegrown legend should memorialize, however playfully, the flight of the dreamer from the shrew—into the mountains and out of time, away from the drab duties of home and town toward the good companions and the magic keg of beer. Ever since, the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid “civilization,” which is to say, the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is the strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly “boyish.”

From the introduction of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.

Monsters of virtue or bitchery (Leslie Fiedler)

There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans (oddly defensive and flustered in its presence) to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody.

Merely finding a language, learning to talk in a land where there are no conventions of conversation, no special class idioms and no dialogue between classes, no continuing literary language – this exhausts the American writer. He is forever beginning, saying for the first time (without real tradition there can never be a second time) what it is like to stand alone before nature, or in a city as appallingly lonely as any virgin forest. He faces, moreover, another problem, which has resulted in a failure of feeling and imagination perceptible at the heart of even our most notable works. Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and woman, which we expect at the center of a novel. Indeed they rather shy away from permitting in there fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature women, giving us instead monsters of virtue or bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality.

From the introduction to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).